Toronto wins over the last few seasons have typically followed a strict formula. Rocky starts, bench explosions, healthy stat lines for Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan and the odd crunch-time ISO and miraculous game-winner have led to dozens and dozens of Raptors’ victories during the team’s Golden Era.
Monotony is nice if it leads to success. But when a win deviates from the script as starkly as the 90-85 one over the Hornets on Wednesday did, it resonates a little bit more.
The Raptors might not have a more memorable win on their resumé this season. No, it wasn’t as flashy as beating Houston in November or as Lowry-centric as the two wins against Utah or as important as the pair of triumphs against the Celtics. Truthfully, until the fourth quarter, it had the makings of the most pitiful defeat of the team’s pre-All Star descent.
Thanks to a delightfully strange lineup of Lowry, Cory Joseph, DeMarre Carroll, Jakob Poeltl (!) and Delon Wright (!!), the final 12 minutes of Wednesday’s game will stand out in the minds of anyone who watched them when it’s time to look back and reflect on the 2016-17 season.
A hot start for a multi-wing starting five gave the Raptors 11 points of leeway after the opening frame. Things were coming easy. Jonas Valanciunas dropped all 10 of his points and snagged five of his 11 boards in the quarter, outweighing the damage Frank Kaminsky was inflicting on the opposite end. Charlotte entered the game 1-9 in their previous 10, barely hanging around in the periphery of the playoff race. The opening 12 minutes appeared to set the Raptors up for a rare coast-to-coast cruise.
Believing in the Raptors’ ability to make things easy on themselves is to be an idiot, as they proved by getting outscored 55-27 in the second and third quarters. Kemba Walker (okay, fine) and Frank Kaminsky (seriously, Frank Kaminsky?) carried an otherwise stagnant Hornets offense — the pair converted 9-of-17 threes combined while their teammates managed to go just 4-of-21 from deep. Toronto responded by forgetting how to play offense altogether.
DeMar DeRozan finished the night 5-of-19 (the same rate at which the team shot in the second quarter). For much of the season, DeRozan has exhibited tremendous growth as a decision-maker and scorer. Recent games have seen him regress to a more primitive version of himself. On Wednesday, contested heaves and turnovers ended his night prematurely.
Charlotte’s lead after three sat at 17; the kind of advantage the Raptors have become prone to blowing themselves in the New Year. Boos circulating, some fans decided to duck out early.
Those fans missed out on one of the more intensely odd quarters you’re ever going to witness. The aforementioned Point Guard Orgy lineup with Carroll and Poeltl working the lights and cameras embarked on a 12-minute quest to win back the hearts of wavering Raptors fans; a mix of suffocating defense and graceful drive-and-kick offense reinvigorated the slightly less-full ACC. Eight-plus minutes and a 24-2 run later and holy shit, the Raptors were somehow up five, with the Mormon Connection of Wright and Poeltl providing too many signature plays to even keep track of.
“We were searching and went to the fountain of youth,” said Casey on why he rolled with the pair of Utah alumni for the entirety of the fourth quarter. “ Those guys came through and played their behinds off.”
Wright, as Casey pointed out after the game, helped stiffen up the Raptors’ pick-and-roll defense thanks to his “size and length,” while also freeing up Joseph and Lowry to operate away from the ball. The result: a steady procession of drives, kick-outs and subsequent drives that created plenty of open triples and layups.
Both Wright and Poeltl made critical plays on the defensive end as well. With the score 82-79 Raptors, Jakob Poeltl showed off his defensive IQ, converging with Michael Kidd-Gilchrist at the top of the restricted area. Instead of leaping and landing on MKG the way Lucas Nogueira (or early-season Poeltl) might have, Poeltl simply raised his arms and forced a deferential pass to Marvin Williams in the corner, who missed a three to tie.
Minutes later, Wright made a ballsy play for the ball against Nic Batum atop the arc, poking it free and breaking out for a daggerous layup that put the Raptors up 87-82. For the final act, Poeltl fired a tasty pass on the roll to Carroll with the Raptors up 87-85. Money. 90-85. Game.
Casey was glowing over the play of Wright and Poeltl down the stretch, but the duo’s play shouldn’t overshadow Lowry’s clutch threes, Carroll’s tenacity on the glass as a small-ball four, or Cory Joseph’s excellent secondary playmaking in that final frame. Every member of the Raptors’ new leading lineup in the NET Rating column (screw off with your small sample caveats) chipped in to Wednesday’s oddball victory.
While Casey noted that Toronto’s young guys might be in the running for more minutes after the All-Star break, he expressed the need to rediscover the standard M.O. that this team has thrived on in recent seasons.
“We’ve gotta get our rotations back to where they were, which is where they’ve been for the last three years. Kind of normal. Get Pat back in the second unit, Serge (Ibaka) back.” said Casey.”
Normal definitely is what the Raptors need if they want to turn the season around after the break. Continuity is what this franchise’s winning ways have been built on.
Once in a while, though, bizarre and nonsensical is fun too.