Here are 10 random Toronto Raptors thoughts for a Tuesday afternoon:
1) The Raptors need DeMar DeRozan back—ASAP. But if he doesn’t make his return to the lineup on Wednesday against Philadelphia, do you bring him back in a tough game against the East’s top seed (Atlanta) on Friday night? Or on a back-to-back on Sunday-Monday against New Orleans and Milwaukee?
2) Kyle Lowry will be in the All-Star Game, period. There’s absolutely no chance the coaches leave him off the East roster. Whether he starts or not is the only question.
3) Lowry is showing some signs of slowing down a bit—and why wouldn’t he? He’s been carrying a ton of the load during DeRozan’s absence and Dwane Casey has even admitted that his point guard has logged some heavy minutes a few too many times.
4) Monday night was a blip for Lowry. Granted, his percentages have been down in a number of games of late (probably because teams are zeroing-in on him that much more and fatigue is setting in—as highlighted above) but the nights where he is 0'fer heading into the final frame will be few and far between. In fact, I'll bet it doesn't happen again this season.
5) The No. 1 issue surrounding this team is the defence. Until the D improves, the team won't improve. Even if the win totals start to rise again, Casey and Co. won't truly be back on track until the defensive mindset and approach from (most of) last season and the early part of this season is found and embraced.
6) James Johnson is making a strong case to stick in the starting lineup even when DeRozan returns. Casey could put DeRozan next to Lowry in the backcourt, and roll with Johnson, Amir Johnson and Jonas Valanciunas up front. Johnson has proven to be one of Toronto's better defenders and he's not going to back down, physically, from any player or matchup. Offensively, he's no longer a guy who's trying to prove he can shoot—at least not anywhere/everywhere. He has recognized what his greatest asset is: driving to the hoop. And he has not only shown a solid ability to finish around the rim (or throw down some ridiculously nasty dunks as well) but his foot work has been fantastic too. Terrence Ross needs to rip a page out of Johnson's book and become more aggressive in getting to the basket. He can't always rely on long jumpers and his perimeter game.
7) For those that worry Toronto's offence might need another shooter if Ross is removed, Casey could consider a real shake-up and start Patrick Patterson ahead of Amir Johnson. I'm not advocating wholesale changes and I respect that the coach has been loath to upset the balance of one of the best second units in the NBA. However, the Raptors need to address their slow starts and their overall defence. To me, that could come with a different look to start games. Plus, I think Amir Johnson could provide some of the defence, rebounding and energy that James Johnson currently provides in a (mostly/usually) reserve role, and Ross may give Toronto the shooting-off-the-bench that Patterson currently provides as well.
8) Change or no change, the Raptors need help up front. If Masai Ujiri is looking to add a piece now or before the February trade deadline, a quality PF or C should be at the top of his list. Ideally, this player is defensive-minded with a nose for the ball on the glass. Scoring would be an added bonus but isn't a necessity.
9) On Monday, Patterson was 1-for-7 from the floor. Against Phoenix, Greivis Vasquez was 0-for-6 and in Portland Lou Williams (who has shot under 39 percent over his last 10 games) was 1-for-10. When the second unit struggles individually or as a collective unit (especially with DeRozan out) and doesn't provide the offensive lift, the Raptors are generally in trouble—no matter how good or bad their defence may be.
10) Let's be real: The Raptors are good—not great. They entered the season as the top team in the Atlantic, and they're living up to that end of the bargain. By proxy, that puts them in the top three or four in the East. But are they good enough to hang with Chicago? Cleveland? Or even Washington? Those were the questions being asked before the season started and they all still apply as we approach the midway point of the 2014–15 campaign—and most of us weren't even expecting Atlanta to be this good on top of all that.
Thus, the Raptors are what we thought they'd be: a good team that has work to do to become great; a club that is on a path towards (you hope) becoming one of the elite squads in the East. But don't mistake their hot start for a sudden quick fix to all that ailed Toronto.
This team has much to learn—and you're seeing that now, over the last couple of weeks. They're young and they're learning. By the time the post-season rolls around, hopefully they've learned enough to get through at least one round—if not more. But continuing to advance—continuing to build on last year's game 7 loss—is the most important thing. You're not going to suddenly leap into the NBA Finals as an organization. It's a slow boil. But you can't regress either.