By Steven Lebron
After back-to-back home losses this week to Milwaukee and Brooklyn, Toronto Raptors head coach Dwane Casey did not mince words.
"If you don't come in with a mindset that you're going to outwork that team, you're going to have more nights like this," Casey said. "We have to go back to the drawing board. For whatever reason, we've lost that work ethic, that fight, that grit, we have to get that back."
Before this pair of disappointing outings at the Air Canada Centre, the Raptors appeared to be turning a corner. They had won six straight games, including four wins in five nights, the last two on the road in overtime. Prior to the win streak, Toronto had gone 3-7 in their last ten, which included losses to Charlotte and Detroit at home, the type of subpar competition the Raptors were beating up on with regularity to start the season. At 33-17, Toronto has already set a franchise record for most victories before the All-Star break. They're second in the Eastern Conference, behind only the Atlanta Hawks. But still, few people see the Raptors as legitimate contenders.
On the season, the Raptors are a top five team in offensive efficiency, but have lingered near the bottom ten in defense all year. They're currently ranked 21st in the league in defensive efficiency, allowing 104.6 points per 100 possessions. In January, a month in which they went 9-7, the Raptors were a bottom five defensive team.
Casey often talks about finding a balance on both ends of the floor. To achieve this balance, and to try and address the team's ongoing defensive woes, 22-year-old starting center Jonas Valanciunas has found himself on the bench in the fourth quarter of games, as was the case on Monday against Milwaukee.
In his third season, Valanciunas is averaging 17.1 points, 11.6 rebounds and 1.6 blocks per 36 minutes. He's shooting 56.4 percent from the field and has improved his post-up game and play around the rim. Casey's defensive schemes require his big men to show on pick-and-rolls and rotate, and Valanciunas' lack of quickness means he's not the best option on the floor on some nights.
The stats support Casey's choice to opt for a frontline that excludes his starting center. On the season, when Valanciunas has been on the floor with either Amir Johnson or Patrick Patterson, the team has produced a negative net rating. Meanwhile, the combination of Johnson and Patterson on the floor has produced a +11.5 net rating in 273 minutes. If you narrow those numbers to the fourth quarter, the Johnson-Patterson pairing has a +15.6 rating in 109 minutes.
"Every night is a different situation," Valanciunas said at practice on Wednesday when asked about sitting out the fourth quarter against Milwaukee. "A lot of teams go small on us, and when they do, coach is trying to match their small players."
If the inconsistent minutes late in games are bothering him, Valanciunas is not showing it.
"No, I'm not frustrated," he said, noting that his goal is to get quicker. This past summer, Valanciunas worked with a sprint coach in Oregon to improve on his running. He says it's an area of his game that still needs improving.
The case for Valanciunas being on the floor late in games may actually come from what he brings on the offensive end. Against the Bucks, Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan and Lou Williams combined to shoot 7-for-35 from the field. Valanciunas was 6-for-9 and scored 12 points and grabbed 13 rebounds in 25 minutes of play. In a game in which the Raptors' perimeter-oriented attack sputtered to a 32.1 percent shooting night, perhaps their big man shouldn't have been on the bench watching as the fourth quarter comeback fell short.
Of course, Valanciunas is developing, and there will come a time when he'll get those fourth quarter responsibilities. The fans, though, don't want to hear that it might not happen until next season at the earliest. If there's anything this team is learning, it's that creating expectations can be easy in this league, but meeting them can be challenging, especially when success comes much faster than anyone had imagined. Everything is scrutinized much more closely when a team is planning for a postseason run in February. Even after losing to Brooklyn on Wednesday, the Raptors are 12 games ahead of the Nets in the Atlantic Division. When they clinch, it will mean they're guaranteed a top four seed in the East and home-court advantage in the first round.
The "We The North" campaign, the thrilling first round series against Brooklyn last year, the 24-7 start to the season -- all of this was an exciting ramp up for the city of Toronto to take its basketball team seriously again. But now comes the hard part, as the team is being sized up as an above average team that has glaring weaknesses rather than a championship contender.
It's a fact that Casey has noticed as well. Recently, he's talked about the need for more positivity from those covering the team and even from the players themselves.
"Some of the questions that were being asked over the last few weeks, it was like we're a championship team right now," Casey said prior to Monday's loss to Milwaukee. "We're nowhere near that, we still have a lot of growth to go, a lot of development."
With these two home losses, the Raptors now enter a stretch of eight games in which they play the Los Angeles Clippers, San Antonio and Washington at home, then come out of the All-Star break with four games on the road against Atlanta, Houston, New Orleans and Dallas before returning home to play Golden State.
Perhaps more important than whether this stretch of games will push them further down in the East standings is that we'll find out how far this roster as currently constructed can go, and how the flaws on both ends can be addressed this offseason.
In Toronto, a 50-win season (the team's franchise record is 48 wins, they need to go 15-17 in their remaining 32 games to match that mark) and an Atlantic Division title is no longer good enough for the fan base or the organization. The Raptors are still on track to be favored in a first round series, and perhaps a deeper run in the playoffs depending on matchups, which is right where most pundits had them before the season. Still, if the team is in the development phase as Casey suggests, then it would make sense to go through some growing pains with Valanciunas in late-game situations, so he can be ready when this team is ready to contend.
Steven Lebron is a contributing writer for Sports on Earth. He has published work for Grantland, The Classical, VICE Sports, GQ, Rolling Stone and various other publications. You can follow him on Twitter @steven_lebron.