The Toronto Raptors were given a huge boost ahead of the playoffs as DeMarre Carroll made his long-awaited return from injury in their loss to the Atlanta Hawks on Thursday night.
Carroll had missed the team's previous 41 games after undergoing right knee surgery and his reintegration into the Raptors starting line-up will make them an even more interesting proposition in the Eastern Conference.
Their chances of challenging the Cleveland Cavaliers, the favourites to make it out of the east, will be significantly improved with one of their best defensive players on the floor. The small forward came off the bench in the second quarter and played 14 minutes against his former team, putting up five points and four steals.
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“It felt good,” Carroll said about his return to action. “I got it in, did what I was supposed to do, and that’s be active, do the dirty work. Try to get steals and play good defence.”
The seventh-year player joined Toronto last summer as a free agent on a four-year, $60 million contract after having the best two seasons of his career in an Atlanta uniform. Before going down early in the campaign, Carroll averaged 11.7 points and 4.8 rebounds in 23 games.
“He gave us energy. He was on a minute limitation. I thought he came in and gave it defensively, [and] made a big shot," Raptors coach Dwayne Casey said after the game. "It’s just going to take him time. We don't expect him to come out and change the world right off the bat.”
Toronto has already wrapped up the second seed and appears to have given up hope of catching the Cavaliers for the top spot as they began the night three games behind. Their performance reflected that as they didn't play with the energy they've been used to all year in the 97-85 reverse to the Hawks.
Despite the defeat, however, the Raptors know having Carroll back will be the most important take away from the game. His defence will be crucial in the playoffs and will allow the team's star players DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry to do what they do best.
“He looked good. It’s great to get him back out there, just to get him in the rhythm of things," said DeRozan. "He played great on the defensive end, he knocked down a three so that’s a good sign. It’s good to have him back.”
After having the best season in franchise history, reaching the 50-win mark for the first time, fans in 'the six' have high expectations of their team and certainly expect them to finally progress beyond the first round.
Having lost in the opening round in each of the last two seasons, the Toronto players will know the significance of overcoming this hurdle and as things stand, they will face a tricky matchup against the Indiana Pacers in which to do this.