In a season in which the Raptors have a fighting chance of breaking the franchise record of 47 wins, set back in 2000-2001, it goes without saying that the team has had their fair share of impressive performances: The road win in OKC, a home victory over the Pacers (back when the Pacers were watchable), and the win over the Warriors, just to mention a few.
However, last night's 107-103 win over the Houston Rockets, accomplished without the services of Kyle Lowry, and for the majority of the game, Amir Johnson -- so, essentially 2 of the Raps' 3 best players -- was up there with all those aforementioned triumphs.
Aside from the injury-theme -- until recently, the Raps have been very fortunate on that front -- the win over Houston encapsulated the Raps' season. They were gutsy, they punched well above their weight -- even without the services of Dwight Howard, the Rockets are a very good team -- and they responded extremely well to adversity.
The Raps, as they've done a little too often this season, started the game as though they'd just awoken from a coma. But like they've done all year, and unlike numerous incarnations of the Raps in years gone by, they responded. Boy, did they respond.
Greivis Vasquez was excellent at the offensive end, finishing with 15 points and 8 assists. Jonas Valanciunas was assertive, routinely rolling to the rim and making himself available for the pass, as well as playing some really smart help defense for most of the evening. DeMar DeRozan was beastly. He finished with 29 points, 6 rebounds, 4 assists, a bloody hand, and made some key plays down the stretch.
And the bench!
The bench was really good -- seriously, I'm not kidding. The Raps got 34 vital points from their much-maligned reserves, including 12 points from the under-fire John Salmons, who did his best to ditch the 'washed-up' tag, and claw back his early-season 'savvy veteran' prefix. I've crapped all over Salmons' role on this team in recent weeks, but he was very solid last night.
Setting aside the big-picture superlatives, the Raps were rather putrid early in the 1st quarter. They turned the ball over 5 times in the opening quarter and it was alarming how easily the Rockets were able to coast through the lane, both in transition, and in the half-court. What seemed like a succession of 3-on-1 fast-break points, and Chandler Parsons dunks, opened up a 23-11 lead for the Rockets. Compounding things, as mentioned above, Amir Johnson hobbled out of the game with an ankle injury, and would not return. It looked set to be a long night for Raps fans.
And then the bench turned the tide...
I didn't think I was ever going to type that sentence, in reference to the Raptors' reserves; but yes, for once it was the bench unit that bailed out the starters. Salmons nailed a big 3-pointer to eat into the Rockets' lead, and Patrick Patterson (how great it is to have him back) made a heady play, stealing the ball and slamming it home to cut the deficit to 5. Vasquez then drilled another 3, after some fine ball movement, to close the quarter out with the Raps narrowly trailing, 25-23.
In the second quarter the Raps really cleaned things up. Casey kept faith with the bench guys -- Nando de Colo saw time handling the ball, and Steve Novak played solid basketball as a small-ball-4 -- and they continued to repay his faith. Houston did open up a 5-point when Harden began to catch fire (he finished the night with 26 points) but the Raps tied things up at 38-38 with a Novak 3, off a nice Tyler Hansbrough dish.
And then DeRozan took over...
DeMar nailed some of his customary -- and oh-so frustrating when they don't go in -- mid-range 2s, followed by a nice drive at Parsons in transition. And at the end of the half he banked a buzzer-beating 3 to put the Raps up 55-50. DeRozan went 6-6 in the second quarter, but his most impressive moments would come later in the game.
The Raps began the 3rd quarter extremely impressively at both ends. Terrence Ross grabbed two buckets, including one off a beautiful feed from Valanciunas at the top of the key. But as well as the Raps were playing, the Rockets began to play exceedingly dumb basketball, taking low-percentage shots at the beginning of the shot-clock, and turning the ball over with lazy passes. Valanciunas began to score with ease -- if he rolled hard, he had a lay-up or a dunk -- and the Raps found themselves up by 20 points with just over 3 minutes left in the quarter.
But, as the Raps so often do, they made things a little interesting. The Rockets finished the quarter on an 18-8 run, trailing 90-80, as they -- Jeremy Lin, in particular -- went back to driving to the basket, and doing the things that had worked for them so well early on in the game.
The Rockets began the 4th quarter as they'd finished the 3rd -- Isaiah Canaan hit an impossible looking 3, Omri Casspi got to the line, and Francisco Garcia (yeah, not exactly a murderers' row) scored off a drive. The Rockets closed the gap to 1, 92-91; and at the other end the Raps stopped moving the ball, and began settling for out-of-the-flow jump-shots.
Not to worry: DeRozan cheat-mode, Part 2.
DeMar hit a massive bucket to reclaim some momentum, and put the Raps up by 3. He then found Ross cutting underneath for the easy score, before Jonas perfectly cut off Parsons' drive to the basket. After a Patterson basket, Canaan cut the lead to 3, before DeRozan made a smart play out of a double-team, kicking it out to Vasquez who pushed it on to Ross, who swished through the trifecta. The Raps were up, 101-95.
Wants some more DeRozan awesomeness? The Raps' All-Star got to the charity stripe, stretching the lead to 7, before sustaining a nasty looking cut on his left hand. No problem. On the next defensive possession DeMar took a charge underneath the basket from Lin -- doing his best Lowry impersonation -- before stealing the ball on the following defensive possession, and feeding Jonas down-low for an easy basket.
DeRozan's fantastic play down the stretch, at both ends, effectively sealed the game for the Raps. But, of course the Raps gave fans at the ACC a few minor heart palpitations in the dying seconds. After Ross missed a free-throw, Lin cut the lead to 3, and the Raps did their best to give the ball away on the subsequent in-bounds pass. The Raps retained possession, however, and Vasquez sealed the game at the line.
With the win, the Raps move to 43-32, 2.5 games above the Brooklyn Nets who were thumped by the Knicks last night. Next up, it's a Friday night meeting with the Indiana Pacers.
Additional Game Notes
- Once again, major props to the bench last night. Every guy who got minutes contributed -- even Nando de Colo looked solid handling the ball.
- At times Dwane Casey drives me nuts with his stubborn rotations, but I thought he was really creative last night. The small-balls line-ups were especially effective, and credit to him for intelligently using them against a Rockets team that really didn't pose a lot of offensive threat inside.
- Speaking of Casey: Last night was his 100th win as Raptors head-coach -- he's now the 3rd winningest coach in Raptors history, after Lenny Wilkens and Sam Mitchell. But let's be honest, this says more about the Raps' lean history, than it does about Dwane Casey's coaching skills.
- The Raps are 1-0 without Kyle Lowry this season, so #EwingTheory. Yeah, not really. Vasquez was great offensively, but defensively not-so-great. It goes without saying that the Raps need Lowry back fit-and-healthy for the post-season.
- Ummm, no Leo Rautins, Matt Devlin is not a "stats guy". I don't care if he knows how many goals Jermain Defoe has scored this season, or whatever the hell led you to that conclusion.
- Chandler Parsons is GONNA GET PAID.
- James Harden is awesome for the most part, but he does take some shots that other players would get absolutely killed for taking. I'm sure Kevin McHale does his fair share of wincing on the Rockets bench.