ATLANTA - It is stating the obvious, but the Toronto Raptors and Chicago Bulls are at completely different stages.
While the league-leading Bulls are attempting to shift from third to fourth gear and prove that they are legitimate title contenders, the 4-9 Raptors (losers of six of seven) are still trying to get out of neutral — or worse. Reverse.
All that matters for Chicago right now is getting victories and getting ready for what is to come in the post-season.
Referring to the ugliness that has been this shortened season so far, Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau said he could care less.
“We are not concerned with the aesthetics, we just want the wins,” said the NBA’s coach of the year following Saturday’s less than perfect victory over the Raptors.
For Dwane Casey though, this season is all about instilling his principles and system and making sure when the talent is upgraded, the remaining players know exactly what they are doing and what is expected of them.
“When we win I don’t get excited because I see a lot of mistakes then and when we lose I don’t get over concerned because this entire season, there’s a lot of work to be done from scratch. From Ground Zero,” Casey said.
Casey mused prior to the Bulls game that he believes morphing an offensive-minded franchise such as the Raptors have been to a defensively focused one is “the hardest thing to do in any sport.”
The coach is resigned to the fact that this is going to be a long, at times frustrating year.
“Energy-wise they’ve given us everything we’ve asked for. But nothing replaces youth and lack of experience except taking your lumps and going through what we’re going through right now,” he said.
And how are things going for the club about a fifth of the way into Season 1 of the Casey regime?
“There’s a rainbow at the end of the tunnel and I like what I see with the core group of guys.”
Toronto is well ahead of expectations defensively — both in terms of man-to-man and zone looks (the Bulls had trouble at times when Casey called for the zone and it kept that game close for a while).
As would be expected given the overall talent level and the fact that injuries have hit, the offence has taken a major step back.
With Andrea Bargnani, the NBA’s ninth-leading scorer doubtful for Monday’s game against the Hawks in Atlanta and probably a couple beyond that, it is hard to see things changing on that end.
There is one thing that the team can do to ratchet its sorry 86.2 points per game average up though.
Make some free throws.
After nailing 14-of-17 against Washington, the Raptors shot a dismal 20-for-32 (62.5% including two key late misses by Jamaal Magloire) against Indiana and a shockingly bad 14.3% (1-7) in Chicago.
Those numbers had Casey shaking his head.
“That’s something that we can control. That’s a free throw,” he said, emphasizing the word free.
Casey said the misses could be a result of an absurd five games in six-night grind, or it could just be a lack of concentration. Both could also explain the problems Toronto has had at times with boxing out and reading things defensively.
With Al Horford out for several months for the Hawks and the likes of Zaza Pachulia and Vladimir Radmanovic offering little resistance, the Raptors will have an opportunity to attack the rim and gain a chance for redemption at the line.
The big, nasty Bulls intimidated the Raptors into taking too many jumpers. Josh Smith aside, Atlanta doesn’t boast those roadblocks to the rim.
A more aggressive Toronto side on Monday and one that doesn’t waste its easiest chances, would indicate more than Casey’s defensive messages are being received.
PRESSURE ON DEROZAN
DeMar DeRozan is finding life without Andrea Bargnani a challenge, but not an insurmountable one.
Bargnani is sidelined with a strained calf that has cost him two games so far plus a half or so against Sacramento. His return is not imminently expected.
DeRozan, who had been slumping prior to the big man’s injury, has stepped up his game in Bargnani’s absence.
He followed a nice effort against Indiana (23 points) with a 15 point, four rebound, two block performance Saturday in Chicago.
But he would prefer to have Toronto’s leading scorer on the court.
“It makes a big difference in the way teams play us, Andrea adds so much when he’s out there on the court,” explained DeRozan.
“It opens (the floor) so much. It’s tough not having him, but we still have to fight it out.”
The third-year guard has become the obvious focus of opposing defences.
“You just have to read it, some teams double-team me, especially in the post, sending an extra guy, you just have to adjust and understand how guys play you and go from there.”
Head coach Dwane Casey would like to see DeRozan be more aggressive.
“With Andrea out we didn’t have a lot of low post presence. And when you do go (inside), (the Bulls) put you in a meat grinder,” Casey said.
“We took a lot of jumpers. We didn’t do a lot of things to get to the free throw line. We have to do a better job fighting.”
BY THE NUMBERS
The Raptors have a hard enough time scoring when the roster is at full strength. Here’s what the club could be missing against Atlanta on Monday:
Andrea Bargnani (calf strain) (22.3 points, ninth in league, 48.9% shooting, 28.2% 3pt%, 83.6% FT%
Jerryd Bayless (ankle) (8.3 points, 50% shooting, 66.7% 3pt%, 50% FT% (career ?)
James Johnson (ankle) (4.5 points, 35.7% shooting, 42.9% 3pt%, 50% FT%)
Aaron Gray (leg) (Career 3.6 points, 51.1% shooting, 57.7% FT%)
RAPTORS AT HAWKS
4 P.M. SNET/FAN 590
DEMAR DEROZAN VS. JOE JOHNSON
Johnson isn’t the dominant player he once was, but he also isn’t the complete stiff who was horrendous in the playoffs for the Hawks last season. He remains a very good scorer – leading the team with 17.8 points per game is second in assists (3.7) and keeps turnovers to a minimum. Meanwhile, DeRozan has emerged from a five-game slump with two strong outings in a row. He will need to outscore Johnson for Toronto to have a chance to pull off the upset.
Atlanta’s season basically collapsed when star centre Al Horford was lost for the bulk of the year due to a pectoral injury, but the team is 8-4 and could still make the playoffs. Horford is one of the league’s premier big men at both end of the floor and a Raptor killer. Without him, Atlanta’s defence takes a major dip and the team loses its best low post threat. Josh Smith has stepped up in his absence, filling the stat-sheet with a potential all-star caliber campaign. Jeff Teague has done well in his first full season running the point, averaging 5.8 assists and hitting 45.4% of his shots from long range. Unknown forward Ivan Johnson has emerged as a nice surprise for the Hawks. Johnson had a double-double on Friday as Atlanta stormed back from an 18-point deficit to beat Minnesota. Fellow reserve Willie Green is also hot for Atlanta.
DID YOU KNOW?
Early start time is due to Martin Luther King Day … Old-timers Tracy McGrady and Jerry Stackhouse are on the Atlanta bench … Johnson is seventh on Atlanta’s all-time scoring list … Smith recently became the fourth player to ever notch at least 25 points, five rebounds, five assists, six blocks and four steals in a game, joining Hakeem Olajuwon, David Robinson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar … Atlanta has won five of six.