The Drake Night experience has become more knowing after each iteration. While Drake's charisma and presence are undeniable, the night itself provides only the thinnest of justifications to stamp the OVO brand on everything. The choice of opponent would ordinarily not matter, but in this case, with the Raptors taking on LeBron James and the Cavaliers, it's hard not to notice the swirling forces at work. Drake's description pre-game of his Night could have covered the entire competitive experience: "It's definitely surreal."
These are the adjectives we've gotten to when describing the play of LeBron James. He's marshalling a team now that is missing a few of its key members - Kyrie Irving, Iman Shumpert, Timofey Mozgov, Matthew Dellavedova - and he's clearly conserving his energy. Yet, he is still a force of nature like few athletes, few people, we're likely to see. His quiet first quarter, like the cliched calm before the storm, was a precursor to a more dominant second - a frame that saw the Cavs go on a 16-0 run and push their lead of six. The half ended tied, but LeBron, with an assist from Kevin Love, had begun to force his will on the game.
On the Raptors side of things, it was a more disconcerting affair. By the end of the first half, two things were clear: Luis Scola can get things going when he wants to. He had 15 points on 7-of-10 shooting by the end of the half, and had his way from anywhere. And the second: The Raptors miss Jonas Valanciunas' relatively easy to produce offense. Without him, the team relies on, yes, one-on-one play and timely three point shooting to make things work. It looks great when it works - as it did to keep the game close - but for the tight first half, and stretches of the second, the Raptors fell back to some disquieting habits.
Now, maybe it's because he's only six feet tall, but we often forget that Kyle Lowry is a force of nature, too. While he'll never compete with Drake's charm, or LeBron's otherworldly aura, Lowry can take over a game just as easily. Well, maybe not as easily since it's clear Lowry has to work extremely hard to make it happen, but tonight was one of those nights. "I was concerned getting that look [in his eye] sometimes means trouble," said coach Dwane Casey of Lowry after the game. "But he did a good job of closing it out, he kept the pace, he kept the tempo after stops which was big."
After Lowry's first quarter, where he like LeBron seemed to be trying to solve his opponent, he started to get rolling. He hit pull-up 3s, he found the open man, he made drive after drive into the paint to either draw contact, or deliver a perfect dish to a rolling big man. Lowry finished the game with 27 points on 11-of-17 shooting (2-of-6 from three), plus six assists, three rebounds and four steals. Somehow, these numbers still don't quite capture his impact on the game. "That's what he does," said DeMar DeRozan after the game. "When you're that type of player, that's your job."
The other bright spots for the Raptors were a solid game from DeRozan, who quietly potted 20 points on 7-of-16 shooting, and a high-wire act from Bismack Biyombo, whose 11 point-12 rebound performance and general all-over-the-court presence were a huge help down the stretch. Tonight's version of Biyombo even caught a few passes while on the move for dunks. (The passes were from Lowry, of course.)
LeBron James ended the game with 24 points, eight assists and six rebounds. He shot an uncharacteristic 38 percent from the field. He remains a force of nature, but he is also, if this makes sense, just a man. And I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the defense played by another man, DeMarre Carroll. While Carroll's contributions look ho-hum in the box score (12 points, mostly from 3-pointers), his defense presented James with a challenge. After 40 minutes of play, LeBron and his Cavaliers couldn't solve the Raptors.
"We're excited about the win, no question about that" said Casey, never one to get lost in philosophical discussions of universal forces and interpersonal physics. "But we can't go over the moon and lose our focus and lose sight of continuing to improve in a lot of areas."
The forces of nature push on. The Raptors win on Drake Night III, 103-99, and move to 10-6. What did you guys think of the game?