TORONTO - After falling victim to slow starts in each of the last two games, both losses, Raptors' coach Dwane Casey hinted change could be on the way.
"We've got to look at our starts," said Casey, the afternoon following a 90-83 defeat to Miami, one in which his team fell behind by nine in the first quarter. "That's the second game in a row that's happened."
Toronto allowed the Heat to shoot 52 per cent in the first quarter four days after the Nets shot 60 per cent in the opening 12 minutes of Tuesday's loss. Despite a second-half push, the Raptors failed to dig themselves out of an early-game hole in both contests, prompting Casey to suggest that a change could be imminent as soon as Sunday's game, at home to Denver, or in Oakland against Golden State on Tuesday.
"Whether it's a lineup change or a change in personality," he continued, "we've got to look at something to start the game because we can't expend that much mental and physical energy to fight against all the teams we're going against, and that's what it's been the last couple of weeks."
The Raptors - who used 22 different starting lineups last season, sixth most in the NBA - have started the same unit in each game to begin the campaign. After experiencing some success on the floor together - specifically on the defensive end - towards the end of last season, the group of Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan, Rudy Gay, Amir Johnson and Jonas Valanciunas has underachieved through 15 contests this year.
That unit - the Raptors most used, both this season and last - outscored opponents by 85 points when they were in the game together a year ago, starting 21 of the team's final 25 games. They ranked third in the NBA in defensive efficiency among five-man units that played a minimum of 300 minutes together (only the Spurs and Grizzlies' starting fives had a better defensive rating). This season they are a minus-35, per NBA.com/stats, and are allowing opponents to shoot 52 per cent from the field. They have shared the floor for 229 minutes while the team's second most-utilized unit - Lowry, DeRozan, Gay and Johnson with Landry Fields - has played just 34 minutes together.
As a team, Toronto has been least effective in the first and third quarters, with the starters playing the bulk of the team's minutes. The Raptors are a plus-three in the opening frame and minus-39 in the third. Their best quarter has been the fourth - a period in which the starters have rarely played together - where their plus-45 mark is third best in the NBA (behind only the Pacers and Thunder).
"I think you have to look at the chemistry, skill set, what they bring to the table, a little bit of everything," Casey said of a possible change. "I don't question our guys' fight. It's not that we're not playing hard, it's just not meshing together with the first group."
Two starters who could be on the hot seat are Johnson and Valanciunas. Both frontcourt players logged fewer than 18 minutes in Friday's loss and have failed to meet lofty pre-season expectations overall. Tyler Hansbrough, who played 25 minutes and helped turn the game around in the second half with his physicality, earned praise from his coach following Saturday's practice and could be a candidate to replace either Johnson or Valanciunas in the event Casey decides to make a change.
"It may be just a matter of time to let it go," Casey said. "We're still searching, like a lot of teams in the league are doing. We're not panicking but we've got to make sure we understand and we get the right group together."
Toronto hosts the Denver Nuggets Sunday afternoon, concluding a season-high four-game homestand before heading out west next week.