On interesting test that few have mentioned that will face the Toronto Raptors (18-6) this season is finding internal motivation to still play to peak effort as they slog through some pretty uninspiring stretches of games. While the Raps’ top spot in the East is currently being challenged by the Washington Wizards (they are half a game back), their Atlantic lead is at seven games and their chief division rival is reportedly mulling a fire sale. Then you have a series of ‘should-win’ games against weak Eastern clubs that seem to already be looking to the future.
Which brings us to the two-game stretch from this past weekend where Toronto routed the Indiana Pacers 106-94 at home before needed overtime to outlast the New York Knicks in a shaky 95-90 affair at MSG. The end result was the same in both contests, but the Knicks nail-biter offered a lesson about not performing to your potential against any club, regardless of their record.
On Friday night, Lou Williams continued to pad his “Sixth Man of the Year” resume with a game-best 26 points to lead a 64-point bench effort against the Pacers. The Raps took an 11-point lead into the half and never really lost control. The Pacers narrowed the deficit to six points early in the fourth before Greivis Vasquez helped engineer a 9-0 run to put the game away for good.
In New York on Sunday night, things didn’t go quite as smoothly. A sloppy, foul- and turnover-plagued performance was salvaged by a standout defensive effort in which Toronto held the Knicks to just two field goals over the game’s final 7:53 (including overtime). Terrence Ross led the Raps with 22 points, but it was Kyle Lowry who took charge in the extra frame with four points and an assist on the game-deciding Amir Johnson lay-up.
It may have been the Lou Show on Friday night, but he certainly had some second unit help along the way. His 26 points on 9-18 shooting (including 5-7 from beyond the arc) was supported by double digit scoring performances by three fellow back-ups – James Johnson (13 points on 6-9 shooting, +17), Patrick Patterson (11 points on 3-7 shooting, eight rebounds) and Greivis Vasquez (10 points on 4-13 shooting, four assists). Strangely, only Jonas Valanciunas (10 points) reached double digits among the starting five. On Sunday, Williams and Patterson combined for 28 of the bench’s 38 points, an effort that comfortably outscored the Knicks reserves’ 13-point effort.
The defensive calling card is back
After allowing 100+ points in nine consecutive games, the Raps spent the weekend getting back to the defence-first game plan that Dwane Casey preaches. In holding the Pacers and Knicks to 94 and 90 points, respectively, they pestered opposing scorers into 39.2% shooting (62-158) over the two games. At the forefront of the defensive effort were James Johnson, who forced Carmelo Anthony into 13 misses and a -4 even as he scored 34 points on Sunday, and Landry Fields, who offered value in the two-guard starting role against Indy’s Rodney Stuckey and NY’s Tim Hardaway Jr. despite scant offensive production. The Raps are now 10-0 when holding their opponent under 100 points. The defensive execution may be partially credited to playing two of the league’s four worst offensive clubs, but hey, it’s a start.
Turnovers and rebounds
Basketball, in its simplest form, is a game based off of two possible outcomes on either end of the floor. A team either scores or misses on offence and, inversely, either forces a missed shot or surrenders a basket. Of course, there are ways to circumvent those outcomes on either end, such as getting an offensive rebound of your team’s own missed shot or forcing a turnover on ‘D’. These were areas of difficulty for the Raptors against the Knicks, as they committed 24 turnovers and allowed 12 offensive rebounds, including four second chance opportunities in overtime and another four in the final six minutes of the fourth quarter. The Knicks were also allowed to get to the line 28 times (they made 23 free throws), compared to just 18 attempts by Toronto (they made 14).
Even though there’s still “no timetable for his return”, it’s nice to see DeMar DeRozan keeping active and engaged while on the sidelines.
The Pacers are 7-17, the Knicks are 5-21 – and there’s no end in sight to the struggles of either club. Indy isn’t close to getting Paul George back and there isn’t another player on the roster who can take charge and make a difference. Meanwhile, New York is a highly public mess. New York should emerge with a better record at season’s end based on a more talented roster and the return from injury of Andrea Bargnani, JR Smith and Iman Shumpert, but the Pacers are still playing hard as a unit and, unlike the Knicks, haven’t come completely unglued.
The soft spot in the schedule continues as the 10-16 Orlando Magic come to town tonight (7:30pm, TSN2).
Prediction: Raps 111, Magic 103 (record this season: 18-4)