It does not take any goading to get head coach Dwane Casey to admit the Toronto Raptors are the authors of their own misery as playoff positioning becomes a topic of conversation throughout the NBA.
Heading into Monday’s game against the Washington Wizards at the Air Canada Centre, the Raptors suddenly – unexpectedly – find themselves in the postseason mix (which was unthinkable several weeks ago). A 4-19 start tends to have that affect.
But the Raptors had won six of their last seven, and, with 26 games left in the regular season, were just four games in arrears of the Milwaukee Bucks for the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.
“We’ve kind of got to the point where we wanted to be, as knocking on the door of the playoffs,” is how Casey put it.
If the Raptors (23-34) hope to make a serious run they cannot afford to put up ragged displays like Monday’s against the Wizards (18-37), who walked away with a 90-84 victory.
It was an excruciating night of basketball, especially on behalf of the Raptors, who seemed to be listless participants playing without any sense of urgency.
“Why we wouldn’t have that at this time of year, and for what we’re fighting for and scratching for and what we’ve been through is shocking to me,” an upset Casey said afterward.
Toronto had defeated Washington 96-88 last week, but was flat during a tepid opening half, as the Wizards opened up a 40-32 lead.
The Wizards carted a 63-54 lead into the fourth quarter, and made the key shots every time the Raptors appeared poised to make a run.
The death knell was finally sounded by Nene, Washington’s rugged power forward, who bulled his way along the baseline for a reverse layup while getting fouled by Alan Anderson.
Nene made the free throw that extended Washington’s lead to 79-67 with 5 minutes 30 seconds left, and Toronto didn’t have the stomach to counter-punch.
Bradley Beal led Washington with 20 points, while DeMar DeRozan responded with 25 for Toronto.
Rudy Gay struggled all game, going 1-for-11 to finish with seven points in a game-high 41:49.
“It was a stinker,” Casey said. “They whipped us, they outworked us.”
A renewed commitment to defensive play, the continued solid play of Amir Johnson, not to mention the recent acquisition of Gay, has injected new life into the Raptors.
During the month of February, Toronto’s defence has been among the NBA’s best, holding opponents to an average of 92.9 points through its first 10 games.
Still, Casey must be left wondering where they would be if they had won only 12 of their first 23 games. “We went about it the hard way,” the coach said. “I wouldn’t recommend that for anybody. But at this point, I’m very happy with what we’ve got going here.”
What they got going is a huge week.
The Raptors next head to Cleveland to play another sub-.500 team in the Cavaliers on Wednesday. Then, the Raptors will play the Indiana Pacers at home on Friday, before a key encounter Saturday against the Bucks in Milwaukee.
The following week, the Raptors will make their final west coast swing of the season, which will take them through Golden State, Phoenix and Los Angeles for a game against the Lakers.
The Raptors now have 25 games remaining in the regular season, 13 against teams that currently sport sub-.500 records.
Not an impossible task, but not an easy one, either. “So we got a tough row to hoe,” Casey said.