Lewenberg: Ujiri calls audible as Raptors streak continues

Josh Lewenberg
1/3/2014 11:20:57 PM
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WASHINGTON - Even the most well-crafted and sensible play can be changed at the line of scrimmage.

Though he's no Peyton Manning, Masai Ujiri recognizes the value in allowing circumstance to dictate his next move.

Like everyone else, the Raptors' first-year general manager has been pleasantly surprised by how well his team has performed in the aftermath of the Rudy Gay trade and as a result, the rebuild has been put on hold for as long as they continue to win, maybe permanently.

"These guys, there's a good spirit about them," Ujiri gushed moments before his team made quick work of the Wizards, 101-88 Friday evening, winning their fifth in a row. "They like playing with each other, they play hard, they give it their all on the court and in the NBA that goes a long way."

"So we'll keep it going and this is credit to the players and the coaches."

When Gay was shipped to Sacramento - along with his $17.8 salary and $19.3 player option for next season - nearly a month ago, Ujiri was admittedly looking ahead to the future. "Long-term, I would think," he responded when pressed about the expected payoff of the deal the day it was made official. The move was executed with roster flexibility in mind. Many believed it would be the first in a series of changes made with the intention of gutting a roster that started the season 6-12 and, at the time, seemed universally flawed.

"We'll watch this team and see where it goes from there," Ujiri said back on December 9th. "I couldn't tell you where the team is going to go from here. Sometimes you have to make change. We're trying to figure out how we can make this team better whether it's now or in the future, we have to keep that in mind."

Friday's win in Washington - a game that was over before the end of a 36-point third quarter - was Toronto's 10th in 13 games since the trade was made on that fateful night in Los Angeles. The Raptors have recorded 20 or more assists in 10 of those games - culminating in a season-high 29 assist performance against the Wizards - a feat they accomplished in just three of 18 games to begin the campaign.

"Besides the winning it just feels good, we're all playing together," said DeMar DeRozan, who had five dimes to go along with a game-high 20 points against the Wizards as the Raptors moved above the .500 mark for the first time - this late in the season - since April of 2010. "I think you could tell, we're just going out there and having fun, we're playing with one another."

Ujiri gave the Gay experiment an 18-game audition. It was an unmitigated disaster. With a little help from a historically terrible Eastern Conference, this group of holdovers - a roster pieced together to kill time and lose games before the next domino was ready to fall - has earned the right to ride this out.

"The NBA is a crazy league, one day it's great, the next day it's tough," Ujiri acknowledged. "I think everybody is encouraged. I'm really happy how everybody has taken the opportunity and everybody is growing in the organization."

For Ujiri and company the goal is to win, that has not changed, but taking a few steps back to take the ultimate step forward was - at least at one point - being strongly considered and could be revisited when and if this team comes back down to earth.

"I've communicated to everybody where we stand," Ujiri insisted. "We want to be a good team, we want to be a winning team and if it's not that way we have to figure out a way to rebuild the team or figure it out. So I think everybody's clear on how this thing works."

At least for the moment, that rebuild does not seem necessary and Ujiri is savvy enough to know when to hold 'em.

Not only are the Raptors turning heads with impressive victories in Dallas and Oklahoma City, or at home to Indiana, but they're taking care of business against beatable teams, which was the case Friday against an overachieving Wizards club.

"You've got to look at it like, a woman is a woman," DeRozan said with a smirk on his face, perhaps realizing the outlandishness of his analogy after he was asked about a "less-sexy" match-up against the Wizards following morning shoot-around.

Washington had won five of its last seven but that team was nowhere to be found as the Raptors ran them out of their own, unsettlingly quiet arena.

Toronto was on cruise control after outscoring the Wizards by nine in the first quarter and 20 in the third. Again, Kyle Lowry was brilliant, scoring 19 and assisting on 11 buckets. The Raptors will face Miami and Indiana - the East's two best teams - on the road next but don't seem like a team anyone would or should feel comfortable betting against.

"You feel good but again, I know what a marathon's all about," said Dwane Casey, the Conference's reigning Coach of the Month. "I've been in it too many years, seen it too many times to get too excited or too low. I'm going to be the same way if we lose five in a row or win five in a row, you have to be in this league because it can turn around and knock you in the butt and that's what I've got to get these guys to do."

One day at a time. That's how Casey and his players are approaching it, despite a remarkable run that has them sitting on top of their division, bearing down on third-place Atlanta.

That is also the mantra of Ujiri, the Raptors' patient assassin, who has wisely altered his game plan and may do so a few more times before the season comes to a close.

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