Raptors starting to believe

Raptors guard DeMar DeRozan drives for a layup past Nets forward Kris Humphries (centre) and guard...

Raptors guard DeMar DeRozan drives for a layup past Nets forward Kris Humphries (centre) and guard Anthony Morrow at the Prudential Center in Newark, N.J., Jan. 29, 2012. (RAY STUBBLEBINE/Reuters)

MIKE GANTER, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 7:16 PM ET

TORONTO - Eleven days ago the Raptors headed to the west coast for the one and only time this season.

They left with an injured Andrea Bargnani in tow, and a burdensome seven-game losing streak on their shoulders.

They returned Monday to a rare and unexpected day off. Normally, they would have practised.

It’s as good a sign as any that this team is making progress.

Dwane Casey doesn’t give away practice days, especially this season, without good reason.

A 3-2 record on this road trip, combined with the toll it took on his team were reasons enough.

Consider Monday’s off day part reward, part survival maintenance.

The trip they just finished had a little bit of everything.

Bargnani returned and left the lineup again for another indeterminate period of time on the trip. The left calf that he strained Jan. 11 in Toronto was re-strained Jan. 25 in Utah after just two games back in the lineup.

Bargnani’s story line dominated almost all of the 10 days the Raptors were away. When he wasn’t playing the story was about when he would.

When he did play the story was how much better they were with him in the lineup.

When he went down again the story was how they would survive without him.

But now the key for the Raptors, until Bargnani returns, is all about distancing themselves from their leading scorer.

We’re not suggesting the team cut ties with the Italian. Just that the less they think about and dwell on his absence, the better this team will fare without him.

They proved it Sunday night in New Jersey in the fifth and final game of the trip.

The game was the polar opposite to the first game after Bargnani’s calf relapse.

In that first game sans Bargnani in Denver, it looked like, and it certainly felt this way to Casey, that the team had already determined before the game there was no chance they could win and then played that way.

Casey pointed it out in as direct and no-nonsense a way as he could.

Then Sunday in Newark facing a Nets team that had just come off a successful 2-1 road trip of their own that included a victory over the red-hot Philadelphia 76ers, the Raptors proved to themselves it was possible to win without Bargnani.

As it turned out they won without Leandro Barbosa as well, a last-minute scratch from the lineup after a sore left ankle left him unable to do the kind of sudden stops and turns that make him the scoring threat that he is on the basketball court.

A well devised plan of attack for the Nets saw Jerryd Bayless promoted to the starting lineup. He was the designated Deron Williams stopper and the strategy worked. Bayless played inside Williams’ jersey for most of the night giving the talented Nets point guard little space and nothing easy.

Williams still finished with 24 points but the victory was complete when Nets coach Avery Johnson waved the white flag, sitting Williams down for the final 4:19 of the game and letting one-time Raptor Sundiata Gaines finish the game at the point.

While the result was nice, it wasn’t the most important thing about the evening for the Raptors.

The most important part of the evening was the Raptors proved to themselves that as important as Bargnani is to their long-term success, they can achieve wins without him.

Until Sunday the team was winless in the seven games its leading scorer was out of uniform.

There hasn’t been, and likely won’t be any timetable put on a Bargnani return. All we have to go on is what Bargnani said in the immediate aftermath of the latest injury.

“Yeah, this one is bad,” Bargnani said. “I won’t know officially until we do the MRI, but I’m going to be out for a little while.”

Two days later in Denver, Bargnani was no more optimistic.

That sounds more long term than short term, further underlining the importance of what the team did in Newark.

“We need games like this,” DeMar DeRozan said after the win over New Jersey. “We need games like this to build our confidence. We have to understand (Bargnani) is out for a while. We have to understand how to play with each other, How to share the ball and how to use each other. Once we get that down pat we’ll have a lot of games like we had (Sunday).”

As for that starting five the Raptors put on the floor, Casey isn’t sure he’ll go right back to it yet, but he sounds like a coach ready and willing to try anything to keep the effort level and belief level on his team as high as possible.

“I would like to have Andrea healthy and Leandro healthy,” Casey said when he asked if he would stay with the lineup he used in Newark. “I would much rather have those guys healthy but, we have to go with who we have. I don’t know if we’ll go with that same lineup again. A lot will be determined by who we play and the matchups.”

mike.ganter@sunmedia.ca


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