TORONTO - With the playoffs in their sights three weeks ago, the last thing the Raptors expected to be talking about, with 18 games remaining in their arduous season, is the future.
However, as the heart of March quickly approaches, sporting a record 14 wins south of .500, that is exactly where they find themselves; looking towards and planning for what they hope will be a more promising future.
"Right now, where we are, where we're going, you're probably going to see different lineups," admitted coach Dwane Casey, who has used a league-most 21 different starting lineups this season. "We're trying to find out what we have. When you're growing and trying to develop, there's different things that come into play."
One of the top priorities on Casey's end-of-season to-do list will be finding more playing time for rookies Jonas Valanciunas and Terrence Ross. "They're going to play," he said following the team's Tuesday morning practice, "but it's going to be teaching [and] coaching instead of just giving playing time."
Evident from his decision to pull Valanciunas late in Sunday's win over Cleveland for getting "caught up in the speed of the game", Casey still expects his rookies to earn their stripes. "That's what we don't want to do, is develop bad habits," he continued. "Two or three mistakes, but not multiple mistakes."
Both rookies exceeded 20 minutes of action in the same game Sunday for the first time since Dec. 12 and only the sixth time this season. After getting off to a slow start in that contest, they were a crucial part of the team's second-half push, combining for 19 points on 5-of-8 shooting in the third quarter.
"I do see the process going forward. I get criticized for using the word process but that's what it is, a process. I'm an old Kentucky boy so I don't know too many other fancy words but it is a process and the process is on the right track."
There were no concrete updates on the status of either Rudy Gay or Andrea Bargnani Tuesday, as the team continues to weigh their options on the best course of action with each player. Both forwards had tests done Monday after missing Sunday's game, Gay with lingering back pain and Bargnani with a strained right elbow that he re-injured in Los Angeles last week.
The team's doctors are still going over the results of their tests before coming to a decision regarding their availability. Rudy Gay will be a game-time decision in Boston on Wednesday while Bargnani, who did not make the trip, will not play.
These days you don't need a special occasion to praise Amir Johnson, it's just become the thing to do. Of course, if you've seen him play recently you know he's more than deserving of any local acknowledgement after flying under the radar league-wide for most of his remarkable 2012-13 season.
Johnson is averaging career highs in points (10.1), rebounds (7.3), assists (1.5) and minutes (just under 28 per game) in this his eighth NBA season.
"He's just relentless," said Alan Anderson, expressing his admiration for Johnson's subtle, yet game-changing contributions. "We don't call no plays for Amir but he ends up with 20-something [points] and 12, 13 plus rebounds every game so that just goes to show what type of person [and] player he is. He just brings it every night. Every time he's out on that floor he spills it."
"He's only 25 still, I mean he looks old but he's still young," Kyle Lowry said jokingly of Johnson, who came into the league out of high school back in 2005. "He's playing and growing into his potential."
Johnson is starting to get some recognition as a dark horse in the race for this year's Most Improved Player, most notably from Yahoo's Adrian Wojnarowski, who recently campaigned for him over Twitter. Although All-Stars Paul George of the Pacers and Jrue Holiday of the 76ers are considered to be the favourites for the award, Johnson's work has vaulted him into the conversation.
"He's played really well," Lowry continued. "If you look at the numbers he's been pretty outstanding. He's probably been our most consistent guy all year. Hopefully he gets more looks at that most improved [player] because he's been fantastic all year and he's gotten better."
Shipping Up To Boston
After dropping the first two meetings of the season, the Raptors travel to Boston for the third of four match-ups with the surging Celtics on Wednesday, 7:30pm et.
The Celtics -- who are in Charlotte to face the Bobcats Tuesday -- have surprised many observers, sitting a half game out of the fifth seed in the East and winning 14 of 19 since Rajon Rondo's season came to an abrupt end after tearing his ACL in January.
"You expect[ed] some type of drop off but that team is just good," Lowry said. "They're 15 guys strong, everyone's together, everyone knows what they're going to do and they take pride in what they do."
Kevin Garnett, who had a season-high of 27 points in Toronto last month, and Paul Pierce have helped pick up the slack without their All-Star point guard. "They're champions, they're MVPs those two guys, they're first ballot hall of famers, I believe," Lowry exclaimed. "They just know how to play and win games, they've been doing it they're whole careers."
Meanwhile, the Celtics have won nine straight at home, seven of them against winning teams and haven't lost to the Raptors at the TD Garden since Jan. 23, 2008, a stretch of nine meetings in Boston.
"That's a tough place to play. The Garden is special for those guys but we can go in there and win that game. If we go in there and play our type of game that we're going to play and make sure we dictate the game there's always a chance we could go in there and get that win."