When the Raptors lost DeMar DeRozan to an injury against the Dallas Mavericks in late November, they fell to 13-3 that evening. It was reasonable to think the absence of their starting shooting guard might disrupt the team a bit, and the adjustment period would mean a stretch of alternating wins and losses. Essentially, at least for me, a .500 record in DeRozan's absence was acceptable, in the sense that the Atlantic Division and Eastern Conference coupled with the team's fast start afforded them the cushion to fall off their crazy pace of wins to start the year.
Today, as the Raptors get set to begin a six-game road trip in Chicago, they've gone 9-3 in DeRozan's absence, taking advantage of another easy part of their schedule. They're 22-6, and now comes their first real test, or at the very least, a reality check, which have come here and there this season (home losses to the Bulls, Mavs and Cavs come to mind), but the competition has never bunched up in a way that it created any real blip in the team's run towards the top of the East standings. In fact, the Raptors have only lost two straight games once this season.
Prior to last Sunday's road win over the Knicks in New York, coach Dwane Casey was asked whether the veterans on the team ever needed to remind the young core that they can't get complacent especially in games against teams who the Raptors should beat. Casey was adamant that it's not something that needs to be said, because the team is well aware that despite their strong start, that there was still a long way to go, and that every game mattered.
Of course, every coach would say some variation of that, except that Casey can easily just point to the team's record so far, and how they've taken care of business against teams that are simply not as talented as the Raptors. In the East, there are a lot of those teams.
Before yesterday's game at home against the Knicks, Casey spoke about the team's need to continue to improve in terms of attention to detail, and to be cautious about being complacent. He also credited Landry Fields and James Johnson with improving the team's defensive approach recently, especially with their increased role given DeRozan's injury.
Via Eric Koreen's piece on the team's upcoming road trip, Casey also spoke about the inevitable adversity:
At 22-6, the Raptors have definitely established themselves a very good team, one of the best in the Eastern Conference. Yet, given the home-heavy nature of their schedule, and the level of the majority of their competition, skepticism has not been totally snuffed out of the fan base.
“I’m ready for it,” coach Dwane Casey said. “I’ve been preaching it and we should be ready for it. Everyone is all excited, but again, reality is real and we have to be ready for adversity, whenever it hits. You go in with positive vibes and are ready to kick some behind. But when adversity hits, that’s when you find out how close we are…”
The trip will start in Chicago tonight, followed by a holiday break until the Raptors resume play on Saturday against the Clippers in Los Angeles, then in Denver on Sunday. They'll wrap up with games in Portland, Golden State and Phoenix. It's easy to throw around what would constitute a successful road trip. Perhaps 2-4, or maybe 3-3? A win in Chicago tonight would help set those expectations highers.
I certainly wouldn't want an 0-6 road trip to happen, but more than just the number of wins we rack up, I think it'll be revealing to see how this team fares against above-average competition over an extended stretch, and whether their inconsistent defense and slow starts actually costs them games, or if their isolation heavy attack at the end of quarters and in late games becomes a larger talking point. So far, the team has been able to overcome these things, and there's really no pressing problems when you're 22-6, but when you lose a few games in a row against better teams? Then it becomes a different conversation.
After the road trip, the Raptors come home for a six-game homestand that will start with Charlotte, Boston, Detroit, Philadelphia and have only home games versus Atlanta and New Orleans and road games against Memphis and Washington that look like potentially tough games for the month of January. And that's the thing about being a good team in the East, unless you're going out West, the real challenges are far and few inbetween.
Looking at the schedule from now until the end of January, the road trip -- no matter how the team fares -- won't topple them in the race for first in the East, and most definitely won't put a huge dent in their Atlantic Division lead, and the schedule in January will give them a chance to regroup should it be a tough road trip. If anything, these six games will be a great way to assess whether this team is, as some people say, for real, although that will really only happen in the playoffs regardless.
But a 4-2 road trip or better would definitely change the trajectory of the team's overall record quite a bit. Suddenly, we might be looking at a team that can reach 55-60 wins and by the end of January, we'll be deep enough into the season where that top seed may become realistic.
The next two weeks should be interesting, as much as the regular season can be.