Published January 08, 2015
(SportsNetwork.com) - It's the Indiana Pacers and Miami Heat, then the rest of the Eastern Conference.
The remainder of the East isn't worth talking about and it's embarrassing for the NBA that a team five games or more below the .500 mark has a chance to make the postseason.
Perhaps David Stern could stick around a bit longer to resurrect the East.
Not a chance.
Eight teams qualify for the playoffs in each conference and right now the East has five teams with a winning record. The Toronto Raptors are one of those teams and have glided smoothly under the radar.
It turns out giving Bryan Colangelo his walking papers in favor of Masai Ujiri, the reigning NBA Executive of the Year, was a solid move from the jump. Colangelo's big move before leaving Toronto's front office was the acquisition of Rudy Gay from the Memphis Grizzlies. Gay is a proven scorer, but Ujiri felt he could improve the team by sending Gay to Sacramento in December.
How did that work out?
Well, Gay and the Kings are second-to-last in the ultra-competitive Western Conference and one of the NBA enigmas. The Kings are the only team in the league to have three players average more than 20 points and Gay is one of them. They just haven't figured out how to play as a team.
That's not Toronto's problem.
The Raptors received guard Greivis Vasquez and forwards John Salmons, Patrick Patterson and Chuck Hayes in exchange for Gay and are 26-13 since the trade.
Before Ujiri pulled the strings on the Gay deal, he swindled a first-round pick out of the New York Knicks for big man and former No. 1 overall pick Andrea Bargnani.
How's that working out for the Knickerbockers?
They're near the bottom in the awful East, although they do have some life left.
Toronto has plenty of life in the No. 3 seed. There's no better time than now to take advantage of a conference with more potholes than the roads in Northeast Philadelphia. The Raptors are dodging those holes in hopes of returning to the playoffs for the first time since the 2007-08 season.
Ujiri rid the Raptors of their issues and perhaps he felt those players were stunting the growth of some of the younger guys on the roster. One in particular is DeMar DeRozan, a proven scorer in this league when he gets the chance. He's had plenty of opportunities to showcase his skills and was rewarded with an All-Star nod this season. He is averaging a team-best and career-high 22.5 points.
DeRozan, who boasts a 25.7-point average in February, is gradually transforming himself into one of the top scoring guards in the NBA. He's already in the top 10 among East guards and knows how to feed his teammates. Raptors coach Dwane Casey agrees and talked about his top player this week.
"He's one of the best wing double-team guys in the league right now in terms of passing the ball out," Casey told the Toronto Sun. "He's doing a good job in his pick-and-roll game now. That's a big step in his growth process."
Casey is witnessing opposing teams drawing more attention to DeRozan, who mentioned he enjoys putting the ball in his teammates' hands because it makes them and himself better.
Vasquez will raise a glass for that.
"When you're the best player (on a team) and you're getting your teammates better (opportunities), he's giving everybody confidence," Vasquez told the Sun. "That's huge. No scoring guard in this league is really a great passer like that."
DeRozan is averaging 4.9 assists this month and dished out six in a recent win over Cleveland. He also scored 33 points to reach 30 points for the 11th time this season. It was the Raptors' third straight win and sixth in seven tries.
Kyle Lowry (16.9 ppg), Terrence Ross (10.6 ppg), Jonas Valanciunas (10.4 ppg) and Amir Johnson (10.3 ppg) are beneficiaries of DeRozan's unselfish play and have carved their own niche with the up-and-coming Raptors. Lowry scored 14 or more points in eight straight games from Feb. 5-23, then was held to a point below that mark against the Cavs.
Lowry doesn't have to match DeRozan in the stat sheet to help be Toronto successful.
"You're not going to have great games all the time, you're not going to shoot 10-for-12 or 20-for-30. You're always going to have some type of off-game," Lowry said. "You can't let that stop you from helping your team win a game. I wasn't making my shots, but I know I can still help the team."
Ross is averaging more than 11 points per game in February. Valanciunas was posting an average of more than 10 points this month until he had only two points against the Cavaliers.
There are probably four reliable players Casey can look to from his bench in Patterson, Vasquez, Salmons and Tyler Hansbrough. The Raptors just traded for guard Nando De Colo and he has become another valuable asset to the reserves. Toronto needs all the help it can get come playoff time and it's pretty much a lock to make it past the 82-game slate.
If the Raptors resided in the West, their playoff drought would continue. Luckily, that's not the case and they would like to add another Atlantic Division title (2006-07) to their history.
It's a foregone conclusion the Raptors aren't going to catch Indiana or Miami, so they're just being patient as the regular season winds down.
"We're just slowly getting better, slowly growing as a team, slowly getting confidence on how to close out games," Lowry said. "We just have to keep building on it."