“I like the way our guys fought, but, again, you don’t get a win or any medals or anything for losing,” he said. “We’re not thinking that we’re at the level of the team we’re playing tonight. We’re not there yet, but that is our goal, to be like an Indiana consistently, to be like Miami, when we walk in to feel like we have a chance … I like the direction we’re going. We’re building something. We just, again, you’re playing against the best, you’ve got to do the little things and there can’t be any slippage.”
“The team is playing well. Everybody’s encouraged,” Ujiri said. “The NBA is a crazy league. One day, it’s great. The next day, it’s tough. I give coach credit. Congratulations to him for coach of the month. They players have been unbelievable. “The players know, I have communicated to everybody where we stand. We want to be a good team, a winning team. If it’s not that way, we have to figure out a way to rebuild the team or figure it out. Everybody’s clear how this thing works.” Ujiri’s vision is micro and macro — improve now and work toward a sustainable winning program.
The recent surge means these Raptors are going to get every chance to prove themselves, and will give Ujiri a true test of his mettle as a general manager. Does he believe in Kyle Lowry, who is on his best behaviour and playing his best basketball while in a contract year? Are Ross and DeRozan long-term answers on winning teams? Or assets with rising value ripe to be flipped? Taking advantage of a soft Eastern Conference could have its own rewards. Even if the East is weak, the Raptors don’t win the Atlantic without improving. They don’t win a playoff round without getting better.
eginning with a game Wednesday at home against the Detroit Pistons, DeRozan and the Raptors will be presented with a golden opportunity not only to cement their lead atop the league’s Atlantic Division but also, perhaps, to take a firm grasp on the third place overall in the Eastern Conference. Detroit. Brooklyn. Milwaukee. At Boston. The Lakers. At Charlotte. Combined, those seven teams began play Monday night more than 50 games below .500 (a combined 75-128), which affords the Raptors a great opportunity to affirm themselves as one of the best teams in the East.
Obviously, Toronto isn’t among the East’s elite just yet. But the change has been so profound and abrupt that it has some observers around the league facetiously wondering whether trading Gay was an unfair advantage…The about-face in the Raptors’ fortunes isn’t that hard to understand. Cutting ties with Gay allowed the team’s young talent—of which there’s a a lot, by the way—to blossom. DeMar DeRozan and Amir Johnson have both been much better without a certain black hole sucking up possessions on offense.
Toronto has been a different team since the Rudy Gay trade 4 weeks ago with wins over the Thunder in Oklahoma City and the Pacers at the Air Canada Centre. A franchise that looked to be lottery bound for the sixth consecutive year is now just 1 game out of third place in the East. The Raptors have played the toughest schedule of any team in their division by far and seem to have found that elusive winning chemistry needed to be a playoff team.
Valanciunas has shone at times during the current hot streak. In his last 13 games, the Lithuanian is averaging 15 points and nine rebounds per game. Valanciunas is fouling at about the same rate — 3.2 per game as opposed to 3.0 a year ago, in six fewer minutes on average — and his scoring is up overall (10.7 points from 8.9 as a rookie). He also rebounds at a higher rate (8.3 this season, 6.0 last year) and can be trusted in far more instances.
The Raps have become the best team in the Atlantic Division, though achieving that wasn’t exactly bordering on University calculus difficulty. Their bench has been really solid and steady with the Four Horseman coming over. Amir Johnson has gone up a level with more PnRs and responsibility offensively coming his way, and though DeRozan’s shooting has been bad lately, he’s doing other things that he previously never did. The Raps have attained a .500 record despite having an extremely difficult schedule, and after their next encounter versus the Indiana Pacers, the next couple of months for them is very manageable to say the least. Tank Nation is dissipating rather quickly and the reality of a top four or even a 3-seed is very much a reality. Now whether or not this is good for the franchise going forward is something that’s still years away from deciding.
Take that to the tank
“It’s no difference to us,” leading scorer DeMar DeRozan said. “We understand we have to prepare for Indiana either way (Monday), either if we were here or there. We understand what’s up. It really doesn’t matter.” Toronto is hoping that move leads to another strong performance against Indiana (27-6). The Raptors caused the Pacers to commit a season-high 23 turnovers and record their lowest point total of the season. Paul George scored only 12, two off his season low.
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