Raptors’ defence proves Rockets still have work to do

Kyle Lowry scored 30 points to lead the Toronto Raptors to a thrilling win over the Houston Rockets.

TORONTO — Regression to the mean.

By definition, it is the statistical belief that extreme results have a shelf life and that over an extended period of time, those results will progressively return to normalcy.

When the Toronto Raptors began to surge in the early season and picked up big wins over the Houston Rockets, New Orleans Pelicans and Washington Wizards in quick succession, there was a belief that this was a different team. They proceeded to lose games to the New York Knicks and Indiana Pacers, after which Daryl Morey, GM of the Rockets, weighed in with his thoughts.

Morey was responding to a New York Times writer who had recently written about the Raptors, and was explaining that teams and players are only talked and written about after exceptionally good performances, after which they are inevitably due to come back down to earth.

The Rockets came into Toronto for Friday’s game riding a 17-game win streak, the second-longest of the season, and were throttled early before a James Harden-led comeback effort fell short by three points.

Perhaps it was regression, but it might have been the case of an excellent Raptors team giving the Rockets a reminder of just how much further they have to go as they continue their quest for a championship.

“No matter who you play, you can’t get down 20 points on the road and expect not to be challenged in a comeback,” Harden said after the game. “Obviously that’s a great team over there, we got down 20 before we played our game, and that was the result.”

When the San Antonio Spurs played the Rockets in the 2017 Western Conference semifinals, their defence took what the Houston offence gave them. All year long, the Rockets predicated their offence on three-pointers and points in the paint.

The Spurs mandate? Take away both and see what they have left.

Nothing, it turned out. The Spurs clinched the series in six games despite losing Kawhi Leonard to injury, gladly ceding mid-range jumpers and drives by switching early and often.

“Last year, James (Harden) had to create everything by himself and it wore him out,” head coach Mike D’Antoni said. “This year, with Chris (Paul), he doesn’t have to. That alone has really helped us.”

On Friday, the Raptors tried to throw the exact same punch as the Rockets, and landed the desired effect for at least a half.

The Rockets are attempting an obscene 42.4 three-pointers a game this season, but the Raptors limited them to just eight at the break, of which they made just one. When asked after the game if there was a way to limit Houston from getting off its threes, Raptors head coach Dwane Casey remained coy. “There is a way,” he said and smiled. “If I told you, I’d have to shoot you.”

While the Rockets offence struggled in the first half, it was their defence and the league’s likely MVP that gave them a chance in the second.

Houston made key additions in the summer to bolster one of its biggest weaknesses, adding P.J. Tucker and Luc Richard Mbah a Moute. Tucker spent the off-season deciding between these two very teams, but eventually declined more money from Toronto for what he perceived to be a better chance to win playing out West.

“P.J. gives us a lot in a lot of different areas,” D’Antoni said. “His defence is contagious, his intensity is contagious and he’s hitting threes. He’s a big part of what we do. He’s solidified a lot of areas that we were weak in last year and he’s upped the ante.”

Tucker finished with three points, six rebounds, two assists, and a steal, but those who watched him during his time in Toronto will remember that his impact lies far beyond the box score. Tucker spent time defending everyone from DeMar DeRozan to Jonas Valanciunas, and finished with a team-best plus-5.0 for the game.

“He’s so crucial for this team because he can guard multiple positions and even play centre,” sharpshooter Ryan Anderson said. “He’s made our defence so much better with just his presence. He’s so physical and can move his feet well, having a guy like that on your team is really valuable.”

The team finished 18th in defensive rating a year ago, but has improved to 10th this year, allowing 104.6 points per 100 possessions. With the defence they’ve become accustomed to showing up in the second half, the Rockets still needed their MVP to play like one to bring them back on the offensive end.

The game appeared to be getting out of hand after the Air Canada Centre crowd of 20,131 erupted after Toronto took a 19-point first-half lead courtesy of a DeRozan three, but it only served to fuel Harden’s fire. He erupted for 31 of his 40 points thereafter, using an array of drives and step-back three-pointers that proved unstoppable. With Toronto so focused on taking away his passing lanes, it was the only shot they had.

He tied the game at 102 in the dying moments after isolating himself with Fred VanVleet, crossing over, pulling up despite being unable to shake him, and then nailing the shot anyway.

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A tie game between the two top teams in their respective conferences, the Rockets had to like their chances. Houston has been the most clutch team in the league this season, posting an absurd plus-22.2 rating and an even more unfathomable 129.8 offensive rating in games that are within five points or fewer with under five minutes remaining. Toronto is a minus-8.5 in crunch time with a mediocre 100.6 offensive rating.

DeRozan wasn’t fazed, hitting a pull-up jumper to give Toronto back the lead almost immediately, before Valanciunas blocked Clint Capela at the rim. The Lithuanian returned the favour by turning the ball over, setting the stage for the possession of the game.

Harden in isolation matched up against DeRozan. Toronto’s star created a turnover, and free throws sealed the victory thereafter. Against the odds, it was Toronto who executed better down the stretch, and Houston looked a lot like last year.

This may have been an off night, but it may have been regression.

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