Toronto Raptors Return Home for Important Stretch

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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.

Toronto Raptors Shouldn’t Rush To Offer Kyle Lowry An Extension

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Kyle Lowry is putting up all-star caliber numbers this season and he has been the best player on the Toronto Raptors all season, but why rush to sign him to a contract extension after a couple of good months?

Last year was a rocky year to say the least for Lowry as he butted heads with head coach Dwane Casey and suffered through injury issues. He was anointed the savior of the team when Bryan Colangelo traded for him two summers ago only average 11.6 points while shooting 40% from the field last season while being limited to playing in only 68 games.

Sure, there was a meeting of the minds at the beginning of the season that gave Lowry a fresh new perspective, but there’s also the chance that this is a typical career year from a player in a contract year.

While fans and some members of the media are currently urging the front office to give Lowry an extension, there’s something to be said for waiting to see what the market dictates this summer.

The fact that few general managers were willing to offer up fair value for Lowry when Masai Ujiri floated him as being available is a sign that Lowry may not fetch the kind of contract he expects this summer.

The other warning flag for Lowry is that coaches around the NBA have labeled him as bristly as shown by their lack of votes for the all-star game. Granted, he still almost nudged out Joe Johnson, but it should have been Lowry’s spot if it was based just on performance.

Another thing to consider is Toronto will be flush with cash this summer if they don’t pick up the qualifying offers for Greivis Vasques and Patrick Patterson while paying John Salmons close to $1 million to not pick up his option next summer. If that happens the team will have under $35 million locked into salaries next season and they can make a move for a free agent point guard like Eric Bledsoe, Lance Stephenson, or Mario Chalmers.

Or, if they can’t sign a point guard, they will have the ability to trade for one, which will probably be their best option if they can’t retain Lowry.

Regardless, signing Lowry to a contract extension right now isn’t prudent. The Raptors would be best served by seeing how the next few months shake out on the court and then letting the market dictate how much he’s worth this summer.

Mental Lapses Have Been Costly For Toronto

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The Toronto Raptors’ Achilles heel so far this season has been their inability to play consistently for 48 minutes.

Toronto was an impressive 11-6 in January but their schedule is littered with examples of the team not playing consistently for four quarters.

Against the Brooklyn Nets they nearly choked away a nine point lead late in the fourth quarter after letting the Nets go on a 12-2 run. It took a last second steal and bucket by Patrick Patterson to steal a win back from the clutches of the Nets.

Another big collapse came against Los Angeles last weekend when they raced out to a 50-31 lead only to see it evaporate and the game end in a tough loss.

There were games against Dallas (15 points) and Charlotte (11 points) where anemic first quarters created huge deficits that were too tough to climb out of. They were lucky to steal a win against Dallas but the hole they dug against Charlotte was too large to overcome.

If that trend continues it will result in the team enduring some painful growing pains and probably a quick and embarrassing ouster from the playoffs.

“It’s difficult because the only way you learn is through experience,” Casey admitted to me before the game against Orlando. “I can threaten them but I can’t hit them. Guys just need to learn through experience.

“Again, we are doing much better. Our starts have been fantastic. I thought our start against Brooklyn was fantastic and the couple of starts before that game had been good. We’ve had that focus so we just don’t want to let it creep up again.”

Toronto started the game against Orlando perfectly as they raced to a 19-9 lead before Orlando called timeout. They were swinging the ball to open teammates, hitting open looks and forcing Orlando into bad shots. The only time they let up was in the third quarter when Orlando crept to within eight points at 61-53. Toronto was quick to squash that rally and coast to an easy win.

In the first half against Denver this weekend neither team wanted to play defense and it resulted in a high scoring first half. Toronto came out inspired in the third quarter and applied defensive pressure which resulted in a 26-17 advantage in the quarter.

The fourth quarter started out strong only to see Toronto unable to make a field goal for six minutes and barely put the ball in the basket over the last seven minutes of play. They limped to the end of the game – fatigue from playing in Denver? – and only scored 14 points in the fourth quarter.

Playing against a talented Portland Trail Blazers squad this weekend they dug themselves into too deep of a hole so that a fun fourth quarter rally couldn’t help them steal a road win.

Toronto shouldn’t think they are good enough to east into a road game (Portland jumped out to a 35-19 advantage) and then steal a road win against one of the top teams in the NBA.

Tired legs from a game in Denver the night before isn’t a valid excuse either.

Against playoff caliber teams Toronto can’t coast for a quarter or start games slowly. If they do, they will be quickly ushered out of the playoffs in April.

Ross Continues To Grow As A Defender

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Scoring 51 points will grab all the headlines, but watching Terrence Ross grow as a defender this month has been equally captivating.

Earlier this month Ross held MVP candidate Paul George to 5-14 shooting and 12 points. Tonight he followed up his personal scoring binge on the weekend by holding potential all-star Arron Afflalo well below his 20.2 scoring average to 10 points on 4-11 shooting from the field.

Heady stuff, but not enough for Dwane Casey to call Ross a lock-down defender just yet.

“He has improved, but I wouldn’t say he shut down (those guys),” Casey told me while smirking. “That’s a strong word in this league. You just mentioned Afflalo and Paul George and they get tweets, too.”

While the term lock down defender may be a bit premature, Casey was quick to admit Ross has made huge strides on the defensive end.

“But again, he has done a heck of a job growing as a defender,” Casey added. “He takes pride in it. One thing you don’t realize is how long he is and he challenges shots. He’s athletic and he uses it in a great way when he’s defending. I wouldn’t say he’s a shut down guy for us yet, but he’s doing a heck of a job for us.”

After the game the mob of media members that swarmed Ross after he scored 51 points was narrowed just to me and I was able to pick his brain about growing as a defender this year.

“It feels good,” Ross admitted to me. “It gives me incentive to keep working at it because there are always guys I have trouble guarding. At the same time, it’s a good feeling to know you can change the way an offensive player thinks and scores.”

If chicks love the long ball, they also love the 50 point scorers, but not necessarily the gritty defenders. Just like the media realizes writing about a gritty defender won’t necessarily result in pageviews.

Ross is quick to take pride in his growth as a defender, and he realizes probably the main reason for his additional playing time is due to his impact on the defensive end of the court.

Besides, it’s not like Ross is clamoring for additional attention from the media or the ladies.

Casey On Recent Struggles of Valanciunas

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“JV is gonna’ be fine. He’s done nothing wrong. Again, there were so many expectations on the young man. Everybody was expecting him to be the next great center right now and he’s not there. He’s going to be some day, but right now he’s still growing and enduring growing pains. He’s facing some great centres. Tonight he’s facing DeAndre Jordan who is one of the more athletic centres he is going to go against. Earlier this week he faced one of the tougher post-up guys in Al Jefferson. So he’s had his hands full the last couple of weeks and it’s nothing he’s done wrong. I think it’s more just who he has gone against in the last week or so.”

Dwane Casey on the recent struggles of Jonas Valanciunas