• Raptors still aren’t in the clear despite win
• Lowry’s minutes have significantly increased since DeRozan’s injury
• Backup point guard becoming a major question
BROOKLYN, N.Y. – As the storm clouds gather over the good ship Toronto Raptor, this was the equivalent of a momentary break in the weather, a much-needed ray of sunshine.
The Brooklyn Nets (9-42) are to the NBA schedule what the Statue of Liberty — “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses” – purports the United States to be: a safe harbour for those in need.
But the Raptors (31-21) are a long way from shore yet. Monday night they play the Los Angeles Clippers at the Air Canada Centre and they will tip that one off in fourth place in the Eastern Conference – a half-game up of fifth-place Atlanta, trailing the red-hot Washington Wizards (14-4 since Jan. 1) by one in the loss column while trailing the nearly-as-hot Boston Celtics (winners of seven straight) by two-and-a-half games for second place in the East.
Their best player is putting in unsustainable minutes just as his most trusted backup, Cory Joseph, has been inexplicably benched in favour of an undrafted, unproven rookie.
It’s getting weird.
The Raptors got their much-needed win 103-95 and they did it without DeMar DeRozan, who missed his seventh game in the last eight with a wonky ankle, and Patrick Patterson, who missed his 11th game in the past 20.
It marked the 17th time in 20 games they’ve been without either DeRozan or Patterson and the win improved them to 8-9 in those outings. So that’s something.
And judging by the way DeRozan was moving in his pre-game workout it seems like a reasonable bet that he’ll be back in the lineup Monday night. And while the Raptors haven’t sounded any alarms on Patterson, given this is the second time he has had a setback since straining his knee after Christmas, it seems likely the pending free agent might err on the side of caution from here on in.
Even with the win, Toronto has lost eight of its past 11 and there is plenty to be concerned about as the idea of catching Cleveland has given way to trying to hang onto home court in the first round.
Top of the list should be that the Raptors needed 39 minutes and a triple-double – 15 points, 11 rebound and 11 assists – from Lowry to keep the Nets on the mat.
Brooklyn was trying to gift the game to Toronto – they committed 16 of their 22 turnovers in the first half, yielding a total of 25 points – but the Raptors didn’t put it away until Lowry engineered a quick 6-2 spurt in the space of 1:20 late in the fourth quarter that pushed Toronto’s lead to 10 with 3:40 left. During that stretch, Lowry got his 10th rebound and found Jonas Valanciunas (22 points) for an alley-oop; got fouled and made both his free throws and then created a layup for a hard-cutting DeMarre Carroll (15 points).
He was playing after fighting through a cold/flu, but didn’t look it.
“Amazing. He’s amazing,” said Raptors rookie point guard Fred VanVleet. “That’s why he’s an all-star. He wasn’t feeling very good after the Orlando game. None of us were. But I think he had a little extra sickness to him. We texted a little bit yesterday – get mentally right, physically right. We need him at his best for us to be successful and I think he showed it today.”
But how long can Lowry stay at his best under this workload?
Lowry’s minutes are skyrocketing in the absence of DeRozan. In Toronto’s last eight games he’s averaging 40.4 minutes, most in the NBA. He also leads the NBA in minutes per game on the season with 37.7.
It’s not affecting his performance, but there are 30 games left. Raptors fans remember the slippage in his game later in the year after his workload grew when DeRozan was hurt for six weeks early in the 2014-15 campaign.
Sitting in the dressing room, his feet and ankles bathing in a bucket of ice water, Lowry claims that the burden isn’t something he can’t handle.
“I play basketball for this. I’m blessed,” said Lowry. “I’m fortunate to be able to come out here and play basketball. I get to play basketball. I get to hang out with great people. I get to meet great people. I get to put smiles on kids’ faces. It’s just a fun thing to do. It’s a part of the game. You’re going to get injured. You’re going to get hurt. It’s the ways you find to get through it. I’m always going to find ways to get through it.”
Does he like the fact he’s heading for a career-high in minutes played?
“Man, I want to chill. What you think? I want to hang out. I want to relax. I want to clap with my teammates. My job is to play. When I’m needed, I’m going to be there. If I’m not needed, I’ll sit on the bench.”
The way Raptors head coach Dwane Casey has used his bench the last couple of games has raised some eyebrows as one-time Casey stalwart Cory Joseph didn’t play a minute, this after sitting all of the first half against Orlando on Friday. His spot in the rotation seems to have been taken by VanVleet for the moment.
It’s a significant departure for Casey in how he handles players who are well-established in his rotation. Last season, his first in Toronto, Joseph played in 80 of 82 games while racking up a career-high 25.6 minutes per. Sunday against Brooklyn is the first time Joseph didn’t play as a Raptor for reasons other than rest.
The team has struggled with Joseph on the floor of late. In his past 10 games prior to Sunday, his offensive rating is a meagre 92.7 per 100 possessions while his defensive rating is 110.1. His net rating of -17.5 is 373rd out of 388 players who have averaged at least 15 minutes a game and played at least five games in that span.
Parsing an individual’s impact on team numbers can be tricky, especially defensively, but if there’s a formal explanation for Joseph’s benching, he hasn’t heard it. “Don’t need [to hear it],” said Joseph. “I’m a professional. I come here and work every day. I don’t control that. I control what I can control. After the game I went and got my workout in. Did my stuff to keep ready, keep in shape, keep tuned. That’s it. That’s what I do.”
VanVleet has played reasonably well – he had four assists in 20 minutes but shot 2-of-10, missing all three of his triples and struggling to finish in the lane against taller defenders.
“He’s a midget, so he goes out there and gets under people,” said Lowry of VanVleet, who stands about 5-10. “He’s that change of pace. He hesitates. He gets to the rim. He’s just got to learn once he gets to the basket, he can’t finish over every guy. I had to learn that, too.”
The bigger question is what to read into Casey’s decision to step away from Joseph. “Cory’s not in the doghouse,” said Casey. “It’s a situation where you can only play so many guys … He’s always played well in practice, he’s done well with our D-League team, the 905s. He’s a very talented point guard and we wanted to give him a look.”
With the Feb. 23rd trade deadline approaching and the Raptors seemingly needing some kind of boost, Joseph’s contract – he has two years and $14.9-million left on his deal after this season, with a player option at $8-million after that – could be useful in a deal. But before going that route it makes sense that the Raptors would want to see if either VanVleet or Delon Wright – who didn’t play on the weekend — can be trusted with the 20-plus minutes that Joseph has handled.
Or it could just be that this is a tough-love measure by Casey and the organization to push Joseph to find an extra gear if he has it.
In either case, the Raptors got the win they needed and the Nets were compliant enough to give them.
But they as they jumped on their plane and headed for home and Super Bowl parties, temporarily warmed by the Nets hospitality, there were more questions about their short-term direction than ever.