After the Raptors' big win in Indiana on Tuesday, let's take a look at how some members of the team are playing early in the season and how their style of play will go a long way to determining their success this season.
1. The 'W' in Indy; The Raptors pulled off a terrific win (far from pretty but take it any way you get it!) in Indy after triple overtime heartbreaker vs. Utah. Who would have seen that W coming? In a disappointing season so far, it's something to feel better about for the time being. A sigh of relief at the very least for long suffering Raps fans.
2. Amir Johnson: Forget the numbers. Terrific defence and effort by him in the fourth quarter vs. Indy with six fourth quarter rebounds. Remember David West killing the Raptors in the fourth on opening night? They put Johnson on West instead of Bargnani this game and he went 0-5 vs Amir in the deciding quarter. He leaves it all on the floor for you and it was the same against Utah.
3. DeMar DeRozan: He's really growing up before our eyes in Year 4. How about his improving low-post game? His added strength and stamina have changed him. He's playing with the edge of players you see that play 'The City Game'. I love it. His handle is tightening up, he is able to initiate more on his own and his overall decision-making is much improved. He's trying to impact the game in all phases. He looks like he's finally starting to figure it all out. Consistency is the key. He's a good person who works at it and wants to be really good at it. Defences will really start to gang up on him more and more. His ability to handle that and react accordingly will be crucial for continued growth.
4. Linas Kleiza: I mentioned the erratic/sub-par play of the 3-spot on Monday. There's a nice improvement here with this guy back. His ability to shoot the 3 helps open the floor up for the entire offence and he's a tough cover in the post when he's playing against opposing small forwards. With Alan Anderson and Landry Fields banged up, opportunity is knocking at his door in Year 3 as a Raptor to finally play steady minutes if he can stay healthy. The Raptors made a strong financial investment in him a few years back; the time has come for the return on it. He's got to deliver every game. The team is searching for answers and the time is now with him.
5. Style of Play: I've said it all along when I reference the Raptors up-tempo game. Style and running are nice but you better get after it on defence and the boards and earn your running 'chances'. Trading baskets is entertaining but doesn't win you lots of games unless you've got off-the-charts talent which the Raptors don't have even when fully healthy. We're talking about a team (when fully healthy) that you're hopeful can compete for the final playoff spot in the East. This is not a situation where they're overwhelming you with major talent like Miami and can get away with taking a few plays off and still beat you because they're so much better than you. You don't get that because of talent level, you get it because you play your system really hard and really well in a fundamentally disciplined/tight fashion. Bring the substance and hard hats each night and you've got a fighting chance.
Dwane Casey has tried to bring about more offensive/defensive balance to this organization this year. I respect that. The bottom line is that with a full roster or not, due to injuries, the Raptors need to be more about out-playing, out-hustling, out-executing, out-defending, out-rebounding and out-coaching teams than out-running them. Know thyself. Injuries to key players (Kyle Lowry being the most significant) always worry me. With that being said, control what you can control and play it hard every night. Casey can coach. Perfect? No, but who is? But he gets it and he's good. Hopefully his team starts to realize how they've got to play to have a chance to compete and win.
Style gets you beat. The other approach gives you at least a fighting chance. Ugly win vs. Indy but a thing of beauty to me in the W column. Ask Chicago Bulls fans, they are far from pretty to watch without Derrick Rose. It's hand-to-hand combat sometimes with them but they're staying afloat. Bring it on because you're not getting points for style like skating and diving.