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Raptors inching closer to Cavs in crowded Eastern standings

Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan and coach Dwane Casey have Toronto looking like a legitimate threat to Cleveland

POSTED: Feb 9, 2016 11:17 AM ET

By Shaun Powell

BY Shaun Powell


Toronto fans have already seen plenty of All-Star caliber play from the Raptors this season.

The NBA All-Star Weekend will descend upon Toronto, and while the locals will appreciate the basketball entertainment, they won't be starved for it. The Raptors have been a very worthy and inspiring opening act for the last few months, if you haven't noticed.

Kyle Lowry got on a treadmill in the off-season and returned as a size 6. DeMar DeRozan is a smarter and more efficient shooter and together they're the best backcourt east of Oakland. A good supporting cast continues to be consistent. Dwane Casey once again is the best coach that casual basketball fans have never heard of. They're winning. They've got the Cavs looking over their shoulder. They The North.

Of course, it's not their role as an opening act that will define their season. For a team that couldn't escape the first round of the playoffs the last few years, and quite honestly swallowed a grapefruit last spring, it's what they do in closing that will count most. And we'll get to that in a bit.

For now? This is the best basketball in Toronto since Vince Carter had vertical, performed at a level that gives hope if nothing else. After starting the season 7-6 they've had the best record in the East and are giving off the impression, at least, that there's indeed a suspenseful race at the top.

Nobody seems quick to declare the Raptors, two games out of first place as the week began, worthy of being in the same discussion with the Cavs. They lost by 22 to LeBron James last month and the Cavs appear recharged with a new coach. We'll know better when these two see each other after the break at the Air Canada Centre, which certainly will once again be juiced. The mere thought of the Raptors pulling ahead of the Cavs would send chills through Cleveland and be somewhat of a shock to everyone else.

Yet the Raptors have put themselves in position to do that, and this comes as a bit of a surprise. This is a team that for the next few months will be without DeMarre Carroll, its prized free agent signing, to knee issues (and he was a mild disappointment before he got hurt). And the Raptors cut ties with Amir Johnson, one of their better big men.

Oh, and they were left bleeding last spring by the Wizards after a first-round sweep (getting waxed by 31 points in the clincher), and suddenly Casey was coaching for his life this season. Not only were the Raptors atrocious defensively, but Lowry was a non-factor, which created concern about whether he had peaked as a player. Remember when Paul Pierce famously said the Raptors didn't have "it," implying that Toronto lacked a special something-something to get over the hump? Well, Lowry was supposed to be part of the solution, and he wasn't.

Kia Awards: Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan

The Raptors' Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan are co-winners of the Kia Eastern Conference Player of the Month award!

But he shed most of that Goodyear tire he dragged along and is back to his ornery self on the court and playing with a purpose. Lowry is averaging career highs in points, rebounds, steals and three-point percentage and Sunday will get the second-biggest applause after Kobe Bryant when the All-Star starters are announced.

"It's about being a better player today than you were yesterday," Lowry said. "We're all trying to do that as a team."

Likewise, DeRozan is having arguably his best season ever and is refreshingly efficient (45 percent) despite taking more shots than ever. Whether by design or simply coincidence, he's producing at a high rate here in his contract year, and it's all good for him and the Raptors even if they must write him a big free agent check this summer (DeRozan says he wants to stay put). Lowry and DeRozan work well together because there's a mutual respect, they don't clash style-wise or personality-wise, and they genuinely like each other.

"He's about to hit his prime right now," said Lowry. "He's playing with a lot of confidence, and you get the feeling the best has yet to come. I can see him being a perennial All-Star."

Jonas Valanciunas, the big fella, has been ... fine. Not spectacular. And the Raptors must wonder if he'll ever be more than a mild double-double guy (at this point, probably not). But he does his part near the rim and is the only low-post offense on the roster.

Inside Stuff: Cory Joseph in Toronto

Grant Hill catches up with Raptors guard Cory Joseph in his hometown of Toronto, site of NBA All-Star 2016.

It might be too early to wonder if respected GM Masai Ujiri whiffed a little on Carroll, who has only played 23 games. We'll see once he returns if he can be the same player he was with the Hawks last season. That said, Ujiri did nicely elsewhere with his gets: Bismack Biyombo, Cory Joseph and Luis Scola. All three have been better than expected, especially Biyombo. The Hornets lost patience with the former lottery pick, a raw but bouncy power forward without an ounce of offensive skill, and that allowed Ujiri to get him cheap.

Biyombo may never hear his number called for a play in his career, but the energy he brings defensively and on the glass makes up for that. He's grabbing eight rebounds in 22 minutes of action and redirects opponent's shots. Remember, the lack of defense managed to destroy this team last year, especially in the playoffs.

It all reflects well on Casey. Two years ago when the Raptors came under new management, Casey was on thin ice. At the time, there was support in Toronto for the Raptors tanking in order to increase the odds of drafting the hometown product, Andrew Wiggins. But Casey dug in and brought about a culture change and there isn't a coach in the East who's doing better work.

Toronto has signature wins over the Clippers and Heat twice, the Cavs and Spurs, and played the Warriors tight, losing two games by a combined eight points. There is little use questioning their authenticity; but it's fair to wonder if they're in Cleveland's class or merely the best of the teams chasing the Cavs.

"I think teams are like, `Oh, there's Toronto, I don't know if they're good enough' or whatever," Casey told reporters recently. "That's fine. That's cool. We'd rather have that. We have to continue to earn the respect by going in and playing with a sense of urgency, with force on both ends of the floor and having a focus for 48 minutes.

"I don't know if we're all the way there yet. Teams don't know if we're for real or not but that's fine. That's good because it means with have to continue to earn the respect, which I think we're doing."

Veteran NBA writer Shaun Powell has worked for newspapers and other publications for more than 25 years. You can e-mail him here or follow him on Twitter.

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