Given the last 19 years, Raptors fans probably shouldn't complain when the team will be hosting a playoff game for the first time in six years in less than a week. Even so, success inevitably breeds expectations, and over the past few games the Raptors have fallen short of the high standard they've set since the Rudy Gay trade. Poor defense, shaky offense and inconsistent bench play have plagued the team in recent games, including a huge home loss to the Knicks. Those same problems cropped up again yesterday against the Pistons, but Toronto did just enough to win and, combined with a Bulls loss to those same Knicks, they are back in third place in the East.
After a 42-point explosion in the first quarter, it seemed as if the pro-Raptor crowd in Auburn Hills (seriously, there might have been more Raptors fans than Pistons fans in attendance) was going to cheer through an easy Toronto win. Then, as has so often been the case of late, the Raptors' defense fell apart. Specifically it was the defensive rebounding that fell flat, as Andre Drummond and Greg Monroe played volleyball on the glass, snagging 10 offensive boards between them. Both guys are big and strong and Drummond is arguably the best rebounder in the league, but it got embarrassing at times.
The rebounding edge helped Detroit put together a 37-point third quarter to close the gap to one heading into the final frame. In the fourth, Lowry (who fouled out with six minutes to go) and DeRozan put together a tremendous performance, capped off by this:
RIP Kyle Singler.
The Raptors won 116-107, matched a franchise-high in wins with 47 and have two more chances to break the record, starting tonight with a home game against Milwaukee. Still, there is a very real sense that the Raptors are playing with fire as they prepare for the postseason. Their defense, formerly such a strength, ranks just 14th since the All-Star break. Their offense is a strong seventh over that same time period. Jonas Valanciunas has come on very strong (18 points, 8 rebounds against Detroit), but there are still questions about Amir Johnson's health.
There's also the question of the bench. Other than Greivis Vasquez and Patrick Patterson, it's hard to say there's anyone in the second unit who can be relied upon come playoff time. John Salmons might be out of the NBA in a year, Tyler Hansbrough is a psycho in the worst way and Chuck Hayes, while solid defensively, offers almost no offense whatsoever. It's a problem that Dwane Casey will have to address sooner rather than later; fortunately the starters will play more during the playoffs, so hopefully the bench concerns can be minimized.
The opponent is still an unknown quantity, and that one probably won't be answered until Wednesday night. The relative merits of 3-seed vs. 4-seed are this: Finish third and the first round is Charlotte or Washington, followed by (likely) Miami; Finish fourth and the first round is Brooklyn, followed by (likely) Indiana. It's tough to pick one, but it's probably better to have a good chance of beating Charlotte or Washington than maybe being a slight underdog against Brooklyn. The Raptors would have no chance to beat Miami; against Indiana they would have a chance, though to what extent is hard to say.
In any case, I'm getting a bit ahead of myself. There are two games to go and records to be set before playoff questions can be answered in any way. It's exciting and a bit terrifying all at the same time. More than anything, it's nice to feel that way again.