The Toronto Raptors are scratching and clawing -- stumbling and fumbling -- their way to the post-season. It ain't pretty -- at times it's pretty ugly, in fact -- but Casey's boys are still pulling out wins when they need them, inching closer to a first playoff berth since the 2007-2008 season. With a 99-90 win last night in Boston, the Raps moved back into 3rd place in the East; and thanks to Al Jefferson and friends in Charlotte, they extended their narrow lead over Brooklyn in the race for the Atlantic Division crown.
Last night was one of those ugly, harder-than-it-should've-been-type wins, over a gritty, but extremely limited Boston Celtics team. In theory, at this stage of the season, the Raps should be blowing teams like the Celtics (24 games under .500, heading into last night) out of the water. But at times, over the last few games, the Raps have looked tired and tense -- not an ideal combination.
The Raps have more talent than teams like Boston and Cleveland, but the chasm isn't wide enough that they can win without playing hard. At their best the Raps approach each game with a blue-collar, we are going to out-work you-type attitude. They cannot get away from that approach.
Prior to last night's tilt, the Raps hadn't won in Boston since the War of Spanish Succession -- or at least since that last playoff season, back in 2008. That history seemed to weigh on them a little last night. They seemed to be playing against the idea of the Celtics -- 17 NBA championships, always big, always scary -- rather than the Celtics who were on the floor, many of whom won't be Celtics for too much longer. Looking at you, Kris Humphries.
When you've been as mediocre a franchise as the Raps have been over the past few years, you accumulate your fair share of ugly, and bemusing losing streaks -- slumps in Sacramento and Charlotte attest to that. The Raps' 11 straight loses in Boston is a little more understandable, however, considering that the Celtics have been a very good team until this season, and the Raps...well...have not.
That losing streak thankfully ended last night, despite Jared Sullinger once again morphing into some kind of terrifying combination of Kevin Love and an in-his-prime Charles Barkley. He only does this against the Raps, right?
The Raps needed to get off to a good start last night, and they did. Awful starts against the Hawks and Cavaliers had placed them firmly behind the eight ball, and have, as the HQ's Braedon Clark stated in his game preview, put a lot of pressure on a bench unit that quite frankly isn't adept at dealing with anything resembling pressure.
Jonas Valanciunas looked good early on, taking advantage of an undersized Celtics front-line. Jonas had 9 points and 5 rebounds in the 1st quarter and would finish with 15 and 14 -- a solid outing. DeMar DeRozan, although he would get away from this as the game wore on, made the very smart decision to attack the basket throughout the first 12 minutes -- he ended the quarter with 11 points, attempting 7 free-throws. The Raps led 31-22, after one quarter.
In came Nando de Colo, John Salmons, Greivis Vasquez, and Chuck Hayes. Out went the Raps' advantage.
Hayes, without scoring, was solid last night -- i'll give him that. He did a good job defending the post and cleaning up the glass, against one of the few teams he can be effective against. Unfortunately, the rest of the bench was less-than-stellar, and this is becoming a theme -- well, more of a reality.
Vasquez was the only bench player to score last night for the Raptors -- he finished with 7 points. Combined, the bench unit was a cool minus 30. The Raps are a good team -- but a good team as far as their starting 5 goes. They are not a deep team. Not even close. With Patrick Patterson in the lineup they go 7 deep -- or 6.5 depending on which Greivis Vasquez decides to show up.
After a 13-2 run by the Celtics, Casey took a timeout and threw Amir Johnson back in -- then DeRozan and Lowry. The bleeding stopped. Lowry took control of the game, as he has done so often this year. 5 straight points by the floor general gave the Raps the lead back, 40-39; and one those of slow-motion, sling-shot action 3-pointers from Amir extended the Raps' lead to 4. The offense began to dry up for the Celtics, as you would expect it would from a team that ranks 28th in offensive efficiency, and the Raps extended their lead to 9, 55-46 at the half.
After a half-time interval in which fans in Canada got to watch Jonas' ice-fishing escapades, the Raps began the 3rd quarter on fire. Lowry, who again was excellent all night (23 points, 9 rebounds) drained two 3-pointers to extend the Raps' lead to 15. The Celtics brought themselves to within 8, but a Jonas mid-range jumper, and a Terrence Ross step-back, buzzer-beating 3 to end the quarter, pushed the Raps' lead up to 15, at 77-62.
And then the Jared Sullinger show...
Compared to his 20-20 performance in their last meeting, Sully appeared fairly well contained through 3 quarters. However, he exploded in the 4th and made things a little uncomfortable for Raps fans. Sullinger finished with 26 points and 8 rebounds off the bench, but had 19 of those points in the 4th.
Boston opened the quarter on a 19-9 run, with a Sullinger 3-pointer cutting the Raps' lead to just 3, at 84-81. At the other end, as alluded to above, DeRozan got away from his earlier success at driving to the hoop, instead settling for the mid-range game. He attempted just 4 free-throws in the final 36 minutes of the game.
Kyle Lowry, however, understood what the situation called for, putting the ball on the deck and driving to the bucket. He put the Raps up by 7, 92-85, driving right through the middle of the paint, and scoring over Sullinger. Minutes later Chris Johnson closed the gap to just 3 points, cutting and scoring off what was ruled a goal-tend. At 93-90 the ship was wobbling. That is, until Lowry drained a huge 3-pointer to put the Raps up by 6; and after some great Hayes defense, Ross drained another trifecta, his 5th of the night, to seal the game and end the losing streak in Boston.
The win means the Raps are on the verge of clinching a playoff spot. If Rudy Gay and the Kings -- in what would have been some big-time irony -- had beaten the Knicks last night, that would've sealed the deal. But alas, the Kings are the Kings, and the Raps will have to wait a little longer to confirm their trip to the dance. But not too much longer.
The Raps meet the Celtics again on Friday -- this time at the ACC.
Additional Game Notes
- Terrence Ross has struggled lately, but he was excellent last night -- 24 points, on 9-16 shooting.
- Over the last few games Kyle Lowry has been kneed in the head, has tweaked his groin, and has had some kind of stomach issue. All of these aforementioned ailments have positively terrified me because this team without Kyle Lowry would be in big trouble.
- Again, we saw the best and worst of DeMar last night. The new and improved DeMar -- aggressive, attacking the hoop -- then frustrating, 2009-2013 DeMar, way too many contested 2s. Against an undersized guy like Avery Bradley, it would've been nice to see him pull out his underused, and underrated, post game.
- The Raptors bench really is horrible right now, and was outscored 51-7 by the Celtics' reserves. If two of the Raps' starters aren't on the floor at all times, it's a disaster offensively.
- I hate to pile on the guy, but John Salmons played 13 minutes last night, and had 0 points, 0 rebounds, 0 assists, 1 steal, and was a minus 10. Is there really no other option?
- Pssst, hey it's me, Landry Fields. I get paid way too much, but I can still do some things on a basketball court. I've been banished to the basement of the ACC by coach Casey for reasons undisclosed. I can still play basketball. Really, I can.
- Have Celtics fans become numb to the enigma that is Jeff Green? Or does the fact that he's so naturally gifted, yet so frustratingly ineffective, still bemuse them as much as it bemuses me?
- This was my first game watching Rajon Rondo since last season's injury. Yep, he's still super fun.
- That said, a couple months back there were rumours that the Masai Ujiri might swoop in to make a trade for Rondo, which is something that I was never too enthusiastic about. A hypothetical Rondo-DeRozan back-court gives the team MAJOR spacing issues. Neither guy can shoot the 3-ball.
- Credit to the Celtics, they're a bad team, but they're a level above bad teams like the Bucks and Sixers -- both in terms of talent, and because they actually try hard, and are well-coached.