Before I launch into a hagiographic tribute to Amir Johnson, and every other Raptor who put up a tremendous effort in last night's heartbreaking, 119-118 double-overtime loss, let's get a couple things out of the way:
1. The Raptors (John Salmons) blew this game
2. Kevin Durant is not of this world.
First, to the Raptors.
We've reached a point where we can comfortably say that the Toronto Raptors are a good basketball team -- not a great team, but a good one. That the Raptors are good is beyond the pre-season expectations of most fans. Being good also might be enough to make some noise in the post-season, amidst a mostly good, but not great, Eastern Conference field. But being a good basketball team means that you can no longer claim moral victories when you lose against other good basketball teams -- even really good teams like the Oklahoma City Thunder.
You certainly can't claim a moral victory when you blow an 8-point lead with 49 seconds to go -- a 5-point lead with 20 seconds to go, even. That's not to disparage some of the, quite frankly awesome, individual performances put in by many Raptor players last night -- and no one should sound any panic alarms -- but the Raptors should've won that basketball game. Plain and simple.
Of course, I could also spend the next 1000 words complaining about John Salmons -- the missed free-throws before Durant's game-winner that cost the Raptors big-time, that lazy in-bounds pass that he narrowly got away with, the anemic offense, the wholly overrated defense -- but I'll leave it at a few lines. I'm sure Salmons feels like crap at this moment in time, but as Andrew Thompson over at Raptors Republic quipped in his recap, you've got to wonder what Landry Fields has done to piss off Dwane Casey.
Granted, Terrence Ross had a rough game, and needed to sit -- he couldn't get his jumper going and was hit-and-miss on defense -- but would Fields be any worse an option than Salmons right now to fill those 20 or so minutes ? At least he cuts to the basket. At least his plays with energy. And don't tell me Salmons' defense is substantially better than Fields'.
Anyway, moving on...
Oh yeah, that Kevin Durant fellow. He's pretty special, ain't he?
The crazy thing about that Durant performance -- 51 points, 12 rebounds, 7 assists, and some key defensive plays-- was that it felt like he had another few gears to move up to. For much of the game it felt like he was coasting in 3rd. Everything looked so effortless. Frightening.
Durant struggled early on. He went just 3-12 from the floor in the first half and cut a frustrated figure. At one point, Tyler Hansbrough did what he usually does and Durant received a technical. But he regained his composure in the second-half. He got to the line a ton, and the jumper started to fall. Suddenly you glanced at the box-score and he had 25 (incidentally, his 34th straight game with 25 or more), then he had 30...39....44....48...and then, unfortunately, 51.
The Raptors did have some success on Durant in the overtime periods -- especially when Amir and Vasquez double-teamed him at the top of the key, and forced the ball out of his hands. Scott Brooks didn't help the Thunder's cause, running strange plays to get the laughably-bad Derek Fisher a shot. But when all was said and done, Kevin Durant tore the Raptors heart out, and socked the entire ACC crowd in the gut.
He's a stone-cold killer, and he's the MVP of this league.
The Raptors' MVP last night? Amir Effing Johnson. Sure, Lowry was awesome -- he hit a massive 3 to send the game into overtime -- DeRozan hit some big buckets, and Vasquez was huge off the bench, especially in the 4th quarter. But Amir was the best player on the court not-named Kevin Durant last night.
Amir finished with 25 points -- comprised of an array of beautiful finishes off that deadly pick-n-roll with Lowry, and some hard-nosed put-backs -- 12 rebounds, 4 assists, 5 blocks, and numerous bone-shattering screens, including one to get Lowry open on that game-tying 3. Two of those blocks came on Durant, and Amir even played more than passable defense on KD when the Thunder switched to their small-ball line-up. It was a thankless task, but he did his best to stay in-front of the best scorer in the game.
Amir's been fantastic since the Raptors were the beneficiaries of a 4-day break a couple weeks back -- he needed the rest after a rough middle of the season, hampered by some dodgy ankles. He now looks rejuvenated. Last night he was everywhere at both ends. He was immense. The Raptors came up short, but that's definitely not on Amir Johnson.
Additional Game Notes
- I didn't want to focus on the officiating because I feel that the fan-base is developing a slightly irritating persecution complex; but on the whole, it was pretty garbage last night. That offensive foul called on Vasquez, which sent Durant to the line -- and forced Vasquez out of the game, and Salmons in -- was inexplicable.
- Again, Vasquez was awesome last night. The Raptors lost their way in the 4th quarter, but Vasquez made the right plays (no forced shots, everything in the flow of the offense) and kept them in the game. He's basically our bench at the present time until Patrick Patterson returns.
- Hansbrough received a couple nice inside feeds from Amir last night, but the guy literally takes an age to get off his shot, and was blocked more than once. With March Madness upon us, let me remind you that Psycho T is the leading scorer in ACC history. In other words, don't let anyone ever tell you that the college game is superior in any way to the pros -- offensively, defensively, aesthetically, whatever. It just isn't.
- Westbrook left the game in the 3rd quarter with a nasty looking injury, after Lowry hit him knee-to-knee. As a basketball fan, I really hope that it's nothing too serious.
- On that subject, I keep hearing from people -- mainly on Twitter, of course -- about how the Thunder are better off without Westbrook. Bullsh*t. The Thunder aren't winning anything this year without Westbrook. Anyone who witnessed Fisher, Caron Butler and Jeremy Lamb jacking up bricks when the ball was forced out of KD's hands last night, got a glimpse into what another Thunder playoff run, sans Westbrook, will look like.
- I realize that he hit a massive shot with Raptors up by 5, but it's hilarious that Derek Fisher is still getting serious NBA minutes. Some of his shot selection, and execution last night was indescribably bad.
- DeRozan filled the box-score last night, but it was a little misleading. A lot of his free-throws came about because Andre Roberson, who fouled-out half-way through the 3rd quarter (really bizarre), kept fouling him 18-feet from the bucket. Also, DeMar really should've done a better job attacking the 105-year old Fisher and not settling for jumpers.
- Another reason why DeMar should've attack the hoop more last night: The Thunder have a really bad habit of triple-teaming in the paint, or oftentimes having 4 defenders collapse down-low on a guy penetrating, leaving shooters completely open on the perimeter. It might kill them in the playoffs.
- Steven Adams, who the Thunder drafted with that Raptors pick, sent to Houston for Lowry, and then on to OKC in the Harden trade, is a really hard-nosed big-man. Jonas got outmuscled early, but as the game wore on, he continued to battle hard and had a solid game overall.
- This game was BONKERS.