As we use the turning of the calendar to put everything into perspective, it's clear that our sample size for judging this year's Toronto Raptors is pretty small. Disruptive injuries to DeMarre Carroll and Jonas Valanciunas have kept the team in flux, as the magnifying glass has (maybe unjustly) turned to secondary players like Cory Joseph and Patrick Patterson.
Up to this point, the role cards have been adjusted on a regular basis, and it's been hard to get an answer to the wrung-out question -- what is this team's real identity?
This week, for the first time in a month, we're seeing the Raptors as they were intended to be in the off-season -- healthy, intense, and scrappy as all hell. After squeaking one out against the Washington Wizards on Wednesday, the Raptors rang in the new year with a feisty 104-94 win over the Charlotte Hornets. They improve to 21-13, while Charlotte falls to 17-15.
With both their star players shooting the ball inefficiently -- DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry were a combined 13-for-34 -- the Raptors had a couple of those secondary players step up in big ways to get the win. Patrick Patterson, most notably, had a good shooting game for the first time in recent memory, hitting four of his six three point attempts for 14 points. Still on a minutes cap, DeMarre Carroll continued to shake the rust off, scoring 14 points and getting a handful of hustle stats -- two offensive rebounds and two steals.
That energy from Carroll was at the heart of this game's turning point. After allowing an uncharacteristic 11 offensive rebounds in the first half and 82 points through three quarters, Dwane Casey settled on a smaller lineup with Carroll at power forward to close the game. With Terrence Ross, DeRozan and Lowry playing with active hands on the perimeter (Ross, a team-high +14, was especially invigorating), Toronto was able to take Charlotte turnovers and convert them into quick-hitting runs, building their lead in increments until the end of the game.
Playing the interior on that lineup was Bismack Biyombo, who continues to be an absolute monster on the defensive end. With Cody Zeller (15 points, nine rebounds, three blocks) and Frank Kaminsky (13 points) acting as his equal in the first three quarters, Biyombo used a two-part scuffle with everyone's favourite pest Tyler Hansbrough to motivate both himself and the crowd.
Tyler Hansbrough inviting death. pic.twitter.com/IzlJkddMDc— Raptors Republic (@raptorsrepublic) January 2, 2016
With these two plays, some questionable calls in favour of Charlette, and a Cory Joseph cross-over that crippled Brian Roberts, an apparently hung over Air Canada Centre came to life. The Raptors responded in kind, outscoring Charlotte 30-12 in an utterly dominant final frame.
It feels awkward to paint with too broad a brush here, but the two wins this week against the Wizards and Hornets seem like the type of games last year's Raptors would lose. These two Eastern Conference opponents always seem to play Toronto tough, but rarely do we see the Raptors get roused to fight back -- especially with balanced passing on offense and aggressive ball-hawking on defense. No longer a team of players that threaten to go it alone, what we've seen over the past month has been very promising -- both in the wins and the losses.
That growth has a perfect metaphor in Lowry and DeRozan, who both made up for poor shooting in their own ways. Lowry had 11 assists, DeRozan went to the line for a perfect 7-for-7. These are the types of performances the Raptors need now, and what they'll need as we continue forward into 2016.
Happy New Year, indeed.