The Toronto Raptors are four games out of the eighth seed in the Eastern Conference. They are one of the hottest teams in the East right now, having won seven of their last eight games, and are staring at a six-game home stand that will see them play four teams that are currently sitting outside the Playoff picture.
Well, the easy and most obvious answer was their schedule finally turned. After a brutal start to the season the Raptors got to play a full compliment of struggling teams, including two games against the injury-ravaged Orlando Magic, and they finally saw the odds swing in their favour in a few close contests after getting shafted in several close games in the first six weeks of the season.
Of course, after early-season losses to the Bobcats and Pistons there was no guaranteeing that an easier slate was going to help improve the club's fortunes, but certainly getting to go up against a bunch of lightweights is easier than going up against a string of powerhouses.
That said, something deeper changed after they returned home from their disastrous five-game western road trip on December 12th. On that trip they went winless, had a heated team-only meeting, were publicly scorned by their general manager, and lost arguably their two best players (Kyle Lowry and Andrea Bargnani) to injury. The team appeared to have hit rock bottom and faced a choice: give up on the season or rededicate themselves to turning their fortunes around.
To the surprise of many, the team opted for the latter.
In a way the club had been stripped of so much talent due to injuries that they had no choice but to play together if they wanted to keep from embarrassing themselves. There were no longer any bail-out players on the roster. Plays had to be executed, the ball had to move and everyone had to buy-in to playing team-oriented defense to have even a shot at winning.
Jose Calderon was inserted into the starting lineup, the perfect steadying force for a roster in disarray, and brought harmony to the team's broken offense. Alan Anderson returned from injury and brought a veteran's savvy along with a stellar three-point shot to help open up the floor. Terrence Ross lost his deer-in-the-headlights look and became an effective member of the rotation, hitting 39% of his three-point attempts during this stretch and becoming a highlight reel staple. Heck, even Landry Fields has been logging positive minutes, minutes made all the more positive by pushing Linas Kleiza out of the nightly rotation.
Then, over the last two games, the team's fortunes were further brightened when Kyle Lowry returned to the rotation and instead of reverting back to his me-first play he embraced the team concept and has blended in perfectly while also playing a vital role in the wins against New Orleans and Orlando. Eventually he'll re-inherit his starting job, but for now having him as a spark plug off of the bench is a huge leg up for Toronto's second unit.
Of course, there is no way to avoid discussing the effect that the absence of Andrea Bargnani has had in all of these developments. For all that a lot of factors have had to come together to create this streak, one cannot discount the part Bargnani's injury played in it all, either.
Removing his languid play, his indifferent defense, his non-existent rebounding and his all-around energy-sapping presence has had a noticeable impact on the way that the team attacks at both ends of the floor. No longer do his ball-stopping proclivities disrupt the offensive flow. No longer are defensive rotations at the rim missed because he failed to read his responsibilities and act on them. Plus, let's be frank, not having him around has kept Casey from overvaluing his contributions and placing too much of the team's fortunes on Bargnani's shoulders. It's amazing how much Casey's coaching improved this season when Bargnani wasn't around for him to feature at the center of his attack.
The real question is how long can Toronto keep this up? They just finished the month of December with a 7-7 record, but they are still nine games below .500, which still stands as the typical benchmark used to measure one's Playoff viability. Can Toronto, a team that started the season 4-19, really consider a Playoff berth a realistic goal?
Well, they're currently four games back of the eighth place Boston Celtics, so they aren't out of it, but it remains to be seen if the club has set themselves up for a brighter future or just ended a dismal 2012 on a positive note.
Suffice it to say that few people saw this run coming before it happened, so maybe there is a reason for optimism heading into 2013. Heck, when it comes to the Raptors there have been so many dreary stories over the last twelve months that a little optimism might be just the way to ring in the new year.