So the Raptors finally lost to a good Eastern team. They barely lost, mind you, succumbing by five to the two-time defending Champion Miami Heat (in a game that was much closer than even that score would seem to indicate), but after winning five in a row and 10 of 13 since Rudy Gay was shipped to Sacramento, a loss to the Heat is noteworthy.
It is noteworthy, too, because there is a good chance that Toronto could drop Tuesday’s tilt against the other good team in the East, the Indiana Pacers, since it’s hard to envision a team as good as Indiana not executing with revenge on their minds.
If Toronto does drop their game against the Pacers, that’d be their first two-game losing streak since “The Tunaround” and it would dump them back below .500 after all of the attention that they got vaulting ahead of it.
However, the real story is what happens after that Indiana game. If you follow the Raptors (and if you’re reading reading this blog I’ll take the chance that you do) then you’ve probably heard how the Raptors have played the hardest schedule in the East so far this season, which means that at some point the schedule has to turn in their favour… and that point comes after the Raptors face Indiana.
After that game the Raptors schedule goes like this: Detroit, Brooklyn, Milwaukee, Boston, Minnesota, Los Angeles Lakers, Charlotte, Dallas, Philadelphia, Los Angeles Clippers (sans Chris Paul), Brooklyn, Orlando and Denver. With the possible exception of Minnesota and Dallas, each and every one of those games should see the Raptors favoured heading into tip-off. It’s a stretch of more-than-winnable games that could see a team currently floating around .500 making a huge push in their win-loss record and do a lot to shape the thinking of the Raptors brain trust heading into Masai Ujiri’s first trade deadline as GM of the Raptors.
To keep their winning ways going, though, the Raptors are going to have to realize that teams are only going to get better at preparing for them now that they have a nice sample of data about the way this club plays with all of their new players. One of the hardest parts about game planning for a team that has recently made a trade is that it’s hard to get a sense of how that team is going to want to play. Heck, the team itself may not even know, which means that a lot of scouting goes out the window and players and coaches simply have to play off of what is happening on the court.
However, after a few weeks together certain patterns begin to emerge, and those patterns begin to make their way into opposing teams’ locker rooms. While Toronto will be facing a group of teams this month that hardly look intimidating on paper, what they have that few teams had last month is a pretty thorough account of how these new Raptors play, what they like to do to get going and what other teams have done to try and stop them (both the things that have worked and the things that haven’t).
That’s why this next stretch of games may be even more important than the post-trade schedule that the Raptors mostly sliced-and-diced their way through in December. While it’s always nice to be able to beat teams like Oklahoma City and Indiana, the real mark of good winning teams is being able to consistently beat the teams that are worse than you are. It can be easy, in a way, to get up for a game against the best, but a stretch of games against the league’s cellar-dwellers? That can be a grind. The Raptors won’t beat every team that they “should” beat this month, but if they can win two-thirds of them it will go a long way to proving that this is a club with sustainability, a club that has truly bought in to the totality of Dwane Casey’s preachings and one that Masai Ujiri really should look to keep together right through the upcoming trade deadline.
At this point it would take quite an offer to get Ujiri to bite on a trade that would break up this core. If some team unexpectedly came calling offering a superstar, then yes he pulls the trigger. If some team comes offering a sexy 2014 first round draft pick, then that team will probably get his full attention. Beyond that, though, it would be hard to see Ujiri wheeling-and-dealing if this team keeps rolling through January like they did through December.
That doesn’t mean, though, that the Raptors should be buyers in February, either. This club is nicely tuned right now; good enough to probably get out of the first round and then respectably lose to Indiana or Miami in the second round. They probably don’t need to make any alterations to make scenario a reality (barring a major injury) and it is unlikely that any but the most unlikely of trades could push them to be any better than that theory considers. While a completely boneheaded notion of swapping Terrence Ross for Arron Afflalo was floated last week, as though the Raptors were somehow looking for more veteran help at the expense of young talent, the reality of what the Raptors want and need is exactly the opposite. The Raptors want to stay young and keep growing. There is no reason to go out shopping for help for the Playoffs because this season anything that happens in the Playoffs is gravy.
Before we get to that point, however, the Raptors have to get through the next month without seeing their positive momentum halt against a spate of less-than-intimidating opponents. The Raptors haven’t been this well-positioned to get multiple games above .500 since the 2009-10 club that went strongly into the All-Star break then fall apart shortly thereafter. Still, for the next while the Raptors will remain in ‘prove it’ mode. They’ve been too bad for too long, and too prone to letdowns for too long, to simply get the benefit of the doubt without any qualifiers attached. Yes they are tremendously well-positioned for the next month, but they still have to do it to prove that they can.
Since Ujiri has entrusted this current assemblage enough to keep them together for the immediate future, the club had better hope that floating just above and below .500 is place that they are on the way out of with the softening schedule this month. They’ve earned the guarded optimism of their GM with their play of late, but even they have to know that they have to keep it up if they want to keep their group in tact. Perhaps that reality, as much as any other, will keep them focused and in attack mode now that they have so few power teams to get up for this month. They don’t face another elite team until March 1st against Portland, so regardless of what it is they’d better hope that they have the requisite determination to fend off a string of also-rans so that they don’t invalidate all off the progress that they’ve made and all of the goodwill that has been flowing their way. The post-trade honeymoon is over, now they’ve gotta make the marriage work.