On Tuesday night the Raptors were up against a top-four Western Conference team; were down a makeshift starter; lost a key bench piece in the first half; had six established NBA players on hand; played a horrendous defensive third quarter; didn't get a bucket from a reserve until just 14 minutes remained in the game; and gave up a 25-13 run in garbage time to make the game a lot closer than it needed to be.
It didn't matter.
Toronto's 103-99 win over the Mavs highlighted everything that has made this team so aggravatingly enjoyable to watch this season. Shorthanded, inconsistent, teetering, but ultimately successful thanks to the play of DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry. That's been the formula for this team through 30 games, and it's worked.
DeRozan was particularly masterful against Dallas. His run of hyper-efficiency continued as he drained 28 points on just 17 shots, and even chipped in a pair of uncharacteristic three balls (from above the break no less!). He continued to operate in the flow of the offense rather than jamming it up like a fax machine.
This play in the third quarter was just another in a growing list of examples of DeRozan's eagerness to distribute in lieu of forcing shots in traffic:
Lowry flirted with a triple-double (17 points, 10 rebounds, 7 assists) as he looked more fresh and limber than he has in recent games. Toronto's premier back court pairing was clicking on both accounts tonight, and it helped the Raptors survive the concerning lack of depth Dwane Casey had at his disposal.
We already knew about the injuries to DeMarre Carroll and the now-practicing Jonas Valanciunas - they were tough enough to deal with. But James Johnson's ankle injury sustained in warm-up and Patrick Patterson's illness left Toronto's reserve corp perilously depleted to the point where Anthony Bennett and Delon Wright got run at different points throughout the game.
Luckily for the Raptors, it wasn't just Lowry and DeRozan who turned in game-saving performances. The rest of the starters - Luis Scola, Bismack Biyombo and, yes, Terrence Ross were all fantastic. Biyombo had his usual missteps with the ball in his hands around the basket, but he hauled in a monstrous 20 rebounds and was one point shy of a double-double. He also hit a turnaround jumper early on that was about as unbelievable as DeRozan's dunk on Rudy Gobert.
Scola played his usually stretchy role, draining 15 points on 11 shots and adding 9 boards. And Ross had one of his more complete two way games of the season. He was attentive on defense, and did a solid job of sticking in front of his check on drives to the rim. On the other end of the floor, he went 4-of-8 from outside and tallied a clean and crucial 16 points. Over the last five games, Ross is averaging 14.6 points on 19-of-42 from distance (45.2%).
There are holes to poke of course - this is a 2015-16 Raptors game after all. Following a 32-16 first quarter, things got dicey for a few minutes when Dallas scored the first 11 points of the second. Toronto withstood the Mavs in that instance, and went into the half with a healthy 49-36 lead.
But as the starters were stretched and the deepest depths of the bench had to be mined, the lead slowly began to disappear. Bennett's utter inability to stop Dirk Nowitzki in the frame helped Dallas' cause.
Then in the fourth quarter, after a pair of threes from Cory Joseph looked to seal the win with about 7 minutes to go, Toronto allowed a line-up consisting of Charlie Villanueva, John Jenkins, Justin Anderson, J.J. Barea and Jeremy Evans (that's more J's than a bad DeMar fourth quarter) to storm back in the closing minutes.
This team has it's issues, obviously. But what else is to be expected when a team not built to handle injuries en masse is continually dealing with a shortened rotation.
Looking at this team under such a microscope can allow negativity to dominate the conversation. But based on the challenges the Raptors have faced so far, it's hard not to be happy with the overall results. It's rarely pretty with this group - but it's usually entertaining, more often than not resulting in wins.
If you can't appreciate that, you're missing the point.
Have at it in the comments - and Happy Holidays!