So, that's what a real NBA team looks like.
The Raptors finished up a completely unexpected and entirely successful three-game road trip with a hard-fought 112-99 loss in San Antonio. The loss dropped the Raps to 11-15 but they maintained their lead in the Atlantic Division and the fourth seed that goes with it.
A night after handing Oklahoma City its first home loss of the season, the Raptors went blow-for-blow with the Spurs and kept it close throughout, down only five points with just over two minutes to go. Once again they were led by Kyle Lowry, who scored 16 of his 23 points in the first half and has simply been a different player since the Rudy Gay trade. Whether he's been motivated by the trade talk or has just hit a hot streak, Lowry has been the Raptors' little general over the last two weeks.
He's not the only one that's enjoying a renaissance of late; as some suspected, the whole team has taken off since dumping Gay. The ball is moving with a purpose and possessions that used to end with Gay dribbling for five seconds before launching a tough jumper have been shifted to better and more efficient options. The proof is in the numbers: prior to the trade the Raps were averaging 17.8 assist per game; since, that number is up to 21.8. Prefer more advanced stats? Toronto's assist percentage is up nearly six points (49.8% to 55.6%) since Gay took his act to California.
Perhaps no player has benefited more from Gay's absence than Terrence Ross, the man who replaced Gay in the starting lineup. After losing fourth quarter minutes to John Salmons of late, Ross had one of his best games of the year against the Spurs, scoring 23 points on 10-16 shooting and getting it done in a variety of ways. After making three more threes against San Antonio, Ross is now shooting nearly 39% from deep, but he's starting to show more than just a spot-up game. Here's an example from a crunch-time possession; Ross had hit a three the previous trip down and Danny Green closed out aggressively:
Instead of forcing a tough three or holding onto it, Ross drove middle and used his incredible athleticism to finish over the top with a short jumper in the lane.
Ideally, Ross would take an extra dribble and truly get to the rim, but these are positive baby steps that show an added level of creativity to his game that simply wasn't there last year.
To tank or not to tank?
Beating Dallas and Oklahoma City and pushing San Antonio to the wire was undeniably fun and refreshing. It also brought inevitable questions (some serious, some not) about whether the Raptors should continue on the tanking path. Even though it's tempting to extrapolate and start dreaming about the third seed, a tank still seems like the way to go. Making the playoffs and getting your feet wet at that level makes sense when you're building a team and have a young core together; think Indiana and Oklahoma City as recent examples. For all the good things they've shown recently, the Raptors just aren't there yet. Jonas Valanciunas is starting to look like the nightly double-double he was expected to be, Amir Johnson is as solid as an oak tree and Ross is, in the words of Marv Albert, showing some signs. It's all good news, but there's one obvious hole in the roster, and that's, to continue the Indiana/Oklahoma City analogy, a Paul George or Kevin Durant.
I'll admit that I got caught up in the moment during the road trip. Nothing's better than watching games that matter; it's been far too rare over the past few years and, even though losing might be best in the long-term, those wins were a short-term jolt to the system like no other. Still, in the cold light of the day after, unexpected wins don't change the basic reality of where this team finds itself, and I trust Masai Ujiri realizes that as well. Lowry's great play of late has surely helped his trade value, while Ross's emergence might make DeRozan expendable. Johnson and Valanciunas should stay and, along with Ross, a high pick and a healthy amount of cap space, Raptors fans might be treated to more games like this one in the near future.
Let's not lose sight of the forest for the trees. Those three games were glorious, but three games shouldn't cause us to lose sight of the next three years and beyond.