A capacity Air Canada Centre crowd got to see first-hand what all the fuss is about with the red hot Toronto Raptors (18-17), who celebrated the club's 'Drake Night' with a resounding 96-80 victory over their Atlantic division rivals, the Brooklyn Nets.
In front of the titular superstar rapper / Global Ambassador, the Raps trailed by 10 about halfway through the third quarter before digging in and reeling off a 18-4 run through the remainder of the quarter. Taking advantage of a clearly fatigued Nets' side who were fresh off a double-OT win vs. Miami, Toronto maintained a high energy level through a 28-16 fourth quarter, thereby ending the game on a 46-20 run over the final 17 minutes.
DeMar DeRozan led the scoring charge for the Raptors with 26 points on 9-18 shooting, but it was Patrick Patterson who really opened some eyes on Saturday with 14 points, 12 rebounds and a whopping +40. Conversely, no Net had more than Paul Pierce's underwhelming 15 points as Kevin Garnett rested, Deron Williams nursed a sore ankle and lesser players like Mason Plumlee and Mirza Teletovic got bigger roles.
So how does one post a +40 plus/minus, particularly in a game that the Raps only won by 16 points? Patterson was active at both ends of the floor, pulling down seven defensive rebounds and securing three steals on the defensive end, while grabbing five offensive rebounds and even hitting a trey en route to 14 points on 5-12 shooting on offence. In a less-than-stellar showing from the starting front line of Amir Johnson and Jonas Valanciunas (11 pts on 3-15 shooting, 13 rebounds), Patterson successfully exploited a Nets front court that featured the raw Mason Plumlee and the inconsistent Andray Blatche.
With the bigs (aside from Patterson) struggling, Toronto got some help on the wings vs. Brooklyn. You knew DeRozan would be right there among the offensive statistical leaders (he actually outscored all other players by at least 11 points), but it was key contributions from Terrence Ross and John Salmons that helped keep the offence potent. Thanks to Ross' three-point prowess (3-8 from long range) and Salmons' perfect 5-5 shooting night, the trio finished with 53 points on 18-33 shooting (7-12 on three's).
It's All About Drake
As the seconds were ticking down on an emphatic win in an important home game for the Raptors, the camera didn't zone in on DeRozan, Patterson or Salmons; it was focused firmly on Drake. I'm all for whatever fringe benefits the club's association with Drizzy might bring (there were clearly a significant number of fans who came out on Saturday night because of the over-arching theme). But the Raptor players (and, to an extent, Dwane Casey) were responsible for the triumph over the Nets, not the OVO king.
There was no shortage of random on this night, from a melee over the long-sleeved tee's being given away upon entry (which are now going for big bucks online) to the swarm of people flocking over to 113/114 to see a halftime performance by DJ Future the Prince (and snap a shot of Drake, who was standing beside him). Drake merits some credit, mind you, for what was a capacity crowd that was never louder than when their local hero was on hand to read out the Raptor player intro's before the game.
Oh, and one more statistical note: Toronto has now won six in-division games this season. They won five over the entire 2012-13 campaign!
I'm buying Brooklyn Nets' stock in a big way right now. Sure, starting centre Brook Lopez is gone for the season, but the club received a $5.25 million injury exception that could help shore up the front court. In the meantime, the team has found some of the firepower that was expected of them going into the season, arriving in Toronto riding a five-game win streak that included wins over the Oklahoma City Thunder, Golden State Warriors and Miami Heat. With the Atlantic division still very much for the taking (sorry, Raps fans), a potential second half run with a healthy Deron Williams, a still-relatively-fresh Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett and a potential piece to add (Andrew Bynum?) is still very much in play.
The Raps are hoping to avoid a letdown game against the league-worst Milwaukee Bucks tonight (7:00pm, TSN) at home. The good news: they've won nine in a row vs. sub-.500 opponents.
Prediction: Raps 104, Bucks 91 (20-7 this season)