Dropping two straight to the Eastern Conference’s elite and losing No. 4 leading scorer DeMarre Carroll to injury should have punched holes in the Toronto Raptors’ (32-15) case as legitimate championship threats and slightly derailed their record pace for most wins in franchise history.
Instead, lifted by the dynamic All-Star backcourt of Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan, the Raptors have taken down 11 consecutive opponents for the longest winning streak in the team’s 20-year history and they’ll go for No. 12 Monday night at the Denver Nuggets (18-30).
And the upcoming schedule suggests the Raptors should continue their recent onslaught in the next five games prior to a much-needed rest while they act as host for NBA All-Star Weekend.
Just a month ago, the Raptors rose near the top of the East but were quickly struck down by their top conference rivals, which to many could’ve signaled they aren’t completely ready to contend for a title any time soon despite their obvious wealth of talent.
Back on Jan. 3 and Jan. 4 the Raptors (32-15) endured back-to-back losses to their elite East peers, the Chicago Bulls and Cleveland Cavaliers, both difficult letdowns that could’ve sent head coach Dwane Casey or any other squad’s confidence into the toilet.
Throw in the loss of Carroll to a knee injury that could sideline him until early March, and the Raptors had plenty of excuses to fall back in line with the rest of the East’s peripheral contenders and let the Bulls and Cavs battle once again for the conference’s place in the NBA Finals. Carroll was shooting just 38.8 percent, but the Raptors have relied heavily on his high energy and outside shooting. While the forward's absence was a tough loss, Terrence Ross eased the burden by stepping up in Carroll's place, averaging 14.4 points per game on 65 percent shooting during a five-game stretch.
It's been that type of production over the last four weeks that has catapulted Toronto into second place in the conference standings with a current NBA and franchise-best 11-game winning streak that could be characterized as both relentlessly dominant though at times sloppy. The Raptors remain on pace to eclipse last year’s 49-win finish, the best in team history.
In fact, despite closing out the first-half of the season with five straight games on the road, the Raptors could chip away at top seed Cleveland’s measly 2.5-game lead atop the conference.
After facing the lowly Nuggets, the Raptors next head to face the Phoenix Suns (14-35) on Tuesday, followed by trips to the Portland Trail Blazers (23-26), Detroit Pistons (25-23), and Minnesota Timberwolves (14-35) prior to the All-Star break. Toronto finishes the road trip on Feb. 19, with a date against the Bulls (26-20), a team that trails the Raptors for the No. 2 seed by 5.5 games.
While Portland and Detroit are each clinging to their No. 8 playoff seeds, together that group has posted a dismal 94-149 record this season, and Toronto has played well on the road with a 14-9 mark away from Air Canada Centre. All told, the Raptors have the second-best road mark in the East, and have the fifth-best road record in the entire NBA. That means the winning streak looks like it has a decent chance of being extended, even on a swing out west.
During their streak, the Raptors also benefitted from a seven-game home stand and in turn knocked back such top teams as Miami, the L.A. Clippers, and Boston in a four-day span, but not every victory’s been pretty as Casey pointed out after Saturday’s 111-107 win over Detroit.
"This game is fleeting," Casey said afterwards. "You can win 11 in a row and also you can lose seven, eight in a row if you continue to play with the lack of focus we did in the fourth quarter. Hopefully we learn from it and continue to go. We have to learn from it."
That game was marred by 16 Raptors turnovers, five of which came with less than five minutes remaining, and a poor 36.8 shooting percentage in the final quarter. In turn, the Raptors' No. 5-ranked defense also surrendered 35 points to Detroit in the fourth quarter.
And the offensive performance was nothing like the crew that ripped off 100-plus points in nine of their 11 wins, not to mention their 49.5 percent mark from the field during a five-game stretch. Toronto shot 46.2 percent overall against the Pistons, but went 4-for-14 from beyond the arc, a stark contrast from a group that’s fifth in the NBA with a 36.4 success from deep.
But the combo of DeRozan and Lowry has proven too much for opponents to overcome. Netting 29 points against Detroit, DeRozan’s averaging 24.5 points per game during the streak and scored 30 or more in four games. In January, he has connected on 41.7 percent of his three-point shots, which is a sharp uptick from December, when he converted just 28 percent.
Lowry has also warmed up during the streak, averaging 21.9 points and 5.7 assists. After shooting just 40.1 percent in December, Lowry is shooting 45.1 in January. His three-point shooting went from 34.2 percent in December, to 40.2 in January. In a matchup on Tuesday against the Washington Wizards, Lowry outdueled John Wall, dropping 29 points to Wall's 18, while shooting 57 percent compared to Wall's 35 percent in a 106-89 blowout.
And Lowry and DeRozan have developed a whole new level of interplay, or chemistry, that the latter believes has spread to the rest of the team. It’s kind of connection that’s started brewing back in 2012 when Toronto landed Lowry and DeRozan was entering his third year in the league.
“We do everything together, all the guys,” DeRozan toldThe Toronto Star on Saturday. “We joke around on the road. We try to have fun and try not to be so uptight and think about basketball 24-7. With that, we go out and have fun and then you just try to pull out a win every single night.”