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Tip-In: New and Improved. Raptors Take Down Bulls, Prepare for Pacers

While last night's win over the Chicago Bulls was another step in the right direction for the Toronto Raptors, it's games like tonight's versus the Indiana Pacers that will likely give fans a true understanding of how good this team can be.

Dennis Wierzbicki-USA TODAY Spor

So these are the new Toronto Raptors right?

After all, in last night's 85 to 79 win over the Chicago Bulls, the Dinos fought through a rough shooting night and some rugged Chicago defense to come from behind and snatch the win, the team's third straight.

That's not the old Raptors' way right?  Give up the lead late?

Or better yet, start strong and fade fast.

Not these "NEW AND IMPROVED" Raps though.  No siree.  They come out swinging and keep on swinging until the very end.

Last night the Chicago Bulls led at halftime, led through the third quarter, and looked to en route to a win.  Try as Toronto did, they could not catch up on the scoreboard.

At the same time, they also didn't fall further behind, something I noted as the game progressed and a major departure from earlier in the season.  I can easily recall a number of matches where Toronto couldn't keep up and as the quarters proceeded, a four point deficit turned to eight, and turned to 12 before all was said and done.

That was one of the biggest things last night for me in terms of judging this group.  Sure, Toronto was maybe on paper supposed to beat Chicago, but the Bulls are one of those teams that are never an easy out and the Dinos didn't let the game slip away.

This was further true towards the game's end when a series of bad decisions and unnecessary errors cut a 12 point Toronto lead to just 3 with only about a minute left.

But Jonas Valanciunas (who as I noted in the Rapid Recap, was the game's MVP) calmly hit a pair of free-throws and the team played some very solid defense on the final possessions to secure the W.

That's three straight, 8 of 11, a game under .500...however you want to ring it up, and dare we say the best stretch of Raptors' basketball in quite some time?

Of course it's easy to view this streak through rose-coloured glasses and it's true that clubs like New York, Chicago, Philadelphia and Los Angeles, the Lakers that is, aren't exactly looking like NBA Championship contenders right about now.  The Raptors indeed are beating the clubs they "should" be beating, which is of course necessary, but to really sway many of the remaining "pro-tank regiment," it's this next stretch starting tonight that is key.  Perhaps only then will we see if this version of the Dinosaurs is truly "new and improved" as the next four games feature the Miami Heat, the .500 Washington Wizards, and the Indiana Pacers, twice.  After that things look a bit easier with Milwaukee, Detroit, Brooklyn, Boston, the LA Lakers and Charlotte Bobcats all on tap.  Yes indeed, happy New Years Raptors.

But it's work before play and said works starts tonight against one of the league's top five clubs no matter how you look at it, the Indiana Pacers.

Here are our three keys:

1)  Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan. While the team's offense post-Rudy Gay has been a lot more evenly distributed in terms of shot attempts and scoring, it's Lowry and DeRozan that are still the two most crucial pieces on O.  Last night against the Bulls the duo was a combined 7 of 22 and the Raps struggled to score the ball.  Some of this obviously is a testament to the solid defensive job the Chicago Bulls did but the two need to adapt as they'll likely see the same pressure, if not an enhanced version, tonight vs Indy.  The Pacers are the top defensive club in the league via most metrics so it will be even more crucial that these two find a way to get it going.

2)  Defense. This one, like last night's may not be the prettiest affair.  Both the Raptors and Pacers rank similarly in terms of offensive efficiency (Toronto 15th, Indiana 13th) so the club that plays the best at the other end of the court may end up with the W.  In particular, I'm hoping to see Jonas Valanciunas go toe-to-toe with Roy Hibbert inside and Amir Johnson needs to be his usual springy self against the likes of David West.  And maybe the Pacers miss their old buddy Tyler Hansbrough, who Dwane Casey may feel the urge to throw out there to cause some chaos?

3)  Bench Play. One of the big reasons for Toronto's recent success is that no longer is Dwane Casey forced to use the likes of Dwight Buycks and the corpse of Landry Fields when his starters need a break.  Due to the Rudy Gay trade, Casey now can use more than serviceable back-up options like Greivis Vasquez, Patrick Patterson and John Salmons and all three have been extremely effective in the team's recent run.  The Pacers are one of the deepest teams in the league and just got deeper with the re-addition of former All-Star Danny Granger so the Dinos need their pine crew to step up in a big way at both ends of the court tonight.