Of all the words that can be used to describe a basketball win, "manufactured" is one of the least appealing. It's a word that reeks with the stink of missed shots and careless turnovers. Ultimately, though, a manufactured win is better than an artful loss, as the Raptors can attest to after creating something out of nothing in a 96-86 win over Atlanta.
This was a game where the Raptors' offense, normally a top-10 unit on a per-possession basis, struggled to 16 points in the first quarter and devolved into its worst elements: contested midrange jumpers and limited ball movement.
In fact, that sluggishness persisted through the the end of the third quarter, when Atlanta led 71-60 and it seemed as if the Raptors would finally relinquish the third spot in the East to the hard-charging Bulls. Then, in what seemed like an instant, everything changed for a Raptors team that keeps on winning games they have no business being in.
DeMar DeRozan's jumper came to life at just the right time, but it was the irrepressible Kyle Lowry who made all the difference, as he has so often this season. With less than three minutes remaining, Toronto trailed by one; from there it was a 13-2 run, capped off by seven straight points by Lowry. He made a short runner to put Toronto up five, then stole the ensuing inbounds pass for an open layup and a seven point lead. The final act, a step-back three in front of the Hawks' bench, was classic Lowry: after the shot fell through the net Lowry walked slowly up the court, letting the joy of the crowd wash over him and giving off more swagger than he ever has. All in all, it was another sublime performance (25 points, 4 assists, 4 steals) for a player who is having one of the great seasons a Raptor has ever had. (Where exactly Lowry's season ranks is a question for another day, but it's safe to say it's in the top five.)
Despite the win, there are still some nagging concerns. Lowry only played 27 minutes and while Dwane Casey tried to play it off as a need for more rest, it does seem that Lowry is struggling with some sort of groin issue. Coupled with the continuing absence of Patrick Patterson and the never-ending string of bumps, bruises and sprains for Amir Johnson, there are some injury questions for a team that has been very healthy for most of the season.
On the positive side of the ledger was the play of Jonas Valanciunas, who scored 13 and grabbed 13 rebounds for the second straight game. Perhaps best was the 33 minutes Valanciunas played; he played 45 against Oklahoma City and will need to completely regain Casey's trust if he is to play crunch time minutes in the playoffs.
Even with the aforementioned injury problems, the schedule will ease up over the next four games, as the Raptors will play Cleveland, Boston twice, and Orlando. The Raptors *should* win all of those games and must win at least three to stay ahead of the Bulls and Nets for the third spot.
Thirteen games to go. The playoffs are coming.