It seems like every season the Toronto Raptors hobble back from their west coast road trip a tired and beaten team.
Last season, the early Western Conference road trip was, arguably the nail in the coffin for their playoff hopes. This season, they return home after a tough western road trip tired, but not beaten.
Even the most optimistic fan would have been happy with a 3-2 record on this trip, so 2-3 isn’t bad considering the quality of their opponents. But this trip came at such a crucial time in Toronto’s schedule because the next 10 to 15 games could decide the playoff fate of this team.
The Raptors will play at home for the last two games before the All-star break and play eight out of their next 10 at the ACC. Of those next ten games, six of them are against conference rivals that they will be battling for position in the Eastern Conference playoff picture.
It is important for Toronto to be healthy and ready for those games.
For the first time this season the team is looking a little worse for wear. Amir Johnson and DeMar DeRozan are fighting nagging injuries. Kyle Lowry has been bothered by a knee issue lately and the team is coming off a long road trip.
Late nights, time zone changes and lots of flying can take its toll on a team at this stage in the season, especially a young one, but the Raptors need to fight through this rough patch. The next 10 games will go a long way toward deciding if they are a playoff contenders or pretenders.
The asset the Raptors have going for them right now is depth. They are a far deeper team than they were a year ago and have used this asset to their advantage since the ‘Rudy Gay trade’. Dwane Casey has used a tight nine man rotation most nights and seems very confident with this group.
As the season continues he may have to dig deeper than was originally thought. We may see a lot more of Landry Fields, Steve Novak, Julyan Stone and Chuck Hayes may be needed to take some minutes away from overworked starters.
The coaching staff may have to make moves in the starting lineup, trading Amir for Patterson or Hansborough on a given night to help keep the legs on this team fresh and ready for battle. Young players like Jonas Valanciunas and Terrence Ross have only gone through a complete NBA season once and certainly not playing the amount of minutes they are currently playing.
Rest may be needed and players that haven’t been logging very many minutes may be called into duty.
On this road trip we saw a lot more of Novak than we have in a long while. I would expect this to be something we see more of as the season wears on. He came in ready to play and played valuable minutes during the trip. Having a strong veteran presence at the end of the bench (Novak, Fields, Hayes) may become an unexpected benefit.
The Raptors have given it everything they could over the first two chapters of this season and they are in a great position because of it, but they are going to have to use every weapon available to them to finish out the stretch.
On paper, the hardest part of the season may seem to be over, but the reality is, it only gets harder from here.