LOS ANGELES — The Toronto Raptors entered Sunday night with the best record in the East, a fast 13-3 start in part built in large part on continuity and balance — it’s hard to defend a team where on any given night Kyle Lowry or DeMar DeRozan or Terrence Ross or Lou Williams off the bench can light you up, where five guys averaged double digits and a sixth is at 9.5 a game, where that unit plays defense on a string.
But pull one piece out of the Jenga tower and that balance becomes less stable, it teeters and can fall easily.
We saw that Sunday night in Los Angeles. To a man the Raptors recognized that and said they needed to find their stability again over the coming weeks.
DeRozan is out for an extended period with a torn tendon in his groin — history of the injury suggests at least six weeks, DeRozan hopes to be back in a month — and Sunday without him the Raptors struggled. An offense that usually shared the ball became isolation heavy. And their Top 10 defense crumbled for the night. The result was a Los Angeles Lakers win, 129-122 in overtime, behind a triple-double from Kobe Bryant, who seems to save up his best games for Toronto.
Without DeRozan the Raptors have a much smaller margin for error on both sides of the ball. Sunday night they didn’t adapt well on either end.
What was the bigger issue for Toronto, the offense or defense? Depends on who you ask.
“Offensively, I thought that we were a little out of rhythm…” Raptors coach Dwane Casey said afterwards, particularly referring to the team’s first half. “This is who we are and who we’re going to be, so we have to get it together. Everyone is happy during good times, We lost a couple games and now we’ll see what we are made of…
“A lot of our offense is built around, or for, DeMar. Getting into a rhythm that way, plus new stuff, and new positions, I would say (players roles are changing) a little bit. But we’ve been doing that for two years so it’s no excuse.”
“We’re not making any excuses, we just didn’t play defense,” said guard Greivis Vasquez, the guy thrust into the starting lineup with DeRozan out. “We scored enough points to win, we just have to play defense.”
To a man, the Raptors used the no excuses line. It’s something every pro sports team says when a key player goes down, and it’s been a common refrain around the NBA this early season when a raft of top stars — Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, Dwyane Wade, Dwight Howard and so on — have gone down for extended periods. Some teams have adapted better than others, the book is out still on Toronto.
For a Raptors team built on continuity they believe they should be able to adapt, adjust and step up better than we saw Sunday.
“Next man up,” Casey said spouting the pro sports cliché pregame. “It’s so true. I know it’s corny but that’s why you have a big roster. Injuries are a big part of the NBA….
“The year we won the championship in Dallas (Casey was an assistant coach) we lost Dirk (Nowitzki) and everyone thought the world was going to hell. But it didn’t, we stuck together and bonded, developed some confidence in the guys who had an opportunity to play, and you’ve got to look at it from that positive standpoint.”
The Raptors players talked about that too, being a better team when DeRozan returns, about finding a level of stability for the next six weeks.
In Sunday night’s loss Vasquez was right, it was the defense — the Raptors offensive production on the night was very close to their season average (using points per possession), but it was on the defensive end where the Raptors could have used DeRozan’s length and athleticism. Not that it would have mattered in the first half, when the Lakers just got hot and hit contested or just poor shots to the tune of better than 60 percent from the floor until deep in the second quarter. Everything fell for them. Plus Kobe was doubled early and with that started dishing the ball to open teammates — the Lakers are more dangerous when he facilitates (and other guys hit those shots).
Toronto players also saw defense as a more easily correctable issue. While DeRozan is an athletic and long defender it is Ross who often gets the toughest defensive assignment of the night and James Johnson comes off the bench to help get stops. It was the offensive side where the roles really changed Sunday.
“I think Kyle and I can play together…” Vasquez said after the game, and the pair combined for 48 points but on an inefficient 44 shots. “The offense wasn’t really the problem, it was our defense. There’s no excuse, we have to play defense as a team….
“Defensively as a team we do a great job collectively, it was more of a focus thing.”
DeRozan gave Toronto better than 19 points a game and a player defenses have to watch at all times. That’s not easy to just replace.
“He’s a franchise player, no question about it,” Casey said.
But this is life in the NBA. Always has been. Guys go down and the best teams adjust — the model everyone strives for is the Spurs, who never seem to miss a step even when Tim Duncan or Tony Parker are out for a night.
Toronto has work to do to get near that level, but they can be a much more dangerous team come the playoffs if they can become a little more Spurs like in the next stretch while DeRozan recovers. For Casey that starts with a better effort.
“(DeRozan’s absence) had nothing to do with the loose balls in the first half, the no box outs in the first half and, I thought, the soft play defensively in the first half…” Casey said. “Defensively I thought we had good stops but we didn’t come up with the loose balls and second shots. That has nothing to do with rhythm and more with wanting to get on the floor and get those.”
The Raptors don’t have the margin for error to let those little plays go anymore.