In a battle between two of the hottest teams in the NBA, it was the Toronto Raptors (29-15) who kept the good times going with an eye-opening 112-94 beatdown of the Los Angeles Clippers for their eighth straight win. Kyle Lowry and Jonas Valanciunas anchored a balanced effort across the board by the Raps that featured seven double digit scorers and was highlighted by a 35-15 second quarter advantage that the Clips never recovered from.
After the visitors opened up an early 13-point lead, Toronto’s attacking play took hold, forcing a whopping seven turnovers in a three-minute stretch. After falling behind 32-19, they launched into a game-changing 25-3 run that knocked the wind out of the sails of the Blake Griffin-less Clippers. From there, they weathered an L.A. rally that closed the gap to four points in the third quarter before putting the game away with an 11-3 run in the fourth quarter, clearing the way for some garbage time.
The win over the Clippers extended the Raps’ surprising mastery of both the Staples Center denizens and the Western Conference elite. For the first time in franchise history, they have now swept both the Clippers and the Lakers this season, extending their unbeaten streak against the Clips to four games. As for the West, their impressive 9-7 record has strangely come on account of a 6-2 record against Western clubs above .500 and a 3-5 mark vs those below .500. As part of their eight-game streak, they’ve now won the first four games of their seven-game home stand.
Even with Griffin out, the Clippers can still flex some depth muscle with Jamal Crawford, Wes Johnson, Austin Rivers and Lance Stephenson among the reserves coming off the bench. But that unit was no match for a potent, effective Raptors bench that sparked the team to a 51-29 second unit advantage on Sunday night. The four-man reserve core of Terrence Ross, Cory Joseph, Patrick Patterson and Bismack Biyombo each scored 10 points or more while building a +25 plus/minus or better. Ross exploded for 18 points thanks in large part to a 5-7 mark from beyond the arc, Patterson and Biyombo combined for 20 points and 15 rebounds and Joseph – well, we’ll get to him in the next note. As for L.A., coach Doc Rivers evaluated the play of his bench in a rather succinct manner: “They were just awful”.
The leading scorer in Sunday’s game was Chris Paul, but it could be argued that the Clippers’ floor general might have been the third-most effective point guard in the contest. He picked up 23 points on 9-17 shooting and added 11 assists for an impressive showing, but finished with just a +10 thanks to a four-turnover effort. Meanwhile, Lowry finished with 21 points on 7-14 shooting while adding six assists and four rebounds and Joseph might have been best of all, with an efficient 22 minutes of floor time that produced 12 points on 5-8 shooting and a game-best +34.
I’m pointing fingers at both clubs on this matter, with neither the Raps nor Clips managing to reach the 70% plateau in free throw shooting. This has become all too common a trend in L.A., where the Clippers continued to drop their 69.3% free throw mark for the season by making just 18 of 30 attempts from the line (60%). The Raptors, however, actually own the league’s sixth-best free throw percentage mark (79.2%), but didn’t do themselves any favors by missing eight of their 26 tries (69.2%). Gaining one of his precious few opportunities at playing time late in Sunday’s game, Delon Wright got to the line four times but only connected on one free throw.
Sunday didn’t exactly produce the prettiest of games, but it did result in one of the best fan moments of the season so far for the Raptors. In response to a shoving match-up between Patterson and Crawford in the turn-around second quarter, the ACC faithful erupted into a spontaneous, boisterous chant of “Let’s Go Raptors”. The club has been short on buzz this season, owing to a “second round or bust” mentality where games won’t mean much until the playoffs. But between a hot streak of play and DeMar DeRozan’s sizzling personal stretch, maybe the buzz is beginning to build.
It seems like only weather can slow down the 905 these days. The winners of four straight won’t have a chance to extend their streak tonight, as their game against the Grand Rapids Drive has been postponed due to the heavy snowstorm affecting the eastern US. They next host Erie at home on Wednesday night.
The talent is certainly there and the record (28-16) looks good, but there’s still something missing when it comes to these Clips – and it has nothing to do with Griffin’s strained left quad. Indeed, the Clippers have actually been on a tear (11-3) without their star small forward, but there’s a weird dynamic in play without clearly defined roles outside of Paul, DeAndre Jordan and JJ Redick. Even Jordan seemed more concerned with venting over percieved officiating slights than actually trying to dominate Valanciunas and Biyombo inside. After falling one game short of the Western Conference final and beating the Spurs in a dramatic first round series a year ago, they seem to have fallen to a decidedly secondary tier within the Western power structure.
The Raps seek their franchise record-tying ninth straight win, along with coming a step closer to the East-leading Cavs, when they host the Washington Wizards on Tuesday night (7:30pm, TSN).
Prediction: Raps 106, Wizards 101 (record this season: 25-18)