There were not supposed to be too many four-game winning streaks in this part of the NBA world in 2010-11, so it's best not to be too picky about the to and fro in a 106-90 win for the Toronto Raptors over the Philadelphia 76ers on Wednesday. Better to adapt the sense of bemusement of new Raptor Jerryd Bayless, who took a look at Reggie Evans' 22 rebounds that flirted with a club record, shook his head, and wondered at the novelty of a guy dominating an NBA game without scoring.
Let's just give the Raptors credit: After scratching out a one-point win over the Boston Celtics last Sunday, they buried the Sixers with a shock-and-awe first half. Playing a team coming off an overtime loss in which it had blown a late lead and without one of its few authoritative individuals in the suspended Elton Brand, the Raptors tore into Doug Collins' team with a ferocity. Yes, it became messy at the end - the Raptors turned the ball over more times in a nine-minute span of the third quarter than they had in the first half - but the Raptors are full measure for this streak and whatever lessons they've learned during it.
Collins later called the Raptors a "much, much improved team" from the club he saw when it and the Sixers were both 2-9. A "nice team," which is one of those phrases that resonate a little more with people in the game - any game - than with fans because it suggests something has caught the studied eye of a coach.
Here's the thing about the Raptors: With the loss of Chris Bosh, everybody has been saying that this is now Andrea Bargnani's team, and for the last four games he's played like he believes it.
Within the first three minutes Wednesday he had drawn three fouls. What is also known is that the Raptors need more star power, because star power is a currency all its own in the NBA. The game is refereed differently when a team has a star.
A good draft pick and perhaps another marquee signing or trade acquisition will be crucial to the long-term success of this team, but when that happens a dependable bench will also be a necessity. And that's one of the things to like about the Raptors' recent play: The bench has contributed, both statistically and emotionally. That's one reason pinpointed by Evans after the game for the team's recent success: focus that is a lot easier to maintain when a guy can come off the court for a blow and know that the person replacing him won't let the side down.
For that reason, the Raptors had to be pleased with what Bayless showed in his first game. The Raptors don't know what they have yet in Bayless - he is not likely going to be the type of point guard who creates his own shot and dominates the NBA these days - but he showed an explosiveness that was welcomed off the bench during a helter-skelter game and nailed two impressive shots: a three-pointer at the first-half buzzer and another from the corner late in the game after he'd been tossed to the court.
Head coach Jay Triano went into the game saying Bayless would be given control of the team "at some point during the game." Things went so well in the first half he could do it early, and he also had the freedom to insert Leandro Barbosa alongside Bayless to provide something of a security blanket.
Bayless finished with 13 points and three assists in 14 minutes 55 seconds and Triano said later that he liked his quickness off the bench - his energy and his ability to use the restricted plays he'd been handed.
This is all about finding out who will be around when the Raptors are ready to play meaningful games.
The big pieces of the puzzle are absent, but what is here has left Raptors fans with more hope and given them more enjoyment than most likely expected they'd have at this point in the season.
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