As a back-to-back effort for both teams, there were stretches of tonights Raptors-Knicks contest that were a slog. Both teams looked lost at times — the Knicks lazily fouling on defense, while the Raptors front-rimmed a plethora of jumpers and threes. As the game ticked on into the fourth quarter, it felt like it would come down to which team would produce plays from the widest source of players. The 118-107 score, a winning tally for the Raptors, gives the hint as to how that particular question was answered.
First, we’re on the edge of history with DeMar DeRozan. With 33 points in tonight’s contest, he’s now scored 30 plus points in eight of the Raptors’ first nine games. One more and he’ll be the first player ever to do it for nine of the first ten. It’s become so routine now coach Dwane Casey was shocked no one was even asking about DeRozan after the game. This is a special run he’s on. (An aside: Kyle Lowry was in-and-out for most of the game, despite another monster 40 minutes and again guiding the team with 16 points — and a tired 0-for-5 from three — and his usual smart play. Even “quiet” Lowry nights are good.)
Second, let’s reflect on what Norman Powell did tonight. Powell has been a break-glass-in-case-of-emergency player for the Raps, tasked with spotting minutes for Cory Joseph and DeMarre Carroll, when one or the other is off, largely for defensive purposes. Tonight, with DC given the night off, Powell was tasked with guarding none other than Carmelo Anthony for as long as he could. Melo rattled off 31 points, but credit to Powell he never gave up — and finished the game with 19 points of his own (to go with five rebounds and two assists). Down the stretch, Powell was even put on Kristaps Porzingis (you know, the 7’3’’ dude on the Knicks) and asked to stop him. It was a ploy to goad the Knicks into exploiting that matchup and keeping the ball out of Anthony’s hands. And wouldn’t you know... it worked.
There’s a reason why this gambit worked though. Our third hero of the night: Lucas “Bebe” Nogueira. After a pre-season ankle sprain took Bebe out of the first five games of the year, he’s come on like a house on fire to close games for the Raptors. Tonight in 25 minutes — including down the stretch in the fourth quarter -- Bebe put up six points (on 3-for-3 shooting), ten rebounds, three steals and five blocks, including a couple of vicious stuffs on Melo late. It was Bebe’s speed that allowed him to help Norm on the Kristaps iso attempts, while checking Melo with his presence at the rim. In short, Nogueira has now gone full revelation. This is the player we hoped he could be once he got healthy enough and played enough consistent minutes.
It’s easy to romanticize the roll Bebe now has going with the Raptors. He’s a lovable character, free-wheeling on and off the court. We knew going into this year it would be his time to shine if he wanted to. After the game, Bebe was about as emotional as I’ve ever seen him. You could tell this past week, the three games of stellar play, have meant the world to him. In typical gregarious fashion, Nogueira was honest. He credited a change of habits over the summer — less going out, no alcohol (clean now for eight months), and the presence of his baby daughter in his life. He had kind words to say about DeRozan and Lowry as leaders of the team. And, in a stirring final note, he gave credit to Bismack Biyombo.
“I don’t know if it’s a magic, but now I have a great moment in my life and I live in [Biyombo’s] apartment,” joked Nogueira. “I think he’s a part of it... yeah, I think he’s the reason I play well.” Then Bebe got a degree more serious. “When he was gone, during the summer, he told me ‘Lucas, it’s your time to shine, go get it.’”
“I know Biz since I was 15, playing in Spain against each other. So we have much respect for each other. But especially now he’s gone, he told me ‘It’s your time, go get it’ and I took it serious and now things go well for me.”
Yes, the aura of the Raptors is so special now, even players who no longer play for them are having an impact. Toronto is now 7-2 and steel themselves for another back-to-back with the NBA Champion Cavaliers, followed by the Golden State Warriors. They could very well lose both games, and it could very well be a slog to watch, but I’ll tell you what: spirits are high with this team, and the sources of good fortune are coming from all over the place. Who knows what will happen next week, but it’s all been rather inspiring.