Stretching the Field: Raptors about to get even better

NEWYou can now listen to Fox News articles!

( - Chemistry studies the composition and properties of substances and other forms of matter.

The interaction of one personality with another measures the success, or lack thereof, within a team or business.

Toronto Raptors president and general manager of basketball operations Masai Ujiri has been at the Bunsen burner since taking the job almost two years ago and the Raptors ended a five-year playoff drought in 2013-14.

The Raptors are currently the top team in the Eastern Conference, and now the sky's the limit north of the border. Ujiri inherited a Raptors team that last tasted postseason action in 2008, and pulled a few strings to a team-record 48 wins, an Atlantic Division title and the third seed in the East.

DeMar DeRozan spearheaded the Canadian revival with a career-high 22.7 points in 79 games and earned himself an All-Star nod. The Brooklyn Nets, however, ended Toronto's hopes of moving forward by eliminating DeRozan and the Raptors in seven games in the Eastern Conference quarterfinals.

DeRozan and the Raptors were left with a bitter taste in their mouth, which is why the 2014-15 season is expected to be even better. So far that has been the case, but Toronto's fearless leader has been lost the past 16 games with a serious groin injury.

The Raptors and their fans held their collective breath when DeRozan went down with the injury Nov. 28 in a 106-102 loss to the Dallas Mavericks.

"Hopefully he's not out long," Raptors coach Dwane Casey said at the time.

Casey's wish was not granted and DeRozan has been out since with a torn left adductor longus tendon. There were big shoes to fill and Casey added, "The next guy has to be ready to step up."

Who would be the one to take over?

Kyle Lowry has been the adhesive that holds the Raptors together as evidenced by an 11-5 mark without DeRozan scoring off screens and burying wing shots. Lowry took over the team lead in points with 20.7 ppg, with DeRozan still second at a 19.4 ppg clip, and is averaging team highs of 22.8 points and 8.9 assists over the past few weeks.

Lowry has scored 20-plus points in five straight games (27.2 ppg) and is shooting .515 in that time. The Raptors are fourth in the NBA scoring (108.6) and shooting .469 from the field with DeRozan sidelined.

Sprinkle in some much-needed contributions from reserve guard Lou Williams and big man Jonas Valanciunas, and the Raptors are right where they want to be. Another Atlantic Division title appears to be in the cards for Toronto, one of only seven teams in the league with single-digit losses (24-8).

Things are about to get even better for the Raptors. Or are they?

DeRozan was back at practice Thursday and is nearing a return to the floor. He will most likely wait until a six-game homestand next week, but is eager to join his teammates.

"It may seem like I'm patient, but I go crazy watching the games or being at home and not able to do my normal routine that I'd be doing if I was playing," DeRozan said after his first full practice since the setback. "So it's tough. It's not an easy thing at all."

DeRozan is taking it day-by-day and isn't trying to rush his body. He is not looking too far ahead and has admitted it's been tough watching instead of playing because he's never been hurt this serious in his career. DeRozan feels right at home on the court and understands patience is key with such a competitive mindset.

He's frustrated, but has been pleased with the team's success.

"I always knew we were a resilient team, we can fight through anything, overcome anything," DeRozan said. "It's great to see my teammates come in after the game and tell me 'We can't wait until you get back.' To me it looks like they're just holding it down like they've been doing."

The Raptors did not fold without DeRozan, who's been working with the training staff to get back as soon as possible. If it was DeRozan's choice, he would have been back last week.

Casey isn't expecting any immediate wonders when DeRozan returns.

"He can't come in expecting to be a 19-, 20-point scorer, first game, second game," Casey said. "It's going to take a while to get his rhythm back. We've got to be patient with that. It won't be as hard scheme-wise or offensively, because the offense is kind of built around him anyway. Nothing has changed from that standpoint."

Toronto will face another test Friday in Golden State against the NBA-best Warriors and could use DeRozan. The Warriors are first in the NBA in field goal percentage (48.2) and tied for second with Toronto in points (108.1). They're also first in opponents' field goal percentage (42.0) and second in blocks (6.38) and defensive rebounds (35.2).

Golden State has not lost to an Eastern Conference opponent (9-0) and is unbeaten in the last nine games at home versus the Raptors.

After losing to Chicago to open the trek, the Raptors are 2-1 on the western portion of the jaunt and suffered a 102-97 overtime loss in Portland on Tuesday. They will close this trip (2-2) Sunday against the Phoenix Suns and lead the NBA in scoring on the road with 111.1 points per game.

The upcoming stay at Air Canada Centre next week should be nice with the likely presence of DeRozan. His patience has paid off and now it's time to lead again instead of sitting anxiously behind the scenes.

Don't expect a dropoff in production for the Raptors with one of the top guards in the NBA returning to what has been a prosperous season.