The Toronto Raptors had every reason to expect a loss going into the half of Wednesday's game against the Indiana Pacers. They were trailing an Indiana team with the best overall record in the NBA, at 25-5. The Pacers had dominated the second quarter, 26-14. Surely, the Pacers would come out of the locker room and put the game out of reach.
But these are not your daddy's Raptors. Toronto rallied, forced 22 Pacer turnovers, harassed star Pacers forward Paul George into perhaps his worst game of the season (12 points on 5-of-14 shooting with six turnovers) and cruised to the 95-82 victory.
With the win, Toronto has pulled back to .500 at 15-15. It has won a season-high four games in a row and nine of its last 12. If the Raptors can keep up their winning ways, they might just do the impossible: drag the pathetic Atlantic Division back to respectability.
But maintaining this momentum won't be easy. The Raptors will now take the road for a tough three-game stretch.
The 14-15 Wizards are just a half-game behind Toronto in the conference standings. The Heat (14-2) and Pacers (15-1) are nearly impossible to beat at home.
Can the red-hot Raptors keep up their winning ways through their upcoming road trip? A lot will depend on a recent addition to the starting lineup.
Terrence Ross and the Rudy Gay Effect
Rarely do you see a sub-.500 team trade away its highest-paid player and rapidly improve in the standings, but that is exactly what has happened to the Raptors since trading swingman Rudy Gay.
At first blush, it seemed as if the Raptors were trading Gay to get out of his $19 million 2014-15 players option. But the Raptors have taken off since the trade, posting a 9-3 record with Gay out of the starting lineup.
Now the Raptors seem like geniuses, and the move is being lauded on Twitter as a classic addition-by-subtraction move.
The conundrum has thwarted science for ages: How can one benefit from getting rid of Rudy Gay without acquiring him first?— Ben Detrick (@bdetrick) January 2, 2014
@HowardBeck I'm thinking the Rudy Gay trade, like the Bargs trade, was about winning and making the team better.— The man with the #'s (@ArturoGalletti) January 2, 2014
Three of the players acquired for Gay—Greivis Vasquez, Patrick Patterson and John Salmons—have bolstered Toronto's bench. Against Indiana, both Patterson (16 minutes played) and Salmons (19 minutes played) finished at plus-seven.
But the biggest bonus in trading Gay has been the impressive play of sophomore shooting guard Terrence Ross since joining the starting lineup.
Ross will never score as many points as Gay, but he is a much better shooter. With Gay gone, not only has Ross moved into the starting lineup, he is also averaging twice as many shots per game as he did before the trade. And Ross isn't just taking more shots, he's making them at a much higher rate.
|Ross, before Gay trade||18||2.3||5.6||41.0||34.0||6.2|
|Ross, after Gay trade||12||5.2||11.3||45.6||46.3||13.8|
|Gay as a Raptor||18||7.2||18.6||38.8||37.3||19.4|
The Raptors traded Gay's bulk-scoring production for Ross' efficient-scoring production. This might have been a problem for Toronto's offense, if it had nobody to take those extra shots. But Toronto already had a pair of perimeter scorers in its starting five: Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan.
There's an old saying in basketball: There's only one ball to go around. When one player is taking (and missing) as many shots as Gay, the team's other scorers are bound to suffer.
It should come as no surprise, then, that both Lowry and DeRozan have produced better results for Toronto when paired with Ross, as opposed to Gay.
The math is rather simple: Toronto's starters were putting up negative numbers with Gay, and they're putting up positive numbers with Ross. That adds up to wins.
Does Toronto Have Competition?
The best argument for picking Toronto to win the Atlantic to win the Atlantic Division might just be the complete lack of competition.
Of the Raptors four divisional rivals, two would probably be thrilled with a pick in the star-studded 2014 draft, while the other two have no picks and therefore nothing to gain by losing.
Fortunately for the Raptors, the latter two teams are the Brooklyn Nets and New York Knicks. Brooklyn is already 5.5 games behind Toronto, while the Knicks are a full six games back. Both teams are far more likely to fire their coach than to match Toronto's current four-game win streak.
It would appear Boston is Toronto's only real competition for the division crown. But the Celtics are 2.5 games behind the Raptors and clearly in rebuilding mode. Boston GM Danny Ainge would probably rather trade established talent for salary relief or draft picks.
Once the Raptors have finished their three-game road trip, they will not play away from Toronto until January 15. But that game will be a big one: at Boston.
The Raptors beat Boston in their only meeting this season, all the way back on October 30.
Toronto is clearly a different club. The Raptors have shot to the top of their mediocre division, and they have the talent, depth and chemistry to put some serious distance between themselves and their downtrodden rivals.