The Toronto Raptors returned to action after a one game in a week “vacation” in London to play the Brooklyn Nets in game 41 of the 2015-16 season at the Air Canada Centre on Monday night. The Nets being who they are this season, the more interesting topic is the upcoming NBA Trade Deadline that was exactly one month away. Will the second place Eastern Conference Raptors make a move or will they live and die with their top-ranked scoring backcourt of DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry?
Captain Obvious would tell you Toronto relies on Lowry and DeRozan for scoring. DeRozan is the top scoring shooting guard in the Eastern Conference at 22.8 points per game and leads the East with 8.2 free throw attempts per game. Lowry is the second highest scoring point guard in the East at 21 points per game making the Raptors backcourt the highest scoring duo (43.8 points) in the East by a significant margin. Sometimes overlooked, Lowry is sixth in his conference with 6.4 assists per game. DeRozan contributes a respectable 4.1 assists.
“Kyle, DeMar we rely on them a lot for a reason because they fit in to what we do offensively, defensively, the continuity we have and for us to win, those guys, we got to have those guys playing at a high level,” head coach Dwane Casey explained.
Against the Nets, on the last day of fan All-Star voting, Lowry and DeRozan backed up their Coach’s statement by going off for a combined 61 points in the 112-100 Raptors victory. It was the first time the pair had each scored 30 or more points in the same game.
“They are pretty good,” Nets interim head coach Tony Brown said postgame. “Most likely both will be All-Stars. I don’t see why they wouldn’t.
“Lowry, he’s in better shape this year, got himself in good condition and DeRozan obviously is more poised than he probably has been in the past.
“They know the ball is going to come their way and they are making the right decisions. Whether it’s been scoring or they are moving the ball to one of their teammates.
“They have a good chemistry going. These guys have been together awhile so I’m not surprised by their performance.”
This is Lowry and DeRozan’s fourth season together and the stats say it’s been their best season both individually and together. The pair has obvious chemistry both on and off the court.
“They have played so much together,” Casey said. “The continuity, the offensive sets, the spacing and they understand where each other is going to be.”
“It’s easy for me because (DeRozan’s) our guy,” Lowry said. “That’s our scorer. At the end of the day, I get him the ball and he makes plays. For me it’s not about doing this or doing that, it’s about getting him in a position for him to be successful and for my other teammates to be successful. It makes my job a lot easier when you got a guy that gets you 10 assists or 30 points.”
“(It’s) extremely comfortable,” DeRozan said. “It’s second nature now. A lot of things never need to be said. I know. I feel things, something that comes from years of playing (together and) knowing each other’s game. We don’t even think about it half the time.
“It makes our team’s job easier from that standpoint of knowing when one of us is going to takeover and put a mark on the game and sometimes it’s not even scoring, it’s being aggressive and getting other guys shots.”
After Monday’s win over the Nets, Toronto sits in second place in the Eastern Conference, 1.5 games ahead of Chicago and Atlanta and 3 games back of the Cavs. Their sixth ranked offense (104.6 points per 100 possessions) is second only to Cleveland in the East as is their Net Rating of +3.7 points and they’ve accomplished this without their best defensive player DeMarre Carroll for 18 games and counting.
The elephant in the room has been Coach Casey’s reliance on playing Lowry and DeRozan big minutes to get the job done. The Raptors starting guards are just two of eight players in the NBA averaging over 36 minutes per game and those are heavy minutes. Both players like to create off the dribble and often score on isolation plays going mano a mano. This style of play took its toll on Lowry last season and it showed in the playoffs.
“Kyle and DeMar, no matter where they are or who they are, they are high usage players,” Casey explained. “That’s why our assist numbers are down. How they score. I don’t think we’ll ever be a high assist team with those guys being our go to guys because they create off the dribble pretty well. We are efficient offensively, top-five or whatever it is. It is a different way of scoring.
“Are we using them too much? That’s very difficult to answer.
“(Wearing down,) you could say that about a lot of players in the league. we try not to. We try to watch guys minutes, but every game for us is important, every possession is important.”
Casey and president and general manager Masai Ujiri really don’t have a lot of choice. Doing anything that could adversely affect the chemistry this team’s two starting guards have built up would represent a huge risk to the Raptors potential success over the rest of the season and into the playoffs.
Fortunately, the situation in Toronto is such that Ujiri doesn’t have to make a move in order to get a significant talent upgrade for the stretch run after the All-Star break and in the postseason. In a surprising move, the Raptors trotted out Carroll in front of the media just two weeks after Ujiri’s big free agent acquisition had undergone knee surgery to let everyone know their starting small forward was ahead of schedule.
Carroll insisted that rehab was going well. The surgery was just a minor procedure to remove loose bodies and correct an ongoing problem with inflammation. Also, the operation got him off of his feet, so now the planter fasciitis that had been bothering him is feeling a lot better as well.
Carroll doesn’t believe he’ll be out of shape on his return even though he has yet to start working out again and it seemed like he really meant it. This guy has a lot of pride.
The original timeline for Carroll’s return was 6-8 weeks which would put him back in the Raptors lineup sometime after the All-Star break. Just maybe, with the optimistic self assessment, he’ll make it back in time for the game in Chicago on February 19th?
The Toronto Raptors may or may not stand pat over the next month, but this team shouldn’t be expected to do anything that could shake up the chemistry Lowry and DeRozan have built. This team’s season will live or die on the backs of their two guards.