PPG: Banner-mania; Still lots of work to be done; Vasquez heating up; Lowry has bounce back

- April 15th, 2014

One more tuneup to go before the Raptors return to the playoffs. Is the team ready? It doesn’t look like it. Not with teams – even horrible ones like Milwaukee – consistently shooting 50% from the field against Toronto. The team has slipped into a tie with Washington for 9th in defensive rating and has also fallen to ninth in opponent’s effective field goal percentage, a Dwane Casey and Masai Ujiri favourite category. This is all troubling.

- However, this has always been a team that feels it can turn it on and off. That’s a dangerous way to live, but we’ve consistently seen bad starts or quarters get erased by dynamite fourth quarters. Maybe these guys have been easing in to the post-season, just doing enough to play out the dog days of the regular season, confident that when more is required, they’ll be able to summon that extra effort. Count on the Raptors to collectively raise their games when the games get serious again. Or at least count on them to try to do that.

- On the bright side, while the defence has floundered, Toronto’s offence has been sizzling. Only five teams have a better offensive rating in March and April and Toronto’s 115.2 offensive rating in April is by far the best in the NBA. One of the main reasons the offence has been so productive stems from high assist numbers and a low turnover rate.

- Kyle Lowry and Greivis Vasquez have a lot to do with that. Lowry’s back to his All-NBA caliber form following his brief rest period. He scorched Milwaukee when the game was mildly in doubt, and appears to be able to attack the rim whenever he wants to, something he was having a bit of trouble with when the minutes piled up in late March. Before he got his break, Lowry compiled 17 assists and 17 turnovers in the four games before sitting down. In the four since, Lowry has posted 21 assists, just six turnovers and averaged 26.5 points per game.

- Vasquez might have had his best game of the year against Milwaukee and has 18 assists and just eight turnovers over his past five games. He’s shot 17-for-28 from three (61%) over that span. No. 3 point guard Nando de Colo also has helped the offence surge, posting 13 assists against just three turnovers over his past four games,

- Said it on Twitter and will repeat: No problem with raising the banner Monday night to celebrate winning the Atlantic Division. A bit of a gimmick? Meh, the great franchises don’t have to do it because they have a long history of success. The Raptors don’t, so why not celebrate this? It’s an achievement, even if it was won in a down year with Philadelphia and Boston happier to lose games than win. Plus, this group won’t be back next year, Masai Ujiri likes to make moves, some of the pieces will change, so waiting until the opener next October means a team that got here by being a true team, won’t have all of its pieces on hand to celebrate the achievement.

- Jonas Valanciunas in April: 18 points, 11.7 rebounds per game.

PPG: Forget worrying about playoff bracket if Raptors don’t get it together, first round will be end of season; Rough night for the refs; Pistons’ parts don’t work

- April 14th, 2014

There will be another banner going up at the ACC. While that’s all well and great, the Raptors desperately need to get back on track so that this year isn’t a replica of the last year that produced a banner. In 2006/07, Toronto excelled against a watered-down East that had many teams retooling or outright tanking for a shot at Greg Oden or Kevin Durant. That team surprised everyone by winning the division, but drew a Nets team that was better on paper, had far more experience and was healthy (unlike Toronto, which had lost its glue player, Jorge Garbajosa to injury). Of course the Nets pulled off the “upset” and things went downhill in the seasons to come from there for the Raptors.

If Toronto doesn’t get its defence back on track, history could repeat itself, even though Chicago’s loss means the team currently isn’t in position to revisit that scenario, by having to square off against another solid Nets team in the first round.

- Speaking of that … It seems the bulk of the fan-base is caught up in the playoff bracket these days and what would be best for the Raptors. Is it better to face a better team (Brooklyn) in Round 1, but avoid Miami in Round 2, or go up against Washington or Charlotte, but have to meet the Heat next?

It looks like Indiana is going to come away with the No. 1 spot in the East and Miami will be No. 2, despite a late push as the Pacers faltered. That means the No. 4 vs No. 5 combatants will be in the bracket with No. 1 Indiana and the No. 3 vs. No. 6 teams will face the winner of No. 2 vs. No. 7 (so, barring one of the biggest upsets in NBA history, the Heat). Don’t worry about any of that. Looking ahead in pro sports seldom ends well. You lose focus and things never seem to go the way you want them to. Toronto is not nearly good enough to look ahead and plan for life after the first round. The franchise has only reached such lofty heights once in 19 seasons and this group, though fantastic since the Dec. 7 traded, has slipped substantially defensively over the past five weeks. If Dwane Casey can’t get the team playing significantly better by the weekend, it doesn’t really matter who the Raptors play. Washington or Charlotte could easily dispatch this version of the Raptors. Those teams might not be favoured, as Brooklyn would be if Toronto slips to No. 4, but they’d be no gimmes. The focus for Toronto should be on getting back in gear and letting the playoff chips fall where they may after that.

Some thoughts on the Pistons game:

- I’ve seen some atrocious refereeing and it’s not an easy job by any stretch, but Sunday’s crew struggled. They called everything early, seemingly favouring the Raptors to the point that various Pistons got incensed, then swallowed the whistles for a long stretch, letting both teams club each other. Then, as the fourth quarter unfolded, calls started being made in excess again to the point that Toronto lost top player Kyle Lowry for the final half of the fourth thanks to a pair of bogus calls. Lowry didn’t have position on a block call, but Peyton Siva clearly could have been called for an offensive foul on the play because he used his hand to swat Lowry away. Even worse was Lowry’s sixth. Andre Drummond tripped on his own two feet with Lowry looking on. Because Drummond fell, the refs booted Lowry. One of the worst calls of the season considering Detroit had made the game interesting and it was getting into crunch time.

- The Toronto support in the crowd was impressive. It’s always been good when I’ve covered games at the Palace, but seemed to be more than ever on Sunday.

- The Drummond-Jonas Valanciunas battle is going to be a great one for years to come. Valanciunas is far more skilled, but Drummond is a ridiculous athlete that nobody can keep off of the glass. If he ever figures out where to be positionally on defence and doesn’t just rely on his freakish athleticism, the league is going to have a problem (also, if he starts hitting even 60% of his free throws).

- Joe Dumars is out and it’s time. He was great early on, but it’s been misstep after misstep since with some of the worst calls any GM has made over the past six years. The new guy will have to move either Greg Monroe or Josh Smith and dealing Brandon Jennings wouldn’t hurt either. Good luck with all of that, because it won’t be easy to move any of those contracts (once Monroe gets huge money).

- The obvious: Big-time effort from DeMar DeRozan with Lowry out. Carried the team; Nando de Colo looks like a solid pickup by Masai Ujiri. Fantastic feel for the game, as Jack Armstrong noted on the broadcast and is a stellar passer. Particularly good at leading teammates to the bucket and then finding them in perfect position to score.

 

 

Raptors Knicks PPG: The Atlantic’s been won, but not because of efforts like this; Valanciunas laments missed easy ones; Amir and DeMar, longest-serving Raptors, proud; Lots of love for Wiggins boys

- April 12th, 2014

At what point does Toronto’s awful defensive play start to get worrisome? Yes, as Dwane Casey stated, the team is still elite in terms of defensive rating (ninth in the league), but there’s been considerable slippage lately. Winning the Atlantic Division is a notable achievement, as is returning to the playoffs, but if the team doesn’t start playing like it did for most of the season again, the post-season run will be a short one.

- For the first three months following the Rudy Gay trade, the Raptors ranked No. 4 in the league in defensive rating (100.5 points allowed per 100 possessions). Since then (just over a month), Toronto ranks 20th (106.4 defensive rating). That’s a massive difference. Losing Amir Johnson and Kyle Lowry for much of the stretch and Patrick Patterson before that has a lot to do with the drastic falloff, but it’s not the only excuse. Fatigue, a lack of practice time and sub-par concentration also could be to blame. Things need to change, and quickly.

- There wasn’t much celebrating going on in the locker room, hard to get too excited when you just lost, they all said, but there was genuine pride in winning the division. “It’s awesome. Wasn’t the way we wanted to do it, but we got it. It’s big man, This is what we’ve been playing for, to get a chance to be in the playoffs and winning the division it’s just a big cherry on top,” Johnson told the Sun. “We’ve got a lot more to go, but it’s a proud moment.”

Johnson on things looking bleak when the team started 6-12: “We kept fighting, some new changes, we stuck with it, we stayed here, we worked hard and it’s definitely, I feel like it’s well-deserved.”

- Jonas Valanciunas continues to surge on the boards. While he uncharacteristically struggled to finish inside, like his teammates (We missed a lot of bunnies. I think we shot 30% inside the three-point line,” Casey said) he was Dwight Howard-like on the glass. He even did the old Moses Malone a couple of times, knocking the ball off of the glass to himself, padding his stats by getting to the ball before anybody else could. Only Chris Bosh, Donyell Marshall and Reggie Evans have hauled in more rebounds in a game as Raptors. Amir’s best is 18 and Kevin Willis once did that as well.

- Casey on the loss: “It’s funny how the expectations change. We go from developing and now all at once we lost to Carmelo Anthony and a team like this and the world (is collapsing). We still have some growing to do. We have a great foundation from where we are. Now we just want to be ready to go into the playoffs with some momentum.”
- Lowry on setting franchise-record for three-point shots and how he’s developed his jump shot: “Hard work, man. It’s part of my game now. You can’t just expect me to be a driver like my first couple years in the league. Now, it’s a threat.”

- It was nice to see Amar’e Stoudemire having a turn back the clock effort. He’s a good guy that has been through a lot. He had a lot of time for Andrew Wiggins post-game. I asked how he knows him and what he said to the potential No. 1 overall draft pick:

“Oh, I met Wiggins back when he was in high school for the Jordan Classic and I was giving him words of encouragement back then before he went off to Kansas,” Stoudemire said post-game. ” Just told him congratulations on a phenomenal year at Kansas and I’ll see him soon (in the NBA).” Kansas alum Cole Aldrich also went over to say hello and Knicks guard Toure Murray, a Wichita State product, did the same to Nick Wiggins and Chadrack Lufile, who are seniors at the school and went undefeated this year until facing Kentucky at the NCAA tournament.

 Some stats: Toronto has still never been 15 games above .500 and will need to win its next two to get there. Valanciunas reached double figures in scoring for the eighth consecutive game. Toronto’s 39-20 record since the trade coming in was the best record in the Eastern Conference.

Toronto had made at least 10 three-pointers in five straight games and shooting about 45% from outside in that stretch. The team fell to 22-9 when it makes 10 or more threes. Toronto is now 11-4 against the Atlantic Division.
- While a Toronto-Brooklyn matchup is looking likely at the moment, if Toronto draws Charlotte, the chatter is the U.S. networks won’t even bother to send up a crew for that series and instead will use the Toronto broadcast. That’s because there will be little interest in watching those two teams in the States.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Raptors-Sixers PPG: Valanciunas shakes off distractions and has huge night; Lowry back with a bang; Magic number is one

- April 10th, 2014

We weren’t sure exactly how the night would go for Jonas Valanciunas after a couple of us informally shot the breeze with him before he got some shots up pre-game. His recent brush with the law obviously was on his mind. Would he be able to deal with the distractions? Would a young man who very much cares about being a good person and being liked by all let the situation get to him?

Apparently not. Valanciunas was on a mission from the get-go against the undersized Sixers, scoring three buckets in the paint in each of the first two quarters. He scored four more baskets in close in the third and shot 10-for-14 overall, adding a game-high 12 rebounds and a pair of blocks. It looked like he was taking some of the frustration built over the past few days out on the hapless Sixers. Valanciunas has shot 60% in the paint this season, but was particularly emphatic with his finishing on Wednesday.

- Valanciunas has shot a sizzling 69% from the field over his past 5 games, averaging 18.8 points per game and 61% over his past 20. It was a good sign that his offence didn’t slip even with the return of Kyle Lowry. He’d been getting more touches with Lowry sidelined. After the game he thanked the fans for their support as well as his teammates. On the court, he says his increased productivity stems from feeling more trust from the coaches, his teammates and “Getting the ball, doing what I’m supposed to do. Playing with energy, concentration.”

- Lowry on Valanciunas: “Yeah, I mean he’s a young kid. he’s 21. Everything’s a learning process for him, every single day, every single game, every single part of life. He’s going to grow up and like all of us in here we all grow up and make mistakes. He’s going to make mistakes but the thing about it is we’ve got a chance to redeem ourselves.”

- Lowry on why things are clicking for his big centre: “Much more aggressive, much more hungry. He wants the ball. Tonight he was literally yelling at me to give him the ball and I’ve got to do nothing but give him the ball because he’s our big fella.”

- DeMar DeRozan added the game seems to be slowing down a bit for Valanciunas and he’s not rushing as much when he gets the ball.

- Lowry also said he was pleased to be back because, “when you miss games, you feel like you’re letting your team down.”

 -A terrible night for Knicks fans would mean a great night for their Raptor counterparts Friday. With New York still mathematically alive, Atlanta will surely be playing inspired basketball against Brooklyn on Friday. That’s good for the Raptors, because a Hawks win clinches the Atlantic Division for Toronto. Or, the Raptors could win in front of the home crowd to also clinch the division. A winning night for both New York City squads would pull the Knicks within a game of eighth place with only three to play and give Brooklyn faint hope of still winning the division.

- The defensive slippage is Toronto’s primary concern at the moment. Part of it is being in the “dog days” as Dwane Casey put it. Players are tired, some teams have nothing to lose and are unpredictable, Amir Johnson, the defensive anchor, has been injured … but part of it is a lack of concentration and desire. At this time of year, meaningless games can be a major challenge to get up for. Toronto has to find a way around it and get back on track. While still eighth in the league in defensive rating, Toronto’s slipped to 17th in the past 10 and past 5 games.

- Casey said the problems have been mostly on the perimeter. Without Johnson to clean up the mess after the initial breakdowns, the team has struggled.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

At Bucks PPG: Kingz of the fourth quarter – and the road, but this one wasn’t impressive in the slightest; Vasquez, de Colo, Valanciunas stepping up; Patterson looking to find his game

- April 6th, 2014

Because I was covering the two NCAA semi-final tilts, I couldn’t see much of the comeback win over Milwaukee. But it went much like many Raptors games this season. The team got off to a hot start, with ex-Kings Greivis Vasquez, Patrick Patterson and John Salmons doing most of the offensive work. Then, there was a complete defensive collapse in the second quarter that proved even an awful NBA team can do damage if its opponent isn’t going to offer any resistance. Vasquez kept rolling in the third and DeMar DeRozan and Jonas Valanciunas got going, bringing the Raptors within one heading into the fourth and everyone knew what would happen from there.

- Allowing Milwaukee to go to town in the paint in that ugly second quarter didn’t please Dwane Casey very much. He’s going to stay on this group even if these are the dog days of the season and even though key pieces were missing.

“First half we played like crap,’’ said Casey. “There’s no nice words you could put to it. We can’t approach the game that way. It’s just not acceptable to where we want to go and how we want to do it. If we want to be average, fine. But to get to where we want to go and be a playoff-calibre team, we have to perform better than that. No matter who you play, doesn’t matter if it’s Indiana or a high school team, it doesn’t matter. We got to come out and perform.”

- Even without Kyle Lowry and Amir Johnson again, this team has supreme confidence in the final quarter of games. Success can do that and nobody’s been better, nobody close really, in the final quarters of games this season.

- Vasquez still is in score-first mode, but he had eight assists and zero turnovers two games ago and after notching just three assists and two turnovers on Friday, came back with four helpers and no turnovers. He’s red-hot from outside, connecting on 12 of his past 20 three-point attempts.  He might not be able to defend anybody, but he’s not afraid to take – and make tough shots.

-  Nando de Colo continues to make an impact. He’s handed out 11 assists, scored 17 points and collected three steals over the past two wins.

- More stats: DeRozan has 18 assists over his past three games; Jonas Valanciunas has 47 rebounds over his past five games; Patterson’s shooting has not returned to form since he got back from injury. He’s shot just 32% (25% from three) in the four games.

- With Chicago and Brooklyn both winning again, Toronto held serve. If that continues, the Atlantic Division and third spot in the East will be property of the Raptors.

- There will be no NBA games on Monday, because of the Final Four.

 

 

Vs. Pacers PPG: Short-handed Raptors make a statement; Valanciunas stands tall; Playoff preview; East races tight

- April 5th, 2014

Add another highlight to a season filled with them for the Raptors. Beating the Pacers, the No. 1 team in the East for the vast majority of this season is impressive. Even if Indiana seems to be coming apart at the seams, completely discombobulated, a shadow of its former self, that’s still a statement win. Dwane Casey said as much afterward. It would have been less impressive had Kyle Lowry or Amir Johnson been in the lineup, but without them it was a massive jolt of confidence.
Lowry is the initial point of defence, the quarterback at the top, while Johnson is the anchor at the back, the guy that makes it all work. At the other end, Lowry and DeRozan are the offence, period and Johnson is the most efficient finisher the team has. Those are two huge players to be without.

- How did the win happen then? Well, Jonas Valanciunas was fantastic again, continuing a monster 15-game stretch that has to be quite heartening to team brass. He’s really starting to come into his own at both ends of the floor. Roy Hibbert used to give Valanciunas all kinds of trouble, but Valanciunas whupped him on Friday. Meanwhile, fellow sophomore Terrence Ross did his best to replace Lowry’s offence and even a bit of his defence. Ross has grabbed 20 rebounds and scored 40 points over his past three games.

- The Raptors played tough, refusing to back down. Chuck Hayes and John Salmons were at the forefront of that, but Valanciunas wasn’t backing down either.

- Nando de Colo looks like a bit of a find. The passing was there from the beginning, but now he appears to be gaining some confidence with his jump shot. The Raptors will bring him back for cheap next season and will have an interesting decision to make if Lowry gets the money he deserves (it will be a lot) – let Greivis Vasquez go and save about $1.4 million at the backup PG spot (or bring them both back, Vasquez is due only a small qualifying offer, just over $3M, unless he gets a contract extension or another team signs him to an offer sheet).

- Interesting comments from Dwane Casey related to Tim Leiweke saying he wants to bring Lowry back on a long-term contract.

“That’s out of my department,” Casey said. “That’s the front office. That’s their paycheck. I would if I was general manager of a team. But that’s their decision.

“Kyle has done everything we’ve asked him to do. He’s helped put us in this position with this team. He’s grown, he’s matured, and that’s huge as far as we’re concerned.”

- The East race is getting mighty tight. Brooklyn and Chicago kept pace with the Raptors with blowout wins.

Toronto now has home games against Philadelphia, New York and Milwaukee and road tilts with Milwaukee, Detroit and New York. The Knicks are highly motivated, but the rest of the games could be cakewalks, with, or without Lowry and Johnson.

Chicago has home games against Detroit and Orlando and road meetings with Atlanta, Washington, Minnesota, New York and Charlotte. That’s far more challenging, so the math says the Raptors will finish ahead of Chicago, but once again, that’s why they play the games.

Brooklyn has a game in hand on both teams and will play Atlanta, Orlando and New York at home and Philadelphia, Miami, Orlando and Cleveland on the road, but sits three games back in the win column. Toronto holds tie-breakers over both Chicago and Brooklyn in the event they finish tied.

- Washington survived against the Knicks by a point, so held serve with Charlotte. The Bobcats and Wizards will meet in a huge contest in Washington next Wednesday. If Charlotte wins, it owns the tie-breaker if they end up even.

 

 

Bloodied DeRozan carries the Raptors; Injuries ‘good’ for Raptors; Vasquez back in pass mode;

- April 3rd, 2014

DeMar DeRozan had an impressive night Wednesday. After struggling in the first quarter, DeRozan was excellent, putting the team on his back. He even wrapped up big Omer Asik, splitting his hand open, but kept on going, taking a big charge.

“I haven’t really played without Kyle. He played every game. It was an adjustment for me tonight. I figured it out there after the first quarter,” DeRozan said after the game.

“I kind of split the middle of my hand, the webbing of my hand. I didn’t even notice. I looked down and my whole hand was soaked.
“It wouldn’t stop bleeding. But it’s cool.”

Now the Raptors will have to try to stop the bleeding on the injury front. That said, Amir Johnson and Kyle Lowry should be back as soon as Friday, and some Raptors believe a brief absence by those two crucial players could actually help the team if one is thinking long-term.

“I thought this was good for us as a team because it gives guys confidence and gives guys more minutes going into the playoffs.” said Tyler Hansbrough, who has more post-season experience than most of his teammates combined.

“When you go deep in your bench and build, that it helps you for later on down the road.”

Added Patrick Patterson: “They’re all-stars, they’re leaders, the backbone of this team. Whenever Kyle’s not playing, that allows DeMar to get more shots, more opportunities and he capitalized on that tonight. Whenever DeMar’s not playing, Kyle does the same thing. When they’re both out there, it makes it a lot easier for all of us. When they’re out, it causes everybody to raise their game to another level.”

- Greivis Vasquez had been asked to score the ball for the past two months, playing a lot beside Lowry, but with Lowry out, he was asked to be a facilitator again. Vasquez responded, picking up eight assists and no turnovers.

Casey on the injuries: “We’ve been very lucky. Our training staff has done a great job of keeping guys prepared. We’ve been very lucky not to have had some major injuries, knock on wood, throughout the year. The little injury bug has hit us a little bit. The schedule’s not going to stop. We’ve got to keep going. Next man up.”

 A few stats:

Terrence Ross tied his career high with nine rebounds

Toronto is 31-2 when leading after three quarters. Houston shot .294 in the fourth quarter.The Rockets sat fourth in the NBA in field goal percentage and third in points per game coming in. No Dwight Howard obviously changes things for the Rockets considerably.

The Raptors sit at 19-8 when hitting 10+ threes. DeRozan has now scored 28+ points in three of the last four games.Houston went 23-7 against the East. Toronto is 15-8 since the all-star break.

 

 

 

 

 

At Heat PPG: Lowry injury a reminder how fragile this whole thing is; LeBron James is an MVP too and like Durant, destroyed the Raptors; Toronto still winless in Big 3 era against Heat

- April 1st, 2014

Once again the Raptors hung around with the mighty Heat for much of a ballgame, but once again, Miami showed why it’s the class of the East down the stretch.

That LeBron guy had a lot to do with it. Despite a sore back, LeBron James reminded everyone why Kevin Durant won’t be the unanimous MVP, despite his absolutely insane, record-setting season. Other than forcing LeBron into six turnovers, Toronto had no answers. From Joey Graham and Jamario Moon, to a mild version of Shawn Marion, to Landry Fields and Terrence Ross, like the rest of the league, the Raptors have never had a player capable of slowing down the four-time MVP.

- Of course Kyle Lowry’s injury was the main story from Monday night. Don’t expect much of an update from the tight-lipped Toronto medical staff for a while. Going by past history, nothing will be revealed until just before tip-off against Houston on Wednesday. The early aftermath didn’t look good, with Lowry riding on a cart from the team’s locker room in Miami to the bus. He had to get up to go through TSA pre-screening and my colleague Mike Ganter said he did so while limping noticeably. Running into the freight train that is James knee-first rarely will leave somebody unscathed. But X-rays were negative and as long as their isn’t any significant damage, Lowry should be back before too long.

- But wouldn’t it be so Raptors if a season that has been such a surprising success took an awful turn? Let’s all hope this isn’t another Jorge Garbajosa season-destroying situation.

- Toronto’s still without a win against the Heat since the Big Three was formed. Even though Dwyane Wade and Ray Allen didn’t play in this one.

- The game was lost in the third quarter, when the Raptors kept launching long jumpers (even though Miami didn’t have an inside defensive presence besides Chris Andersen and even though Jonas Valanciunas had been going off in the first half – he took one shot in the third, two in the fourth, a continuing problem). Most of those shots went clankety-clank and, because Miami wasn’t playing too well at the other end, a huge opportunity was wasted. Toronto went nearly four minutes without a basket to start the quarter, failing to get one until Lowry went inside. Two minutes later, the Raptors finally scored again (a Valanciunas dunk). Throughout the quarter, Toronto consistently went a minute or two between scores.

- Would have liked to see Toronto exploit its size advantage more with Valanciunas, or even some Tyler Hansbrough, who could have gotten Miami into some foul trouble because of his activity rate and ability to draw fouls. Dwane Casey opted to go smaller. With Patrick Patterson back, the big man rotation will get even more interesting. Due to foul trouble and because it was a back-to-back, Amir Johnson played only 24 minutes.

- Not getting into the foul disparity other than to say it was a bit ironic LeBron shot more free throws than the entire Raptors team a day after DeRozan shot more than the Magic did.

At Magic PPG: A win, but nothing to be proud of; No excuse for that defence; DeRozan/Lowry again wouldn’t let loss happen; Valanciunas’ growth heartening but where’s Ross?

- March 31st, 2014

Perhaps it can be considered progress that a Raptors win is no longer a cause for celebration the way it was when victories were harder to come by. Now, a win in a game played so wretchedly by the Raptors can only be slagged. Orlando’s horrible, worse than the Boston team that gave Toronto some trouble. There’s no excuse for letting that group shoot 55% from the field, collecting 24 assists (to Toronto’s 13, a low number not seen since the Rudy Gay trade). Only a huge edge at the line (27 attempts to 14) and an 18-9 edge on second chance points allowed the Raptors to escape after blowing a 21-point lead.

- The positives first: DeMar DeRozan wasn’t going to let the Raptors completely blow this one. He was in attack mode again, just as he had been against the Celtics, drawing more trips to the line than the entire Orlando team (Orlando head coach Jacque Vaughn, who is crusty on a good day, wasn’t too pleased about that fact). He also hit a clutch three. Backcourt partner Kyle Lowry did his usual thing as well, upping his workload considerably in the fourth, mostly driving the ball into the heart of the Orlando defence.

- Jonas Valanciunas continues to be a first half all-star. More often than not, he’s excellent early in games, than doesn’t see much of the ball when DeRozan and Lowry take over (Valanciunas has averaged 7.1 points in the first two quarters of games since the all-star break, half of that in the final two). Ideally, there would be a better balance, but you can’t argue much with the results. Valanciunas is really coming along lately, averaging 13.5 points, 9.2 rebounds, 55.7% shooting from the field and 90.2% shooting from the line over his past 10 games. Going beyond those stats, he’s also been noticeably better rotating on defence.

- The bench stepped up, Landry Fields and Nando de Colo particularly. Fields has been a true vet, ready to produce when called upon. He’s earned some of the minutes given to John Salmons. Fields played twice as many minutes as Salmons on Sunday. We’ll see if that continues. With the starters struggling to defend, the bench did a good job of providing more resistance.

- The bad: The defending. The lack of ball movement. Letting a bad team keep its confidence and claw back. No Terrence Ross for the final 15 minutes of the game (even though Orlando was shooting the lights out. Ross is Toronto’s best perimeter defender …)

 

Raptors PPG: Playoffs, we’re talking playoffs? Raptors go from tank to bank; What’s happened since the Raptors last made the post-season

- March 29th, 2014

So, the Raptors are in. Fittingly, Amir Johnson, exemplifying everything he brings to the table, was the one to supply the last push Friday against Boston. Amir and DeMar DeRozan have been suffering through down seasons together here longer than anyone else, the last remaining players from the end of the Chris Bosh era.

It’s been a long time coming, that’s for sure. A lot of bad basketball has been played since Bosh broke his face. It’s a new day. While nobody knows what the off-season will bring (a lot of change, or stability?) the tank is long-dead and thoughts about potential playoff opponents can now be voiced.

- Johnson’s been Toronto’s best overall player in the three seasons previous to this one and works harder and plays through more injuries than anybody on the team (though DeRozan is about his equal in both of those regards). That’s why it was nice to see him get the Raptors through.

- No question Kyle Lowry’s been the top Raptor this season (again, with apologies to DeRozan) and he showed what he’s all about as well in fighting off an ankle injury to make some decisive drives to the bucket that helped seal the win.

- DeRozan wasn’t about to let the pesky Celtics, who he’d already seen five times this season, including the two exhibition games, come back again. With his jumper shaky, DeRozan looked to repeatedly attack, getting five shots in the paint in both the third and fourth quarters. Now that he’s an all-star, DeRozan  is getting calls from the officials, which helps quite a bit, but it’s his mindset that is the key.

- Nice to see John Salmons find his game. To say he’s been struggling is a massive understatement. His game had completely vanished, but Dwane Casey kept the faith, even though using Landry Fields instead would have made a lot of sense, and Salmons responded by nailing his first two shots, picking up two assists, a couple of steals and no turnovers. He was also +15, tied for the team lead.

- A bonus thought: +/- is way down on the list of useful stats, but it’s a lot more relevant in basketball than it is in hockey, where power plays mess with the numbers. While it’s not a be all, end all, the eye test shows that Chuck Hayes has been excellent for the team lately. The +/- check shows Hayes has been +15 (tied for team lead), +3 (best of the reserves), +17 (2nd on team) and +16 (best on team) in his past four games. He’s supplied strong defence and helps move the ball around thanks to his surprisingly strong passing skills.

- Since Dwight Howard and Hedo Turkoglu took out the Raptors in five games in the playoffs, Toronto witnessed (a lot more than this, but a few highlights/lowlights):

The ill-fated Jermaine O’Neal deal; The end of the Sam Mitchell era and the elevation of Jay Triano to head coach; Bryan Colangelo gifting  the Heat with the cap space to form the Big Three by dumping O’Neal for Shawn Marion and Marcus Banks; The drafting of DeMar DeRozan; The Raptors “winning” the Turkoglu sweepstakes, only to almost immediately regret it once Turkoglu showed up to camp fat and unwilling to justify his payday; DeRozan starting 65 games as a rookie; the Jarrett Jack\Jose Calderon controversy at the point; A career year from Bosh, that ended prematurely when he got hurt and shut himself down in advance of his free agent flight to Miami; Bosh leaving, Bryan Colangelo ripping him, then saving some face by somehow dumping Turkoglu on the Suns (his former agent was in charge there); A disastrous season that ended with Triano out, Dwane Casey in and Jonas Valanciunas drafted in Colangelo’s ballsiest move, since he wouldn’t come over for a year and because Bargnani had soured nearly everyone in the city on European players; A lockout, followed by a shortened season where the Raptors were horrible to watch because the talent simply wasn’t there, but where Casey turned around the defensive culture and started turning around Toronto’s reputation as a soft team; The development of the youngsters and the drafting of Terrence Ross and Quincy Acy; Last season’s brutal start; The Kyle Lowry/Calderon and Lowry/Casey situations; Ross wins the slam dunk contest; The trade for Rudy Gay which sent Calderon elsewhere; The regression and booing of Bargnani; The arrival of Tim Leiweke and Masai Ujiri; The miraculous Bargnani trade that actually brought back draft picks; The tank talk; This season’s bad start and the Lowry trade rumours and questions about Casey’s future; The trade of Gay to Sacramento; The stunning turnaround of the team into a squad that wins two thirds of the time; Lowry’s all-NBA caliber campaign; DeRozan’s all-star nod; The return to the playoffs.