Well, we all kind of knew this was going to happen, right? Masai Ujiri trades away the team's highest paid player, and while -- philosophically, at least -- that seemed to signal the beginning of a full-on
tank 'strategic retreat'; without the ball-stopping, offense killing force that is Rudy Gay, the Raptors were always going to become a more fluid, well-oiled machine in the short-run -- even with Dwane Casey at the helm. It's going to take a lot more than moving Gay to make the Raptors slide to the bottom of the dung heap that is this season's Eastern Conference. Right now they're inching their way up said dung heap.
In-fact, after last night's win the Raptors and Bulls have identical records, at 9-13. What a bizarre season.
In the post-Gay era the Raptors are 3-1 (averaging 23 dimes a game), and last night they put together perhaps their most complete performance of the season at both ends of the floor, against a thoroughly unwatchable Bulls team. Kyle Lowry top-scored for the Raps with 16 points (once again helping his trade value) and had 6 assists, DeMar DeRozan put up an efficient 15 points; and Jonas Valanciunas played one of his best all-round games in a Raptors uniform.
Jonas overcame a really tricky match-up against one of the best defensive big-men in the NBA -- the awesome Joakim Noah -- to put up 15 points, 11 rebounds, and 4 blocks. The 4 rejections are particularly noteworthy because it's become obvious in the past few games that Jonas is more engaged at the defensive end. And it's not hard to understand why. With the team moving towards a more pick-n-roll oriented offense -- hell, with the team just running something resembling an offense -- and with a greater emphasis on the bigs rolling and finishing at the rim, Jonas looks more comfortable with his overall role on the team. One criticism: He really needs to shoot those open jumpers if he wants that shot-fake to be effective.
Overall everyone on the Raps looked confident and was involved in the offense last night. No player took more than 14 shots and the Raptors had a season high 26 assists, on 40 made field-goals in the victory. Lowry ran the pick-n-roll with both starting big-men, while Greivis Vasquez did a great job of running the two-man game (with Amir, in particular) in the 4th. Amir and Jonas even ran some nice high-low action as the Raps blew the game open in the second half.
This is the type of offense we've be dying to see all season. The type of offense that wins you basketball games!
Entering the game the Bulls were ranked 3rd in defensive efficiency, restricting teams to 96.8 points per 100 possessions, and 42% shooting from the field. Against a team that plays half-court defense as well as the Bulls do it's absolutely essential to move the ball -- to shift the defense around to get open looks, and to keep them off balance. The Raptors did that last night and ended up shooting 48% from the field. Ball movement works: Who would've thunk it?!
And defensively the Raptors were on the ball the entire game, as well; although this Bulls team -- as evidenced by the fact that they were forced to pick up DJ Augustin (Hey, why trade for Lowry when you can sign his back-up's back-up?) -- are absolutely atrocious in the half-court right now. The Bulls shot a season-low 36% from the field and were restricted to 11 points in the final quarter, as the Raptors went on a 26-8 run to end the game.
So, given what we saw last night, should we all be worried that the Raptors are now too good considering all that's at stake in the summer of 2014? It appears as though the Raptors are once again becoming that kid getting a solid D in the class that every other kid (most of the Eastern Conference) is failing.
Well, judging by the fact that Ujiri is adamant that the Raps will not end up in the middle of the pack by the end of the season, those riding shotgun in the 1st Canadian Amoured Brigade shouldn't worry too much -- at least not at this moment in time -- about this team ending up in no man's land.
Granted, as currently constructed, the Raptors are a playoff team in the East -- which again says as much about the craptastic conference as it does about the team's improved play -- but Kyle Lowry, whether he's shipped out to New York or some other team in desperate need of a competent point-guard (Hey Jerry Reinsdorf, you may want to loosen that wallet), won't be on this team too much longer. And, as RaptorsHQ's Braedon Clark pointed out on Twitter last night, let's revisit this conversation again after the Raps play the Mavericks, Spurs, and Thunder on the road, as they do in 3 of their next 4 games.
But for now, after so much speculation, and so much terrible basketball through the first quarter of this season, let's just take a brief moment to enjoy what was a really good Raptors performance....okay that's long enough: TRADE EVERYONE, MASAI!
Additional Game Notes
- Not sure if Patrick Patterson has a future on this team past this season, but if he can play consistent defense, he could be a really useful first big off the bench. He looked like the stretchiest of stretch 4s last night.
- Terrence Ross had a rough night shooting the ball, but the effort was there. And besides, whether he struggles or not, the rest of this season provides the ideal opportunity to give him major minutes and to really see whether he's worth investing in -- financially and emotionally -- moving forward.
- Greivis Vasquez is slow and can't really shoot, but he's A LOT of fun to watch.
- Casey actually ran some nice plays coming out of timeouts last night. Maybe Rudy Gay was actually just sabotaging the offense by calling Peyton Manning-style audibles every night. Or maybe not.
- Not a fan of John Salmons iso-ball. How much is his buy-out again?
- As Matt Devlin and Jack Armstrong mentioned on the broadcast, the United Center was dead tonight. The Bulls fan-base give off the impression that they're still recovering from the collective gut punch that was Derrick Rose's season-ending injury.
- We need a referendum on this Matt Devlin "Doctor of Denial" nickname for Amir. Personally I don't need a secret ballot: I vote NO.
- They try really hard, but Noah aside (one of my favourite NBA players) the Bulls are just awful to watch. Everything on offense is a major chore, and the team is crying out for a shot-maker.