There are a few constants for the Raptors right now. DeMar DeRozan gets buckets, Jonas Valanciunas works when he can on offense (and gets exposed on D), Serge Ibaka brings a sharp professionalism. After that, there’s a lot of uncertainty. Case in point: coach Dwane Casey tried ten different players in the first quarter against the Dallas Mavericks, and opened the second with a completely rejigged all bench lineup. Did it work? Well, the Raptors beat the Mavericks 100-76, so yes. Oh yeah, and the fans got their free slice of pizza — that’s another constant.
“I might head to Pizza Pizza after,” said Norman Powell, smiling. “Yeah, I felt the energy when I was at the free-throw line, about getting the free throws to get 100.” The smile then dropped away as Powell got serious in his post-game reflection. “That’s the most important thing, not only to make the fans happy. That’s double — we get a win and they get free pizza. But it was a big win for us coming off the road trip and dropping two, our last two games, so we were really focused and locked in.”
It’s been a searching run of games for the Raptors as of late. Without Kyle Lowry, we’re learning what the rest of this team is made of. Tonight, DeRozan kept up his usual level of attack, finished when the lane opened, drew a couple fouls, and most importantly, made passes when the Mavs tried to force the ball out of his hands. As Casey remarked, “that’s what he’s going to see.”
DeMar finished with 25 points on 10-of-17 shooting, along with 6 rebounds, 2 assists, and 2 steals. Before the game, Mavs coach Rick Carlisle managed to compare DeRozan to both a horse and a bull. The comparisons fit, even if DeRozan was just out there having fun. “Yeah, that's when we're at our best,” said DeRozan. “When we go out there and play. Especially once we get stops and not worrying about a play call, but understanding get to our spots and make something happen for one another.”
Going into the game, with Dirk Nowitzki playing centre for the Mavs, we also wondered what kind of performance we’d get from Valanciunas. True to form, JV was exposed a few times in the pick-and-roll, and continually lost Dirk on the perimeter (which was never not frustrating), but he also dominated when given the chance. Jonas finished with 14 points, 12 rebounds and even 2 assists. Yes, the big man was getting in on the Raptors’ passing too. Like DeRozan’s passing, it was an encouraging sign. On the night, the Raptors finished with 19 assists on 37 field goals, which, given some of their recent totals, feels respectable.
Speaking of which, Ibaka had a respectable game, even without scoring a single point. Serge was 0-for-4 from the field but grabbed 9 rebounds (Casey said he should have kept him in for his 10th), and two blocks. Ibaka’s defense was solid throughout and he finished the game a +18.
So, those are the constants. How about the variables?
The Raptors did experiment once again with some wild lineups. The second quarter saw Delon Wright and Fred VanVleet attempt their best Lowry-Cory Joseph impression, along with P.J. Tucker, Norman Powell and Patrick Patterson. There was a 9-0 Mavs run in there, which was then matched by a 10-0 run upon the return of the Raptors’ starters. But Patterson shot 3-of-5 from three, a huge stat — “Put a smile on my face,” he said — and Wright continues to impress with an all-around game. Delon’s highlights include smart defense, blocked shots, slippery drives to the basket and, hey, a three pointer. His backcourt pal Powell meanwhile, starting in place of the injured DeMarre Carroll, finished with a surly 19 points (on 6-of-8 shooting), 5 rebounds and 3 assists. He also canned a couple of 3s, and finished some rude drives. It was nice to see him smile afterwards too.
Actually, it was nice to see everyone smiling. The Raptors have had to work extremely hard for wins as of late. The team’s last satisfying blowout win came all the way back on January 27th, a crusher over the Bucks. Since then it’s been close losses, bad losses, or tight wins. It’s true without Lowry this team is not allowed much breathing room, and there’s been some exciting basketball to watch at times, but a comfortable win provides its own rewards.
Rewards like, say, pizza.