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Patrick Patterson is back, and the return of the Good Raptors might soon follow

Toronto’s under-appreciated adhesive is back on the court at last.

NBA: San Antonio Spurs at Toronto Raptors Kevin Sousa-USA TODAY Sports

Patrick Patterson is the least sexy third wheel among the NBA’s elite teams. He doesn’t bring the thunder of a DeAndre Jordan, the offensive punch of a Kevin Love or the end-to-end dominance of a Draymond Green. He has three-point shot can drift in and out of effectiveness. When working off the dribble he often incites moans from the crowd. And depending on the night, he might not even look like the best reserve on his own team.

His return from injury on Tuesday, however, illustrated just how much appreciation Patterson - Toronto’s third-most important player - deserves from both fans and his Raptors teammates.

As the Raptors have swooned in the New Year, the hunt has been on for answers to what ails the team. A confluence of shooting slumps up and down the roster combined with a continuation and amplification of the team’s season-long defensive issues have sent the Raptors into a 6-8 skid since December 29th. Not coincidentally, that’s the day Patterson tweaked his knee in the third quarter against the Suns in Phoenix.

It’s understandable if people were reluctant to pin the Raptors’ slide solely on Patterson missing 10 of 12 games before coming back against the Spurs on Tuesday. Accepting that your favourite team’s chances of reaching its ceiling hinge on a reserve who averages just 7 and 5 a game must be a throat-clogging pill to swallow. It is, however, the reality of this year’s Raptors. Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan are the steak and lobster, Patterson is the béarnaise sauce that ties entire the dish together.

“That helps tremendously. He’s a big piece with that glue,” said Dwane Casey on what the return of Patterson meant to his team. “I thought he came in and got us steady: moved the basketball, made some shots, defended, rebounded. He just did a lot of positive things that really gave us some glue that we needed.”

While on a minutes restriction that kept him from closing the game, Patterson managed to maximize every one of his 21 minutes. It wasn’t just that he converted 5-of-6 field goal tries and 2-of-3 triples for 12 points. He was a refreshing breeze pouring into the stuffy room that had been the Raptors’ offense in previous games. The specter of him knocking down long range bombs in the pick-and-pop added an extra layer to Toronto’s attack that the team’s other bigs simply can’t provide.

Check out how disinterested the Spurs are in guarding Jared Sullinger after a dribble hand-off with Lowry. It leads to four bodies converging on Lowry as he makes a trip into the paint before he scrambles to kick out to a quickly encroached-upon Norman Powell.

Compare that with how Patterson’s existence requires Patty Mills to stay extra alert and on his toes, drawing one kick out pass before opening up a few extra inches of space for Lowry to dart to the rim and get up a shot.

Patterson greases the wheels of the Raptors in subtle ways that add up to significantly smoother offense. With the spacing element his provides, it should come as no stunner that the Raptors convert a 58.4 True Shooting percentage with Patterson on the court - second highest on the team behind Lucas Nogueira. That mark falls to 55.3 percent when he sits - a rate worse only when Lowry is parked on the bench (53.2). Overall, the offense loses 8.6 points per 100 possessions without Patterson on the floor (117.0 / 108.4). The dude is important.

That’s equally true when it comes to the defensive end. Bizarrely enough, the Raptors best defensive stretches on Tuesday came without Patterson on the court. Nogueira and Jonas Valanciunas steadied the ship with some strong rim protection for a good chunk of the third quarter after Jared Sullinger and DeMarre Carroll were yanked 150 seconds into the half. Valanciunas then operated well in a switchy four-guard configuration that closed out the game.

Small samples be damned, though. On Tuesday it was apparent how much Patterson livens up Toronto’s defensive intensity. More noticeable than any one play he made was the guttural beckoning of defensive coverages coming from the paint when he was on the floor. If it was clearly audible from the top of the building, one can only imagine the fear it must have instilled in the teammates Patterson was directing at court-level.

“Just being able to talk more, be more physical, show, get back rebound. Just being out there, just having him on the floor is a good thing,” said Lowry on the impact Patterson had on the defense in his return.

The last two games have seen the Raptors’ victimized by a steady stream of dump-off dunks, particularly when Valanciunas and Sullinger share the floor. One guy loses a step, his front court mate flashes over too far to help, and some thirty-something veteran big like David Lee or Tyson Chandler gets an easy dunk.

With Patterson inching his way towards his typical minutes threshold, the time that lead-footed pairing shares should be minimalized, and Patterson’s ability to make bad defensive big men look passable with his mobility and smarts should be put back on display. If Patterson can help the Raptors four mainstay starters churn out a defensive rating of 102.6, perhaps there’s hope for some Patterson-Sullinger combos to produce similar results as well.

Unlike during his short-lived return against Houston and Boston earlier this month, Patterson looked fully functioning on Tuesday against San Antonio. Barring some unforeseen setback, his return looks to be permanent (unless of course he rests against Memphis on Wednesday for the back-to-back). Folding Patterson back into the mix should be the most important step the Raptors take towards regaining the form they found in November and December

The next-most important task? Getting his ass back in the starting lineup.