TORONTO – SPORTS – A win is a win. Even when it’s as ugly as this one was. The Toronto Raptors played one of the most uninspired first halves of basketball that I’ve ever seen from them with awful shooting, poor ball movement and really lax defence. It looked like it was going to be a rough Sunday afternoon against the Atlanta Hawks.
It was like a flashback to the days before the Rudy Gay trade when Gay was eating possessions and the team appeared deflated.
It was an especially disappointing performance coming off the heels of one of the best games of the year in Friday night’s 119-118 double OT loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder.
Thankfully the ship was straightened out in the second half as the Raptors seemingly woke up to win the game 96-86. The win was important with the Bulls hot on their heels for the coveted 3rd seed in the East. The loss was somewhat crushing for the Hawks who are trying to hang on to the final playoff spot in the East.
Now ten thoughts.
1) Fourth Quarter time: Once again it was the Raptors pulling away from a team in the fourth quarter to come from behind and squeak out a win. After trailing most of the game to the Hawks, they went on a tear in the final frame, outscoring Atlanta 36-15 in the final frame. This wasn’t a huge surprise as the Raptors are the best fourth quarter team in the NBA with an 18.2 points differential in the last quarter. Comparatively, they are 10th in first quarter differential, 24th in second quarters, and sixth in the third frame.
They are the strongest finishing team in the league as long as they haven’t dug themselves in two deep a whole over the first three quarters. Thankfully, their biggest deficit against the Hawks was 14 points which wasn’t insurmountable. This was the Raptors 10th win of the season when trailing heading into the fourth quarter.
Speaking of the Hawks, this was the second consecutive game that they lost after leading through the first three frames. They had dropped a 111-105 decision to the New Orleans Pelicans after allowing 42 points in the fourth quarter. On Sunday, the Hawks looked lost in the fourth as well after controlling the first three quarters. They shot an ugly 27% including 1-for-10 from downtown. Conversely the Raptors shot 60% in the fourth, going 4-for-6 from three point range.
2) DeMarre Caroll: I really didn’t know a whole lot about the 27 year old forward heading into this one. Then he totally torched the Raptors in the 1st quarter, dropping 12 of his 17 in the opening frame. He cut and slashed through the lane at will before the Raptors woke up later in the game. Carroll’s a journeyman who sort of embodies where the Hawks are at this season. Without Al Horford, the team was expected to free fall out of a playoff spot. Instead, they’ve battled all season to hang on and guys like DeMarre Carroll have been a big reason why Atlanta is still alive in the East.
3) Tyler Hansbrough/Chuck Hayes: With Jonas Valanciunas ailing and Patrick Patterson still on the shelf, we’re starting to see a lot more of these two on the floor.
As entertaining as they are, the Raptors need Patterson back in the worst way. Now I like Tyler Hansbrough, he loves to crash and bang for offensive boards. He’s an intense player, just look at his ridiculous facial expressions on the floor. Maybe too intense as he draws a lot of fouls and just seems to get under the opposing team’s skin at every opportunity. It’s also sort of distracting to watch him run. Next time the Raptors play, watch Tyler Hansbrough run, it’s like a cartoon character. He’s a solid bench player, but he can’t take the Patterson role, not even in platoon with Chuck Hayes. I like Chuck Hayes as well,he plays solid D is a able to grab boards and has decent footwork. What I like most about Chuck Hayes is that he looks and plays like he just walked out of a time machine from 1986.
It’s unbelievable the baldness, the facial hair, the blocky build and even the way he posts up are straight out of the 80s. Even his name – Chuck Hayes – seems right out of 80s NBA lore. I could picture him on an 80s Knicks team for sure. But he’s been solid off the bench for the Raptors in increased minutes since Patterson went down.
4) Amir Johnson: Speaking of injuries, a terrifying moment for the team occurred late in the game when Amir Johnson went down after colliding with Shelvin Mack. He was writhing on the floor clutching his knee and an audible gasp could be heard from all over the ACC as thoughts of how screwed the team would be without Amir ran through everyone’s head.
Thankfully he finished the game and looks to be good to go for the next one, but the team needs Amir now more than ever. He’s been one of the most important components of the Raptors success this season. Even with his offensive stat line isn’t all that impressive, he’s hustling back and makings stops and big plays on D. Certainly that was the case Sunday afternoon as 6 points, 8 boards and an assist don’t seem that impressive unless you were watching the game to witness his three steals, key block, or him challenging shots all over the floor.
5) Jeff Teague: The debate over who the best point guard in the Eastern Conference has been this season often stops at John Wall of the Washington Wizards and Kyle Lowry. It shouldn’t. Teague has been absolutely sensational this season for the Hawks and displayed a dazzling array of skills on Sunday afternoon against the Raptors. His speed and footwork and decision making skills in transition are phenomenal. His ability drive in and shake the defender were a pleasure to watch.
Teague is a dynamo for the Hawks and much like Lowry should have been selected to the Eastern Conference all-star team. I was hoping for more of a show-down between the two, but the Raptors not showing up until the second half and the Hawks poor performance in the fourth sort of negated any showdown. There was a nice sequence in the game where Teague and Lowry traded threes, but I was really hoping for more of that throughout the whole game.
6) Paul Millsap: Going into the game, Millsap was the Hawks player that I was most excited to seeing in person. He’s been playing out of his mind all season and really is everything you want a power forward to be and more. Here’s a player who knows his skillset when shooting and doesn’t veer far from it. Watching Millsap get open for shots and look for a high percentage opportunity was a pleasure. It was also amazing to watch the ease with which he was able to pull down boards simply by using superior positioning. Fundamentals. Millsaps’s got them down. He’s also a solid defender, able to stymie opponents with his long arms and superior footwork.
Millsap really is one of the best big men in the league right now and you don’t hear enough about him because he’s playing for the Hawks. Watching Teague and Millsap play makes Al Horford being done for the year even more tragic as the Hawks could have been something really special with a “big 3” like that leading the way.
7) Jonas Valanciunas: What a game for the Lithuanian Sensation. A nice 13 and 13 for the double-double. What’s great about the evolution of Jonas’ game is how fearless and controlled he now looks battling for offensive boards. He’s able to draw so many more fouls as the season progresses just by going in for the board. Watching Jonas continue to add tools to his skill-set and develop into a very good centre has been one of the best storylines of the season. The poise he’s playing with now wasn’t there at the beginning of the year, but the work he’s put in has paid off. Jonas Valanciunas is absolutely becoming a big man I would trust in a playoff battle against the Nets, Bulls or Wizards and that’s not something that I would have said in December. The fact that he’s working as hard as he is on the court with an ailing back makes it all the more remarkable and tells me that JV is ready for playoff basketball.
8) Macedonia!: I think my favourite part of living in Toronto (besides the sports) is the ethnic and cultural diversity that you’re exposed to on a daily basis. I love it. At the game on Sunday afternoon, there was a large contingent of fans sporting Macedonian shirts and carrying flags in honour of the Hawks centre Pero Antic. The Haws big man was getting more cheers than some of the Raptors. Particularly in the early goings of the game. Pero Antic finished with a stat line of 4 points (including an awful 1-for-6 from the field), 10 boards and 3 dimes, but to the Macedonian contingent he was the best player on the floor for the Hawks. In a classy gesture, Atlanta gave Antic the last shot of the game – which he missed. It didn’t matter to his fans who cheered him like he hit the game winner. I love Toronto.
9) Elton Brand: Keep getting them cheques Elton! Brand somehow still surfaces on a team when you least expect it and still contributes on both sides of the court. When I was a kid, Elton Brand was one of the most highly touted prospects in the league coming out of Duke to break in with the Bulls. Now here he is playing the savvy veteran role. Giving 22 minutes off the bench and contributing 7 points, 4 boards, 2 assists and a steal. Watching Brand go to work as a veteran was really interesting as it appeared as though he wasn’t putting in a whole lot of effort, but he just knew where to be. It really was watching a guy who’s done this a thousand times before because he has. Even the tug-of-war with Steve Novak that led to a jump ball seemed like old hat to Brand. It’s always interesting to watch the veterans play when they come to town and Brand was no exception.
10) Brothers-In-Arms: Watching DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry embrace at the end of this game was fitting. They really won it in the fourth for the Raptors. They combined for 46 points in the game, 23 of which game in the 4th alone. This included a stretch where Lowry scored 7 consecutive points in the final minute of the game. The backcourt of Lowry and DeRozan is what drives the Raptors offence. They are the team’s two best players and they make each other better. When they struggle, the team struggles as evidences by Sunday afternoon’s ugly first half, but when they’re on, there are few backcourts in the league better than this duo this season. It really is something to watch how in-synch they’ve become.
There was a sequence in the fourth where they took turns setting each other up for three pointers and you really got the sense of just how much of a duo these two have become. Watching them hugging out at the end of the game was really fitting as each man is having his best season and the team has exceeded all expectations. It was also a little bittersweet as Lowry is an impending free agent and the urgency to get him signed only increases – especially as the play-offs near.
How far this team has come.
In December, there was talk of trading Lowry in a rebuilding effort, now the Raptors are a playoff team and he’s one of the top point guards in the East and he and DeMar DeRozan are the undisputed leaders of this squad. Keep this duo together, MLSE. BONUS) The Raptor came back.
The team’s mascot had been out since rupturing his Achilles tendon last fall. It was good to see him out there entertaining the fans again and doing his famous cheerleader-eating routine.
There was one problem. Stripes, the replacement mascot, is still lurking around and doing his thing as well. There can’t be two mascots. That just isn’t right. It’s not the way things are done. I demand a mascot fight.
The Raptors are next in action on Tuesday night in Cleveland against the Cavaliers while the Hawks square off against the Phoenix Suns tonight in Atlanta.