In the first and third quarters it looked like the star power of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook would simply overwhelm the Toronto Raptors playing their second game in two days, but when Raptors head coach Dwane Casey went small, the entire tenor of the game changed and it was the Thunder that looked out of sorts.
“We had a hard time defensively trying to stay big when they actually ended up going small and moved Carroll to the 4-spot,” Thunder head coach Billy Donovan explained. “When they played small, we had a hard time. That’s when the fouling started.”
After getting down by 10 points in the first quarter, the game turned for Toronto when backup point guard Cory Joseph entered the game. Despite only scoring 2 points and recording 2 dimes in the quarter, Joseph was a +12 and helped lead the Raptors to a 1-point lead going into the half. His impact would be just as big with his team down by 8-points heading into the fourth quarter and Casey would use him in a two-point guard lineup with Lowry for the entire final frame.
The change in the lineup opened up the game for DeMar DeRozan who took advantage of the Thunder’s inability to adjust to the Raptors new approach and draw foul after foul, getting to the free throw line 15 times after the first quarter. DeRozan led Toronto in scoring with 28 points on the night.
“We put DeRozan too much to the free throw line and that was the difference in the game,” Donovan observed.
The free throw line kept the Raptors in this game and was a huge factor down the stretch as Toronto overcame an 8-point deficit with 5 minutes left to win 103-98. However, like the previous night in Dallas, it was their stifling defense as much as their offense that made the difference. The Thunder failed to make a field goal during the Raptors run and manage to score on just 5-6 free throw attempts over those last 5 minutes.
“I don’t know how much they made baskets coming down the stretch as much as they made an enormous number of free throws and for us, we weren’t able to make baskets or get to the free throw line,” Donovan said.
The Raptors went 10-10 from the charity stripe over those last 5 minutes, DeRozan (4-4), Jonas Valanciunas (4-4) and DeMarre Carroll (2-2) going perfect from the line, but Toronto also shot 4-8 from the field as momentum swung heavily in the Raptors favor with the game on the line.
A quick look at the boxscore makes the Raptors comeback victory seem beyond improbable. Durant had 27 points, Westbrook had 22 points and 16 assists, and Enes Kanter came off the bench to score 15 points. The Thunder had five players scoring in double digits and shot 47.6 percent from the field to just 41.8 percent for the Raptors.
However, the Thunder picked up 29 personal fouls to put Toronto on the free throw line 39 times plus they had 19 turnovers, 8 by Westbrook.
DeRozan got help from Kyle Lowry (17 points), a double-double from Jonas Valanciunas (17 points and 11 rebounds), Carroll’s 13 points and defense on Durant, plus the unexpected impact of Joseph (9 points). Joseph was a +22 points in a game where no other player was in double figures unless there was a minus sign in front.
With the win the Raptors move to 5-0 on the season and remain the only undefeated team in the Eastern Conference. Casey told his players to get some rest before they play Orlando on Friday and the Heat on Sunday.