Kyle Lowry Started Hot, and Stayed Hot
The Rockets scored first, but the Raptors soon took a 3-2 lead on a Kyle Lowry 3-pointer—and they didn’t let the Rockets take the lead again the rest of the way.
Lowry’s shooting was a big part of that. He shot 3-of-3 from deep in the first quarter and had 13 points and three assists in the frame as the Raptors jumped ahead 32-16. He added 1 more triple in the second, two in the third and one in the fourth, and every single one came at a time when the Raptors needed it (none moreso than the one he hit two minutes in the third quarter, after the Rockets started on a 6-0 run). Lowry finished 7-of-9 from behind the arc, played great defense on Chris Paul, took a charge, dived after every loose ball and hit two clutch free throws (after diving for a ball and drawing a Paul foul!) with 10.7 seconds to go.
He finished with 30 points on 14 shots, and was the engine that drove the Raptors all night.
Jonas Valanciunas was Incredible (Well, Mostly)
The Raptors’ centre had a double-double night, but that doesn’t tell the story; the last two minutes tell the tale.
First, with the Raptors clinging to a 2-point lead with 1:30 to go, James Harden dished to a cutting Clint Capela; Valanciunas met him at the rim and blocked it clean, and the Raptors took it the other way.
On the next Rockets possession, Harden again dished to Capela, and this time Jonas got his hand on the pass, knocking it to DeMar DeRozan, who was fouled (give DeRozan credit for great D on Harden on the possession as well).
After C.J. Miles missed a 3-pointer, Paul led the Rockets back up court in a hurry—only to be met at the rim by JV, who hustled back like a madman.
Finally, with the Raptors up 1 after two Lowry FTs, it was Valanciunas’ turn to step to the line and knock down two FTs—the biggest of his career, Matt Devlin called them—and he nailed both.
Now, I said “mostly incredible” because during that same sequence he tried to attack a closeout on a dribble drive from the corner and turned the ball over, and on the next Raptors possession he passed up a short shot in the paint (that led to the Miles 3-point attempt). So, you know, not perfect, but could you have imagined, a year ago, Jonas Valanciunas being on the floor in the fourth quarter against the Houston Rockets? And being the difference-maker on defense?
JV has come a long, long way this season.
The Raptors Defense both Gaveth, and Tooketh Away
The Raptor’s defensive strategy tonight was incredibly interesting. It seemed to me the plan was to run Houston off the 3-point line wherever possible, let them operate in the midrange, and trust the centres to protect the rim. It was, essentially, what the San Antonio Spurs did to the Rockets in last year’s playoffs.
It worked... I think? Houston finished with a whopping 62 paint points (and Harden got to rim at will) but shot only 27 3-pointers (they average 42 attempts a game) and hit only 9 (they average 15.5 per game). And four of those makes were absolutely ridiculous step-back threes from Harden; Norman Powell was in his grill on three, and VanVleet D’ed him up perfectly on the fourth, but Harden nailed ‘em anyway.
And while it seemed too easy at the rim most of the night, Valanciunas and Jakob Poeltl did what they could against Harden and Paul; they were only credited with 1 block between them definitely altered more than a few shots at the rim. And hey, you gotta love how Poeltl was able to stay with Paul on switches; Paul still scored (the key difference between this Houston team and that team that got killed by the Spurs is the addition of Paul, who is excellent in the midrange), but I think Jak made it a heck of a lot harder than CP expected (and he finally got Paul in the 4th—Paul drove and Poeltl stuck to him perfectly; Paul left his feet, had no where to go and threw it out of bounds).
In addition, I don’t think you can discount the emotional impact of three pointers; watching the Rockets drain threes can break you down mentally. And take the crowd out of it too. A layup is frustrating, sure, but not as deflating as giving up a three, I don’t think.
In any case—the plan worked well enough and the Raps won.
The Raptors’ Bench Did What They Needed To
Overall the starters played slightly longer stretches tonight, but Dwane Casey still rolled out the 5-man bench unit at the start of the second and fourth quarters (with Malcolm Miller in the injured Delon Wright’s place); I think this is exactly what we’ll see in the playoffs.
And the bench was just fine. In both quarters, that unit was a +1 before the first starter returned. Poeltl was solid, as mentioned. Miller had a mini 7-2 run of his own in the second quarter, featuring a three and two layups (he did get beaten by Harden twice, but hey, welcome to the league, rookie). Pascal Siakam was active as usual, and played Harden well enough on the final shot to force a deep airball. C.J. Miles hit two corner threes, including a ridiculous corner fader off a Fred VanVleet pass.
And hey, VanVleet, I mean, what more can you say about this young man? Here’s what I love about him: after he hit C.J. for that corner 3, he got up and pressured Paul, and got called for a foul (I don’t know if it was a good call or not, since the broadcast missed it). Most guys would lay off after getting a call there; not Freddy! He stayed up, pressured Paul again, and forced a TO that led to a Siakam lay-in. You gotta love that effort!
He also added a 3, one sensational drive around Paul for a layup, dug a loose ball out of the dirt, blocked an Eric Gordon runner. It was just a great all-around effort from VanVleet, and the bench, and this team as a whole.
This Team Belongs, and the World is Noticing—Finally
We’re starting to finally see a little buzz around the team, with a few more mentions on ESPN, TNT and other sites, not to mention from the US on Twitter. Although they almost all feature the addendum, ”we have to see what they do in the playoffs.”
Now, I personally think the “Toronto is bad in the playoffs” narrative is overblown—while it’s true that Lowry and DeRozan have been less than their best selves the past two seasons, the team has still won three series and only lost to LeBron James, who just happens to be one of the best players of all time.
But the narrative is what it is. The Raptors can’t change it until the postseason, and they can’t make the playoffs come any sooner. This team can only let their play speak for itself, and so far it’s speaking pretty damn loudly. They’ve beaten Cleveland with ease, beaten Boston with ease, lost twice to Golden State by a combined 7 points, and have beaten the Rockets twice, this time breaking Houston’s 17-game winning streak. They’ve beaten every other playoff team at least once except Oklahoma City, and we’ll see them next weekend.
Calling last night’s game a Finals preview may be jumping ahead, but these are the two top seeds, currently, and it was a hell of an exciting game. So why couldn’t it be a Finals preview? It would be a fun series, I’m certain of that, and should the Raptors make it there, we can finally silence all “show me in the playoffs” disclaimers.
Remember four years ago, when the Raptors won their franchise-record 48th game on the second-last game of the season? This team just won their 48th game, with 17 games still to go. Feels pretty damn good!