TORONTO — They’re going to need some help. Together Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan take more than 40 per cent of the Toronto Raptors’ shots and, as one of the most prolific duos in the NBA, account for 44 per cent of the team’s scoring.
But as the Raptors begin to fine-tune their approach for a playoff run, their success will likely lie in how much support Lowry and DeRozan can get from their teammates.
Not that they will cease being what Dwane Casey calls the hub of their offence — the top-rated attack in the NBA since the all-star break, averaging 114 points per 100 possessions. But as the playoffs approach and the scouting reports get more detailed, minimizing the damage Lowry and DeRozan do will be at the top of the opponent’s priority list.
On Thursday night at the Air Canada Centre, slowing the Raptors’ all-stars proved, once again, easier scouted than done as the Raptors ground down the visiting Atlanta Hawks 104-96, improving Toronto to 43-20 on the season and 4-1 on their current seven-game homestand.
DeRozan was at his off-pace, herky-jerky best as he led all scorers with 30 points on 11-of-20 shooting. Lowry’s game was a little more subdued as he took just 14 shots, although his 19 points trailed only DeRozan in the Raptors box score. Lowry also added seven assists, and his backcourt steal and full-court lay-up effectively sealed the game as it gave Toronto a 12-point lead with just over two minutes to play.
It was a performance more impressive given that the Hawks came to the ACC as the Raptors’ polar opposites. While Toronto has been thriving offensively and struggling defensively, the Hawks have been on lockdown, allowing just 94.4 points per 100 possessions — the best mark in the NBA. The No. 5 seed in the East has held opponents to 40.1 shooting over that stretch, making the 46.3 per cent the Raptors shot a little more impressive.
As DeRozan and Lowry go will dictate how the Raptors go, almost without exception, although there is hope that more help is on the way with reports that former Hawk DeMarre Carroll — out for two months after knee surgery — could be cleared for contact any day now, paving his way for a return to the lineup in a couple of weeks, theoretically.
His ability to stretch the floor should be a boon. But even on nights when Lowry and DeRozan are at or close to peak form there are still about 40 or so shots to be had. Who gets them and the quality of them could dictate the Raptors’ fortunes as the stakes rise.
The problem is that playing off such dominant talents isn’t always easy. The Raptors gave rookie Norman Powell his sixth start at small forward since Feb. 1 after failing to get off the bench in 28 of the Raptors’ 47 games prior, and playing sparingly when he did.
Casey appreciates his muscular brand of defence and Powell has no illusions about his role.
"Just be physical," he said. "Not getting caught under the screens, being available on help-side defence, either being on the nail or cracking down on baseline drives, things like that."
But the ball will find you eventually, and what then?
Again, keep it simple.
"Whether I’m a starter or coming off the bench, being a defensive player, it’s the same thing: bringing energy, doing the little things," he said. "It’s just about finding my space in the offence because the plays are run for DeMar, Kyle and [Jonas Valanciunas] so you’re trying to find openings and reading their drives and being ready for catch-and-shoot when they drive and kick."
But it’s a little unnerving finding offence and taking shots when every one you take is one that the team’s resident all-stars don’t take.
"Kyle and DeMar have done a great job [helping me find shots]," said Powell. "I don’t want to overshoot or look like I’m looking them off, but they keep telling me to be aggressive, especially if I get the rebound and push it in transition, don’t be afraid to take shots.
"DeMar’s told me multiple times he’s not going to be mad if I shoot, especially if it’s a good shot, so it’s just finding my spots, getting to those spots in the offence where I feel comfortable and taking those shots with full confidence."
Powell’s offence is nowhere near what he produced at UCLA as a senior before being drafted 46th overall by the Raptors, and while his line in the D-League with Raptors 905 — 24.9 points/5.1 rebounds/4.6 assist — proves he can produce, those options don’t exist when playing alongside two all-stars. Not for rookies taken in the second round.
More typical are opportunities like he created for himself late in the shot clock, early in the third quarter when he drove off a Luis Scola screen for his first and only basket on the night against three shot attempts.
Similar drives early in the game resulted in three assists; he had a key steal as well. In other games as a starter he’s shown flashes of being able to knock down the standstill corner three, which could make him even more valuable.
It’s about providing offence the team needs when it’s available, as opposed to offence of his choosing.
His veteran teammate Scola is in a similar boat. After a career internationally as a go-to option, with the Raptors he’s completely comfortable simply filling in the cracks. He’s had his struggles at times but he knows what he’s doing on the floor. It didn’t take him long to figure out that playing alongside DeRozan and Lowry would require him to give them as much space as possible.
The corner three he hit midway through the third quarter Thursday was his 44th of season after making just 10 threes in his previous eight years in the NBA. He found a way to generate 10 points and 12 rebounds on just seven shots.
It was an adjustment he recognized he would have to make.
"My thought is constantly, ‘how can I make them feel more comfortable?’" said Scola of his mindset when playing with Lowry and DeRozan. "What move, what cut, what position can I use for them to score the ball? And that, ironically, will give you more points.
"If you are where they want to you to be, where they feel more comfortable, you are probably going to be wide open because your man is going to have to help and if you are wide open it’s the easiest shot you’re going to get."
On Thursday night, the secondary offence came from more traditional sources. Terrence Ross and Patrick Patterson have been the Raptors’ most reliable bench scorers all season and delivered again with 12 points each. Jonas Valancuinas extended his streak of scoring in double figures to a career-best 16 games with 10 points on just five shots.
The Raptors will always live and die offensively with their “hub” of DeRozan and Lowry, and Thursday night was no different.
But as the season winds down and the playoffs heat up, finding other ways and other players to score will help the team and their mission. It’s a work in progress, but there are signs of it.