TORONTO - After taking down the Toronto Raptors 92-74 on Dec. 10 at the Rose Garden, the Portland Trail Blazers found themselves on the other side of that trouncing tonight in a 102-79 defeat handed to them by the Raptors, earning them their eighth win in nine games. The difference from almost a month ago is that the Raptors (12-20) are a completely different team, since. Raptors Head Coach Dwane Casey is a playing a smaller athletic lineup these days, conducive to an uptempo style of play.
But the biggest difference is clearly the reinsertion of Jose Calderon to the starting five. Kyle Lowry was the starter to begin the year and his shoot-first mentality wasn't meshing well. Calderon scored zero points tonight, but had so much of a positive effect on the game. He orchestrated the offense, made sure guys were in the right place and when it was time to run, he advanced the ball. When it was time to run half-court sets, he slowed it up and got guys easy shots. How does a guy who scores zero points receive so much praise, you ask? Simple, he had 13 assist and zero turnovers in 22 minutes of play. He only had one field goal attempt. Not too many point guards doing that these days.
"He's one of the few pure point guards we have in this league," Ronnie Price said. "I would never say anything bad about Jose because he plays the game the right way." Portland native Terrence Ross benefited off of plays setup by Calderon on his way to a career-high 26 points. Ed Davis knocked down jump-shot after jump-shot when Calderon found him for the mid-range jumper. DeMar DeRozan led all scorers with 24 points, but Calderon's play-makings kills set the table for everyone. "He's very selfless," LaMarcus Aldridge said. "You don't see many guards in the league that will go and not really care about scoring a point and passing the ball like he does. He played great and I thought he was big for them."
The Trail Blazers (16-15) played their second game of a back-to-back tonight, having upset the New York Knicks 105-100 at Madison Square Garden the night before. Prior to today, the Raptors did not play a game in three days and it showed from the tip with their energized play. The Raptors started the game on a 10-0 run and the Trail Blazers would not convert their first field goal until the 9:07 mark. In the NBA,10-point leads are essentially two-point leads, but tonight, the game was in the Raptors hands in the first three minutes of the game after observing the fatigue the Trail Blazers were experiencing.
Trail Blazers Head Coach Terry Stotts nor any of his players used fatigue as an excuse, but you could clearly see from the get-go that this team didn't have much in the tank tonight. "We just didn't pay well," Stotts said. "We were a little loose with the ball in the first half, late on some rotations, didn't contest shots." The second quarter is when the Raptors opened it up going on a 18-5 run to make it 47-29, their biggest lead up to that point and ended the half on top 55-39.
The Trail Blazers proceeded to cut the lead to 12 in the third before the Raptors eventually extended their lead backup to 19. The Trail Blazers have been known to come back from huge deficits to make things interesting and being down 17 to start the fourth quarter was very plausible. However, that was the closest they would come and the Raptors fought back every crucial play the Trail Blazers made and got the lead up to 25 before Joel Freeland hit a pair of free throws to end the game, having lost by 23. "They came out with more of an urge to play," said Price. "When you get down on a team that's been playing as well as they have been playing the past few weeks, you give them confidence and it's hard to fight back in that game and win, especially when you're on the road."
With this victory, the Raptors have beaten the Trail Blazers for the first time in nearly five years. Up until this point, the Trail Blazers beat the Raptors eight straight times. "They are a different team," Nicolas Batum said. "That's not the same team we played in Portland. They are playing good ball."
Damian Lillard finished the game with 18 points, five rebounds, and seven assist. Aldridge got a double-double -- 14 points and 10 rebounds. This loss puts the Trail Blazers in a tie for the eighth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference. The Trail Blazers will take on the Memphis Grizzlies on Friday, they are 1-1 so far on this four-game road trip.
Another award: During tonight's game, the NBA announced that Damian Lillard has been named Rookie of the Month for the month of December, his second consecutive month he's won the award. I asked him what it meant to win this award again: "It means I played another good month. I don't know what else to say about it. I'm just trying to help the team win games."