TORONTO -- The Rudy Gay era in Toronto started with a bang. He came off the bench to a huge ovation on Friday night and scored his first Raptors field goal on a halfcourt alley-oop from DeMar DeRozan. About two minutes later, the two swingmen on the break again, Gay caught another lob pass from DeRozan and slammed it home.
In the 98-73 win over the Los Angeles Clippers, Gay finished with a game-high 20 points and called DeRozan, who finished with 19 and seven assists, "by far the best two guard I've ever played with" after the game.
Since neither is known as a three-point marksman or a deft distributor, they're trying to prove the point that they can not just co-exist but make one another better and take Toronto to another level. This was not exactly the consensus among critics after the Raptors acquired Gay for Jose Calderon and Ed Davis
While the Clippers have one of the best records in the league, they were missing Chris Paul and Matt Barnes and came out flat. Toronto's matchup with Miami on Sunday was more of a test. With superstars LeBron James and Dwyane Wade on the wing, they play the type of swarming defense that can disrupt even the game's savviest scorers when engaged.
Gay and DeRozan combined for 56 points on Sunday. If it was a test, they passed it.
"I mean, I don't know who thinks it's a problem," DeRozan said, a day after speaking to Sportsnet about how his development as a playmaker will help make this tandem tough. "With everybody, we just want to win. You get five guys out there on the court and want to win, you don't worry about what everybody got to say -- if it's going to work, if it's not going to work. We're smart enough to figure it out."
DeRozan made all 14 of his free throw attempts en route to 27 points, including a 10-point first quarter. Gay shot 6-for-8 from the field in his 16-point second quarter and 11-for-23 in the game for a team-high 29, more than he scored in any game this season with the Memphis Grizzlies. The Raptors lost 100-85 to the Heat, but the final score makes it sound worse than it was -- the perimeter pair put pressure on the defending champions and Toronto was down three points with four minutes to go.
"Boy," said Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra, shaking his head and searching for the words to describe how Gay changed the team. "I'll just tell you what: they did a nice job. They've done a nice job with this team and they've built in an identity ... They put a tremendous amount of pressure on you with that athleticism. You don't face a lot of teams that can match us athletically and arguably beat us at times at certain positions."
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Before the trade to Toronto, Gay was in the midst of the least efficient season of his career. Beyond all that comes with trade rumors and knowing your team wants to shed your salary, Memphis' offense was stagnant and Gay didn't have a lot of driving lanes or transition opportunities.
"[Memphis] was a post team," Gay said. "That's what coach wanted us [to do]. We had two great players down there. That's how he wanted to play."
Gay said he definitely feels more freedom in Toronto and, with more games than practices under his belt, he is working on getting comfortable.
"Memphis [was] definitely a different situation for me," he said. "In being here, the floor is more spread and I can do more things. I can become more of a playmaker, just have to find out where people are going to be at different times."
Spoelstra said that the Raptors' roster construction should benefit DeRozan. With Gay by his side and point guard Kyle Lowry presumably pushing the pace, it puts him in the position to prosper.
"You get that many players that play fast, play quick, play to his strengths, it naturally only helps," Spoelstra said. "His confidence has grown over the years as his role as has grown. He's proven that he can be very effective with his athleticism."
"I think one thing about DeRozan which is great is that you have a player who is so talented like that, but he doesn't really do things outside what the team wants," Wade said. "He plays within what the team is doing and he makes a big impact on the game. Obviously he's getting better. He's a young guy with so much talent. I've seen that from when he was a rookie, the first time I played him. The sky is the limit for guys like that with so much talent. It's all about confidence and opportunity for someone like him with all of that talent."
While any assessment of the 23-year-old DeRozan should surely mention his tireless work ethic and the potential for his game to keep growing, it's not the same for Gay in his seventh season. There's an argument that the 26-year-old Gay is who he is, though Miami forward Shane Battier believes Gay still has a lot of upside.
"He's one of the great young small forwards in the league," Battier said. "He's still learning and getting better. And I think for Toronto it gives them a franchise player that will take big shots down the stretch and I think that's what was lacking on their roster before. It makes their lineup really athletic. They're as athletic of a team [as there is] in the league."
Rudy Gay blocks LeBron James on Sunday.
The challenge for Casey is to harness the athleticism. The Raptors have played well in Gay's first two games, but they haven't played faster. Against the Heat, they managed just four fast break points.
While Casey has spoken of Gay's length and experience as assets defensively, it's hard to know how much he'll make a difference for a team that's disappointed on defense all season long. The shorthanded Clippers couldn't buy a basket, then the Heat -- the third-best offensive team in the league -- had a 56-point second half. The hope is that Gay's teammates will adjust to him more than opponents will adjust to the new-look team.
"As Rudy gets more comfortable and as they get more comfortable with him as a player, man," Wade said. "Rudy is a very good player. He's a guy who can get his shot off at any point. He does a good job of mixing it up inside-outside and they're getting even more athletic. This team right here is one of those teams that's going to continue to get better. Especially if they get their confidence going in the second half of the season. It'll be tough for the next time we play them. We'll have to come with our hard hats again."
"You can't judge a trade after two games, obviously," Battier said. "Time will tell whether it was a positive or negative trade. Dwane Casey's a good coach, he'll figure out a way to utilize their talents. Every team's different, every team is different."
The Raptors have certainly looked different with this wing tandem. These returns are extremely early, but they're encouraging.