With the Toronto Raptors in prime position to end their five-year playoff drought, the last thing they can afford to do is take their foot off the gas and allow themselves to fall drastically in the standings.
The second Atlantic Division title in franchise history is right in the crosshairs. All that remains is merely holding off the Brooklyn Nets (26-28, five games back) in order to guarantee (at least) a top-four seed in the conference.
These remaining 25 games are of the utmost importance. The team can simply not afford to have any setbacks. A clean bill of health will be key, but building confidence, stringing together more victories and continuing to establish themselves as a legitimate threat to the top dogs in the East will be vital.
The offense will continue to run through DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry, but what about everyone else? This would seem like the opportune time for certain individuals to step up their games as we creep ever so closer to the postseason.
This is in no way, shape or form a slight against those who are about to be singled out. The likes of Terrence Ross and Jonas Valanciunas have done their part to keep the team afloat, but no one can deny that the young duo, as well as some of their teammates, can do even more.
*All statistics are courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com and are current as of Feb. 25, 2014*
2013-14 statistics: 36 games, 19.5 minutes, 7.3 points, 38 percent from the field, 34.5 percent from three-point range, 2.0 rebounds, 3.7 assists, 0.3 steals, 1.6 turnovers, 11.4 PER
Things have been positive as of late for Greivis Vasquez. He's scored in double figures in four of his last six games while shooting over 50 percent from the field on each of those occasions.
That hasn't always been the case since his arrival from Sacramento in December. Consistency has been an issue. You don't always know what you're going to get from Vasquez on any given night. It can be extremely discouraging.
With Kyle Lowry averaging 36.2 minutes (15th in the NBA) in the starting lineup, the Raptors will need to look to Vasquez more off the bench to help take some of the pressure off the shoulders of their fearless leader as the season winds down.
His scoring can be very erratic. There will be nights where he forces his offense by hoisting up ill-advised attempts, especially from three-point range. Perhaps someone who's barely hitting over one-third of his shots from behind the arc shouldn't be taking 3.1 per game in limited minutes.
There isn't a third option in the rotation who can be counted on regularly to run the point, so getting steady contributions from the fourth-year guard becomes all the more important.
The Raptors have had such terrific backup point guard play in the past, especially during the Jose Calderon era. There was a peace of mind that came with knowing that the drop-off from the starting lineup to the second unit wasn't going to be so drastic.
Vasquez needs to start delivering the goods. If he can continue playing at the pace he's set for himself over these last six games (Feb. 12-25), he'll be just fine.
2013-14 statistics: 23.3 minutes. 5.5 points, 37.7 percent from the field, 39.5 percent from three-point range, 2.0 rebounds, 2.0 assists, 0.8 steals, 0.2 blocks, 0.7 turnovers, 8.4 PER
I'm no expert on fish, but if memory serves me correctly, salmon swim upstream. The Toronto Raptors have a salmon of their own. His name is John Salmons. A major difference between Salmons and an actual salmon is that they're moving in completely opposite directions.
Salmons hasn't scored in double figures since Feb. 3, when he dropped 13 points in 31 minutes against the Utah Jazz. Since that time, the 12-year veteran has put up six or more points off the bench only twice.
I suppose it's mighty difficult to contribute much on the scoreboard when you have at least five games during that span where you fail to hit a single shot from the field.
DeMar DeRozan and Terrence Ross combine for 33.1 points in the starting lineup. Behind them in the second unit is next to nothing as far as an offensive wing is concerned. Steve Novak (10.4 minutes) and Landry Fields (23 games, 11.9 minutes) barely see the floor, so that leaves Salmons as all head coach Dwane Casey has to work with otherwise.
A bad lower back caused him grief against the Cleveland Cavaliers on Feb. 25. He probably shouldn't have been out there in the first place, but he ultimately felt well enough to suit up. I'll cut him some slack for his horrid line (zero points and one rebound in 19 minutes), but that doesn't excuse him for how he was playing in prior outings.
The starting backcourt will continue to take up a good chunk of PT, but when Casey points to his bench and calls upon his wily vet, Salmons will have to work his way out of this slump and be more of a factor.
2013-14 statistics: 28.5 minutes, 10.3 points, 54.6 percent from the field, 6.6 rebounds, 1.4 assists, 0.7 steals, 1.1 blocks, 1.6 turnovers, 15.2 PER
Asking someone like Amir Johnson to "step it up" is unconstitutional. Never doubt a man who gives 110 percent of himself to his team, both on and off the court.
That 110 percent effort was cut in half while Johnson dealt with a sprained ankle. He played through the pain until he was eventually taken out of the lineup two games prior to All-Star Weekend.
Things seem to be in order now. The extra rest did him some good as he's totalled nearly 50 minutes over his last two games. That's not a bad number to be hovering around considering Patrick Patterson will always be there as the Raptors' sixth man gobbling up minutes of his own at power forward.
Now that he's relatively healthy, Johnson needs to get back to the player who was a pest on defense, a presence on the glass and an underrated option on offense.
It was no secret to anyone that Johnson was dealing with nagging injuries in the weeks prior to him being pulled. You could see it in the way he was playing. There was a safeness to the way he was competing. He wasn't the guy we were all accustomed to watching, which was fair considering the circumstances.
Step it up? Perhaps not.
He's earned the benefit of the doubt. Time will be given so that Johnson can get back into the swing of things. His ankle will always be in the back of your mind regardless.
However, if he can't do that (which I doubt will be the case), then we may have a situation on our hands.
2013-14 statistics: 26.0 minutes, 10.6 points, 42.4 percent from the field, 40.2 percent from three-point range, 3.1 rebounds, 0.9 assists, 0.8 steals, 0.4 blocks, 1.1 turnovers, 12.0 PER
If you own a telescope, then you're in luck. If you point it straight into the sky and look into the lens, you'll barely make out the bar Terrence Ross set for himself by scoring 51 points in a game against the Los Angeles Clippers on Jan. 25.
That performance will follow him for the rest of his career. Whether it becomes a blessing or curse remains to be seen.
It may just be a once-in-a-lifetime kind of night, but what it's done for the foreseeable future is thrust certain expectations onto Ross that he may not be able to live up to.
Those with a realistic perspective on things, as well as those Raptor faithful who have seen their fair share of Ross in action, will understand what it all amounts to. He's a scorer. Ross can put up points with the best of them, even though the other facets of the game take a hit in the process.
You won't see him grabbing many rebounds or being a facilitator, but what you will take notice of is an onslaught from three-point range and the occasional highlight-reel slam dunk.
There has to be more, though. His tenacity and basketball IQ on the defensive end has gotten better. Ross has become more adept at keeping his man in front of him and using his quickness and agility to his advantage.
What about everything else? Can his rebounding improve? Will he someone who can be counted on to force turnovers?
No one likes a one-trick pony. They're a dime a dozen in the NBA.
2013-14 statistics: 27.4 minutes, 10.4 points, 50.8 percent from the field, 8.6 rebounds, 0.7 assists, 0.2 steals, 0.9 blocks, 1.8 turnovers, 14.6 PER
I'm still taken back by the fact that Masai Ujiri didn't look to add more size to the roster before the NBA trade deadline came and went. Jonas Valanciunas is the only true center this team has.
The 21-year-old big man had five double-doubles and eight straight games with 10 points or more from Jan. 25 to Feb. 7. He's come back down to earth since then, averaging 7.2 points over his last four games.
There are times where Dwane Casey elects to go small, eliminating Valanciunas from the equation. That's beyond his control, but if he was playing well enough to warrant staying on the floor, then there would have to be a change of plans. The coach does love going with certain matchups, but not at the expense of a hot hand.
Getting into early foul trouble also has a profound impact on his production. He still has a lot to learn in terms of defending the block and being smart with his hands on the defensive end. Valanciunas is of no use to anyone if he needs to be pulled just minutes into an opening quarter.
Teammate DeMar DeRozan is well aware of the growing pains Valanciunas is going through, via Ryan Wolstat of the Toronto Sun.
He’s at a point where he’s early in his career. We’ve all been through it.
Everybody’s not fortunate to be on a winning team and able to play the whole game sometimes. You’ve got to learn. It comes with experience. Right now he’s just talking to (Casey), figuring out ways he can be better and things he can help us with when he’s out there on the court.
Things are only going to get harder from here. Once the postseason begins, the style of play will gradually slow down into more of a halfcourt offense. That could spell trouble for Valanciunas as he goes up against some of the larger and more skilled frontcourt talents in the conference.