Somehow, the Toronto Raptors (25-22) came a Damian Lillard floater and a DeMar DeRozan dribble-off-the-foot away from what would have been their unlikeliest win in a season ripe with unlikely wins. Down by as many as 19 points and appearing all but lifeless on the tail end of a Western back-to-back in Portland, the Raps stormed back from a 16-point deficit with nine minutes to play and even took a brief lead before the Blazers' sophomore point guard and an ill-timed turnover resulted in a wild 106-103 loss.
DeRozan's late miscue put a disappointing cap on what was otherwise a phenomenal night at the Rose Garden. He recorded 36 points on 14-29 shooting to go along with 12 assists. He and backcourt-mate Kyle Lowry combined for 59 points, 20 assists and nine rebounds on the night.
However, the 34-13 Blazers continued their remarkable campaign with a dominant performance from LaMarcus Aldridge, who had 27 points and 15 rebounds and spurred a free throw charge that saw Portland make 28 of 35 attempts from the charity stripe (Aldridge made 11-14).
Lowry & DeRozan
With Greivis Vasquez on the sidelines with flu-like symptoms (athletes are the only humans who suffer from flu-like symptoms rather than simply having the flu), the onus was on the Lowry/DeRozan backcourt even more than usual. And they delivered. Beyond the above stats, the duo forced Lillard and Wes Matthews into a smothering defensive approach that helped DeRozan earn a trip to the line to sink the two go-ahead free throws late in the fourth. I'm not sure there is another guard combo in the East as critical to their team's success as Lowry and DeRozan.
Showing Life Late
Between lauding Lowry and DeRozan and highlighting the Raptors' compete level, I feel as though I'm repeating myself here. Nevertheless, had they never recovered from that 16-point deficit (which, in itself, was preceded by a late third quarter run which brought the game to within five points), the post-game storyline would have apologetically pointed out the scheduling discrepancy (Toronto was playing their second game in a row and third in four nights, while Portland was playing for the first time in four days) and the fact that the club ran into a wall in the form of the suddenly elite Blazers. Yet, the team's high level of confidence and competitiveness essentially forced a near-comeback on the road against one of the league's toughest teams.
Abandoned by the Three-Ball
There has long been an NBA truism that you live by the three and die by the three. The Raps have been living by the three and thriving off of it for quite some time now, but the 30% (6-20) shooting performance from deep highlights how fickle the beyond-the-arc shot can be. Hopefully this isn't a sign of what's to come.
Where'd Amir and Jonas Go?
Patrick Patterson and Chuck Hayes are both perfectly capable big men who have been assets to the Raptors this season. But that duo did not belong on the court together in crunch time last night, as Amir Johnson and Jonas Valanciunas sat glued to the bench. Johnson hadn't been very effective and had only played 15 minutes, but the lack of floor time left him fresh at a time when the team could've used some fresh legs. Valanciunas, meanwhile, had shot an effective 8-11 from the floor and his five fouls shouldn't have been a factor. As Lillard cruised in for an all-too-easy game-winning floater over Hayes, it was hard not to wonder whether he would've had quite the same success against a player with better reach.
It has to be a bittersweet experience being a largely passive observer on a team that is playing well and defying expectations. The Raptors' recent hot run of play has been facilitated by a rotation that, by and large, includes neither Tyler Hansbrough nor Steve Novak, two players who were expected to have significant bench roles with the club. The two forwards, who played just 14 combined minutes and combined to register as many fouls as rebounds (two) and as many turnovers as points (one), can't have envisioned that this is the way the season would go.
The narrative on the Blazers seems to be quickly shifting from "where did Portland come from??" to "of course, why didn't we see this coming!". Aldridge and Lillard anchor a club that boasts a strong top four (Wes Matthews and Nicolas Batum being the other two), solid depth (Joel Freeland, Mo Williams, CJ McCollum) and a defensive anchor in the middle (Robin Lopez). This doesn't seem to be a flash in the pan team that's about to go away, especially when you consider that they could well be more motivated to finish atop the West standings than either San Antonio, who won't let a No. 1 seed get in the way of their annual efforts to rest veterans, and Oklahoma City, who would be wise to bring a returning Russell Westbrook along slowly.
Toronto visits the Utah Jazz tonight (9:00pm, SN1), fresh off the Jazz's honouring of former head coach Jerry Sloan with a banner on Saturday night. Utah is 16-31 on the season, but almost .500 (10-13) at home.
Prediction: Blazers 101, Raps 91 (26-11 this season)