Friday night the Toronto Raptors accomplished something that they had not done in almost three years: win five games in a row. The Raptors defeated the Orlando Magic 93-90 in Toronto to give themselves four straight home wins. Without both of their star players (Kyle Lowry and Andrea Bargnani) the lone Canadian club is starting to play their best basketball of the season. How have they been able to do this? They are playing as a team; they are playing with energy; and they are taking care of the ball.
It has all started with Jose Calderon as of late. Calderon, as many of us know, is a very good point guard that has had plenty of experience internationally and in the NBA with Toronto. His game has been criticized for its lack of upside and shortage of highlights, but what many fail to notice are the basic aspects of his skills that are becoming more and rarer in the league.
Calderon controls the pace of the game, sets up the players that need to get involved, and he makes a minimal amount of mistakes. With Lowry out for the last four games Calderon has made a huge impact with his increased playing time. He began by logging a triple-double with 18 points, 14 assists, and 10 rebounds. The following game he had 23 points and eight assists. Jose then struggled to find is shot going 2-8 from the field, but still managed 17 assists. Finally on Friday night he posted 13 points on 6-9 shooting and dished out nine assists.
It may behoove head Coach Dwane Casey to continue to start Calderon once Kyle Lowry returns. Lowry could make a big impact with the second unit and provide some of the scoring that their reserves have been lacking to contribute. In addition, Calderon can continue to provide a steady pace for this team as the starting point guard, even if Lowry continues to play more minutes.
But Calderon hasn’t been the only one stepping his game up for the Raptors. Amir Johnson has provided some much needed energy for Toronto all season long but it has come more regularly with his added minutes in Bargnani’s absence. While he has been sidelined, Amir has averaged 10 points, seven and a half rebounds, almost two and a half blocks, over a steal, and phenomenal percentages (65%FG, 91%FT). He has continued to come off the bench, but has been used in a sixth man role with starter minutes.
DeMar DeRozen has continued to score the ball for this team and is now averaging 18 points on the season. Friday night DeRozen was off a little with his shooting but scored 17 points and grabbed a team high eight rebounds. Terrence Ross has showed signs of potential and can stimulate fans as quickly as anyone with his acrobatic dunks. Ross is likely receiving some consideration as a participant in this year’s dunk contest in Houston. The rookie from Portland, Oregon has been shooting above 50% from the field during the Raptors five-game win streak and has been making an impact on the defensive end.
This is all good news for the Toronto Raptors, who were near the bottom of the eastern conference just a week ago. The bad news is they are still five games behind eighth place in the east and will need to play some very good basketball to get back into the playoff race. The question now is what do they do with Bargnani once he is back? Well, he could come off the bench and play a decreased role with the team if they continue to play well. He could be put on the trading block, if he is not already. Rumors of an attempt to get Pau Gasol to come to Canada have already surfaced; but then again, Pau Gasol is always rumored to be headed somewhere.
For Bargnani, a bench role with varying minutes seems to be appropriate, at least until he begins to shoot the ball well or decides to rebound better than guard. His lack of post defense and rebounding just is not getting it done for this team. As a key player on opposing team’s scouting report, he may find things come a little easier with the second unit, whether he is playing with Lowry or Calderon. But right now Amir Johnson appears to be their best post player. Ed Davis has been the starting power forward and should either remain there, or Johnson should be rewarded for his great play with a starting role.
No matter what Coach Casey decides to do once he gets two of his key players back, this team will be interesting to watch over the next month. Will they fall back into the muck of the east or look to make a push at the playoffs? Either way, this team has grabbed the attention of those who find the Raptors on their upcoming schedule. What I will say is that Casey needs to find a way to keep winning games with his full roster. If not, he may find his time there in Toronto short lived. With the amount of pieces on his roster, a record of 9-19 is just not good enough.