Kyle Lowry almost had a triple-double (32-8-11) in what was a near-perfect point-guard display, the Raps' perimeter trio (Lowry included, of course) outscored the Knicks', 75-24; while the team as a whole shot 47% from beyond the arc, in another tank-defying win. The Raps move to 13-15, strengthening their grip atop the Atlantic Division, while the Knicks fall to 9-21 -- they were 21-9 at this stage last season.
Don't worry, Andrew Wiggins will hit free-agency in 2021.
But joking aside: while the reasons underpinning the 'Tank Nation' movement have always been, and still remain, entirely logical, it's tough to argue against the fact that the realities on the ground are making any effective tank more and more unrealistic. The Raps are playing their best basketball in years, Al Hoford is done for the season, and it's very possible, on current evidence, that the Knicks and the soon-to-mutinty Brooklyn Nets may not get any better. At this stage to earn a top-5 pick it feels like the Raptors, with all the garbage that surrounds them in the Eastern Conference, would probably need to enter a free-fall of historic proportions.
But let's take a minute to live in the present...
In 10 games since the Rudy Gay trade, however, the Raps have won 7 games, with 2 of their loses coming against the Spurs. Right now, in a vacuum (long-term concerns aside), it's lots of fun to watch. No one's eyes are burning anyone.
Running the pick-n-roll wasn't beyond their abilities one month ago; neither was cutting to the hoop or sharing the basketball. This Raptors team is not supremely talented. This team -- in it's current form -- is not challenging for a NBA title (even if every player on the roster reaches their full potential). But this team didn't have to play the way they did 5 weeks ago. The Raptors have -- and have had the entire season -- an above average point-guard, solid big-men who know how to roll to the basket, good rebounding at both ends, and athleticism to burn. Only in the past few weeks have those attributes been properly utilized. Part of that is down to Gay's departure, but there's also been a conscious effort by players on the team -- DeRozan in particular -- to change their approach. Oh, and it's definitely helped that Dwane Casey has resembled an NBA coach over this stretch.
Last night, against a HORRIBLE -- and that adjective absolutely had to be in upper-case -- New York Knicks team, the Raptors exhibited every facet of their immensely enjoyable, post-Rudy Gay game. They swung the ball around the perimeter with real purpose, leading to 15 made 3-pointers, on 32 attempts, with Terrence Ross hitting 7 of 11 as part of his 23 points. They drove and cut to the basket -- DeRozan, who finished with 20 points, had two beautifully executed (and horribly defended) dunks off back-door cuts; and they pushed the ball hard in transition, leading to some highlight-reel plays. Aren't dunks way more fun when they don't come in garbage time loses?
And even when the the much-derided mid-range 2 was taken, more often than not it was an open shot; a result of well executed off-ball screens.
Sure, the Raps are still a flawed basketball team in a brutally flawed conference. They somewhat unfathomably let an awful basketball team hang around way longer than they should've done last night; and in the process, let the corpse of Amar'e Stoudemire have his way inside. It was a two-possession game until Toure Murry got it into his head that he was an NFL safety and Lowry was a slot receiver. But all in all the Raps played the kind of basketball that every fan of this team-- even those of us still hoping, openly or secretly, for a rapid Ujiri-induced plug pull, and the resulting free-fall down the standings -- can't help but appreciate.
What a difference a month makes.
Additional Game Notes:
- It goes without saying, given his LeBron-esque line last night, but Kyle Lowry is playing the best ball of his career right now.
- Terrence Ross still has many detractors, and yes, he's still prone to major brain farts at both ends; but if he keeps shooting like this from 3 (39% on the season), in my opinion he's well worth the minutes required to try and turn him into a well-rounded NBA player.
- When it comes to his decision-making DeRozan looks like a completely different player of late. He seems to have finally 'got it' when it comes to knowing when to drive; and particularly, when to pass out of double-teams and facilitate.
- A quick thought on Bargnani's return to Toronto (uneventful and ending in injury, by the way): Usually former players are booed because they forced a trade, or left in free agency. How many players, returning to their old stomping grounds, have been booed for being crap?
- The Knicks are a festering pile of stinking dog feces. Their defense is beyond comical and the one player on their team capable of playing solid D -- Tyson Chandler -- looked like he wanted off the sinking ship last night.
- Note to all NBA teams considering signing J.R. Smith in the future: One year deals only!