Injured Raptors shouldn’t hurry back


Jonas Valanciunas and DeMarre Carroll have been sidelined for what seems an eternity. However, it’s only been a few weeks, and the Toronto Raptors have kept their heads above water.

The loss of two of the Raptors starting five could have been disastrous, but it hasn’t. In fact, the startlingly fine play of stand-ins like Bismack Biyombo and Terrence Ross (even James Johnson gets a nod) has allowed the Raptors to grab some wins and avoid panic.

And a good thing too…the NBA’s Eastern Conference has improved to such a degree that the Raptors can’t afford any long periods of losing. Last season, Toronto was mailing it in for about the last 15 games. That ho-hum attitude caught up to them in the playoffs.

Nov 18, 2015; Salt Lake City, UT, USA; Toronto Raptors center Jonas Valanciunas (17) and forward James Johnson (3) box out Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert (27) in the fourth quarter at EnergySolutions Arena. The Utah Jazz defeated the Toronto Raptors 93-89. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Swinger-USA TODAY Sports

With the rule change in the off-season effectively rendering Divisional Championships meaningless, the Raptors need wins now, and tomorrow and beyond. Otherwise not merely home-court advantage, but a playoff berth, may slip away.

Consider the standings prior to tonight’s action. The Raptors are fourth and, due to Christmas victories by Atlanta and Miami, have slipped out of a tie for second without even playing! The Washington Wizards sit 11th, yet are only two games worse than the Raptors in the loss column.

There are only two teams, out of 16, who are clearly beyond hope of playoff contention, the Brooklyn Nets and the Philadelphia 76ers. Brooklyn talks bravely about of rebuilding on the fly. I say good luck with that; my prediction is they’ll be worse than Philly next season. As for the 76ers – at least they have been upfront about tanking, but they have botched it. Too much change, too few veterans.

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Back to the Raptors. While coach Dwane Casey has never said so publicly, I doubt he’s the kind to drop a player from his starting role due to injury. When JV and DeMarre return (they are listed as TBD against the Bucks, but I’d be surprised if we saw either of them before the New Year), they will be thrust back into their familiar roles with Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan and Luis Scola.

What will be interesting to watch is the returnees’ utilization. JV is already sensitive about spending so much Q4 time on the bench. I suggest he’ll need to swallow his pride, or play much better defense. Otherwise, he’ll be watching in crunch time as Biyombo takes care of Biz-ness on the boards, and in the paint. DeMarre is a plus defender, but Ross will breathe down his neck for minutes. I can envision a lineup of Ross, Carroll, Biz, Lowry and Cory Joseph or Johnson being entrusted with maintaining a 6-point lead with 4 minutes to play. I think that’s our best collection of defenders, particularly on the perimeter, and they will score enough to fend off the opponents. I’d prefer to see DD sitting down more often anyway. We need to keep that guy fresh and injury-free.

Finally, I have to offer props to coach Casey. He’s kept his head in spite of all the injuries, and the Raptors have 18 wins in 30 games. If he can receive more do-no-harm minutes from Anthony Bennett, Delon Wright and Bebe Nogueira, the Raptors might be able to ride out the storm. Under these trying circumstances, staying in the race for a top-four playoff seed would be a noteworthy achievement.

Next: Will holidays bring trades to Raptors?

Let’s allow our injured soldiers to fully heal.