Good luck convincing any of last night’s screaming Torontonians that the “hot hand” is a construction of our whimsical imaginations. Last night’s crowd saw their hometown Raptors carry a 22-point lead into the fourth quarter of a decisive Game Five, and what they saw was twelve minutes of basketball that very nearly burned itself into the collective Toronto sports nightmarescape. While Brooklyn decisively won the last quarter by a score of 44-24, the Raptors’ lethargic misdeeds have already been forgiven and forgotten, as Toronto held on to win, 115-113, relieved more than anything to see the clock hit zeroes. They now lead the series 3-2, forcing Brooklyn into an elimination game instead of facing one themselves as the series heads south of the border for Game Six.
A surprisingly influential character in last night’s high-leverage scenarios was Raptors power forward Patrick Patterson. Presumably a piece of flotsam sent over from Sacramento this December, a piece of generic counterbalance to offset the massive Rudy Gay contract heading the Kings’ way, in Patterson Raptors general manager Masai Ujiri of course scoped out an effective role player who has done nothing but provide quiet, dramatic improvements. When Patterson appeared on the court this regular season, the Raptors were 9.1 points better, per 100 possessions, than their opponents. While perhaps a small sample: in this series, Patterson has provided virtually the same boost for his team during his minutes (the Raptors are 9.0 points better per 100 possessions), but Toronto has floundered while Patterson has rested, falling behind by 11.2 points per 100 possessions while he’s been on the bench.
Last night, as the Raptors anxiously watched the clock with the Nets storming back, Patterson committed a monumental defensive blunder that put his team at a huge disadvantage. Assigned with guarding three-point maestro Mirza Teletovic, Patterson bizarrely waited in the key for Mirza to, I don’t know, come down to the block and post him up? After shooting 39% behind the arc this season, Mirza was allowed to very literally walk up, receive a soft, simple pass from teammate Deron Williams, and then drained the shot. No whiteboard scribbling required for Jason Kidd. The shot erased the last vestiges of Brooklyn’s giant deficit. Disaster for Toronto seemed imminent.
Thanks to some heroic circus shots from stone-faced Kyle Lowry, the Raptors managed to scrap back a three-point lead in the tense, waning seconds.
In the following play, Brooklyn has just used a timeout to advance the ball and draw up a set. During the break, Raptors coach Dwayne Casey sat Jonas Valanciunas and reinserted Patterson into the game. Defense-first fan-favorite Amir Johnson was, surprisingly, kept on the bench for this crucial moment. Fortunately for Casey and Toronto, Patterson made a brilliant and game-defining decision in the ensuing 1.6-second sequence.
When the referee hands the ball to Brooklyn inbounder Joe Johnson, Patterson has already bodied up his man Andray Blatche on the left elbow (nearest to the camera):
The play is set in motion. From the right elbow, Deron Williams curls around Blatche and cuts to the left corner. Blatche, tasked with screening Williams’ man (Terrence Ross), performs one of the more awkward screens you’ll ever see on a professional basketball court, taking a few steps backward and attempting to deter Ross by sticking out his butt. Thanks to the awkwardness of the screen, Patterson can stay with Blatche without moving:
The screen, miraculously, works! As Williams cuts down, he is clearly open in front of a recovering Ross. From out of bounds, Johnson looks Williams’ way but, for reasons only known to Joe Cool, he does not pull the trigger and holds on to the ball. (You’ll also notice that Teletovic and Alan Anderson, positioned on the right wing, have not moved, which they won’t do for the entirety of the play—a bit of a bizarre design.)
As Ross recovers on Williams, Blatche rolls out to the three-point line. At this point Johnson—perhaps sensing that, with a stagnant Teletovic and Anderson, no other openings will be on their way—immediately sends the pass to Blatche. Patterson, maybe still feeling burnt from giving up the open three to Teletovic a game-minute earlier, stays glued to Blatche, he of the lifetime 23.7% three-ball accuracy:
With the other four Nets watching from a standstill, Johnson comes in-bounds. After an initial stunt towards the basket, Johnson separates from his man (John Salmons) with a quick cut back towards Blatche and the ball:
And here is where Patterson strikes. As Blatche telegraphs (again, awkwardly) his pass to Johnson, Patterson bear-hugs Blatche, earning a quick whistle from the referee. The ball is dead right about here:
No, it is not TV-highlight material. But it is a play that exhibits Patterson’s razor-sharp and rapid-quick decision-making abilities.
By initially playing tight on Blatche but not fouling, Patterson is wise to allow the play develop. Then, when it becomes obvious that Blatche is prepared to pass to noted game-ender Johnson, Patterson instantly diagnoses that Johnson’s man is nowhere in sight. In applying a quick foul to Blatche, Patterson precisely executes the lone play at Toronto’s disposal that would keep the ball out of an open Johnson’s hands. If the foul comes too late, once Blatche has already passed the ball, the off-ball foul spells disaster for Toronto, as they would be forced to watch Brooklyn take free throws and then receive a new possession. A foul too early forecloses the possibility of Toronto stealing the ball, or the possibility of Brooklyn breaking their set and aimlessly running the whole clock down. (Which is not a far-fetched scenario, given the lack of motion in this coach-scripted set.) Patterson struck precisely when, where, and how he needed to.
In missing the second of his ensuing free throws, Blatche actually helped his team’s chances, keeping the ball alive with a two-point deficit instead of Toronto receiving the ball with a one-point lead. In a chaotic scramble for the rebound, it was actually Blatche who regained possession, only to promptly turn the ball back over by wildly hurling a pass into the backcourt. These closing seconds of the game were the opposite of pretty—cue a long video review to see if Blatche’s hurl was tipped by any Raptors—a turn of events that only seemed to enforce that the Raptors had waded into some deep weeds indeed.
But who knows how this series would stand if Patterson had not been thinking on his feet, and gave Joe Johnson an open look at the basket, with the game on the line.