Internal improvement is a must for a team that made few off-season moves after coming up short in the Eastern Conference final and the good news is it appears as if all Carroll has to do to provide that lift is stay healthy.
Right. That’s all.
“Like I told you before: When I’m healthy, I can be who I am and play the way I want to play,” Carroll said Monday, after the Raptors opened a six-game homestand with a workmanlike, in some ways precise 122-95 win over the Philadelphia 76ers at the Air Canada Centre.
It was a coldly efficient Kyle Lowry who carried much of the freight for the Raptors, now 11-6. Lowry set a franchise record by going a perfect 6-for-6 from three-point range and finished with a team-high 24 points and eight assists in 32 minutes – the third time in the last five games he has led the team in scoring. All five Raptors starters reached double-digits on a night when DeMar DeRozan didn’t score his first basket until there were three minutes left in the first half. The bench, meanwhile, contributed 51 points including a season-high 22 points from Terrence Ross, who was 8-for-11 with three three-pointers. The Raptors had 11 steals from 10 different players, including Carroll who was 4-for-5 in 21 minutes.
Carroll has hit double digits in seven of his last eight games and is 14-for-31 from three-point range during that time. There are several things head coach Dwane Casey wants to see in this homestand, the longest of the season. What he doesn’t seem inclined to see is Carroll playing on back-to-back nights, a position that will present itself this weekend when the Los Angeles Lakers visit the ACC on Friday and the Atlanta Hawks come in Saturday.
The Raptors had enough last season of living through and with nagging injuries from Carroll. Casey is tabbing the new year as the time when he will finally take off the leash, which is OK with Carroll – sort of.
“What do you think?” Carroll responded not angrily Sunday evening when asked whether he felt the team’s handling of him was paying off. “You get critiqued a lot about taking nights off, but we’re looking at the big picture. I have to listen to these guys, coach Casey and [president] Masai Ujiiri, and prepare every night to do what I can.
“Personally, I can play back-to-back. I can. But it’s not my problem. I walk in, they say, ‘You’re not playing.’ What am I supposed to do? I think I can play back-to-back but we’re not rushing it … they’ve been doing it longer than me.”
Until then, Casey will take more of these games from Carroll. And he’d love a repeat every night of the defensive focus and intensity his team showed, after a road trip in which their defensive attentiveness came under scrutiny.
“We’ve got to have that type of defensive effort and focus every night,” said Casey, citing Ross in particular for his defensive focus, adding: “I like the way he moved his feet. We had some base goes, base traps a few times and he got out and cut the baseline off. We can score 122 points, we’re going to make shots, but my thing is to get where we want to go. We have to make sure we have focus and attention on the defensive end.”
Casey spent the past two days fretting publicly about his team’s state of mind after back-to-back wins helped them to a 3-2 record on a five-game road trip that ended Friday in Milwaukee. He admitted he’s always concerned about what he referred to as “the bear around the corner” – hell, he’s a coach, right? – especially with his team settling in for a long homestand. The road can be a beast when it comes to practices and travel fatigue, but it also engenders a kind of edginess that Casey believes can get lost when a team sleeps in its own beds and falls back into other cozy routines.
What Casey wouldn’t say is that coupled with the fact that the Sixers were coming off a 112-108 loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers on Sunday and that the visitors were without rookie big man Joel Embiid, who had 22 points and nine rebounds against the Cavaliers and didn’t accompany the team because he’s on a minutes limitation, this was the ultimate trap game for the Raptors, who instead have now won 13 consecutive games against Philadelphia.
“We caught a team that was waiting for us,” said Sixers head coach Brett Brown.
Casey emptied the bench in the fourth quarter (Bruno time!) and the team didn’t miss Jonas Valanciunas, who left to have his ankle re-taped after falling awkwardly in the third quarter when the Raptors seized the game, out-scoring the Sixers 31-22 while holding them to a 33.3 shooting percentage.
They led 60-49 after a strangely non-descript first half, the story of which was told in one particular play. With the Raptors leading 49-40 and DeRozan without a point, DeRozan found himself with the ball at the top of the key and the possibility of a mid-range jumper. Instead of forcing the issue, he spied Valanciunas alone to the left of the basket and fed him a pass for an easy layup.
DeRozan eventually got his jumper at 8:50 after a particularly desperate layup attempt two minutes earlier. His frustration was apparent late in the half when he took a technical foul after a bit of nastiness involving Norman Powell and Nik Stauskas.
As Casey said later, the Sixers, like other teams, are staying with DeRozan longer on pin-downs; they’re putting an extra body on him.
“It’s almost a must that he passes the ball,” Casey said matter-of-factly.
But as Casey would say, it was all about the defence. It will always be about the defence. And there was music for his ears in the locker room as both Carroll and DeRozan were reserved in their comments about defence.
“One step in the right direction,” Carroll said, shrugging.
Added DeRozan: “We did a little better … held them under 100 points. We gave up a lot of threes, though. We still gave them a lot of easy things.”
Lowry was no more excited. “We could have done better but it’s a start. “We protected home.”
Now, to continue the repatriation of the player that can be DeMarre Carroll.