After missing seven of the last eight contests for the Raptors, DeMar DeRozan’s presence in the lineup tonight against the Los Angeles Clippers was a welcome sight. The team went a mere 3-4 without DeRozan, but any relief to Kyle Lowry’s burden is appreciated. Tonight, like the entire Toronto squad, DeRozan started slow, missing his first three shots. But as DeMar found his groove, the Raptors coalesced around him to beat the Clippers by a final score of 118-109.
The Clippers leapt to an early 17-6 lead and seemed to press their advantage. Austin Rivers had a quick 8 points at the time, and Blake Griffin was doing what he wanted to poor Pascal Siakam (back in the starting lineup due to the absence of Patrick Patterson) and then Jakob Poeltl. Unfortunately for Los Angeles, missing Chris Paul means a great deal to this team (playing on the second night of a back-to-back doesn’t help either) and the game gradually got away from them.
It all started with DeRozan. After that opening trio of missed shots, DeRozan began to re-assert himself. He would finish the game with 31 points on 11-of-22 shooting, plus five rebounds, two assists, and nine trips to the free throw line (he made seven). Just for fun, DeRozan even went 2-of-3 from beyond the arc. It was good to have number 10 back in the fold. “Lowry was good,” said coach Doc Rivers. “But I thought DeRozan with his size, I thought he hurt us. He was a tough cover tonight.”
“It kind of puts things back in the pecking order,” said coach Dwane Casey afterwards. “It’s funny how things go, you have so many talented young men, but it’s still a pecking order.” It’s a concept not lost on the Raptors, who got going in tandem with their lead All-Star, the team’s pieces mostly fitting back together as they should.
Case in point: the two other Raptors in the troika of typical producers, Lowry and Jonas Valanciunas, had strong games. Kyle Lowry, who still managed to play 38 minutes in this one, had 24 points and 8 assists while shooting 6-of-14 from the field. There were a host of typical Lowry plays in this one — an alley-oop to Norman Powell, pick-and-roll finds, aggressive drives, and some timely shot making — but the return of DeRozan definitely took some of the pressure off him.
Valanciunas, meanwhile, continued his strong stretch of play. He had 21 points and 12 rebounds, while shooting 9-of-13 from the field and pulling out every trick in his offensive playbook. Valanciunas scored on putbacks, floaters, post-moves and a series of spins and drop steps. He even had the jumper working (with minimal pump fake involvement — Casey, when prompted, called him “decisive”). On defense, Jonas did what he could to keep DeAndre Jordan (6 points, 12 rebounds) from his usual thunderous finishes, and kept the team’s pick-and-roll defense relatively sound (Lucas Nogueira, 8 points and 6 boards, helped in this regard too). Sure the Raps gave up 60 points in the first half — but they scored 70, so all is forgiven.
Speaking of forgiveness, let’s make a little note on Cory Joseph here. After what seemed like a very pointed benching, Joseph pitched in with 20 strong minutes tonight. He shot 4-of-9 from the field for 12 points, chipped in 4 rebounds and 2 assists, and — two wild closeouts on shooters aside — played sharp positional defense. Here’s hoping Joseph keeps it up.
(We’ll maybe also set aside the interesting rotation decision of playing DeMarre Carroll 23 largely uninspiring minutes before going to Powell for the entire fourth. The question of Norm’s role will likely continue on for the rest of the season. At this point, it seems impossible to figure out where to go with Carroll. A month ago he looked great, now he’s back into peg leg mode. The Free Norm movement continues unabated.)
As mentioned, the Clippers were without their maestro Chris Paul. In his absence, Griffin had a productive game (and then some — he finished with a 26-11-11 triple-double), but the Clippers did not have the firepower, nor the guidance up top, to grow their early lead. Rivers would ultimately finish with 22 points, and Mo Speights chipped in 15. But despite a flurry of late buckets, after the Raptors had put the game on cruise control, the Clippers looked tapped out.
The return of DeRozan doesn’t solve all of the Raptors’ issues. They still desperately need Patterson back. They still have some bizarre rotation questions to answer. They still have to worry about Lowry’s workload. But they beat the Nets, and now the Clippers, and then take on Timberwolves. These have been or will be winnable games against diminished opponents. But those Ws start to add up, and then when the quality teams roll in, the Raptors may be all the way back too.
“We had a tough couple weeks already,” said DeRozan, when asked about the tough weeks ahead before the All-Star Game. “And we have been fighting to get out of that. We exert the energy that we have now going into the next two weeks and use that rest wisely and then like I said at the All-Star break just run away with it.”