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The Raptors are still good, beat Rockets 115-102

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It was weird, but it was damned fun.

NBA: Toronto Raptors at Houston Rockets Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

On some nights in the NBA, the strength of many can be enough to silence the might of a superstar. James Harden entered Wednesday game as a top-tier MVP candidate, leading the league’s fourth-best offense into a match-up with Toronto’s backpedaling defense. With the Raptors still in the midst of a gruelling stretch of schedule, there existed a real possibility for a Harden-led, panic-stirring blowout.

Instead of falling victim to Houston’s one-man show, the Raptors turned in a collective effort that is now the leader in the clubhouse as the team’s best performance of the season.

So often this season Toronto has been buoyed by its two All-Star guards while the rest of the roster ironed out early-season kinks or nursed injuries. Not so against the Rockets.

Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan certainly took turns conducting the train. It looked on paper like the Raptors lacked an obvious solution to the Harden problem; Norman Powell, maybe the best theoretical check for Harden, didn’t even see the floor. That’s mostly because Lowry handled the assignment admirably. Almost as if he were taking notes from his counterpart Patrick Beverley, Lowry relentlessly harassed Harden. Harden, as he does, still compiled the eye-popping numbers that he’s made into a normality this year: 29 points, 15 assists and a 12-of-12 night from the line. But it was Harden’s other crooked stat — 12 turnovers — that had Lowry’s finger prints all over it.

Thanks in part to Lowry’s defense (there were other nice showings on that end that we’ll get to as well), Toronto managed to launch 10 more field goal tries than Houston. Against a team that attempts and makes threes with the proclivity of the Rockets, that was a necessary edge for the Raptors to gain.

DeRozan was silent in the first half. As Terrence Ross sunk treys and crammed dunks and Jonas Valanciunas manhandled poor Clint Capela early, DeRozan connected on just three free-throws while going 0-of-5 from the in the opening 24 minutes. The Raptors didn’t need a DeRozan-centric offense to open the game. Their threes were falling while Houston’s weren’t. Dwane Casey’s team went 5-of-10 from deep in the half; the Rockets shot 15 percent on 20 tries.

Of course that dry spell wasn’t eternal, and Houston quickly buried a trio of triples to start the third frame. The early barrage woke up DeRozan. If not for Kevin Love, DeRozan’s 21-point, four-assist, three-rebound third quarter might have been the best single-quarter turned in by anyone on Wednesday night. He went scoreless in the final 12 minutes, but the sharp play-making wasn’t confined to one quarter. DeRozan finished the night with nine assists and just a pair of turnovers.

Those nine dimes were just a fraction of the Raptors season-high 28 — a number that illustrates just how collaborative the 115-102 win was. At the receiving end of DeRozan and Lowry’s passes (he had nine assists of his own), were the likes of Cory Joseph, who went 3-of-3 from long range en route to 17 points, Terrence Ross, who nailed two threes and threw down three thunderous dunks, and DeMarre Carroll, who turned in one of his best games in a Raptors uniform.

Carroll posted a Nic Batum-ian line against Houston: 20 points, three rebounds, two assists, three blocks and four steals on 9-of-14 shooting from the field. His opening stint featured precise cuts, some rhythmic shooting and beautifully orchestrated fast breaks — one of which he finished himself after a return pass from Lowry. His energy was palpable. If this is what a rested Carroll looks like, the Raptors have no reason to deviate from the rest strategy they’re currently employing with their once-prized free agent signing. A fully functioning, havoc-rustling Carroll opens new doors for this Raptors team. It has to be a relief for the organization to know that version of him still exists.

As is always the case over the course 48 minutes, there are some nits you can pick from the win. Lucas Nogueira prolonged his recent run of poor form, picking up four fouls in 17 minutes while searching for suddenly elusive chemistry with his guards. And the Raptors certainly got bailed out as the Rockets clanged open three after open three in the first half. Toronto’s open-look prevention was inconsistent, and in-game positive regression almost led the Rockets into comeback territory.

Despite those issues, there existed little threat of Toronto handing away the game. Too many guys were excelling in concert for it to ever be in doubt.

Losing four of the previous five might have given some people reason to question Toronto’s place within the Eastern Conference hierarchy. Wednesday’s win in Houston served as a reminder that the Raptors are much closer to the team than rumbled out of the gates to a 7-2 start.

What did you think of tonight’s impressive win?