TORONTO - With six weeks remaining before his team's likely return to the playoffs, Dwane Casey is hoping to manufacture some late-season rest for the Raptors' two leading scorers.
Although DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry have shown no sign of wearing down, each logging more playing time than they have previously in their careers, Casey would like to keep them as fresh as possible for the stretch run, something that may be easier said than done.
Sitting 9 1/2 games ahead of ninth-place Detroit in the Eastern Conference standings, Toronto - the East's third seed - is poised to make its first postseason appearance in six years. With that comes another rarity for the franchise, playing meaningful games in March and April.
The challenge for Casey and the Raptors' coaching staff will be in managing the rotation, loosening it enough to give the guards a breathier - together or separately - without sacrificing important games.
"That's the hard thing," Casey acknowledged following Wednesday's practice. "We've got to buy them a few minutes here and there but every possession - not only every game, every quarter [but] every possession - is meaningful."
"When you start looking at scoring, we hit a drought the other night against Golden State right before the fourth quarter but we were just trying to buy minutes for those guys off the floor. It's a catch-22."
DeRozan is fourth in the league, averaging just over 38 minutes per game, behind only Carmelo Anthony, James Harden and Kevin Durant while Lowry is 14th, logging roughly 36 a night. Amongst NBA duos, only Houston's pair of Harden and Chandler Parsons as well as Golden State's Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson play more.
In February, DeRozan played over 40 minutes a night, with Lowry nearly hitting 38.
Since the early-December trade, Casey has been rolling out a strict nine-man rotation, using primarily Greivis Vasquez and John Salmons to spell Lowry, DeRozan and Terrence Ross. Getting reliable contribution from his reserves and piecing together the right combinations will be essential for the Raptors' coach to expand the rotation enough to buy his backcourt duo more downtime on the bench.
One player he'd like to see more of, who could help in taking the burden off Lowry and DeRozan, is newcomer Nando De Colo. The versatile guard has played just eight minutes since being acquired from the Spurs in a deadline day trade two weeks ago.
Although Casey has had trouble pinpointing where exactly De Colo fits in his lineup, he anticipates using the 26-year-old as a secondary ball handler, likely at the two or three position.
"We've got to make sure we have the right combinations on the court, that way we don't sacrifice scoring, but he knows how to play, he has a feel for the game," Casey said of De Colo. "You can't really put your finger on his position or what he is, a two, a three or a point [guard], but he's a basketball player. He just knows how to play."
The Raptors got back to work Wednesday after taking a couple days off to satisfy a league mandate.
"I thought we had decent focus," Casey said, "the usual first day back to school-type start, but I thought once guys got into it we ramped the intensity a little bit.
"There was no resistance as far as the drills were concerned whatsoever, so I could sense they were anxious to get back. As a coach you don't want to lose that rhythm, that's the biggest fear. I didn't sense any of that today."
While Jonas Valanciunas used the time off to get away from the game, spending the day ice fishing on Lake Simcoe (he returned home empty handed, without a fish), Terrence Ross took advantage of a rare mid-season opportunity for rest.
Ross has been nursing a sprained left ankle, keeping him out of Sunday's win over Golden State, but was able to practice in full Wednesday.
"It happened at the best time," said Ross, who expects to be in uniform when the Raptors host Sacramento on Friday. "I got a few days off to stay off it and rest. I'm feeling back to normal. I've still got to do treatment on it but right now it feels good."