Raptors 99, 76ers 78 – Box

On a night where the MLB’s (North American) season opening game was on, as well as a LeBron-Durant showdown, I didn’t expect to stick with the Raptors game for four quarters. Out of obligation, I would pay some attention, but I definitely didn’t expect to be entertained. As it so happened though, the Raptors put in a spirited effort, culminating in an absolutely dominant fourth quarter, hanging an embarrassing 99-78 victory on the playoff-bound Philadelphia 76ers.

Sure, the Sixers have been struggling, and the Raptors are heating up at the worst possible time, but a good game is a good game, and as much as we all want ping pong balls, there are certainly positives that can be taken from wins at this point in the year.

Cue the commenters calling me an idiot and not seeing the big picture. I get it, we want more chances at a high pick. Of course we do, who wouldn’t? And the Raptors have played themselves from 4th in the lottery odds all the way to 7th (with only a game between them and the Pistons) with this stretch of four wins in five games. This is terrible news. But the good news is that, despite no significant additions in the offseason other than Coach Casey, this team has 20 wins in 55 games. Last year they had 22 wins in 82 games.

A lottery pick, especially one like Anthony Davis, would obviously help this team. But so has Casey. So will the culture change. So will the growth and development of DeMar DeRozan (turning it on since the start of February) and Ed Davis (14 rebounds tonight), and the re-establishing of Andrea Bargnani (24 points on 15 FG attempts) as the go-to scorer. Don’t forget that we already have one lottery pick entering the fold next year in Jonas Valanciunas, plus a wealth of salary cap space (approximately $16M before cap holds). The pick doesn’t have to be Anthony Davis for this team to improve for 2012-13.

And I know, it’s still a .364 winning percentage, and just .448 (13-16) with Bargnani healthy. But it was .268 last year with largely the same personnel, and at the very least that should show us that the team is moving in the right direction. Even their point differential has improved from -6.2 per game last year to -3.1 per game this year. The defense (102.2 rating) is significantly better than last year (110.0, dead last in the league), and while the offense has felt a slight decrease in output, keep in mind Bargnani’s extended absence (love him or hate him, he’s by far the team’s biggest offensive weapon).

You’re never going to win an argument with a member of Tank Nation. That’s not a criticism…they’re right that a higher pick improves the outlook for this team moving forward. But it’s not the only way for a young team to improve, as Coach Casey has put on display for us this year, especially lately. The wins are coming at the worst possible time, but the fact that they’re coming, and they’re not all against doormats (Philly and Denver are average or better), is a positive too.

As for tonight, specifically, the usual suspects lead the charge. Bargs with an efficient 24, DeRozan with an aggressive offensive game (don’t let the 4 FTA fool you, he attacked plenty) for 18-3-5, Jose with 13 assists to just 1 turnover, and Ed with 14 rebounds in 25 minutes. The Raptors also won the rebounding battle by a ridiculous 46-29 margin and were hot from long range (9/21), but the defense also really locked down when it mattered.

At half, the Sixers were shooting 58% and had 56 points. They managed just 15 in the third quarter on 6/16 shooting. Then they put up a ridiculous 7 points on 3/20 shooting in the fourth. No, seriously. And while some of the credit needs to be given to the Sixers for refusing to do anything but play one-on-one on offense, the Raptors also maintained focus and clamped down as individual and help defenders when it mattered. The Sixers bench, including microwave scorers Jodie Meeks and Sweet Lou Williams, shot 7/25 as a whole, while The Villain Evan Turner went 2/10. (An aside: Evan Turner is one of my favourite players to watch but was a monstrous disappointment tonight.)

3/20. 7 points. For an entire quarter. Damn. Well done.

Oh, and you may have noticed I’ve left out a pair of players to this point. Allow me some notes on each before I sign off.

Alan Anderson – the well-travelled pseudo-veteran looked great again tonight, pouring in 13 points on just 7 shots (5/7, 3/4 3FG). Anderson started for the first time since April of 2006, and the team didn’t miss a beat without Gary Forbes and James Johnson. Anderson plays adequate D and can space the floor, and his attitude and drive as a journeyman trying to make it can only help foster competition for playing time, a crucial element for maintaining motivation down the stretch. His 10-day contract is up, and I’m sure he’ll be given another audition after impressing. Jamaal Magloire certainly approves, as he could be seen doing the veteran-approval-nod-and-lip-pout throughout the game when AA made plays.

Ben Uzoh – Uzoh hasn’t looked as good, but he almost had himself a guaranteed deal when Jose went to the floor in the second. Luckily Jose returned with stitches and gutted it out, because without Jose, Bayless, Anthony Carter (ha ha), and even Forbes, this team would be horribly thin at guard. Uzoh does a bit of everything, though he doesn’t have one elite skill and isn’t terribly efficient. Still, I think he’s worth another 10-day look when his deal expires, because why not?

Quote of the night – “Without Bayless the Raptors don’t have that lockdown guy at the point.” – Leo Rautins
My response – “With Bayless, the Raptors still don’t have that lockdown guy at the point.”