Close games against bad teams have been few and far between for the Raptors so far this year, a stark change from years past when letdowns against lesser teams was fairly common. In the past, these near inexplicable losses could be pointed to as key factors in the Raptors missing out on the Eastern Conference’s top seed. The absence of those disappointing games this year has played a major part in the current optimism surrounding the team.
The Raptors, for the most part, have stomped down the league’s cellar dwellers by huge margins, but tonight’s tense win against Brooklyn was a different kind of victory against a less talented team. It was a night where the Raptors’ shooting was off, it was a night where the Nets received spectacular, game changing performances from the likes of Spencer Dinwiddie, Allen Crabbe and Jarrett Allen. It was a night where the Raptors bent and bent and bent, but never broke. Remember: the off-nights where you power through difficulties count just the same as the 20 point beatdowns in the win-loss column.
Tonight did not initially look like it it would be a tough win however. The Raptors jumped on the Nets, losers of the last nine consecutive games between the two teams, early on. The Nets came out with a starting lineup full of interchangeable parts and tried using weave and floppy actions to free up their shooters, so the Raptors switched everything and were successful doing so. Both starting Jonas Valanciunas and Serge Ibaka moved their feet well, with the latter in particular looking especially impressive recovering for blocks (a sign of things to come).
Meanwhile, with ex-Raptor DeMarre Carroll out the Nets were forced to use Allen Crabbe to defend DeMar DeRozan early on — though really, no one could contain DeMar on this night. Even the Valanciunas-DeRozan pick and roll combo was effective early, as Jonas got a pair of wide open pick and pop jumpers, including a 3. Valanciunas followed that up with a strong finish on the roll, resulting in an and-one. Add in a Kyle Lowry pull-up 3 to go along with the stifling defense, and pick-and-roll mastery, and you have a early 13-1 lead for the Raps, who started the game 5-of-5 from the floor. It looked like it’d be an easy night.
Things did not carry on in this manner. The game started to go awry when C.J. Miles entered and immediately missed a 3. Then Lowry missed a pair of 3s, DeMar DeRozan missed a 3 and… well, you get the picture. The Raptors went ice cold from the perimeter and the Nets took that as an impetus to pack the paint. As DeRozan was no longer able to fully penetrate, he was also no longer able to effectively facilitate for his bigs. He began to resort to his strong runner and floater game, which was not quite as effective. Still, the Raptors maintained a respectable 26-19 lead to end the 1st.
With DeRozan on the bench to start the second, the Raptors offense went even colder. The all-bench unit tried to feed Miles, hitting him coming off screens, but to no avail. Miles would go 0-of-4 in the quarter. Meanwhile, the Nets were forcing the Raptors into several possessions that ended in Pascal Siakam 3s — he made one, but that is rarely a good sign. The bench brought their usual defensive intensity however, highlighted by a ferocious block by Siakam against Caris LeVert. The return of the Raptors’ starters somehow didn’t help, and Toronto entered the half leading by only one point.
The start of third quarter saw the Raptors focus on using the Valanciunas-Lowry pick-and-roll once again to start. It was effective, generating three easy makes for Valanciunas, who had an efficient night, going 9-of-15 for 21 points, to go with 13 rebounds. The problem came on the other end of the floor as JV’s defensive intensity began to slip. The Nets began to attack Valanciunas and also started using Rondae-Hollis Jefferson more effectively, finding him on cuts to the rim. Miles entered late and compounded these defensive issues, blowing coverages on Joe Harris and Caris LeVert. However, DeRozan then entered attack mode, Miles finally hit his first 3-pointer, and it looked like the Raptors might pull away.
The start of the fourth confirmed this belief. Fred VanVleet came out gunning, nailing 3s, and making a tough layup to push the lead back to 12. However, Spencer Dinwiddie, of all people, began to come to life. VanVleet had trouble staying attached to Dinwiddie on drives and Raptors bigs could not contain him on switches. Dinwiddie attacked the rim with ease to carry the Nets late game offense. Kyle Lowry, when he re-entered was initially matching Dinwiddie blow for blow, making tough layups and pull-up 3s. The Nets tried to go even faster and smaller, playing Quincy Acy at centre, forcing the Raps to adjust. Acy eventually stuck a pair of 3s in Valanciunas’ eye and Dinwiddie had a clear path to the rim on at least one drive due to Valanciunas being pulled out to guard Acy.
On the other end the Raptors had gone old-school iso/pick-and-roll ball, and for the most part DeMar DeRozan was making it work. With Valanciunas struggling defensively Dwane Casey would go to a tiny four guard lineup with Ibaka at centre to close the game. The lineup has its advantages, with additional shooting and ball-handling, but its major weakness was exposed with around 40 seconds remaining in the game. The small ball unit lost an offensive rebound to Joe Harris and in the resulting scramble gave up a wide open Dinwiddie three-pointer to put the Nets within two. DeRozan would miss a tough isolation look on the other end. The Nets would tie it up on a spectacular Allen Crabbe lay-up. And after a too-late botched final play from the Raptors, the game went on to overtime.
The Raps opened overtime blowing a switch, leading to a wide open dunk for Dinwiddie, who had 21 points in the second half. Rondae Hollis-Jefferson then scored to put the Raps in a hole. The offense was stagnant and isolation based; the first bucket for the Raptors came after DeRozan missed a long two and Delon Wright snuck in for a tip in. Lowry helped energize the team with a pair of huge rebounds, the first of which coming as he climbed the ladder to rip the ball from Harris. The second was an offensive rebound — and we know how that went. He looked to have hurt either his back or his butt and will be evaluated shortly. He didn’t return after to the game.
After Lowry’s unfortunate exit, DeRozan would give the Raptors back the lead with a tough and-one bucket. With Fred VanVleet, Pascal Siakam and Serge Ibaka combining for a tough stop on Spencer Dinwiddie to end the game, it would be a lead the Raptors would hold. DeRozan, the hero from start to finish, would end the game with 35 points, six assists, and four rebounds. Lowry would go out with 18 points and 11 assists.
It was a tough game, and it will make tomorrow’s game against the Heat even tougher. But on the bright side, a win is a win, even one that has to be ground out like this. The Raptors ultimately took care of business.