A week after Toronto Raptors‘ head coach Dwane Casey called for his team to focus on fundamentals and playing better defence, the Atlantic Division leaders responded on Wednesday night by employing a gritty, all-around effort in an important win over the struggling Detroit Pistons.
More importantly, Toronto’s performance in the post was critical during the victory, and the big men will need to continue producing down the stretch if the Raptors are going to compete with the best that the conference has to offer.
Heading into its current three-game homestand, Toronto knew that forwards Amir Johnson, Jonas Valanciunas, Tyler Hansbrough and Chuck Hayes would be tested by the formidable post-play of Detroit, the Memphis Grizzlies and Phoenix Suns this week.
But against one of the league’s toughest low post tandems in Andre Drummond and Greg Monroe on Wednesday, the Raptors out-rebounded Detroit 54-39. In the win, Valanciunas led with 13 boards, while Johnson finished with nine and Hayes grabbed eight.
Next up will be a visit from Marc Gasol, Zach Randolph and the Grizzlies on Friday, which will then be followed with a game on Sunday against the Suns, who could give the Raptors plenty of headaches in the low post with forwards Miles Plumlee, P.J. Tucker and both Markieff and Marcus Morris.
For the Raptors’ resident rebounders, especially Valanciunas, the next two games will offer another valuable opportunity to learn that when facing some of the NBA‘s best big-men, anything short of an all-out war will result in a painfully long night.
As a rookie last season, the Lithuanian averaged 8.9 PPG with 6.0 RPG, and at the time was understood to be a work in progress. But while the former first-round pick began the 2013-14 campaign with a ton of promise and has improved his rebounding totals, Valanciunas has barely increased his offensive output and has been wildly inconsistent as a scoring option.
At the moment, the Raptors are entering seriously uncharted territory as the current leader of a divisional playoff race that’s intensifying by the day. With each game now potentially more meaningful than the last, basics such as boxing out and offering help on defence in the post can be the difference between a win or a loss.
However, the responsibility won’t completely land on the shoulders of Valanciunas. The additions of Hansbrough, Patterson and Hayes have helped to form a respectable unit that’s most often led by Johnson. Now in his fifth year as a Raptor, Johnson has been a key low-post presence for Toronto during the past few years, and also owns valuable playoff experience earned during his time as a member of the Pistons.