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Lewenberg: Raptors ring in New Year with another comeback win

Josh Lewenberg
1/1/2014 9:35:23 AM
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CHICAGO - It's been nearly a month since the Raptors surrendered a 27-point lead - their largest collapse in franchise history - in an embarrassing road loss to the Warriors, a loss that surprised nobody.

As the schedule flipped from November to December, they would go on to drop five straight, falling six games below the .500 mark before a franchise-altering trade turned them into an unrecognizable team.

Now, the Raptors - winners of three straight for the first time this season and eight of their last 11 - are finding ways to win, rather than finding creative and increasingly frustrating ways to lose. The fourth-quarter comeback is becoming something of a nightly tradition, defying everything we thought we knew about the long-suffering franchise.

A lot can change in a few weeks and for the Raptors, everything has.

"Now when we face adversity we don't get down," said DeMar DeRozan moments after he and his teammates engineered the fourth-quarter comeback that sealed an 85-79 victory in Chicago on New Year's Eve. "Before, a lot of the times we would make excuses if something didn't go our way and we'd get frustrated. Now everyone just stays level."

That level of confidence and self-belief is evident whenever this team has found themselves staring down any late-game adversity, and they've encountered their fair share of it over the past month. A year ago, the Raptors won three games in which they trailed going into the fourth quarter. This season they've already won five such contests, four in the last six games, all of them coming on the road.

After scoring just 57 points, shooting 37 per cent through three quarter and trailing Chicago by as many as nine, Toronto bested the Bulls 28-17 in the fourth while holding them to 4-of-26 from the field.

Naturally it's been a wild ride for Dwane Casey, who has been proud of his team's resiliency but hopes this is not a trend they'll be relying on in the New Year.

"You have to meet their force with force, if you're serious about winning," said the Raptors' coach Tuesday evening. "We did that and we have to continue to do that and I'm not going to let up, I'm not going to relent from that because that's who we are, it's who we've got to be."

"I know, to win in this league you have to be a physical, bad-behind team."

Calm, cool and collected, the Raptors quickly turned the tables in the fourth. For the first time all night they controlled the tempo and owned the paint, bodying up with the physical Bulls frontline. Again, nobody panicked and again, they owe a lot of that newfound resilient to their newest teammates.

Reserves Greivis Vasquez, Patrick Patterson and John Salmons - all three acquired from Sacramento in the Rudy Gay trade earlier this month - began the final period on the floor alongside starters DeMar DeRozan and Jonas Valanciunas.

The three newcomers totaled just eight points in the first 36 minutes - the Bulls' bench outscoring Toronto's reserves 31-12 at the time - but combined to score 19 in the fourth. Vasquez ran the show for the first eight minutes of the quarter before Kyle Lowry finished the game, Patterson had eight points and clamped down on Taj Gibson, while Salmons was rock solid on both ends as usual. All three were crucial to the comeback, one that ignited the team's bench and had every Raptor on their feet supporting their teammates.

"Honestly, those guys who started the fourth quarter… those guys won that game for us," said Kyle Lowry, who added 13 points and six minutes himself. "I tip my hat to them."

"I think the guys in this locker room believe," he continued. "We believe in each other, we believe in what we're trying to do. I think we know we have a chance to do some things and we can take care of business when times are tough. We're showing the team camaraderie and spirit that we have, we're all happy for each other."

The Raptors' players are high on confidence, feeling good about themselves sitting atop a struggling division and closing in on a .500 record as they welcome in 2014. Still, they're living proof that things, in this league can change in heartbeat.

Having already navigated through the toughest early-season schedule of any team in the Eastern Conference, according to Basketball-Reference.com, the month that lays ahead presents yet another challenge. Toronto will play 17 games in 31 days to begin the New Year. Apart from a three-game trip and a three-game home stand at the outset, they'll alternate home and road contests for the remainder of January with two days in between outings only once.

In just a couple weeks they have become a feel-good team in the disappointing Eastern Conference but all the progress they've made can be undone just as quickly as they face a daunting stretch with a couple of games against the Pacers, a visit to Miami and a meeting with the red-hot Wizards.

The final month of 2013 has been kind to them but their resolution is simple; stay hungry in 2014.

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