Ah momentum. Whether it’s real or something imagined, it’s nice to have.
The Toronto Raptors had plans on building on the fledgling version of it they’d cobbled together with a pair of consecutive wins over the weekend at home in Tampa over the Charlotte Hornets, and frankly they could use some.
Not only did Toronto enter the third game of their five-game homestand 1.5 games out of a playoff spot, but their meeting with the Dallas Mavericks marked the first of five straight dates against teams taking aim at deep playoffs runs in each conference.
Does three-straight wins and pulling within a game of a playoff spot count as momentum? The way this season has started for the Raptors, it certainly does. And the way Toronto grinded out their 116-93 victory over the Mavericks feels more sustainable than a blowout that featured threes raining from all corners.
There’s nothing wrong with that but hot shooting comes and goes. Being tough, feisty and competitive defensively is more repeatable, and those were defining qualities as the Raptors celebrated the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday in the United States by playing a game marked by resilience and determination.
The most telling sequence wasn’t a fast-break dunk or a lob over the defence. Instead it was Stanley Johnson picking up Mavericks star Luka Doncic full court midway through the fourth quarter, getting a frustrated elbow in the chest for his efforts. A moment later -- after Fred VanVleet took a technical protesting the non-call on Doncic -- Johnson squared up for a three in the corner and knocked it down. A not-so-subtle "screw you" to the Mavericks and Doncic, who is brilliant but not above petulance.
“I guess I’m too competitive to say it’s not enjoyable [getting under an opponent’s skin],” said Johnson, who has carved out a steady spot in the rotation for his willingness to play chest-to-chest defence for 90 feet. “But I don’t have no stake in the game in that. That doesn’t make me happy. If someone was happy the whole game and having a bad game, it would make me just as happy. I’m not trying to get under (anybody’s) skin. That’s just kind of in the game as we’re all competitors, when you’re not doing well on the court, you get mad. I guess that’s the result you want.”
But the follow up triple? That must have felt good?
“Hell yeah,” said Johnson. “It always feels good to make shots.”
Johnson's three put the Raptors up 16 with 6:37 to play. The last time these teams played -- on Dec. 22, 2019 -- the Raptors came back from down 30 with 14:33 to play for the largest comeback in franchise history. There were no fireworks Monday. The Raptors put it away.
Johnson finished with just six points in 21 minutes, but it was the principle that mattered more. The Raptors' game plan was to bother and harass the Mavericks star and Johnson along with the equally burly OG Anunoby helped hold Doncic to a modest -- for him -- 15 points, seven rebounds and nine assists.
“Give those guys, both of ‘em a lot of credit, OG and Stanley took the challenge and worked at it,” said Raptors head coach Nick Nurse. “They really worked at it all night, they were just constantly there applying pressure and, again, I give them both credit.
“They’re similar builds and they’ve got the strength and some foot speed and things like that and most of the thing is desire and I think they both played with desire all night.”
It was a team effort, led by Kyle Lowry who finished with 23 points on nine shots and added nine rebounds and seven assists. But Anunoby -- who also played long minutes on Doncic -- had 13 points and 11 rebounds while Chris Boucher came off the bench and added 21 and 10 rebounds. Norman Powell had 17 points on 11 shots off the bench.
The Raptors led 81-72 to start the fourth quarter and never stopped rolling as they held the Mavericks to 38 per cent shooting and forced 16 turnovers to improve to 5-8 on the season.
The Mavericks (6-7) have had their own struggles. A year ago they were crafting one of the greatest offensive seasons in league history as they put up 115.9 points per 100 possessions. They haven’t quite picked up where they left off, coming into Monday with the league’s 18th-rated attack at 108.7 points per 100 -- behind the Raptors who were 15th at 110.4 points per 100.
Part of that was their superstar and likely MVP candidate Doncic has yet to completely hit his stride offensively as he was shooting just 29 per cent from three and coughing up 4.4 turnovers a game coming in. Dallas is still working to integrate seven-foot-three Kristaps Porzingis, who missed the first nine games of the season recovering from off-season surgery. The Mavericks having to postpone a game due to health-and-safety protocols related to COVID-19 likely hasn’t helped. Porzingis had led Dallas with 23 points and nine rebounds, but the Mavericks had four players -- including Canadian men’s national team member Dwight Powell -- out for health-and-safety protocols Monday night.
But how long could holding the Mavericks down -- or Doncic -- last? Just Doncic alone can drive offence like few others. Over his previous three starts, Doncic was averaging 32.7 points, 13 rebounds and 12.3 assists a game.
Maybe it was that Dallas was playing on the second night of a back-to-back or maybe it was the Raptors schemes, but Doncic hit a wall in Tampa.
“I don't think I've ever gone into a game with the Raptors thinking I'm going to guard one person,” said Johnson, who typically is the first line of defence but relies on support elsewhere against top players. “I think what we do best, almost league-best, is play team defence… so it's pretty easy when you go out there and you playing one guy with five guys.”
Early on the game was as smooth as something dragged through a cheese grater with the teams tied 47-47 going into halftime with both teams alternately controlling play and kicking it to the side. Toronto used a 17-5 run that featured some welcome contributions from the bench, with Boucher, Powell and Terence Davis all figuring prominently to go up by 10 midway through the second quarter.
But then it was the Mavericks' turn and instead of Doncic doing damage, it was former Raptor James Johnson who scored eight quick points to fuel a 13-2 Mavericks burst before the half.
The Raptors were able to contain Doncic in the first half anyway, as the 21-year-old phenom was limited to just nine points and only five shots as Toronto used a variety of defenders -- VanVleet, Anunoby and Johnson all drew in -- along with a mixed soup of zones and double teams to keep him bottled up; a taste of what was to come.
“I think we are just getting better, getting more confident in ourselves and we are getting more comfortable with what we are trying to do both offensively and defensively,” said Lowry. “I think we still have lulls where we could be better, but I feel like we are just playing with a little bit more confidence and understanding …"
You could even call it momentum.