It was the casual way coach Dwane Casey said it. Before the Raptors game against their natural rivals, the Boston Celtics, he was talking up the team’s newest acquisitions Serge Ibaka and P.J. Tucker. After the squad’s recent slide, the long wait to see them retake the court with their new look only heightened the excitement. Fans across Toronto were turned up.
And then Casey dropped it: Kyle Lowry, three time All-Star and the team’s undisputed leader, would sit out against the Celtics with a sore wrist. That’s all he, or anyone else, knew. To say a wave of disappointment rippled out of the room — and presumably across the city’s contingent of fans — is an understatement. Straight up: it sucked.
Still, the Raptors had their new players and took the court against the Celtics to regain some of the ground they’d lost in 2017 in the East. Despite the rockiest of starts in this one, and a Celtics lead that would balloon to 17 points, the Raptors somehow got it done. Toronto would go on to win 107-97 behind an awesome 43 point barrage from DeMar DeRozan and, hey, some help from the new guys.
That first half was still an ugly one, though. The Raptors, befitting a team that hadn’t played in 12 days and was integrating new rotation players, looked disjointed. Minus Lowry in the lineup, and with Cory Joseph getting the start, the Raps were the proverbial car with no engine, coasting as best they could but with no real drive. The team did have some bright plays in the half — an Ibaka block on Celtics’ star Isaiah Thomas was my favourite — but trouble brewed. The deficit stood at ten at the half.
After half time, it feels like one could point to a few things that helped the turnaround. First, the aforementioned scoring barrage by DeRozan didn’t hurt. The kid from Compton shot 15-of-28 from the field and 12-of-12 from the line in a vintage performance. DeRozan added five rebounds and five assists too, and would not be denied down the stretch. No combination of Terry Rozier, Jaylen Brown, Marcus Smart, James Young or anybody else could help.
Second, there was the brief brouhaha between DeMarre Carroll and Thomas. For a “rivalry” that hasn’t exactly produced a ton of acrimony, seeing these two teams get into each other’s faces was electrifying. It began after Carroll bodychecked Thomas in the open court; it was a frustration play, coming after a botched call on the other end and a Thomas four-point play. After much finger pointing, technicals and a flagrant on Carroll — and then a second flagrant called on Thomas for a swipe at DeRozan’s face on a subsequent drive — the Raptors eventually went on a 20-4 run. This rivalry might be for real now.
Isaiah Thomas on the flagrant foul by Carroll: "That's not a basketball play by any means. Guys who aren't factors in games do that."— Mike Ganter (@Mike_Ganter) February 25, 2017
The third part comes back to defense. With Ibaka in the fold, the Raptors can do so much more in terms of switching and applying aggressive schemes on D. The big man was everywhere tonight at times, disrupting the Celts’ offense, challenging shots and ultimately finishing with 15 points, on 7-of-12 shooting, and seven rebounds. What you imagined Ibaka would do in Toronto is exactly what he showed tonight. Likewise, tonight was a throwback performance from Joseph who was relentless in his pursuit of Thomas, holding the Celts’ star to a mere 20 points on 6-of-17 shooting. Both these men had help though, from the Raptors other new face.
Before the game it was funny to hear P.J. Tucker reflect on his time in Toronto. He was drafted here 10 years ago, appeared in 17 games, and then disappeared. Now he’s back in a big way. And while Tucker has never met a game he couldn’t play hard in, there must be some extra personal satisfaction to be found in putting in work in meaningful games. Much like Ibaka, Tucker brought exactly what was promised — hard-nosed and smart defensive play, rebounds in traffic, and a positional awareness that allowed the Raptors as a whole to rise up on the defensive end. Tucker finished with nine points and 10 rebounds in 29 minutes — a line all the more remarkable when you realize he admitted pre-game he was playing on no sleep. Raptors fans are ready to embrace this man.
By the end, however, we were all exhausted. The Raptors managed to fight and claw their way back again, with the twist of using their new rotation (sort of). That it went to plan for the second half only highlights Lowry’s absence now. How much better can this team be with its full roster and star guard? With the Wizards losing tonight, and the Raptors now at 3-1 on the Celtics for the season (which means they own the tiebreaker), the time for introductions is over. They’ve got 24 games to do as much winning as possible.