Game No. 55: Raptors 99, 76ers 78

I came into this game a little worried from a Tank Nation perspective, because the 76ers have been on a steady decline for a while, and Dwane Casey seems to have the Raptors up for nearly every game.

It turns out my fears were well warranted, as the 76ers came out and laid a massive egg, while the Raps outworked and outhustled Philly to every loose ball and every rebound en route to an eventual 21-point blowout, leading the Sixers off the court to a chorus of boos. The Raptors allowed a franchise-low 22 points in the second half, including an anemic seven points in the fourth quarter.

Here are some thoughts on the game:

1- Dwane Casey threw us a curve ball right off the bat, handing 10-day contract man Alan Anderson a spot in the starting lineup for this one. Anderson responded with a solid performance of 13 points on 5-of-7 shooting (he made three three-pointers in four attempts) to go with four rebounds in 31 minutes. Outside of the fairytale story Jeremy Lins of the world, this is as good as it gets in terms of getting output from your 10-day guys. Anderson definitely deserves another 10-day, and if he continues to take advantage of his opportunities, he might even have a job for the rest of the season.

2- Andrea Bargnani put together another solid offensive night with 24 points on just 15 field goal attempts, adding a somewhat respectable (but far, far from good enough) five rebounds and a couple of assists (as well as two turnovers). I still don’t think Bargnani is close to where he was during the first few weeks of the season, when he was legitimately one of the hardest working players on the court  on both ends of the floor, but we’ve definitely seen an improvement from Bargs over the last week or so. In his last five games, in which the Raptors are 4-1, Bargnani has averaged 25 points on over 50 per cent shooting and 41.7 per cent three-point shooting. Unfortunately, he’s only grabbing 4.4 rebounds per contest during this stretch.

3- One of the areas of the game where Toronto’s higher energy and effort level was painfully obvious was in the rebounding department, where the Raptors finished with a ridiculous 46-29 advantage. No one made as big an impact in this department as Ed Davis, who grabbed a game-high 14 rebounds in just 25 minutes of action. He only scored four points (on 2-of-4 shooting), but from an energy standpoint and notice-ability standpoint, this was easily one of Ed’s better performances in this inconsistent season.

4- Another positive for the Raptors in Philadelphia was their ball movement. 26 assists on 39 made field goals may not seem like an incredible number, but if you watched the game, you saw some crisp passing from the men in black and a conscious effort to find the open man and make the extra pass. Jose Calderon obviously led the charge with 13 assists in 33 minutes, but DeMar DeRozan, who scored 18 points, showed off his passing ability with five assists as well. While most of us complain about DeRozan’s defence and inconsistency in attacking the basket, his passing is an area of the game where he also needs to improve. As for Calderon, he now has double-digit assists in seven of his last eight games, and has recorded at least eight assists in all 10 games since his return to the lineup. In his last three games, Jose has 32 assists and seven steals compared to just two turnovers in 102 minutes.

5- A few thoughts on the 76ers now. I picked this team to make the playoffs at the beginning of the season and expected it would be in the seventh or eighth spot in the East, so technically, they’re right on par with where I thought they’d be. But at the end of the day, when you start a season as well as the Sixers did this year and then sustain it through half the campaign, you’d hope they can avoid an absolute collapse. Heading into their February 15 matchup against the Magic, the 76ers were 20-9, had one of the best point-differentials in the NBA and looked like a legitimate candidate to challenge for a top three seed in the Eastern Conference. Since getting blown out in Orlando that night, Philly has gone 9-16 in their last 25 games to fall from third place in the East and comfortably atop the Atlantic Division to seventh in the East and just three games ahead of ninth-place Milwaukee. With how uninspired they’re playing right now, would anyone really expect the Sixers to win a playoff game, let alone challenge for the second round?

6- As I mentioned on twitter tonight, the Raptors simply outworked and outplayed an Eastern Conference playoff team on the road, and got good efforts from guys we can assume would still be here next year. In addition, they’ve won three in a row for the first time since November of 2010, so you would think we could see the positives in a game like this. But then you look at the bottom of the standings, see teams tanking like nobody’s business (hello, Warriors), and realize that the Raptors are only two games behind ninth-worst Golden State. With the ninth-worst record, a team can land anywhere from No. 1 to No. 12 in the lottery, a result that would be disastrous for the rebuilding Raps. Don’t get me wrong, it’s incredibly encouraging to see the culture change and defensive mentality that Dwane Casey has instituted here, but you’ll never convince me that a few meaningless wins in April are better for the future of the franchise than a top five pick in the most loaded draft class in years.

Bonus: Last night I told you that the Raptors could have lost all 12 of their remaining games and still would have finished with a higher winning percentage than last season. Tonight, the Raptors equaled my pre-season prediction of 20 wins (which was seen as generous at the time), with 11 games still to be played. Ladies and gentlemen, the #CaseyEffect.

Raptors Player of the Game: Andrea Bargnani – 34 Min, 24 Pts, 8-15 FG, 3-7 3PT, 5-5 FT, 5 Reb, 2 Ast, 2 TO

76ers Player of the Game: Elton Brand – 35 Min, 20 Pts, 9-15 FG, 2-2 FT, 4 Reb, 3 Ast, 1 Stl, 4 Blk