Minus the injured Kyle Lowry, the Toronto Raptors have sputtered. Their defence has been leaky, and their offensive attack – especially from long range, without their top three-point shooter – has withered.
Nothing a little dose of the Dallas Mavericks couldn't help fix.
For the most part, the Raptors (39-28) looked sharp at both ends of the court Monday night, and the result was a satisfying 100-78 victory over the sluggish Mavericks (28-38) at the Air Canada Centre.
Not even the presence of Dirk Nowitzki, who recently became just the sixth player in NBA history to surpass the 30,000-point plateau in scoring, could help the Mavericks.
With a solid, all-encompassing attack that featured five players scoring in double figures, the Raptors put this one to bed during an impressive third quarter, outscoring the reeling Mavericks 29-20 to secure a 79-66 lead.
"Dallas wants to run a more deliberate, slow-down game, and we didn't allow them to do it," Toronto coach Dwane Casey said. "We had to impose our will on them."
With Toronto up 13 heading into the fourth quarter, the play turned somewhat ragged, with even Nowitzki's magic touch turning to stone.
The 38-year-old missed a gimme layup, and the Raptors rushed the ball back down the court, where Patrick Patterson drilled his third three of the night. That increased Toronto's lead to 84-66 and sounded the death knell on the Mavericks' night.
After going two-for-15 from beyond the three-point arch in an ugly 104-89 loss to Miami on Saturday, the Raptors responded with better marksmanship Monday, knocking down nine of their 25 three-point attempts.
DeMar DeRozan was once again Toronto's offensive leader, with 25 points off 10-of-17 shooting. Norman Powell got the start at forward and chipped in with 19 points, while Jonas Valanciunas counted his fourth straight double-double (14 points, 12 rebounds) – a career best.
Harrison Barnes would lead Dallas with 18 points, while Nowitzki finished with 17.
It is a busy week for the Raptors, who will next entertain the Oklahoma City Thunder at home Thursday, the first of a back-to-back that will take them into Detroit to play the Pistons on Friday. The Raptors will then return to Toronto to play the Indiana Pacers on Sunday.
The Raptors now have just 15 games remaining in the regular season. So time is running out if they hope to finish in the top three in the Eastern Conference and avoid a possible second-round playoff against the mighty Cleveland Cavaliers. Toronto started Monday in fourth place overall, 3 1/2 games back of Boston.
The team is still trying to regain its stride since the loss of Lowry, its all-star point guard, who has now missed 10 games as he recovers from surgery to his wrist. Toronto has gone 6-4 without him in the lineup.
The Raptors are optimistic that Lowry will be ready to play by the time the playoffs roll around, but the game plan right now is to just stay afloat.
Dallas coach Rick Carlisle said the Raptors remain a formidable outfit, especially with the trade-deadline addition of Serge Ibaka.
"With Lowry out, that changes it a little bit," Carlisle said before the game. "But [Cory] Joseph's a hell of a player, and Delon Wright's playing well. They're a high-level team, and we're on the road, so this is going to be a different type of challenge."
The Raptors came into the game having lost two in a row. They looked especially out of sorts in their loss to Miami on Saturday.
"Just his presence," Casey said before the game when asked what the Raptors miss most about Lowry. "You need someone to make something happen. He does it.
"Loose balls – he's going to come out with it. Three-point shot – he's going to make it. So just those intangibles."
The Mavericks emerged from an up-tempo opening quarter with a 26-25 lead after connecting on 52.6 per cent (10 for 19) of their shots.
The back-and-forth nature of the game continued into the second, when Patterson, off a nice feed from Fred VanVleet, sank a wide-open three from the corner that moved Toronto in front 35-30.
But the Mavericks responded with a 9-0 run after that to go ahead 39-35, before Toronto fought back to claim a 50-46 lead by the half.
Then the Raptors came out strong in the third quarter and put the Mavericks back on their heels.
DeRozan canned a three-pointer after taking a pass from the paint by Valanciunas, lifting Toronto into its biggest lead of the night to that point at 58-51.
Powell added another strike from long distance before DeRozan stepped smartly into the paint and finished with a stylish dunk that vaulted Toronto's lead to 65-54.
The Raptors would settle for a 79-66 lead heading into the final frame.