When outside critics try to diminish the Toronto Raptors, they tend to start with DeMar DeRozan — and the word “but”.
He’s a scoring machine, but he relies on an imperfect game. He’s improved every year, but he takes inefficient shots. He’s a regular season gamer, but he disappears in the playoffs.
DeRozan keeps finding answers for those critics, though, and activated something we’ve never seen from him on Thursday night: a consistent three-pointer. DeMar made six of nine three point attempts against the Philadelphia 76ers — four in the first quarter alone — to score a career-high 45 points. He added five rebounds, three assists, two steals and a block, for arguably his best all-around game in a Raptors uniform.
It couldn’t come at a better time either, as the 114-109 win came thanks to a ridiculous comeback. The Raptors were down 22 points to the Sixers at the 9-minute mark of the third quarter, the culmination of sloppy turnovers and uninspired play. While DeRozan was consistent in providing offense throughout, the team as a whole lacked energy.
That’s why, even with a career night from their leader, the game ball should go to Delon Wright.
The Raptors’ backup point guard came into the third quarter and shook everyone up. He played with energy on both ends, but especially made impact with his ball-hawking defense on Ben Simmons. The Wright effect was contagious, as the Raptors turned an 11-5 Sixers third quarter lead into a 34-23 rout. It turned a schedule loss into a game again, and Wright was the spark.
Wright has 9pts, a charge drawn, a steal, an OReb, and 2 ast in this 17-2 run.— Blake Murphy (@BlakeMurphyODC) December 22, 2017
The finish was the polar opposite of the start for Toronto. They allowed a Sixers team without Joel Embiid to drop 31 points in the first quarter. Kyle Lowry was back cut a couple times, the bench unit floundered and turned it over, and Jonas Valanciunas struggled to hold rebounding ground against an active Dario Saric and Richaun Holmes.
Those second-chance and points off turnovers piled up for Philadelphia in the second quarter, as they were able to open up the game to a 65-52 halftime lead. Simmons and Saric were both great in this one, with the rookie leading the team with 20 points, six rebounds and four assists. Sarich notched 18 on 7-for-10 shooting.
In the third, Dwane Casey opted to gamble that a smaller lineup (without Valanciunas) could scrap for rebounds instead of getting them on size. The plan worked, as Pascal Siakam and Wright started to scatter the 76ers and force more difficult attempts. Indeed, the last 21 minutes of this game were some of the best defensive minutes Toronto has had all year.
Wright would finish with 12 points, four rebounds and four assists in 28 minutes, notching a team-best +15. The team looked scrambled without him on the floor, as Norman Powell and Fred VanVleet reverted to the struggles shown on last week’s Western Conference road trip. Powell was the only Raptors player held scoreless, a -9 in 12 minutes.
With the Raptors’ comeback making it 88-86 Philadelphia after three, the final quarter came down to execution. Both teams seemed intent on drawing contact in their half court sets, and the inconsistent (and often late) whistle frustrated both teams. Jakob Poeltl had a couple phantom calls against him, while Robert Covington made it a point to stomp around at every tweet of the whistle against the Sixers.
When it gets down to a foul game, it turns out having Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan on your team can be helpful. DeRozan eschewed the three-point shot and drove on the Raptors’ last three meaningful possessions. He drew contact on a couple and dropped a mid-range jump shot on another. Those possessions, plus a protoypical Lowry dive to the floor to win a late 50-50 ball, sealed it for Toronto.
Lowry ended up perfect at the free throw line (8-for-8), finishing with 23 points (6-for-15), nine rebounds, four assists and three steals. Also notable was Serge Ibaka, who you naturally worried a bit about on a back-to-back with chronic knee soreness. He was excellent as the lone big down the stretch, though, grabbing eight rebounds to go with his 12 points.
This win for the Raptors was, in a word, satisfying.
You can count them on one hand, but there have been games this year where the team has come out slow and stayed there. Tonight, though, against the odds they got a heady contribution from T-Shirt Delon Wright. It helped them turn momentum, and their star scorer defied his critics in finishing.
The 22-8 Raptors will play the 76ers again on Saturday at the Air Canada Centre.