TORONTO - With five games to go in the Toronto Raptors' regular-season, opposing scouts have become regular fixtures. Personnel from every team Toronto might face in the post-season watch with a keen eye, scribbling notes.
It's a balancing act for coach Dwane Casey between writing up plays the Raptors will use in the post-season, and trying not to show too much of his hand.
"We're working on some things offensively and defensively that we know we're going to have to use in the playoffs, intermittently after a timeout, and those situations," Casey said after Monday's practice at the Air Canada Centre."It's a two-edged sword, you don't want to expose everything. . . we've got to make sure we don't over-expose ourselves, but at the same time get some game situations."
The Raptors are fourth (45-32) in the Eastern Conference, one game behind the Chicago Bulls and one ahead of the Washington Wizards. So if the playoffs started tomorrow, they'd open at home against Washington. Maintaining home-court advantage is key.
They open a four-game road trip on Wednesday at Charlotte (33-43), and will likely be without all-star Kyle Lowry (back) and Amir Johnson (ankle).
Lowry participated in some of Monday's practice, while Johnson still can't put much weight on his injured foot.
"We're going to wait and see how (Lowry) feels and reacts to the contact. . . he did more non-contact stuff today than contact," Casey said.
The Raptors are coming off a pair of nailbiting losses: 114-109 to Brooklyn on Friday, and 117-116 in overtime against the Boston Celtics the following night.
"It's good to have those kinds of games, because they're like playoff games, close games, hard games, intense games, so it's good preparation for the playoffs," said centre Jonas Valanciunas.
Casey blamed both losses on mental lapses on defence down the stretch, and agreed with Valanciunas — they provided lessons heading into the post-season. No surprise, Monday's practice was all about defence.
"Those game situations against Boston and also against Brooklyn were very valuable to us. We were simulating (those late-game situations) today," Casey said. "I thought offensively down the stretch we executed probably as well as we have all year, getting the ball where we needed to get, got the shots we needed to get, execution was good, defensively we had a couple of breakdowns down the stretch, mental breakdowns, thing you can't do in those close-game situations.
"But it was great work for us, because it does simulate playoff atmosphere, playoff situation, playoff teams, which is good for us. It was very physical and I thought we handled it well, on the offensive end."
Casey would love to have Lowry and Johnson back in the rotation soon rather than later. Lowry has missed seven of the Raptors' last eight games. But the coach said, looking at the positives, it's giving him a chance to work in other players who might be called upon in the playoffs.
Tyler Hansbrough started in place of Johnson in on Saturday and filled in admirably, scoring 18 points and grabbing eight rebounds.
"I thought he jump-started us in the second half, just his activity," Casey said on the physical forward. "He had some tough fouls down the stretch but his activity and his toughness got us into overtime, against a team that's playing as well as anyone right now. . . his energy is infectious. You can't replace that."
Hansbrough is thankful for the increased role.
"Naturally when you're getting more minutes, you get better and your confidence goes up," he said. "So as that continues, hopefully I'll keep getting better and better."
The Raptors wrap up the regular season with games at Orlando on Friday, Miami on Saturday, and Boston next Tuesday, before they head back home to host Charlotte on April 15.