Surge puts Raptors’ rebuild on fast forward

With recent wins over the best teams in the NBA, the Toronto Raptors are looking to make the playoffs rather than tanking for the chance to draft Canadian Andrew Wiggins.

Somewhere there’s a Toronto Raptors fan taking a second look under the Christmas tree to check and see if there’s a unicorn waiting with a “Where have you been?” look in its big brown eyes.

For a large swath of them, New Year’s Eve has just kept going.

This is discombobulating. The Raptors have ruined the holiday season for years now. It’s a winter tradition.

Even with Sunday night’s valiant showing against the two-time defending champion Miami Heat—the Raptors had last possession with a shot to tie against a team they haven’t beaten in nearly five years—Toronto begins the second week of January 16-16.

In some places this is no big deal. Two teams play, one wins the other doesn’t—winning half your games them is hardly something to get excited about.

But this being Toronto, the team being the Raptors, this is kind of a big deal. It’s only the third time in the past 11 years that the Raptors have been at the break-even mark this far into the NBA season, and the first time in four years.

And rather than start the new year off with the NBA draft already as a distant consolation prize, the Raptors won two straight, bringing the total win streak to five and running their record in the past 30 days to 10-4.

They’ve beaten Oklahoma City on the road and the Indiana Pacers at home, and last night they came about as close as you can come to sweeping the three best teams in the NBA. Over at ESPN their NBA playoff predictor has the Raptors as a 99.9-percent lock to win the Atlantic and earn a top-four seed for the post-season, with a record of 50-32.

This was not predicted.

Of course, there are those who look at this turn of events with a certain “Of course they would” horror. This was the year the thinking fan was embracing losing. The draft, however distant, is loaded with talent and headlined by Andrew Wiggins, a Canadian phenom, and it finally seemed time to let the lottery balls bounce where they may.

The Raptors might be losing, was the mantra through the first 18 games, but at least there’s a plan.

And there was a plan. The plan was to see exactly what kind of talent this team had. The problem was it was all playing under the shadow of Rudy Gay, the superstar who wasn’t. When Masai Ujiri shipped Gay out of town a month ago—the Raptors turnaround coincides perfectly—he wasn’t intending to tank. He was intending to see what the Raptors had in theirs.

“We thought we had something, but we needed to make that move so we could properly evaluate,” says Ujiri from Miami, where he watched 21-year-old big man Jonas Valanciunas score 14 points in the second half, 22-year-old sharp-shooter Terrence Ross match up with LeBron James and 24-year-old DeMar DeRozan score 26 points and add seven assists.

“We needed to see more of Terrence Ross and JV and see what DeMar was like as more of the main guy,” Ujiri says.

So far so good. Ujiri has enjoyed his holidays, and not just because he’s got a new baby at home. He’s enjoyed the opportunity to see a young team compete hard and win game as a result.

“We’ve been playing our asses off,” he says.

But he’s a realist, too. There is a bigger picture and he knows that the NBA grind slays unicorns. It wasn’t so long ago that the Boston Celtics were the surprising collection of gritty over-achievers, flirting with the .500 mark. But now the Celtics have since lost seven of their last eight as they begin a grueling Western Conference road trip.

So reality can set in any time and may yet for the Raptors as they visit the revenge-minded Pacers on Tuesday and then host the Detroit Pistons—another young team trying to rise above the Eastern Conference’s mediocrity—on the second night of a back-to-back.

That said, even a three-game dip wouldn’t mean the Raptors are tumbling into oblivion like it would have in so many seasons recently.

The recent surge means these Raptors are going to get every chance to prove themselves, and will give Ujiri a true test of his mettle as a general manager. Does he believe in Kyle Lowry, who is on his best behaviour and playing his best basketball while in a contract year? Are Ross and DeRozan long-term answers on winning teams? Or assets with rising value ripe to be flipped?

Taking advantage of a soft Eastern Conference could have its own rewards. Even if the East is weak, the Raptors don’t win the Atlantic without improving. They don’t win a playoff round without getting better.

A better team means Ujiri has more valuable chips to play with. Trying to turn a 20-win team into a 50-win team is time-lapse photography: It could take years to arrive at the final, satisfying picture.

But if he starts off with a playoff team, a team that has a division title and a playoff round under its belt, then maybe—just maybe—the road from here isn’t as steep as it first seemed.

That would be the greatest gift of all for Raptors fans.

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