A curious game, this basketball.
The Toronto Raptors were wallowing among the bottom feeders of the NBA, and the situation was only expected to get worse with the loss of two of their top scorers (Andrea Bargnani and Kyle Lowry) to injury.
The Raptors responded by ripping off a season-high, three-game win streak that they confidently carried into Wednesday’s match against the Detroit Pistons at the Air Canada Centre.
Fuelled by another solid defensive effort, the Raptors (8-19) stretched that run to four with a hard-nosed 97-91 victory over the Pistons (7-21) – the first time in more than two years Toronto has enjoyed a win streak that long.
The game turned midway through the fourth quarter, when Raptors guard Alan Anderson, whose recent return from a lengthy injury layoff has been key, went to work.
After Amir Johnson snagged a key offensive rebound, Anderson drained a three-point shot.
With the ball back in Toronto’s possession after a Detroit miss, the Raptors went back to Anderson, and he launched another long-distance calling card that fell through and Toronto’s lead was 88-77 with 6 minutes 30 seconds to go.
Anderson would finish with 16 points.
The Pistons battled back and the Raptors were clinging to a 91-87 lead with little more than 36 seconds left.
Johnson made a key steal off Pistons guard Rodney Stuckey and hit the ground, where a jump ball was called – which Johnson handily won to seal the victory for Toronto.
DeMar DeRozan led Toronto with 23 points, while Greg Monroe had 35 points and nine rebounds for Detroit.
While the recent run of good fortune might speak volumes about the worthiness of either Bargnani or Lowry, Toronto head coach Dwane Casey prefers to chart a more-diplomatic route in explanation.
“Just the way we’re moving the basketball, the way we’re sharing the ball,” Casey said before Wednesday’s game. “I can’t remember exactly the number of assists, but it’s been a pretty good clip.”
(During the first three wins of this streak, the Raptors averaged 25.3 assists per contest, more than four above their season average.)
Of course, it helped the Raptors started playing defence with the sort of conviction they exhibited over most of last season, when Casey thought he’d fixed that aspect of the broken wheel.
In their previous wins over Dallas, Houston and Cleveland, the Raptors held their opponents to an average of 89.6 points. But on the year, opponents have lit up Toronto’s soft defensive underbelly to an average of 101.1 points, third worst among the league’s 30 teams.
“Having the defensive focus,” is the way Casey put it.
Another contributing factor, and a major one, has been the resurgence of guard Jose Calderon. Since reclaiming his starting role at the point in the absence of the Lowry, Calderon has been on a tear and his sublime play was evident early on Wednesday.
Calderon dished out nine assists in the first quarter (two shy of Doug Christie’s single-quarter franchise record of 11, set in 2000), that helped Toronto secure a 27-23 lead.
Calderon would finish with 17 assists and seven points, in 36 minutes of play.
DeRozan and Jonas Valanciunas contributed 10 points each as Toronto shot 64.7 per cent (11 of 17) in the frame.
Despite getting outrebounded in the first half by a wide margin, 24-13, by an imposing Pistons lineup, the Raptors still found themselves in a 49-49 deadlock heading into the third quarter.
Calderon recorded his first points of the game in the third, when he drained a three-point shot with less than five minutes left in the frame.
And when Johnson bagged two free throws, the Raptors had built their biggest lead of the contest at 67-60.