The Cleveland Cavaliers' stiffest conference challenge could come not from the Windy City, the ATL, South Beach or Circle City, but rather the Great White North.
So far, the Toronto Raptors have earned that distinction. Their 103-93 win over the depleted New York Knicks on Thursday extended the Raptors' winning streak to a franchise-record 10 games and, in the process, strengthened Toronto's stake to the East's second seed.
10 in a row! Raptors set a franchise record with 10 straight wins in the same season with 103-93 win over Knicks. pic.twitter.com/I8g49XYIwI— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) January 29, 2016
The Raptors' claim to that almost-throne begins with the conference's top backcourt. Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan celebrated their All-Star selections—Lowry by fan vote, DeRozan by the coaches'—with dueling 26-point outings. Lowry, nursing a sprained wrist, took advantage of Jose Calderon's absence for New York with game highs in assists (10) and steals (three).
As much as they rely on their dynamic duo on the perimeter, the Raptors are no longer pushovers up front. Jonas Valanciunas made that much clear at the Air Canada Centre, albeit while Carmelo Anthony and Kristaps Porzingis also watched from the bench. The 23-year-old nabbed 18 rebounds to notch his 10th double-double of the season and give the Raptors a 50-40 edge on the boards.
Valanciunas has been putting in this kind of work for most of the 2015-16 campaign. Since returning from a hand injury in late December, he's averaged 16.5 points, 13.6 rebounds and 2.4 blocks per 36 minutes. His emergence as a stalwart at center has helped to turn Toronto from a bottom-10 rebounding team in 2014-15 to one of the six best by percentage this season.
Where the Raptors can really make their case as Cleveland's biggest threat is on the defensive end. Toronto's defense is elite, good enough to make this squad one of two in the East, along with the Cavs, to rank among the top 10 on both sides of the ball. That still counts as a massive leap forward from last season, when the Raptors finished 23rd in defensive efficiency and got swept out of the first round by the running, gunning Washington Wizards.
Torontonians can thank general manager Masai Ujiri for that improvement. He spent the summer chasing dogged defenders and came up with three of them: DeMarre Carroll (Atlanta Hawks), Cory Joseph (San Antonio Spurs) and Bismack Biyombo (Charlotte Hornets).
Biyombo chipped in five points, two rebounds and a block against New York. Joseph was the Raptors' most effective reserve, adding 11 points, seven rebounds and four assists. Those two, along with Patrick Patterson (10 points, five rebounds) and Terrence Ross (six points, two blocks) form the core of a bench that, while one of the league's least productive in terms of scoring, can clamp down on defense when the starters need a break.
The key to Toronto's hopes of Cleveland comeuppance may well rest in Carroll's hands—or, rather, on his knee. The Raptors' ongoing run began shortly after their marquee free-agent signee underwent surgery on the same knee that bothered him in last year's playoffs. But they'll be hard-pressed to pester the East's best wings—among them, Paul George, Jimmy Butler and, of course, LeBron James—without Carroll in the lineup once the postseason rolls around
Fortunately for the Raptors, he's well on his way to returning to Dwane Casey's rotation.
Carroll spoke to media for 1st time since knee surgery, said it was a relief to get it done. No timetable but said he's making good progress— Josh Lewenberg (@JLew1050) January 18, 2016
Chances are, Carroll won't be back before his team and town host the All-Star Game on Valentine's Day. The sooner he returns, the better-equipped the Raptors will be to not only hang onto the No. 2 spot in the Eastern Conference, but close the two-game gap between them and the Cavaliers.
Casey said happy but not satisfied with winning streak. Goal is catch Cleveland.— Ryan Wolstat (@WolstatSun) January 29, 2016
Regardless of seeding or respect, the Raptors won't be satisfied with positive regular-season results. They've set franchise records for wins in each of the last two seasons. At 31-15, they're well on their way to extending that streak to a third.
Best Raptor team DeRozan’s been a part of: “Yeah. By far, by far and we've still got a long way to go."— Ryan Wolstat (@WolstatSun) January 29, 2016
But for all those victories, they don't have any playoff series wins to show. Whether or not they have the goods to upset Cleveland in April, May or June, the Raptors have proven they're prepared to conquer the rest of the East—through the rest of their schedule and into the postseason.
Rookie Turns Up For Pacers
You won't see Myles Turner in the Rising Stars Challenge during All-Star Weekend, but if he keeps playing as well as he has of late, you'll catch him as the Indiana Pacers' top center for the foreseeable future.
In his first start as a pro, Turner scored 20 points and grabbed six rebounds to help the Pacers overcome a poor night from Paul George (11 points on 2-of-11 shooting), close out the Atlanta Hawks 111-92 and end a three-game skid.
Head coach Frank Vogel tempered his praise for the 19-year-old Texan at the post-game podium:
But Vogel's pregame explanation for slotting Turner next to Ian Mahinmi was more indicative of where the rookie's career could be headed:
In explaining the Myles Turner move, Frank Vogel brought up his interim year when he unleashed a rookie Paul George from the bench— Candace Buckner (@CandaceDBuckner) January 28, 2016
In his last six games off the bench, Turner averaged 18 points and 2.3 blocks while draining 63 percent of his shots.
It's no wonder, then, that Pacers general manager Kevin Pritchard thinks "the sky is the limit for the kid," per FOX Sports Indiana's Jeremiah Johnson. At this rate, the No. 11 pick in the 2015 draft might have the Pacers shooting for the moon.
Gallo Shoots Down Wizards on Bullets Night
With the Washington Wizards spending Throwback Night as the Baltimore Bullets—their former alias, for all you youngsters out there—it was Danilo Gallinari who proved to be the most dangerous weapon in all of D.C.
The 27-year-old Italian scored 26 points, nailed four threes and chipped in five rebounds and six assists to lead the Denver Nuggets to a 117-113 win in the nation's capital.
The Nuggets' poor record (18-29) and the abundance of worthy All-Stars out West left Gallo on the outside looking in for next month's festivities in Toronto.
But if his scoring exploits in 2016 are any indication, he could be due for more than mere consideration before long. Since returning from an ankle injury in early January, Gallinari's averaged 23.5 points and topped the 20-point mark 11 times in 14 games.
Super Subs Save Brow-Less Pelicans
The New Orleans Pelicans were 0-5 without Anthony Davis, an All-Star for the second year running, and 5-14 in Tyreke Evans' absence this season. With both of their cornerstones on the shelf and the Sacramento Kings coming to town desperate for a win, the Pelicans needed someone to step up.
Fortunately for New Orleans, Ryan Anderson answered the call.
The Sacramento native torched his hometown team from the start. His 18 first-quarter points (on 8-of-12 shooting) nearly matched the Kings' entire output for the frame (19). By the time the final buzzer sounded, Anderson had matched his career high with 36 points to help the Pelicans pull out a 114-105 win.
New Orleans' substitutes for Evans and Eric Gordon, sidelined by a broken finger, weren't too shabby, either. Norris Cole, in his fourth straight start, did his best Rajon Rondo impression (17 points, seven rebounds, 10 assists) opposite the man himself (17 points, six boards, 15 assists). Rookie Bryce DeJean-Jones surprised with 14 points of his own.
"We got him on a 10-day contract. We want him to earn his money, so we put him to work," Pelicans coach Alvin Gentry joked before the game, per Pelicans reporter Jim Eichenhofer.
New Orleans could use that kind of effort out of everyone, regardless of injuries, if it's going to make up the three-game gap separating this squad from the West's eighth and final playoff spot.
Memphis Makes Minced Meat of Milwaukee
Like Chief Keef, the Grit-N-Grind is back from the dead.
For the second game in a row, the Memphis Grizzlies trotted out their old starting five and came away with a win. But this one—a 103-83 trouncing of the Milwaukee Bucks—was far more convincing than Monday's overtime victory against the slumping Orlando Magic.
Marc Gasol (15 points, eight rebounds, four assists, four steals), Tony Allen (13 points, seven rebounds) and Courtney Lee (13 points) all scored in double figures, with Zach Randolph (eight points) falling a bucket shy. Mike Conley orchestrated the offense with nine assists, while the defense held the Bucks to 36.7 percent shooting.
The switch also worked out well for Jeff Green and Matt Barnes, who'd temporarily held starting spots for head coach Dave Joerger. Green followed up his 30-point explosion against Orlando with a team high 21 opposite Milwaukee. Barnes poured all 13 of his points in the fourth quarter to ensure the starters a restful evening.
Their slow start to the season behind them, the Grizzlies (27-20) now sit fifth in the Western Conference, with their time-tested machinery up and running again.
D-Rose Rises in L.A.
On a night full of flashbacks at Staples Center, Derrick Rose took center stage.
The former MVP gave a heavy Chicago Bulls contingent in southern California a tantalizing glimpse of his healthier self during his team's wire-to-wire 114-91 win over the Los Angeles Lakers. He slashed his way to 16 points on 7-of-12 shooting, but none of his plays were prettier than this one of his five dimes.
It was no easy feat for Rose to own the spotlight. Kobe Bryant drew the bulk of the attention with another poor shooting night (10 points on 4-of-13 shooting). Jimmy Butler celebrated his second straight All-Star selection with game highs in points (26), assists (10) and steals (four). Pau Gasol reacted to his snub with 21 points, 12 rebounds and seven assists of his own.
But after all his injuries, Rose can still steal the show and has more often of late. In the five games prior to Chicago's loss to the Miami Heat on Jan. 25, the Windy City native had averaged 21.2 points.
Josh Martin covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter.