What the return of DeMarre Carroll means for the Raptors in the playoffs

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After more than three months on the shelf, it took DeMarre Carroll all of two defensive possessions to make an impact in his somewhat surprising return against the Atlanta Hakws on Thursday. Carroll jumped a cut lane, expertly helping off of Tim Hardaway Jr. to disrupt an overshot pass from Dennis Schroder to Al Horford, stealing the ball in the process.
The play would have been familiar to those at Philips Arena, where Carroll spent the last two seasons building himself a reputation that ultimately earned him a four-year, $58-million deal from the Toronto Raptors this summer. It was a very “DeMarre Carroll” steal, the type of anticipatory hustle play that only savvy defenders can make without creating enormous risk helping off of the 3-point line.
“I told myself when I got out there, I was just going to try to play as hard as I can,” Carroll said from his locker at the Air Canada Centre before Friday’s game. “I strongly believe the harder you play, the less mistakes you make.”
The steal was also a reminder of what the Raptors have been missing with Carroll on the shelf.
To their credit, the Raptors didn’t really miss a beat in the macro sense as Carroll struggled through plantar fasciitis and knee soreness in early action. That continued after Carroll underwent arthroscopic knee surgery on Jan. 6, missing 55 games in all. Prior to the season, wing depth looked like a serious weakness for Toronto, and a long-term injury to Carroll, on paper, threatened their ability to defend at the level they feel they need to. Carroll, in concert with Cory Joseph and Bismack Biyombo, was brought in to help make the Raptors more of a two-way force, a versatile, matchup-proof outfit with the requisite toughness to fight through the adversity of a waning offense if it presented itself. Without him, it was unclear if the Raptors had the pieces to defend at a high level.
Somewhat surprisingly, the Raptors have proven themselves, to a degree, without Carroll, and they rank 11th in the league in defensive efficiency. Joseph and Biyombo get some of the credit for that, as they provided even more defensive value than maybe most anticipated. Kyle Lowry has had a bounce-back year on the defensive end, Jonas Valanciunas has improved in the second half, and Terrence Ross has been far steadier as the season’s gone along. And, of course, Norman Powell has come on over the last six weeks and established himself as a reliable and effective rotation piece, and a building block for the future.
“There’s a list of positives,” Carroll says of his time off. “I look at it from a bigger standpoint. It gives guys like Norman and JJ opportunities to go out there and show what they can do. This league, I know for a fact, going through what I went through, it’s nothing but opportunity. When your number’s called, you just gotta take advantage of it.
“Having more guys and more depth, I think that’s only going to help us in the long-run. So I feel like it was a blessing in disguise in that aspect.”
Powell’s emergence also affords the Raptors the opportunity to take things slowly with Carroll, now and into the first round of the playoffs. Carroll wants to play 25 or 30 minutes when the postseason begins, but that might be unrealistic. Head coach Dwane Casey’s confidence in Powell will allow him to monitor Carroll’s minutes closely, perhaps off the bench, and pick and choose his matchups. In a worst-case scenario, Powell’s play should leave Casey with the confidence to shorten Carroll’s workload further if he’s not back to looking like himself, though that doesn’t seem like a major concern through two appearances.
Carroll played 14 fairly effective minutes Thursday, sat out Friday, then played 17 even better minutes against Carmelo Anthony and the New York Knicks on Sunday. He spent time on Anthony, Kyle Korver, and Paul Millsap, good, quick tests of where he’s at defensively and where he still needs to go. Over the two games, Carroll scored 10 points, grabbed six rebounds, and notched five steals, and though he didn’t shoot particularly well, that’s not really a concern of his.
“I could care less about the offensive end. To me, it’s about defense, and I know that’s what this team relies on me for,” he said.
He’ll probably only play in one of the team’s games Tuesday and Wednesday, and he’ll probably top out around 20 minutes. For a guy who exudes toughness and suggested after his first outing he could have played more, that’s probably difficult. But he understands it’s necessary if he’s to make it to the postseason in shape to contribute and deferred to the team’s medical staff regarding his next steps.
“You have to understand that it’s a process,” Carroll says. “You can’t overdo it, and us NBA players, we tend to do that.”
However much he can play initially, his return lifts the team’s defensive upside. At even 80 percent, Carroll becomes the team’s best individual defender and their best chance at shutting down scoring wings like Paul George, Joe Johnson, Dwyane Wade, and LeBron James. His ability to play either forward spot and switch around the perimeter opens up a ton of options for Casey, both in terms of lineup and scheme – the defensive emergence of Patrick Patterson helps to that end, too, and the Raptors will likely be comfortable switching assignments all over the floor with certain groups. A Carroll-Patterson-Biyombo frontcourt could be an elite defensive group, and the spacing Carroll provides on the offensive end helps make defensive groups that include Biyombo more tenable.
That spacing Carroll can provide exists even if he’s not contributing a ton on offense, which is plausible in his first few games back. The Raptors never really got to see the full scope of Carroll’s offensive repertoire, as he struggled before his injury finishing as a cutter, and his assists were down some within the team’s drive-oriented offense. Those tools are still there and should sharpen as the rust comes off – Carroll’s awareness and ability to find seams for easy buckets is elite – but the truth is that the Raptors don’t need much from him at that end. They’re the No. 5 offense in basketball, and simply adding a 36.9-percent career 3-point shooter spotting up will make an already tough-to-guard team even more difficult. Spacing is about the threat of the 3-point shot and how much defenses respect it, and Carroll creates a more difficult choice than, say, Powell or Luis Scola, when defenders are deciding whether or not to help on Kyle Lowry or DeMar DeRozan dribble attacks. Stick to Carroll, and the league’s best driving duo has extra room to operate in the paint; send help, and a pair of capable passers have a plus-shooter waiting for the kick-out.
Carroll won’t be penciled in for many points, subsisting off of those kick-outs and garbage buckets, like the one he scored in the second half of the Atlanta game off of a quick steal from a Hawks inbound. But shooting is important, and Carroll gives the Raptors some potentially deadly closing lineups. The oseph-Lowry-DeRozan-Carroll-Valanciunas group was excellent earlier in the year, and that group could exist with Biyombo in at center, too, or with Powell or Ross filling Joseph’s spot if a little more length is required. The starting unit with Carroll and Patterson in for Powell and Scola stands to be deadly, as the Carroll-Patterson forward duo is a really exciting prospect the Raptors have hardly gotten to use. Carroll was meant to help make the Raptors more matchup-proof, and his return leaves the Raptors in a position where they can play traditionally, go small with two guards and two wings, go smaller with three wings, or even go bigger, with several options for each style and the ability to balance offense and defense in any of those approaches.
It would be overreacting to two solid outings – and they were solid, nothing great or elite from Carroll, exactly as expected after three months off – to think Carroll’s going to enter the opening round providing everything that was expected when he inked his deal on July 1. That’s not how returns from long layoffs work. And the Raptors don’t need that, necessarily. They’ve been a very good team even without him, to the point that they’d probably be comfortable winning a round with Carroll still on the shelf.
Fortunately, they don’t have to worry about that. Carroll’s back, and even in a limited role stands to push the team higher on the defensive end while giving Casey a plethora of options as playoff chess matches unfold.
Follow @raptorsrepublicFollow @BlakeMurphyODCWhat the return of DeMarre Carroll means for the Raptors in the playoffs originated on Raptors Republic: ESPN TrueHoop Network Blog.

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