TORONTO –- How great a season are the Toronto Raptors having? This great: Terrence Ross is now Mr. Reliable –- the guy across the street you trust to know which day is garbage and which day is recycling so you just have to follow along.
He’s probably already got his snow tires on. If he had homework, it would already be done.
He’s the kind of guy that’s so old and mature that he misses dunks now, but has otherwise never played better.
The best athlete the Raptors have had not named Vince Carter is no longer the kid who would roll in to practice sleepy-eyed from late night video game binges and whatever else can interfere with a young man’s early morning productivity.
In a career where he has only hinted at his potential in alternate months -– or so it seemed -– Ross is following up a career-best November with a potentially even better December. He’s averaging 10.4 points off the bench on 49.4 per cent shooting and 44.6 per cent from three, which would be career bests.
Browse through the Raptors box score in their 122-100 win over the Milwaukee Bucks at the Air Canada Centre Monday night and there were all kinds of heroes.
Kyle Lowry continued his torrid three-point shooting, knocking down 4 of 7 to improve to 57.5 per cent from deep in his past 10 games, of which the Raptors have won nine.
DeMar DeRozan got to the free throw line 15 times, made them all and finished with 30 points on just 11 field goal attempts. His ability to draw fouls and slow the game down were factors in turning back Milwaukee’s second-half momentum after they had cut a 26-point first-half lead to eight late in the third quarter.
Jonas Valanciunas battled for 13 rebounds and DeMarre Carroll scored eight of his 13 points in the first quarter to help the Raptors to a 33-23 lead after one of their best opening frames of the season en route to a 69-49 first-half lead.
But the player most individually responsible for the win, which improved Toronto to 17-7, was Ross, who is increasingly giving the impression that at age 25 he’s all grown up.
It’s not just that he delivered 25 points off the bench on just 16 shots. It’s that he delivered a good chunk of them at defining moments of the game, with his defence fuelling his offence at times.
He started hot, as the Raptors did, helping Toronto build a 26-point lead by scoring 12 points in the second quarter. But as the Raptors lost focus and the talented young Bucks surged back — Giannis Antetokounmpo scored 15 of his 30 points in the third quarter as Milwaukee cut Toronto’s lead to eight — Ross really shone.
He hit his first shot after subbing in late in the third quarter and then another. He made a steal and scored again. Grabbed a rebound and stormed down for a triple. Hit another three and suddenly the Raptors were up by 18.
“We had to pick up our intensity,” said Ross afterwards. “They made their push, they made their run just like everybody else is gonna do, and we had to come back and make ours, and I think the second unit helped do that.”
It was Ross’s moment, the kind of night that had DeRozan wondering why his teammate isn’t getting more buzz for the NBA’s Sixth Man of the Year Award.
All the former Slam Dunk contestant needed was a signature highlight.
He seemed to have it when he made a steal, broke away from the pack and took off for what would have been a bring-the-house-down windmill dunk. Except he missed. Lowry scrambled after the rebound and made the three to put Toronto up 21 with 7:49 left, but the damage was done.
“It’s gonna be on every meme, every social media, so I’mma get used to seeing it around,” said Ross. “Hopefully it goes away soon.”
“I don’t know, man. I’m telling you, I started calling it the curse of Vince Carter,” said Ross. “Nobody’s allowed to do two-foot windmills in the ACC until he retires, I’m guessing … I’m just gonna start laying it up.”
That would be the final chapter in the maturation of T-Ross. His coach has seen it coming.
“[It’s] continuity, maturity, Father Time,” said coach Dwane Casey. “He’s grown into his own skin, the game is slowing down for him. There’s not a defence he hasn’t seen, guys holding him, top-blocking him, switching. Whatever it is he’s seen it now. He’s more comfortable.
“Like most young players in this league he’s going to continue to get better and better and better.”
Carroll has had a close-up view of Ross’s development over the past couple of seasons as the person who sits beside him in the Raptors’ locker room.
One important element of Ross emerging as a more reliable force of the bench? More rest.
“I just feel like he matured, off the court, not doing the things he used to do,” said Carroll. “Having a son, he’s getting older, so he understands. He’s coming to practice early, staying late, doing the little things. He don’t even talk the same. It’s a good thing.”
For the Raptors the prospect of a mature, reliable Terrence Ross is a great thing and a weapon not many teams have.
“I think I know our defensive schemes but I also [am] getting better at understanding what the offence is trying to do, what [the other team] is looking for, and understanding what the players are thinking, due to the [scouting reports] and studying other players. I think it’s just all coming together,” said Ross.
And then, the night’s work done, he left the room with a special delivery of candy – gummy bears are a favourite – from Bulk Barn.
Hey, he’s still a kid at heart.