By Frank McLean
If there was ever a reason to wonder why when the clock struck midnight on July 1st Raptors president and general manager Masai Ujiri and his staff were waiting at DeMarre Carroll’s front door to offer him a contract to play in Toronto, on Wednesday night you saw why. Carroll’s strong defensive ethic kept LeBron James and his Cleveland Cavaliers in check in a 103-99 win.
The Cavaliers lost in Toronto for the first time in 6 years when they had James in the line-up. Carroll held James to 24 points, 6 rebounds and 8 assists on 6-16 shooting from the field . When you keep James under 30 points in a game, you usually have a chance to win.
One of the reasons the Raptors could not get out of the first round of the playoffs the last two years is that they never had a player who could make life difficult for their opponent’s star player. Carroll was nowhere near the team’s high scorer in the game. He had 12 points with 3 rebounds in 40 minutes of work. But being a pain in James butt all night stood out.
In his post- game comments you could tell Carroll loves to battle with the best players in the NBA as he described how he kept King James fighting for every point he could get.
“You try and find that gnat on a summer day when you are eating that barbecue,” Carroll said. “You know what I’m talking about? And it’s in your face and you can’t get it out. That’s all I was trying to be man. He’s a great player, you can’t stop him, you can only slow him down that’s what I tried to do”.
But it wasn’t just Carroll, he made sure to give credit to the rest of the team.
“We were talking, everybody was helping each other and that’s what you ask for in a team,” Carroll said. “The same thing you do on the offensive end, when you pass the ball to your teammates and set them up is the same thing you do on the defensive end. If we keep doing that I think the future is bright for us.”
This Raptors rebuild was for success in the playoffs. Watching Wednesday night’s game you could see what was missing when the team was dumped four straight by the Washington Wizards in the first round last season, a defensive player who can stop the other teams star from beating you. And let’s not forget what else the Raptors acquired in their summer rebuild and that was roster depth.
With starting center Jonas Valanciunas out with a broken hand for 6 weeks in comes Bismack Biyombo filling in with a 32 minute effort scoring 11 points and adding 12 rebounds. Raptors head coach Dwane Casey couldn’t say enough about Biyombo.
“He set the tone for us defensively,” Casey said. “Protecting the paint, talking, being physical, being a deterrent at the rim and that was big for us as far as protecting the paint”.
It was just one game, beating James at home, but Casey says the team won’t get caught in one game.
“We’re excited about the win no question,” Casey continued. “But we can’t go over the moon and lose our focus and lose sight of continuing to improve in a lot of areas”.
And that is the theme of the rest of the rest of the regular season, continuing to improve. Not to keep harping about it, but this team was built for a long playoff run. The regular season will be used to keep improving as team, especially defensively, get a good seeding and hopefully home court in the first round of the playoffs.
Wednesday night was the first example of what type of team Masai Ujiri was trying to put together in the summer. Sometime in mid-April we should see the finished product.
Veteran journalist Frank McLean has covered nearly every Raptors game in Toronto since their inaugural season at the Skydome back in 1995-96. He has seen it all. The good, the bad and the really bad and he is one of the very few journalists in Toronto that has kept coming back for more.