This Thursday will mark the selection announcement for the NBA All-Star reserves (the voting for the starters was made final this past Thursday). With that in mind, Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan, both of whom have been speculated upon as possible first-time All-Stars, might have been a little more motivated on Friday night in helping the Toronto Raptors (22-20) to a 104-95 road win over the hapless Philadelphia 76ers.
Lowry was the team's best all-around performer in Philly, posting his first triple-double of the season (18 points, 13 assists, 10 rebounds) and doing so on an efficient 7-11 shooting effort. DeRozan, meanwhile, following up a scorching 40-point performance against Dallas by registering a game-high 34 points on 10-22 shooting in a showing that included nine rebounds, 16 fourth quarter points, a 13-16 mark from the free throw line and a game-best +15.
DeRozan led an early fourth quarter surge for the Raps, turning what had been a two-point lead heading into the final 12 minutes into a comfortable 96-83 cushion en route to the win. Fortunately for Toronto, they got their fall apart stretch out of the way early, turning a quick 13-point advantage into a two-point deficit within five minutes during an eventful first quarter.
The All-Star Candidates
The stats say all that needs to be said about Friday night's showing by DeRozan and Lowry. But did you realize that the duo comprises the highest-scoring starting back court in the Eastern Conference and the second-highest scoring guard combo in the league? Only the 42.9 PPG average of Golden State's Steph Curry and Klay Thompson ranks ahead of Lowry and DeRozan's collective 38.2 per game.
The Early Run
Not that a sparse crowd of just over 11,000 fans was going to be much of a factor anyway, but the Raps did a nice job of taking them completely out of it with a 13-2 run to start the game. The visitors made six of their first seven shots and eight of their first 11, putting 17 points on the board before the game was five minutes old. Most encouragingly, the run was boosted by Jonas Valanciunas and Terrence Ross, who combined for 11 of the early 17 (more on them below).
It's hard to pick nits with regards to Dwane Casey's use of a rotation that is firmly in 'win now' mode, against all expectations. However, there's still something unfulfilling about seeing both Valanciunas and Ross lingering around 20 minutes played (after their aforementioned early 11-point spurt, they would go on to score just five more points the rest of the way - all by Ross). Valanciunas' 19:54 of floor time trailed all of Patrick Patterson (28:34), Amir Johnson (24:28) and Chuck Hayes (22:33), a rotation that will only get more crowded when Tyler Hansbrough finally returns. Meanwhile, Ross is feeling the pinch with Casey seeking minutes for Greivis Vasquez and John Salmons (both played more minutes than the 2012 first rounder on Friday) while Lowry and DeRozan log 35 minutes a night. On the other side of the floor was Michael Carter-Williams, who is getting all the burn he can handle as a rookie point guard for the lowly Sixers. The Philly blue print is not one for Toronto to follow, but their developing young guns also shouldn't sit at the bottom of the minutes chart.
On a pretty blah night in Philly, there wasn't much random fun to be found. So instead, I offer this apropos-of-nothing hypothetical: if you remove Rudy Gay from the two transactions in which he was involved in with Toronto, how did the Raps fare? That means, you are essentially shipping out Ed Davis and Jose Calderon (sent packing when the team acquired Gay) along with Quincy Acy and Aaron Gray (shipped out when the team dealt Gay) for the Sacramento foursome of Patterson, Vasquez, Hayes and Salmons. If you really want to get technical, you can also add Hamed Haddadi to the Raps' haul (he was acquired from Memphis with Gay) and subtract DJ Augustin (needed to be waived to clear roster space for the former Kings).
My take: in what is a surprisingly close transaction talent-wise, I'll give the slight edge to the group of current Raptors. Davis has slightly more upside than Patterson and Calderon beats out Vasquez in terms of back-up point guards (we aren't factoring in potential locker room issues here, such as Calderon wanting to start), but the contributions of Hayes and Salmons, who offer so much more than Acy and Gray would, help make up for the rest of the transaction.
With the Raps playing Philly on Friday and hosting Orlando on Wednesday, the schedule offers a comparative look into the two likely front-runners in what is a weak Rookie of the Year race (a case could also be made for Utah's Trey Burke). Carter-Williams looks like the classic high-usage, puts-up-numbers-on-a-bad-club ROY contender - which might be enough to win in. After his hyperbolic opening night showing (22-12-9-7), someone was going to have to wrest the top rookie title from him. And despite a solid campaign from the Magic's Victor Oladipo, I'm not sure that's happened yet.
The Chris Paul-less Clippers make their annual visit on Saturday night (7:00pm, TSN). Although CP3 won't be in the line-up for L.A., this guy will.
Prediction: Clippers 97, Raps 92 (24-10 this season)