The first therefore included things like divesting themselves of Air Bargnani, realizing the back-up point situation was a lost cause, divesting themselves of Rudy Gay, somewhat fixing the back-up point guard spot thanks to divesting themselves of Gay, and then going on a solid winning streak post said trade to finish with a top four record in the beleaguered Eastern Conference.
The end result was a 21 and 20 record, and a pace that would give them a winning record for the first time since Vince Carter roamed the land,
Ok, not quite, but you get the idea.
Suddenly fans were on edge again, and with good reason. DeMar DeRozan fell back to his ill-advised contested jump-shooting ways, the bench was inconsistent, Terrence Ross looked like a rookie again, and Jonas Valanciunas and Amir Johnson might as well have been in witness protection. The "Top 5 NBA Defense" disapeared, and the team also fell into this bizarre habit of playing to their opponents' strengths, or playing to the style of basketball the opponent preferred.
This meant a grind-it-out affair in Boston, and a run-and-gun free-for-all vs the Lakers.
Against Charlotte, everything went wrong.
So the edict to start the second act of the 2013-14 NBA season for Toronto, ought to have been correcting the aforementioned flaws, and get back to playing basketball the way the club had been playing immediately after Rudy Gay was sent to
Only that hasn't exactly happened.
Yes, with a win over the Sixers last night Toronto has won two straight but in both of those matches the team had to use superb fourth quarters to help overcome lackluster starts. Against Philly yesterday evening, Toronto jumped out to a quick 13 point lead, but quickly allowed the 76ers back in it, and for periods of the third quarter, Philadelphia led.
How did it happen?
The same old story. Bad decisions on offense, a complete lack of D, and Toronto deciding it was more fun to play the same way as their opponent liked to play, than the way that's given them the bulk of their recent success. Philly plays at the league's fastest pace, averaging 102.3 possessions per game, whereas Toronto plays at the league's seventh slowest, averaging only 94.6. But suddenly there was Toronto, racing up and down the court, hurling three-point shots as fast as they could.
At one point Toronto had not only attempted more three-point shots than free-throw attempts, but they had six points in the paint to Philly's 20. As Paul Jones noted to me on Twitter, Philly is at the top of the league in the "points in the paint" metric, but it was more the differential. The Raptors started the game successfully by working inside out via Jonas Valanciunas, but quickly went away from that, and the Sixers' run began.
The club got its act together in the second half and again, had a terrific fourth quarter to pull away for good, but it got me thinking. Such an approach might work against the Sixers, even the Mavs minus Dirk, but what happens versus the Clippers (tonight's match-up) or the Nets on Monday? It's great that the team has been taking advantage of a weak conference, but clubs like the Nets and Wizards are nipping at the Raptors' heals, and suddenly the Bulls are right there too. The team can't assume it can coast through games based on strong fourth quarter performances alone.
Tied into this is the play of Amir Johnson and Jonas Valanciunas. It sounds strange to even mention Amir's name in conjunction with the word poor, but that's indeed what his play has been of late. He and Valanciunas have either been invisible, or frankly, bad of late, the exception being Jonas' play very early last night, and late against LA. However Dwane Casey has been increasingly relying on Chuck Hayes and Patrick Patterson as his big men down the stretch. Last night Patterson and Hayes actually played more minutes than Jonas and Amir, something I don't think anyone would have predicted when the Rudy Gay trade went down.
But it's hard to argue with the decision. Patterson and Hayes were terrific defensively late in the contest, helping to hold Philly to only 17 fourth quarter points, a chunk of those coming with the game essentially over. Toronto needs much better starts, and better performances from their entire starting group and it wouldn't surprise me to see Casey move Amir to the bench again to shake things up if the lackadaisical starts continue.
The important thing though of course is that this one ends in a win and Toronto keeps some distance between themselves and the clubs previously mentioned. The Nets won again last night keeping pace with the Raps, and likely has Monday's re-match with Toronto circled on their respective calendars.