TORONTO – What a win for the Raptors last night. It was a tight, fun and exciting game with the surprising Boston Celtics and the Raptors came out with the win with a put-back by Amir Johnson off a Kyle Lowry miss.
With the 105-103 victory, the Raptors have clinched their first playoff berth in six years.
It was the second game of a home and home between the two teams and the Celts came ready to play in what was another nail-biter at the ACC.
Here’s ten thoughts on the game:
1) DeMar DeRozan It’s fitting that the star for the Raptors on the night they finally clinched a playoff spot was their All-Star shooting guard and the man they made their franchise player with a 4 year, $38 million deal at the beginning of the 2012-13 campaign. This season has proved just what a shrewd move that was as DeRozan has been absolutely sensational since the blockbuster Rudy Gay trade this past December. DeRozan led the way again last night pouring in 30 points for the Raptors off 40% shooting after a slow start. It was no easy task to DeMar as he had Jeff Green doing a great job defending him for stretched during last night’s game.
The key to success last night for DeRozan, as it has been throughout this season for the Raptors, was using his ball-moving skills and footwork to shed defenders and get open to take passes back. He also showed his usual fearlessness with driving to the lane, and drawing fouls. The All-Star shooting guard was in top form all night and it was the difference for the Raptors.
2) The Celtics defence Not a lot was expected from this season’s instalment of the Boston Celtics with the loss of Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and coach Doc Rivers. Although they are near the bottom of the Eastern Conference standings with an abysmal 23-49 record, there’s a lot to be hopeful about in Bean town. GM Danny Ainge has set the organization up with a ton of draft picks over the next two seasons and coach Bradley Stevens is exactly the type of mentor you want for a young, developing team.
I was a huge fan of what Stevens did for Butler. The Bulldogs were cleaning up defensive glass like few other teams in the NCAA with Stevens at the helm. He also had a tendency to switch defensive assignments and maximize favourable defensive match-ups. There were a lot of those tendencies in the Celtics last night. The Celts started on a hot run largely because their starters were able to shut down the Raptors starters.
They matched up to the Raptors perfectly, putting strong defender Jeff Green on DeMar DeRozan, Avery Bradley on Kyle Lowry, Rajon Rondo on Terrence Ross, and then letting Brandon Bass and Kris Humphries switch off on Jonas Valanciunas and Amir Johnson. Bass also came out to the wing or up to the elbow to help challenge shots. When new players came into the mix, the sets were adjusted accordingly. I liked what I saw from this squad and I truly believe that with Stevens at the helm that the Celtics can add some pieces and be back in the playoffs next season.
3) Jared/Jarryd Two players with similar names came off the bench and did a pretty good job at torching the Raptors last night.
Former Raptor Jarryd Bayless was red hot against his old team when it counted. He scored 14 of his 20 points in the 4th quarter and was a man possessed the entire final period. He battled for the ball throughout the 4th and came up with a key steal and then knocked down a three with under 5 minutes to go that looked like it was going to put the Celtics ahead for good. Bayless’ key crunch time heroics for Boston echoed those of the similarly named Jared Sullinger two nights previous in Boston.
On this night, the second year big man played a key role off the bench for the Celtics as well. He was clogging lanes, grabbing boards on both ends of the floor and making defensive match-ups difficult for the Raptors. Sullinger has been a major crunch time force for the Celtics all season. Sullinger’s skill set is highly versatile for a man of his size. For a man of 6’9”, 260 lbs to exhibit the agility and shooting range that Sullinger does is really something special to watch.
It also gives him a versatility in terms of who can defend as a couple of times he was able to come out and challenge DeRozan and Lowry, which made it difficult for them to hit shots.
Sullinger is another reason that Celtics fans should be optimistic going forward. 4. Oh god! We’re doomed! Another game, another near fatal heart attack when Kyle Lowry landed awkwardly on Avery Bradley’s foot near the end of the first half, left the game, left the bench and did not return before halftime.
All throughout the break, there was a chill in the air at the ACC as fans were convinced that the rest of the season and play-offs were a write-off and that any hopes of the Raptors going anywhere were finished if Lowry was seriously injured. Miraculously, he took the floor to start the second half and finished the game visibly hobbled on what turned out to be a badly rolled ankle. The injury, along with some great defensive play by Avery Bradley on Lowry, limited the Raptors point guard to 9 points, but he also added 5 dimes and 6 rebounds in a heroic effort considering the amount of pain he had to have been in.
But that’s been Kyle Lowry all season, playing though pain and being an absolute warrior when the Raptors need it the most. It’s another reason why the Raptors are playoff bound.
5) Terrence Ross T-Ross is always solid on the defensive end of the floor, but when he’s on offensively, the Raptors have a great chance at winning games. Such was the case on this night as Ross took advantage of a favourable match-up with Rajon Rondo to pour in 17 points.
He also added 4 boards, 3 dimes, two steals and a block. Much is often made in some circles of the second year wing’s inconsistency on offence as he can score 51 on one night and be held to single digits the next, but such critics need to remember the crucial role that Ross plays on the other end of the floor.
He’s already one of the strongest defenders on the team as his speed and agility allow him to get back quickly and he’s able to play his man tight enough that he comes up with steals and big plays as he did on this night. On a team with scorers like, DeRozan and Lowry, it’s Ross’ D that makes him invaluable.
6) Kelly Olynyk The Kamloops, BC native was one of the biggest reasons I was excited that the Celtics were coming to town. The man dubbed Neon Jesus in some circles (due to the fact that the Celts used a neon green backdrop in their player photos and also the fact that Olynyk looks like…well….Jesus) had a lot of people excited after his excellent performance in NBA Summer League.
It looked like he was ready for a big rookie campaign, and after not getting a lot of minutes in the early going of the season for Boston, he’s really started to play a key role for them. Olynyk was a force in the 4th quarter. He scored most of his 10 points in the final frame. He made a key steal that set up a Jarryd Bayless score that tied the game as well. Olynyk continues to show that he can be a key contributor for the Celtics. It also helps that off all the Celtics bigs, Olynyk seems best suited to the pick-and-pop that Stevens liked to run so much at Butler. The Olynyk-Sullinger frontcourt seems to be a great direction for the Celtics to go in for the future.
7) 2nd Unit, 1st Class On both sides of the floor, 2nd unit production was key to this match-up. I’ve already talked about how brightly the second unit shone for the Celtics in terms of the play of Jarryd Bayless, Jared Sullinger and Kelly Olynyk. The Raptors also enjoyed key contributions from their second unit. In particular, Greivis Vasquez had another stellar game, contributing 15 points, 5 dimes, 2 boards and a steal. Vasquez went 3-for-5 from downtown which is when he’s at his most dangerous offensively. He also showed off his Eurostep and his beautiful finger roll a few times throughout the game. Again, its was when Casey chose to deploy Vasquez and Lowry simultaneously that the Raptors offence really started to heat up.
I know I say it in pretty much every game write-up but I love the two point guard scheme. There’s a reason why Phoenix has enjoyed so much success with Goran Dragic and Eric Bledsoe as the “Slash Brothers”. When Casey busts out the Lowry-Vasquez duo, he’s guaranteed to generate a ton of ball movement and a ton of slashing to the basket that’s really difficult to defend. Chuck Hayes had his best game yet as a Raptor. It won’t show on the score sheet, though. Despite a line that reads 6 points, 3 boards, 2 dimes, Hayes also had three steals.
He was a force on defence, boxing out to prevent second chances, battling for loose balls and making a couple nice outlet passes. Hayes had 27 minutes and it was his solid play throughout the game that was keeping him on the floor. John Salmons also redeemed himself from some sloppy offensive play as of late by really tightening up on D. Salmons and Hayes, in fact, had the highest point swings of the game as each man was a +15 on the floor. Salmons got a solid 23 minutes on the floor and played his man well throughout. Tyler Hansbrough saw six minutes of floor time and appeared to engage in a contest with Kelly Olynyk at one point to see who could run more like a cartoon character. Hansbrough won.
8) Jeff Green Jeff Green was unquestionably the best player on the floor for the Celtics tonight in my opinion. He was the most solid defender as well as a key contributor offensively. Green chipped in 16 points, 4 rebounds, an assist, a steal and a block for the Celtics and was just all over the place on both ends of the floor. Watching Green play always carries an extra weight to it, because we’re really lucky that Jeff Green is playing at all. An aortic embolism caused him to miss the entire 2011-12 season and resulted in a surgery that’s left a massive scar on his chest. The fact that Green is playing in the NBA at all is a miracle. The fact that he is playing as well as he is, downright heroic.
9) Jonas Valanciunas – I don’t want to hear the Jonas is “soft” complaint ever again.
The Lithuanian Sensation has taken his game to another level throughout the second half of the season and he continues to battle and battle hard against opposing bigs. Tonight in particular, Jonas showed us what he was made of when he put up with some dirty tricks from Keeping Up With The Karsashians star Kris Humphries who at one point collided with Valanciunas, the two fell to the court and when Jonas was up first, Humphries pulled him back to the floor in much the same way that he tried to drag Kim Kardashian down throughout their divorce proceedings.
Valanciunas also had some hard battles with Sullinger and Olynyk down low during which he came up with the ball more often than he didn’t. I have no doubt in my mind that, only in his second year, Valanciunas will develop into one of the premiere centres in the NBA. He’s already shown uncanny progress through just this one season.
10) Rajon Rondo I was really excited to see Rondo. When any premier player comes to down, it’s hard not to want to see him. The Raptors did a very good job at guarding Rondo and limiting him to just 11 points. He was still able to move the ball around better than anyone on the floor all night, however, and chipped in 8 assists and five rebounds. Rondo is a fun player to watch because of the intensity he plays with. Like Lowry, Rondo seems to genuinely dislike his opponents and plays like he genuinely wants to beat them, and not just on the scoreboard. I like that about Rondo. As he continues to recover from ACL surgery and find his form, I hope that he stays in Boston, because Stevens and Ainge are building something really special there and Rondo could really develop into a great leader on the floor if he’s given the opportunity.
BONUS) Mascot Tease I almost had it.
When the Raptor came out in his inflatable costume and then Lucky the Celtic came out in his inflatable costume and Stripes came out in a referee uniform, I thought this was it.
The best form of half-time entertainment there is. No such luck. They had dance-off. What a tease. I was pretty bitter.
The Raptors travel to Florida to take on the Orlando Magic on Sunday night. The Celtics go back home to host the Chicago Bulls on Sunday.