Mavs in a bottle: Raps leave Dallas flummoxed in convincing win

by Chris O'Leary

The breaking point for Luka Doncic and the Dallas Mavericks came with 7:05 left in the fourth quarter, when the Raptors led by 14 points. 

It may not look like it, but these can be the moments in a game where a player as great as Doncic thinks he has you just where he wants you. He can take a sluggish night on a back-to-back and decide to wipe his slate clean, shedding the ‘un’ from his unremarkable outing, rally his teammates and run away with a win. 

If the Mavs had any of those thoughts on Monday night, they disappeared as the ball came into play and Doncic saw Stanley Johnson waiting for him, almost under the Mavs’ basket. Not even an elbow to the face deterred Johnson as he pressured the guard all the way over the halfcourt line, before Doncic dribbled the ball into Johnson’s leg, getting a kicked ball call. 

Johnson physically applauded the play, while Fred VanVleet confronted the Mavs about the thrown elbow, picking up a technical foul in the process. 

It was less than 10 seconds but it may have been the most telling example of how difficult a night the Raptors made for the Mavericks. Monday night’s 116-93 win was the Raptors’ most complete and exhaustive defensive effort of the season. 

“I thought we did (frustrate Doncic),” Johnson said, after the Raptors put the Mavs away in a convincing 116-93 win. His six points, three boards and a block are easy to glaze over in the box score, but the 24-year-old left his fingerprints on the game. 

“I know Luka, he’s not a bad guy. I thought he was frustrated,” Johnson continued. 

“When you’re tearing up the league like he is, he’s putting 30-point triple doubles on guys and you get a team that is locked in on a game plan and they're taking stuff away from you, that's what happens. Everybody has a tough night. I mean, it happens to everybody. So tonight was his night.” 

If it was a tough night for Doncic -- he finished with 15 points, nine assists and seven rebounds -- it was a beautiful one for the Raptors. Their win over the Mavs was a rediscovery of their defensive roots, a win born out of court-burned knees and elbows, of suffocating defence, of frustrated opponents and elbows to faces. 

“I've got hit harder before,” Johnson said. “We’re playing basketball, we're not going to give each other hugs. He got me, it didn't hurt. I just get on with it.” 

The Raptors got on with winning their third straight, improving to 5-8 in the process. Thirteen games in, this season has been more lows than highs, but Monday’s win was the brightest moment the team has seen thus far. 

“I think we’re just getting better,” Raptors guard Kyle Lowry said after a 23-point, nine-rebound and seven-assist night. 

“I think we’re getting more confident in ourselves and getting more comfortable with what we’re trying to do offensively and defensively. It feels like we’re playing with a little bit more confidence and understanding that we’re going to play hard, we have to get to our spots.” 

The Raptors were relentless defensively, hitting the Mavs with quick double teams as they faced up with the ball and hurling themselves to the floor for loose balls all night. Raptors coach Nick Nurse threw his box-and-one at Doncic at points and while Kristaps Porzingis led Dallas with 23 points, it came on 8-14 shooting, with very little looking easy for him. 

The elbow incident was the main topic of post-game discussion for Johnson, but he stressed after the game that it wasn’t just him, that it was a team defensive effort and he’s not wrong on that front. Johnson was a part of that defensive plan, but so was OG Anunoby. 

“I give both of them a lot of credit, OG and Stanley,” Raptors coach Nick Nurse said. 

“I thought they took the challenge and worked at it. They really worked at it all night, they were just constantly there applying pressure. They're similar builds and they’ve got the strength, some foot speed and things like that. Most of the thing is desire and I thought they both played with a tremendous amount of desire on it.” 

The Raptors played well on their Western Conference road swing but didn’t get the wins to go with it. Monday was the melding of the two, this defensively aggressive team that bottled up another superstar player and managed to improve their record while doing it. Lowry and Pascal Siakam (19 points and five assists) put their stamp on the game in the third quarter, helping open up a comfortable double-digit lead that the Raptors held onto. With Doncic and Porzingis on the bench to close out the game, Nurse was able to empty his bench for the game’s final minutes. 

It’s the finish that Raptors fans have been spoiled by over the last few years. After such a shaky start to the season, a win like this one could be the validation that had eluded the Raptors over the past couple of weeks. 

“Any time you get a win in the NBA it’s amazing, no matter how you win,” Johnson said. 

“I think we already had confidence, I think we're a confident team. A lot of guys have won championships here. A lot of guys have played in the Eastern Conference Finals. A lot of guys have reason to have confidence, so I don’t think it’s a confidence issue.” 

The Raptors had a record-setting comeback against the Mavs in Toronto in Dec. 2019, where Lowry and the second unit dug their way out of a 30-point deficit. Thirteen months later, the Raptors may have had another significant moment in their season against the same club.  

“I just think it's us getting through the season, doing the right things on a day-to-day basis,” Johnson said. “At seven o'clock on the game days, hopefully it comes out there on the court.” 

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