The giant gust of wind the NBA feels coming from up north is the collective exhale of Toronto Raptors fans. It comes after back to back wins over the Los Angeles Clippers and Denver Nuggets on a difficult six game road trip with five of those games against teams occupying playoff spots.
Despite the team’s great start to the season, there still seemed to be a bit of trepidation amongst the masses. Some fans have been holding their breath and wondering, is this team legit? The hesitation over the teams record was further fueled by 49 point fourth quarter hung on the Raptors by the Chicago Bulls who put a lump of coal in the Raptor stocking on Decemeber 22nd with a 129-120 victory. Forty-nine points? Yes, and from the Chicago Bulls, who finished at the bottom of the heap in scoring the last two seasons.
The vocal dissenters were out in full force. Was the record a mirage? Well, no because you are what your win-loss record says you are. But heightened expectations have suddenly expedited the process in the minds of some fans–some of the same enthusiasts who were rolling with “tank nation” about a year ago. I guess this is where you insert the Dwane Casey line–“we’re not there yet and we’re still growing.” Translation: Be patient and, regardless of what the record says, there is more work to be done.
But still dissidents wanted to jump on the fact that Toronto had a combined 1-4 record against the Bulls and the Cleveland Cavaliers. Maybe it needed to be pointed out that three of those five games were played without all-star DeMar DeRozan, that the Chicago game was on the second night of a back to back and a healthy Derrick Rose, the former MVP, was rested and sharp. The other side of the coin has Toronto with a 3-0 record against Atlanta and Washington.
To that end, if you follow conventional wisdom, that’s how good teams build favourable records. They “take care” of the lesser lights. Not that any wins are ever guaranteed, but, if you can defeat the teams below .500 and hold your own against the big boys, you will be in good shape.
Following the win over Denver, Toronto is 9-2 against the western conference and 16-1 against sub .500 teams. The one loss coming in the first game without DeRozan, in overtime, against one of the game’s all-time greats, Kobe Bryant, who happened to have a triple double. On the other side, the Raptors are 7-6 alongside teams north of the .500 barrier with wins over the likes of Cleveland, Memphis, Phoenix, and the Los Angeles Clippers.
So what does it all mean? It means that Toronto is headed in the right direction. Yes there will be lots of talk about making moves but the one thing that Raptors General Manager Masai Ujiri has always done is remain patient and calculating. Don’t expect that to change now.
This west coast swing in particular has been earmarked as a test, as the Raptors will be playing teams with winning records. It’s not lost on the squad and they also look at it as somewhat of a measuring stick, relishing the opportunity to try and make believers out of those who still seem to be skeptical.
“We’ve been tested, we have a different type test every night,” commented Casey as he highlighted the personnel and style of opponents past and future.
Although there has not been a three game losing streak since the vaunted Rudy Gay trade was made last December. You can expect the questions and—and the moments of self-asphyxiation–to arise again at some point. Because there will be losses. But at the time of this writing, Toronto is 6-1 in games after a loss this season. It was last season, after the trade, that the team started to develop a resiliency, which grew into a belief and has now mushroomed into full-blown confidence.
The Raptors currently have an attitude that says, we don’t care what you think or believe about us, we know what we are capable of doing. But, like Ujiri and Casey, don’t expect there to be rhetoric from the players about the team. The play on the court will do all the talking for them.