The Raptors didn’t have much of a training camp because the league tried to get things rolling as quickly as possible following the lockout.
Since then, days off have been scarce as well.
Now, almost exactly halfway through the condensed schedule, things have changed.
After all the zaniness the team has had to put up with (back-to-backs, seven games in nine nights and so on) the schedule-maker, that unnamed, humourless person or computer program is at it again. Monday was the third of four days off between games for Dwane Casey’s squad, or, four times longer than their previous longest streak of non-game days. Thanks to the all-star break, following Wednesday’s home tilt with Detroit, the squad will have another five days off before taking on Houston in Texas on Feb. 28. Unlike in past years, each player will have the full all-star break off, since Toronto is one of just four teams without a representative at the various events in Orlando — believed to be the first time that has happened in franchise history.
For Casey, who believes his team has slipped defensively due to a lack of practice time, this stretch is a long-awaited gift. Casey said he and his staff “cherish” these days.
The focus on Monday was performing better in big moments and closing out winnable contests, something the Raptors have had immense difficulty with so far this season.
“Our biggest bugaboo has been the execution the last two and a half minutes, especially the last three, four games,” Casey explained.
“We didn’t execute properly. Have to make sure we are on time, on target in those situations.”
Not having leading scorer Andrea Bargnani — who will not play on Wednesday — has been a major reason why things have gone wrong down the stretch, along with the lack of a guard who can break down defences, an age-old problem in Raptor-land.
Even without those weapons, as always, Casey is looking for 48 solid minutes, after too often seeing invisible first quarters and poor finishes.
“I don’t know if we’ve really put together four quality, big-time quarters,” he said.
“Our job is to try to be consistent and for the most part what we’ve gotten is a lot of inconsistent play, some good, some bad.”
Forward James Johnson took a more glass-half-full perspective.
“A lot of games we beat ourselves on fourth quarter execution. Really, we beat ourselves,” Johnson said, repeating himself for emphasis.
“If we play a hard first quarter and finish games out, we’re going to be a real tough team to beat.”
Johnson feels the team is better than its 9-23 record and his coach believes strides have been taken in terms of stopping opponents.
“We have grown defensively. Guys know and understand that one of our identities is going to be a defensive identity,” Casey said.
After finishing 2011-12 a league-worst 30th with a defensive rating (points allowed per 100 possessions) of 112.7, Toronto has vaulted up to 17th (104.0).
Minus Bargnani and at times Linas Kleiza and Jerryd Bayless (both expected to play against Detroit), Toronto’s offensive rating has plummeted to 97.9, better than only two teams (compared to a 21st rating of 105.9 a season ago).
Those numbers will improve whenever Bargnani returns, but it is unclear just when that date might be.
In the meantime, his teammates will get in some crucial time on the practice court and an equally precious recuperation period.
“It’s well needed, we work our bodies down to the dirt,” Johnson said.
“You can lift (weights) all you want, but at the end of the day, you’re still going to need a break sometime.”
Perhaps nobody needs one more than Bayless, who has battled ankle issues for weeks.
What will the Arizona native be doing between the Detroit and Houston tilts?
“Sit down, relax ... I’m not doing nothing,” Bayless said.
He better enjoy the rest, because things will return to normal shortly.
The Raptors end February and kick off March with four games in five nights.