As milestones go, it’s a modest one, but then again these are your Toronto Raptors and modesty should be bred in the bone.
On Thursday night at the Air Canada Centre the Raptors played the Washington Wizards with a chance to move to eight games over .500 on the season.
It didn’t happen. After 63 minutes of basketball Toronto couldn’t get past the Washington Wizards, finally surrendering 134–129 in triple overtime.
It was the longest game in franchise history at three hours and 32 minutes, but it was one of the most entertaining, too. It went so long that back-up Greivis Vasquez felt comfortable pulling up for a three-pointer on the break during the first overtime in homage to his hero, San Antonio Spurs crazy shot taker and shot maker Manu Ginobili.
The Raptors took a lead late in regulation on a goaltending call that was reviewed and went their way, and survived for another overtime when an apparent game-winning layup by the Wizards at the end of the second overtime was reviewed and ruled no good.
“It was a great game to be a part of,” said Kyle Lowry, who sprained his ankle on a missed layup that bounced on the rim twice at the end of regulation that would have won the game for Toronto.
It hardly slowed him down. "The ankle feels great," he said afterwards, if not convincingly.
The loss dropped their record to 32-26 and leaves them a half-game ahead of the Chicago Bulls for the third seed in the Eastern Conference and 4.5 games up on the Brooklyn Nets for the Atlantic Division lead.
It was less a loss than an epic marathon of regular season basketball between flawed Eastern Conference teams that could very well meet in the playoffs.
“Coach told us before the game it was going to be a playoff atmosphere and that’s what it was,” said DeMar DeRozan, who scored eight of his 34 points in the third overtime but couldn’t help things from slipping away. The Raptors finished with three players fouling out, Terrence Ross sidelined with a sprained ankle, and Kyle Lowry and Amir Johnson limping as well.
It was a game itself that was worth framing—not because it was a thing of beauty, but because it captured nicely the Raptors' season so far: This is a team that leaves it all on the floor, and not metaphorically. They actually get on the floor for loose balls, get sent to the floor after attacking the rim and have to pick themselves up off the floor after drawing charges.
It’s a tough group, epitomized by Lowry ,who played 54 minutes and finished with 18 points, 10 assists, nine rebounds and three steals, and DeRozan, who played 57 minutes.
“We rode him and DeMar so hard,” said Raptors head coach Dwane Casey, voice almost spent. “But every game is important. Every game, every possession, it’s hard to take them out.”
It would have been a great one to win and would have put the Raptors at the magical eight-games-over-.500 mark.
Winning eight more games than you lose at any point in a any season should be an event that comes and goes without remark.
For a good team it should be a brief point on graph that rises to 20 games over .500, or 40 games over for championship-caliber teams.
But these are your Toronto Raptors, deep into their 19th season on David Stern’s earth, and eight games over .500 is a bit of a thing. The club has never been more than 12 games over .500, so eight games is three-quarters of the way to best-ever status.
Getting eight games over .500 has only happened during five different seasons in franchise history, which is, like, bananas. You’d think upon examining the record even some bad Raptors teams might have pulled their collective heads above water long enough to be eight more Ws than Ls, as they say.
But no, eight games seems to matter. The Raptors have never got to that mark during a season and not made the playoffs.
But in itself it’s no guarantee of a stress-free glide to the post-season.
The last time Toronto broached the mark was six years ago to the day with a win over the Minnesota Timberwolves. The next game the Raptors Chris Bosh tweaked his knee and missed 10 games, and Toronto lost nine of their next twelve.
Twelve years ago the Raptors made it to eight games over .500 the earliest they ever have after an overtime win over the San Antonio Spurs in the last game before the all-star break. But Vince Carter got injured and Toronto lost 17 of their next 18 starts.
No wonder Raptors head coach Dwane Casey is cautious in his optimism for a team that has vastly exceeded expectations and is 25-14 since Dec. 9 and the Rudy Gay trade.
“We’re still in teaching mode, each and every day, trying to get better,” he said
The Wizards are looking like a possible first-round opponent for Toronto in what would be a match-up of fourth and fifth seeds. Toronto won the season series 3-1 but has done it with a young group of pros while the Wizards have added the likes of Andre Miller (37) and Drew Gooden (32) in the last few days to roll out veterans around John Wall and Bradley Beal.
So far the Raptors' approach is working as they prove that winning and developing can happen in the same season.
Their quest to be just the sixth Raptors team to be eight games over .500 continues Sunday against the Golden State Warriors, but even a loss like they had Thursday night is proof of what is already on hand rather than a demonstration of what’s missing.
“That’s what I love about this team,” said Casey. “They don’t quit. They’re not overly talented, we don’t have that super-duper star… but everyone that walked out there just scrapped.”