It's hard to remain competitive when nothing is truly at stake. The regular season is coming to an end, and with no postseason birth on the horizon, all the Toronto Raptors really have to play for is pride.
These games don't matter. Three more nights of basketball are all that separate this team from another summer of question marks, uncertainties and possible rebuilding.
Still, it's hard to ignore an outing quite like the one Toronto had Friday night in a 97-88 victory over the now 43-36 Chicago Bulls.
Jonas Valanciunas (neck injury) wasn't in uniform, and neither was Terrence Ross (sprained left ankle). On Friday night, the Raptors didn't need either of them.
Amir Johnson led all scorers with 24 points on 10 for 15 shooting from the field, including nine rebounds (three offensive) and two assists.
He also showcased some serious range, nailing his third three-pointer of the season midway through the fourth quarter. In fact, adding that shot to his repertoire is something Johnson is looking to improve on this offseason.
"When I shoot and not hesitate, it seems to fall through. It’s something I definitely have to work on over the summer, get repetitions up and hopefully be a threat next year with that jump shot."
Coach Dwane Casey was able to get some productive minutes out of second-round draft pick Quincy Acy, as he finished with a near double-double of 10 points and nine rebounds (both career-highs) in just over 34 minutes. He also chipped in three blocks on the defensive end.
DeMar DeRozan, who had a solid performance in his own right (19 points, 6 for 10 shooting), had some kind words to say about his rookie teammate after the game.
"Q( Quincy) is big for us", DeRozan said.
"I told him that fans love him. If you keep playing hard, it’s going to go a long way. That’s just what he does. Every time he’s on the court, he’s going to play hard."
Acy also stepped in and defended DeMar midway through the third quarter after Bulls guard Richard Hamilton delivered a cheap shot forearm right to DeRozan's face, which in turn got him kicked out of the game with a flagrant foul 2. Quincy had to be contained by coach Casey, as he's already been called for two technical fouls in the month of April alone.
"I love Q, I just hate to see him lose his money when he gets techs," DeRozan said in the locker room after the game.
"He has everybody's backs and that's big. That's the type of guy we need on this team. For a rookie to be doing that, that's big. "
Kyle Lowry was just one rebound shy of a triple-double with 13 points, 11 assists and nine rebounds, while teammate Rudy Gay scored 23 points, while also matching his career-high in steals with five on the night.
All in all, the Raptors found themselves getting strong showings from several players on the roster, which ultimately contributed to the team pulling out their 31st victory of the season and 19th at the ACC.
Joakim Noah was out of action with plantar fasciitis in his right foot. Taj Gibson sat out with a knee injury. Derrick Rose has yet to see the court all season. Excuses are just that. The remaining Bulls players put their best foot forward on the second night of a back-to-back, but the Raptors did everything just a little more efficiently.
They shot better (47% - 44%), got to the free-throw line more (33 free-throw attempts to 14), won the fast-break battle (23 to 6) and showed more poise in dire situations, especially after letting a 15-point third quarter lead dwindle down to just three.
There were a lot of positives to take away from this game. The downside is that unfortunately, none of it really matters, for now.
It feels good in the moment, but the reality of the situation remains the same. For 2012-13, the light at the end of the tunnel has all but vanished.
Let's praise this team and commend them for a job well done on Friday night, but let's not forget the task at hand.
There is a lot of work to be done, but regardless of the timing, I suppose progress is still progress.