Raptors might rise out of Atlantic mire

December, 23, 2013
12/23/13
12:26
AM ET
Saw it with my own eyes Friday night.

Watched the scrappy Toronto Raptors erase a 19-point deficit in Dallas, come all the way back to beat a Western Conference team with a gaudy home record, then had to listen to a defiant Raptors staffer issue a challenge outside the visitors locker room.

"You go in there," said the Raptor in question, "and tell those guys they should be tanking."

Good luck.

They're not listening to me or you or anyone else who wants to talk about Andrew Wiggins.

The Raptors, post-Rudy Gay, are a together (and stubborn) bunch. They know all of us NBA jokesters on Twitter assumed that the exile of Gay to the Sacramento Kings earlier this month, on the heels of Toronto's summer shedding of Andrea Bargnani, was a move made to clinch a top-five slot in the lottery. So they've thoroughly enjoyed winning four in a row on the road, highlighted by the Rudy-less Raps' stunning victory Sunday night in Oklahoma City after the Thunder started the season 13-0 at home.

Or as DeMar DeRozan defiantly put it Friday night when we spoke after the big comeback in Dallas: "We ain't out of nothin'."

DeRozan was obviously referring to the playoffs. And that's really how the Raptors' players think.

"Most definitely," DeRozan said. "Most definitely."

They're not wrong, either.

They probably wouldn't have beaten Dallas if a weary Dirk Nowitzki didn't uncharacteristically miss his final six shots. They presumably couldn't have upset OKC if the Thunder hadn't left some of their fire in San Antonio in scoring Saturday night's big road win of their own over the Spurs.

Still ...

The four-game road win streak has moved the Raptors into first place in the Atlantic Division. And since they suddenly sport the best chemistry (and momentum) of the five teams it houses, who says they can't stay where they are in the Division Someone Has To Win?

The reality is that trading Bargnani and Gay for mostly future assets and financial flexibility should have put Toronto on a lottery-or-bust path. Yet it turns out that the rest of the division (and conference) is too meek to just let that immediately happen ... especially when the New Raps are zipping the ball around, playing decent D and looking a little deeper now that Greivis Vasquez and Patrick Patterson are coming off the bench for last-year coach Dwane Casey.

The same Casey, incidentally, who told reporters in OKC before tipoff Sunday that the Raptors are "at a crossroads with our organization" but also "fighting like crap for the playoffs."

Dangerous as it is to get carried away by one weekend filled with circumstantial evidence, I find myself falling prey to the latest developments. Given the current state of the Atlantic, I'm not so sure that ultimately trading away Kyle Lowry is enough to disrupt what the Raps have going. We’ll first have to see if GM Masai Ujiri adjusts the high price he’s seeking for Lowry, which prompted the New York Knicks to back off their recent strong interest in trading for Toronto's starting point guard, but Casey can simply move the reliable Vasquez into the starting lineup if Lowry does get moved.

So you have to ask: Does Toronto actually have to find a way to trade both Lowry and DeRozan for future assets between now and the Feb. 20 trade deadline to ensure that it gets a lottery ticket in May?

"I don't worry about that, man, at all," DeRozan told ESPN.com. "I don't worry about none of that. I just go out there and play my game. I don't pay attention [to trade speculation]. I don't pay no mind to it all."

DeRozan insists that he and the other Raptors are not gripped by fears of Who's Next? The latest indications in circulation actually are that he’s not being overtly shopped, but the 24-year-old says he hasn't gone to Ujiri to ask if he is or isn't being made available to other teams.

Now in his fifth season in Toronto, DeRozan has never been to the postseason, so that's all he sees. He sees what's happening in the Leastern Conference and the Titanic Division specifically, what's happening to the Knicks and Nets that gets us all tweeting one-liners, as a huge opportunity.

"In the opinion of the guys in this locker room," DeRozan says, "there's no question mark next to the Toronto Raptors."

Right again.

All the Toronto-related questions, at this point, have to be posed to management.

Who's next?

What now?

How do you get a shot at drafting that Canadian phenom when the Titanic Division has sunk to such depths that missing the playoffs might be harder than making them?

Marc Stein | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com
• Senior NBA writer for ESPN.com
• Began covering the NBA in 1993-94
• Also covered soccer, tennis and the Olympics

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