For the upstart Atlantic Division leading Toronto Raptors, the game in Brooklyn against the second-place Nets represented an opportunity to send a message. Their leading scorer DeMar DeRozan was injured, the Nets were 10-1 in January and the Raptors lead in the division was down to a game and a half. Under the circumstances, Toronto wasn’t favored to win, but the Raptors seem to have their own agenda going lately and beating the Nets was only part of it.
With the 104-103 theft by the Raptors in Brooklyn, Toronto now leads the Atlantic Division by 2.5 games and is in third place in the Eastern Conference.
Head Coach Dwane Casey believes his team should have 2 players selected for the Eastern Conference All-Star reserves and both Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan have been doing everything possible lately to prove their coach right.
Lowry was an offensive and defensive force again in Brooklyn. His 31 points, 5 rebounds, 7 assists and 5 steals was only the latest impressive performance in what has become a career-year for the 27-year-old point guard. In his previous 2 games, Lowry had a double-double and triple-double and has done everything necessary to get noticed all season.
All DeRozan has done lately is set a new career high with 40 points against Dallas and follow that game up with 34 more points in Philadelphia. DeRozan is the 11th leading scorer in the NBA and fourth best in the Eastern Conference; it is getting hard to see how he could be overlooked for All-Star Weekend.
Toronto is 9-6 in January with 2 games to go, so Coach Casey will have his second consecutive winning month and by beating the Nets for the second time in a little over 2 weeks, they are full value for their division lead. Trash the weak Eastern Conference all you want, but the Raptors are 2 games above .500, have a +2.3 point scoring differential over their opponents and are 7-9 against the West including road wins over the Thunder, Mavericks and the Grizzlies with Marc Gasol.
However, Coach Casey and the Raptors are being evaluated internally by the development of sophomores Terrence Ross and Jonas Valanciunas plus the progression of DeRozan rather than by wins and on all counts, Casey can claim success.
In Brooklyn, Valanciunas added to his team leading 15 double-doubles with a season high 20 points to go with 13 rebounds. While Valanciunas progress has not been in a straight line, it has been steady and impressive; nothing more so than the back down, spin and dunk over Kevin Garnett last night.
All Ross has done recently is tie the franchise high for points in a single game when he put up 51 on the weekend against the Clippers. Again, Ross’ progression hasn’t been in a straight line, but since he joined the starting lineup, his defense is better, his three-point shooting has been excellent and the mistakes are way down.
Add in the All-Star worthy year DeRozan has been providing and it would be hard to argue that Casey hasn’t been giving this franchise exactly was needed and what his General Manager was asking for.
It is only a little over half way through the season, so Casey has a right to avoid calling the victory in Brooklyn a statement game, but that was the kind of win that doesn’t just give a team’s fans hope, it provides confidence to a team’s players. Getting a couple of players selected as All-Star reserves is something that could cement that confidence going forward.