The clock is ticking down on the Raptors for 2015. They've survived a bad playoff outing in April, and now injuries to two starters for a chunk of the season in November and December. Something new seems to be in the offing though, as a team that once had too much offense and no defense, now finds itself grinding out wins. Tonight against the Washington Wizards, the Raptors appeared to be playing well -- at least in fits and starts -- though the box score suggests they could be much better. The final score still says that Toronto won 94-91 and it was defense and the play of a few key players (and OK, maybe some friendly calls) that got them there.
"It's very rare that you shoot 34 percent and put yourself in the position to win the game," coach Dwane Casey said after the game, before adding, "and 18 turnovers. That's probably as bad offensively as we have played all year." It was hard to disagree with him. In the first half, the ball appeared to be moving around the perimeter but the shots were just not falling. The lead changed hands a couple times before settling into a pleasant 11 point cushion for the Raptors. There were a couple of reasons for this.
The main reason was the play of DeMar DeRozan, probably Eastern Conference Player of the Month. He finished the game with 34 points on 9-of-24 shooting with six rebounds, five assists and a season-high 15 trips to the free throw line. (He hit all 15.) It was the kind of performance that can carry a team when it's struggling. And most of the Raptors were struggling. Kyle Lowry had 11 points on a poor 2-for-12 night, Luis Scola was mostly invisible against the Wizards' rangy small lineups, and the recently returned Jonas Valanciunas and DeMarre Carroll took turns looking out of sorts. The Raptors shot 34 percent for the game, and 25 percent from three, but once they took that lead in the second quarter, they never relinquished it.
In support of DeRozan, there was Biyombo (who finished with a very loud 12 points and 12 rebounds) on one end:
And, in a last ditch effort to get everyone on the bandwagon before 2015 comes to a close, Terrence Ross!
As is natural for an ugly, largely defensive oriented game however, things got chippy in the second half. The Wizards, powered as always by John Wall (19 points, 11 assists, 7 rebounds), managed to shave the lead closer and closer. The lead shrunk from 11 to four, then two, then one. Wall, meanwhile, got help from newly formed Raptor killer Otto Porter (20 points, 9 rebounds) and Jared Dudley (17 points), whose late threes (both the makes and misses) almost stole the Wizards the game.
It's fitting then, that the final minute played out the way it did. The Raptors couldn't buy a bucket and managed only free throws (they shot 32-for-39 from the line) to keep their tiny lead. The game felt as though it would only, could only, be won or lost by DeRozan, whose final field goal attempt missed. But instead of disaster, it was a series of misses for the Wizards, some scrambling defense that worked more than it didn't, more free throws and a win. It simultaneously felt like the Raptors of old, struggling to hang on, and some new version of Toronto, able to grit out even those games they shouldn't win.
"At the end of the day, the only thing that matters is us winning the ball game," said Biyombo post-game. "So I'm glad we got to finish the year the right way." The Raptors end a long, strange 2015 with a 20-13 record. What will come in 2016? With these Raptors, who knows?
Happy New Year everyone.