Game No. 33: Raptors 103, Pistons 93

The Raptors came out of the gates with a great effort to close out the first half of the season with a 10-point victory over the Pistons.

Here are my thoughts on the game:

1- While I wasn’t necessarily excited to watch a matchup between two teams with a combined 20-46 record, I was very interested in seeing how this Raptors team would respond to their first real break of the season. After playing a ridiculous 32 games in 53 days to start the season, the Raps were gifted with four days off between their ugly loss against the Bobcats and Wednesday night’s game against the Pistons. Toronto came out aggressive on both ends of the floor and looked to jump on the Pistons early, as Detroit was on the back end of a back-to-back. I can’t say that I saw anything specific that screamed “practice time” but the Raps definitely brought an energy that a well-rested team should always have, even without guys like Andrea Bargnani and Linas Kleiza in the lineup.

2- A lot of that aforementioned energy came from an unexpected source in Aaron Gray. I’ve given Gray praise throughout the season for his workmanlike game and attitude, but even I couldn’t have predicted what we saw against the Pistons. 12 points, 12 rebounds, two blocks, a couple of dimes and even some “M-V-P” chants in 29 hard earned minutes. The stability and consistency Gray gives Toronto in short spurts is already enough to justify his being here, exploding for nights like this makes his minimal deal an absolute bargain. I’m not saying the guy should be a core piece of the future, but I do think re-signing Gray after this season should be a priority for the Raptors. For the right price, he is an excellent option as a fourth or fifth big.

3- From one positive to another, how about that game from DeMar DeRozan? DeRozan scored 23 points on just 15 shots and contributed elsewhere by grabbing seven rebounds. DeMar mixed in some hard drives to go with a red hot jumper as he took advantage of a smaller guard (Rodney Stuckey) guarding him. He still needs to get to the line more often (finished with six FTA after having four in the first quarter alone) and obviously needs to work on his handle (three turnovers), but it’s hard to harp on the negatives while he continues to put in efficient performances like this. In his last three games, the 22-year-old is averaging over 25 points on nearly 60 per cent shooting and has scored at least 21 points in six of his last nine games. If you expect DeRozan to become a superstar or a true franchise player, than his shortcomings are alarming. But if you simply learn to accept him as a guy who can be a solid piece going forward and perhaps a third option or better in the future, then his string of recent performances is encouraging.

4- The other glaring positive from this game, and the one aspect that probably did have to do with increased practice time, was how well the Raptors shared the ball and how crisp their offence was in general. Playing one of the worst defensive teams in the league probably helped the cause, but I don’t want to take too much away from the Raps, who had an impressive 30 assists on 40 made field goals. Jose Calderon led the charge with 15 assists (compared to just one turnover) and eight of the nine Raptors players who touched the court finished with at least one helper. Even shoot-first guards Leandro Barbosa and Jerryd Bayless finished with four assists each in about 20 minutes of action.

5- A few words on the Pistons. I think Detroit is one of the teams close to Toronto in terms of development and hope for the future, which will make the draft lottery and subsequent draft itself one of the deciding factors in which team ends up with the brighter outlook. The Raptors are in slightly better shape in terms of salary cap flexibility going forward, but the Pistons might have a good young core in place if they can add a top-five pick in 2012 to the group of Greg Monroe, Brandon Knight and Jonas Jerebko. You could say the exact same thing about the Raps with Bargnani, Valanciunas, DeRozan and other possible “core” candidates. If there is one team worth watching in the Tank Nation “standings” from a Raps fan’s perspective, it might just be the Pistons, though I do think they will eventually win enough ball games to give the Raptors the “advantage.” Before blowing a 17-point lead against the Cavaliers on Tuesday, the Pistons had won seven of nine. I don’t think we have to worry about the Raptors going on any kind of run like that this season.

6- While the Raptors and Pistons were entertaining us on the court, the twitter world leaked some interesting Raptors-related notes. During the game, I wrote my take on Wilson Chandler being linked to Toronto again and reports of a draft day trade that almost was between the Raps and Pistons. Check it out and leave your feedback.

It’s crazy to think that half this season is already gone, but at the end of the day, the Raptors are exactly half way to my prognostication of 20 wins, so I’m feeling pretty good about my pre-season predictions.

Raptors Player of the Game: DeMar DeRozan – 39 Min, 23 Pts, 9-15 FG, 0-1 3PT, 5-6 FT, 7 Reb, 2 Ast, 3 TO (Calderon’s spectacular running of the offence and Gray’s work on the boards make them easy candidates here as well)

Pistons Player of the Game: Greg Monroe – 38 Min, 30 Pts, 9-21 FG, 12-16 FT, 14 Reb, 2 Ast, 1 Stl, 2 Blk, 4 TO