It is one of those things that will be tucked away in the back of Dwane Casey’s mind for a time when the games carry a little more meaning.
For the rest of us, it’s a reminder that the head coach of the Toronto Raptors is not above trying to force the issue.
It was necessity – specifically, the absence of Andrea Bargnani and a tendency toward slow first quarters – that caused Casey to start DeMar DeRozan at the small forward spot last Sunday in a 94-73 win over the New Jersey Nets. DeRozan, normally a two guard, was back at small forward Tuesday, in what would turn out to be a 100-77 loss to the Atlanta Hawks at the Air Canada Centre.
Casey once again went with a small lineup, starting both Jerryd Bayless and Jose Calderon in addition to DeRozan, James Johnson and Amir Johnson, to little effect.
The Hawks outscored Toronto 33-19 in the second quarter, shooting 66.7 per cent and catching the Raptors repeatedly in transition, en route to a 56-37 half-time lead.
They started to take care of the ball in the second half – four turnovers, after 11 in the first – which helped them withstand a noticeable drop off in second-half shooting.
Larry Drew, the Hawks head coach, would later say he was concerned coming into the game because of the pace at which the Raptors play with their smaller lineup. But he also knew he’d find a mismatch if both Calderon and Bayless were in the game.
“Somebody was going to have to guard one of our big guys,” Drew said.
Casey, who went big to start the second half, said the smaller lineup gives him much-needed ball movement. “It gives us two facilitators in Jerryd and Jose and it also allows DeMar to run a little bit more,” the coach said. “It may not work against Boston [the Raptors play the Celtics on Wednesday in Boston]or against big guys like LeBron [James of the Miami Heat]or Paul Pierce [of the Celtics]”
Because of the compressed NBA season, necessitated by the lockout, there is a sense 2011-12 is going by in a blur. There is a sense that we are still trying to get to know Casey (this was only the eighth home game in Toronto’s first 22), but coming into the Hawks game, the Raptors had held their last three opponents (the Phoenix Suns, Utah Jazz and Nets) below their season-scoring average. The Raptors bench, meanwhile, averaged 43.2 points in five games – 11 above its season average – and had overcome a pair of double-digit deficits for victories.
Defence and bench scoring? That’s coaching, folks.
DeRozan hasn’t had the type of season either he or the team expected. But there’s been a lot going on; a lot to assimilate and process. He had his best game of the season last Sunday, with a season-high 27 points and a career-high 16 free-throws. That is a game Casey and the coaching staff will save on their laptop files – in many ways it was a game to grow on.
This one, not so much. DeRozan finished with nine points and was 3-for-9 from the field.
So Casey and his assistants will continue to preach the need to attack the basket.
“Get to alleys,” he said. “Recognize going to the hole.
“We want him to go at guys,” Casey said. “Go at the shoulder. Don’t veer, don’t avoid contact. I’m a big believer that in any sport, you can’t have fear of going to a guy’s body. You want him to almost treat it like a football hole, and bust through and get to the rim.”
It might have been equal parts desperation and inspiration, but if it gets DeRozan taking his game to the messy areas of the court, if it can be a key to unlocking his potential, the small forward’s role might be something Casey files away for a future quarter.