It’s amazing the difference a month can make.
At the beginning of December, the vibe surrounding the Toronto Raptors wasn’t a good one. The team had a record of 6-9 and trade rumors were running rampant. While walking through the locker room the mood was often glum and it felt like there was a cloud hanging over the team.
Masai Ujiri made arguably his biggest move so far during his time running the Raptors when he traded Rudy Gay, Quincy Acy and Aaron Gray to the Sacramento Kings in exchange for what many people see as salary cap flexibility while aligning the tanks in anticipation of the team dropping in the standings to secure a valuable draft pick this June.
Not so fast.
Toronto has gone 9-3 since the trade with Sacramento and are 8-1 while having all of the players obtained in the trade on the roster.
Highlights from this stretch of games include wins against Dallas and Oklahoma City on the road and a thrilling win against Indiana that had the fans at the Air Canada Centre rowdy and on their feet cheering.
“Those are like springboard games,” Pacers head coach Frank Vogel told the media when asked about Toronto’s big wins over the past few weeks. “There’s a residual effect that carries with you over the next period of games or next stretch of games. You just play with more confidence, more belief, more togetherness, and that’s what they’re going through right now.”
While the confidence of the players in Toronto’s locker room is at an all-time high, their own head coach warns that the team hasn’t really accomplished anything yet.
“It should be,” Dwane Casey told a reporter when asked about his players confidence being high right now. “But that doesn’t mean we have won a championship or anything. That’s what I’m saying to them. We are still growing. We’ve got a young team in that locker room and their age hasn’t changed so we are excited, we’re happy and I’m happy for them, but we still have to have an attention to detail and continue to grow and get better as a team.”
Part of that growth as a team is growing into becoming a more physical and aggressive team. Instead of being pushed around, the team is showing some fight and pushing back when teams get aggressive.
“Last year, or even two months ago, I don’t know what they would have done,” Casey told me when I asked about the fight his team showed against Indiana. “But now we are meeting the challenge. We’ve got to keep doing that. Consistency in this league is huge. Swagger is great when you have it, but it’s a fleeting thing when you don’t hold onto it.”
The players realize the toughness they are playing with is a huge reason for their recent success and they have been quick to embrace that style of play.
Heck, seeing the wins pile up against elite teams while playing with a chip on their shoulder makes the game fun for any player.
“The toughness of our team is just building every single night,” Kyle Lowry boasted after the win against the Pacers.
“We wanted to hit back,” Amir Johnson told me after the game against Indiana. “We wanted to play with the same physicality that they do. Usually when teams hit us with a blow, we kind of lay down. Now it’s in reverse. We don’t lay down. We hit ’em right back, and we’re able to get those games now.”
Sure, fighting in the post and attacking the rim against tough post players like Roy Hibbert takes its toll, but the results are giving the players enough motivation to stick with this style of play.
Following the game against Indiana, Jonas Valanciunas was slow to ease his body out of the comfortable chair in front of his locker. He had just spent 31 minutes battling against Roy Hibbert, Ian Mahinmi and David West and his body was sore. He had massive ice packs on each knee, he had been soaking his feet in ice water and he was about to limp to the trainers table.
Still, Valanciunas had a grin that stretched from ear-to-ear when us media folk talked with him about the win.
But it’s not just Toronto’s post players that see the value in playing scrappy and with a chip on their shoulder.
“We’re going to go out there and battle with the best of ’em, night in and night out,” boasted DeMar DeRozan after the win against Indiana. “We don’t care who you throw out there in front of us, we understand they’re going to throw a punch and we’re going to throw punches back.”
Something that has been forged through this scrappy style of play is a selfless style of play. While Gay was still with the team he banned stat sheets from the locker room because he felt there was a bit of selfishness seeping into the team where players were looking for their own stats ahead of what the team needed.
Now, with Gay nearly a month removed from the team, stat sheets still aren’t around, but it’s as if the players genuinely don’t care about individual success. Now the team has rallied around being scrappy underdogs that need to scrap and claw for wins and respect.
“Everybody’s just playing for each other,” Terrence Ross told the media after the win on Wednesday. “Nobody has any secret agendas. Everybody wants the same goal and we’re all on the same page.”
While Patterson can’t vouch for how things were prior to arriving in Toronto, one of the first things he realized about his new teammates is that they don’t play the game selfishly.
“No one on this team is selfish; everyone accepts their roles,” Patterson explained. “No one wants to get more shots, no one wants to do more of this, no one is jealous of another player … we all understand what we have to do in order to make this machine keep rolling smoothly.”
The success of the team has resulted in Casey being named Eastern Conference coach of the month for December. Instead of relishing in his success, he was quick to shoot down any accolades from the media on Wednesday.
“Personally, I don’t give a crap,” Casey blurted out when asked what his team’s recent success means to him. “I mean, it’s not about me. It’s about that team in there in that locker room. I’m going to be in coaching for a long time, so it’s not about me, it’s about those guys in the locker room.
“For them, I think it’s another huge step as far as their growth is concerned and I truly mean that. They are growing, developing and we are still getting better. We just need to keep working. We can’t look at it like we’ve arrived at anything.”
It appears that unselfish style of play has originated from the coach staff that has engrained that way of thinking and playing in their players.
It’s funny how some adversity has helped Toronto forge an identity as being a tough, scrappy team that is willing to fight for wins.
So much for the players buying into the idea of tanking this season so Ujiri and the front office can obtain a much-valued lottery pick this June.