With overtime looming on Thursday afternoon (Eastern time, anyway) at the O2 Arena in London, the Toronto Raptors (25-15) could be forgiven for having flashbacks to their last UK foray*, one that included a 137-136 triple-overtime loss to the then-New Jersey Nets. Mercifully, this time around the Raps spent less time on the court and actually came away with a 106-103 win over the ‘host’ Orlando Magic.
The Raptors and Magic didn’t put on the most picturesque showcase of basketball for the British crowd, but they did treat them to some high intensity play that went the distance and then some. Orlando scored the last five points of regulation, including a cutting jumper by leading scorer Victor Oladipo, to force overtime. From there, though, the Raps made their first three shots in the extra frame to take a lead they would not relinquish, securing their 25th win of the season in front of 18,689 UK fans.
While no Raptor could answer Oladipo’s game-high 27 points, Kyle Lowry anchored Toronto with 24 points, eight rebounds and seven assists. Though the back court tandem of he and DeMar DeRozan shot just 9-39 from the floor, they contributed in other ways, pulling down 19 combined boards and leading an aggressive free throw-based attack by going 17-20 from the charity stripe. That effort helped spark a stark free throw disparity, with Toronto making 24 of 31 attempts to just six of eight tries by the Magic, thereby offsetting Orlando’s advantages in field goal percentage (45.4% to 41.1%) and in the assist department (28-20).
*”They” being DeRozan and James Johnson, the only two current Raptors with the club at the time (Johnson is now on his second tour of duty)
A few days of overseas team bonding didn’t quite lead to plentiful ball movement on the part of the Raptors, but it did bring about a balanced scoring attack in which a good portion of the active roster chipped in. In fact, Toronto saw a whopping seven players hit double digits in scoring, from the team-leading Lowry down to Bismack Biyombo, who got his 11 points on just four shot attempts. Outside of Lowry and Biyombo, DeRozan, Cory Joseph, Jonas Valanciunas, Patrick Pattersona and Luis Scola all got in on the double digit scoring action.
A Canadian in London
In a radio interview from London with Sportsnet’s Dean Blundell, Joseph likened the buzz surrounding the lead-up to the game to an NBA Finals atmosphere. Maybe it was fitting, then, that the Raps back-up point guard thrived amidst some different surroundings from the typical regular season game. Joseph scored 19 points on an efficient 9-11 shooting, leading a 43-20 second unit scoring advantage for the Raps.
Joseph brought some efficiency to what was an inefficient showing by the starting guards. Compared to the 23.1% shooting by likely All-Star selections Lowry and DeRozan, the starting Magic tandem of Oladipo and Evan Fournier poured in 48 combined points while shooting 18-31 (58.1%). Oladipo and Fournier have helped Orlando stay in the Eastern playoff hunt with some explosive play alongside Tobias Harris and Nikola Vucevic, but a British fan new to the NBA watching Thursday’s game would conclude that they are better than the Lowry/DeRozan pair, which seems misguided.
It wasn’t quite a smooth broadcast foray into London, with a sometimes-choppy TV feed, a scoreboard that didn’t always work and an embarrassing snafu when the clock ran prematurely through to the buzzer during a critical final possession in regulation. However. there was still a uniquely cool atmosphere to the proceedings thanks to a decidedly more knowledgeable and engaged crowd and a cache of notable attendees, including Didier Drogba, Michael B. Jordan, Gordon Ramsey, Commissioner Adam Silver, ex-Commissioner David Stern and an impressive fivesome of NBA alumni (Hakeem Olajuwon, Rick Fox, John Amaechi, Muggsy Bogues and Horace Grant).
This is a few days late, but this SI profile on DeRozan nevertheless offers a pretty interesting bit of statistical insight into why the star shooting guard is enjoying the best stretch of play in his career. My favourite nugget: he leads the NBA in points scored on drives with 8.9 per game, connecting on 52.4% of attempts.
For the third time already this season, the Raptors 905 fell precisely one point short, losing to the pesky Sioux Falls Skyforce for the fourth time in their last five games and the fifth time in their past eight. Their 102-101 loss saw the Mississauga D-Leaguers spark a late 10-0 run, only to fall agonizingly short. Ronald Roberts led all scorers with 26 points on 8-16 shooting that included a perfect 10-10 mark from the free throw line.
Amidst a losing stretch that has seen the club drop six of their last seven games, it has to be encouraging to coach Scott Skiles and the Magic to see them hold their No. 8 seed in the current Eastern Conference standings. Still, Skiles will clearly need to figure out what ails his team, with a largely healthy roster that is struggling to jive after jumping out to a surprising start to the year. Maybe it’s time to unleash some of the talent toiling in sparing minutes off the bench, including Elfrid Payton, Mario Hezonja and Andrew Nicholson, who had been logging significant floor time until recently.
After a couple of jetlag recovery days over the weekend, the Raps return to the ACC for a stretch of home cooking on Monday (7:30pm, SN1). Toronto opens a seven-game homestand and wraps the first half of their season by welcoming in the now-Brooklyn Nets.
Prediction: Raps 107, Nets 103 (record this season: 22-17)