Game No. 21: Raptors 94, Nets 73

This road trip has largely been about ending nasty streaks for the Raptors. First they ended an eight-game losing streak overall and a 14-game losing streak to Phoenix, then they ended a 12-game losing streak to Utah, and finally tonight in New Jersey, the Raptors got their first win of the season without Andrea Bargnani (came in 0-8) and ended a 14-game losing streak against Deron Williams, who had never lost to the Raptors in his seven-year NBA career.

Even more impressive, the Raptors finished a road trip of five games or more with a winning record (3-2) for the first time since November 10-18, 2001.

Now here are some thoughts on the game:

1- A new look. Dwane Casey decided to go small and shake up the starting lineup for this ball game. Linas Kleiza and Aaron Gray were replaced by Jerryd Bayless and Amir Johnson to create a starting five of Calderon, Bayless, DeRozan, Johnson and Johnson. It’s obviously not ideal for the long term, but I do like a Calderon/Bayless back-court in certain situations and also like what James Johnson can bring to the four spot in a small lineup.

2- The altered lineup obviously worked wonders for the Raptors, as for the first time in nine games, Toronto wasn’t down by eight or more points after one quarter. Without Bargnani and Leandro Barbosa (who missed the game with a sore left ankle), the Raps found a way to shoot 55 per cent in that opening frame and looked like the much crisper team. The score may have been tied after one, but anyone watching the first quarter knew the Raptors were the better team on this night.

3- Is DeRozan back? Finally, after 14 games and three weeks of consistently inconsistent play fueled by tentative offence and lackluster defence, DeMar DeRozan came through with what might have been his best performance of the season. DeRozan scored a season-high 27 points in extremely efficient fashion, going eight-of-12 from the floor and getting to the free throw line a career-high 16 times. For good measure, DeMar added three rebounds, two assists, a steal, a block and overall, looked active on the defensive end (he took two charges). Oh, and there was this.

The big question now is can DeRozan build on this performance and become a reliable scoring option again with Bargnani shelved indefinitely? I’ll be interested in watching how he performs at home against the Hawks on Tuesday.

4- Was that really Amir? If you thought DeMar DeRozan’s impressive performance was surprising, then how about this? Amir Johnson played 19 minutes on Sunday night in Jersey without committing a single foul. Sure, he finished with just six points and four rebounds, but this is Amir Johnson we’re talking about – The guy who has been plagued by foul trouble his whole career, the guy who leads the NBA in fouls per 48 minutes and the guy who once made a comedic video poking fun at said foul trouble. Seeing him play 10 minutes without committing a foul is noteworthy, let alone 19 minutes.

On a side-note, Ed Davis is apparently trying to steal Amir’s thunder, as Davis fouled out with six personals in just 26 minutes, or one foul every 4.3 minutes.

5- As Raptors fans, we know all about the feeling of losing a game that we anticipated would be an easy W. The Nets and their seven fans have to be feeling that tonight. This is a Nets team that looked to finally be turning a corner, had won two games in a row and were just 1.5 games behind eighth place in the weak Eastern Conference. Thoughts of a three-game streak had to be in their heads, but instead, they come out and lay an egg at home against a Raptors team playing the last game of a grueling five-game road trip, a Raptors team that was 0-8 without Andrea Bargnani and was averaging only 81 points per game in his absence, and a Raptors team missing the one guy who was scoring in Bargnani’s absence, Leandro Barbosa.

These are the type of losses that separate good teams from average teams, average teams from bad teams, and playoff teams from lottery pretenders. Even with Deron Williams, that’s exactly what the Nets are.

6- I mentioned that Dwane Casey elected to start Jose Calderon and Jerryd Bayless side by side in this one, and the move paid off. Calderon and Bayless played 34 minutes each and combined to score 27 points on 11-of-21 shooting to go along with 11 rebounds and 12 assists. It’s unreasonable to expect them to put up combined numbers like that every night, but if they can do it even somewhat consistently, it would stop the Raptors from relying so much on Barbosa’s scoring off of the bench.

You know it was a blowout when every Raptors player that touched the floor, even Solomon Alabi, recorded at least a plus-two in their plus/minus rating.

Raptors Player of the Game: DeMar DeRozan – 41 Min, 27 Pts, 8-12 FG, 0-2 3PT, 11-16 FT, 3 Reb, 2 Ast, 1 Stl, 1 Blk

Nets Player of the Game: Deron Williams – 33 Min, 24 Pts, 8-20 FG, 3-10 3PT, 5-6 FT, 4 Reb, 6 Ast, 3 TO