Top Ten – Toronto Raptors and Oklahoma City Thunder

Toronto Raptors took on the Oklahoma City Thunder in exciting NBA action.
Toronto Raptors took on the Oklahoma City Thunder in exciting NBA action.
Toronto Raptors took on the Oklahoma City Thunder in exciting NBA action.
Toronto Raptors took on the Oklahoma City Thunder in exciting NBA action.

TORONTO – SPORTS – I have to say that last night’s contest between the Oklahoma City Thunder and the Toronto Raptors may have been the best NBA game that I’ve ever seen live. 

It was a back and forth affair that went right down to the wire filled with tight defence, contested shots, steals, blocks, quick transitions and a lot of physicality.

There were 23 lead changes and several momentum shifts, but in the end it was the Thunder who stood triumphant winning 119-118 in double OT off of Kevin Durant’s three point dagger with 1.7 seconds left in the game.

Still it was an accomplishment for the Raptors who hung in there with one of the best teams in the league right down to the wire. 

The Thunder sit at 30-18 and trail the San Antonio Spurs for Western Conference supremacy, while the Raptors fall to 38-30 as they look to stay ahead of the surging Bulls, Nets and even the Wizards for third in the East.

The Raptors had previously ended the Thunder’s home undefeated streak on December 22, handing them a rare home loss and an even rarer loss to an Eastern Conference opponent.

Now here’s ten thoughts on the contest

1) Kevin Durant The man that Jalen Rose refers to as “Iceberg Slim” proved why he warrants such a nickname. Durant in the finish was ice cold as he drained the three that put the Thunder ahead for good and deflated the crowd at the ACC. Durant was unstoppable all night. The Raptors switched defenders on him constantly and he found ways around each and every one. He was absolutely incredible able to get open, hit shots even when contested, draw fouls, drain key three pointers and do pretty much everything else a basketball player can en route to an unbelievable stat-line of 51 points, 12 boards and 7 dimes. Durant went an incredible 7 for 12 from downtown.

He’s a man playing like the best player in basketball right now and is on an incredible run of scoring at least 25 points in a game to 34 consecutive games. He’s on fire right now and it’s terrifying to think that I don’t even think he’s peaked yet. Durant is the type of player that you tell your kids and grandkids that you saw and this performance is one that I’ll be talking about for a very long time to come. As good as LeBron James is and always will be, this is Durant’s year. I think he’s the NBA’s Most Valuable Player.

2) Amir Johnson This was easily the best game that I’ve ever seen Amir Johnson play. I’ve always like Amir even when others ripped him for being a bit soft and taking ill-advised shots. Tonight all those critics were silence with a gutsy performance on both sides of the court. Johnson was all over the place on defence and he was spectacular. When he was switched onto Durant in the third quarter, he gave the NBA’s best scorer his toughest challenge of the night. Johnson finished with five blocks, three of which were on Durant and two steals.

He was battling in the paint and then rushing out to the wing to get Durant. It was one of the best defensive performances that I’ve seen from a Raptor all season in terms of how much Johnson was hustling to cover different assignments and then to focus on KD throughout the second half and two overtimes. Amir also had one of his strongest offensive performances of the night as he poured in 25 points to go along with 4 assists and 12 boards. With Patrick Patterson out and Jonas Valanciunas ailing from a sprain in his back, Johnson was leaned on heavily and lead all Raptors with 50 minutes on the floor. He had to be exhausted by the end of the game, but you’d have never known it from way he went all out, all night. Just an amazing performance by Johnson.

3) Reggie Jackson I’ve been a very big advocate of Reggie Jackson all season. The third year guard is having a breakout season and showed what he can do whenever Russell Westbrook was on the shelf. When Westbrook went down after a collision with Kyle Lowry early in the second half. Jackson took over from there and was an absolute dynamo from the point.

Beyond his 25 points, 12 boards and 3 dimes, Jackson was in the heads of Raptors defenders all night as he went right at them seemingly every time he had the ball.  Jackson in particular was a like a shark smelling blood in the water when he drove right at Jonas Valanciunas whenever he could, knowing the big man was hurting.

He showed no fear in the lanes and was also an absolute pest on defence. Despite being undersized he was able to box out, grab the ball and help the Thunder get back on transition several times.  He also seemingly came very close to seemingly willing the Thunder to a win in the fourth as he was absolutely unstoppable in the final frame of regulation time. Jackson has been a big part of the team’s success this season as I doubt they’d be still in a position of being heavily favoured to go to the finals with Westbrook hurting so much of the season without Reggie’s stellar play. Scott Brooks is truly a lucky man to have such a wealth of options at the point.

4) DeMar DeRozan: It’s easy to take for granted that you have one of the NBA’s elite scorers on your team, but then there’s those special nights where you remember just what makes them so good. Such a night occurred for DeMar DeRozan who was exceptional against the Thunder. Even though he struggled getting shots off due to tight D courtesy of the Thunder, who limited DeRozan to just 9-for-23 shooting.

DeRozan had to struggle for every look he could get and was spectacular in doing so. There were two occasions where I literally got dizzy in my seat watching him spin out of double teams. His handles were on full display last night. As was his intensity and he took contact to get to the line and put in key points for the team to keep them in it the entire game. DeRozan continued to show his defensive presence as well as he battled hard for rebounds, challenged shooters on the perimeter and came up with a couple of key steals including a key one on Durant.

DeRozan continues to show that he’s among the league’s elite and the effort he continues to put into improving on D and ball movement is a huge part of why he’s an NBA All-Star.

5) Kyle Lowry: Another game, another stellar performance by Lowry. He poured in 25 points, 8 boards and 4 assists. He went traded threes with Durant at one point in a dazzling display of two sharp shooters going toe-to-toe. It was Lowry’s clutch buzzer-beater that sent the game into OT and Lowry who played very tight defence on Russell Westbrook throughout the first half before there collision early in the third quarter. The Raptors starting point guard continues to play with an intensity that fuels the rest of this team and I hope that he gets as a big as cheque as the team can afford to keep him in town next season.

6) Russell Westbrook: It’s always scary when an elite player goes down. Watching Westbrook go down to start the second half was rough. Especially when he’s already had two knee surgeries this season alone. He’s one of the best players in the NBA and losing him hurts not only the Thunder but the league as a whole. Thankfully it looks like he won’t miss much time. Before his collision with Kyle Lowry, Westbrook was having a brilliant game as in just 19 minutes of playing time, he put up 15 points, 3 rebounds, an assist and a steal. Westbrook plays the game with great speed and intensity. Having a knee problem certainly hampers his physical style so hopefully he can recover in time for the playoffs. With Reggie Jackson also thriving, it would be great to see the Thunder be able to roll out one of my favourite options with a healthy Westbrook: the two point guard line-up.

7) Greivis Vasquez: Speaking of the two point guard line-up. The Raptors went through crunch time and most of overtime with a line-up of Greivis Vasquez, Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan, Amir Johnson and Jonas Valanciunas until a questionable offensive foul call on Vasquez ended his night in the second OT frame. I can’t stress enough how much I love the Raptors offence with both Vasquez and Lowry on the floor.

You have two guards who can move the ball and hit threes playing together. Lowry can go low because he is able to play physical while Vasquez can stay up top and move the ball or the take the three or move it to Lowry for the corner three. I get excited every time I see this combo. Vasquez had another great outing as well. He contributed 21 points, 5 rebounds and 4 assists off the bench. He also delivered his beautiful finger roll time and time again last night which is easily one of my favourite signature moves on the team.

Additionally, Vasquez brings a lot of value in terms of swinging the point differential when he’s on the floor. The Raptors were a +9 with Vasquez playing, the highest impact any player had all night on either team for points differential. As much urgency as there will be to bring back Kyle Lowry and Patrick Patterson next season, I really hope that Vasquez is in Masai Ujiri’s long-term plans as well.

8) Derek Fisher: Old and slow. That’s how Fish looked most of the night during his 35 minutes (!) of playing time. But I’ve got to hand it to the NBA’s second oldest player, he still delivers in the crunch. Two of Fisher’s 8 points came from three pointers at key minutes in the game, including one that pulled the Thunder to within two points of the Raptors in double OT, setting up Durant’s winner.  As much as age has caused the skills that Fisher once displayed with the Lakers during their championship runs to erode, it’s nice to see him still be able to contribute in key situations and look like the Fisher of old.

9) Jonas Valanciunas: What a gutsy performance by JV last night. You could tell from the stands that he wasn’t himself. He was dealing with a back sprain that had caused him to miss the previous game against New Orleans. He was a step slow and had Reggie Jackson driving right at him most of the night. Still the second year big man played an astonishing 45 minutes with a bad back. He still fought as hard as he could for rebounds. He still managed to box out Serge Ibaka at one point. How he managed to come away with 13 boards is beyond me and watching him get into position for his eight points was downright heroic. Anyone who argues that JV is too soft needs to remember this performance as a reminder of just how tough the young Lithuanian centre really is.

10) Serge Ibaka: The biggest disappointment of the night for me was with Serge Ibaka. No it wasn’t with his play. He had a decent stat line of 13 points and 5 boards and played great defence. It was the lack of blocks. Ibaka is renowned for his spectacular blocks and I didn’t get to see one. I didn’t get to claim that I downloaded the iBlocka app or make any number of puns I had planned for this piece. Oh well.

BONUS) New Haircuts: I know I’ve gone to a lot of games this season when I notice that a member of the Raptors Dance Pak has a new haircut. Great curls, Kalina. They suit you. Also, Greivis Vaquez was sporting a sick fade last night.

The Raptors next face the Atlanta Hawks on Sunday who are looking to hold on to the final playoff spot in the East.

The Thunder are off until Monday when they face the Denver Nuggets.

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Josh Kolic is a sportswriter who lives in Toronto. When he's not at the Air Canada Centre catching the Raptors or at the Rogers Centre watching the Toronto Blue Jays, you can usually find him at home following his beloved Habs or Lakers.