This entire month has been an exercise in plucking good nuggets from a slew of ugly Raptors performances in order to simply maintain a bit of sanity. It’s been more than month since the Raptors exhibited their fully-realized selves for more than a quarter here or a 9-0 run there.
Tuesday’s 108-106 overtime win over New Orleans was hardly the convincing route that Raptors fans have been desperate to see since before Christmas. It was however, a step up from the “atrocious” performance the team turned in on Sunday against Orlando.
“There’s some good stuff we can take out of this, and some stuff we’ve gotta correct to move forward,” said Dwane Casey after the game decided by an impossible Kyle Lowry step-back jumper. The praise, while faint, was accurate. For as many troublesome individual efforts or goofy Raptors possessions as there were on Tuesday, there was a stand-out showing or vitally important play to balance it out.
On the negative, worrisome or downright troubling end of the spectrum was a trio of perimeter players who failed to help fill the void left by DeMar DeRozan, who was ruled out prior to the game by Casey (he’ll also miss Wednesday’s game in Boston) after experiencing swelling in his injured ankle after Sunday’s loss.
Cory Joseph’s on-ball defense has been cracked for most of this season. Against the Pelicans, it was straight up broken. Of Jrue Holiday’s team-high 30 points, 19 came in the first half as the Pels built a 14-point lead after 24. And while Joseph wasn’t the only one to draw the Holiday assignment, defensive possessions like this one left Joseph as the most culpable for Holiday’s 8-of-10 first half shooting line.
On top of the lack of defense, Joseph only managed two points, three dimes and a -18 on 1-of-6 shooting.
Terrence Ross was equally unable to chip in. Aside from a couple threes (he was 2-of-9 from the field on the night), Ross was largely invisible, as tends to be the case when he can’t engage his gunner gear.
DeMarre Carroll’s struggles, however, were anything but under-the-radar. He shot just 3-of-10, had a pair of horrendous turnovers that led to scores on the other end, and sprinkled a few of his infamous drives to the rim that resulted in either missed shots, awkward bail-out passes or, in one case, a stumble that ended in a ball flung off the side of the backboard. Carroll hasn’t looked right in the last couple weeks. There’s no indication that he isn’t healthy. If it’s a simple slump it’s not as if he’s the only one going through the motions on the team this month.
Like with the team as a whole, Carroll offered a mix of good and bad. Lowry was quick to credit Carroll for the effort he gave down the stretch.
“It was like a funeral in here,” said Lowry of the mood in the locker room at halftime. “We were all just down and out of it but DeMarre Carroll came out in that second half with some energy and I give a lot of credit for the win to him.
“I hope people don’t overlook the small intangibles. He didn’t shoot the ball well, but the things he did defensively and his activity was amazing tonight.”
There were the other positive signs on the night, and Norman Powell’s assault on waterbirds everywhere might have been the brightest. When DeRozan has missed time recently, Powell has taken up the role of being the secondary offensive creator next to Lowry. That persisted on Tuesday. Exhibit A being a stunned Anthony Davis.
And Exhibit B being... well... a stunned Anthony Davis.
Powell’s greatness on Tuesday wasn’t confined to the 18 points he poured in. After Holiday got anything he wanted early, Casey opted to stick Powell on the Pelicans’ point guard for much of the second half.
“I liked his physicality, he got into it,” said Casey of Powell, who defended Holiday expertly as New Orleans went for the win at the end of regulation. “They shot 40 percent from three and I thought Norm did a good job of standing in their space, staying square until he heard the call.”
Helping Powell’s cause defensively was an unlikely accomplice: Jonas Valanciunas, who might have played his best defensive game of the season. Aided by the lack of a truly stretchy big man on the opposite side, Valanciunas was able to hang back in his comfort zone near the rim for most of the night, where he made life difficult for a struggling Davis. Both Davis and Pelicans coach Alvin Gentry shrugged off his 4-of-18 shooting night as an anomaly, but Valanciunas was a constant presence near Davis’ tricky baby hooks at the rim.
Powell also shouted out Valanciunas for the work he did to back him up on the final possession of the fourth.
More than the efforts of Powell or Valanciunas, which may or may not be sustainable for the long term, it’s the reestablishment of Lowry’s standing over everything that was the most encouraging development of the Raptors’ 30th win of the season. After the mini-funk that followed his rest day in Brooklyn a couple weeks ago, Lowry is back to his three-point bombing ways. He went 6-of-14 against New Orleans, including a handful of those pull up daggers he has mastered this year. Over his last four outings, Lowry has drained 19-of-39 triples and averaged 32 points and 8 assists a night.
Strong secondary performances like those given by Powell and Valanciunas Tuesday night are absolutely needed to fill in the gaps. But the thing about a fully-functioning Lowry is, he can reach such high levels of good that a little bit of bad from his teammates typically doesn’t matter.
What did you think of tonight’s nail-biter?