LOS ANGELES - On a night that seemed destined to belong to Kobe Bryant and the Lakers, it was the Toronto Raptors and their first-year general manager that stole the show.
With only 11 players in uniform, just eight of which got into the game, the Raptors spoiled Bryant's disappointing season debut just hours after Masai Ujiri pulled off a franchise-altering move.
"I really applaud our players for the fact they came in and banded together," Raptors coach Dwane Casey said following a 106-94 victory in the aftermath of Sunday evening's trade that sent Rudy Gay to Sacramento in a seven-player swap.
Set to board the team bus and make his way over to Staples Center, Gay was told to hang back at the hotel. He had been dealt.
He was shocked. So too were Aaron Gray and Quincy Acy - who are alsoNew heading to the Kings in the deal - and the rest of their teammates, most of whom found out about the transaction upon arriving at the arena.
As Toronto said goodbye to its best, or at least highest paid player, the Lakers welcomed theirs back. Nearly eight months after tearing his left Achilles, Bryant returned to the court, scoring just nine points and committing eight turnovers in 28 minutes of action.
Without Gay, along with Gray, Acy and Tyler Hansbrough - who sat out with a sprained left shoulder - the Raptors led wire-to-wire and snapped a five-game losing streak, playing some of their best and most inspired basketball of the season.
"Like I told the team," Casey said, "that's the way we're going to play, no matter who is in uniform."
"We're going to continue to play that way or they're not going to continue to play. That's the way it's got to be. No disrespect to anyone but we have to play as a unit to be successful."
In the absence of Gay - who was taking a career-most 18.6 shots per game while shooting a career-worst 29 per cent - the Raptors' offence looked more diverse and cohesive. Toronto registered 19 assists as a team and 13 from the backcourt tandem of Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan while California-native Amir Johnson led the way with a career-best 32 points on an efficient 14-of-17 from the field.
"Tonight's winning helps lift the cloud," Casey insisted, unable to comment directly on the trade until it's made official following a conference call with the league on Monday. "Everyone's talking about Kobe coming back and the trade but our guys had what you have to have; a discipline."
"I told our guys, no matter what happened or what's in the paper or in the media, we have to be disciplined and focused on what we've got to do, our jobs here. We can't control who's in uniform, who's traded."
Gray took the news in stride, learning about the deal during his pre-game workout at the arena. The veteran - who turned 27 on Saturday - finished his workout and had a smile on his face as he cracked jokes and bid his teammates farewell in the visitor's locker room. Acy, 23, was more emotional after being traded for the first time, by the only team he's known in his professional career.
"Big thank you to the Toronto Raptors organization for drafting me and giving me a chance," he tweeted Sunday night. "Imma miss everything about the city and the fans and the organization as a whole, thanks for helping mold me."
"It was kind of a bit emotional," Johnson said, comparing it to the day Gay was acquired nearly 10 months prior, when the Raptors said goodbye to Jose Calderon and Ed Davis prior to a game in Atlanta.
Johnson spoke with Gay over the phone, thanking him for everything he gave the team and the city during his brief tenure in Toronto. Lowry, his best friend, exchanged texts with him throughout the evening.
"It was difficult, especially for me," said Lowry, Gay being the godfather of his son. "At the end of the day it's a business and we have to move on. He's still going to be my boy. He's still going to be everyone on this team's boy."
"We had to block it out and just play."
Although the Raptors say goodbye to their most talented player, they may be a better team - in both the short and long term - because of it. Less, sometimes is more, evident in their win on Sunday. Without Gay - an inefficient, high-volume scorer - there are more shots to be distributed amongst more efficient players, the ball doesn't stick nearly as much and the team can focus on the continued development of DeRozan, Jonas Valanciunas and Terrence Ross.
The addition of Greivis Vasquez, however temporary it proves to be, should help in the development of those players, specifically Valanciunas. Vasquez, 26, finished second in most improved player voting last season after breaking out in New Orleans and fills a current need at the backup point guard position, also making Lowry expendable in a subsequent trade.
John Salmons, 33, will become the oldest player on the Raptors roster. He may or may not report and if he does he may or may not play. Patterson, 24, a stretch-four and Hayes, 30, a hard-nosed rebounder are both serviceable but more than anything else the deal was made to give the Raptors much-needed cap flexibility. In one fell swoop Ujiri turned one gargantuan contract - believed to be untradeable - into four far more manageable deals.
Toronto can save roughly $14.5 million for next season. While Hayes will be under contract, making $5.9 million next season, Salmons has a $1.0 million buy-out option on a non-guaranteed $7.0 million deal and Vasquez, along with Patterson could become free agents if the Raptors pull their qualifying offers.
"I believe in Masai, he's big time," Casey said after the game. "He's shown it, he's done some great things. He knows talent, he's a salesman, so I believe in him."