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Lewenberg: Casey considers change to bolster slow starts

Josh Lewenberg
2/7/2014 7:47:35 PM
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LOS ANGELES - With sluggish starts costing his team two of their last three games, Dwane Casey has considered making a change to the lineup ahead of Friday night's contest against the Clippers.

The Raptors have been outscored 88-66 in the opening quarter over a three-game span to begin the month of February.

Their most recent loss, 109-101 in Sacramento on Wednesday, was eerily similar to Saturday's defeat at the hands of the Trail Blazers. After digging themselves an early hole on both nights, the Raptors were unable to close out late-game comeback bids, forcing Casey to question his first unit's disposition.

"Every team has their cross to bear and ours is starting games," he said after practice Thursday afternoon. "Whether we've got to change the lineup to start the game or whatever, I don't know we have to see."

"That's been our problem and it just didn't start [in Sacramento Wednesday], it's been going on for a while. We've been able to dig out of it but you can't get hit like that and expect to bounce back that way every game, it just takes too much of a toll on your body."

In many ways the Raptors have been defeating themselves. Over that three-game stretch they held opponents to 43 per cent shooting in the first quarter, an impressive mark, but the hustle stats tell a different story. Toronto was out-rebounded in the opening 12 minutes of each game and put both Portland and Sacramento on the line 12 times.

"We addressed it, we talked about it," Casey said, citing his team's focus, toughness and attention to detail.

If Casey does opt to shake up his starting lineup in Los Angles, even temporarily, the most likely casualty would be slumping California-native Amir Johnson.

Johnson has been hampered by a sore right ankle after turning it late in last week's win over Orlando. He has logged fewer than 20 minutes in just six games this season, yet three of those have come in the last four contests.

The forward has been Toronto's most reliable and valuable player over the last three years but it's clear he hasn't been himself, even before his most recent injury.

After averaging 13.8 points and 8.3 rebounds on 63 per cent shooting in December, Johnson's production dropped last month, scoring 9.5 points and grabbing 6.0 rebounds a night. His 47 per cent field goal shooting in January was his lowest in a full month since March of 2011.

As a team the Raptors surrendered 11 points more than they scored with Johnson on the floor in the month. Johnson, who routinely tops the team in the plus/minus stat, was the only Raptor (minimum 50 minutes) that was a net-minus in January, per NBA.com/stats.

Mired in a similar slump, and with the team struggling late in November, Johnson was pulled from the starting lineup in favour of Tyler Hansbrough (Johnson told the Toronto Sun that he had requested a move to the bench). Johnson would go on to play his best basketball of the season over the following nine games, averaging 18.0 points and 9.6 rebounds on 68 per cent shooting, and getting his starting job back after three games when Hansbrough went down with an ankle injury.

Poised to make a run at the playoffs, the Raptors need Johnson, a nine-year veteran, healthy and focused late in the season. Another temporary demotion could be in the best interest of both the Raptors and their best defensive player.

Although Hansbrough could be a candidate to replace him should a change be made, without disrupting the chemistry of the second unit, he has fallen out of Casey's regular rotation since returning from injury. Patrick Patterson would seem to be the most logical choice.

Often the first player of Toronto's bench, Patterson has been consistently effective since coming over in the trade from Sacramento in December. The forward has scored in double figures in 12 of his last 20 games, averaging 11.1 points and 5.5 rebounds, shooting 52 per cent from the field and connecting on 17 of his 35 attempts from three-point range over that stretch. The Raptors have outscored opponents by 132 points when he's been on the floor during that span.

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