There was a strange mix of hope and concern in the air on Friday, as the Toronto Raptors returned from the all-star break for a showdown with the Boston Celtics.
P.J. Tucker, the final piece of the Raptors' puzzle, arrived in Toronto at 9:30 a.m. Friday, stepping off a red-eye flight from Phoenix, ready to join a team that acquired him for his defensive toughness. Newly acquired Serge Ibaka was about to make his Raptors debut and fill the team's long-standing gap at power forward. Patrick Patterson was finally back from a knee injury. On paper, the squad appeared complete.
Then Dwane Casey dropped some unsettling pregame news – all-star point guard Kyle Lowry wouldn't play Friday because of a lingering injury to his right wrist, suffered against the Charlotte Hornets on Feb. 15, before he participated in the all-star weekend.
"He hurt his wrist in the Charlotte game, thought it was gonna get better," Casey said. "He had X-rays [Friday] or images, he's gonna get more images next week. So that's a blow. That's a huge blow for us. But it's an opportunity for Cory [Joseph] and Delon [Wright] to step in and play. I don't know how long he's gonna be out. It's not gonna be a one-day thing."
The invaluable Lowry averages 37.7 minutes a game, more than any other player in the NBA. Casey said he had treatment on the wrist over the all-star break while he was in New Orleans and more when he returned to Toronto on Thursday night, but it hadn't improved by Friday.
Toronto had all of its players healthy for only one of its 57 games heading into the break. The team appeared in desperate need of a shakeup at the trade deadline if it wanted to make another run to the Eastern Conference final, or even dream bigger. After holding the second spot in the Eastern Conference for the first couple of months of the season, the Raps began to falter, skidding into the break having lost six of their past 10 games, and plummeting into fourth place. The rolling Celtics took over the No. 2 spot, followed closely by the Washington Wizards and Atlanta Hawks. The Raptors no longer looked like the team most likely to meet the Cleveland Cavaliers in the conference final.
Acquiring Ibaka and Tucker should surely bolster the Raptors defensively, a must since the squad went into the break tied for 10th in points allowed (104.3) and 19th in defensive rating (109). Both players will also be counted upon to shoot the three and to help slow stars such as LeBron James, should they meet the Cavaliers in the postseason.
After a whirlwind first day as a Raptor, Tucker was squeezing in video study with coaches before meeting with the Toronto media. Now the oldest player on the roster, the 31-year-old small forward/shooting guard, acquired from the rebuilding Suns on Thursday, said he knows several Raptors well – Lowry, DeMar DeRozan, DeMarre Carroll – and feels instantly comfortable with the players and the systems.
"The guys play well together, they mesh well. I'm just looking to add whatever they need," Tucker said. "Different nights, different stories, different teams – there's going to be different things we need to win games and I'm that guy, a utility guy who comes in and does whatever you need to get a win that night and then get ready for the next one. I think 25 games left and being right in the thick of things, being able to make a push to get even higher and get home court advantage."
DeRozan gave Tucker a huge endorsement on Friday.
"I've been asked who are the three toughest players that guard me best," DeRozan said. "I always put P.J. in there."
Many NBA experts praised Toronto as one of the big winners of the now-expired trade period, particularly in the East. Washington added a big scoring threat off the bench by adding Bojan Bogdanovic. In Atlanta, newly acquired Ersan Ilyasova will help stretch the floor. Cleveland could be vulnerable at the moment as Kevin Love and J.R. Smith are both out recovering from surgeries. Boston stood pat, confident in the roster that roared into the break by winning eight of 10.
The Raptors are counting on their two newly acquired veteran players to adjust quickly. Still, they know that while the formula looks good, the chemistry still could take some time.
"In a short time we've got to get a rhythm and a rotation and feel for each other, combine what they've done well for other teams and incorporate it into our team. I like what we have," Casey said. "They're people with feelings and who have to understand terminology, and all of that has to come together."