After wins over the lottery-bound Detroit Pistons and Milwaukee Bucks, the Toronto Raptors (48-33) boast a new franchise-best wins total, a chance to clinch the No. 3 seed in the East on Wednesday and a fancy new Atlantic division banner.
While there is plenty to celebrate in Raptor land as they near the postseason, the jovial mood has masked some troubles that have surfaced of late. Some spotty defensive trends have manifested themselves in what is a 107.3 ppg average by Raptor opponents over the past five contests.
Good thing for the Raptors that they enjoyed a pair of balanced scoring performances as they topped the Pistons 116-107 and upended the Bucks 110-100 to officially cement the new franchise record for single season W's. While DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry assumed their roles as primary scorers in Detroit (58 points), Dwane Casey's efforts to rest his key contributors vs Milwaukee gave guys like Greivis Vasquez (25 points) and Tyler Hansbrough (12 points, 11 rebounds) a chance to shine.
Wednesday, the final day of the regular season, brings several possible playoff scenarios for the Raps. Although they can clinch the No. 3 seed with a win over the Carmelo Anthony-less and postseason-missing New York Knicks, their opponent will only be determined based on other games. A Toronto win could signify a match-up with any of the Brooklyn Nets, who will visit Cleveland, the Washington Wizards, who head to Boston or Charlotte, who host the Chicago Bulls (barring a Brooklyn win and a Washington loss, they would play the Wiz). A Toronto loss and a Bulls' win over the Bobcats would bump the Raps to fourth and mean a first round date with the Nets or Wizards. Whew!
DeRozan took highest scoring honours in Detroit with a 30-point effort, but Lowry's multi-faceted showing still stood out as the game's best effort. Despite fouling out with just under six minutes remaining, he served up a productive 28-point, seven-assist night while producing from the charity stripe (6-8), the three-point line (4-7) and the field in general (9-18). A looming head-to-head playoff clash with John Wall would be seriously compelling (then again, so would one against Deron Williams or Kemba Walker).
Monday: Balanced Minutes
I absolutely loved the manner in which Casey managed and reworked his roster against the Bucks to afford his main guys a breather. DeRozan lost little by sitting out and Amir Johnson and Jonas Valanciunas both saw less than 30 minutes on the floor, while players like Vasquez (39 minutes), Hansbrough (20 minutes) and Nando De Colo (18 minutes) received extended looks in relief.
Sunday: Beaten on the Boards
It isn't exactly shocking to note that Toronto came up on the wrong end of a 55-40 rebounding battle against the Pistons and their formidable front court. But that front court was lacking Josh Smith and had also lost the rebounding battle to the Raps during the previous two meetings between the teams. This time around, though, Andre Drummond established himself as a formidable rebounding anchor in Motown (his 17 rebounds matched the over-all total of the Toronto Raptor starters!).
Monday: Off Night for Patterson
It's tough to single out any one Raptor for a poor performance in a game where the minutes balanced was shifted out of sync. But Patrick Patterson was afford a role - 20 minutes off the bench - that corresponded nicely to his season totals (40 games off the bench, 23.3 minutes). Not that it helped him in what was an off night for the Raptor big man, as TwoPat managed just three points on 1-7 shooting and finished with a -11.
Casey will surely be harping on some of the kinks that his Raptors still need to iron out ahead of this weekend's playoff kick-off, but damn is there ever some positive energy surrounding the club. The atmosphere at the ACC last night could only be described as festive, with a near-capacity crowd eating up everything during a high-scoring game that also featured a banner raising, the always-popular FanaPalooza and, yes, free pizza. The energy was clearly infectious, as DeRozan whooped up every big play from the bench and Amir Johnson even ventured into the crowd for some celebratory daps.
There isn't much that differentiates the Pistons and Bucks for the time being. They both boast a rising phenom (Andre Drummond and Giannis Antetokounmpo), but also are weighed down by an onerous albatross contract signed just recently (Smith and Larry Sanders). Despite their also-ran status, both clubs already have more than $40 million commited to next year's player salaries.
All will be determined on Wednesday night. The Raps finish the season with 49 wins if they can beat the Knicks at MSG (8:00pm, SN1). Scoreboard-watching will clearly be on the docket, too. My ideal scenario: Raps lose, Wiz win and Nets lose - Toronto gets the No. 4 seed vs Washington and sets up a potential second round playoff date with Indiana.
Prediction: Raps 103, Knicks 100 (43-18 this season)