Linas Kleiza’s 19 points in his last game were a lie.
Okay, not all of them. But with 8:42 left in the fourth quarter against Houston, the Raptors forward had seven points on 3-7 shooting. He’d just tried to do a bit too much, dribbling behind his back and attempting a floater off the dribble. The shot hit glass, no rim, causing a shot clock violation. It wasn’t even his worst miss of the game — in the first, he missed a baseline jumper off the side of the backboard. He was open.
Kleiza got his eighth and ninth points just over two minutes later when a missed DeMar DeRozan dunk fell into his hands directly in front of the rim. The rest came with under four minutes to go, with the Raptors up by 15 or more. Good looks in garbage time.
This could give you just about the worst possible impression of Kleiza’s role in Toronto this season. The most important takeaway from that quarter is not his scoring outburst in the final few minutes, but rather the fact that he was on the floor for the whole thing. It was the 14th time in 19 games that he’d played all 12 minutes in the final frame, and that number rises to 16 if we include a couple of games where heplayed practically every minute. Ironically, he didn’t close the single contest that he started, a game in Denver in which he got in a bit of a tussle with Al Harrington.
Against Memphis a few days earlier, he scored eight points in just over a minute in the tight fourth quarter. He also missed a potential go-ahead jumper with 14 seconds left, which was “too open” according to Raptors head coach Dwane Casey. “I don’t mind taking those shots,” Kleiza said. “Not all of them are going to go in, but some of them are going to go in. It’s just the reality.”
In New Orleans on leap day, he made three of four three-pointers in the last stanza. “He’s one of my favorites as far as he’s great at making big shots,” Casey said. “He’s become one of the closers.” Kleiza finished with 21 points in that game, shaking off the rust from a sore ankle without the benefit of practice time.
Before that ankle sidelined him for three games in February, his missed time came courtesy of a much more devastating injury: a meniscal tear and a chondral defect in his right knee. He had microfracture surgery just over 13 months ago, costing him most of his 2010-2011 campaign in addition to this season’s training camp and first two weeks. “It’s tough news at first, but it’s not a choice,” Kleiza said. “[Rehab is] all you can do. Don’t feel sorry for yourself. It’s a contact sport, things happen.” Yes —horrible, horrible things.
“The rehab is very slow, very slow and long,” Kleiza continued. “You’ve got to be very patient and a lot of things you’ve got to do yourself, you and the trainer. That makes it tough when you’re used to a team atmosphere your whole life. To be on your own all the time, that makes it tough.”
Fortunately, that adjective can be turned around and applied to the player. “He’s a tough guy, I love that. He’s edgy and we need that on the court from him,” Casey said. “He’s coming back from a tough surgery, so he’s still not 100 percent, but I’ll take whatever it is — 80 percent, 85 percent Linas right now.”
While much has been made of the compressed schedule putting players at risk for injuries, you don’t always think about how it affects guys who are recovering from them. “I feel like I’m getting there,” Kleiza said of his health. “The schedule is tough on me, especially when you’re coming off the injury and you still need to do work and rehab and there’s no time really. It’s game after game after game. It makes it tough when you don’t have practice time… but what can you do? That’s what we signed up for.”
The man making headlines recovering from injury in Toronto these days is Andrea Bargnani, easily the team’s most important player. He’s set to return from a strained calf tonight or tomorrow. Bargnani started the season playing at an All-Star level, with his coach saying his name in the same breath as Dirk Nowitzki’s and praising his effort on defense. The Raptors weren’t beating the league’s best, but they started 6-7 with him and 0-7 without him.
Now, they’re 13-26 and Kleiza’s shooting during this stretch has been invaluable for an undermanned offense. “He’s able to stretch the floor,” Casey said. “It creates space for DeMar and our guards to penetrate the paint because when he or Andrea’s not in there that paint shrinks up and there’s nowhere to go.” Playing with Bargnani, he shouldn’t have to do as much and he should get better looks. Their shared ability to play inside and out will present problems for most teams, allowing them to pick their spots depending on the matchups. “It’s just whatever the defense presents. Some of the guys are big and especially when I play the four I try to space,” Kleiza said. “That’s what I kind of try to do, play to my strength. If I’ve got a smaller guy, probably he’s quicker than me, so I try to get an advantage in the post.”
The Raptors aren’t your average 13-26 squad. They may not be relevant, but they’ve been competitive, losing close games because of slow starts and late lulls, things Bargnani’s presence could help alleviate. DeRozan is playing the best basketball of his career, James Johnson has calmed down and stepped up, and Kleiza never really even got to play with Bargnani — his season debut was the game in which Bargnani initially strained his calf. With a league-average defense and a near-league-worst offense, an efficient 23-point scorer rejoining the rotation is interesting. What’s even more interesting is looking ahead to next year, when Jonas Valanciunas will arrive in Toronto for his rookie season. Kleiza is looking forward to playing with him in advance of that, with the Lithuanian national team this summer. “He’s a good young player who’s got a very bright future,” he said.
“He’s a true center, that’s what the NBA lacks. I think we could definitely use him this year, too,” Kleiza added about the 19-year-old who’s already a superstar back home. “I think when he comes here, he’s going to develop into a very good player. He’s just got to put work in and not pay too much attention to what people around him are talking about.”
With a promising center on the way and Casey’s new and improved defensive culture, things are looking up in Toronto. But there will be other additions in the offseason and the most important one will likely come from the draft. As it stands the Raptors have the fourth-worst record in the league, but there are a handful of teams a game or two above them. The difference between the fourth and ninth picks in the draft is sometimes the difference between Russell Westbrook and D.J. Augustin, so the thought of Kleiza knocking down more threes as Bargnani draws defensive attention brings with it an unexpected problem:
There’s a chance we’ll soon be talking about the Raptors winning too many games for their own good.