Along the way to a playoff birth, it's common to look back on the season, and the milestones which perhaps made the difference between a trip to the postseason, and another trip to the NBA's draft lottery.
Not that there was necessarily any question the Dinos were going to make the dance. The club sits in third place in the East and has been beating up on most of the conference's lesser foes since dealing Rudy Gay back in December. And considering fellow Eastern Conferenceers like the Knicks - yes, those kooky New Yorkers who for some reason think Phil Jackson is going to save them - are still in the playoff mix despite a winning percentage under .400...
...well...let's just say Toronto has a spot waiting for them in late April come hell or high water.
However wins like last night's over the Grizz are the type that a club can lean on in hard times. They're the type of wins that hug you when your shot isn't falling, that Toronto's coaching staff can use to motivate their troops in the middle of a losing streak. The Raps took the Grizzlies best punch last night, and not only punched back - something you could never say about previous incarnations of this club - but went toe-to-toe with the rough and tumble Grizzlies right up until the fourth quarter when they threw a few hay-makers of their own.
No, the Grizz aren't the Thunder or Spurs. But this is a club that had won 10 of its last 13 games and on paper was one of those teams that the Raps struggle to match up with. Memphis is big, tough, and talented inside, a lethal triple-play most of the time for the Raptors who have athleticism to spare, but not always the size to keep the DeMarcus Cousin and Marc Gasol type wolves, from blowing the proverbial house down.
Enter Jonas Valanciunas.
Big Val has been maligned of late for inconsistent efforts but last night Raptors fans got a taste of hopefully what is to come for the young Lithuanian. Valanciunas finished with a team-high 23 points to go with 9 rebounds and a +16 mark. He scored inside, faced up and hit some jump shots, dove to the basket, and gave his Memphis defenders trouble due to his mobility and aggressiveness all night.
He also did a great job defensively on Zach Randolph, a player who's given the Dinos fits in the past.
Jonas' play also opened things up for other players offensively, and more importantly, on a night when Tayshaun Prince had DeMar DeRozan mostly in his pocket (DD finished with 16 points,but was 4 of 12 from the field), this scoring was oh-so needed.
With Valanciunas going, and a nice boost off the bench from former Grizzly Greivis Vasquez, Toronto was able to keep pace with Memphis, and then pull away late as Kyle Lowry took control. Lowry remains to be the engine that makes this club go and last night that was on full display once more. Lowry hit timely shots, controlled the flow of the game, played excellent defense, and even managed to berate the refs on occasion.
Just another day at the office for KLOE but kudos to Raptors' bench boss Dwane Casey for utilizing the Lowry/Vasquez combo down the stretch. The two picked Memphis' defence apart sometimes facilitating for teammates, sometimes hunting down open shots for themselves.
Said Lowry post-game about playing with Vasquez:
"It's easy for me because he's a guy who's going to look for me and make the play," "It gives me a chance to rest and hang out and shoot open 3's. When he's playing like that, we're a pretty good team."
As I mentioned in the Rapid Recap, the win gives the Raps some more breathing room in the quest for third place, but beyond that and some reaffirmation that MLSE's pizza promotion needs to go, there was one other big takeaway for me from this one.
This Raptor team could be a very good basketball club in the near future.
That may sound like a bit of a throwaway statement but it's truly the first time in years I've felt that I've been able say that about a version of this club. The Chris Bosh teams, despite being occasional playoff participants, always seemed to have a very low ceiling to me.
However watching Jonas terrorize the Grizz last night, seeing Terrence Ross becoming a perfect complement to DeMar DeRozan, and adding those pieces to established cogs like Kyle Lowry, DeRozan and Amir Johnson, not to mention bench options like Patrick Patterson, Steve Novak and Greivis Vasquez, has to make one feel pretty good about this club's chances not only in the coming weeks, but potentially in the coming years. A lot of the "coming years" part obviously hinges on the team keeping Kyle Lowry but if that's accomplished at a reasonable price, and Masai continues to tweak the bench...
In fact watching the NCAA conference tournaments last night (way to give me a near heart attack Duke) I couldn't help but think that even the addition of Toronto's first-round pick this year (sitting around 20th overall as of last night) would be a boost. Having a player like Nik Stauskas, Gary Harris or Adreian Payne as an additional "stretch" weapon would add another dimension to a club that's already one of the better offensive clubs in the league.
They showed that last night against a typically stingy Grizzlies defence, scoring inside and out, wearing Memphis down as the final minutes of the fourth quarter ticked away.
It was a landmark win on the season for sure, especially since for big chunks of the game, the team did not play particularly well, and yet found a way to hang around, and eventually take control for the W.
This is what good teams do, and last night's victory represented another reason to define the Raptors as such a "good" team with a win that puts a little more distance between themselves and that "top Eastern Conference club" caveat.
Tomorrow night they get another chance to further prove this point in a date with the Phoenix Suns.
Game 65 on the season, another great test, and another potential stake in the ground as these surprising Raptors continue their NBA ascension.