With just one week to go in the regular season, the Toronto Raptors are focused. Locking in on each of their five remaining games as they come, the Raptors are confident they can finish the season without distraction.
Led by Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan and Amir Johnson, the team holds a 2 ½-game lead on Brooklyn in the Atlantic Division and is hoping to earn its first division title since 2007. It can be difficult to prevent young teams from getting antsy or distracted during the final days of the regular season. Still, veteran Steve Novak is confident that isn’t a concern with this group.
“I don’t think guys have really looked ahead that far, to be honest with you,” Novak said. “We know the playoffs are coming. We do talk about it but not in that sense. I think if we do lock our spot in, if that comes before the end of season, that’s when you’ll start to see it. The truth is our team is locked in. Kyle is focused. Amir is so focused. You’ve seen how focused DeMar is.”
While the Raptors have two sophomore players in Terrence Ross and Jonas Valanciunas in the starting lineup, the team goes as far as Lowry, Johnson and DeRozan take them. Lowry and Johnson were able to get in a week of rest after being sidelined during Toronto’s last two games, victories against the Indiana Pacers and Milwaukee Bucks. Johnson missed time because of a sprained ankle, Lowry because of a bruised kneecap. DeRozan cut his hand last Wednesday against the Rockets, got stitches twice and has been playing with his fingers taped.
Lowry, Johnson Game-Time Decisions
Both Lowry and Johnson took part in Tuesday’s practice. As Lowry was walking out of the practice court he told a reporter he was feeling, “like a million bucks.” They’ll be game-time decisions against the Philadelphia 76ers on Wednesday night, but the time off appeared to be just what the doctor ordered.
Lowry remained vocal despite being relegated to the sidelines last week. DeRozan joked that he had even more to say acting as a secondary coach on the bench than he usually does on the court. Over the course of the season, DeRozan and Lowry have shared the role of vocal leader. Johnson is the player teammates immediately cite as the heart of the team. Together, the trio have worked tirelessly to get the franchise back into the postseason.
“I think throughout the whole season you’ve seen their leadership,” Novak said. “What it’s meant to them to have a winning season, to have a good year, how important it’s been to them. I think you’ll see that even more when the playoffs start.”
As one of the few Raptors with playoff experience, Novak understands just how different the postseason can be. He said it isn’t something that can be simulated, no matter how much a teammate shares his own story.
“Everything is so magnified,” Novak said. “You realize there are more people than usual, which is a lot, watching. It’s important. It’s about your livelihood, your franchise, your city, your fans. There’s so much more on you. Other than just games being entertainment for people. The playoffs represent a city, a franchise, a team. Us individually, us as a team. It’s a bigger thing.”
Until the playoffs arrive, though, this group is determined to keep the blinders on. The next goal is clinching that Atlantic Division title and closing out the season strong. Then, and only then, will the second season shift to the first priority.