Toronto Raptors: Best They’ve Ever Been?

Jan 30, 2016; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Toronto Raptors point guard Kyle Lowry (7) and guard DeMar DeRozan (10) during their game against the Detroit Pistons at Air Canada Centre. The Raptors beat the Pistons 111-107. Mandatory Credit: Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports
Jan 30, 2016; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Toronto Raptors point guard Kyle Lowry (7) and guard DeMar DeRozan (10) during their game against the Detroit Pistons at Air Canada Centre. The Raptors beat the Pistons 111-107. Mandatory Credit: Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports /

The streak might be over, but the Toronto Raptors returned to winning ways with a 104-97 win over the Phoenix Suns, to put them at 12-1 in their last 13 games.

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The victory over the Suns was the kind of bounce back game you would hope to expect from the Toronto Raptors, who seem to be in the best groove this franchise has ever seen. In a conference that has looked it’s strongest in the last 10 seasons, it is certainly a hopeful sight to see Toronto playing at such a high level, and none have been better than their two best players.

The rest of the league has noticed as well, with Kyle Lowry and Demar DeRozan taking home co-Player of the Month honours for January in the Eastern Conference. In an icing on the cake of sorts, Dwayne Casey was then awarded Coach of the Month honours, for his hand in guiding the Raptors through their best stretch of games in franchise history.

As great as the accolades are for the three most important figures on the Raptors, jaded fans have to look no further back than last season, and wonder if once again, this team is peaking too soon with the All-Star break upon us? Toronto finished the season with a 13-16 record post All-Star break, a stretch that included two losing streaks of four or more games.

To put that in perspective, they had only lost 17 games leading up to the All-Star game, a stretch that spanned just over three and a half months. Now, here we are a year later with the Raptors sitting currently at 33-16 with three games left before the All-Star break, in what on the surface looks like almost exactly the same position.

Things Have Changed

But it truly isn’t.

Right now this is a team that knows exactly what it is – timely defence with a bench that can play both ends of the floor. Now throw in two superstar players in the backcourt who can take over a game at any moment, and a mix of savvy veterans and young players who have more guts than brains at times.

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Jan 26, 2016; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Toronto Raptors head coach Dwane Casey watches play against Washington Wizards in the first half at Air Canada Centre. Mandatory Credit: Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports /

Keep in mind this Raptors team did not come flying out of the gate like last season, posting a near .500 record by December, before finally rounding into shape in January. They made mistakes, had their struggles, and have seemed to learn and flourish because of them.

Even without their premier wing defender in DeMarre Carroll, this team still pulled off its best winning streak in franchise history, which can make it an even scarier thought when he eventually returns in the coming weeks. Speaking of the coming weeks, the Raptors will be going up against the majority of the teams trying to catch them in the East, including the Bulls, Celtics, and Pistons, while only facing the Cavaliers once more for the remainder of the season.

The Raptors truly hold their own fate in their hands, and there is not much evidence right now that this latest edition of the roster is ready to give up the number two seed in the East. Once again, that would be another historic mark for this team if they manage to end the regular season in their current position.

Bench Balance

Gone are the days of a bench that only played the offensive side of the floor, a recipe for disaster in the playoffs as we all now know. In comes a balance of grit and pace led by Cory Joseph, that seems to keep this team from ever getting too low on itself.

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Oct 28, 2015; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Indiana Pacers guard Monta Ellis (11) drives to the basket as Toronto Raptors guard Cory Joseph (6) and Toronto Raptors forward Bismack Biyombo (8) try to defend during the fourth quarter in a game at the Air Canada Centre. The Toronto Raptors won 106-99. Mandatory Credit: Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports /

Bismack Biyombo continues to look like one of the smartest signings across the league with his play as a rim protector and physicality, something this team sorely lacked a season ago. As a matter of fact, Joseph and Biyombo are having career years in all major statistical categories for the Raptors, not bad for two players who could have just as likely been paying in Spain, Germany or Israel by now.

There are still blemishes however, like when there is literally no paint protection when both Luis Scola and Jonas Valanciunas are on the floor together. This could prove to over-exert Biyombo in the coming months if the minutes aren’t managed properly.

The team also still lacks that defensive intensity as a complete unit that coach Casey has been preaching during his entire tenure in Toronto. It is still a major step up from the previous season, but not to the level the team prided itself on during Casey’s first season in the six, back when the playoffs were still a pipe dream.

Unfortunately, no matter how great the run in the regular season is for the Raptors, and how nice of a story it is for them going into a Toronto-hosted All-Star game, all roads still lead to the postseason. That is where the fan base, and possibly management and ownership, will ultimately decide the fate of this team for the next few years.

Next: Why Toronto Raptors Fans Should Appreciate This Win Streak

Until then, enjoy the wins, the attention of the All-Star Game, and the fact that for the first time since Vince Carter dominated the dunk contest back in 2000, that all eyes will be on the city of Toronto. It has never been a better time to be a Toronto Raptors fan.