After a scintillating start and a befuddling beginning to their mid-season it’s hard to know exactly how things are going to end up for the Toronto Raptors.
Are they the team that started 22-6? Or the one that was just 6-9 since, including a touch-and-go come-from behind effort against the hapless Philadelphia 76ers on Friday?
They got another chance to stake a claim on Sunday night against the Detroit Pistons and showed tentative signs of progress as they barely avoided snatching defeat from the jaws of victory as they won 114-110 to improve to 29-15 and remain third place in the Eastern Conference.
Not pretty, but effective, and they get two more chances to build on it in the next three days, with a visits to Indiana on Tuesday before hosting Rudy Gay and the Sacramento Kings Wednesday.
But there’s little risk in saying this: They’re going to need a little from everyone and a lot from a few. Sunday night held hope they might get the help necessary.
As the Raptors swooned it became apparent that they were missing DeMar DeRozan, who proved his value as a foundation piece both in his 21-game absence and in his sluggish performance in his return.
The good news for Toronto is that ever-so-slowly DeRozan is beginning to look like himself. After shooting just 6-of-34 in his last three games back DeRozan’s game-high 25 points on 14 shots -- and in particularly his 10 trips to the free-throw line to go along with six rebounds, four assists and two steals against no turnovers -- suggests that he’s getting closer to mid-season shape after his unscheduled break.
He credits a solo Saturday night spent on the ACC practice court for getting him back on track.
“I just wanted to go out there and be aggressive. I came in last night and got some work in, working on my rhythm, working on a lot of in-game shots, just trying to find a rhythm,” DeRozan said.
“Yesterday I really felt the most comfortable I’ve been since I’ve been back. I think tonight was the first time, every time I got in transition I pushed it. I was kind of timid doing it a few games before. Every single day I feel more comfortable and better.”
He showed it with a twisting turn-around on the baseline that pushed the Raptors lead to eight with 1:29 left, that went along with four trips to the foul line in the last 3:30.
It was the kind of play the Raptors have been desperate for late in games.
For a little perspective, all the Raptors needed to do was look at the visiting Pistons bench and stare into the void left by the season-ending Achilles tendon tear suffered Saturday by Brandon Jennings, a friend of DeRozan’s from Los Angeles.
DeRozan was watching the Pistons play against Milwaukee in the Raptors dressing room before his late-night workout when he saw his friend go down, writhing in pain.
DeRozan was shaken a day later. “I missed six weeks, I can’t imagine missing six or nine months. I just felt bad.”
Perhaps not as badly as Pistons coach Stan Van Gundy who sounded like a guy trying to make the best of having discovered he’d left a winning lottery ticket in the laundry.
“Its difficult. Last night we were all a little down, but then you wake up the next morning and you have another game to get ready for, You don’t have time to feel sorry for yourself, doesn’t matter if you’re coach, player or whatever, you get ready,” Van Gundy said.
“Look, you go into a season, you’re counting on everyone on your roster. I say that every year and most guys roll their eyes but my experience has been that virtually everyone on your roster gets their opportunity at some point. That’s why you stay ready.”
The Pistons started 5-23 and are now 12-5 since they waived veteran Josh Smith and handed the reins to Jennings who averaged 20.9 points and 7.2 assists per game during the month of January, reflective of the longest stretch of sustained elite play in his career. A period that included both a rare 24 point, 21 assist outing last week – the first 20 point, 20 assist game in the NBA in five years – and a 34-point, 10 assist dismantling of the Raptors at the ACC on January 12th.
He’s gone for the year and the Pistons will have to figure it out if they want to make the playoffs in the East, which is still eminently possible.
The Raptors – touch wood – can plan on moving forward with a full roster.
Not that they don’t have their issues, containing point guards among them.
The Raptors proved that it wasn’t just Jennings who was capable of shredding them as the Pistons’ D.J. Augustin – who was waived by Toronto last year after the Rudy Gay trade – lit them up for a career-high 35 points and eight assists.
But despite that blemish and the fact the Raptors allowed Detroit to pull within two with 10 seconds left after leading by 11 with eight minutes to play, the Raptors are showing signs of getting over the rough patch that most teams inevitably hit in an 82-game season.
There was DeRozan’s return to form, another strong outing by Jonas Valancuinas -- who again proved a match for the Pistons big-man tandem of Greg Monroe and Andre Drummond. There were signs of life for Terrence Ross and all-star point guard Kyle Lowry was fine to take a back seat and orchestrate to the tune of 11 points and eight assists against only one turnover.
The Raptors may have let Augustin run wild and shown some slippage late in the game, but for head coach Dwane Casey the good outweighed the bad.
“It’s the defensive approach that you’re always thinking about as a coach,” Casey said. “Until those last few possessions I thought our defensive intensity was decent, we’ve had it the last couple of weeks and I knew our offense was going to come around.”
It’s too early for Casey or anyone else to say that for the worst is over for the Raptors. But they have three more games this week against sub-.500 opponents to build on their recovery. They have their star back, in DeRozan – something the Pistons can’t look forward to as it relates to Jennings,
The Raptors have had their hot start and may be emerging from their challenging middle with the pieces in place to build for a push towards the end.