TORONTO — As a species, we have a tendency to overreact to the recent past. When things go wrong, as is annoyingly inevitable, we attempt to make sure they do not go wrong in the same precise way again. At worst, that ensures that we will make new kinds of mistakes. At best, you find a path to bliss, or perhaps just blissful sustainability.
You see this frequently in sports. Failure is usually met with a solution that runs in the exact opposite direction. Thought your old coach was too stern? Hire a “players’ coach.” Did your playing style prove untenable? Make a 180-degree change, or at least close to it. As such, Toronto Raptors coach Dwane Casey has been preaching the merits of balance — solid play on both ends of the floor — since training camp. With last year’s unbalanced Raptors in mind, it makes perfect sense. That team survived because of its offence, and it fell apart in the post-season when the perimeter attack failed to yield the same results while the defence remained an abomination.
Heading into Wednesday’s 94-91 win over the Washington Wizards, the Raptors had the league’s fifth-best offence, while their defence ranked 11th. Casey would probably prefer that those rankings were swapped, but it is far better than a year ago.
“It’s not as pretty (of a style). I think we’re grittier, grimier,” Casey said. “I think those types of (traits) help you win against good teams down the stretch, or in tough situations. Does it make you win every night? No. But it gives you a better chance. That’s the difference between this year and last year: the entire disposition. We have a tougher disposition.”
Wednesday’s game was a fine example of that. They shot just 34 per cent from the field, but thanks to DeMar DeRozan’s parade to the free-throw line, some stingy defence and some misses of open looks from the Wizards down the stretch, the Raptors escaped. They might not have a year ago.
“It says a lot,” DeRozan said of the style of victory. “That’s what we’re going to need to depend on. … I think that’s going to be great for us in the long run.”
And yet, the guy who was supposed to be most responsible for the march toward harmony has had a negligible role. DeMarre Carroll has missed 12 of the Raptors’ 33 games this year. In most of the games he has played, he has been significantly short of full health. Even after missing three weeks because of a knee contusion, which followed a battle with plantar fasciitis, Carroll said on Tuesday that he is still not at his optimal state.
“We are still working through it,” Carroll said when asked if the injuries were behind him. “It’s just one of them things.”
He is healthy enough to be playing, though. With Jonas Valanciunas’s return to the starting lineup after coming off of the bench for a game on Monday, the Raptors had their starting lineup intact on Wednesday for the first time in more than a month. While that lineup has actually been outscored this year, it figures to be a nice unit once Valanciunas and Carroll have regained their timing and conditioning.
It will only work, however, if Carroll can find his place on the Raptors. He is still on a minutes restriction, and still appears to be finding his place in the offence. There are a few too many awkward floaters and in-between shots, and Carroll suffered through another frustrating night against the Wizards on that end. He finished 2-for-10 in 26 minutes, in which the Raptors surrendered nine more points than he scored.
Defensively, he could make all of the difference once he is right. It is a tempting, if an ultimately pointless exercise, to think about the difference he might have made in last year’s sweep against these Wizards. Whereas Lou Williams’ perimeter game was rendered useless, severely limiting the Raptors’ options on the wing, Carroll’s defensive capabilities would have transferred well. Perhaps Casey would have been more comfortable sticking Carroll, rather than James Johnson, on Paul Pierce when Wizards coach Randy Wittman shifted Pierce to power forward. Or maybe Carroll could have been a break-glass-in-case-of-emergency choice to help slow down dynamo point guard John Wall, who devoured the Raptors.
“We didn’t look at him as guarding (point guards when the Raptors signed him),” Casey said. “That’s one reason we brought Cory (Joseph) in. Kyle (Lowry) is in that position. Mainly it’s the big (wing players), guarding those guys, guarding bigger guys like a Paul Pierce or whatever, where DeMar and (Terrence) Ross didn’t have to wrestle with those guys.
“Even now, all cards are on the table as far as matchups, if something is hurting us. We’ve always tried to think out of the box a little bit in those situations. We would (put Carroll on Wall if the Raptors needed to).”
It did not come to that on Wednesday, but Carroll did manage to contain Wall the few times he had to switch on to him in transition. It was a small thing, but as good of a reason as to believe in the new, balanced Raptors as anything else. If he really gets going, the Raptors’ ceiling rises exponentially.