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First thing's first: Rudy Gay had a debut to remember, scoring a game-high 20 points on 8-16 shooting and making about as good a first impression as could be hoped for. He wasn't, however, the story of the night.
The story would lie in the defensive effort of the Toronto Raptors (17-30), who held the L.A. Clippers and Lob City - albeit without MVP candidate Chris Paul (fractured right kneecap) - to a season-low73 points and only 45 points after three quarters en route to a blowout 98-73 win. The Clippers, who have averaged over 100 points per game this season, shot just 34.7% (25-72) from the floor and 15.8% (3-19) from three-point range while turning the ball over 14 times. In fact, they couldn't even connect from the free throw line (20-31, 64.5%).
The Clips were clearly lethargic playing the first of seven road games against Eastern opposition without Paul, but credit the Raptors for rising to the occasion against a Western power. They contested shots (six blocks), owned the paint (38-30 PIP, 45-37 rebounds) and held a significant advantage from beyond the arc (nine more made three's on just seven more attempts).
Call it a great first impression on both sides of the spectrum. Gay instantly upped the team's athleticism and seemed genuinely happy to be in Toronto (a key element for a club often struggling with an inferiority complex), all the while stepping in immediately as the team leading scorer. He and DeMar DeRozan looked as though they intended to disprove critics' questions about deep shooting on the wing, making a combined five of their nine attempts from three. Meanwhile, the 26-year old was surely left wondering how his new teammates had lost 14 more games than they had won, particularly given their stand out 'D'. It also helped that, whether it was due to Gay's debut or a rare Blake Griffin appearance in T.O., a boisterous, near-capacity crowd was on hand to add an amped up feel to the proceedings. Expect that crowd to be back in-house on Sunday to greet LeBron James, Chris Bosh and the Miami Heat.
Do the Clippers have enough depth up front? It's a question I hadn't really considered prior to Friday night, but none of their glut of small forwards (Lamar Odom, Grant Hill, Caron Butler or a suspended Matt Barnes) can really compensate for a lack of a viable third big behind Griffin and DeAndre Jordan. L.A. got 26 of their rebounds from Griffin/Jordan/Butler - and Butler managed just one made basket from inside the arc. On the other side of the court, Amir Johnson and Aaron Gray combined for 28 boards, including nine on the offensive glass. Johnson was particularly on, picking up 19 points to go along with his 16 rebounds. And then there's Jonas Valanciunas, who compiled more bad stats (five personal fouls and two turnovers) than good ones (no points and three rebounds), but earns a mention within 'The Good' simply for returning to the lineup at a time when the team lost 30 minutes up front with the trade of Ed Davis.
Butler's Bush League Move
Here, have a look. No, it's not a "rookie mistake" for Valanciunas to accept Butler's seemingly genuine attempt at a concessionary high five with the clock winding down in a blowout. What was he supposed to do - decline until the final buzzer actually sounds? No, this is a punk move by a veteran player who should be above such stupidity. Congrats, Caron, on two cheap, meaningless points. Strangely, I don't get too worked up over running up the score late in a blowout (why should a pro team ever take it easy on the opposition, regardless of the score?). But this is just a cheap trick.
Miami is in town on Super Bowl Sunday (2:00pm, TSN). While that normally means the Bosh hate takes centre stage, Sunday afternoon will be primarily about the star-laden Gay vs. LeBron head-to-head.
Prediction: Raps 102, Heat 97 (32-10 this season)