NEW ORLEANS - The Raptors have had longer road trips than the just-completed two-game swing through Houston and New Orleans, but few probably did as much for team chemistry as this one.
Head coach Dwane Casey deftly turned what could have been a divisive situation — DeMar DeRozan’s frustrated tweet after a loss in Houston where he sat the fourth quarter — into a unity building one.
Developing young NBA players both on and off the court is not an easy part of the job but Casey struck the right chords here.
He dealt with the matter in-house and got DeRozan to quickly realize the error of letting out his frustration in the public realm. The incident wasn’t a huge deal, but could have blown up into something far bigger. Instead, Casey used it as a teaching example and an illustration of how team issues are going to be handled under this regime going forward.
The group will be better for it happening.
Now, attention shifts to a four-game homestand, beginning Friday against Memphis.
With six road wins, Toronto has already matched its 2010-11 away total, but the team has not given its fans much to cheer about at the ACC. A 5-11 home mark vs. 6-13 away is a concern for Casey.
Luckily, he finally almost has a full roster — save for Andrea Bargnani, who did more on-court work at practice on Thursday, but remains week-to-week due to his calf injury. He will miss his 17th game in a row.
Depth has been more important than ever in this shortened, grind of a season. Against the Hornets, Toronto’s bench tallied 45 points to the Hornets’ 21. The New Orleans backups were also held to a dismal 6-for-26 shooting night.
Second man off the pine Linas Kleiza tied a career high with five three pointers in his 21-point performance. Leandro Barbosa and Jerryd Bayless combined for 20 points, eight assists and only a single turnover.
Though Casey was quick to state that New Orleans’ dismal record was a mirage, Memphis, Golden State, Orlando and Houston each are better squads, meaning improving that ACC record won’t be easy.
Few teams put as much pressure on opponents at the defensive end as the Grizzlies. It starts with point guard Mike Conley, who leads the league in steals, carries over to the other guard spot where Tony Allen provides some of the league’s most ruggedly relentless defence and to Rudy Gay and Marc Gasol.
In one game last year, Toronto turned the ball over a whopping 25 times.
Memphis has won eight of 10 and has beaten the Raptors five straight times.
After the Grizzlies contest, Toronto might benefit by facing three teams that could be distracted by trade rumours.
Ahead of the March 15 trade deadline, the Warriors, Magic and Rockets have all been mentioned prominently as clubs looking to shake things up.
Leading scorer Monta Ellis seemingly has been on the block forever, but this could finally be the year where he changes addresses. Dwight Howard, of course, is the focus of most of the trade attention — with the Warriors apparently going after him hard, despite his reluctance to ink an extension should he land there — and Houston’s Luis Scola and Kevin Martin were nearly dealt for Chris Paul earlier in the year.
Players never admit to being bothered by the whispers, but they do hear them and the Raptors will take any advantages they can get.
Grizzlies at Raptors
Rudy Gay has had some huge games at the ACC – including a memorable game-winner last season and likes playing against the Raptors. Gay leads the Grizzlies in scoring at 18.9 per game and gives opponents trouble due to his athleticism and leaping ability. Luckily for the Raptors, Johnson can match the size and athleticism. He leads the team in blocks and steals and has emerged as a strong defender. If he can make Gay work at the other end it will help the Raptors.
A year ago, the Grizzlies lost Gay and kept right on rolling. This time, they lost Zach Randolph and haven’t missed a beat. Marc Gasol became an all-star and Mike Conley has been strong as well. Recent addition Mareese Speights has helped replace some of Randolph’s production. In Gay, Tony Allen, Conley and Gasol, Memphis has a group of players that can excel at the defensive end of the floor.
DID YOU KNOW?
Conley leads the league in steals per game, Allen and Gay aren’t far behind (Allen leads the league in steals per 48 minutes) … Guard O.J. Mayo played a season at USC a year before DeMar DeRozan did the same thing … Speights averaged 14.4 points and 9.0 rebounds on .585 shooting in the five games previous to the win over Dallas … Memphis won both games last season, forcing 25 Raptors turnovers in a 96-85 win in Tennessee.