No Kyle Lowry. No Amir Johnson. No Problem.
With two of their key players out of the rotation due to injury, the Toronto Raptors accepted no excuses as they came together to win a crucial late season game against the Indiana Pacers. The final score of 102-94 in favour of your Toronto Raptors, reflects a complete team effort with contributions coming from seemingly every player that saw the court. As they've done a countless number of times this year, the Raptors squad buckled down on defense when they needed it most, allowing them to take the lead and protect it despite a surge from the heavy-weight opposition.
From the start, it seemed as though this game would turn out to be a memorable one. The matchup between Indiana's all-star center Roy Hibbert and Toronto's young big man Jonas Valanciunas is one both franchises should be excited to follow looking ahead to the future. Fortunately for the Raptors, Valanciunas came ready to grind tonight and managed to get the better of the more experienced Hibbert. Whether it was forcing Hibbert into contested shots or getting into solid position to haul in rebounds, Valanciunas did what was necessary to win the individual battles time and time again. As a result, Hibbert struggled throughout the game to establish himself and managed only 12 points and 2 rebounds on the night. Consider the fact that Hibbert played nearly 32 minutes. Now consider that Hibbert stands at 7-feet tall and 2 inches. And he only managed 2 rebounds? Oh, and JV also found a way to match his defensive success with 22 points on 10 of 14 shooting. Well played sir, well played.
I'm cautious to heap too much praise on Jonas, he's not quite a star just yet, so let's just call it an impressive effort that hopefully can be sustained come playoff time.
Another individual performance worth mentioning was the play of Toronto's second-year shooting guard, Terrence Ross. He himself also had an all-star matchup in Indiana's Paul George. Although George has seen his numbers regress to more humanly averages after a beastly start to the season, there's no doubt that his talent is always a made basket or two away from taking over a game. In fact, after a scrum with Raptor's guard John Salmons in the third quarter, it looked as though George might level-up and steal a win for his club. Luckily, Terrence managed to match George's output going the other way. Most of his production came from converting five of his eight 3-point attempts, but he also managed to keep the Pacers' defense on their toes by occasionally going to the dribble and attacking the paint. On the night, George outscored Ross by a margin of 26-24, but something tells me that Terrence will sleep a bit better tonight. Wins tend to do that for you.
As important as the contributions were from Terrence Ross and Jonas Valanciunas, this game came down to one factor that lies at the heart of any team sport. That is, the team that plays better together tends to come away with the W. On both ends of the court, Toronto seemed to be in-sync to an extent that Indiana was not. The Pacers' struggles have been well publicized and the sound bites of frustration seem to hit the web like clockwork these days, but let's not discount their record on the season. At 53-24, Indiana is a solid team that should still be favoured to make the Eastern Conference finals, but tonight's affair told a different story.
It was the team play of the Raptors, on both sides of the ball, that stole the show. In particular, the Raptors' ball movement was crisp, leading to open looks and efficient scoring chances. The assist numbers of the first half (TOR:15, IND:8) should serve as a testament to the Raps unselfish play out of the gates, and they never let up. Nando De Colo and DeMar DeRozan both stood out as the teams go-to facilitators in this one, a role left vacant by the injured Kyle Lowry. DeRozan and De Colo combined for 14 of the teams 23 assists (DeRozan had a game-high 9). On defense the Raptors managed to hold Indiana to 42.3% shooting and kept the Pacers under the 100 point threshold, both of which have tended to be variables in the equation for Raptors' success this season. More impressive was the crunch time defense that Toronto displayed by smothering Indiana in the final quarter, giving up only 19 points on 36.4% shooting. That's playoff defense if I've ever seen it - so we know at least one MLSE team can play defense and hold leads.
There isn't much more to say about tonight's game, other than it was one worth saving for a rainy/offseason day.
Toronto is still tied for the third best record in the Eastern Conference with the Chicago Bulls at 44-32 following Chicago's win over the Bucks. The schedule gets significantly easier over the last six games of the season, which opens up the possibility of matching the single season franchise win record of 47. Tomorrow night's matchup on the road against the aforementioned last place Milwaukee Bucks (14-62) should help the cause. With that said, on to the next one.