When an undermanned lottery-bound team knocks off a high-seeded playoff-bound squad it’s easy to dismiss it as an aberration. But the Raptors have now done it for two straight games after Sunday’s 102-86 victory over the Atlanta Hawks and the big question is how?
“Believe me if I knew, I’d bottle it and we would have been doing it earlier in the year,” said head coach Dwane Casey when asked post-game to explain the effort he’s seeing from a group missing three several key pieces.
What’s clear is that the Raptors have bought into what their first-year head coach continues to preach, particularly on the defensive side of the ball, and they could be showing signs of taking a step towards closing teams out with more consistency.
Back in February, the Raptors seemed to run the gamut for ways to lose close games. To revisit an outstanding stat previously dug up by @HPBasketball on twitter, as of this post Toronto is tied with Minnesota for the league-lead in losses decided by six points (two possessions) or fewer with 16.
Sunday’s game could have veered that way as the Raptors hit the fourth quarter up by nine points, but they opened the final frame on a 13-2 run which pushed the lead to 20 and they cruised from there.
“We’ve got them again tomorrow night and what we’ve been fighting for all year is consistency. It’s nothing special we did … one thing we did is make shots, but again played the right way and played together. Defensively, we were tied together.”
There was also no shortage of strong individual performances that secured win number 22 on this season (which equals last year’s total) and snaps a seven-game slide for the Raptors at Philips Arena:
– DeMar DeRozan picked up right where he left off against the Celtics. He was relentless going at the rim in the first quarter, which had the Hawks on their heels early.
Added bonus: DeRozan did some serious damage with his back to the basket in the post, which has been a focal point for the 22-year-old in his development this season.
“I’m trying to definitely get that in my game,” said the third-year guard. “Just watching all the great two guards, they always had that post-up ability to take players smaller than them into the post. That’s what I’m trying to add to my game and just continue to get better at it.”
– Ed Davis, who couldn’t reach double-digits in rebounding for a fourth straight game (tougher to do when your team shoots 55 per cent from the field), but offensively he looked about as smooth as he has at any point this season. This summer will be huge for his development, but the recent extra work he’s put in with assistant coach Johnny Davis appears to be paying off right now.
– James Johnson, showed some tremendous signs in the fourth quarter that’s he’s ready to emerge out of his recent funk, which has coincided with being benched for reasons that have been kept internal.
After an tough 18-foot fadeaway jumper came up short with 9:35 to play in the fourth, Johnson really stepped up to help put the game away. The versatile forward took a charge the other way, then proceeded to hit six of his next seven shots in the quarter to score all 15 of his points on the night.
It was his best individual performance in three weeks, but Johnson was only talking team post-game.
“(Ed) Davis really pumped me up tonight as well, as he encouraged me,” said Johnson post-game. “It’s really important to know that your teammates have your back, and I would have his anytime as well.”
– Finally, what a big night for Alan Anderson, Ben Uzoh and Justin Dentmon — whose 10-day deals expire after tonight — as all three provided Bryan Colangelo with a little late-week food for thought.
Anderson, in particular, looks like he could clearly carve out a role in an NBA rotation — be that in Toronto or with another NBA team that’s looking for a forward that plays within himself, competes hard at the defensive end and can clearly knock down threes the other way.
The 29-year-old’s poise and maturity on the floor has been hard won, which certainly limits the size of a window for a potential return to the NBA. But there’s no question that he’s made the most of his opportunity over the course of two 10-day deals.
The Raptors aim to eclipse last season’s win total and build a second three-game win streak in April as the close a home-and-home series with the Hawks on Monday. Before then, here’s the best of what you had to say about the win.