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NBA Beat: Focus on defense drives Toronto’s quiet rise to top

DeMar DeRozan, dunking against the Knicks in October, is expected to boost Toronto’s defense when he returns from a groin injury.
DeMar DeRozan, dunking against the Knicks in October, is expected to boost Toronto’s defense when he returns from a groin injury. The Associated Press

The talk of Eastern Conference contenders often begins with Cleveland. Or Chicago. Even Washington.

But what about the Toronto Raptors?

Without the same hype, the Raptors have etched out a 15-5 start to the season, which leads the Eastern Conference.

The momentum from last season’s trade that sent Rudy Gay to Sacramento and freed up DeMar DeRozan to be the focal point on offense has not slowed.

Even with DeRozan out with a groin injury, Raptors coach Dwane Casey is demanding his team remain focused on being a defensive bunch, which is a key to playoff success.

“You can’t win in this league thinking you are going to outscore people,” Casey said. “... That’s a huge concern. We’ve got to get defense in the game.”

In four games without DeRozan, every opponent has shot at least 48 percent against the Raptors. They’ve won two of those games, but Casey is concerned that his team isn’t coming out with enough intensity to start games.

Even without DeRozan, the Raptors have plenty of offensive options, but they cannot allow opponents to feel good early and find themselves in tight games.

Casey said changes in the lineup without DeRozan – Greivis Vasquez is starting now – aren’t the cause for early timidity.

“It’s been a habit,” Casey said. “I’ve been preaching it since the first part of the season. It’s something we’ve got to correct. We’ve done it in spots but not enough. We’ve got to make sure it’s a big part of our playing personality to start games.”

Casey liked the start to the season defensively, but lately the numbers have gone in the wrong direction. The Raptors are 24th in field-goal percentage allowed (.465) and 18th in points allowed (100 per game).

Toronto does force 15 turnovers a game, tied for seventh best in the NBA.

DeRozan, who is expected to miss at least three more weeks, will be a boost to the defense as he’s more athletic than Vasquez.

“It’s just how the game goes sometimes,” said swingman Terrence Ross. “We’re doing our best to try and stay on top and make sure we come out aggressive, follow the game plan and making sure we keep people under a certain field-goal percentage.”

What Casey does not want is the Raptors to get caught up in scoring so much that they forget to focus on getting stops.

“We are a defensive team,” Casey said. “We’ve hit our toe in the last couple of games and that’s taken us down a little bit, so we’ve got to get that back.”

If they do, the Raptors will be a part of the talk of who might win the East in the spring.

Trending up

There isn’t much the Golden State Warriors aren’t doing right these days. They can score (106.8 points per game) and they defend (95.9 points allowed per game). The Warriors also lead the NBA in assists, averaging 26 per game.

They entered Saturday with an 11-game winning streak.

Guards Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson have played like All-Stars and Andrew Bogut is anchoring the middle defensively.

At this rate, the Warriors are poised for a long run into the playoffs.

Trending down

If a seven-game losing streak wasn’t bad enough, the Salt Lake Tribune reported Utah Jazz guard Alec Burks could miss the rest of the season with a shoulder injury that will require surgery.

It’s not the kind of news first-year coach Quin Snyder needs.

Last words

“I haven’t checked yet, but I assuming none because I have no friends.”

Portland center and unlikely hero Robin Lopez, when asked how many texts he received after his game-winning layup to beat Denver on Tuesday.

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