It wasn't pretty, but the Toronto Raptors pulled out their fifth win in a row on Friday night against the visiting Orlando Magic. Once again, defense and depth were huge factors in the victory, yet it was the performance of one player in particular off of the Raptor bench that really stood out and stole the show.
In the fourth quarter of what was an ugly contest between two sub .500 teams, Raptors rookie swingman Terence Ross exploded for two dunks - an unbelievable stick-back off of an Ed Davis miss and a windmill dunk that sent the crowd into a frenzy, nearly tearing the roof off of the ACC - and a steal in a span of less than 5 minutes.
Not only did these dunks instantly become the plays of the game, but they also capped off what was perhaps Terrence Ross' most impressive game this season. Ross finished the night 5 of 8 from the floor - including 3 of 5 from beyond the three-point arc - and led the bench in scoring with 13 points.
Despite his strong offensive performance, it was his effort on the defensive end that really stood out.
"Defensively I was really proud of him. He's guarding one of the best pure shooters in the league in Redick and Afflalo, both those guys.. He did a heck of a job." Dwane Casey told reporters after the game.
Make no mistake about Ross, he is not being handed minutes in the name of development. He has earned the meaningful minutes he now finds himself playing and his defense has been a big reason why.
"He's earned every second of it," Casey said about Ross' playing time. "We're not developing. We're not developing Terrence Ross. He's earning every minute of it and If he wasn't, he wouldn't be out there."
On Friday, Ross was the best of the Raptors many options at the wing. Mickael Pietrus made some strong defensive plays down the stretch but struggled offensively, as did Alan Anderson - Anderson finished just 2 of 9 from the floor.
DeMar DeRozan had a strong rebounding game - grabbed 8 of them - and took advantage of his opportunities at free free throw line - he made all 7 of his attempts - but his 5 of 15 shooting from the floor was less than stellar and his defensive effort against Aaron Afflalo left a great deal to be desired.
Ross has been a big part of that platoon that Dwane Casey has utilized at the wing spots over the course of the last few games. The platoon includes Mickael Pietrus, DeMar DeRozan and Alan Anderson and has been effective during the Raptors five-game winning streak.
With Fields now back and available to play, it is only a matter of time before he is reinstered back into the lineup at the expense of one of these other players. But, with the way Ross has been playing of late, it is unlikely his minutes will be decreased.
Aside from Terrence Ross, there was one other stand-out for the Raptors on the night and it wasn't just because of his colourful new haircut.
Amir Johnson - sporting a fresh new haircut that features the Raptors' claw logo cut and died into the back of his head - was once again excellent off of the pine for the Dinos. Johnson grabbed 7 rebounds to go along with 2 steals and 2 big blocks. Johnson's energy was much-needed on both ends of the floor late in the game and was on full display late in the fourth quarter when he grabbed an offensive rebound, leading to a foul and a pair of free-throws which he would make to help extend the Raptor lead.
Following the victory, the Dinos are now 9 and 19 and head into their mini holiday break on a five-game winning streak. The team has looked completely different over the last five games and seems to have come together in the absence of Kyle Lowry and Andrea Bargnani.
"Man, just chemistry," John Lucas III told RaptorsHQ about the biggest difference in this team during the winning streak. "Everybody is playing together and everybody is playing good. The ball is moving, nobody is holding the ball. Everybody is enjoying playing with with each other and when you are having fun out there, the game comes easy. And that's exactly how the game is coming to us: easy."
With no games until boxing day - and a tough matchup against the Spurs - it will be tough for the club to carry over the momentum they have generated over the course of this streak. When you also factor in that Kyle Lowry may be eligible to return to the lineup in San Antonio, boxing day will stand as a true test of how well this roster can play together despite adversity.