Toronto – All wins count the same, but they’re not all equal.
Some provide belief.
The best part about the Toronto Raptors‘ 108-105 win over the Houston Rockets was that they didn’t bother pretending that it was something other than the most significant regular-season win the franchise has ever had, if not in words, but in their actions.
The dressing room was loud, much louder than any other time this season. There were hoots and hollers and no rush to leave.
The Raptors have grumbled – justifiably – about the lack of attention their march to the NBA’s elite has garnered them.
Now they can’t be ignored. The Rockets came to Toronto riding a league-high 17-game winning streak and ran into a wall of sound at Air Canada Centre and a Raptors club that came at them in waves early and refused to get washed away late.
“The game was lit man,” said Rockets star and almost-certain MVP James Harden, whose 40 ponts fell in vain. “I hope [they] enjoyed it. Unfortunately, it didn’t come out the way we wanted it to.”
For the Raptors and their fans, it was highly enjoyable. Toronto never shied away from the challenge in the preamble, and never tried to pretend it was “just one of 82.” The finish was a scramble – a bit ugly to be honest – but the Raptors prevailed, unbending.
“True test,” said DeMar DeRozan before the game. “It’s one of them things to where you can measure yourself at a higher standard when you’re playing against a great team in this league. It’s one of them games to where you get up for.”
The Raptors were up early and survived late. The win was their seventh straight and 14th in their last 15th and improved their record to 48-17 – 2.5 games up on the Boston Celtics. The Rockets, the NBA’s best road team, fell to 51-14.
Kyle Lowry came out of gate like he’d been catapulted, hitting three of his seven triples in the first six minutes as Toronto built a quick 10-point lead and was up 32-16 after the first quarter.
“It was the pace of the game,” said Lowry, who finished with 30 points and six assists. “They switch a lot, so I was able to step up and hit some threes early. We just came out and played very aggressive. We had the day off yesterday so we had a lot of energy and some oomph.”
The scariest moment in the early going came when Drake, the Raptors pop star global ambassador took the floor during a timeout and told the adoring crowd: “By the looks of it, this winning streak is over,” with 2:47 left in the opening period.
Clearly, Drake never saw the 30 for 30 documentary about Reggie Miller torturing the New York Knicks after being sparked by superfan Spike Lee taunting him from the sidelines.
The threat of a jinx was held at bay as the Raptors second unit extended the lead to 19 with four minutes played in the second quarter, sparked by seven in two minutes from rookie Malcolm Miller.
It was a preview of what the bench provided in the fourth quarter and proof that Toronto’s reliance on its second unit may be sustainable in the playoffs, judging by how it’s carried itself against the league’s elite.
Toronto led by 15 at half but you could feel the momentum flipping. Houston cut the lead to five late in the third period, hitting on 11-of-18 field goals and Harden on got on track with 14 points.
And the momentum was slipping even further early in the fourth when the second unit heated up again. Its best sequence was when Fred VanVleet picked up the Rockets’s Chris Paul full court, forcing him into a hurried pass that Jakob Poeltl picked off and Pascal Siakam turned into a transition layup. A VanVleet layup and a triple had Toronto up nine with 8:16 left. Mission accomplished.
Any questions about Toronto’s second unit being able to hold its own in the playoffs has to be diminishing by the day.
“We’ve done it against Cleveland, Boston, the second half of Golden State, and now Houston,” said VanVleet, who had 11 points and five assists in 22 minutes. “But this was the difference in terms of like crunch time, fourth quarter, the game’s on the line, [head coach Dwane Casey] is over there, he’s thinking about subbing, but he ends up leaving us in there for a little bit longer, and we kind of pay him back.”
But the Rockets kept grinding, trying to break it open and it finally looked like they had when Harden pulled up and shot a perfectly defended three that tied the game with 2:10 to play.
It was welcome, in a way. A signature win like this – the Raptors had never hosted the Western Conference No. 1 seed as the Eastern Conference No. 1 seed this late in a season – needed a proper ending.
So DeRozan took Harden, his childhood pal, down to the left block and worked him right and left and right again before finally getting off a high-arching fadeaway that put the Raptors up two with 1:49 to play.
“We play all summer against each other, it’s one of those things if you’re a fan of basketball and a player you grow playing against, watching, you kind of know little tendencies – he knows a couple of mine for sure – but it was good, it was big,” said DeRozan, who finished with 23 points and seven rebounds.
It was their last field goal and they still won, which says a lot about their defensive resolve against the NBA’s second-best offence.
“Guys stuck with the game plan,” said Casey. “They trusted each other, they trusted what we were doing and stuck with it. Our big thing tonight was mental toughness. This team is going to score. They are a great scoring team and are one of the best I have seen in my many years in the NBA. You take away one thing and they figure out another thing … so my hat is off to our guys.
“I thought they did everything we asked them to do. Took care of business, met their runs, didn’t get frustrated and stuck together and finished it up.”
They finished it up by getting a key block from Jonas Valanciunas. The big man turned it over on the next possession but then redeemed himself by getting a steal after DeRozan forced Harden into a bad pass – for proof of the Raptors’ growth year-over-year, look no further than those two combining for a key defensive stop down the stretch against one of the NBA’s best teams.
After C.J. Miles missed a three, the Raptors survived Paul running it back on a fast break.
It was Lowry who came up with the loose ball on the Paul miss and made both his free throws when fouled. After Houston’s Eric Gordon hit a three to pull Houston within one it was Valanciunas – an 81 per cent free-throw shooter – who hit two shots with 5.4 seconds left.
A Harden heave at the buzzer never had a chance.
The Raptors, with sights on their first NBA Finals berth, took down the league’s hottest team and a potential Finals opponent, and have to like their chances better than ever.