Casey facing tough balancing act as Raptors cruise towards playoffs

Jonas Valanciunas scored 25 points and Toronto Raptors defeated the Detroit Pistons for their 59th win of the season.

DETROIT — The balancing act currently facing Dwane Casey and the Toronto Raptors is a delicate one. The head coach is on record — again and again and again — as vehemently against the over-resting of players down the stretch. Keep an important player out of action for too long, and maybe he gets stale. Maybe he loses his rhythm. Maybe the playoffs begin and he’s still accelerating while everyone else is at full sprint.

But where’s the line? For the locked-into-first-place Raptors, these remaining regular season games are hollow. Toronto’s playing out the string. Push an important player too far in a meaningless game, and maybe he burns through too much fuel. Maybe he’s only piling up excess fatigue at the end of a six-month season. Maybe he isn’t feeling as fresh as he could come the playoffs or, even worse, gets injured.

Then there’s the matter of a 60-win season, something the Raptors would very much like to accomplish, but something that also requires them to not lose again before the playoffs begin. Generally, you need your best players on the floor in order to not lose games. And, generally, your best players also happen to be the ones who would most benefit from rest. It’s a lot of plates to keep spinning.

“It’s important. You don’t want to run up guys’s minutes. You want to make sure you preserve some energy,” Casey said, before his team took down the Detroit Pistons, 108-98, winning for a 59th time in their penultimate regular season game. “But I think there’s a very thin line between rust and rest in our league. It takes a special type of player to sit out multiple games and come back and have the same rhythm as before he went out.”

Ultimately, Casey has opted to stay the course. DeMar DeRozan logged 28 minutes Monday night, Kyle Lowry played 26, and Jonas Valanciunas saw 25 — each approaching, and in Valanciunas’s case exceeding, their season averages.

And, hey, it was fine. Everyone played well, no one got hurt, and the Raptors inched within a game of the first 60-win campaign in franchise history. And, had the Raptors not been up so comfortably in the fourth quarter, you might have seen that trio log even more minutes.

“We were trying to win a game,” Casey said afterwards. “If we had to put Kyle and DeMar back in, we would have.”

The Raptors are in an interesting spot. None of their results between now and the end of the season will make a difference come the beginning of the playoffs this weekend. And due to the parity at the bottom of the Eastern Conference standings, the club won’t even know who they’ll play in the first round until Wednesday.

That means the Raptors are currently scouting and preparing for three separate teams — the Washington Wizards, Milwaukee Bucks and Miami Heat. It’s most likely the Raptors will play Washington, while Milwaukee has an outside chance of finishing eighth, and a long series of variables need to play out to set up a clash with Miami.

But a professional basketball franchise must complete its due diligence for all scenarios, which is leading to some late nights for Toronto’s coaching staff and scouts.

“It’s exciting for the fans,” Casey said. “But it makes the coaches nervous.”

The Raptors themselves could have an effect on the race when they play in Miami Wednesday, with a Heat win or loss potentially proving pivotal. Casey wants to play all of his regulars in that contest, but isn’t planning to tempt the basketball gods by trying to sway the result to influence his team’s first round opponent.

“I’ve seen over the years teams that try to manipulate that — you get what you ask for,” Casey said. “In our league, karma is amazing. If you don’t do things with a pure heart and a pure mind and approach a game the right way, good things normally don’t happen.”

Monday, of course, was a different story. The Raptors rested Serge Ibaka, while Fred VanVleet (lower back tightness) and Lucas Nogueira (left hamstring tightness) also sat out for precautionary reasons after they each left Sunday’s win over the Orlando Magic with minor injuries.

Nogueira went for an MRI that returned negative, but the Raptors aren’t looking to push any players nursing injury at the moment. That’s especially true of VanVleet, who would be playing if Toronto’s games currently meant anything. The sophomore guard is a critical rotation piece for the Raptors, and features in Toronto’s four most effective lineups per net rating.

“We wouldn’t want to risk it right now with playoffs coming up,” Casey said. “He’s a valuable piece to the second unit.”

Reinforcements arrived in the form of Raptors 905 mainstays Lorenzo Brown, Malcolm Miller, and Alfonzo McKinnie, who all joined the Raptors proper in Detroit. Each of those three played north of 30 minutes in the first game of the G League Final Sunday night, and will return to the 905 for Game 2 on Tuesday, making it three games in three nights in three cities.

That grind will be particularly demanding for Brown, who played nearly 25 minutes Monday, finishing with 11 points and five rebounds. Such is life on the fringes of the roster.

“I was real proud of the way Lorenzo came in,” Casey said. “He did a heck of a job. It’s a credit to our organization and our G League team.”

The Pistons were without several regulars themselves, as Andre Drummond, Blake Griffin, Reggie Bullock, and Jon Leuer all sat out. That the basketball played was loose, free flowing, and at times disorganized should come as little surprise.

To that end, neither team brought much defensive pluck to the first half, as Detroit shot 55 per cent and Toronto shot 50. That included a miserable second-quarter stretch when the Raptors missed 9 consecutive three-pointers as the Pistons ran up a 17-point lead. But the Raptors closed the half on a 13-0 run, turning what was shaping up to be a lifeless blowout into a close game at halftime.

“The first half, I think we thought it was going to be easy,” Casey said. “We didn’t set the tone, especially our second unit. We’ve got to hit on all cylinders to be a successful team.”

With Drummond out, the Raptors had a massive advantage in the paint, and went to work exploiting it through Valanciunas and Jakob Poeltl. Valanciunas finished with a team-high 25 points, while Poeltl scored 12 in the second half. In the end, the Raptors outscored the Pistons 60-38 in the paint.

“Jonas did a good job of commanding the paint, dominating the paint,” Casey said. “And I thought Jakob in the second half played the way Jakob could play.

The Raptors opened the final quarter with another 13-0 run, and although the Pistons surged late, Toronto held on. Brown sealed the game with a midrange jumper in the final minute before hopping in a limo with his fellow 905ers to head back to Toronto for Tuesday’s G League contest.

“Man, I can’t believe those guys coming in and doing what they’ve done tonight,” said Lowry, who finished with 11 points and 9 assists. “We appreciate them so much. People don’t understand — they flew from Austin. And then they’ve got to go back and play tomorrow. That’s just the dedication that they have for the game and the organization.”

With the victory, Toronto’s preserves its chance of finishing with 60 wins — an arbitrary, round number the Raptors would nevertheless like to achieve, and can on Wednesday in Miami.

If the Raptors finish with, say, 59 wins, it won’t make any difference to what is already the most successful regular season in franchise history. But a positive by-product of winning 60 would be the Raptors going into the playoffs on a hot streak, with confidence and self-belief high. It’s a minor thing. But it’s certainly preferable to the alternative.

Plus, Casey remembers reaching the 60-win plateau on three occasions when he was an assistant coach with the Seattle SuperSonics earlier in his career. And he remembers what it meant.

“It’s a huge thing. It was huge back then and its huge now,” Casey said. “It’s a great accomplishment for our franchise to see where we’ve grown to in 20 years. And hopefully it sets the standard for the next 20 years and for where the organization’s going to be going forward.”

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