Last Friday night, things broke a little differently. Rudy Gay was red-hot down the stretch, scoring 17 points in the fourth quarter and overtime to erase what had been an 11-point Indiana Pacers lead; it seemed only fitting that he'd raise up and drain a 17-footer with 1.7 seconds left in OT to give the Toronto Raptors a 100-98 comeback upset win. On Tuesday night, though, Gay had been whisper-quiet throughout the final three quarters of the game, stapled to the bench with foul trouble and unable to get himself into a rhythm after hitting the ground running against the Denver Nuggets.
Surely, with the game in the balance in the closing seconds, he wouldn't be able to just get appropriately warm, get wherever he wanted on the court against the able defense of Corey Brewer, and nail down a win for the second time in three games.
Well, about that:
Too easy, Drill Sergeant.
After Gay's dribble-drive for a short baseline jumper over Brewer gave the Raptors a one-point lead, the Nuggets still had one chance to win it, but a bit of solid Toronto defense on the inbounds pass — Kyle Lowry bowling his way through Anthony Randolph's initial screen, which crowded Ty Lawson, prevented him from cleanly taking a handoff and motoring toward the basket, and forced him into re-gathering for a tough floater that missed — iced a 109-108 Raptors win in front of a charged-up Air Canada Centre crowd. Sure, the win came over a Nuggets team playing without starters Danilo Gallinari and Andre Iguodala, but still, for a hard-luck Raptors team that's gotten the short end of the stick plenty this season, a win's a win.
Gay started hot, scoring 13 first-quarter points on seven shots to send the Raptors racing out to a 28-21 lead after 12 minutes. But after picking up two quick personals midway through the second quarter, he found himself in foul trouble for much of the rest of the game, limiting him to just 13 more minutes and two more points heading into that final possession. He wasn't the star of the evening for the Raptors — that title belonged to guard DeMar DeRozan, who accented his 22-point, eight-rebound performance with a monstrous posterization of Denver center Timofey Mozgov, who's got some experience with this sort of thing. But with the game on the line, Toronto's coach once again called Gay's number, and once again, the newest Raptor delivered. From Dustin Pollack at Y! Canada brother blog Eh Game:
“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.”
The closer trope is often overwrought and overemphasized, and the numbers don't necessarily bear it out for Rudy — he's just outside the top 35 in production per 48 minutes of "clutch" play (last five minutes with your team ahead or behind by five points or less), according to NBA.com's stat tool; he also finished outside of the top 20 in that category last year and far below that in each of the three previous years, according to 82games.com. Still, what Gay can do, as TNT analyst Steve Kerr noted last night, is create a good look for himself against an awful lot of wing defenders, which — while not necessarily something that outweighs his 41 percent shooting from the floor and 30 percent mark from 3-point range on the season — is still a very valuable skill down the stretch of tight games. On Tuesday night, it paid major dividends for the Raptors.
We'd be remiss, however, if we didn't note that Gay didn't get the chance to be the hero all by his lonesome. In fact, less than one minute earlier, Gay had another go-ahead try go sideways, only to be bailed out by two of his new 'mates. Take it away, Eric Koreen of the National Post:
With the Raptors trailing by one point in the final minute, Gay got the ball, with memories of his dagger in Indiana on Friday night no doubt playing in many minds. But as he tried to beat Brewer off of the ball, cutting toward the middle of the court, he lost control of the ball. At that point, two Raptors made integral plays.
• First, DeMar DeRozan was in the right place at the right time. [...] DeRozan collected the ball, allowing the Raptors to get a shot instead of losing possession. That shot wound up being a missed 17-footer by Alan Anderson.
• As he so often does, Amir Johnson then made a play that will go under the radar [...] he kept the ball alive off Anderson’s miss, allowing the Raptors to secure the offensive rebound. Raptors coach Dwane Casey then called a timeout, setting up Gay to win the game.
It's nice to have friends, isn't it?
The Raptors improved to 20-32 on the season with the win, and 4-2 with Gay in the lineup; he's averaging 22.3 points, six rebounds, three steals and 2.5 assists per game since heading north of the border.