Dave Feschuk: Raptors try to keep their focus with the playoffs in their sights

Dave Feschuk: Raptors try to keep their focus with the playoffs in their sights
If it’s March in Toronto, we’re being treated to the usual sequence of delightful distractions. If I’m remembering it correctly, Pancake Tuesday came somewhere before Pi Day, which came after John Tavares Day, which preceded St. Patrick’s Day and Selection Sunday.

Meanwhile, all everybody’s actually waiting for is a meaningful Toronto game day. And for that, we’ll probably have to wait until April. At least, that’s the way the calendar is shaking out in Raptorland. Certainly Monday’s matchup against the league-worst New York Knicks wasn’t exactly saleable as high-impact stuff. This was the bad versus the bored, Dyin’ for Zion against a home team playing a different kind of lottery, rolling the die for Kawhi.

Kawhi Leonard was out again Monday night, the usual “load management.” Nobody would have complained if the reason for his absence was more explicit: “Because the Knicks.”

In other words, you’ll excuse the Raptors if they’re guilty of occasionally looking ahead a few weeks to the playoffs. Between then and now, there’s not much incentive to play on.

“It is a challenge,” Nick Nurse, the Raptors head coach, said before Monday’s game. “I think you can look around the league and it’s kinda going around a little bit. I think you’re seeing mixed results all over the place, bottom teams beating the very top teams. And it is a little bit difficult to focus.”

Acknowledging it’s “a little bit difficult to focus” is the polite way of saying the post-season can’t get here fast enough. If the sentiment is going around the NBA, you can make the case it’s going around the MLSE. As much as Leafs Nation is in a panic, in some ways you can excuse the Maple Leafs for their lacklustre play. Just like the Raptors have appeared locked into the East’s No. 2 seed for weeks, the Leafs have been on a collision course with the dreaded Boston Bruins in the first round of the playoffs for what seems like months. It’s not easy getting up for games in mid-March when you know you’re only going to be judged on the ones you play in mid-April.

Still, there’s a difference. The Leafs haven’t played well enough to earn the luxury of load managing themselves into a string of embarrassing losses, including to the likes of the league-worst Ottawa Senators. So give the basketball side of the Bay Street home office credit. For all the randomness of the Raptors’ mishmash of injury-depleted lineups, for all the science that’s now kept Leonard out of 20 games this season, Toronto’s NBA team came into Monday with the second-best record in the NBA.

Not that any potential first-round opponent ought be taken for granted — not when the Raptors, thanks to their season of many fivesomes, promise to be figuring things out on the playoff fly.

And not that avoiding the Pistons in the opening round wouldn’t be a good idea, if only to avoid the inherent awkwardness of the reigning coach of the year working in Detroit after winning the award residing here. Toronto is 0-3 against the Pistons this season for a handful of reasons. For one, Blake Griffin is a tough matchup for Pascal Siakam because Griffin’s so strong. For another, Andre Drummond’s a tough matchup for Marc Gasol because he’s, well, ditto. There’s a reason the Raptors were outscored in the paint by the whopping margin of 24 points in Sunday’s 110-107 loss in Motown, and only part of it comes down to Casey coaching against the Raptors like he’s engaged in Game 7 of the NBA final. Good thing, then, that coming into Monday’s play the Pistons were 1 ½ games ahead of the seventh-place Nets for the sixth seed. The sixth seed is where the Raptors hope the Pistons stay.

The Raptors, mind you, could find a way to rationalize each of their three losses to the Pistons. Detroit won a coin toss at the buzzer in the first one. Leonard didn’t play in the second one. And Leonard had 33 points in Sunday’s loss, when Lowry didn’t see action.

And at this point, it’s not as though the Raptors are counting. A year ago the Raptors were bent on an ultimately futile sprint toward 60 wins that cost them the full-strength playoff services of Fred VanVleet, who banged up his shoulder in Game 82. Lesson learned, this season the franchise won’t concentrate on the win count until after the regular season’s conclusion.

“I think even for the last 12 to 14 games, (we’re) not really putting a ton of emphasis on the results, we want to play well and we want to pick off those that we can get, but I don’t think anybody can get caught up in results,” Nurse said. “I think the defending champions are 5-5 in their last 10 (heading into Golden State’s Monday game at San Antonio) and I don’t think they’re pushing the panic button out there, right?”

If Toronto’s NHLers can relate to Nurse’s musings about the late-season meaningless of it all, they probably can’t fathom the laid-back demeanour of a coach not currently fixated on the intensity of their next burst. Maple Leafs coach Mike Babcock spent part of Monday complaining about the lack of depth that’s exposed the various weaknesses lately highlighted by injuries to the likes of Jake Gardiner and Travis Dermott.

“You’re supposed to build the best program you can so you have as much depth so you don’t miss people,” Babcock said. “If you have enough, you don’t miss a beat and you just keep going.”
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