Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Raps Wrap: December

"It's desperation time" - DeMar DeRozan

Toronto's December games are a tale of two halves. 

The Raptors started the month losing their first six games, the first five of which came on a Western Conference road swing, but have turned around their fortunes with inspired play of late.

As frustrations mounted during the lowest moments of the losing streak, the team fell to a 4-18 record after a tough loss December 10th to the Portland Trail Blazers that saw both Andrea Bargnani and Kyle Lowry leave the game with injuries, and Amir Johnson ejected after tossing his mouth-guard at an official.

Then on December 14th, sitting at 4-19 with nowhere to go but up, the Raps started turning things around with a blowout win over the Dallas Mavericks back home at the Air Canada Centre as the schedule began to soften up a bit.

Including the Dallas game, the Raptors reeled off five straight victories and finished the month at .500 having now won seven of their last eight.

At the heart of this turnaround has been the team's commitment to defence.

Toronto has allowed just 91.8 points per game in the eight contests since the losing streak ended. In their first 23 games, the team had allowed 102.6 points per game. This places the Raptors 24th in the league in opponents' points allowed at 99.8 points per game.

Even though Bargnani remains on the shelf, and now Jonas Valanciunas is out four-to-six weeks with a broken finger, the Raps did regain Alan Anderson and Landry Fields from their injuries. Lowry didn't miss much time, and they also added veteran free agent wing Mickael Pietrus.

The engine that powered the Raptors during this bright pocket has been Jose Calderon who averaged a double-double in points and assists, shot the ball well from distance, dictated the tempo, and set up his teammates. With Lowry's return, Calderon has stayed the starter while Lowry has provided a boost from the bench. While this isn't what the team brass envisioned when acquiring Lowry in the offseason, Calderon has proven himself indispensible. 

Ed Davis has stepped up in Bargnani's absence and rookie Terrence Ross has also seen an increase in minutes and confidence within the team's second unit. He continues to be effective inside and out and is showing some of the potential that made him the eight overall pick this past June. Ross has shone both in the second unit and alongside DeMar DeRozan, who has been equally impressive averaging 24.8 points in his last five games.

Three-pointers have also been key to the team's success as their 77 long bombs have paced the Eastern Conference in the second half of December.

But where to go from here?

Sitting at 11-20, the Raptors are still in the huge hole they dug themselves into with their terrible start. In the middling East that puts them just 3.5 games out of a playoff spot. They also have a home-heavy schedule coming up and the team is a surprisingly decent 7-5 on the ACC court.

In the deal for Lowry, the Raptors dealt their first-round pick in the upcoming draft, with the caveat being that the pick is top-three protected. During the losing streak it seemed like Toronto was one of the worst three teams in the NBA, but now they sit somewhere between high draft pick and low playoff spot.

Should they miss out on the playoffs by a few spots, they'll also have no pick in the 2013 draft and retain much the same roster heading into next season, barring moves through trade or free agency. 

Does this mean a big roster shuffle is coming? If the team is playing better without Bargnani, will they look to deal him once he's healthy? Is Calderon the team's most important player? How good is this team really?

The previous installment of Raps Wrap for the month of November was titled "Five feet under" a quote from Kyle Lowry, and this month I leave you with another hole reference from head coach Dwane Casey.

"We were in a 4 1/2-foot hole; now we're in a 3 1/2-foot hole trying to crawl our way out."

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