TORONTO – SPORTS – The Raptors 107-103 win over the Houston Rockets was one of their most impressive of the season. In knocking off Houston, the Raptors beat a team that currently sits at 4th in the powerhouse Western Conference and is favoured by many to go on a deep playoff run. Toronto didn’t just hang with the Rockets; they looked dominant at times during the game. This performance was also especially impressive because of who wasn’t in the line-up for the Raptors: DeMar DeRozan and Amir Johnson who hurt his ankle three minutes into the game. The fact that the Raptors could outpace one of the top teams in the West missing two of their key starters bodes very well for the squad with the playoffs around the corner.
Here’s the ten
1) To absent friends: As mentioned before, the Raptors were dealing with key injuries against the Rockets on Wednesday night. I’ll admit that I didn’t give them much of a chance without Kyle Lowry, who has been arguably the most important player on the team this season. Lowry has been a force averaging a career high 17.4 points, 7.6 assists and 6.8 rebounds this year while playing with a ferocity and tenacity that I don’t think has ever been seen on this squad.
His knee injury really couldn’t have come at a worse time for the team who are jockeying for positioning in the tight middle of the Eastern Conference. The Raptors point guard has been a total warrior and the on court leader for this team. Without the fire that he often brings out in his teammates, I didn’t believe the Raptors could beat the Rockets. I was wrong. It was also terrifying for the team when Amir Johnson was removed just three minutes into the contest due to an ankle injury. Johnson has been stellar for the team all season. Particularly on defense as of late where he’s really stepped up his game and made some key stops for the team and been able to challenge other squads premiere scorers.
Amir’s been there to contest shots, grab boards and play tight D in key situations. Losing him definitely looked to be disastrous against the Rockets. I was wrong. Houston was also missing a key piece of their team in the form of Dwight Howard. On a personal level, this news disappointed me because I was very much looking forward to booing Dwight as I still haven’t gotten over the ultimatum he gave the Lakers to amnesty Kobe Bryant. From a basketball perspective, Howard can still be one of the best big men in the league and it is unfortunate for the Rockets and spectators alike when he’s not in the game. However, it does help that another big man whose game I absolutely love got the nod at centre for the Rockets.
2) Omar Asik: I’ve always been a big fan of Asik’s game and really hope he lands with a team that will use him to his fullest potential next season. He’s spent most of this one stuck behind Dwight Howard which isn’t really fair to the Turkish big man as he has the type of skill-set that you want your starting centre to have.
It was a skill-set that was very much on display Wednesday night as Asik grabbed 15 boards against the Raptors and absolutely controlled the paint. 13 of those were defensive boards which prevented second chance opportunities for the Raptors. When he wasn’t grabbing the boards, the Turkish giant was using his size to box guys out so another Rocket could grab the rebound. Asik is a smart, smart big man with a great game. He was absolutely dominant on the boards Wednesday night.
3) Greivis Vasquez: Vasquez stepped into the starting PG role on Wednesday night and was absolutely stellar. He poured in 15 points, 8 dimes, 4 boards and a steal. He was tight defending his position all night and was an absolute dynamo on the floor over his 40 minutes of playing time. There were a lot of questions of just how the team was going to win without Kyle Lowry and Vasquez was the answer to a lot of them. He is a very different kind of point guard than Lowry but can be every bit as effective in his own. In particular, Vasquez is very good at moving the ball. His passes are often pretty dynamic and have a nice flavour to them as he’s not afraid to use short bounce passes to get inside. He also has a nice pick-and-roll game which he was able to run with Jonas Valanciunas a few times on Wednesday.
My favourite aspect of Vasquez’s game is his footwork. He’s very agile when cutting or slashing in the lane and is able to drive to the hoop because of superior footwork. Additionally, he’s able to evade defenders and get open looks outside, which allowed him to go 4-for-7 from three point range on Wednesday night.
4) James Harden: James Harden is a true superstar in the NBA. He’s easily one of the ten best players in the league and a total joy to watch in action. If you disagree with those statements, you probably haven’t seen him in action. Harden’s 26 points, 4 dimes, 6 boards and 2 steals led the way for the Rockets on Wednesday, but beyond the numbers watching the Beard’s cuts, slashes, and Eurosteps were to watch a student of the game of basketball who patterns his game after Manu Ginobli amongst others. Terrence Ross is amongst the Raptors best young defenders and Harden shed him like it was nothing. He’s also got great court sense with an ability to distribute to teammates. One of the most dazzling plays of the night was Harden throwing up an alley-oop between two defenders to Chandler Parsons. It’s the sort of play that only an elite few in the NBA would have had the vision to make and Harden is one of those players.
I know it’s often documented by Bill Simmons and other basketball commentators but why any team would ever trade James Harden is beyond me. Oklahoma’s stupidity is the Houston Rockets’ gain.
5) Patrick Patterson: Patterson returned for the Raptors on Monday night in Miami and it was great to see him back at the ACC after being sidelined for nearly a month with an elbow injury. Patterson looked a bit pained in his 26 minutes of action, but he was still in the mix fighting for rebounds and going for loose balls with his injured right arm heavily wrapped up. Patterson’s stat line of 8 points, 2 boards, an assist, a steal and a block doesn’t quite tell the tale of just how much of an impact he had on the court. With Amir Johnson out, Patterson filled into his role of challenging shots on the perimeter as well as playing tough down low. He was all over the place while on the court and really gave a gutty performance on defense given the amount of pain he looked to be in. Patterson is the type of guy who helps your team in so many intangible ways and I hope he’s in a Raptors uniform for a long time to come.
6) Jeremy Lin: The reception for Jeremy Lin is amongst the warmest that I’ve ever seen for a visiting player at the ACC. I often only see a lot of the other team’s jerseys for teams like Miami or the Lakers but on Wednesday night there were a whole bunch of Jeremy Lin Rockets jerseys throughout the arena. Lin was cheered and cheered loudly.
I think that he fed off the energy of the friendly crowd at the ACC as he gave a great performance throughout the game as he put up 16 points, 7 assists and a rebound. At one point Lin had the most spectacular play of the night when jacked-up an alley oop to Chandler Parsons while standing at the top of the opposite three point line, which meant he basically threw the ball 3/4 of the court to the net. It was impressive.
Lin also played some quality defence, an aspect of his game which has always been viewed as a weakness. He came up with two steals in key situations and stuck tight to his man. Another aspect of his game that Lin has seen criticism for throughout his career has been his turnovers. They weren’t an issue for him on Wednesday as he only had two throughout the contest. When Lin is on, he really is a gifted player, however an interesting side note is that both Kyle Lowry and Goran Dragic were jettisoned from the Rockets to make room for Lin. As good as he looked in Wednesday’s contest, given the play of Lowry and Dragic this season, that looks like a miscue on the part of the Rockets.
7) DeMar DeRozan: The Raptors all-star was once again dominant on Wednesday night. He scored a game high 29 points and 4 assists, 6 boards and a couple of steals. He was absolutely spectacular on Wednesday as he went 10-for-19 from he field and continues to show new elements to his game seemingly every time he steps to the court. What amazed me on Wednesday was DeRozan’s ability to evade defenders. He was shedding his assignments through hard work, pump fakes, head fakes and good dribbling. DeRozan also continues to display a increased proficiency with moving the ball. This element of his game has been key to the Raptors being able to cash in on possessions and come ahead in tight games.
Any doubt that DeMar DeRozan belongs in the NBA elite was erased on Wednesday night as he kept the pace with James Harden, arguably the best two guard in the league right now. I’d even argue that on that night, DeRozan’s star shone brighter. His play has been outstanding this season.
8) Chandler Parsons: Every so often a player will come to town and blow me away with how good he is. Chandler Parsons was that guy on Wednesday. Exploding for 20 points, 7 boards, 3 dimes and a couple of steals, Parsons really had me in a daze for most of the game. In particular, during the early goings when Houston jumped out to a 12 point lead and Parsons was on the receiving end of dynamite alley oops and crisp passes that resulted in dunks. There were times during the game where he penetrated the inside before any defenders were aware of how open he was. Parsons is a smart player and a fun one to watch.
He’s a a capable ball mover as well and when Lin, Harden and Parsons were on the court, a dazzling display of uptempo ball movement and passing resulted in points for the Rockets. Houston is one of the most fun passing teams that I’ve seen all season and Parsons plays a huge part in that.
9) Terrence Ross: When T-Ross is on, he’s on and on Wednesday he had it on both sides of the floor. Ross was his usual self on defence as he was matched up with James Harden for much of the night and really did a great job on him when you consider that Ross is only in his second year in the NBA and that Harden is one of the best players in the league. Ross also continued to show off his rebounding skills as he grabbed nine rebounds, all on the defensive side of the floor. Ross is easily one of the best defenders on the Raptors. A lot of folks get caught up on his offensive play because when he’s hot, he’s got the ability to put up 51 points. However, even on his more quiet nights offensively, T-Ross still brings so much to the team in terms of the tight, aggressive and energetic defence he deploys on opponents.
Ross did have a nice offensive night though as he put up 14 points including a couple of explosive dunks, which is how he made his name in the first place.
10) Lithuanian Sensations: First off, if you’re not on the Jonas Valanciunas bandwagon, get on it. In only his second year in the league, JV is becoming a great big for the Raptors. Battling hard for 30 minutes, with his back condition continuing to bother him and the immensely talented Omar Asik to go against, Valanciunas toughed it out and came up with 15 points, 6 boards, an assist, a steal and a big block.
The early complaints of Jonas being “soft” or pushed around in the paint are a thing of the past as he continues to battle and battle hard down low. The progression of Jonas Valanciunas bodes very well for the Raptors going forward as this is a young man who can and will form the core of this team for years to come. Every criticism of JV is becoming obsolete with time. On the other end of the floor, another product of Lithuania, Donatas Motiejunas, also a second year big man was also very impressive. He’s got a forward’s game in a centre’s body with great handles and execution.
I didn’t know a lot about him before Wednesday, but he’s a guy that I’ll keep an eye on going forward as he has the potential to develop into a very special player in the league. He’s extremely agile for a big man and moves very well while ball handling.
He also put up 13 points in 23 minutes going 6-for-11 from the field and adding 5 boards and an assist. If he can tighten up his defence and not draw so many fouls, Donatas has a very bright future in the NBA.
BONUS: I have never in my life seen a guy flop as much or as consistently in a game as Isaiah Canaan did for Houston on Wednesday.
DOUBLE BONUS: It’s always very cool to see the legends of the past still involved in the game. Seeing Celtics great Kevin McHale in town as coach of the Rockets could only make longtime basketball fans happy. It was really nice to see him get a healthy round of applause from the ACC faithful.
The Raptors take the floor again tonight against the Indiana Pacers, while the Rockets return home to host the Oklahoma City Thunder.