The frustration was palpable. Less than five minutes into his last game before a trip to the NBA rising stars competition in New Orleans, Jonas Valanciunas was 0-for-5 – three of them gimmes against an opponent with no inside presence – and Dwane Casey took him out.
Valanciunas shook his head as he walked past his head coach, spreading his arms wide in frustration, and continued to shake his head as he walked down the Toronto Raptors bench, exchanging desultory fist-pumps with teammates.
It has been part reminder and part predictor, these past two Raptors home games.
Last Monday, against a game New Orleans Pelicans team that has played Eastern Conference foes tough, the Raptors survived frightening periods of listlessness for a 108-101 win. On Wednesday, in their final game before the all-star break, the Raptors survived a 1-for-12 start from the field, and what was a 1-for-13 start from three-point range, for a 104-83 win over the Atlanta Hawks at the Air Canada Centre.
The Raptors head into the break at 28-24, the first time since 2009-10 they've had as many wins at this point in the season.
"I think both teams were on vacation at the start of the game," Casey quipped later. "It was a grind, but that's the way it's going to be in the second half. It won't be pretty; we don't want it to be pretty."
For the first time since 2006-07, they enter the break leading the Atlantic Conference, and it wasn't supposed to be like this.
Guaranteed: Ninety per cent of the Raptors fanbase (and, likely, 90 per cent of the front office) thought this team would be scuffling, lining up for a lottery pick.
You know what happened by now: General manager Masai Ujiri traded Rudy Gay to the Sacramento Kings for Greivis Vasquez, Patrick Patterson, Chuck Hayes and John Salmons – and the Raptors have gone 21-12 since. The deal brought them an instant bench and gave Casey an enviable five big men: Valanciunas, Amir Johnson, Patterson, Hayes and Tyler Hansbrough.
Patterson has been a revelation, scoring 22 points last Monday in his first of two starts for Johnson, who has been given time off to rest an injured ankle. (Patterson got 14 on Wednesday.)
DeMar DeRozan is going to the all-star game.
Terrence Ross – who finally hit some three-pointers late in the first half, as the Raptors somehow escaped with a 45-44 lead despite just four second-chance points and despite the fact the Hawks doubled their points in the paint – is in the slam-dunk competition.
But they only had a one-point lead over an Atlanta team that was outrebounded 57-28 in a 100-85 loss to the Chicago Bulls last Tuesday.
Casey ordered the Raptors to focus on DeRozan, who was being guarded by Kyle Korver. It worked. DeRozan went off for 14 third-quarter points (going 5-for-6 from the field) and would have had more had he not picked up his fourth foul with 4 minutes 23 seconds left in quarter. This was DeRozan the all-star, no longer settling for mid-range jumpers and finishing with 31 points, while Raptors guard Kyle Lowry had another double-double, his 12th of the season.
There is a consistency now, to so many of the Raptors – helped, no doubt, by the fact Casey has used just seven different lineups.
"Efficient," is the word that Casey used to describe DeRozan, who was effective on the pick-and-roll against the Hawks – the one particular element of his game that Casey thinks can improve in order for DeRozan to become one of the elite players in the game.
As for Valanciunas? He had nothing to show for eight shots and 12 boards through 23 minutes – a spectacularly difficult feat when you're seven-feet tall – before finally plopping in a bucket with seven minutes left. He finished with two points and 14 rebounds. Yikes.
"He probably needs a mental rest," Casey said. "He did a good job rebounding. He couldn't buy a basket, but it wasn't for lack of trying. Maybe it was too much trying."
The game against the Hawks started a stretch of three against opponents directly behind the Raptors in the standings. On Tuesday, they'll face the Wizards in Washington. Next Wednesday, they'll play the Bulls at the ACC, followed by winnable home games against the Cleveland Cavaliers and Orlando Magic.
Casey doesn't have a contract to coach in 2014-15; Lowry doesn't have a deal to play in Toronto next season.
The season that wasn't supposed to be continues and … say, are you starting to get the sense this could be quite the spring in Toronto? The Raptors, with 17 of 30 games left at home, in the NBA playoffs and the Maple Leafs in the NHL playoffs.
Which begs the question: Et tu, Blue Jays?
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