Lewenberg: Raptors anxious to get home after five-game trip

Josh Lewenberg

2/8/2014 5:48:31 AM

LOS ANGELES - For the Raptors, Saturday morning's flight back to Toronto couldn't come soon enough.

It's that time of the year. Players are tired, or hurting, or both. Some are looking ahead to the events they'll be participating in during All-Star Weekend, others are looking forward to their midseason vacation time.

It's been nine days since the Raptors set out on a five-game West Coast trip and the fatigue was evident as they backed into a 2-3 record on the excursion.

"We can't use that as an excuse," Dwane Casey said after his team suffered their third loss in the last four games, falling 118-105 to the Clippers in LA Friday. "We knew that coming in, that we're getting ready for the all-star break, mental fatigue is setting in, everybody is preparing for the break but it's not here yet, we have games to go and business to take care of."

After taking care of business in two of their first three games on the trip, Casey's team lost themselves in a pair of losses to the Kings - a bottom dweller in the West - and the Clippers, one of the conference's elite. The Raptors fell behind early, giving up 67 points in the first half of each game, committing a total of 70 fouls and putting their opponent on the line 105 times over the course of three days.

The commonality, according to Casey, was a lack of mental and physical toughness against the likes of DeMarcus Cousins Wednesday and the duo of Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan two days later.

"The guys are down because they know that we physically didn't take care of business," he said.

"The physicality of the game is something we have to get ready for, especially if we're thinking about the playoffs because it's a physical game in the paint, setting screens, rebounding, going to the basket. All those things are there if you're serious about making the playoffs."

Overall, a 2-3 record on the trip is hardly disappointing, it's probably on par with what was expected of them going in, realistically. However, they should lose some sleep over the way they ended the road swing.

No one expected them to win on Wednesday, not against a scorned Clipper team coming off a tough loss at home to the defending champion Heat. After coming out flat again, Casey was forced to get creative midway through the third quarter, opting to deploy the hack-a-Jordan strategy, a maneuver designed to extend the game by putting a poor free throw shooter - this case, DeAndre Jordan - on the line.

Jordan, a 44 per cent free throw shooter, made just 10 of his 22 tries from the line, 14 of those attempts were gift wrapped and delivered to him from Casey. The move was not popular amongst the hometown crowd but for a coach on the verge of defeat, why not take a shot?

Although it shaved just two points off the Clippers' 20-point lead, directly, it slowed the game down and took the home team out of their rhythm.

"We had to do something," Casey said. "Physically they were just manhandling us in the paint. I thought that changed the game a little bit."

Toronto would cut its deficit to nine going into the fourth quarter. By that point the Raptors had run out of gas, understandably so.

Less than a week before All-Star Weekend, the Raptors are a beat up team. Kyle Lowry is battling a knee injury while both DeMar DeRozan and the slumping Amir Johnson are playing on sprained ankles.

DeRozan was the one Raptor who looked at home in LA, in actuality he was. The Compton-born guard scored 36 points, the most he's ever had in nine career games at Staples Center, knocking down a career-high 17 free throws.

After averaging 10.0 points on 31 per cent shooting in his first five career games back home, DeRozan has scored 28.5 on 52 per cent over his last four contests in LA.

It's yet another sign of DeRozan's growth on and off the floor in his fifth season.

"It's always good to come home and see the family, or whatever, but I don't put as much pressure on myself as I did my first year or even my second year," said the first-time all-star. "I don't try to come out here and prove a point that I'm from here or whatever, I just come here and play."

Johnson spent most of Friday night chasing down Blake Griffin, who scored 36 points on 13-of-18 shooting in 28 minutes. It was an impossible task for a player that has been slowed by the injury for a week and a half. The nine-year vet is used to playing through pain and plans to continue doing so but he couldn't hide his frustration after the loss.

"That nagging pain is just bothering me," said Johnson, who had eight points in 24 minutes against the Clippers. "I want to but there are just some plays I really can't get to the ball or make a play because my ankle just holds me back."

"I feel like I can do a lot better. I'm trying to baby it but at the same time I'm trying to go hard out there. Once the schedule turns and I can rest it a little bit, I'll definitely come through.

Lucky for Johnson and the rest of the ailing Raptors, they'll be en route back to Toronto Saturday after spending one more night on the road. There, they'll host the Pelicans and the Hawks before going their separate ways for the weekend, NBA all-star festivities.

The schedule eases up the rest of the way. The Raptors - who have played 28 games on the road, most in the East - only have 13 more to go away from the Air Canada Centre. Friday's contest against the Clippers marked their last road game against a winning Western Conference team.

"We want to compete every time we walk out but the main thing is we're building and we're getting better in some areas and some areas we're not," said Casey. "The physicality department, that's going to take some more time for guys to figure that out. My thing is competing, you go out and compete and fight physically and then you let the chips fall where they may and there were some situations where I didn't think we competed physically."