DeMar DeRozan became the face of the Toronto Raptors the second Chris Bosh left town and he was not very good during this stretch of three games in as many nights.
Yet for all the talk about how Dwane Casey will find out some things about his new team in this compressed NBA season, there is a wisdom in not viewing the past five games as a referendum on DeRozan. Because when it comes to offence, the NBA has shown a distinctly and predictably ugly face. Not yet 1998-99 ugly – when the NBA came out of a lockout with a jerry-rigged season that turned into the lowest-scoring season since the shot clock was introduced in 1954 – but ugly nonetheless.
You’d expect teams to improve offensively as the season goes on. Still, going into Wednesday’s slate of games, including the Raptors' 98-91 loss to the Sacramento Kings, a total of 15 teams were averaging more than 15 turnovers per game, compared to four at the end of last season. Fourteen clubs shot .460 or better from the field last season; this season, seven teams had done so. In the 2010-11 season, 11 clubs averaged over 100 points per game. Through Tuesday, just five teams were averaging 100 points. Using offensive efficiency – number of points per 100 possessions – as a measure, half the league (15 teams) was under 100 points going into Wednesday. Three teams finished the season under 100 in 2010-11.
“Offensive efficiency is down,” said Casey, the Raptors head coach. “You watch some teams and you can see they’re making the same mistakes we make. It’s ugly – and we’re ugly, offensively, in spurts.
“But I’d rather get bad shots than turnovers, because at least you can get back into your defence.”
Casey’s comments were made before the game. Then, one night after losing 93-78 to the previously winless Washington Wizards, in which the Raptors has a season-high 23 turnovers, they had 18 more on Wednesday in finishing their only back-to-back-to-back run of games with a 1-2 record. The Raptors have 73 turnovers in four games. It was the Kings' first road win in five games.
DeRozan was once again something a passenger – 13 points in a 29 minutes and five seconds, giving him 44 points in five games since hitting a season-high 25 points in a 92-77 win over the Cleveland Cavaliers on Jan. 4. Thank goodness his replacement at two-guard off the bench, Leandro Barbosa, went 11-for-18 en route to 24 points. Linas Kleiza made his first appearance in 11 months after under-going microfracture surgery on Feb. 1 to repair both a torn meniscus and chondral defect in his right knee, and had 10 points and three rebounds. Yet while celebrating the return of Kleiza – and the guess here is Rasual Butler’s starting job has a big target on it right now - the Raptors were forced to play down the stretch without Andrea Bargnani, who strained his left calf.
Bargnani’s absence was one of the reasons DeMarcus Cousins left his mark all over the game, finishing with 21 points and 19 rebounds. Cousins, who had been sent home by the team earlier this month because of his attitude and who requested a trade before head coach Paul Westphal was fired, threw his weight around and was assessed a technical foul for glaring at Amir Johnson after a put-back dunk that made it 60-60.
“I told him he has to get himself into shape to play the kinds of minutes that an NBA centre has to play,” said Kings head coach Keith Smart, who is 2-2 since replacing Westphal on January 5. “If he wants to be an elite player he has to pay the price of conditioning and this is all part of the process. He had it in him to rebound the ball [Wednesday]”
Make no mistake: with a game against the Indiana Pacers on Friday followed by a three-game road trip in to Chicago, Atlanta and Boston in a five-day span, the ugliness could get uglier for DeRozan – especially if Bargnani is hobbled.
“If he was not working on his shot every day, I’d be concerned,” said Casey. “He’s still 21. There’s still a lot of growth. I had Rashard Lewis in Seattle and it was the same type of thing: three of four games he couldn’t hit the broad side of a barn.
“My thing is, if you miss a shot get your butt back defensively and don’t make the same mistake on the defensive end,” Casey said. “Don’t just wait for your next shot to come around. My job is to get him some sweat shots; get to the basket, see the ball go through the hoop. For a shooter, that’s important.”
“I think he’s frustrated with himself,” said Casey. “But again, I think a lot is coming out of the respect the league has. They put the best defender – John Salmons – on him and then they would bring [Cousins]over early. Quick double teams, a man and a half defence and those things? He’s got to the point now where he’s got the respect, and he has to learn to play.”
There was a flash of what DeRozan needs to do down the stretch when he drove the lane and spun a lay-up in to make it 80-75. Go to the hoop. Play with abandon. This is a season to get knee-deep in the muck and mire, because history suggests it’s going to be messy in the post-lockout NBA. Might as well get in there early.