Sunday's Raptors' game against the New York Knicks was a great glimpse at what this team is capable of when it commits (for long stretches, anyway). They got out on the break, they moved the ball as well as their bodies; they rebounded and defended with some vigor and as a result they won their rematch.
That being said, no one ever really questioned the ability of this team to compete when they are on their game. Talent-wise this squad should be able to ascend beyond all of the other clubs vying for the eighth seed in the Eastern Conference playoff race. The fact that they have refused to commit often enough, though, is the reason there is virtually no chance that they will ever reach that coveted spot.
Still, that doesn't mean that there is nothing to shoot for in these last weeks of the season, or even in the next handful of games. If the Raptors can advertise Sunday's win as one earned in the name of pride for the game previous, then surely the rest of the week can be played as a similar form of redemption for the sorry efforts put forth in the months preceding it.
What that entails is building on the positives of the victory over the Knicks, both individually and collectively, while striving to further eradicate the ills that lingered throughout the contest.
The most important of those positives was the effort put forth team-wide to speed up the attack of their offense. Toronto's 29 fast break points (21 above their per-game season average) allowed the team to play to its strengths of having mobile big men and quality passing guards and stopped them from taking too many contested jumpers in half court sets.
The Raptors lack options when it comes to players who can create their own shots and so the more that they can score before the opposition gets a chance to setup its defense, the easier the Raptors are going to make the game for themselves.
Fortunately for the Raptors their next three opponents are teams that sit above the league average in Pace Factor (an estimate of possessions per 48 minutes) and so that should allow them to keep running without trying to fight against the tempo of a slow-down team. There is no reason for them to slow down against Minnesota, Phoenix or Dallas this week so it's up to them to further the strides made yesterday afternoon with regards to their long promised fast break attack.
To achieve that aim the team will also have to keep playing defense and rebounding. Yesterday was one of the few games where the Raptors successfully ran people off of the three-point line while also not getting destroyed in the paint. Keeping the opposition shooting poorly allows the Raptors to run the break off of misses, especially if they rebound defensively with the kind of commitment that they showed against the Knicks (+10 on the defensive glass). The team has notoriously been a poor defensive and poor rebounding team in even their better seasons recently, but the addition of Shawn Marion on the perimeter and on the glass has given the Raptors a force in both areas like they've never had before. His ferocity on the boards, in particular, was a noted catalyst for the Raptors ability to get out on the break and hopefully his tenacity continues to inspire his teammates so that he isn't forced to play 44 minutes every night for his new club.
Among the best, and most under-the-radar, positives stemming from yesterday's game, though, was the effort the team made to get their best offensive weapons the ball and reign in the one-on-one efforts of their less talented contributors (*cough* Graham and Kapono *cough*). Marion took 20 shots, Bargnani took 15, Bosh took 14 and Anthony Parker launched 16 in a positive offensive outing. While Marion and Bosh struggled to hit many of their efforts, the Raptors are still better served with them dominating the offense along with the increasingly efficient Bargnani because the team will struggle to win most nights when the second-tier players dominate the attack - as they did Friday night. Sunday showed a positive demonstration of allowing a fourth party (Parker) to keep firing when he's hitting shots, but the club has to remain vigilant that if he (or any other second-tier player) isn't capitalizing on their attempts then they must see a reduction in looks.
NBA offences are very much a class system and the good teams win because they know how to balance their system between their stars and their supports. As nice as it is to have guys like Roger Mason and Delonte West, their teams win because they know when to step aside for Tim Duncan and LeBron James. The Raptors did a great job of demonstrating a similar ideology yesterday and wins will follow a continued commitment to that end.
That isn't to say there are not holes still to be filled, of course. The defensive efforts, especially on weak side rotations, were lacking for much of the night and that allowed New York to stay in the game till the final minutes. Also, the team eagerly awaits the time when Chris Bosh begins to look like an All-Star again. While the efforts of Bargnani for the last two months and Marion for the last three games have helped, this team needs a top-tier Bosh to be relevant as an NBA outfit. There simply isn't enough depth on this roster to make up for all of things that he does when he is at the top of his game, and the losses that have mounted this season when he wasn't at his best (due to injury or otherwise) need no further mention.
On that note we move on to the next day, a game with far more significance than the one played a day ago. Any team is capable of putting 'it' all together for a single match, and so for the Raptors the significance comes from doing it again. Can they put it together again when they don't have the whole of the Toronto media lambasting them for a putrid effort or a still-rabid home crowd cheering them on? We'll find out Tuesday. Precedent is stacked against them, so perhaps that can be motivation enough to go for a second (and even a third) spirited effort in a row.