Raptors playing with fire, too many early losses

Raptors guard DeMar DeRozan goes to the basket against Jazz centre Al Jefferson at the Air Canada...

Raptors guard DeMar DeRozan goes to the basket against Jazz centre Al Jefferson at the Air Canada Centre in Toronto, Ont., Nov. 12, 2012. (MARK BLINCH/Reuters)

STEVE BUFFERY, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 1:01 AM ET

TORONTO - Raptors coach Dwane Casey knows that he’s wading into dangerous territory and it’s crucial that he finds a life line before the situation with his team becomes critical.

Before the NBA regular season began, the club’s second year head coach expressed optimism that the roster provided by GM Bryan Colangelo was a significant upgrade from last year, particularly with the addition of point guard Kyle Lowry. The coach was also convinced that the bench was improved and that young veterans Andrea Bargnani and DeMar DeRozan would spread their wings and blossom.

If everything went according to plan, Casey figured that there was no reason why this year’s Raptors couldn’t vastly improve from their record of last year (20 games below .500). And with no end in sight in that ridiculous NHL impasse, the Raptors seemed primed to capture the imagination of a city that has largely turned its back on the franchise (mainly because they’ve won one playoff series in 17 years).

But then the NBA released its schedule, and everything started to go south. Of the club’s first 22 games, 15 are on the road, including an opening week that included Indiana, Brooklyn, Oklahoma City and Dallas — all teams expected to make and possibly go far in the playoffs.

And injuries began adding up. First Lowry, who opened the season like the all-star the Raptors believe he can be, followed by Landry Fields, who has played like, well, not an all-star, and Alan Anderson. And top of that, neither Bargnani nor DeRozan have started the year like they’re about to break out, though there have been flashes, as was the case for DeRozan in Monday night’s heart-breaking 140-133 loss in triple OT to the visiting Utah Jazz. Pretty well everything that could go wrong has gone wrong and Casey has had to play the part of the psychiatrist as well as coach for this young, impressionable team. Losing streaks are never good, but they can be deadly for a young squad early in a new season. The worry is that when a young team starts to lose on a regular basis, it can fall into a deep funk, making it that much more difficult to snap out of its malaise. And then you can kiss any hope of making the playoffs goodbye. And so Casey and his staff have bombarded their players with positive vibes, with the message that better days are close at hand. The guys certainly took that message to heart against the Jazz in a losing cause, especially DeRozan, who was Mr. Everything for the Raptors, picking up 37 points, six assists and eight boards.

“It’s huge,” said Casey, when asked about keeping his players upbeat despite the early season travails. “We had a decent exhibition season, kind of got expectations out of whack a little bit. I was preaching the whole time, we’re not where we need to be. (But) we’re taking steps, believe me. We’re way ahead from where we were last year. But the pressure of the road schedule that we have is daunting — if you look at it through the whole stretch. But like I told the guys, you got to go one game at a time.”

Yes, the schedule has been brutal and the Raps are 1-6, but now’s the time to go on some sort of run if they hope right the ship. Five of their next six games are on the road, but four are against teams with a losing record. It’s almost do or die already.

“You definitely have to be worried and have a sense of urgency,” said Bargnani of the team’s start. “It’s been four years since we made the playoffs.”

Casey said it’s crucial the Raptors avoid getting overwhelmed with their start.

“That’s why as coaches we’re trying to be upbeat, positive, teaching, nurturing more so than berating,” he said. “And the guys are responding. Each game we’ve had that bad stretch, and after that, they’ve always bounced back. So that’s encouraging. Now we just gotta narrow the mistakes of our young players. And that’s what we’re doing every day — showing them film, what’s working, what happens when it didn’t work. More in the teaching mode more so than anything else. The effort has been there, the guys are competing.”

“Nobody in this league hasn’t won anything yet,” added DeRozan. “We’re just seven games in. Everything’s going to shift our way if we keep playing hard.”


Photos