TORONTO — Back on Dec. 8, the Raptors traded their biggest star, Rudy Gay, to the Sacramento Kings in a seven-player deal. Surely, this was the move NBA insiders had been expecting for months.
The Raptors were tanking the season in an attempt to get a high lottery pick and take Andrew Wiggins, a native Canadian who is seen as the future of basketball in the country, in the 2014 draft.
But a funny thing happened after the Raptors dumped Gay. They got better. A lot better.
They started playing like a team, sharing the ball and getting more out of their offense. The acquisitions from Sacramento – Greivis Vasquez, Patrick Patterson and Chuck Hayes – settled quickly into backup roles and improved the chemistry and depth.
From the time of the trade until Sunday, the Raptors went 14-6, a better record than the champion Miami Heat in that stretch. They beat Indiana and won at Oklahoma City. They surged to a four-game lead in the Atlantic Division, putting them on pace to make the playoffs for the first time in six years.
Yes, these are heady times for a franchise that has just one playoff series win in its 19-year existence. And on Sunday afternoon, the Raptors forgot what had brought them to this point. They fell back into the tank and lost at home to a bad Lakers team, 112-106.
For the first time ever, the Raptors went into a home game against the Lakers with a better record. For once, people didn’t show up in the Air Canada Centre to gawk at the Lakers’ superstars – although injured Kobe Bryant made the trip and even attended Saturday night’s Leafs game.
But the Raptors weren’t quite up to it. They didn’t look like the class of the Atlantic Division. Rather, they were powerful proof that it might be the worst division in NBA history.
Oh, it was an entertaining and high-tempo game. At times, the improving Raptors showed why they’ve captured the imagination of Canadian sports fans and sent the ratings on TSN soaring by 60 percent.
They had a season-high 30 assists, including 14 of their first 15 baskets. Point guard Kyle Lowry and his backup, Vasquez, combined for 17 assists. They looked like the championship Knicks of the 1970s for a while there.
During one exquisite 7:08 stretch of the first and second quarters, they outscored the Lakers, 30-7. They started the third quarter on a 12-0 run. But they blew leads of 19 and 16 points and fell apart in the stretch, making a bunch of dumb mistakes as their six-game home win streak came to an end.
“That’s not our identity,” said coach Dwane Casey, who was honored as the NBA’s Coach of the Month for December beforehand. “We didn’t get our defense into the game the whole night. We played their game, up and down. It’s pretty, but that’s not who we are.”
The Lakers were unconscious from three-point range, making 12 of 22. Nick Young (29 points) might as well have been throwing them in from the top of the CN Tower. Toronto got drawn into that game, but made only 9 of 30 threes. They were passive and impatient offensively.
The Raptors were 9 for 11 from the free-throw line. The Lakers went 26 for 28 from the line. When you’ve covered enough basketball, you know that’s generally a recipe for defeat.
“All game, we preached ‘Attack the rim, attack the rim,’ ” Casey said. “You get seduced into that game, shooting quick threes. It’s easy to do. Again, we didn’t get into our defensive focus all afternoon.”
Casey said things might have come too easy for his team early in the game. When the Raptors blew out to those big leads, they seemed to expect L.A. to quit. But no way the Lakers were going to pack it in with Bryant sitting there in street clothes.
Maybe they can learn a lesson from this. It’s one thing to get on a roll in December. But in the playoffs, nothing is given to you. You need to prove yourself over 48 minutes, as it becomes more of a physical, inside game, a battle of attrition and will.
“Yeah, we learn something from every game,” said Lowry, who had 21 points and nine assists and is making a strong case for the All-Star team. “Every single time we step on the floor – practice, games – we want to be able to learn.
“That’s what this league is about,” he said, “getting better and showing improvement.”
One game isn’t going to ruin the good feeling around Toronto’s pro hoop team. They’re not tanking for a high draft pick, after all. They’re fighting for home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs.