With the game on the line the ball was once again in Rudy Gay’s hands. The 26-year-old was playing in a Raptors uniform for just the sixth time yet the scene felt all too familiar.
It was only four nights earlier that Gay played an integral part in an improbable Raptors comeback against the Indiana Pacers. With the Raptors having pulled within two with just over six seconds remaining Gay hustled to half court to intercept an attempted inbound pass, and found Amir Johnson who missed his initial shot, but picked up an offensive rebound and scored on the putback to tie the game just as the regulation buzzer sounded. In overtime with the game tied 98-98 Gay drove to his right, pulled up and nailed the game-winning shot with 1.7 seconds remaining.
Back to Tuesday night's heroics. While foul trouble limited Gay to just 25 minutes on the floor, he took to the court and brought it when it mattered most. With the Raptors trailing the Denver Nuggets 108-107 and only eight seconds left on the clock, Gay once again drove to his right, pulled up from 17 feet and drained a shot from the baseline to put the Raptors up 109-108 with 4.8 seconds remaining. Toronto then came up with a (rare) last-second stop on defense en route to their third-straight victory.
“He’s a big-time player, he’s a closer,” Raptors head coach Dwane Casey, who listened to his assistant coaches and waited until putting Gay back on the floor, said in his post-game media conference. “He’s done it his whole career, done it at a high level, [he’s done it] in the playoffs, in big games, he’s done it against us in Dallas so I've seen him do it so many times.”
In his short stint in Toronto, Gay has been exactly what his new coach described him as, a difference maker who has shown an inherent ability to hit big shots at important moments. And for a team that has struggled to finish games this season he appears to be able to provide that missing ingredient to the winning formula.
It’s still early in Gay’s Toronto tenure and what his long-term effect on the franchise remains to be seen, but Tuesday''s victory means Toronto is now 4-2 with him in the lineup. The 6-foot-8 forward has averaged 22.3 points per game since the trade.
Pretty gaudy stuff, but Gay was more focused on a 17-point night against the Nuggets that he felt was subpar.
“Obviously it’s not a game I’m proud of, but I’m proud to get this win with the team,” Gay told reporters after the win.
While Tuesday may not have been his best performance as a Raptor, Gay’s overall success with the team has also kick-started Kyle Lowry's game again. The 26-year-old point guard had 11 points and 10 assists Tuesday for his second-straight double double. Obviously knowing that he’s the only one with the keys to Raptors offense likely benefits Lowry, but having his good friend alongside him surely has to help alleviate some of the pressure and allow him to play a more confident game.
While the playoffs are still a long shot, the opportunity for a late-season surge towards the post-season seems more attainable with 30 games left in the season than it did a week ago, with 33 games left on the schedule and the Raptors coming off a 99-95 loss to the Boston Celtics.
Their 20-32 record puts them into 10th place in the Eastern Conference, six games back of the eighth seeded Milwaukee Bucks.