They have beaten the Mavericks in Dallas, the Thunder in Oklahoma City and the Grizzlies in Memphis; they have won on long, tough road trips and short one-gamers; they are one of just three Eastern Conference teams with winning road records and it’s set them apart. And it’s come totally out of the blue. “Even with a veteran team we had in Dallas and Seattle (as an assistant coach), it was tough to win on the road,” coach Dwane Casey said after the Raptors assured themselves of a winning road record in 2013-14 by beating the Bucks 102-98 in Milwaukee on Saturday night. “Our focus has been good on the road for whatever reason. We keep the same routine, we try to make sure our travel is efficient, which is sometimes hard to do, so guys can get rest.”
“We’ve got to learn,’’ said Casey of the need for better starts and better focus. “A lot of guys have not been in this position where you are being hunted and it’s a different feeling and approach. “It starts with our starters. They’ve got to come out and set the tone and everybody else will follow.” Getting Kyle Lowry and Amir Johnson healthy and back into the starting unit can’t hurt, but even with a healthy Lowry and Johnson the starters have lacked that necessary edge and mental toughness required to start games. The good news is this group has a knack for making plays down the stretch, led by DeMar DeRozan, who got to the line at will against the Bucks, making clutch free throws and being aggressive. Home court in the opening round is very much a possibility as the Raptors have five games remaining.
For a guy who doesn’t really have a defined position and whose role will probably have to be redefined once Raptors point guard Kyle Lowry is cleared to play, De Colo is making the most of every opportunity. “Just being aggressive and playing my game,” said De Colo. “When a shot is open, you have to take it. Whether I’m playing the one (point guard) or two (shooting guard), staying focused on my job and nothing more.”
The importance of finishing with the #3 seed can’t be overstated, and must be Job One. If the Raps run the table in their last 5 games, they cannot be caught by either Brooklyn or Chicago. I won’t spend a lot of time on playoff speculation other than to say the Raps need home court, despite their excellent results as a road team. Indiana, the likely #2 seed, looks vulnerable to a first-round upset. Assuming the Raps take care of the Wiz(?), we could retain home court for the second round, and avoid a confrontation with Miami, until the Eastern finals.
The Bulls, who are tied with San Antonio for the league’s stingiest defense since the All-Star break, would be well-equipped to limit the damage of the Toronto trio. Jimmy Butler, in particular, would be a nightmare for either Ross or DeRozan, as he’s limiting opposing shooting guards to a PER of 11.4 and opposing small forwards to a PER of 11.2, according to 82games.com. While Jonas Valanciunas and Amir Johnson have made strides this season, Toronto also lacks a defensive-minded center capable of shutting down the Bulls’ prolific frontcourt players. The trio of Joakim Noah, Carlos Boozer and Taj Gibson would likely power their way through the Raptors’ front line with reckless abandon.