Toronto Raptors ride turnaround to Atlantic Division lead

Kyle Lowry

Upon hearing the news that their beloved Raptors had decided to deal forward Rudy Gay to the Sacramento Kings in early December before the former Uconn swingman had even spent a full year in the great White North, the playoff-starved basketball fans of Toronto understandably began to look forward to next season.

After all, with the exception of Damon Stoudemire, Vince Carter, and most recently Chris Bosh, it’s not as if the brief history of Canada’s lone NBA franchise is peppered with legendary tales of 20-point scorers capable of playing multiple positions.

But to the surprise of many, Toronto has gone 10-5 since pulling the trigger on the trade that landed them Patrick Patterson, John Sammons, and Greivis Vasquez in return, and now hold a 3 1/2 game lead over the Brooklyn Nets for the top-spot in the Atlantic Division.

With Wednesday night’s 112-91 win over the visiting Detroit Pistons, Toronto not only managed to put an end to their two-game skid, but also earned their eighth victory of their past 11 outings, and play four of their next five games at the Air Canada Center.

Despite a somewhat sloppy first half against Detroit, Toronto turned things around in the third quarter, outscoring their opponents 34-20 behind a 11-22 shooting from the floor and some impressive marksmanship from the charity stripe where the Raptors were 31-34 through four quarters.

Led by an efficient Kyle Lowry who totaled 21 points, Toronto received another strong, all-around performance from their starting five that included DeMar DeRozan scoring 19 points on a season-high 13 free-throw attempts, Amir Johnson’s 10 point-11 rebound outing, and the continued development of Terrence Ross who ended his night with 17 points in the win.

Depending on the perspective, the Raptors are either one of the few mediocre franchises in an otherwise horrid Eastern Conference, or, their simply in the right place at the right time.

But beyond the everyday, run-of-the-mill pessimism heard from the countless naysayers, the fact remains that if the playoffs began today, Toronto would be making their first venture into the post season since the 2007-08 campaign as one of the top four seeds in the East.

Understanding that the season is still not even halfway complete, there’s plenty of time for almost anyone in the East to emerge as a playoff contender, but the new, wide-open style of play that Toronto has employed since Gay’s departure will likely go a long way towards overall team development.

With Gay and DeRozan in the same lineup, the Raptors struggled to find the right chemistry while maintaining a balanced scoring attack due to the obvious similarities between the pair of high flyers, but since the deal, Toronto has flourished on the offensive end, and has been rewarded with the second-best record in the conference since the trade.

And if you happen to be looking for the architect of Toronto’s recent success both on and off the court, look no further than first-year general manager Masai Ujiri, who’s considered to be one of the NBA’s bright young front-office talents after winning “executive of the year” with the Denver Nuggets last season.

Signed to a five-year, $15 million contract in May of 2013, Ujiri was Toronto’s assistant GM from 2008-10 under Bryan Colangelo, and the first African-born general manager of any major US sports franchise has returned to Toronto with plans to cut the team’s payroll and begin rebuilding.

It’s a long season however, and Toronto will have to maintain their winning ways in order to hold off the many challengers hungry for a playoff berth if they plan on ending their five-year postseason drought in 2014.

While the logic behind the trade involving Gay may have made sense to team insiders and basketball aficionados, Raptor fans who’ve grown tired of the team’s playoff irrelevance saw only another big-name departure from a franchise that has historically lacked star power, something that they’ve likely begun to forget by now..

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