TORONTO – These are heady times for the Toronto Raptors.
After 20 seasons, almost all of them painful in some way, shape or form, the team that for so long put the ‘Toronto’ in Toronto sports may finally be breaking free of the chains of history.
Forget Hoffa. Forget Bargnani. Forget stars leaving in acrimony and coaches being fired ignominiously. No more Garbo breaking his leg, T.J. Ford nearly breaking his neck or T-Mac making a break for it.
A franchise whose lone post-season highlight is a missed shot at the buzzer in the seventh game of the second round 15 years ago may finally, for a moment at least, be living right and being rewarded for it.
It’s happened so stealthily, this Raptors season of renewal. It kind of snuck up on everyone. Through the first half of the season the Raptors were never really great, but most importantly never let injuries or schedule woes allow them to slide into any deep, dark pits. Their longest winning streak before their current one was five, but more significantly they never lost more than three games in a row.
And now? Now they are bathing in the warm light of a favourable schedule, of good rest and good health. Now the Raptors are emerging.
Fitting that it was the Washington Wizards to fall as the latest victim at the Air Canada Centre. Toronto’s 106-89 win wasn’t a masterpiece – after jumping out to a 38-24 lead midway through the second quarter the Wizards rallied to cut the Raptors’ lead to 53-50 at the half and Toronto was up just four with 3:24 left in the third quarter.
But they figured it out and they finished the Wizards with a 16-4 run midway through the fourth quarter.
The Raptors have now swept the season series from the Wizards 4-0, which doesn’t at all make up for being swept 4-0 by Washington in the first round of the playoffs last season, but it does indicate that the Raptors are at the very least trending in the right direction.
“There is a 20-year history here,” said Raptors coach Dwane Casey. “We’re not there yet but we’re taking strides, getting somewhere. You can pick any program apart but I would venture to say we’re heading in a better direction than the other way.”
It was the Raptors ninth straight win, tying a franchise record set by Toronto in 2002 when they were making a late run at a playoff spot late in what was the beginning of the end of the Vince Carter era.
It was not an aesthetic triumph, unless you observe that the bench – a gaudy plus-71 on the evening, led by Terrence Ross (15 points on 12 shots) and Cory Joseph (15 points and six assists) – is finding itself in all facets.
The Raptors had the Wizards down early and but let them hang around a little too long, if we’re being picky, and the Raptors can afford to be.
“Our transition defence was non-existent,” said Casey after the game. “I don’t know, for whatever reason we were in a malaise with our transition defence, but again we found a way to win.”
The only note of concern? Kyle Lowry left the game late in the fourth quarter after appearing to injure his hand or finger while getting tangled with the Wizards’ Marcin Gortat. Lowry left the floor and went straight to the locker room, finishing with 29 points, four rebounds and four assists while taking just 14 shots.
But hey, these are happy days. Lowry’s X-Rays were negative and he declared himself “fine” after the game, appearing without ice on his wrist or any sign of discomfort.
Normally this is the point in the story where we insert the big qualifier, the precautionary proviso. With this edition of the Raptors, having won 48 and 49 regular-season games the past two years and but lost two first-round playoff series as the higher seed, this is where you dismiss the fact that the Raptors are on pace for a team-record 55 wins and are firmly ensconced as the No. 2 seed in the Eastern Conference and dismiss it all with a, ‘Bah, nothing matters until the playoffs.’
Which is true. The Lowry-DeMar DeRozan Raptors may be putting together the best run in franchise history, but it will feel pretty empty if they fail to get out of the first round again.
But those kinds of worries are months away and you can count on Casey to leverage this group’s post-season failures to the hilt when the time comes.
It was interesting to listen to Casey allow just a little sunshine into what can be the dog days of the regular season, with the all-star break still shimmering in the distance and the urgency of the coming post-season still nearly 40 games in the distance.
“I’m not one of those guys [that can’t enjoy success],” said Casey. “I say, ‘enjoy this, enjoy this’ … you better enjoy this right now because tomorrow isn’t promised to any of us. So let’s enjoy some of the good times and some of the small victories we have – I would say that to all of us. Let’s enjoy this journey.
“Everyone is, ‘Let’s wait until the playoffs. Let’s see what they do in the playoffs’ and we’re right there with them, but we’ve got to make sure we enjoy the process, as far as going through the journey and the ups and downs of it, and, believe me, there are going to be more downs, but let’s enjoy this.”
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There was enough about the Raptors effort to test that point of view. Washington was coming in on the second night of a back-to-back and have been injury-ravaged all season as they dropped to 20-23 on the year, but the Raptors couldn’t put them away and didn’t help their own cause by giving up 24 points on 15 turnovers through three quarters.
But they kept at it. They held the Wizards to 41.6 per cent from the floor. They out-rebounded the Wizards 48-34. They did what was required, transition defence aside.
Last year at this time the Raptors were also 30-15, it’s worth pointing out, but their reckoning was coming as their defence kept slipping and their offence eventually followed. Perhaps that’s why Casey doesn’t feel the need to rub last season’s comeuppance in this team’s faces all the time. If they can’t remember on their own, he can’t help them.
But this does feel a bit different and not just because the Raptors have a chance to break the franchise record for consecutive games won when they host the New York Knicks on Thursday.
Even Casey believes it.
“I would argue a different team,” he said. “We’re more of a grind-it type team. Last year we were doing it more with flash and dash and doing it more with our offence, which we took advantage of, [but] long-term, you can’t win like that, long term we’re better suited to a tougher team.
“Whether we do it or not [every night] is a different story, but we’re built to be a tougher, grimier team.”
It doesn’t mean the Raptors can relax or can afford to let up. Every team is a key injury or a long slump from unwinding months of good work. They’re not that good that they can coast and there is a long road ahead with some deep potholes, one that Raptors tradition suggests, they will find, sooner or later.
But the season is too long to let the hangover of last season’s playoffs spoil everything that’s happening now. They can’t be overshadowed by their past forever. The season can be a grinding one, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be enjoyed by Raptors fans or players alike. They don’t make them like this very often.
“I’m preaching lets work hard and enjoy the moment,” said Casey. “Not all gloom and doom, but let’s be professional and keep taking strides. The only thing we can do wrong is think that we’ve done something, that we’ve accomplished something and [forget] that we have a bigger target, a bigger picture. Every day, everything they do, we want them working toward that goal.”
But in the meantime: So far, so fun.