The North Remembers
It’s a great and weird time to be a Raptors fan right now. The industrious nature by which the Raptors have dispatched opponents, some formidable, on their recent rampage has to fill one with a sense of pride. Rarely do we as Toronto sports fan get to experience a team that is hovering near the top of their conference or league. An impressive record, individual accolades, a revival of a much-maligned bench unit, and even showers of praise for the head coach would normally result in serious flag-waving and trumpeting of #WeTheNorth in our faces, yet that aspect of the enterprise remains fairly subdued, bordering on cautious.
That is because we’ve been here before and this time want more. In a way, we’re the opposite of the Spurs of years past. Nobody’s ever bothered by how inconsistent the Spurs regular season form is, because you know that come playoff time, all that mattered was whether they were healthy and odds were they’d put the rest together. The Raptors have played themselves into the opposite scenario, where no matter how good (or bad) the regular season results may be, the ultimate measuring stick remains the post-season, as it should be. The great part about this is that DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry know this, and look to be zoned in on the post-season. The clinical nature of the 4-0 sweep of the Wizards doesn’t make up for what happened in the sprint, but does send a message that the north remembers.
What the north should also remember, and probably even write down in case they forget, is that most teams in the East fall in the “dangerous in the playoffs” category. Chicago, Miami, Detroit, Atlanta, and Indiana, are all teams that could, on their day, have the best player on the court, some even top two. This season, unlike most, is where a lot of teams in the East are truly taking the regular season to find out who they are, hoping that they’d figure it out by the playoffs. The Raptors seem to have done that bit.
Over the last few weeks, a separation of sorts has been developed in the East which sees six games between the Raptors in second position and the eighth playoff seed. Logging Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan heavy minutes has paid off for Dwane Casey who has managed to tick off all the games in the scheduled win column, while even checking off a couple in the 50/50 column. This buffer has given the Raptors some flexibility in how they might approach some upcoming situations. With 8 of 9 coming on the road, including two back-to-backs, Casey might finally be able to fight off his impulse to grind DeRozan and Lowry, and give them some nights off against the Suns and Knicks.
With both Lowry and DeRozan expected to be active during All-Star weekend, a chance at rest and rejuvenation won’t happen over the weekend. You might recall Lowry’s dramatic post All-Star game regression last season as the tipping point in the Raptors season, while at the same time this was the time when DeRozan surged, no doubt helped by the rest he received while injured earlier in the year. The bottom line is that both stars will require a break during the regular season, and the buffer in the East allows Casey to deliver it.
Designated rat (both physical and metaphorical), Tyronn Lue is set to coach the East All-Star team, and if there is any justice in the world, it won’t happen. I’m positive it won’t happen because of the sheer distraction it would be, and the NBA doesn’t like distractions. My guess is that a few cloaked men will appear at his house, whisper soft words in his ear, and after some back-and-forth, one of the hooded men will gently pull back his cowl to reveal Adam Silver’s steely eyes gazing intently through the darkness and into Lue’s trepid soul. Conversation over (BTW, the guy thinks David Blatt should still coach the All-Star team).
With Dwane Casey now starting the All-Star game, the only question on everyone’s minds will be whether Lowry and DeRozan play north of 35 minutes, which they surely will. It would be a nice moment for the much-criticized Casey who has done something most coaches simply can’t: survive a GM-change. At the same time, I do think we should not extend him a contract until after the post-season for obvious reasons.