Five Alive!

A 9-19 record only looks good when the team starts 4-19. What appeared to be a lost season with no draft pick has very quickly turned into something worthwhile. Hope doesn’t come from the fact that Toronto sits five games out of the eighth seed in the East. Hope comes from the style of basketball we’ve seen over the last six games.

Here are some thoughts on the game:

Raptors 93, Magic 90

- First the bad news…Jonas Valanciunas left the game in the first quarter with what turned out to be a broken bone in his hand. JV got tangled up under the basket and came out in severe pain. A similar injury kept Stephen Jackson out for just over a month. There is currently no timetable for JV’s injury…

- Valanciunas’ injury left Toronto very thin up front and Orlando outscored Toronto 46-28 in the paint. Nikola Vucevic and Gustavo Ayon combined for 25 boards. As a team, Orlando out-rebounded Toronto 45-32. Toronto’s lack of size could become an issue going forward if JV misses a significant amount of time. 

- Ever since Andrea Bargnani and Kyle Lowry went down with injuries, the Raptors’ defence has started to resemble it’s 2011-12 form. They take away the paint first and force teams into long range jump shots. This is the most effective way to play defence and it’s very reassuring to see six straight games of this style of defensive ball. The Raps allowed a season-low 15 points in the first quarter tonight and their activity level on defence manifested itself into 18 forced turnovers

- What has caused this massive change in attitude on the defensive end? It could have been the players-only meeting. It could be that Toronto just got tired of getting beat down, as Dwane Casey often says. I think the more likely answer is that this team has a new energy without Andrea Bargnani in the starting lineup. There is more trust, more communication, more help-defence and most importantly, more intensity without Bargs on the floor. It’s difficult to ask every player on the team to give a complete effort when they know that one of their teammates is allowed to get away with a half-assed effort. It will be very interesting to see if Bargnani is handed his starting job back when he returns. Making him a starter again would be severely detrimental to this team’s recent success.

-I’m not sure what Terrence Ross needs to do in order to take minutes away from guys like Linas Kleiza and Mickael Pietrus. Ross has tremendous foot speed on defence and it seems as if he shows us something new on offence every night. Tonight he had two dunks of the spectacular variety. One put-back jam where his head appeared to be at the rim. The second was a windmill jam on the fast break – silky smooth. Both these dunks are the type of throw-downs that will earn someone a ticket to the dunk contest…

- It’s unfortunate that Dwane Casey is forced to give Linas Kleiza playing time due to injuries. “Long-Two Linas” has a serious love affair with his jump-shot and he needs to break it off. He played nine minutes in the first half and managed to hoist up eight shots in that time – making just two of them. That almost falls in line with his shooting percentage for the season, which currently sits at 35%. When Kleiza’s shot isn’t falling, he is pretty useless. Jack Armstrong summed him up by saying “They need to get him off the floor. He can’t guard anyone in space.”

-Alan Anderson continues to find ways to make substantial contributions to this team. Despite shooting just 2-of-9 from the field, he was able to make an impact in other areas. Anderson does so many things that don’t show up in the boxscore. He’s a great on-ball defender, has very active hands,  is a competent ball-handler and has a strong presence on the glass from the wing. I can’t think of a good reason to keep Pietrus in the starting lineup ahead of Anderson. Replacing Pietrus with Ross would require moving DeRozan to the three-spot and DeMar might not be heavy enough for that transition yet. Anderson over Pietrus seems like a straight upgrade.

- DeMar DeRozan struggled tonight against a very good defender in Arron Afflalo. He finished 5-of-17 from the field but contributed by racking up eight rebounds. In previous seasons, if DeMar wasn’t scoring, there wasn’t much he could do for the team.

-Ed Davis is the most effective post-up player on the Raptors. In the first quarter, he had two dunks that came as a result of great footwork before starting the third quarter with a smooth running hook-shot. Davis has been very consistent ever since Dwane Casey called him out a few weeks ago. Tonight, he had another solid game at both ends of the floor, finishing with 10 points, six rebounds, two assists, two steals and a block.

- The injury to Valanciunas opens the door for Amir Johnson. Amir has the ability to play centre but he gives up a lot of weight to most starting fives. He makes up for this with foot speed and length. After Calderon, Amir has been Toronto’s best player during this streak. Tonight was no exception, as he finished with 10 points, seven rebounds, two blocks and two steals.

- Jose Calderon set the tone again on offence by making three jump-shots in the first six minutes. It’s crucial for the Raptors to have Calderon make those shots early in the game because teams otherwise go under screens, rendering his pick-and-rolls ineffective. Jose has been the poster boy for this winning streak with his improved defensive principles and offensive wizardry. Kyle Lowry deserves his starting job when he returns from injury but Calderon should be lauded for playing the best basketball of his career at age 31.

-Toronto’s bench has been very consistent throughout this streak. Tonight, the Raptors’ second unit bench outscored the Magic bench 50-33.

Raptors Player Of the Game: Jose Calderon – 13 Pts, 6/9 FG, 1/2 3PT, 0/1 FT, 4 Reb, 9 Ast, 2 Stl, 2 TO in 33:35

Magic Player Of the Game: Arron Afflalo – 26 pts, 7/11 FG, 3/3 3PT, 9/9 FT, 1 Reb, 5 Ast, 5 TO in 41:52

The Raptors head into their Christmas break on a very high note, but that means the break doesn’t come at a good time, as winning teams don’t like having their rhythm broken by a long layoff. Toronto kicks off a small three-game road trip in San Antonio on Boxing Day. That will be a very tough game to get, but games against New Orleans and Orlando after that are very winnable.