The Rockets rolled into Toronto sitting on a 17-game win streak and legitimate designs on the 2017-18 NBA title. They’ve spent the past few years crafting this roster, grooming strategies, players, coaches, and everything else needed to take on the league’s best at the highest level. They’re 51-14 now and look every inch the championship threats they claim to be. It’s truly inspiring stuff.
Now, if only they could beat the Toronto Raptors.
On Friday night, the Raptors jumped all over the Rockets. Save for a 2-0 nothing lead in the opening minute and a half, and a late tie-game, Toronto held the lead throughout. The Raptors would go on to win this fun and stressful contest, 108-105, stopping the Rockets’ win streak and proving something else to themselves (and once again to the NBA world at large).
Save for some incredible shotmaking and heroics from the likely MVP James Harden (who finished with 40 points), the Raptors put the clamps on most everything the Rockets tried to do. It’s often lost in the league narrative that Toronto too has spent years trying to find the rare alchemy necessary to succeed at the highest level. They’ve had five years to grow and change to this point, and now it feels even more fair to say: they’ve arrived.
But let’s set aside grand emotive statements for now and recount the game. The first half was one of collective defensive power from Toronto, superlative (like, extremely superlative) shot-making from Kyle Lowry, the usual dynamism from DeMar DeRozan, and one nice little surprise burst from Malcolm Miller. “The guys stuck with the game plan,” coach Dwane Casey said afterwards. “They trusted each other and they trusted what we were doing, stuck with it.”
Lowry led the way — he had 16 first half points, and finished with 30 on an outrageous 10-of-14 shooting night (including 7-of-9 from three). On top of that he had six assists and three rebounds, and while the ball didn’t quite find his hands down the stretch, was involved in many of the key plays for Toronto. DeRozan, meanwhile, matched him as only he can, putting up 14 of his 23 points in the first half, and finishing the night with an 8-of-19 shooting line (including three triples), plus seven rebounds and a pair of assists.
And then there was Miller, filling in for both OG Anunoby and Delon Wright. The unsung swingman stepped in for a huge triple, a curling lay-up, and a nice cut and bucket all in one short burst in the second. Miller wasn’t heard much from again, but from a certain view his points made all the difference.
The second half was about weathering the Rockets’ eventual storm, and putting forth the most effective effort on defense. As everyone in the ACC knew, Houston would not shoot a collective 42 percent from the field and 11 percent from three — as they did in the first half — for the entire game. Not with Harden lurking, plus Chris Paul and Eric Gordon. The run from Houston eventually came, with a 32-point third quarter, 61 percent shooting, and a Raps lead that shrunk to four points in the frame.
Despite some lapses here and there, the Raptors really did play solid defense throughout. Jakob Poeltl refused to wilt in the face of Paul’s insistent one-on-one dribble drives; Fred VanVleet jumped all over every Rockets guard he was switched onto (and almost frustrated Paul into an 8-second violation at one point); and Jonas Valanciunas gradually figured out the Paul/Harden-to-Clint Capela lob plays, stopping one in the second half, and then brazenly stuffing the Rockets’ big man on a late dunk attempt. JV would finish with 14 points and seven rebounds, while hitting two free throws to put the Raps up three with under five seconds left. “I had confidence he was going to make the shots,” said Lowry, never shaken for a second by any of these events. “He stepped up and made both.”
Now let’s get back to those grand emotive statements. This is the kind of win that speaks to something new in the Raptors’ temperament. They showed up from the jump, played to their game plan, and made adjustments to counter what the other team was doing. That that other team happened to be the Rockets, the top team in the league at the moment, was just another thing to take in stride. “We knew they were going to start to make shots,” said DeRozan. “Especially when you got a player like Harden that’s going to turn it up, especially in the fourth quarter, and get his team back in the game. We just have to stay patient and execute.”
In truth, DeRozan is almost always calm, but there’s something to his words here. The Raptors have had their struggles down the stretch of games, they’ve been plagued by panic in times of pressure. On Wednesday against Detroit, we got a wild finish that saw some brave play from DeRozan, and another team effort down the stretch. Now tonight, the snapping of a 17-game win streak, and the truth is: none of this feels like a shock.
There was a time when the Raptors “upsetting” a team in the regular season was cause for jubilation. Yes, we’d cheer, we’re way out of the playoff picture, or actively moving backwards, but we stole this or that win — this is a team that used to celebrate beating Michael Jordan that one time. Now though, the moral victories, such as they are, have scarcely earned a mention. The Raptors are the number one seed, and have proven they can beat almost any team, in nearly every environment, almost any which way we can imagine. They expect it, in fact. They’ve earned it.
I’ll let the ever-vigilant and cautiously optimistic Casey get the last word here, because it feels at times like no one in Toronto wears the grind of years harder than him.
“So hats off to our guys,” said Casey. “I thought they did everything we asked them to do, took care of business, met their runs, didn’t get frustrated, stuck together and finished it up.”
Indeed they did. And really, what more could you ask for?