The season has been played in fast-forward because of the labour lockout, with games crammed into a tight time frame and very little room available for practices or other forms of coaching introspection.
The Toronto Raptors’ game against the Orlando Magic Monday marked exactly one month until the season draws to a close – 17 outings in which to try to score brownie points with coach Dwane Casey.
Give the season’s hurly-burly nature – 66 games in about four months – Casey could be forgiven if he is still trying to come to grips assessing the talent level of his rebuilding team in his rookie season.
For the record, Casey insists he’s not.
“I know what I know,” Casey said. “I know what I need to know about our team.”
Those comments came before a tough Magic outfit rumbled to a 117-101 victory over the short-handed Raptors, who played as if they were still in shock from a devastating overtime loss last Saturday to the NBA’s front-running Chicago Bulls.
The Raptors played without DeMar DeRozan, who missed his second consecutive game with a sore ankle.
And when backup point guard Jerryd Bayless reinjured his sore hip in the second quarter and was unable to continue, Casey’s bench was dangerously thin.
Alan Anderson, who was signed out of the NBA Development League to a 10-day contract earlier in the day, arrived just in time to shake hands with his new Toronto teammates, pull on a uniform, and join the team on the floor.
Without even the benefit of participating in the pregame warm-up, Anderson wound up logging eight minutes in the second half.
Even the seldom used Solomon Alabi made a guest appearance late in the game.
“I’m disappointed in our focus and attention to detail,” Casey said after a game in which the Raptors allowed the Magic to connect on 54.3 per cent of their shots, including 15 three-pointers. “We came out as flat as a pancake against one of the top teams in the league.”
Although their 16-34 record ranks them among the NBA’s lower echelon, the Raptors have otherwise made definite strides this season under Casey and his defence-first mantra, the setback Monday notwithstanding.
The Raptors headed into the Orlando game ranked 12th overall in opponent scoring, allowing 94.8 points a game, on average.
That’s a huge improvement from the previous season when a porous defence allowed 105.4.
Instead of getting blown out as they were on numerous occasions last season, many of the Raptors losses this year have been a gut-wrenching, down-to-the-last-few-possessions type of setback, clearly an indication the team is on the upswing.
Andrea Bargnani, before he suffered the first of a couple injuries to his left calf muscle, had been playing at an all-star level.
And although DeRozan has been inconsistent offensively over the course of the season, Casey’s insistence that he learn to play at the other end of the court can only make him a more complete package down the road.
Heading into the final month of play, Casey said simply he is looking for more of the same from his unit, with an emphasis on playing with an edge through four quarters.
And he said jobs for next year are still on the line.
“We’re not going to make, you know, Dr. Js or Larry Birds out of different players from this point on,” Casey said. “But I just want to see that focus, that consistency, continue to work, continue to stay with the program, believe in the defensive system, the offensive system, and continue to work everyday.”
Casey is proud of the way his Raptors have generally performed this season, laying the groundwork for what he hopes will be successful campaigns in the near future.
But he took umbrage over comments made by former NBAer Charles Barkley, who said the Kentucky Wildcats, who are heading to the NCAA Final Four, are so good that they would be able to beat even the Raptors.
“I’m glad Charles feels that way,” Casey said. “That’s why he’s commentating and not coaching.”