A month ago, it was hard to imagine how DeMarre Carroll could fit back into the Toronto Raptors lineup after missing three months to recover from knee surgery. Now 12 games into his return, he's up to a 40-minute workload, and the defensive specialist is also giving the Raps something they desperately need: scoring.
Carroll matched his best offensive stat line of the year in Thursday's Game 2 overtime win against the Miami Heat – a game-high 21 points, to go with five rebounds, four steals, and an assist. It came on a night when the Raps shot less than 42 per cent from the field, and once again their stars, Kyle Lowry (32 per cent) and DeMar DeRozan (38 per cent) struggled to provide offence.
The rhythm in his three-point shooting has been the final piece to fall back into place for Carroll – he hit three of his six attempts Thursday. Entering Saturday's Game 3 in Miami, the Heat will no doubt make adjustments to try to limit Carroll – just as they will for Jonas Valanciunas after his dominant performance Thursday. Perhaps even the smallest shift in defensive focus could spring something open for Toronto's two all-stars.
"I think my biggest thing is I feel like I finally got my rhythm back … my shot feels good, my movement feels good. The big thing for me now is to be aggressive," Carroll said after Friday's practice. "I think if I'm aggressive, playing in an aggressive mindset, it can open things up for guys like Kyle and DeMar, because they don't have to key in on those two guys."
Carroll's stat line on Thursday looked like the sort that he routinely put up as a member of the Atlanta Hawks in the 2015 playoffs. In 16 postseason games last year, he scored more than 20 points on seven occasions.
The 29-year-old wing defender returned for the final few games of this year's regular season and was limited to 15 minutes, and then 20 a game. He voiced frustration early in the Indiana series when he wanted more time to defend Pacers star Paul George, but the team was sticking to its plan to increase his minutes slowly, game by game.
"It's a lot of hard work, but it's also a lot of trust, and I give all the credit to coach [Dwane] Casey, because he's the one that put me out there," Carroll said. "He could have just sat me on the bench and played me spot minutes, but he said, get out there, play your minutes and get your minutes back."
The defensive hustle has made way for more offence for Carroll – particularly in Thursday's game when Miami had 21 turnovers and Carroll had his best steals total of the playoffs.
"You play hard on the defensive end, you get steals, get in the passing lane, you get out on the break and have easy options," Carroll said.
The Raptors continue to say they'll live or die with Lowry and DeRozan as their main scoring threats, but until those stars start hitting more shots, they will need big nights from players such as Carroll to survive.
"We have to live with some of their tough shots as the game goes on just to see where their offence is," Casey said, "because we need them to be there as a threat of scoring as much as anything else. Again, it's not like we haven't seen those things change from game to game for certain players. I'm confident it will for those two.
"But in the meantime we have DeMarre shooting the ball well, Terrence [Ross] shooting the ball well, Patrick [Patterson] has the ability to shoot the ball. So there are other options to go to."