Many NBA observers would scoff at the notion of attaching much significance to Monday's clash between the two teams jostling for the top spot in the Atlantic (the scoffing would come as a result of their collective sub-.500 record. But try telling that to Kyle Lowry and the Toronto Raptors (23-21), who gutted out an unlikely 104-103 road win in the dying seconds over the surging Brooklyn Nets.
With DeMar DeRozan out day-to-day after rolling his ankle against the Clippers, Lowry was the engine for the Raptors, serving as the offensive leader, floor general and the heart of the team. Leading the team with 31 points on 10-18 shooting, he also filled the stat sheet with seven rebounds, five assists and five steals. He engineered two of the game's biggest eye-popping plays - a steal and fall-away three-point combination and a buzzer-beating half court prayer heading into the half - and got his seventh assist on the game-winning one.
Speaking of that game-winning play... Brooklyn appeared to be on their way to a narrow victory with a late three-point lead thanks to some clutch play by Paul Pierce (he scored 12 of his season-high 33 points in the final 4:37). However, after a John Salmons lay-up, Patrick Patterson stole Deron Williams' inbound attempt, dished off to Lowry who then fed back to Patterson for an open go-ahead 10-footer with six seconds remaining. With no timeouts left for the Nets, Pierce was left to quickly dribble the length of the court and put up a long distance prayer that fell well short.
In the latter stages of what was a hotly contested game that featured 18 lead changes, it seemed as though Brooklyn would run away with it on the strength of a red hot Pierce and his trio of three's in a two-minute span. But the under-manned Raps assumed the feisty toughness of Lowry and refused to go away. In fact, the Patterson go-ahead jumper came after Lowry had already been called for a charge that should have rightfully given him two free throw attempts and a chance to take the lead with 20 seconds remaining. All told, the late game play was a substantial upgrade from Saturday's fourth quarter fade against Los Angeles.
Finding a Way
With DeRozan and his 21.8 points per game out, Toronto was going to need to find alternate ways of putting points on the board. Patterson (15 points on 6-11 shooting) and Jonas Valanciunas (20 points on 9-14 shooting, 13 rebounds) certainly did their part, but the primary credit goes to a collective aggression that enabled the Raps to depend less on some unreliable shooters. Even without DeRo's free throw prowess, the club scored 21 points (on 26 attempts) from the charity stripe, led by Lowry's 7-8 performance. They also got a good chunk of their scoring from in close, managing 48 points in the paint, including eight of their final 10 points.
Big Shoes to Fill
Toronto knew there wouldn't be one guy who could step in and give the team exactly what DeRozan offered them. But still, more should be expected out of whoever fills DeRozan's spot in the lineup than the 0 points on 0-5 shooting in almost 22 minutes that Steve Novak gave the club vs. Brooklyn.
You've probably already seen the stat, but still, it's pretty crazy: The Nets are 0-2 against the Raptors in 2014 and 10-0 against the rest of the NBA.
Ironic that while Jay-Z was performing in front of a capacity crowd at the Air Canada Centre, the Raptors were battling in the House That Hova Built, the Barclays Center.
Richard Sherman, who DeRozan recently expressed support for, and other members of the Super Bowl-bound Seattle Seahawks were on hand to catch the Raps/Nets tilt.
Here's my buzzkill moment of this blog post: Brooklyn is still a pretty safe bet to win the Atlantic. No, they won't maintain an .833 winning percentage through the rest of the season, but a healthy Williams and a relatively fresh Pierce and Kevin Garnett offer skill and some veteran know-how to stay strong down the stretch. After a tough-but-short four-game stretch that includes games against Oklahoma City, Indiana and San Antonio, the Nets settle into a five-game stretch of sub-.500 opponents. I see them going into their post-All-Star Weekend western swing as the division leader.
The Raps could jump three games over .500 for the first time this season with a home win on Wednesday night over the 12-33 Orlando Magic (7:00pm, TSN2).
Prediction: Raps 110, Magic 93 (25-11 this season)