It’s been a while since we’ve been treated to regular Sunday afternoon basketball games in Toronto. Back in olden times, the Raptors would quite frequently play at that time, often tipping off games as early as 12:30pm. This is great for, say, hyperactive kids, but not always the best for nightowl professional athletes on a weekend in a major metropolis. Case in point: after tipping off at 3:30pm today — a Sunday — the visiting Mavericks missed their first 11 shots against the Raptors, committed five turnovers, and fell behind 11-1 early. This after almost six minutes of action.
Unfortunately, the Raptors were also playing on Sunday afternoon, and looked to be easing themselves into the evening — and right out of the game. Despite Dallas’ seemingly hungover start, and the absence of their lodestar Luka Doncic, the Mavs managed to start hitting shots and take control of the game in the second quarter. For the third frame, they continued to roll right over the injury-ravaged Raptors, eventually pumping their lead to 30 points with just over two minutes left, and the fourth quarter waiting to be played. Ah well, Toronto losing is part of that old Sunday afternoon tradition too.
The funny thing about grand NBA comebacks though is that they can often start in the most inauspicious ways. Right after the Mavs restored their 30-point stranglehold on the game, the Raptors’ leader, Kyle Lowry, drilled a three; Toronto’s Chris Boucher and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson then hit 5-of-6 free throws (against one from the Mavs’ Dwight Powell) and the lead rested at 23. The buzzer sounded, the Raptors regrouped, and, to be quite honest, the conclusion seemed foregone. Twelve minutes to go with this limited Toronto squad on a Sunday afternoon? No way.
Welp, an ugly one but at least it's over. Raptors lose to the Mavericks 86-63. Real throwback score there with--wait what?— Raptors HQ (@RaptorsHQ) December 22, 2019
Except to Lowry, it was very much yes way. Led by his 20 points on 7-of-10 shooting in the fourth, the greatest Raptor of all time got his team not only back into the game, but on top. On the afternoon, Lowry finished with 32 points, ten assists (including the game clincher, and against just one turnover), and eight rebounds in 41.5 minutes to secure the 110-107 win over Dallas. It was a masterpiece of a performance.
“That’s what I do every night,” said Lowry. “I’m just gonna go out there and do my job the hardest I can. If coach would’ve pulled me, he would’ve pulled me, but until then I’m gonna play as hard as possible.” Yes, after being down by 30 points with 14 minutes left, the Raptors completed their biggest comeback in franchise history on the Mavericks. A rarer sight than even some Sunday afternoon basketball in Toronto.
For the most part, the problems the Raptors faced in this game were due to a lack of personnel and a deficit of energy. Minus the playmaking ability of Pascal Siakam, the ball-moving skills of Marc Gasol, and Norman Powell’s scoring punch, the Raptors had to rely almost exclusively on Lowry and Fred VanVleet to put the ball in the net. Through three quarters, Toronto had a combined 22 points from their lead guards, and nowhere near enough from anyone else on the roster. The other starters — Patrick McCaw, Serge Ibaka, and OG Anunoby — had a combined 20 points on 9-of-25 shooting. For all the good they brought (McCaw hit a pair of threes, for example), there was also the bad (Ibaka somehow boning two dunks). Coupled with a lack of crispness on defense, it looked dire for the Raps.
Meanwhile, Toronto’s bench unit remains thin. To start the fourth, the Raptors opened with Lowry, plus Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Chris Boucher, Terence Davis, and Malcolm Miller — and also ran a full-court press. While it would have perhaps been defensible to call it a night knowing the team has to play tomorrow night in Indiana, the Raptors gamely pushed on. There’s no garbage time or rest to be had anyway when the roster only has ten healthy bodies. Someone on Toronto had to play and the only thing the squad had to lose was the game. And again, we remember that funny thing about NBA comebacks: they can just get rolling out of nowhere.
Suddenly alive with energy, Toronto’s press on the Mavericks worked. In lieu of Doncic’s on-ball mastery, Dallas had relied on a more egalitarian approach to break the Raptors. With each one of their starters cracking double-digits in points, the idea worked — for a time. But when Lowry decided he was going to win the game for Toronto, there was nothing Dallas could do on either end of the floor to stop him. Lowry managed the press, with Hollis-Jefferson and Boucher flying everywhere on the court, and he also scored at will from all over — down the lane, zigzagging back and forth, even a classic pull-up three in transition. When the Mavs tried trapping Lowry, he was still able to make plays. He, along with Boucher and RHJ, played all 12 miuntes of the fourth, literally willing the team to come up with every loose ball and hit every shot. It was — or should have been — an impossible turn of events.
Along with Lowry’s 20-piece, Boucher had 12 plus the game-winning dunk to finish with 21 points, seven rebounds, and four blocks; Terence Davis, meanwhile, chipped in nine, including a pair of 3s and three FTs (he did it with a cold too, by the way); and Rondae muscled in six of his 18 to help Toronto go all the way. For the unit, only Miller had to check out after missing all his shots; Fred VanVleet ran the final minute and a half to keep the Raptors’ spacing open (though he himself only shot 2-of-13 for the afternoon). As the minutes ticked by, Dallas’ lead just continued to shrink — 18, then 15, then 10, until it felt like Lowry was calling his shot and straight-up having a ball.
Finally, the Mavericks had possession, down one, with 18.9 second left, and the Raptors made one more defensive stand. The team pressured Jalen Brunson into a long jumper that hit front iron, Boucher skied in for the rebound, hit the two subsequent free throws, and that was the game. It feels surreal to type those words out — even as it feels semi-ridiculous to get this up for a random pre-Christmas regular season game, one the Raptors almost certainly should have lost in a different circumstance. It’s the kind of experience Toronto sports fans have had happen to them rather than the other way around.
Ah, but I forgot one other particularly potent Raptors tradition, one that has hung around these last few years, a feeling that has permeated the team regardless of its roster makeup (and even before they won the 2019 NBA championship).
“Historically I would say we’ve always been a team that fights,” said coach Nick Nurse afterwards. “We hardly ever mail it in. Thats a good quality to have.”