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NBA scores 2016: These are not the same old, unreliable Raptors and 3 other things we learned

The Raptors might not be much better than they were in the past but they are certainly different in some key areas.

Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports

It's very hard to believe in the Raptors. This is a team that lost in the first round the past two postseasons despite being favored. A 111-107 January win over the Pistons won't change that. Even the fact that it's their 11th in a row is not enough to quiet the skeptics who will see them as a paper tiger, a good regular season team that might finish with the second best record in the East but won't inspire fear.

Yet there's enough evidence this season that suggests these Raptors are in fact different. Even the biggest critics should think twice before discounting a trip to the Eastern conference finals.

Skinny Kyle Lowry made news earlier in the season but the other All-Star (DeMar DeRozan) and the bench have undergone similar transformations. On a night in which Lowry struggled (4-for-15 from the field, zero assists), DeRozan showed off his improvement by scoring a tidy 29 points in 21 shots while dishing out four assists. It was by no means a standout performance but he got to the line, as he has been doing all season long, and continued to find ways to get to the rim.

DeRozan shot chart

Back up point guard Cory Joseph also stepped up, pitching in an efficient 16 points and four assists. The defensive specialist is blooming in his native Toronto and making those who doubted he would live up to his contract look foolish. With DeMarre Carroll out, he's also been playing at the wing and more than holding his own, which gives Dwane Casey a lot more lineup versatility.

Lowry wasn't the only starter to have a bad night. Jonas Valanciunas performed well on Saturday on a tough matchup against Andre Drummond but he wasn't at his best. Fortunately for the Raptors, backup center Bismack Biyombo was. He contributed 12 points, 13 rebounds and three blocks while providing his typically stout defense. He's another quiet, defensively-oriented addition that is paying off greatly and could make the difference in the playoffs in the right matchup.

The Raptors are still an isolation-heavy team, as evidenced by their 12 assists on 36 made field goals. Yet it's not enough any more to lock down on one of Lowry or DeRozan to bring their offense to a halt. They allowed the Pistons 28 three-point attempts and 107 points despite bad nights from Reggie Jackson and Andre Drummond and the absence of Ersan Ilyasova. They still rank eighth in the league in defensive rating, however, and are missing a key piece themselves in Carroll.

The Raptors are similar to the Thunder in that nothing they do in the regular season matters much. The core of Casey, Lowry, DeRozan and Valanciunas has to step up in the playoffs after two disappointments. Anything short of the conference finals could convince general manager Masai Ujiri that it's time to move on.

What's clear right now is that while some of the names are familiar, Toronto has changed. If they fail, it won't be because they refused to learn from the lessons of the past and adjust. The end result might ultimately end up being the same as it was last season, but these Raptors aren't.

3 other things we learned

The 76ers are not historically terrible anymore

It was hard to watch the 76ers stumble across the court from loss to loss at the beginning of the season. Not only were they getting beat on a nightly basis but they didn't even look like a professional team at times. Things got so bad that they brought in Mike D'Antoni to the coaching staff and Jerry Colangelo to the front office because they desperately needed some fresh perspective. It turns out that was all they needed.

Things have changed, fast. On Saturday they came back from a big deficit, pushed the defending champions to the breaking point and were only denied the chance to beat them in overtime because Harrison Barnes canned a game-winning three-pointer.

Since trading for Ish Smith on Christmas Eve, the 76ers have gone 6-11. That's not a good record but six other teams have lost more games than they have. Their net rating is also not among the bottom five any more, which means that they are not losing by much. They are not going to become a playoff squad overnight but it's definitely time to retire the jokes about how terrible they are and focus instead on the small but steady improvements they have made.

The main events keep disappointing while the undercards entertain

The first Cavaliers vs. Spurs game was good. After that, they matchups between the league's three best teams have been one-sided affairs that have not lived up to their billing. The Warriors destroyed both Cleveland and San Antonio and now the Cavaliers did the same to the Spurs. It's incredibly disappointing to have a game marked down on a calendar only for it to not be competitive by halftime.

It's a good thing league pass and regional broadcasts exist. The die-hards can go find the rush they were looking for elsewhere. Just Saturday there were four games decided in the finals seconds. Aside from Warriors-76ers, the slate had the Pacers beating the Nuggets in overtime thanks to some Monta Ellis heroics, the Pelicans getting past the Nets on a Jrue Holiday jump shot and the Wizards holding off the Rockets in Houston.

The marquee matchups haven't been good but the league always offers some fun for those who know where to look.

The Kings need DeMarcus Cousins healthy

DeMarcus Cousins suffered a scary injury during the Kings' loss to the Grizzlies. After hurting his ankle earlier in the game, he had Marc Gasol inadvertently roll into it later on. It looked serious but fortunately, it turned out to be just a sprain.

That's fantastic news for the Kings. A serious injury that would have kept Cousins out for weeks would have doomed their season. Despite losing four straight, Sacramento is still 1.5 games away from the eighth seed. The main reason why they are mediocre instead of terrible is Cousins. When he's on the court the Kings outscore opponents by two points and when he's resting they get outscored by nine points. Without Cousins available, they have lost seven of the eight games they have played this season.

If Cousins needs rest to heal, obviously the Kings should keep him out. As soon as he can play, however, they need him back or their season will be over.

Play of the night

LeBron James chase-down blocks never get old

Poor Manu. He never saw it coming.

6 fun things

Andrew Bogut hit Steph Curry in stride with a halfcourt bounce pass.

The Cavaliers' Soul Train parody video is amazing.

ESPN's new glowing three-point line technology looks pretty good.

LeBron wore the wrong shorts, so he had to go change mid-game.

Gregg Popovich knows he has to answer just two questions, ESPN. Never try to ask a third.

Drake did some play-by-play for the Raptors and he already has a catchphrase. The guy is a natural.

Final scores

Warriors 108, 76ers 105 (Golden State of Mind recapLiberty Ballers recap)

Raptors 111, Pistons 107 (Raptors HQ recapDetroit Bad Boys recap)

Pacers 109, Nuggets 105 (Indy Cornrows recap Denver Stiffs recap)

Pelicans 105, Nets 103 (The Bird Writes recapNets Daily recap)

Wizards 123, Rockets 122 (Bullets Forever recapThe Dream Shake recap)

Grizzlies 121, Kings 117 (Grizzly Bear Blues recap Sactown Royalty recap)

Cavaliers 117, Spurs 103 (Fear the Sword recap Pounding the Rock recap)