The first place 22-6 Toronto Raptors cut through a depleted visiting New York Knicks team 118-108 with minimal effort on Sunday for their sixth win in a row and ninth win in the month of December and with the streak they have guaranteed themselves another winning month – their seventh winning month in a row going back to last season. Now they feel ready to be tested on their longest road trip of the season against the toughest string of competitors that they will face this year during the regular season.
First up are the 17-9 Bulls in Chicago on Monday night, then after four days off for Christmas, the Raptors head out on a five game Western Conference road trip against the best the West can throw at them.
“Tomorrow will be a game that lets us know where we are in the league,” Head Coach Dwane Casey said. “We have to show where we fit in that sphere. It was a good day today, but now we have to go and take care of business tomorrow.”
“We definitely owe this (Bulls) team,” Amir Johnson said. “They beat us here at home. We let that one get away from us, so we really want to get this win. Especially (because) we got this little Christmas break (and it would) just make it a lot better.”
“We still got a bad taste in our mouth about the last time,” James Johnson said. “Hopefully we can figure some things out. We are not the same team we were when we played them the first time. I think we’ve improved and our half court offense, we are executing it pretty well right now.”
“We need to approach this game a little pissed off because last time they just played better than we did, so we got to really show a different team tomorrow,” Greivis Vasquez said. “It is important that we play good teams. This is really going to test our character. We haven’t really faced adversity and everything right now is great, but I think we are ready for a really good test.
“Tomorrow is a playoff game for us.”
The Raptors took care of business early against the Knicks on Sunday and never trailed as Kyle Lowry and Terrence Ross combined for 40 points as the starting guards and reserve guards Vasquez and Lou Williams combined for 43 more points. Carmelo Anthony scored 28 points on 26 shots as he led the Knicks offense until Head Coach Derek Fisher threw in the towel down 18 points with about six minutes left and subbed Anthony out for good.
With the early lead and the Knicks unable to sustain any kind of run to threaten it, Casey was able to keep his starters minutes down with the upcoming back-to-back game against the Bulls.
The Bulls defeated Toronto at the Air Canada Center in mid-November 100-93 on the strength of a dominate third quarter in which they held the Raptors to just 14 points – the second fewest points scored by Toronto in a quarter this season. Overall, the Bulls held Toronto to their worst field goal percentage of the season (39.3) and second lowest points total despite the Raptors outscoring the Bulls by 14 points combined over the first, second and fourth quarters.
The fourth place Bulls are 5-1 over their past six games – Monday’s game will be a big test for both teams.
After the dust settles on Monday’s contest, the Raptors get a true break in the schedule and don’t play again until December 27th in Los Angeles against the Clippers (19-8). Then it’s off to mile-high Denver on the back-to-back to face the 12-15 Nuggets. The toughest tests are likely to be against the second place Trail Blazers (22-6) on December 30 and the first place overall Warriors (22-3) on January 2nd. The road trip ends in Phoenix on January 4th against the 15-14 run-and-gun Suns.
“It’s going to be a challenge,” Vasquez said. “We are looking forward to this challenge. Anytime you go to the West, it’s not easy, but we are good enough to come out with a couple of wins and do our job.”
“I’m ready for it,” Casey said. “I’ve been preaching it and we should be ready for it. Everyone is all excited, but again, reality is real and we have to be ready for adversity whenever it hits. You go in with positive vibes and are ready to kick some behind, but when adversity hits that’s when you find out how close we are and how we have to stick together.”
Toronto faces teams with a combined record of 107-55 on this six game road trip including four playoff bound teams. A road trip isn’t often going to be tougher than this in any year – if ever.
The Raptors All-Star DeMar DeRozan hasn’t played since the end of November due to a groin strain, however, he looked really good during pregame warm-ups on Sunday and ran down the tunnel to the locker room like he was 100 percent. There is still no word on a possible return date for DeRozan and it wouldn’t surprise anyone if the team took advantage of the upcoming break to give him a few more days to rest before re-evaluating the situation. However, he did look really good on Sunday.
“One thing about (DeRozan) is he’s a great pro, he’s a great friend, he’s a great teammate, he is happy for us,” Vasquez said. “We let him know how much we need him. We are nothing without him. We want him back. We enjoy (sitting) on the bench watching him play, it’s a privilege especially for a guy like me, I don’t have that athleticism. We need our whole team back because we are playing for something bigger.”
As the new guys on the top of the heap in the NBA East, the Raptors feel the need to keep proving themselves and this road trip provides them with that opportunity. Although they are 7-2 against the West so far, they haven’t taken down a top tier team from the other (better) conference on the road yet this season. This is their chance to muzzle their doubters or discover their shortfalls.
After this grueling road trip, the Raptors return home for six in a row at the Air Canada Centre starting on January 8th against the Hornets. Then it’s Boston, Detroit, Philadelphia, Atlanta and New Orleans.
Stephen Brotherston covers the Toronto Raptors and visiting NBA teams at the Air Canada Centre and is a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.
photo credit: Paul Saini Fylmm.com
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