The Cavs aren’t heading for the post-season, but they are heading in the right direction, picking up the pieces in the post LeBron James era. There’s an all-star piece in point guard Kyrie Irving, who was ruled out of Tuesday’s away game against the Bulls with a sore knee, and an emerging big in Thompson. “He’s very energetic and you have to match his energy,’’ said Johnson when asked about Thompson.
How the team responds Wednesday night in Cleveland, how it competes against Indy on Friday and how it emerges from a four-game road trip that begins with a critical tip in Milwaukee will go a long way in revealing what kind of leadership exists on this particular group. In the absence of a veteran familiar with the NBA’s ropes, one who demands instant respect and expects accountability, it’s incumbent on everyone to make amends from Monday’s regrettable loss to the visiting Washington Wizards.
In today’s NBA game, leadership takes on many different forms, players are either willing or simply ill-equipped to handle the burden. The Raptors find themselves in a situation where they need to get over the hump, psychologically more than any physical hurdle. “I made it clear when I came here that I wanted to raise everyone’s level,’’ said Gay on Tuesday. “Everybody has to pick up their level for us to be a good team.”
Another wrinkle that crops up if the Raptors make the postseason is the possibility of the club overvaluing the meaning of squeaking into eighth seed. They wouldn’t be the first club to crash the Playoffs only to assume that they were a lot closer than they were to contending while turning a blind eye to the very real structural problems on the roster. Philly did it in 2008 when they went all-in with Elton Brand after sneaking into the seventh seed with a sub-.500 record. Chicago did the same thing in 2006 with Ben Wallace. Heck, the Raptors ignored their very real roster construction issues when they decided they were in win-now mode and brought in Jermaine O’Neal in 2008.
After seven and a half seasons in Memphis, Gay remembers the early days of losing, but also the process of becoming a winning team in a league filled with talented veteran franchises that know what it takes each night to play past April. Coach Dwane Casey considers the team lucky to have an experienced voice like Gay’s to explain the importance of that process to its younger players. “He’s been through the process,” Casey said. “They started out in Memphis where we are as far as the building part of the program … he’s seen this growth and the building process and how hard it is.
We talk about a lot of general topics in the 20 minutes or so we chat. First and foremost the impact of Rudy Gay on the Raptors. Other subjects include the future of Bryan Colangelo, what to make of the current state of affairs with Andrea Bargnani and if the Raptors are indeed playoff contenders or pretenders at this point.
The tease that was Gay’s sophomore season (20ppg, 6rpg), when we thought the youngster out of Connecticut was destined to become the next Tracy McGrady, turned out to be nothing of the sort. It was actually the younger Kevin Durant who was the one to reach McGrady’s level–and then quickly surpass it–and Gay has remained even further down the line of borderline All-Stars than Josh Smith, which is not exactly the greatest place to be as a highly paid focal point of an NBA team. The Raptors have been devoid of a true star player for most of their NBA existence and just like Vince Carter and Chris Bosh before him, Gay is looking more and more like another Raptors pseudo superstar.
“I think Kyrie is one of those guys who is so good a lot of times you just rely on him,” forward Luke Walton said. “Without him we knew we were all going to have to play a lot harder and a lot more focused. “We’ve been playing very solid basketball. … We are growing and we are definitely a much better team.” Irving is listed as day-to-day, but it seems unlikely the Cavaliers will risk rushing the reigning rookie of the year back if he’s not 100 percent.
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