After an early setback in Chicago Monday night the Toronto Raptors made a very encouraging start to their five-game Western Conference road trip with wins over the Clippers and Nuggets. Those victories moved the Raptors to 24-7, helping them maintain a 1.5 game lead on the Atlanta Hawks for first place in the Eastern Conference. Things don’t get any easier with games coming up against Portland and Golden State this week, but the Raptors are playing at a high level right now and shouldn’t be intimidated by those Western Conference juggernauts.
Raptors 120 Chicago Bulls 129
The Raptors began their six-game road trip with a high-scoring loss to the Chicago Bulls on Monday night. Derrick Rose, returning from another nagging injury (those are becoming a theme with the 2011 MVP), scored 15 points in the fourth quarter—a fourth quarter in which the Bulls put up a ridiculous 49 points—to lead his team to victory. Rose went toe-to-toe with Kyle Lowry, who top-scored for the Raptors with 34 points (18 of those coming in the fourth), but the Raptors point guard was unable to compensate for his team’s leaky defence down the stretch. “We didn’t play defence and they executed extremely well,” Lowry told reporters post-game.
The Raptors controlled the game through three quarters—they were up by double-digits late in the third—until the Bulls pulled away in the fourth. Jimmy Butler, a sneaky early-season candidate for the MVP award, scored 27 points to go along with 11 boards and five blocks. The Raptors simply had no answers against the Bulls’ high-octane backcourt. The loss means that four of the first seven Raptors defeats this season have come against the Bulls and Cleveland Cavaliers, the two favourites to reach the Eastern Conference Finals.
Raptors 110 Los Angeles Clippers 98
The Raptors bounced back brilliantly after Monday’s disappointing loss to the Bulls, with arguably their best performance of the season—a win on the road against the high-flying Clippers. Overall the Raptors shot 47 per cent from the field and held the third best offence in the league to under 100 points—quite an achievement.
Kyle Lowry, who had struggled in his previous four games against the Clippers, underlined his case for an All-Star starting berth by dominating the game at both ends. He put up 25 points, seven assists and three steals, outdoing Chris Paul (held to just 10 points) in the process. Jonas Valanciunas had a double-double—22 points and 11 rebounds—while Greivis Vasquez chipped in with 16 points off the bench. Vasquez lauded his team’s depth—a crucial factor in Sunday’s game—post-game, saying: “We’ve got a great bench and we feed off each other. It may not show in the stats, but a lot of different guys do a lot of different things.”
The Raptors led for much of the game and did an excellent job restricting star-man Blake Griffin to shots outside of the paint—Griffin scored 22 points, but only managed six rebounds. Unlike Monday night when the Raptors collapsed in the fourth quarter against Chicago, Casey’s team pulled away in the final quarter against L.A., outscoring the Clippers 30-20 and making critical buckets down the stretch.
Raptors 116 Denver Nuggets 102
Kyle Lowry kept up his phenomenal play of late with a 30-point, seven-rebound and 11-assist display against the Nuggets late Sunday night. Lowry controlled the game offensively for the Raptors with ample help off the bench from Lou Williams, who poured in 31 points on 11-of-18 shooting. The Raptors shot close to 50 per cent from the field for the game and pulled away from the Nuggets with another solid fourth quarter display—a quarter in which Lowry and Williams scored 10 points each.
For Denver, Kenneth Faried followed up his 26 point, 25 rebound outburst against Minnesota earlier in the week with a 17 point, 19 rebound performance last night, but it wasn’t enough for Brian Shaw’s team. Once again the Raptors’ remarkable depth was on show Sunday night, as they outscored the Nuggets’ reserves 53-20. The team’s bench has stepped up to fill holes created by injuries—most noticeably those of DeMar DeRozan, but also Landry Fields who’s been out a couple weeks with a concussion.
One more thing of note: the Raptors swept the season series against Denver for the first time in a decade.
Around the League
Josh Smith signs with the Rockets after being waived by Pistons
On Monday the Detroit Pistons finally decided that the enigmatic Josh Smith, a player they signed just one season ago, was no longer worth the hassle. The Pistons waived Smith, after the organization concluded that there was no real trade value for a player that has drastically underachieved in the last two seasons—Smith is averaging the lowest points per game total since his second year in the league, and is shooting a dismal 39 per cent from the field this season. The Pistons are still on the hook for Smiths’ contract, which runs two more years at $14 million per season.
Smiths’ recent downslide didn’t stop the Houston Rockets from signing him to a veteran’s minimum salary (just under $1 million for the year) once he cleared waivers, however. At that cost Smith is a low-risk, high-reward pick-up for the championship-contending Rockets whose bench is a tad thin. The power forward had an impressive debut for his new team, scoring 21 points off the bench in the Rockets’ Boxing Day overtime win over the Memphis Grizzlies.
Heat top the Cavaliers in LeBron’s return to South Beach
There were hugs a-plenty between LeBron James and his former Miami Heat teammates prior to tip-off on Christmas Day, but once the action started Dwyane Wade and company were in no mood for friendly gestures. Wade scored 24 points (and 31 total) in the first half to help lead his team to a 101-91 victory. It was new signing Luol Deng who did the most all-around damage, however. Deng put up 25 points, eight rebounds and eight assists; all the while forcing LeBron into taking tough, contested jump shots.
The Cavaliers stepped it up defensively in the second half and did manage to slow down the Heat—Wade in particular—until some late lapses on the glass cost them. But it was the same old issues defensively that ultimately cost the Cavaliers in this game. David Blatt’s team conceded 60 points in the first half, and in the second LeBron frequently admonished his team’s failure to grab a defensive rebound with angry cries of “box out, box out!” The season-ending injury to Anderson Varejao, who tore his Achilles against the Minnesota Timberwolves, certainly won’t help their defensive issues going forward.
Dirk Nowitzki moves to eighth on the NBA’s all-time scoring list
Kobe Bryant’s passing of Michael Jordan for third in the NBA’s all-time scoring list may have taken all the headlines in recent weeks, but on Boxing Day Dirk Nowitzki—possibly the greatest international player to ever grace the Association—quietly passed Hall-of-Famer Elvin Hayes for eighth all-time scorer.
Raptors go undefeated to climb to 22-6
‘I’m picking up on more things as each day goes by’
Everything’s in place for the boys in red