The Toronto Raptors are close to clinching another division title, though their recent play hasn’t been encouraging with the playoffs on the horizon.
Dwane Casey looks for better defense from his club Friday night when it hosts the Los Angeles Lakers.
The Raptors (42-30) clinched a postseason berth Wednesday by virtue of losses by Boston and Charlotte despite their 116-103 home defeat against Chicago, their second loss in six days to the Bulls. They’ll clinch the Atlantic for a second straight year with a win or a Celtics loss Friday to the New York Knicks.
Toronto could have surpassed the Bulls for third place with a victory but instead trails by 1 1/2 games. Though the Raptors are all but assured of the division crown and no worse than the No. 4 seed, they still must finish with the fourth-best record or better for home-court advantage in the first round. They own a two-game lead over fifth-place and likely playoff opponent Washington.
Despite losing Game 7 at home last year to the Brooklyn Nets in the first round, the potential advantage could be crucial given Toronto’s 18-17 road record, which includes losses in nine of 11. The Raptors, whose only second-round playoff appearance came in 2001, are 5-13 since Feb. 21.
"Our confidence is still high," said DeMar DeRozan, who has averaged 25.7 points in his last three against the Lakers. "All we need is that one game to get ourselves going."
Toronto has allowed 106.1 points per game on 48.5 percent shooting over its last 15 and let the Bulls shoot 60.8 percent Wednesday while only forcing eight turnovers.
"There’s not a lot of defense being played in that situation," Casey said.
Kyle Lowry sat out for the third time in four games due to back spasms. Toronto fell to 2-4 without him, though Greivis Vasquez scored 22 and matched a career high with six 3-pointers while starting at point guard.
The Lakers (19-51) have won two of three, beating the league’s two worst teams – Philadelphia and Minnesota. They’ve been sparked offensively by Jeremy Lin and Jordan Clarkson. Lin has averaged 22.3 points over his last three contests, while Clarkson has totaled 50 in his last two.
Clarkson hit two free throws with 0.3 seconds left in overtime to clinch a 101-99 win over the Timberwolves on Wednesday, the Lakers’ third victory in 23 road games.
Clarkson, who scored 20, was discouraged by his 6-for-16 shooting and six turnovers, however.
"I think I took a few steps back," the rookie said. "I didn’t take care of the ball well, held the ball a little too much on the offensive end. I’ve just got to keep growing, man, go back and watch the film, learn from it."
Coach Byron Scott could return to the bench after missing the last two games following the death of his mother. Assistant coach Paul Pressey has served as acting coach.
Los Angeles is 28-8 in the all-time series and won 129-122 in overtime on Nov. 30, getting 31 points and 12 assists from the since-injured Kobe Bryant. Lowry scored 29, though he was 10 for 28.