Game No. 61: Raptors 102, Hawks 86

The Raptors’ inexplicable late-season surge got ridiculous when they beat the Celtics 84-79 on Friday night. It elevated from the ridiculous to the surreal when they spanked the Atlanta Hawks 102-86 on Sunday night. We weren’t planning on recapping this game, but I realized it would be downright negligent of me to not give this upset a proper breakdown and try to figure out why this collection of unproven youngsters and unknown D-Leaguers were emerging as the biggest spoiler in the final month of the regular season.

1. DeMar DeRozan drew a shooting foul on the Raptors’ first possession of the game and his aggressiveness over the past two games got him to the line for 24 free throw attempts, of which he made 20. As he’s developed a decent mid-range game and worked on increasing his shooting range over his career, the fact remains that he needs to get to the line at least seven times per game if he’s going to be an efficient scorer. DeMar has averaged a career-high 5.4 free throw attempts this season. If you’re curious, there are six players who have averaged seven or more FTAs per game this season: Dwight Howard, Kevin Love, Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Kevin Durant and Blake Griffin.

2. Alan Anderson has garnered most of the attention among the Raptors’ three D-League additions, but point guard Ben Uzoh is starting to pique my interest based on his length and defense. At six-foot-three, he’s a decent height for an NBA point guard, but it’s his six-foot-nine wingspan that makes him a difference-maker on the defensive end. Over his past two games, he was largely responsible for Rajon Rondo and Jeff Teague combining to score just 10 points on 4-for-11 shooting. As far as I’m concerned, the Raptors’ third point guard job is his next season if he wants it.

3. Joe Johnson is a really good NBA player who simply had a bad game (seven points, 2-for-12 shooting) but he’s going to be a significant reason why the Hawks don’t have a chance to become legitimate contenders over the next few seasons. He’s paid like a top-10 player but he’s top-30, at best, and he’s only going to decline from here now that he’s in his 30s. With four years and $89 million left on his contract, he’s certainly not tradable.

4. What are we to make of these last two impressive wins with no Andrea Bargnani, Jose Calderon or Jerryd Bayless in the lineup? It’s almost enough to make you think that a team coached by Dwane Casey can only really succeed if none of the players getting regular minutes are clear defensive liabilities. Then again, why wouldn’t that be a good guideline for the construction of any basketball team? This isn’t rocket surgery, people.

5. Atlanta Hawks’ local TV host Andre Aldridge is clearly impressed by what he’s seen from Dwane Casey and DeMar DeRozan:

6. Do I need to take sides in this “Tank Nation” vs. “Winning Mentality” debate or am I allowed to have mixed feelings about the Raptors’ recent success? First of all, I think this concept of teams needing a winning mentality is pretty close to nonsense. Teams have a winning mentality when they have the talent and coaching to win games. As for Tank Nation, the Raptors were going to have a less than 10 percent chance of winning the Anthony Davis Lottery even if they lost all these recent games, so I’m not going to get too broken up about it. What I’m taking out of this is that the Raptors might have a NBA head coach who can seriously be considered among the 10 best at his profession. Have we been able to say that about any coach in the history of this franchise?

Raptors Player of the Game: DeMar DeRozan — 35 Min, 23 Pts, 8-15 FG, 7-11 FT, 4 Reb, 3 Ast, 1 Stl

Hawks Player of the Game: Josh Smith — 33 Min, 26 Pts, 11-20 FG, 4-7 FT, 8 Reb, 2 Ast, 2 Stl, 2 Blk