With New Pieces, Toronto Raptors Show Why They're East's Biggest Threat to Cavs

Josh Martin@@JoshMartinNBANBA Lead WriterFebruary 25, 2017

TORONTO, ON - FEBRUARY 24:  DeMar DeRozan #10 of the Toronto Raptors shoots the ball during the second half of an NBA game against the Boston Celtics at Air Canada Centre on February 24, 2017 in Toronto, Canada.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images)
Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images

The Toronto Raptors have been greeted by a slew of surprises—some good, one bad—over the last 11 days as All-Star Weekend has come and gone. 

The good: Team president Masai Ujiri and general manager Jeff Weltman cashed in some trade chips to fill the void at power forward with Serge Ibaka, then bulked up the wing rotation with P.J. Tucker.

The bad: The Raptors would have to test out their new arrangement against the Boston Celticsthe Eastern Conference's current No. 2 seedwithout Kyle Lowry. The All-Star guard came back from New Orleans with a sore right wrist that neither he nor the team knew about because he didn't think it was a serious injury.

"I left everybody out of the loop because I didn't think it was anything," Lowry said, per TSN's Josh Lewenberg. "When I got back it was a more tender than I thought it would be."

The Raptors, though, weren't any softer without him at the Air Canada Centre—not in the end, anyway. They bounded out of a 17-point hole f or the second consecutive game time and won, this time by a score of 107-97 at the Celtics' expense.

The new guys did their part to pull the Raptors back from the ledge: Ibaka debuted with 15 points, seven rebounds, one emphatic block on C's All-Star Isaiah Thomas early and another on Marcus Smart that looked clean but was called a foul.

Tucker nearly finished with a double-double (9 PTS, 10 REB, 3 STL) thanks in part to the fleet of free throws he sank once Boston was forced to foul down the stretch.

"P.J. Tucker got them going," Thomas said, who played with Tucker in Phoenix, per Comcast SportsNet's A. Sherrod Blakely. "That's what he does. He's the definition of a tough guy."

Beyond filling specific positional roles, Toronto's freshest faces were brought in to bolster a defense that was firmly middle of the pack prior to the break, dragged down by a bottom-10 mark in defensive rebounding. If they also helped Toronto climb the ranks in paint points, it would gladly take that too. 

To those ends, their impact was immediate. Ibaka and Tucker helped hold down a 41-36 edge on the boards and build up a 52-34 scoring advantage inside.

But the bulk of the work, as always, came courtesy of the backcourt, even with Lowry out of commission. DeMar DeRozan scored enough for the both of them: a career-high 43 points, 28 of which came after the Raptors had dipped into their deepest deficit. That performance pulled DeRozan even in the team record books for the most 40-point games in a campaign.

Lowry's absence also paved the way for Cory Joseph (11 points, six assists) to pester Thomas into a 6-of-17 shooting night, including an ice-cold 1-of-6 during the fourth quarter for one of the league's foremost crunch-time killers. DeMarre Carroll (six points, four rebounds) aided that effort as well, if only with a forearm shiver to Thomas in the second quarter.

"We can't let people think that we're soft ... Sometimes, we've got to take a stand," Carroll said, per the Toronto Sun's Ryan Wolstat. "We can't just let teams roll over on us."

Jae Crowder, Jaylen Brown and Marcus Smart—the three players mentioned most often in Boston's pre-deadline trade rumors—combined for 51 points in support of Thomas. Al Horford, the C's marquee signing from last summer, settled for eight points and five boards through 30 minutes.

One game can't constitute a reliable sample, but the Celtics looked like they could've used another superstar down the stretch. A plethora pre-trade deadline reports had Boston GM Danny Ainge doing more than kicking the tires on Chicago's Jimmy Butler and Indiana's Paul George before opting once again to sit on his treasure trove of trade chips.

Ainge's prudence may well pay off later on. Adding another creative force mid-stream could've caused some friction with the ball-dominant Thomas.

Crowder, Smart and Brown are all key pieces of head coach Brad Stevens' rotation—playing on attractive contracts, no less. The 2017 pick Boston is owed from the Brooklyn Nets could wind up No. 1 in what's expected to be a loaded draft; That could fetch the Celtics either another young stud or the gem of an offseason blockbuster.

In the meantime, the Celtics still look at least a player or two short of crashing the Cleveland Cavaliers' penthouse party in the East. While it may make more sense for them to put together a contender that can sustain past LeBron James' prime, there's something to be said for pushing into the pot now, with Kevin Love working his way back from knee surgery and the Cavs attempting to limp their way to a third straight Finals.

And considering how nervous Cleveland reportedly was while monitoring Boston's activity, perhaps the C's should've pounced while they had the chance. As ESPN.com's Brian Windhorst revealed on the Lowe Post podcast (h/t RealGM):

The Cavs were on pins and needles yesterday about the Celtics getting Paul George or Jimmy Butler. Pins and needles. That's why I'm saying. ... Let's put it this way: If on day one next year it's Gordon Hayward, Al Horford and Isaiah Thomas, the Cavs will be like, 'OK, that's going to be a challenge.'

If it's Isaiah Thomas, Al Horford and Jimmy Butler, the Cavs might be out there saying, 'We may have to trade Kevin Love.'

TORONTO, ON - FEBRUARY 24:  Isaiah Thomas #4 of the Boston Celtics dribbles the ball as Cory Joseph #6 of the Toronto Raptors defends during the second half of an NBA game at Air Canada Centre on February 24, 2017 in Toronto, Canada.  NOTE TO USER: User e
Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images

The Raptors might still be shy of title contention once Lowry's wrist heals. But by dealing two players (Terrence Ross and Jared Sullinger) and three picks (a first-rounder and two second-rounders) for Ibaka and Tucker, Toronto is clearly taking its shot.

And why wouldn't it? Prior to the shakeup, these Raptors were no better than the squad that took two games from the Cavaliers in last year's Eastern Conference Finals. Upgrading from flotsam at power forward to a bona fide two-way contributor in Ibaka should up Toronto's odds, however incrementally, of toppling a Cleveland team that could be short-handed at that spot.

Pushing for short-term fixes might also help the Raptors keep the good times rolling for years to come. Lowry seems likely to decline his player option for 2017-18 and re-enter the free-agent market in search of a fat new contract. By going for gold now, Toronto showed Lowry that, when it comes to winning, it means business just as much as he does.

That much should become clear over the final 24 games of the Raptors' regular-season schedule and into the playoffs. While Boston can rest easy on its mountain of building blocks and unparalleled history of success, Toronto has no championship banners to admire and no young blue-chippers waiting in the wings.

Thus, there's no time like the present for We The North to see if it can spring a surprise of its own.

All stats and salary information via NBA.com and Basketball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted.

Josh Martin covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on TwitterInstagram and Facebook, and listen to his Hollywood Hoops podcast with B/R Lakers lead writer Eric Pincus.

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