So... what did I miss? Oh, that's right: the Rudy Gay trade, three new player debuts, the release of DJ Augustin, three wins in four games, a road win over the Los Angeles Lakers and a returning Kobe Bryant and a gut punch loss to the Charlotte Bobcats on a Kemba Walker OT buzzer beater.
Good thing, then, I was back in time to take in last night's thrilling 109-108 Raptors' (10-14) win over Jose Calderon and the Dallas Mavericks. The road victory featured a 19-point comeback (a Raps' staple this season), a late DeMar DeRozan jumper to seal OT, some phenomenal defence by Amir Johnson on Dirk Nowitzki and a stellar defensive stand on a final Mavs' possession that seemed to scream 'game-winner'.
The Big Men
There were a number of highlights on Friday night among Toronto's '6'10"-and-over' crew. Leading the pack was Johnson, who held Nowitzki to 1-8 shooting over the game's last 17 minutes (fourth quarter and OT), including no points in the extra frame. Amir, who also contributed 15 points on 5-8 shooting and six rebounds, led the team with a +11 and now ranks fourth in NBA defensive rating among starting PF's. Beside him, Jonas Valanciunas was able to place more emphasis on the offensive end, making eight of his 13 shots for 18 points while pulling down 13 rebounds (four offensive) as his numbers continued to see a nice bump post-Gay trade. On the bench, Patrick Patterson further cemented himself as (sorry, Psycho T) the club's best back-up big, adding seven points and six rebounds in 24 minutes. Meanwhile, fellow new addition Chuck Hayes didn't exactly light it up in his 1:53 of floor time, but just getting cleared to play for the first time as a Raptor was a plus for the scrappy veteran.
Spreading it Around
It's become clear since the Gay trade that Toronto is at its best when the starting five holds some offensive balance. In the team's past four games, their only loss (against Charlotte) came with DeRozan taking 26 shots (he had taken fewer than 20 in the other three). Sure enough, Friday night brought steady production across the board, with no Raptor starter scoring more than 20 points (Kyle Lowry lead the team with 20) or less than 15 (Johnson, DeRozan and Terrence Ross all finished with that amount). Off the bench, Greivis Vasquez helped them get to 109 by contributing 14 points of his own.
Scrapping it Out
Sometimes, you just need to hold on and do just enough in order to win. On Friday, Dallas shot better (50.5% to 46.2%), had the game's top three leading scorers (Nowitzki, Calderon and Monta Ellis all scored more points than any Raptor) and executed from beyond the arc (10-21 from three-point territory). Credit the Raptors, then, for two impressive defensive stands at the end of regulation and overtime that were just enough to eke out a hard-fought win.
The Early Struggles, I Guess?
The Mavs were firing on all cylinders early on, with Nowitzki making mid-range jumpers look easy and Ellis exploit a slow-to-close Raps' D. On the other end of the court, Toronto was settling for bad jumper after bad jumper and, in doing so, being put immediately on their heels going the other way. But that feels like ancient history, considering the Raptors managed to close that 19-point deficit before the first half had even come to a close.
Am I the only one who found it weird to hear Leo Rautins criticizing Samuel Dalembert for unfulfilled potential on account of a lack of work ethic? On one hand, Rautins has every right to offer his opinion as an analyst of a game that Dalember is playing in. And yet, considering that a rift in the Rautins/Dalembert relationship is largely responsible for both men no longer being affiliated with Canada Basketball, it probably was a topic better left avoided by Rautins.
As if a road victory over Dallas wasn't satisfying enough (for Raptor fans not currently residing on the #TankNation bandwagon, anyway), the contributions among ex-Raps went about as well as could be hoped for. Calderon, the beloved former Raps fan favourite who left on as good of terms as is possible, stood out with 23 points on 8-13 shooting (including 7-10 shooting from three) and nine rebounds. On the other end of the spectrum was the still-despised Vince Carter, who missed his only field goal attempt and commited six turnovers in 17 minutes. As for Shawn Marion (14 points on 7-14 shooting)... well, no one really cares.
My extremely belated take:
The Kings' deal was evidently the best that Masai Ujiri could do in a league whose current collective mindset is to keep first round draft picks on lock (and rightfully so). And just by getting Sacramento to eat all that remains on Gay's contract was, in and of itself, a feat.
Interestingly, the deal still doesn't really show Ujiri's hand on what direction he's looking to take his team. Yes, the Raptors gave up their leading scorer and a player they had boldly acquired less than a year earlier. But the four acquired players are all serviceable NBA'ers, including a pair of youngsters in Vasquez (26) and Patterson (24) with potential upside. Not to mention that shedding the struggling Gay could well have been addition by subtraction (not than Sacramento was complaining after he posted 50 points over his first two games).
The trade enables significant flexibility this summer, with all but Hayes coming off the books after this year (Hayes could still be bought out). You have to figure that Ujiri will take a long look at Vasquez (especially if Lowry is traded) and Patterson to see if they might have anything in the two moving forward.
As it pertains to the current on-court product, the trade has already borne some fruit from the contributions of Vasquez, Patterson and John Salmons (seriously, how weird is it that Salmons is on this team?). It has also helped the progression of second-year Raps Valanciunas, who has seen his touches increase over the past five games, and Ross, who has responded well to his newfound spot in the starting five.
The Western Conference swing doesn't get easier for the Raps, as they visit Oklahoma City on Sunday to take on the unbeaten-at-home Thunder (7:00pm, TSN2).
Prediction: Thunder 110, Raps 103 (11-5 this season)