The Toronto Raptors look like a whole new team all of a sudden, coming together for some impressive defensive efforts on their recent homestand. The latest of which, resulted in an impressive 103-96 victory over the visitng Houston Rockets on Sunday afternoon.
One of the biggest differences in this team of late has been not only their improved team defense, but also their ability to get out and run and take, as well as make, an increased amount of three-point shots.
On Sunday, the Raptors held the Houston Rockets to 41 percent shooting from the floor and just 30 percent from beyond the arc. This coming less than 48 hours after holding the Dallas Mavericks to 39 percent from the floor and 0 of 13 from three-point territory.
These two games also saw the Raptors clamp down on two of the better volume scorers in the NBA this season in O.J Mayo and James Harden. On Friday, the team held Mayo to just 10 points on 2 for 8 shooting and on Sunday, the Raptors defense - anchored again by a combination of Pietrus, Anderson and Ross on the perimeter - harassed James Harden into a 7 of 18 shooting night. Harden still finished with 28 points thanks in large part to his 15 free-throw attempts, but the Raptors ability to slow Houston's leading scorer disrupted their offense and was a big reason why the Dinos were able to come away with the W.
For the first time all season, the Raptors have held opponents to under 100 points for more than two consecutive games. After the win against the Rockets, the Raptors have now held teams under 100 points in four straight games - granted, two of those came in losses, but proof of defensive improvement is there.
Although the improvement in their game is certainly a welcomed sign, the truth is that this is the kind of effort most people expected to see out of this team from day one. This "new found" defensive identity that they have forged of late is really just the identity the team carved out for themselves last season, but were unable to recapture for the first portion of this season.
And now, having had a few games without Bargnani or Lowry in the lineup, it is becoming glaringly obvious who has been holding them back on that end of the floor thus far this year. Should this trend continue, management is going to be put in an even tougher spot having just given up a potential lottery pick for Lowry - not to mention the challenges of moving Bargnani.
Moving back to Sunday's game, there were many more positives for the Raptors than just their defense - namely, the play of Jose Calderon and Alan Anderson.
Jose Calderon had what might have been his best game of the season - and one of the best of his career - notching his second triple-double of the campaign with 18 points, 14 assists and 10 rebounds and zero turnovers. Calderon set the tone for the Raptors offensively all afternoon long and it was his leadership skills that really stood out, impressing not only onlookers, but his teamates as well.
"Let me tell you one thing about Jose," DeRozan said about Calderon after the game. "You play with him he's going to give you the utmost confidence."
"Since I've been here I've probably seen Jose upset once," DeRozan continued. "You know, that's just him. He's just a good dude. I love Jose."
Alan Anderson also echoed those same sentiments.
"Oh man. He's just a leader man," Anderson told a small group of reporters. "He's just a leader, that's the best word for him. I mean, he's so good with us."
But, the greatest display of Calderon's character came after the game when told the media something you don't hear professional basketball players - or athletes in general - say too often.
"I want to be the most professional player in the NBA." Calderon said.
Those words alone tell you what kind of mindset Calderon is in on a daily basis and it is that kind of mindset that allows him to step in and have games like he had on Sunday, despite not always getting those kinds of minutes.
Alan Anderson also had himself quite the impressive outing.
In addition to providing excellent defense for the second consecutive game since returning from injury, Anderson also poured in a team-high 24 points, matching a career-high for the 6'6' swingman. Anderson made 6 of his 12 shots from the floor and 3 of his 7 from beyond the arc including some key buckets in the fourth quarter.
This type of effort from Anderson in 25 minutes of action is made all the more impressive by the fact that it was just his second game back following a 17-game absence due to injury.
"Not really, cause i was so anxious to get out there, man. I mean, I can only watch so much, you know what i mean? especially with us losing and you want to help and do whatever you can. So I'm just cheerleading as much as i can cause i can't play," Anderson said when asked if the injury was effecting him. "I think I'm a better player than a cheerleader. I just wanted to get out there and help, man and be with the guys. We worked so hard in training camp and everything... I was just anxious to get out there and help anyway i could."
With the production provided by Anderson and other players on the wing like Pietrus and Ross - who had another solid game - Dwane Casey was able to give DeRozan a little more rest, playing him only 35 minutes. In those 35 minutes DeRozan was exceptional adding what seemed like a quiet 19 points on 8 of 19 shooting from the floor as well as 7 rebounds and 3 assists.
The Raptors seem to be rolling now and if they are able to maintain the groove their are currently in on Tuesday against the Cavs, then they may be looking at a three-game winning streak with the potential for more back home later in the week against the Pistons and Magic who are both also sub .500 squads.
- The Raptors blocked a season-high 15 shots against the Rockets, five of which were by Amir Johnson.
- Ed Davis continued his solid season, scoring 13 points, grabbing 5 rebounds and blocking 3 shots. Davis only saw 26 minutes of action due to Dwane Casey's decision to go small against a notoriously small team in the Rockets. In situations such as that, Amir Johnson continues to be much more effective as the 5.
- Before the game, Jonas Valanciunas was presented with the Lithuanian player of the year award by former Lithuania superstar Arvydas Sabonis.