There is a different vibe around the Toronto Raptors these days. Winning will do that for a team.
Let’s not get carried away here though, the team still sports an 11-20 mark. But having won seven of the last eight contests, the atmosphere is beginning to change.
Snippets of laughter are back in the locker room. On the bus ride to the airport following the victory in Orlando, there were jokes and chatter at the back of the bus, which was in stark contrast to depressing and quiet journeys that followed so many road losses earlier in the season.
Dwane Casey realizes that even though the team is playing well over the last eight games, there is still a long way to go. Making reference to Kyle Lowry’s quote after the game in Memphis where the point guard said, “We’re not buried yet, but we’re five feet under. We’ve got a team that’s going to fight and claw and chip away and get to three feet, two feet and get above ground”, Casey added his own bit of humour.
“We were in a 4 1/2-foot hole, now we’re in a 3 1/2-foot hole, crawling our way out,” remarked Casey after the Raptors registered their largest margin of victory this season in a 123-88 blowout of the Orlando Magic.
It was a common theme in the locker room as veterans Alan Anderson and Jose Calderon echoed the same sentiments that things are good now but there is still work to be done.
So what’s different?
Initially, the schedule has softened. Toronto is not taking down the best teams in the NBA, but imagine the outcry had there been losses to some of the opponents they have recently defeated.
No question following the disastrous five-game road junket, something had to be done and a change had to be made. Who knew the adjustment would come as a result of the injury bug. With Lowry and Andrea Bargnani both suffering injuries in the final game of the road trip in Portland, suddenly less was more for Toronto.
As I wrote here it started with a change to the lineup and other players having opportunities because of the infirmary becoming crowded.
There were fewer instances of one-on-one basketball with the likes of Lowry and Bargnani feeling they had to do it all offensively for the team. With Calderon running the point, Ed Davis inserted into a starting spot and Anderson back on the floor, team basketball became the theme.
Many wondered what would happen when Lowry returned to the lineup. For those who think a team is better without its best talent, give it a rest.
With the squad reeling off five straight wins, Casey was asked what he would do when Lowry, who had a more defined timeline for his return than Bargnani, was ready to step back into the lineup. Casey said he would cross the bridge when he came to it and when Lowry returned in New Orleans, it was obvious Casey was going across the bridge with the guys that were playing well and Lowry would have to get in line.
Casey said that Lowry would have to “join the party”, and you know what, for at least two games, Lowry is enjoying himself.
Sitting and watching has proven to be valuable for Lowry as he observed the merits of team basketball being reinforced with his counterpart, Calderon, running the team. Just look at the first couple of touches for Lowry in the two recent road wins over New Orleans and Orlando. After breaking down the defence, he opted to pass the ball to open shooters even though he was in the lane and nobody would have batted an eyelash had he scored himself.
It’s quite possible Lowry has seen skills in his teammates while he was watching from the bench that he didn’t or couldn’t see from the floor. He’s got to be thinking that he doesn’t have to do everything and maybe some of his teammates are better than meets the eye when they are put in the right situations.
Now that doesn’t mean the transformation will take place overnight. Remember there was still a questionable shot that was outside of the offence late in the game against the Hornets that rookie Anthony Davis blocked, but there has been less of the “do it yourself” mentality on display from Lowry as he has been humbled slightly.
But eventually for both Lowry and the team to be successful, there has to be the right mix of the angel and the devil on each of Lowry’s shoulders. “Lowry the facilitator” and “Lowry the bulldog that takes over a game” have to come out at just the right moment in the game.
Casey is well aware of the history of “point guard debates” in Toronto and is focused on what is right for team success. He’s not going to play favourites with victories on the line.
That begs the question with trade rumours blowing once again around Barganani and Lowry’s name recently added to the mix, what do you do with Jose Calderon?
I think he’s a valuable piece right now and this is no time to mess with the chemistry as everyone on the team is holding their shovel the right way and throwing the dirt in the proper spot. Closer to the trade deadline is where the determination should be made with Calderon or Lowry.
As for Bargnani, like any player in any sport, if the right deal comes along then the Raps should make the move. But it will be interesting to see how he is re-integrated into the lineup once he is healthy if a deal has not been made.
With Toronto three and half games out of the eighth spot, the current pace dictates that 38 wins will secure the final playoff spot. Toronto has 51 games left and is it possible that they could finish three games above .500 with 29 home games remaining? We’ll see.
The schedule has turned as they are about to kick off a six-game home stand and not leave the Eastern time zone until Mar. 2 when they travel to Milwaukee.
The next couple of weeks just might tell Raptor fans if the dirt has been moved out of the hole in the right direction or simply put in a pile that will come crashing down on them once again.