Raptors’ Casey proving he belongs in Coach of the Year race

Dwane Casey is proving he belongs in the discussion for Coach of the Year. (Carlos Osorio/AP)

The Toronto Raptors took a break from game action on Friday after a big victory over the Atlanta Hawks. Here are some of the latest rumblings from practice:

Carroll Comeback?
There were some rumblings that DeMarre Carroll’s return is imminent. The small forward and prized free-agent acquisition has been out of the lineup since Dec. 5th after undergoing arthroscopic knee surgery.

Head coach Dwane Casey set the record straight.

“He just went for a checkup yesterday. We’re still waiting for clearance,” Casey said. “He is still working. There is no timetable set as far as he is concerned. So we’ll let everybody know when that happens.”

Filling The Void
Casey is riding the reserves he has at his disposal and isn’t holding his breath waiting for Carroll’s return.

“It’s tough because he’s the guy we brought in,” Casey said. “Again, my thing is mixing it up. Norm [Powell] and James [Johnson] have done an excellent job accepting that role of the glue guy depending on the matchups.”

Which is why Casey deserves to be in the Coach of the Year discussion. If you told me that Johnson would start more games (27) than Carroll would even play in (23), I’d assume the Raptors would be fighting to make the playoffs. If we said in the pre-season the Raptors would be utilizing a second-round draft pick in Powell as a starter to guard one of the best three-point shooters in the history of the NBA in Kyle Korver, you’d say the Raptors are in trouble, if not tanking. Instead, they are on pace to break the franchise record for wins for the third consecutive season.

Masters Degree
Casey credits Powell’s longer-than-average time as a student athlete for why he’s a quick study as a pro.

“We’re so used to college guys coming out after their first year. He’s a four-year guy, so he is mature,” Casey said about his young pupil.

The point is a good one when you consider the 22-year-old Powell is only a year younger than Jonas Valanciunas, who has been a starter for the better part of the last four years. That maturity level is the reason Casey trusts him to start while the team is playing meaningful games down the stretch.

“He’s a disciplined young man,” Casey said. “That’s what helps us so much with his play is his discipline, his attention to detail. Being where you’re supposed to be, not taking possessions off. If he makes a mistake it’s a hard mistake.”

Sikma Centre of Attention
Jack Sikma was in town once again to work with Valanciunas on the finer arts of playing in the post. A seven-time all-star, Sikma comes to Toronto periodically to give JV a crash course on banging down low. Sikma, whose number was retired by the SuperSonics, has a connection with Casey from Seattle, where Casey once coached and still lives in the off-season.

Valanciunas welcomes the opportunity to work with the NBA legend.

“Every minute we’re working on something,” Valanciunas said. “It’s going to pay off. I think it’s good to have him here to work with me.”

Shooting, particularly from the free-throw line, is a point of emphasis. Sikma once led the NBA in free-throw shooting with a 92 per cent clip as a centre. Valanciunas shoots it well out of the five spot, never hitting less than 75 per cent of his attempts to this point in his young NBA career. That’s a big reason why he can play offensively in the fourth, as he won’t be caught up in the hack-a-centre phenomenon that has swept across the league.

The Biyombo Effect
The other aspect that has pushed Valanciunas is playing in front of Bismack Biyombo. Casey loves what his backup centre has done for his starter.

“He’s been a great mentor for JV,” Casey said. “A great example for JV to watch, to listen to, to see what he says and how he says it and Biz’s reactions to help-side defence.”

Valanciunas enjoys the competition.

“When you see somebody doing good, you want to be better,” Valanciunas said of Biyombo. “He’s motivating me every day to work hard to go in the right direction. He’s a great guy, great defender. He gives us energy on the defensive end.”

Although Valanciunas has made great strides for now, you’ll still continue to see Biyombo when the Raptors need a stop.

“Biz is an elite defender. If you ask any coach in the league, they’d say Biz is an elite defender,” Casey said. “So JV has a ways to catch him but he’s getting there. He’s communicating, he’s talking, he’s moving his feet.”

Off-hand, Casey said Biyombo has probably won the Raptors four or five games on the defensive end. Biyombo is fourth in the league with 3.3 blocks per 48 minutes to go along with a career-best 2.3 defensive win shares. Even with the strong stats, Casey did offer that the defensive analytics don’t do Biyombo justice.

Despite his exceptional defence as an individual, Biyombo is worried about the team’s defensive numbers as a whole.

“Down the stretch, the idea is to find a way to keep a team under 100 points,” Biyombo said. “If we keep any team under 100 points, we give ourselves a chance to win the game. I think now there are just over 20 teams in the NBA scoring over 100 points. I read this is the first time in many years in the NBA.”

He’s right to fixate on the number. Biyombo is right, as 22 teams in the 30-team league are scoring over 100 points per game. However, only seven squads keep their opponents from scoring 100 points a night and the Raptors are one of them, giving up 98.3 on average. San Antonio, Cleveland and Atlanta are the only teams that average over 100 points scored and under 100 points against. The Raptors are 34-3 when keeping their opponents under 100 points scored, winning their last 29 when their opponent is under the century mark.