TORONTO — Jonas Valanciunas gets hurt. A six-game, Western road trip awaits. Yet in some ways you had the sense Saturday night that Toronto Raptors head coach Dwane Casey isn’t at all unhappy to have to pack up his beakers, bottles and stoppers to take his chemistry experiment on the road.
If nothing else he’ll get away from what he calls "the million coaches." The folks in the stands telling his team to move the ball more and shoot, shoot, shoot. Or not shoot as much. Stop taking all those damned threes. "Heard that out there, too, tonight," Casey said, a wry smile breaking out after the Raptors 128-94 thumping of the Philadelphia 76ers.
"Again, we are still trying to find our rhythm. We have to take the shots when they’re there. The ball will find the right person."
DeMar DeRozan shook off the effects of the flu to score 30 points in 27 minutes, including going 14-for-16 from the free-throw line, as the 2-0 Raptors overcame an atrocious first half of three-point shooting (4-for-18) as well as the loss of Valanciunas with a sprained left ankle just before the break. The Raptors second unit was big again as it was in Wednesday’s 117-100 win over the Chicago Bulls, contributing 53 points with Delon Wright and Jakob Poeltl each scoring 14.
The Raptors will start their longest road trip of the season Monday against the San Antonio Spurs.
"This part of the schedule won’t make or break our season," said Casey. "It’s a tough part of our year but the good part is we get it out of the way and we don’t have to go on another long trip."
Valanciunas sprained his ankle after tangling up with the Sixers Dario Saric. He played on gamely for two minutes after the injury before being replaced by Poeltl and heading immediately to the locker room. Poeltl finished the game with a career-high in points and five rebounds while Lucas Nogueira also contributed a forget-me-not 10 points, nine rebounds and two blocked shots in 16 minutes and 23 seconds.
They’ll be counted on mightily if Valanciunas’ injury is serious – and don’t be surprised to see Serge Ibaka at the five if Casey decides to go small.
"You never want to lose anybody, but it’s a luxury to have three quality centres," said Casey. "Lucas on any other team would be a backup. It’s just unfortunate for him he’s behind Jak and J.V. … and we haven’t even got to Serge at the five."
Noguiera started the second half at centre and made an early impact, grabbing two rebounds and scoring six points as the Raptors ripped off a 10-2 run to start the half.
Ibaka shook off a brutal shooting start to hit three three-pointers within the first four minutes of the third quarter. While DeRozan had his one and only attempted three in the first two games – missing a 27-foot shot in the quarter – Ibaka hit five, Kyle Lowry nailed four and four members of the second unit hit one each. That included Wright, who was 0-for-5 until sinking a three with four minutes remaining.
"Man, a couple of them were going in and out, but, you know, C.J. (Miles) told me to keep shooting," Wright said. "Norm (Powell). Kyle. So, you know, they’ll start falling eventually."
That will no doubt be music to Casey’s ears as he attempts to follow through on the front office’s desire to change the teams over-reliance on ‘ISO’ ball. It’s all about "the shot spectrum," now. About not taking any non-paint twos.
The Raptors will be a work in progress in this area, frankly, until DeRozan starts draining threes. He’s the barometer.
In the meantime, the Raptors know they can beat two of the weakest teams in the Eastern Conference which is, you know, all to the good.
"They jumped us, especially at the start of the third," said Sixers head coach Brett Brown. "You’re just playing catch up for the rest of the game after that first minute, minute and a half. You’re just trying to find some type of order and purpose to end the game with that in mind."
Despite their inability to hit a three, the Raptors led 62-49 at the end of the first half. The Raptors went almost eight and half minutes between three-pointers in the first quarter – missing a pair of attempts between made shots by Ibaka and OG Anunoby – and going 0-for-7 in the second quarter before Ibaka hit his second out of six first-half attempts.
The Raptors second unit, which accounted for 48 points and rattled off a 22-2 run in the win over the Bulls, scored 16 points late in the first quarter and into the second. Notable was the fact that Miles, who had 22 points on Thursday, didn’t score a bucket Saturday night when the second unit made its initial appearance. In fact, Miles didn’t score until three minutes into the fourth quarter.
The Sixers rested centre Joel Embiid, the third pick overall in the 2014 NBA draft, who has not yet been cleared to play in back to back games. Embiid had 11 points and 14 rebounds in a 102-92 loss to the Boston Celtics Friday. He played in just 31 games last season before undergoing surgery on his left knee. The Sixers say Embiid is still on a minutes limit, but at 27:30 per game through his first two games he is well above the high teens average he anticipated.
Still, the Sixers are one of the most intriguing young teams in the NBA. They still have Markelle Fultz, this years first overall pick, and freakish 6-foot-10 point guard Ben Simmons – last years top choice – making them the first team in the common draft era (since 1966) to have two former No. 1s overall make their NBA debut with the same team in the same game. Simmons missed all of last season with foot surgery.
Simmons had a team-high 18 points, as the Sixers shot 39 per-cent from the field. Fultz had six points in 25 minutes.
And so now it’s on to the road … where it gets a great deal tougher and impatient, second-guessing fans will be the least of the Raptors’ worries. This is the new-look NBA road trip, with off-days baked in.
"The schedule is what it is," said Casey. "I feel like our guys are excited about going out against the best teams in the NBA the next couple of weeks."
I feel the coach isn’t all that upset about it either.