As the temperature in Toronto reached a three-month high, the Raptors did the same in Indiana on Monday night, leading the Pacers wire-to-wire in a convincing 117-98 win. It was one of the more complete wins of 2015 for the sputtering Raptors - and the contest was rife with flashbacks to what made the team successful in the first two months of the campaign.
It's pretty clear that Kyle Lowry's three-game break has done wonders for him. Notching his second triple-double of the year with 20 points, 11 assists and 10 rebounds, Lowry looked startlingly close to the player he was during the Raptors hot start. Another encouraging sign: he is now 22-43 (51.1 percent) from beyond the arc since his return. That scorching pace is probably unsustainable, but it seems safe to assume his 24.0 percent clip from deep in February will go down as an outlier, especially since shots like this are now going down for the Raps' point guard:
Lowry wasn't the only one turning back the clock to the Raptors' November and December heyday. Lou Williams had a Lou Williams kind of night - dropping 24 on 8-17 shooting, and making up for his porous 1-6 on threes with a 7-7 night at the stripe. DeMar DeRozan did his thing too, eclipsing the 20-point mark for the seventh time in eight games thanks in large part to his ability to get to the line (the team shot 27-33 on free throws as a whole).
All of those factors contributed to the Raptors' offense finding a level that it has rarely reached during their recent dip. Coming into the game, Indiana boasted the seventh best Defensive Rating in the league (100.0) and during its last 10 games, had been the 2nd-best defensive squad behind only the Utah Goberts.
Putting up 117 points on that stout a defense provides cause for optimism.
Jonas Valanciunas provided even more reason for Raptors fans to be enthused. Not only has he combined to shoot 14-17 in two games since becoming a father, but he demonstrated some excellent defense early on - particularly in the first quarter:
That textbook block on Roy Hibbert was the first of four or five plays in the opening frame where Valanciunas made life difficult for both Hibbert and David West on the inside. I'm not saying his newborn son has the supernatural ability to illicit great play from his dad, but it can't be ruled out.
With all of the positives to be derived from this game, it might be easy to overlook James Johnson's stat line: 0 points, 0 rebounds, 0 assists and one big fat "DNP-CD."
With Terrence Ross seemingly having a firm grasp on his starting job (as long as the back spasms he left with tonight aren't too severe), Johnson appears to have lost his spot in the regular rotation - again. You could make a case that his perimeter defense wasn't necessary against the likes of George Hill, Rodney Stuckey and C.J. Miles (although the trio wasn't exactly stymied at the point of penetration by the Raptors perimeter guys). And you could even argue that Johnson's slashing and post skills didn't match up well against a Pacers defense which funnels action towards the towering Hibbert.
However, the final month of the season - especially for a struggling team - should be about finding a groove heading into the playoffs; establishing the playoff rotation is a big part of that. Given that Johnson was brought back to Toronto almost as a direct response to last spring's Joe Johnson Massacre, it's concerning that Casey can't find a consistent role for him to fill.
He's going to be needed in the playoffs.
The strange misuse of the team's best perimeter defender aside though, this game has to incite some hope among the team and fans as the season winds down.
The Raptors' previous two wins over the Pacers came during each of the team's two longest win streaks of the season. Here's hoping this win is the start of a third such streak.
What did you think of tonight's win?