It seemed like a good time to panic.
Coming off of two limp losses to the Lakers and Bobcats, the Raptors continued their woeful ways early against the Dirk Nowitzki-less Mavericks, falling behind 34-15 at the end of the first quarter. Then, unlike so many Raptors teams of the past, they turned it around on the strength of their defense, giving up only 51 points over the next three quarters and holding on for a 93-85 win that pushed their record back over .500.
While the defense did the yeoman's work, it was a brilliant offensive performance by DeMar DeRozan that grabbed all the headlines. DeRozan poured in a career high 40 points on an efficient shooting night (15-22), including 14 trips to the free throw line. He also delivered the play of the night, a spinning left-handed layup with just under four minutes left that was reminiscent of that former Toronto swingman in the building, Vince Carter. The ensuing free throw gave Toronto the lead for good and gave DeRozan a new career high of 38 points. It was the kind of signature outing that coaches will remember when voting for the All-Star team over the next week; although Kyle Lowry deserves the honor ahead of DeRozan, he did himself no favors against Dallas, missing all 10 shots he took.
The defense took over and DeRozan made play after play, but the revitalization of Jonas Valanciunas might have been the most important development of the night. After being benched for long stretches over the last two games, Valanciunas came in with 6:41 to go and made a huge impact, scoring five points and grabbing five rebounds in the fourth en route to 12 and 10 on the night, his first double-double in nearly two weeks. As much as this season is about the here and now, it's also unmistakably about the future, and Valanciunas is probably the biggest part of that; to see him break out of a mini-slump was more than encouraging.
Also outstanding was the play of Greivis Vasquez, who had his third straight excellent game, scoring 17 points with seven assists in 34 minutes, the most time he's played since coming to Toronto. Dwane Casey has shown a fondness of late for playing Vasquez and Lowry together, especially when the opponent lacks athleticism in the back court or when Terrence Ross struggles, as he did last night (3 points, 1-7 shooting).
The win against Dallas marked the end of a strange five-game stretch: the Raptors won their two toughest games, against Dallas and Minnesota, while dropping contests to Boston, the Lakers and Charlotte. At 21-20 they currently sit in fourth place in the Eastern Conference, bunched up with Atlanta, Washington, Chicago and the suddenly surging Brooklyn Nets, who they will be playing early next week.
Even though the Raptors have one of the easiest schedules in the league the rest of the way, they still have a five-game western trip coming before the All-Star break. The next four games before that trip (at Philadelphia, vs. Clippers, at Brooklyn, vs. Orlando) will be critical in determining whether the team heads into that break with a winning record or not.
Above .500 or below, one thing's for sure - this Raptors team is unlike any we've seen over the past few years. Even when they look broken, they always give themselves a chance.
- The crowd was phenomenal, perhaps the best all year. I get chills just thinking about what it would be like at a playoff game.
- Speaking of the crowd, there was very little reaction to Vince Carter. A few scattered boos here and there, but mostly indifference as the healing process inevitably continues.
- In case you missed it: The team announced yesterday that Landry Fields underwent surgery on his right wrist and is expected to miss several weeks. The procedure addressed an issue with his ulnar nerve, similar to an issue he dealt with in his elbow last year. Get well soon, Landry, but, your contract...Sigh