Remember when the Raptors were known as a franchise that never got it done in the clutch? It seemed to be that way for years. No team seemed to lose as many winnable games by doing one thing or another wrong late in fourth quarters. That simply doesn’t happen anymore. It started last year and has carried over to this season. What was different about the game against the Suns, was the way the fourth played out. Instead of mounting a furious rally, as has become their norm, the Raptors saw a 15-point lead get erased by the ridiculously explosive Suns. That forced the home side to have to make several key decisions in the biggest moments and they came through. DeMar DeRozan called some of those “muscle plays.”
- To that point, there was this crazy Kyle Lowry sequence, there was Lowry swiping the ball away from Isaiah Thomas, similarly to how he had won an earlier game in Boston by pickpocketing rookie Marcus Smart. There was Patrick Patterson hitting two free throws when he hadn’t yet scored. There was Patterson pulling a Kevin Love by launching the ball down the court and Amir Johnson making a significant play to go up and haul in the pass like Calvin Johnson (no easy feat, considering Johnson has not shown his usual life this season. A joke heard afterward was that Amir only jumped three times on Monday, but he sure picked his spots well).
- Told by a reporter that the Lowry steal and his pass to Johnson were “ballsy” Patterson responded, sometimes you have to be.
- Lou Williams winning player of the week, despite being a reserve, was one of the more unexpected storylines we’ve seen in years, though it probably shouldn’t have been all that shocking. Dwane Casey seems like a near lock for East coach of the month and Lowry likely will be an honourable mention (with a shot at winning if Toronto beats Dallas on Friday I’d say).
- Williams talked about fighting to get back from a devastating injury, a process that definitely had some dark moments. Williams admitted he had some doubts after tearing his ACL in January of 2013. When he returned last season, he was not the same player he had been before. Atlanta basically gave him away for nothing rather than paying a guy they worried might never be the same.
Williams can’t blame them. “Absolutely. When you’re sitting there and you have a cast on and wheel chair and crutches and can’t lift your leg up, you can’t ride a bike, you can’t run, you can’t jog, obviously there’s going to be some doubt there,” he said.
“Two years later it’s great to see some fruits of the labour to feel myself back to 100 per cent, being back healthy and having some success.”
Williams said he was buoyed by the knowledge his friend Lowry had battled back from the same injury, suffered while he was in college.
- A lot of anguish out there about Valanciunas not playing for most of the fourth despite his huge game, but the Suns went tiny, who was he going to guard? Yes, he was scoring easily, but Phoenix wasn’t going inside at all, preferring to just bomb away (it was working) and Valanciunas would not have been able to cover enough ground out there defensively. Against most teams, his sitting after a performance like that would be an outrage. Against Phoenix, it made sense.
“They had three point guards out there so that caused us to do some things. JV had to come out and JV had it rolling,” Casey said. “As long as they kept their big in, it really helped us but once they spread those perimeter guys out it put us at a disadvantage. Threes vs. our twos is not a good trade off.”
- Valanciunas, by the way, is fifth in the East in player efficiency rating, is shooting 59% from the field, 80% from the free throw line and putting up career best rebound and block rates, with the lowest turnover rate in his three seasons.
- James Johnson returned far earlier from his ankle injury than expected (he missed three games), but was only able to play four minutes. Tyler Hansbrough (shoulder) did not dress.
- Isaiah Thomas on Lowry: ” He’s been given a good opportunity to run a team and he’s taken advantage of it. Everyone knows what Kyle Lowry’s about. He’s like a pit bull, he’s a leader, he’s a guy that never backs down. I think his opportunity just got bigger and he just took advantage of the role that was given to him.”
- Seem to say this daily now, but the Raptors refuse to get caught up in what the standings say: “For me we’re still a growing team. It’s still too early to look at the records,” Casey said.
“My job is to continue to push, continue to improve in a lot of areas and not get caught up in records or anything like that. Once you start doing that, that’s when you get in trouble. I remember in Dallas, we were like 24-5, and you would never know we were 24-5 because everybody had a businesslike attitude. All of the fans were watching Cowboys football. We were 24-5, and you would never know. That’s the way you have to approach it. You can’t look at the record. You’ve got to make sure you do your job, not only game by game, but possession by possession. This is [an unforgiving] league and it will do you in once you start overlooking possessions or skipping letters from where you are or getting caught up in thinking you’re somewhere where you’re not.”
- Casey pointed out rebounding as the area the Raptors need to improve in the most. Williams said if this is Toronto’s “roof, we’re in trouble. I think we have a lot more things that we should accomplish and other teams that we need to beat in order to be taken seriously in this league.” Like beating the Suns.
- Ex-Raptor P.J. Tucker on the ACC crowd: “It is a lot different, it’s unbelievable,” Tucker said. “Definitely moved up to one of the best home courts, hands down in the league. It is unbelievable what they have done here.” I was impressed by the way the fans roared once Phoenix took the lead in the fourth, showing their support, helping the Raptors to get back on top.