Even in the context of an 82-game season, three weeks can feel like an eternity when things aren’t going well. Since the Raptors’ stopped the Rockets at home in their signature win of the year, the team’s form has taken on the form of a downward spiral, each win less-than-inspiring, each loss feeling borderline cataclysmic.
After Tuesday’s listless L in Cleveland, Wednesday’s game against Boston at the ACC carried with it the weight of three weeks of troubling trends. A win would earn Toronto a stranglehold on the East’s top spot, and a near-month of dreck would all but be erased — even if one-seed probably more symbolic than it is any sort of key to safe passage through the playoffs at this point. A loss threatened to send a long-teased fan base into a dark and all too familiar state of existential dread.
In the most important game it’s played since their weeks-long malaise set in, Toronto turned in performance reminiscent of the team that sparked so much belief in the not-so-distant past.
The Raptors’ 96-78 win over Boston was not perfect. As a tight-butted crowd nail-bit its way through a 14-point Raptors first quarter, there was a palpable sense of doom permeating the air. Boston without Kyrie Irving has little offensive juice, but they require so much extra work to break down for scores. Even on possessions where the Raptors did the requisite off-ball jostling and heads up passing, their open looks mostly clanked.
It wasn’t until the second quarter that the Raptors rediscovered what makes them the Raptors. On the heels of a string of performances in which the bench looked like an NBA bench is supposed to, the opening moments of the second quarter saw Toronto’s most counted-on unit rediscover it’s rotational precision on defense, and start running again. An 11-6 start to the frame brought the Raptors back to almost even.
Then pure joy entered the game in the form of a three-point guard lineup with Miles at the four and Lucas Nogueira anchoring the middle. They kicked ass to the tune of an 18-3 run. Boston ended the half with just 33 points to its name.
Three point guards didn’t seem like a solution for the Celtics during Saturday’s loss at the TD Garden. During that game, Boston opted to stay huge most of the time. Jayson Tatum even ran some point. Casey was undeterred, trusting that his guards could punch above their weight.
“It changed the game,” said Casey. “It’s called playing hard. Competing. Physicality. I’ll take Kyle Lowry and Fred VanVleet against a lot of 6-6, 6-7 guys just because of how tough they are and how physical they are... You gotta have pressure on the passers, you gotta have back side help like I said it’s a team effort, but they did their job.”
“You always talk on offense about owning your space and they owned our space all night,” said Celtics coach Brad Stevens. “They were physical. They were very good.”
Lowry’s final line of 13 points, five assists and five assists probably doesn’t do his performance justice. As Casey alluded to, he pestered the Celtics on defense for most of his 32 minutes of court time. He fought through screens that erased him Tuesday night in Cleveland. Throw in two charges drawn and a 1-of-9 shooting night for Terry Rozier, and the mini-scandal he created by attending Villanova’s title game on Monday should be sufficiently wiped from memory.
“It’s not redemption,” said Lowry after the game, “it’s my job to come out here and be professional and be a leader. I didn’t make shots again tonight but I had a better effort.”
As much a part of the Raptors’ back court brilliance as Lowry and VanVleet was Wright, who was just about the only player on the court capable of any offensive dynamism with both teams lagging on the second night of a back to back. He steadily drove headlong into noted bad rim-protector Greg Monroe, scooping in eight points to pair alongside nine boards, eight assists, two steals, two blocks and a plus-19 mark while on the court. Choosing which Raptors bench hand most makes the second unit churn is fluid task, but there’s little controversy in saying the best nights for the Bench People come when Wright is offering the kind of point-of-attack creation that the rest of his reserve pals lack on a consistent basis.
And oh right, Bebe played in this game, and played freaking well. Thrust into 18 minutes of action on a night where Jonas Valanciunas struggled and Jakob Poeltl was up-and-down, Bebe did the thing where he positively impacts the game whenever he plays. He posted just six points, two boards and two steals, but his length clearly fueled the Raptors defense during his time on the floor — and he didn’t look at all out of place playing in a fast-paced small-ball look. A pair of late-game jams, one of which came off an startlingly nice dump off from a diving Serge Ibaka, helped cap the Raptors best night in weeks.
Poeltl’s lateral quickness seems to be waning of late. Whether or not Bebe’s performance on Wednesday will earn him more regular run this late in the year remains to be seen, but it has to be encouraging for Casey to know that there’s even more utility hanging out at the bottom of the league’s deepest centre depth chart.
While this win all but sealed the one seed for the Raptors — their magic number sits at 1 with games against the depressing ass Magic and Pistons coming up — there are still concerns to be analyzed. The three-point shooting has gone cold of late (please, CJ, just take a long nap or something), and there is still the pesky issue of LeBron James’ lordship over the Eastern Conference. It’s also worth noting that the injury-plagued Celtics were running out lineups that at times featured two or three create-a-players.
The way in which the Raptors picked up the win they most dearly needed, though, with attentive defense from just about everyone who played and timely, egalitarian offense, should at least put to rest any concerns of a first-round disaster.
LeBron may loom as soon as early May. And this team as it stands, having still gone just 4-5 in its last night and with one good defensive effort from that stretch, still has questions to answer.
But a lot can change in three weeks.