Whatever was left to prove for a team sitting first in its conference, the Toronto Raptors delivered on to validate their status as contenders.
Toronto did what no team had done since late January and beat the Houston Rockets 108-105 at the Air Canada Centre on Friday, putting an end to the Western Conference leaders’ 17-game winning streak.
Though the Raptors were already sitting atop the East and in possession of the third-best record in the league, the clash with Houston felt like a litmus test for the team’s ceiling this season.
And Toronto passed with flying colours – a statement that they’re not only capable of reaching the NBA Finals, but of making it a competitive series, especially if they meet the Rockets who they’ve defeated twice already.
Lowry and DeRozan combined for 53 points to Harden and Paul’s 54, while the Raptors beat the Rockets at their own game by taking and making more 3-pointers.
“I think the biggest, too, is they’re playing a lot freer and without as much thought, and that shows a lot with the way DeMar is playing,” said Paul, via the Toronto Star. “He’s shooting a lot more threes now, he’s just hooping. And that’s the same we say for us. And they actually look like they have fun playing together.”
Toronto’s reserves, meanwhile, outscored Houston’s second unit 28-22 to once again win the bench battle.
The Raptors’ bench has been a significant reason for their success as they lead the league in defensive rating at 100.1 points allowed per 100 possessions, net rating at 9.4 and average plus-minus at plus-4.1.
“But this was the difference in terms of, like, crunch time, fourth quarter, the game’s on the line, [head coach Dwane Casey] is over there, he’s thinking about subbing, but he ends up leaving us in there for a little bit longer, and we kind of pay him back.”
It will be difficult to trust Toronto until they prove it in the playoffs – a setting they’ve mightily struggled in – but it’s fair to think this is the year they finally have it figured out.
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