What is left to play for?
This is a question that inevitably comes up at this time of year in Toronto after all of the early season promise has faded away.
Normally common sense would dictate that the team should be playing for as many lottery balls as possible -- without a guaranteed first round pick, the Raptors would have to move into a top three spot to retain their pick -- but, given the circumstances surrounding that pick, perhaps it is more valuable to this team for them to play well and earn a few extra wins.
This is probably not a popular opinion, but one that I think has some validity to it.
On Friday, the Raptors beat the Bulls for their second consecutive victory. What was interesting about that victory was not that they won, but how they won.
Toronto's starting lineup -- a group that has struggled to fit together since Rudy Gay was brought aboard -- did the majority of the damage. Gay and Johnson scored 24 and 23 points respectively, while DeMar DeRozan added an efficient 19 on 10 shots. Kyle Lowry notched a near triple double with 13 points, 11 assists and nine rebounds.
This might be what people should expect out of that group of players, but it has not been what we have seen on a regular basis. Given that those players, along with Jonas Valanciunas, will likely be the core of this team for at least the next season or so, it is important for them to show that they can play together.
The hope isn't so much that they will build momentum together over the course of the next few games -- that isn't something that is likely to happen especially after such a short span of games-- However, getting performances like they did on Friday from all of their key guys is not insignificant.
At this time in the year, management and ownership are in talent evaluation mode and if things aren't working or don't seem as though they can work, players could very well be traded in the offseason.
There are merits to the argument that the Raptors should lose the final three games -- a potential top three pick gives this team a quality asset that they simply will not be able to obtain anywhere else due to the financial restrictions that the team is currently facing.
Based on the last few games though, this team isn't willing to lie down. Dwane Casey is coaching for his job next season and there are a number of guys on the team that need to prove that they can play together or they too will be at risk of being moved out of town.
Players like Gay, DeRozan, Johnson and Lowry aren't necessarily playing for a spot on the roster next season as much as they are working towards the goal of being an effective starting lineup together. On Sunday, they will have a true test in Brooklyn Nets, a team that possesses a number of challenges with their own dynamic starting five.
The seemingly inconsequential final three games of another disappointing season for the Raptors may not be so inconsequential after all.