Coming out of the All-Star break and paying a visit to the Washington Wizards, the Toronto Raptors (29-24) served up more than three strong quarters of tight defence and inspired playmaking to open up what at one point was a 20-point lead. Which was fortunate for a club that would go on to do their best to blow it in the fourth.
The Raptors held on (they won 103-93 in a game that got more nerve-wracking than the score indicated) despite a trying final seven minutes that included a 15-1 Wizards' run (Washington pulled as close as six points away), with Toronto failing to register a field goal over the final 7:36.
Of course, the late implosion would have been far more costly were it not for an active, energetic effort on both ends of the floor from the visitors over the first three quarters. Kyle Lowry was again the best player on the court, scoring a game-high 24 points while accounting for 10 of his team's 25 assists. He anchored a Raps' attack that saw six players score in double figures and the team shoot 56.8% (42-74) from the field. On defence, they held Washington to three quarters of 23-or-less points and just 4-15 (26.7%) shooting from three-point range.
Lowry Provides a Spark
I'm really not trying to belabour this whole "Lowry belonged in the All-Star Game" thing, but it's tough not to notice how he was the biggest factor in a game that included two East guards, John Wall and DeMar DeRozan, whose biggest contribution on Tuesday may have come in the form of a rousing pre-game speech. With Lowry at the helm, the Raptors spread the ball around, finding easy looks both inside (60-48 PIP advantage) and outside (7-16 shooting from three-point range).
My temptation to bemoan the lack of playing time for Jonas Valanciunas and Terrence Ross (neither youngster was on the floor for 18 minutes) is tempered by what was a stellar bench effort. Amir Johnson showcased an energy off the bench (Patrick Patterson got another start) that was missing over some recent starts, pouring in 14 points on 6-8 shooting and pulling down five rebounds. Greivis Vasquez, meanwhile, scored an identical 14 points on 6-8 while also adding seven assists. Among the smaller contributions, John Salmons offered an effective 26 minutes (his +14 was a game-best mark) by providing solid defence and making a pair of threes and Tyler Hansbrough needed just 17 minutes to pick up seven points on 3-4 shooting. Over-all, the Raps reserves outscored Washington's second unit 43-21.
You Guessed It...
It's an almost comically familiar formula: I laud what was a primarily strong effort from the Raps, only to use this space to lament one stretch in which the club suffers through a significant lapse. I'd just as soon avoid falling into the repetitive, predictable pattern of chastizing this latest lull, but a 20-point lead simply shouldn't shrink to six within six minutes of game time. Although the late struggles didn't have an impact on the Raptors' win-loss column, it denied their regulars, most notably Lowry and DeRozan, some valuable rest ahead of Wednesday's tough contest against the Bulls. Long term, it also helps foster a sense that the club is perpetually vulnerable, always one sudden push away from collapsing.
I don't love the suggestion of acquiring either, to be honest. In Rondo, you'd be taking on a moody point guard (sound familiar?) with an iffy history when it comes to both injuries and compatibility with teammates, both on-court and off. Without any reports of a prospective return package circulating (another sign that these rumours are just that), I'm left to assume that the cost would be at least Lowry (even if he isn't dealt for Rondo, he won't be re-signed with Rondo in the fold) and the team's 2014 first rounder, a cost that doesn't seem worthwhile on the surface. The main extenuating circumstance with any potential Rondo talks is a contract extension, both in terms of the potential to get Lowry re-signed and to be able to extend Rondo past next season.
As for Faried, a player with whom Masai Ujiri is inherently familiar, I'm not sure I see much upside beyond what he offers right now. Lost behind a tough-as-nails reputation, a cool, dreadlock-ed look and an awesome nickname is that he's averaging a modest 10.7 points and 7.6 rebounds this season, roughly on par with Johnson's numbers. Faried's contract (roughly $3.5 million over the next year and a half) makes him an appealing addition, but the trouble would come after that, when he'd be unrestricted and likely to be overpaid. A Faried-for-Ross swap looks advantageous right now, but it's Ross who has the higher long-term upside.
A lack of leadership shouldn't be a problem for a club with respected veterans like Nene and Trevor Ariza, but how else do you explain the Wizards' lethargic performance for much of Tuesday night? That head coach Randy Wittman had to get tossed out of the game for his charges to be sufficiently fired up (and by then, it was too late) shows the kind of uphill battle that Wittman has with this young roster. As with Toronto, a taste of playoff basketball could be a boon to their growth.
It's time to head home to host the waiting Chicago Bulls on Wednesday night (7:00pm, TSN2) in a key battle for the No. 3 seed in the East. Chicago currently sits 1.5 games out of the Raps' No. 3 spot.
Prediction: Bulls 102, Raps 105 (31-12 this season)