Two months is an eternity, at least in terms of a basketball team’s evolution. Eight weeks ago, the discourse surrounding the Raptors was bleak. A five-game losing streak from January 18th through 25th marked the lowest point for the franchise since the spring of 2015. When a comfortable win against Milwaukee on the 27th appeared to signal a turnaround, the Raptors posted a pair of heartless losses to the abysmal Orlando Magic over the course of the next week.
Some stuff has happened since then, of course. Orlando traded Serge Ibaka to Toronto for Terrence Ross and a first-rounder, P.J. Tucker was added at the buzzer on deadline day, and the Raptors have used a new defense-first ethos to excel despite Kyle Lowry’s long-term shelving.
It’s fitting, then, that the Raptors can match their season-best win streak on Monday night with a victory over the team against which they hit their nadir — a team that is in large part responsible for Toronto’s March revival.
Here’s what to watch for as the Raptors host Orlando tonight.
Maybe a return to the city he professed to love as a second home will ignite Terrence Ross. The Ross experiment in Orlando hasn't clicked yet. In 15 games as the Magic's most talented player, Ross is shooting an uncharacteristic 33.3 percent from deep and averaging just 12.3 points in an expanded, 31 minute-per-game role.
His efficiency as dipped significantly - something of an accomplishment for someone who has topped out as a league-average player when it comes to Player Efficiency Rating throughout his career.
A cynic might look at Ross' struggles in Orlando as proof that he was and always will be the type of player that can't be relied on. An intelligent and totally rational person would place the blame at the feet of the Magic franchise as a whole. Rob Hennigan has constructed a cramped, untalented roster that provides little space for Ross on the perimeter, and gave a hefty contract to the inferior Evan Fournier last summer, with no foresight of the fact that he and Ross' skills are somewhat redundant.
Then there's Frank Vogel, who is an excellent defensive coach to be sure, but has failed to ever build an elite offense, despite being handed transcendent offensive talents like Paul George and Ross.
What I'm saying is, free Terrence Ross.
Padding the Stats
Toronto's surge up the defensive charts is past small sample anomaly status. It's been 16 games since Serge Ibaka (shouts to Hennigan) and P.J. Tucker joined the club. Since then the Raptors have been a Top-5 defense, and have crept into the top-10 (eighth) overall on the season. Games in which the Raptors hold opponents to under a point a possession used to be a cute fantasy; now they're the norm.
Orlando comes into Monday's game boasting the league's second-most inept offense (shouts to Vogel). With the Magic representing the first in a string of opponents that have trouble finding nylon, the path to a top-five defense is beginning to clear for the Raptors.
This team has come a long way since January.
I'm imposing a week-long hiatus on scoreboard watching for the staff and readers of this site. The Eastern Conference is simply too fluid right now to be fretting over each and every Celtics win or Wizards loss.
Here's what we know: the Raptors are in the playoffs and they'll almost assuredly host an opening round series starting April 15th or 16th.
Everything else is unsettled. Cleveland and the Try-Hards are in a virtual tie for first. Indiana, Atlanta and Milwaukee are locked in a three way war of mediocrity for the five-through-seven seeds. Washington is one game into a tough five-game road trip that will likely decide how the third and fourth seeds shake out. Miami is hanging on to the final playoff spot but the Bulls won't die.
Seven to 10 days of all-out avoidance of the standings page will to wonders for the collective psyche of the fan base as the hazy playoff picture sorts itself out.
Where to Watch: 7:30pm EST on TSN