DeMar DeRozan was mildly stunned to learn the Raptors had just played their seventh game in 11 days. When you say it out loud like that, it does indeed sound like a lot. The last couple, including Friday night’s contest against the Dallas Mavericks, have suggested a certain exhaustion has settled in on Toronto — “Hell yeah, I feel it,” said DeRozan. They rested All-Star Kyle Lowry tonight, and laboured for most of the game’s regulation and overtime minutes — yet they still won 122-115. It just happened to be their franchise-record tying 11th win in a row too.
Tonight DeRozan would go on to finish with 29 points on a hard-fought 8-of-23 shooting night. Fortunately, the Raptor leader also went 12-of-14 from the free throw line, with six assists and four rebounds. Despite his 30 percent shooting in regulation (including two missed 3s), there was DeRozan again, with the game on the line, taking and making huge shots. It was his long jumper that finally tied it up late — after the Raptors had been down since early in the second quarter. It was his lone three in the game that tied it again in overtime. And it was his long, long jumper that gave the Raptors the lead for good. Phew.
Toronto, as a team and city, know there will be games like this. The Mavericks, led by 27 points from Harrison Barnes, 19 from Dennis Smith Jr., and 18 from that absolute pest J.J. Barea, pushed the Raptors has hard as they could. They managed to shoot 53 percent in the game, despite mounting defensive pressure from the Raps (a 60-point first half was followed by a 46-point second). It was the kind of outing a 22-47 team wants to have against one of the top three teams in the league; the kind of game the Raptors used to have in those meaningless March games with nothing much on the line for them but lottery position.
Except of course, the Raptors were riding that ten-game win streak and refused to give up. In Lowry’s absence, starting point guard Delon Wright stepped in with 15 points (on 6-of-15 shooting, including a Lowry-esque 3-of-7 from three), plus five rebounds and six assists. Jonas Valanciunas had a neat 21 points and 12 rebounds, while shooting 7-of-9 from the field, and once again draining the majority of his clutch free throws. Serge Ibaka, whose quality of play seemed to seesaw with the temperature in the building (or something; who the hell knows), closed the game out with 12 points, seven rebounds, and a game-saving block in overtime. Ibaka manned the middle for most of the second half, paired with Pascal Siakam (12 points on 5-of-6 shooting) in the frontcourt. It was the combo that seemed to work best against the Mavericks flying forwards.
That said, the comeback narrative doesn’t quite tell the whole story. This was an ugly game for the Raptors, one they could have, or perhaps should have put away in some form or another earlier on. That’s not to say the Mavericks didn’t play well, but obviously those seven games in 11 days had started to catch up with Toronto. On top of that, as Dwane Casey remarked after the game, there were a lot of weird lineup combos in this game too — making up for Lowry, trying to reintegrate a returning OG Anunoby, trying to make up for the offense and/or defense that has so often been there. It’s not really indicative of any larger trend; but it is a thing that happens.
If there’s solace to be found in this kind of gritty win, it’s that we sort of knew the Raptors had it in them all along. Eventually the shots went in — like, for example, from Fred VanVleet, who didn’t hit a three until the third quarter, missed some other shots badly, and yet still had the confidence in OT to take and make a different huge three. Eventually the defense locked in — like when Ibaka, who looked like he was wandering aimlessly around for most of the game would stuff Smith with 30 seconds to go. Eventually the Raptors won. “This it a tough place to play and win here,” said Dirk Nowtizki, after potting eight points of his own. “They have a good shot and they have probably been flying under the radar all year. But they have big time shot makers and are very good defensively.”
So sure, the Raptors can get mired in a funk, trade buckets for stretches, let teams go on little runs. (They can even watch as their PA announcer, Herbie Kuhn, accidentally calls a timeout on their behalf when things started really going sideways early in the fourth, only to have play resume.) In truth — and please assume I’m saying this next part in a whisper — if they had lost this game, it would not have killed the general vibe around the team right now.
“It’s cool, but we are all looking at it like we have a bigger goal at hand,” said DeRozan of his team’s 11th straight win. “Every game is not going to be pretty, but as long as we are figuring out how to win and do it in the right way, that’s all that matters to me.”
DeMar, same. Now, on to game, let me see here, ah yes, number 70.