Time is running out for Raptors to figure things out

OKLAHOMA CITY -

Time is becoming an issue for the Raptors.

That’s time as in the time necessary to get things righted so that when the team does begin the playoffs as the No.

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2, 3, or 4 seed in the East, they are on point offensively, defensively and every other which way.

Anyone unfortunate enough to have passed up a Friday night out on the town to instead hunker down in front of a television and watch the Raptors once again succumb to the wiles of the Charlotte Hornets knows there remains plenty to do on that front.

The Raptors were torched by a Charlotte team that was without its No. 1 scoring threat and, even when fully healthy, scores just 98.4 points per 100 possessions, the third-lowest mark in the league, barely ahead of the tanking New York Knicks and Philadelphia 76ers.

Offensively they struggled to make shots all night, but at least there were some viable reasons for that.

Kyle Lowry was just coming back after sitting out the past three games. Terrence Ross was back in the starting five for the first time in 21 games which meant both James Johnson and Greivis Vasquez were back in their second unit roles.

A lot of moving parts on a night they were taking on a rather stingy team that plays from tipoff to the final buzzer with the kind of tenacity and push-back Dwane Casey can only dream of these days.

There is much less doubt that offensively, this team will find its way, mostly because they want to.

Who doesn’t like to score?

The big question over these final 20 games is are the Raptors as willing to put in the work to get the defence back to where it needs to be so that a first-round knockout isn’t the extent of their playoff run?

Dwane Casey did not sound at all confident that was the case Friday night in Charlotte.

Over the course of interviews with the media Friday morning following shoot around, before the game and then again after the game, Casey, on all three occasions, made reference to a wish that he had for his team. A wish that players would start talking about getting in a rhythm defensively rather than just the offensive rhythm they are constantly chasing.

The players do address their defensive deficiencies when they are brought up and correctly point out that they show, in spurts, connected, solid defensive team play, but then lament the fact that most of the year they have not been able to maintain it even over the stretch of a single full game.

This time a year ago, the Raptors had that defensive rhythm where all five players on the floor at any one time were connected by an invisible string. When one went out to contest a threat on the perimeter, the other flipped over and covered off the man he had just left and down the line it went.

It was a unit of five acting as one. That talent though has only rarely been seen this season.

Casey blames the lapse on the fact that the team has been overly focussed on its offence. When DeRozan went down for six weeks, the concern was where would all those points be made up.

Then when he returned, it took him a while to find his rhythm while Lowry got out of whack having expended as much energy as he did to carry the team with DeRozan out.

Now DeRozan looks like the DeRozan of old offensively and Lowry is refreshed after a six-day break of his own.

Lost in the shuffle though has been the defence.

After Friday’s game, DeRozan talked of getting back to that hard-nosed defensive team that opponent’s dreaded playing. But he talked about it like it was just something that would happen.

“Once we get it back going, we still have whatever it is, 20 games before the playoffs start,” DeRozan said. “We’ve still got an opportunity to get this back going at the perfect time, especially going into the playoffs. We understand that and to be aware that every time we go out there, it’s not just for the (regular) season, it’s about the playoffs.”

To the ear that all sounds good, but it’s not the first time a player in that room has spoken that way this year and here we are just 5 1/2 weeks from the first playoff game and the defence remains as big a question mark as ever.

Casey put the onus directly on his stars to once and for all put all their focus on getting the defence sorted out.

“We got to get that pendulum swung back to the defensive side and it starts with our top players,” he said.

Lowry, too, talks of the need to lock in defensively and use these final games to get back to a position of defensive superiority.

As it stands now the Raptors are 22nd in the NBA in defensive rating, allowing opponents 107.8 points per 100 possessions. In terms of teams headed, or at least thought to be heading to the playoffs, that is dead last in the NBA.

If the Raptors are to progress further than they did a year ago in the playoffs, that is going to have to change and it’s going to take more than just talking about it to do that.

WESTBROOK A BIG TEST

OKLAHOMA CITY — There may not be a better test in the NBA right now for a team’s defensive resolve than facing Russell Westbrook.

With all due respect to LeBron James, Steph Curry and James Harden, the hottest player in the NBA is the Thunder’s Westbrook.

And it will be Westbrook waiting to greet the Raptors when they step onto the court tonight at Chesapeake Energy Arena.

All he has done over the past four games is put up an average of 42.75 points, 9.75 assists and 12.5 rebounds. In three of those four games he had triple doubles. And still the Thunder were just 1-3 in those games.

The Raptors drag their listing defence into Oklahoma City hoping to find a way to contain Westbrook.

“It’s gotta be a team effort,” DeMar DeRozan said. “All five. Transition, understanding, showing him a wall. We’ve gotta make everybody else beat us, not him. Not let him get his normal 40 points he’s been getting lately. We’ve gotta be tough on him and force other players to make plays.”

Toronto won here a year ago with both Westbrook and Kevin Durant in the lineup. They’ll catch a break with Durant out, but the way Westbrook is playing right now, hardly anyone is noticing he’s even out.



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