As they grind through the final stretch of the regular season against opponents who are desperately competing to keep their post-season hopes alive, the Toronto Raptors are getting a taste of the intensity awaiting them when the NBA playoffs begin April 18.
They're still short-handed: Kyle Lowry was easing back into practice on Monday, rehabbing a sore back that has sidelined him since March 18. And Amir Johnson didn't practise; he's unable to put weight on the ankle he injured on Friday.
If the Raptors have to play without the two starters this week, that's life. But it won't be easy closing out the season. Four of their five remaining games are against teams still fighting to punch their tickets, so home-court advantage is not assured. If back-to-back losses to the Brooklyn Nets and Boston Celtics are any indication, Toronto will have its mettle tested right down to the final game.
Johnson suffered the sprained ankle during Friday night's loss to the Nets, when he came down on the foot of teammate Jonas Valanciunas. Swelling in that ankle kept him out of Saturday's game versus Boston, and it's not known when he'll return. The power forward is the team's second-leading rebounder, with an average of 6.1 per game; he contributes 9.4 points a night, he's one of the team's most efficient defenders on pick-and-rolls and he's a tenacious shot-blocker.
If Johnson can't go, Tyler Hansbrough would likely get most of his minutes – the team usually prefers to have Patrick Patterson remain part of the second unit off the bench. Hansbrough scored 18 points and grabbed eight rebounds in relief of Johnson on Saturday against Boston.
"Tyler will do what he does, bring his energy, toughness and physicality," said Toronto coach Dwane Casey. "His toughness and activity got us into overtime against a team playing as well as anyone right now. We just played two of the hottest teams in the East in Brooklyn and Boston."
The 45-32 Raptors hit the road for four games starting Wednesday in Charlotte versus the Hornets, before returning to finish the regular season at home on April 15. Charlotte (33-43) is battling with Boston, Indiana, Miami and Brooklyn for the seventh and eighth playoff spots in the Eastern Conference, and the Raptors have to face every one of those teams except Indiana before closing out their regular schedule.
Two of those final games are against Charlotte, and that's worrying for Raptor fans – Toronto hasn't beaten the Hornets since March 2013.
So the playoff picture in the East is still cloudy. Toronto currently sits in fourth place, trailing the Chicago Bulls by a game. If the season had ended Monday, the Raptors would host the Washington Wizards in the first round. But with Toronto, Chicago and Washington so closely bunched in the standings, others scenarios are possible: The Raptors could finish behind the Wizards and lose home-court advantage, or overtake the Bulls and meet the Milwaukee Bucks.
The Raptors have had limited practice time recently. Monday and Tuesday were likely to be their final two regular-season workouts at home, and they were focused on shoring up their defensive fundamentals: They ranked 25th out of 30 NBA teams this season in defensive efficiency.
"We're not going to become a defensive juggernaut in a month," said Casey. "We have to shore up certain areas and positions, and improve mainly as a team. We're not going to change some of the weaknesses we have overnight. We have to make sure we have our team decisions and our togetherness."