Chemistry carrying Raps through injury

Valanciunas stepped up big in Johnson's absence, averaging 19.5 points and 11 rebounds and shooting 68 percent from the field over the weekend (Photo: Jeffrey Phelps/AP)

In the grand scheme of things, Greivis Vazquez hasn’t been in the NBA for long. Yet playing on his fourth team in as many seasons, the Raptors backup point guard has seen just about everything the League has to offer.

As a rookie in Memphis, he tasted post-season success, part of a memorable Grizzlies team that dismantled the Spurs in the first round before bowing out to the Thunder in seven games. On the New Orleans Hornets, Vazquez experienced life as an NBA starter, leading the NBA in assists while playing nearly 35 minutes per game last season. And earlier this year, before a serendipitous trade sent him to Toronto, the point guard learned first-hand what it meant to suit up for a dysfunctional bottom-feeder (some would call it a “rebuilding team”) in Sacramento.

So on Saturday night, after the Toronto Raptors beat the Milwuakee Bucks 102-98—their second straight victory without starters Kyle Lowry and Amir Johnson in the lineup—the 27-year-old from Caracas, Venezuela, took the opportunity to reflect on his latest stop:

“I’ve been in locker rooms, man,” he said. “I know how it is: egos, money. There’s none of that nonsense here. This is a unique team … A real team.”

In the three games since Lowry crashed hard into LeBron James—all wins—Vazquez has stepped up in his place, averaging 17 points, 4.3 boards and five assists and going 12-for-20 from deep.

But the Raptors success over the weekend was the result of more than just the standout play of their backup point guard. In Friday’s 102-94 win against the Indiana Pacers in front of a packed house at the Air Canada Centre, Jonas Valanciunas was particularly assertive, finishing with 20 points and nine boards, while Terrence Ross stepped up with 24 points and DeMar DeRozan added nine assists to a 20-point night of his own. Third-string point guard Nando De Colo (acquired from San Antonio for Austin Daye at the deadline), also contributed admirably in 22 minutes off the bench, and followed it up with seven points and six dimes in 20 minutes against the Bucks the next night.

And so it’s unsurprising that in the wake of Saturday’s Vazquez went right back to talking about his team.

“[We have] great chemistry and a healthy locker room, where everybody is happy for each others’ success,” he explained. “We clicked from the first moment we got together.”

It’s hard to say how much of that perfect chemistry GM Masai Ujiri could have anticipated in mid-December, when he moved Rudy Gay to Sacramento for four role players, all but one of whom (Chuck Hayes) was under contract for 2014-15. But make no mistake: As integral as the consistent brilliance of Lowry and the all-star emergence of DeRozan have been to the Raptors’ success this season (their chances of locking up an Atlantic division title currently stand at 99.4 percent), a major part of the story of 2013-14 comes down to what the newcomers brought this club: depth, versatility, leadership and open-mindedness.

Before the deal, the Raptors traded off long-winded solos like a dysfunctional band; ever since, it’s been basketball sung in four-part harmonies.

Granted, Indiana and Milwaukee are not exactly the greatest litmus tests at the moment. The Bucks, who it should be noted battled hard on Saturday night, are the worst team in the NBA. The Pacers, meanwhile, are in complete disarray, a shell of the team that looked Finals-bound through the first half of the season, and on Sunday, managed an all-time franchise-low 23 points through the first two quarters in a blowout loss to the Hawks.

The Raptors also still have the issue of slow starts to address, a habit that will surely spell a first-round exit if continued in the playoffs.

“Our approach was terrible; we’re better than that,” Vazquez said of the lacklustre first half versus Milwuakee that saw the Raps down nine. “Our coach jumped on us and we reacted. The second half we came out to play.”

When asked to explain, he said, “There can be so many factors, but we can’t have excuses. A team that’s going to the playoffs, in first place in their division, can’t have excuses. You ask Tim Duncan or Tony Parker and they’ll tell you that.”

Still, with only five games left in the season, you have to like what you’re seeing out the Raps. This weekend, with two crucial pieces sitting out, they pulled out some big wins. You get the feeling that this team’s chances in the post-season will rest not on its stars, but on its depth and chemistry.

For now, the Raptors are idle until Wednesday. It’s an opportune time to recharge some of the batteries, knowing full well that they’ll need everybody on board in time for the playoffs.

“We need to get some rest, ” said Vazquez. “We need to get Kyle back. We need to get Amir back. We need to get back fully loaded to make a run.”

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