By Frank McLean
The schedule maker has not been kind to the Toronto Raptors to start the season. This basketball team comes home from an early season west coast road trip that saw them lose in Sacramento, Utah and Golden State and get a pair of wins against both Los Angeles clubs – the hapless Lakers and so-called championship contender Clippers.
Sitting at 9-6 and fifth in the Eastern Conference is pretty good considering they have played 11 road games which is 2 more than any other team in the league and 4 more than any of the other top 9 teams in the East.
Last year the Raptors started the season with a very front loaded home friendly schedule because of the World Junior Hockey Championships at the Air Canada Centre during the holiday season. They had 12 home games from the time they opened the season on October 29th thru November 28th and were sitting pretty with a 13-3 mark.
No matter where they sit in the standings, Eastern Conference teams going west is usually a recipe for disaster, so Toronto’s winning record looks pretty good after playing 7 road games against the Western Conference. The team now has a little more friendly schedule between the 25th of November and December 30th with 11 games at the Hanger and only 7 games on the road. The challenge may be 7 of those home dates are against the West.
The good thing about this west coast trip was that they showed fight and could have won in Sacramento, Utah and the game with the Warriors, a team who has made everybody look like mortals by starting 15-0.
The bad part of the trip is the Raptors have lost their big center Jonas Valanciunas for 5 to 6 weeks with a broken finger which he suffered in the game Friday night against the Lakers. Fortunately, surgery will not be needed, but now we will see a major part of the Raptors rebuild over the summer and that’s the depth they have built on the bench in case of any major injuries.
In Sunday’s game against the Clippers, Bismack Biyombo was the first man up filling in for Valanciunas, but head coach Dwane Casey will be using, taking a baseball term, a platoon system at center.
“We’re going to start Bismack to start out with to give him the first opportunity to play,” Casey said before Sunday’s game. “There are going to be different people in that position. Luis (Scola) will be there, Lucas (Nogueira) will be there some so it will be manned by committee, but the experience that Biz gives us and his understanding or our defensive schemes, his ability to protect the rim, is what we need.”
This is depth that the team has not had and should be able to keep things in check at the center position until Jonas can get back.
The Biyombo-Scola platoon is interesting. Biyombo is a terrific rebounder while Scola is a scorer. It will probably depend on the game situations on which one you play. Do you need defence or do you need scoring. A look at Sunday’s weird box score in the 91-80 win over the Clippers illustrates the issue.
The Raptors led 66-34 at the half, however, they were outscored 21-8 in the third quarter and 25-20 in the fourth as they escaped with a win. Scola replacing Biyombo with 6.5 minutes left in the fourth quarter and the Clippers only down 8 points to go 2-3 from the field plus 2-2 from the free throw line to help get a stagnant Raptors offense going again by hitting of 2 of his team’s final 3 field goals. So the player Casey puts in a center will depend on the score and what the Raptors need at a specific time in a game.
As I have written before, this Raptors team is built for a long run in the playoffs. In order to have a long run in the playoffs you have to have roster depth. Between now and when we ring out the 2015 calendar year we will see what this roster depth can bring.
Veteran journalist Frank McLean has covered nearly every Raptors game in Toronto since their inaugural season at the Skydome back in 1995-96. He has seen it all. The good, the bad and the really bad and he is one of the very few journalists in Toronto that has kept coming back for more.