This time of year, you can understand how it’s hard for Raptors players to get up for every game. Their schedule is packed with lesser opponents, the stakes of their seeding are relatively low, and they’ve been able to win with mere bursts of energy on the defensive end.
Still, there are certain players that have more motivation than others. Young players like Delon Wright and Jakob Poetl have the constant burden of proving themselves. New acquisitions like P.J. Tucker are trying to build a brand, working themselves and everyone around them into a defensive lather. Finally, your leaders are motivated — that’s why they’re your leaders in the first place.
The Raptors got poor performances from their old hats tonight, but it was their more motivated cast that came through. Wright, Poetl, Tucker, and their eminent leader DeMar DeRozan all came through in the clutch. Toronto, once down 15 to Miami in the first half, came back to win by 17 — 101-84, their fourth straight win.
DeRozan was phenomenal yet again, scoring 40 points on 25 shots, going 12-for-13 at the free throw line, grabbing six rebounds, passing for three assists, and coughing up just one turnover in the process. It was his second 40-plus point outing in as many games, and he was demonstrative against Heat defenders.
His offensive maturity continues to grow, as he was equal parts patient and persistent on Thursday. At one point in the second quarter, he was blocked loudly by former teammate James Johnson. On the following possession, he went at Johnson without reservation — contorting his body to force in a layup. He was equally brutal to Rodney McGruder, who made it a point to push into DeRozan’s personal bubble. No matter — DeMar merely probed, found his space, and made jumpers.
DeRozan’s defense can’t go without a mention, either. He’s been energized when playing with the stout second unit, and continued that in his second half minutes here. He was the only net positive of Toronto’s starters (+3), as it was really his role with the bench that won the Raptors this game.
That bench was stellar in the Raptors’ 32-point swing. Jakob Poetl was a team-high +30, shaking off more quick whistles early in the game to become Baby Shaq in the second. On two successive fourth quarter possessions, he grabbed three offensive rebounds and tied up Hassan Whiteside on a potential fourth. That energy showed up on the box score too, as the young Austrian had four points and six rebounds in 23 minutes.
His Utah teammate Delon Wright also had a great game, maybe the best of his young career. Two days after I lamented he should look for his offense rather than deferring to Norman Powell, he went for it (in his own, subdued way). Thirteen points, seven rebounds, and three assists for a +26 is a tidy line for the youngster, and he was equally impressive in shutting down Goran Dragic.
Then, there was P.J. Tucker. Nine points and seven rebounds doesn’t show a lot, but Tucker was thrust into his biggest role of the season with Serge Ibaka’s one-game suspension — along with his usual role as the closer, he was also the team’s starting power forward. Playing 33 minutes, he again orchestrated the team defense that continues to soar in league rankings. He’s in the ear of everyone out there, and that motivated core of dudes are listening.
There’s still the others, though — and on nights like this, they’re the cause for concern. Jonas Valanciunas had his worst game since the All-Star break, with just two points and eight rebounds in 21 minutes. He was unplayable on defense — bullied by Whiteside and a statue against Heat guards in the pick and roll. He also stood around a lot on offense, calling for the ball in bad spots and shuffling instead of running. We’ve seen more good than bad from Valanciunas lately, but that just makes outings like this more frustrating. With Ibaka out, you’d hope he would engage and assert himself. It didn’t happen in South Beach tonight.
Cory Joseph and Patrick Patterson also struggled, combining for 5-for-16 shooting. With DeRozan handling the scoring load, though, this wasn’t felt as much. Both looked a little lost, but Dwane Casey found his bench lineup that worked in the end.
The Raptors are now 43-29, while the Heat drop to 35-37. Toronto now looks forward to Dallas, where they’ll play the Mavericks on Saturday night.