Maybe it's because Mad Men returns this weekend, but I've been feeling nostalgic as of late. In a basketball context, the notion is easy to explain: the Raptors of November and December feel like a different team than the one we've seen in February and March. That earlier squad looked able to beat anyone, and later, perhaps inevitably, they looked capable of losing to anyone. When your team appears to do as well as it has for such a stretch, the subsequent fall hurts even more. Pain from an old wound, indeed.
In the Houston Rockets, the Raptors were set against a quality opponent. Led by MVP candidate James Harden, the team came into the game with a 50-23 record. They've duked it out in the West's ongoing campaign of terror, despite injuries to a host of the team's key players (Dwight Howard, Patrick Beverley, Terrence Jones, Donatas Motiejunas). With Harden's future vision of basketball at the fore, the Rockets are formidable.
But these Raptors, they'll surprise you. Sometimes it's the newer faces like Lou Williams, or the young guns in Terrence Ross and Jonas Valanciunas. Tonight, without Kyle Lowry, it was two of the most familiar faces--Amir Johnson and DeMar DeRozan, the longest tenured Raptors--who made the difference.
"[DeRozan] came up big and he stepped up," said Johnson after the game. "He's one of our leaders on the team and it was a career game for him." The mention of a "career" game was appropriate. It was DeRozan who came back again and again at the Rockets, bombing threes, hitting everybody's favourite mid-range jumpers and, most importantly, getting to the free throw line. He had a career high 42 points on the night on 14-of-27 shooting to go with a career high 11 rebounds. He got to the line more times than Harden (17 attempts vs. 12). And despite a sluggish start marred by turnovers (five after three quarters; six in total), DeRozan appeared to make every play he needed to down the stretch - including on the defensive end, when he was called upon to tie up his old pal Harden. Johnson confirmed it afterwards: "[DeRozan] closed the game for us."
Meanwhile, as DeRozan's long time running mate, Amir was writing his own throwback tale. With all the talk of where Johnson will end up after this season (or whether or not he can still play), there he was in the right place at the right time again and again to make winning plays for Toronto. After three quarters Amir had a relatively quiet line of two points and eight rebounds. He had taken two shots and somehow managed three turnovers. But then look at the fourth: six huge points and eight more rebounds, including six on the offensive end. All this while taking turns battling Josh Smith, human anvil Joey Dorsey and the rookie clubber Clint Capela. We'll miss these kinds of games from Amir no matter what happens next season.
By and large, the Raptors are still adrift. They're 44-30 now, but a 50-win season appears to be gone, the hopes of a delirious run to the Conference Finals a mere fantasy. But we can still remember what it feels like when the shots are falling, and the defense is swarming and the Raptors are beating all comers. We can still remember the recent past.
"It's all on us. Just the focus is all on us," said DeRozan post-game. "Understand what we gotta do, what we playing for at the end of the day. We playing for something bigger and that's getting in the playoffs and making something happen."
Let's let tonight serve as a reminder. The Raptors are still more than a memory. And they aren't quite done yet.
What did you guys think of the game?