An interesting two-game weekend homestand saw the Toronto Raptors (39-30) snatch defeat from the jaws of victory and then victory from the jaws of defeat, helping them one step closer to locking up a playoff spot.
On Friday night, the Raps served up a spirited effort in a game that Kevin Durant - he of the 51-point showing - referred to as "the craziest game I've ever been a part of", pushing the Oklahoma City Thunder to double overtime before falling 119-118. The home team blew an eight-point advantage in the final minute of the second overtime period, with a Durant game-winning three proving to be the difference.
Then on Sunday, Kyle Lowry sparked an emphatic comeback as part of a 96-86 win over the Atlanta Hawks. Lowry's 25 points (including 12 in the fourth quarter) helped Toronto overcome an 11-point deficit heading into the fourth and sparked what was a 36-point output by the team in the final 12 minutes. Jonas Valanciunas also helped his team's cause with a 13-13 double-double, his first since February 7th against the Clippers.
Now, the Raps look poised to clinch their first trip to the playoffs in six years. Their current magic number - that is, the number of combined Raptor wins and New York Knick losses needed to guarantee a better record than the East's ninth-ranked team - is four.
Friday - Four Great Performances
With no one individual talent that can touch the calibre of Durant (sorry, DeMar SeRozan, but you're not close), the Raps had to rely on their four central contributors at the moment (for as long as Patrick Patterson remains out and Valanciunas continues to struggle with consistency, anyway): DeRozan, Lowry, Amir Johnson and Greivis Vasquez. All four came through in their own, big ways. Johnson, playing in his 500th NBA game, had his most complete performance in recent memory, scoring 25 points on 12-19 shooting, pulling down 12 rebounds (six offensive) and blocking five shots. DeRozan turned the ball over and didn't shoot particularly well (9-23), but he made 15 of his 16 attempts from the line for 33 points and even added eight rebounds. Lowry got hot late, hitting a crucial three to force double OT en route to 25 points, six rebounds and four assists. Finally, Vasquez posted an efficient 21 points on 9-11 shooting and added five rebounds and four assists. It isn't a coincidence that the Thunder ended the game on a 10-4 run after Vasquez fouled out.
Sunday - The Fourth Quarter
It was pretty well the Raptors' trend of a strong late surge on steroids on Sunday afternoon against the Hawks. After three quarters of listless, boring basketball in which the club couldn't buy a basket amidst a pre-season-like atmosphere (relative to Friday night, anyway), Toronto sprung to life in a dominant fourth. After shooting just 36.7% (22-60) through 36 minutes, the home team shot 61.9% (13-21) from the floor and 8-11 from the free throw line in the final quarter. Meanwhile, on the other side of the ball, they demonstrated enough hustle to force the less-than-offensively-potent Hawks into 6-21 (28.6%) shooting and four turnovers.
Friday - Salmons and the Last 49 Seconds
So how does a team blow an eight-point lead in barely enough time to get in two 24-second possessions? You need Derek Fisher to nail a three after barely grazing iron on his last three attempts. You need a guy (Durant) jacking up - and hitting - treys from several feet behind the arc. But mostly, you need someone to let it happen. Enter John Salmons, who turned over a crucial inbounds pass and - just five seconds of game time later - missed two critical free throws that could have turned a one-possession game into a two-possession contest.
Sunday - Terrence Ross
While one Raptor sophomore shined against Atlanta, the other extended what has been a rough recent slump. After shooting just 1-9 while trying to keep up with Durant on Friday, Ross served as a key reason for the team's early shooting struggles on Sunday, making just four of his 14 shots and hitting just two of eight three-point attempts. Since posting 22 points on 7-13 shooting in a solid effort against Phoenix, Ross has shot just 29.3% (12-41) over his past four games.
Friday - I'm not sure the young Thunder bench mob got the memo about blocking out distractions and focusing on the game. Throughout Friday's game, OKC reserves Hasheem Thabeet and Jeremy Lamb continuously engaged the ACC crowd. While Thabeet's interactions were more playful (such as messing around with Nav "Superfan" Bhatia), Lamb seemed legitimately antagonistic towards a pair of fans who had jokingly offered to lend him pom poms, glaring menacingly and inviting them to come closer (they declined, not that security would have allowed a confrontation anyway).
Sunday - Is there a cross-sport partnership going on undearneath the MLSE umbrella? After Patterson took in Saturday's Toronto FC home opener, new TFC 'keeper Julio Cesar was courtside on Sunday.
What do the championship-calibre Thunder and the Hawks have in common? Well, they both have frugal owners (people seem to gloss over OKC owner Clay Bennett's role in the unnecessary James Harden deal) and they both appear to be playoff-bound (the 31-37 Hawks have a three-game cushion in the awful East). What differentiates them, however, is what separates almost all NBA have's and have-not's: star power. As Durant went off for 51 on Friday night, no Atlanta player could fare any better than the 17 points posted by Paul Milsaap and DeMarre Carrol on Sunday afternoon. No wonder one is headed for a deep playoff run, while the other looks like a sweep candidate at the hands of the Heat or Pacers.
A two-game road swing sees the Raps visit a pair of teams looking ahead to the Draft Lottery, the Cavs and the Celtics. First up is a visit to Cleveland on Tuesday (7:00pm, SN1).
Prediction: Raps 105, Cavs 98 (38-14 this season)