The Toronto Raptors will be without James Johnson until they’re not.
That’s about the whole of the update the team provided to beat reporters on Thursday from Portland. Johnson left Monday’s game in the second quarter after spraining his left ankle diving for a loose ball. X-rays following the game were negative and Johnson was set for an MRI on Thursday, but an update courtesy of head coach Dwane Casey was vague.
Per Ryan Wolstat of the Toronto Sun and Chris O’Leary of the Toronto Star, a handsome duo if there ever was one, Johnson is dealing with a “bad” sprain without structural damage to the ankle. There’s no timetable for his return.
There’s also no timetable for the return of DeMarre Carroll, who is traveling with the team following Jan. 4 arthroscopic knee surgery and has progressed to shooting flat-footed shots, which means the Raptors are without a small forward for a while. In other words, #WeTheNorm until further notice.
Casey has a few lineup options he can explore, and he said on the radio Wednesday that the starting wing spot alongside DeMar DeRozan is a “fluid” situation.
Norman Powell drew the start in the first game post-Johnson on Tuesday, acquitting himself fairly well in 15 scoreless minutes. By rolling with Powell, Casey accepts somewhat of a size downgrade with DeRozan sliding to the three while also sacrificing already-cramped spacing. Teams are going to play way off of Powell and force him to attack and distribute out of the corners, his normal post in standard horns sets, and Powell’s going to have to show what he’s been doing in the D-League can translate before teams show him some respect. With DeRozan and Luis Scola also in the starting lineup, he’s not going to have a lot of space to operate it, but he deserves the chance to show the strides he’s taken with Raptors 905 are more than just the product of inferior competition.
I’m of the mind they are, as Powell has worked tirelessly to begin complementing his straight-line attack game with better reads off the bounce. Even if that’s slow to come, he’s the best defensive option the Raptors have, a lightning-quick and hyper-aggressive defender capable of guarding ones, twos, and threes who aren’t serious post-up threats. Big threes would give any of the Raptors’ best options trouble, but the Raptors won’t face such a wing until after the All-Star break, save for maybe small doses of Marcus Morris at the three on Monday.
Powell’s the right call, in my mind, both for defense, to give a hard-working rookie a chance he’s been waiting on, and, the point most likely to convince Casey, to maintain rotation consistency.
T.J. Ross is an obvious option to draw in alongside DeRozan, as he’s started the bulk of his career and has been playing great over the last two months. Casey may prefer to keep his usual rotations in tact, letting the four primary reserves stay in their current roles and rhythm rather than risk disrupting them for, say, three games, only to ask them to rediscover their footing again later. Ross is the best option to start in a vacuum, but putting yourself at a slight disadvantage early in order to ensure comfort later is fine.
On that note, the best move may be to finally flip the switch on Patrick Patterson starting over Luis Scola, thereby easing the spacing issue some and goosing the defense, but if he hasn’t made the move yet, I’m not sure it’s coming.
Anthony Bennett probably won’t draw a start but Casey mentioned him as a potential “power three” that could see some run. I’m skeptical based on tiny samples and D-League run that Bennett’s going to contribute much, but options are kind of limited.
In terms of Thursday alone, Powell makes sense as an option to help on Damian Lillard and chase breakout player and personal favorite C.J. McCollum around screens.