CHICAGO - Dwane Casey wouldn't point fingers at Rudy Gay, fact is he didn't have to.
The product, even after four games, speaks for itself. The Raptors are a better team without Gay in their lineup.
The Raptors have won three of four games since agreeing to move Gay to the Sacramento Kings in last week's seven-player deal. With Gay the team recorded 20 or more assists in three of 18 games this season, collecting 17.3 per contest, last in the NBA. Without him they've accomplishment that feat in three of four outings, averaging 23.0 dimes.
Tasked with replacing a 20-point scorer, working three - soon-to-be four - new players into his lineup and managing a locker room filled with uncertainty as the trade winds continue to swirl, Casey has his team playing its best basketball of the campaign. Asked if that surprises him, in light of the situation he finds himself in, Casey responded bluntly, "No."
Then he hedged, because what else is he supposed to say?
"It's nothing to do with Rudy whatsoever," Casey continued, after Toronto recorded a season-best 26 assists, defeating the Bulls 99-77 in the second night of a back-to-back on the road. "I think the pieces fit more, from that respect, it has nothing to do with Rudy personally."
It has everything to do with Rudy. The departed Raptors' forward was taking more shots than he has before, missing more than he's missed before while averaging the fewest assists (2.2) of the 15 NBA players who hoist 17 or more shots a night.
His absence has freed this team. Somehow, in spite of the continued trade speculation that has cast a shadow over their heads, they are winning and having fun in the process. For the first time this season, they're playing as a team.
"I'm trying to set up everybody else and get them in a rhythm," said DeMar DeRozan, who had 15 points to go along with another four assists, he's accumulated 22 since the trade. "Once we do that everybody begins to play together because it'll be fun and everything seems to be easier. Even though a lot of guys don't know the offence everyone on this team knows how to play, especially the new guys."
"It was a team effort totally and it's fun when you play like that," newcomer Greivis Vasquez chimed in, adding six dimes off the bench in his second game with the Raptors. "It's fun when the ball is moving and we're playing great team defence. I've only been here a week and I can tell all these guys have my back, and that's huge."
Their unselfish play appears to be contagious. DeRozan - who Casey said is playing "like an old man," on account of his improved court awareness - has taken advantage of his new role in the offence, acting as the team's quarterback, a role Gay could never or would never accept. Casey is getting 48 minutes of competent point guard play from Vasquez and Kyle Lowry, whose trade value continues to go up as he produces at a high level. Even sophomore Terrence Ross - averaging less than an assist per game as a pro - contributed a career-best four helpers.
With wire-to-wire victories on consecutive nights, the Raptors haven't trailed in eight quarters of basketball. Unlike Friday's win over the woeful 76ers - the NBA's worst defensive club - Saturday's dismantling of the Bulls was impressive enough to take notice. Despite their recent struggles, having lost 10 of 13, the Bulls defence is and will remain elite, even without the injured Derrick Rose.
Toronto shot 48 per cent from the field, holding the hosting Bulls to just 36 per cent while outscoring them 26-11 in the final quarter to seal an impressive victory, their second straight on the road.
"Last time we played them they got the best of us and we knew we couldn't come here and come out soft," DeRozan said, referring to the Bulls' dominant victory in Toronto last month, a game in which he matched his career-high with 37 points. "We had to jump on them out the gate and keep our foot on their neck."
The effort was indeed of the complete team variety. Jonas Valanciunas came out with an edge facing and ultimately outplaying all-star Joakim Noah and Amir Johnson turned in another productive outing. With a retooled second unit, playing in its second game together, the starters actually had some help. Vasquez, Patrick Patterson and John Salmons combined for 26 points and eight assists, turning the ball over just once playing the bulk of the minutes off Toronto's bench.
"We have the bodies, we were deeper tonight and the guys contributed," Lowry said. "This is the first time I played less minutes in a long time and that is a testament to the guys coming off the bench."
"[The starters] know they don't have to play 40-plus minutes," Casey stated. "They know they have a strong bench behind them so that kind of gives them comfort to really turn on the gas."
With an off-day Sunday and a couple days of practice, the new-look Raptors could actually be more in tune with one another when they host the Bobcats on Wednesday.
"I just like the whole atmosphere, man," Vasquez said with a big smile on his face. "I've missed this. This is real team basketball. Everybody's sharing, everybody's talking, nobody cares who's going to have the most points at the end of the night and that's what I see on the court. I'm just happy but I'm not satisfied. We've got to keep playing, we've got to keep getting better."