So Serge Ibaka is a Raptor, and he’s in his first practice, and the team screws up on defence. And Serge Ibaka, in his first practice, speaks up.
“Yesterday was the first time when guys made mistakes defensively, and a player instead of a coach said, ‘Let’s do it again. No, let’s get it right,’ ” said Raptors head coach Dwane Casey, the morning of Toronto’s Friday showdown with the Boston Celtics. “I love it. That’s the leadership, defensive leadership, the take-command type leadership, you’ve got to have from players. That’s what he did.”
Casey said P.J. Tucker, the other forward the Raptors acquired before the trade deadline slammed shut, was the same kind of guy. Veterans, defenders, players. Casey seemed happy, and he should. This is the most talented Raptors team ever. It has more guys at more positions than any team in franchise history. It has shot creators, shooters, rim protectors, defenders, big men, swingmen, little men, a toolbox’s worth of tools.
“I think it looks like that on paper, but I don’t know, you know, it has to work on the court,” team president Masai Ujiri said Thursday night. “Humbly, I say that with all respect you know, I honestly can’t tell until we go out there and play. But on paper when you fill it out, OK year we have a point guard, we have backup, we have a shooting guard, we have backup, (small forward) we have backup, (power forward) we have backup, (centre) we have 10 backups. So I think that, you hope it works out.”
On paper. That’s important, of course. Asked about having veterans who like to defend, DeRozan said, “It helps a lot. On paper . . . Now we have to translate it over onto the court, that’s going to be the next test.” On whether this was the best team he had been given, head coach Dwane Casey said, “Yeah, because of Serge and P.J., on paper. It’s on paper. Now we’ve got to put it all together. It’s on us as a staff, in a short period of time, to get a rhythm, get a feel for each other, what guys can do, can’t do, and try to combine what they’ve done well for other teams and try to incorporate it into what we’re doing.”
DeRozan compared it to getting a new coat of paint on his car, but this was different: This was a car getting a door where before there was howling open space, plus a muffler to quiet the noise. Tucker’s defence and toughness — plus the fact that he doesn’t need the ball on offence — fits. Ibaka’s ability to play power forward, plus a more agile brand of small-ball centre than Jonas Valanciunas — who was talked about on the trade market last week, and will very likely be on the trade market in the summer — fits.
So now, it’s time. The pressure is here. Not to beat Cleveland, no. LeBron James is still in his galaxy-destroying prime, and while we don’t know how all-star power forward Kevin Love will respond to arthroscopic knee surgery, beating Cleveland is a wish, not a command.
Remember last season? After the Cavaliers blew out Toronto in Game 5 to take a 3-2 series lead, LeBron said, “I’ve been a part of some really adverse situations, and I just didn’t believe that this was one of them.” One Raptor, before Game 6, admitted he thought Cleveland had not taken the Raptors seriously in Games 3 and 4 in Toronto, and that Game 6 was going to be a problem. It was.
The gap remains a real gap, until proven otherwise.
But the pressure is on the Raptors to justify their talent. That means none of the slumping body language from before the all-star break, the collapsing chemistry, the offence that suddenly didn’t work, the defence that failed. The team that went 5-11 before the all-star break mercifully arrived looked like it didn’t want to play together. That has to end, and fast.
So the pressure is on Casey to fit the pieces together at both ends. The pressure is on DeRozan to find open three-point shooters when he is surrounded or cut off from the shots he hits with relative ease. The pressure is on Lowry to be his best self when the games really begin to matter. Since Toronto entered Friday night in the fourth slot in the East, which would lead to a second-round confrontation with Cleveland, they might already.
But Boston failed to add a star at the deadline, deferring to the near future. Red-hot Washington added a lone shooting wing, and no more. This Raptors team has free agents pending in Lowry, Ibaka, Patrick Patterson and Tucker, and re-signing all of them with no regard to the punitive luxury tax isn’t in the cards unless this team somehow wins a title, which nobody expects. The window for this team to do something in the playoffs is now.
“I don’t think it’s pressure,” DeRozan said. “It’s part of your job. They take you to somewhere to write a story, it’s on you to come up with a story, right? It’s just our job. They put things together and it’s on us to go out there and play, do what we’re supposed to do. It’s on us.”
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