Tired Raptors power through Magic; Amir makes an adjustment; Life great for Lowry and Bruno’s pants

- December 16th, 2014

These Raptors sure seem to enjoy playing with fire, but at 19-6, you can’t argue with the results. They believe they can turn it on and off at will and against some teams, perhaps they can, but it is a dangerous game to play. Everyone could see a tough game coming on Monday. Orlando is young, was rested (unlike the Raptors who played the night before), extremely athletic and stocked with some good shooters, including the improved Victor Oladipo. That’s why it wasn’t surprising that they gave them a game and even took control for a bit in the second quarter before Kyle Lowry did Kyle Lowry things.

- I wrote all about Lowry in the main, so we’ll skip over just how ridiculous he was in the third quarter here. He didn’t do it by himself. Terrence Ross hit a trio of threes, snapping a shooting skid at home (though he still went 3-for-11 overall from the field), Patrick Patterson nailed a pair, James Johnson and Tyler Hansbrough were excellent in the second half off of the bench and Amir Johnson, again looking healthy – a good sign – had his moments as well.

- Dwane Casey credited his group for fighting through being mentally and physically tired to win the game. He said they had a tough night and didn’t get a lot of sleep. “I don’t want to give our guys an excuse but we get in at two in the morning, come through Customs; we have to sit at the gate in New York forever – I don’t know if they do that on purpose or what – and then we get in late, back-to-back, overtime game.
We had every excuse in the world and that’s what I told them at halftime,” Casey said, not mentioning the other things he said (or yelled) at them at the half.

“The second half we found our voice, our energy, our spirit and we held them to 13 and 17 (points) … we found our defensive mojo in the second half.”

- Casey didn’t like Amir’s work guarding Channing Frye in the previous outing – “He didn’t do a good job the last game and I just talked to Amir about that. He hit like three straight buckets, had 13 points in the first quarter so his attention to detail on Frye has to be on point because if not, he’s one of those guys that can get out there and space the floor,” Casey said. This time, Johnson played Frye a little closer and Frye missed all three first quarter shots and went just 1-for-6 in a poor outing.

- Jonas Valanciunas, who really hates talking about himself, always trying to direct the conversation back to the team, on being nominated for player of the week: “Yeah (he is happy). First of all happy that we won today, it’s tough, tough win, tough game, but we won so I’m happy for that one. And I’m happy for the player of the week … sure,” Valanciunas said rather non-plussed.

- Life seems to be great for Lowry right now. He’s been the most upbeat guy in the locker room (aside from Bebe, who cannot be topped in that department, ever) for a week or so now. He took some kids shopping on Tuesday, knows he’ll be an all-star in a couple of months and generally seems comfortable. We’ve got something big on Lowry planned in the near future. Anyway, funny moment after the game. Lowry spotted Bruno Caboclo two stalls over in bright red pants. “Damn Bruno, those are some red ass pants! It must be Christmas.” All Bruno could do was smile.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Patterson “Tells on himself”; An ugly win is still a win; Raptors better on road?; Knicks are a mess and no relief coming anytime soon

- December 15th, 2014

Ugly games, there have been a few. Especially lately. At least it sure seems that way. Sunday’s Raptors-Knicks tilt was a pretty hideous affair and I’m glad I wasn’t on this road trip. The Raptors again came out flat. They were pretty lethargic, letting the Knicks get to the line too often and could have blown a game against a horrid opponent, but like good teams do, Toronto found a way to leave Manhattan with another victory.

- Give Patrick Patterson the game ball for this one. He kept the Raptors afloat in the first quarter with his offence, hitting  all three of his shots for seven points (only Kyle Lowry also played well in the opening quarter), then saved the day for them late, by finally providing some resistance against Carmelo Anthony. Anthony had been having a solid scoring game, notching 27 points on better than 50% shooting, with 10 free throw attempts, before the Raptors opted to try Patterson against Anthony. Dwane Casey had mused the other day about possibly letting Patterson try his luck against small forwards. Anthony isn’t a traditional three, he’s more of a tweener so it’s not a perfect science, but Patterson showed something against him. As Casey put it afterward, Patterson “told on himself” as in he let the coaching staff know he can guard a scoring combo forward like Anthony. Carmelo did not attempt a free throw once Patterson was switched onto him and missed six-of-nine attempts from the field. There is no doubt Patterson has been one of the team’s best performers so far this season.

- I’m surprised the Raptors didn’t go to Valanciunas more often. Amar’e Stoudemire can’t come close to guarding him, yet Valanciunas only got one shot attempt in the first quarter – an aggressive move to the bucket for a score – just two more in the second. His teammates and coaching staff simply have to make sure Valanciunas gets more involved on offence. He is a good player down low. Use him. This isn’t a debate on whether he should be on the floor or not and when, it is about when he is out there, take advantage of what he can do.

- Terrence Ross has not been sinking threes as consistently as he did when DeMar DeRozan was around to create more open shots for him with his presence, but he’s been solid overall. Since DeRozan went down eight games ago (including the ninth game, since DeRozan only played a small portion of that game), Ross has averaged 14.2 points and 4.3 rebounds, shooting 48.6% from the field and 90% from the free throw line. He has shown more of an in-between game – putting the ball on the floor more, scoring on floaters and even a hook at times. One free throw attempt a game is not nearly enough though. Ross needs to be more aggressive and needs to draw some fouls. Especially for as long as DeRozan is out.

- More Ross, and this is a bizarre one – Including the game where DeRozan got hurt up until Sunday against the Knicks, Ross has shot 48.1% from three on the road, just 19% at home. Ross has basically been the force the Raptors want him to be on the road – 18.2 points on 58% shooting in the five games – but poor at home without DeRozan – 9.3 points on 35% shooting.

- The Kyle Lowry splits are also quite interesting. Using this same 9-game span, Lowry has averaged 26.4 points on the road and 2.6 steals and 10.2 assists per game vs. 17.3, 0.5 and 8.3. He’s also shot 36% at home, 43% on the road. It’s a small sample size, only about 11% of the season, but a bit intriguing. (Late add from a reader on Twitter: perhaps it has something to do with the Raptors facing far better teams at home during this stretch – those teams are 47-48 – vs. the 30-68 dregs they’ve faced on the road).

- So much for Phil Jackson and Derek Fisher instantly turning things around for the Knicks. They are an unmitigated disaster. The 5-21 start is the worst in team history. They owe Carmelo Anthony a ton of money for four more seasons ($22-$28 million a year, yikes). They have their own first round pick this year (luckily for them, since it’s going to be a high one), but send next year’s first either to Toronto or Denver (Denver gets the better pick, Toronto the lesser one) and they have no second rounders until 2020. Seriously. They have only seven players signed for next season, but even with the cap rising, will have a hard time adding star talent and filling out the roster. It’s more of the same the next summer. This is going to take some time. It’s too bad, considering how important the Knicks franchise is to the NBA and how terrible it has been for years now.

 

 

 

 

A better effort makes all the difference for Raptors against lowly Pacers; The bench has been absurdly good and Bruno speaks on Canadian weather

- December 13th, 2014

For the first time in a while, the Raptors played hard, played tough and played smart (at least defensively). Against a good team, it might not have been enough to finally get untracked offensively in the fourth and still come out with a win, but luckily for the Raptors, the punchless Pacers are missing three key pieces from last year’s East-leading group.

- Wrote about how ridiculous the bench – especially Lou Williams and Patrick Patterson have been here. For an update, after Friday night’s games, Lou Williams now leads all NBA reserves at +153 and Patrick Patterson is next at +136. Tyler Hansbrough is up to sixth at +92. James Johnson and Greivis Vasquez are also up there, as well as Canadians Tristan Thompson, Robert Sacre and Cory Joseph not too far below them.

- All week long, Dwane Casey has been harping on the team’s awful rebounding and constant defensive mental errors. Strides were made in tidying up those areas against the Pacers, the second-best rebounding team in the NBA. Jonas Valanciunas was a force, completely overwhelming Roy Hibbert and the other Pacers all evening, something he has done consistently against the Pacers the past couple of years now. Patterson stepped up his rebounding effort and Hansbrough gave them good minutes. When the Raptors come out aggressively, they tend to win games.

“That was big for us especially with the talented bigs that Indiana has and just the physical basketball that they play,” Williams said afterward. “It was important for us to hit first and I think it carried over for four quarters.”

- Clearly the bench is a major strength. “It’s good for teams to have a second group, to give the first group relief and then for them to have a group when they go out of the game that isn’t going to allow slippage,” Williams said. “we have a lot of guys that can start on other teams and we’ve accepted the role of being backups and we take that in pride, we take that in pride that we know we’re going into games and going to change the pace of the game. I think that’s a major plus.”

- It was a happy locker room post-game. Vasquez was talking up all of his teammates, Lowry was talking up Williams (well, everyone was actually doing that) and Brazilians Bruno Caboclo and Lucas Nogueira weighed in on the weather. Bebe said he has seen worse. Bruno was told last winter was far tougher and responded with a smile: “That’s because I am here now.”

A couple of notes that I had to cut from the paper due to space limitations:

REST FOR AMIR?

Amir Johnson has been playing through some injuries this season and has not looked as mobile as he or the Raptors would like on many nights.

So it was natural that head coach Dwane Casey was asked before the game whether giving Johnson a bit of enforced rest might be an option – eventually.

“(That) hadn’t been talked about. We’re already a man down (DeRozan),” Casey said. “At some point that could be a possibility but it hasn’t been talked about.”

Casey said the team has looked at “all scenarios” including playing Patterson at small forward, sitting Johnson for a bit, or something different.

Casey said Johnson has a collection of “knicks and knacks” little ailments that are adding up.

Even though Johnson’s rebounding numbers are way down this season though, he is still doing a good job at boxing out, which is creating more opportunities for teammates – especially Valanciunas – to go to work on the boards.

Johnson had more lift on Friday, throwing down a couple of dunks off of passes from Kyle Lowry.

ONE GAME AT A TIME

The Raptors are playing some of the league’s dregs for the next little while, but Dwane Casey is not eyeing a big run from his team.

“We’re not in a position to overlook anybody, any stretch of games,” Casey said.

“Tonight, last night, it’s all been about the Pacers. That’s the most important thing. Once, as a player, you start looking down the road, next game, two games, a stretch of games whatever, that’s where you get in trouble.”

Starting with the Pacers, the Raptors next six opponents were a combined 35-101 so far this season.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Loss to James and Cavaliers leaves a bitter taste in mouths of the Raptors

- December 10th, 2014

Tuesday’s loss to Cleveland will stick with the Raptors for some time. In a gloomy locker room afterward, many of the players lamented their lack of fight, their inability to come up with timely rebounds and even their inability to get a fair shake from the officials. Oddly enough, it was the usually terse Kyle Lowry who was one of the most upbeat Raptors. Lowry didn’t have a great night, for the second game in a row his jumper wasn’t falling, but he did notch 14 assists against just a single turnover. To his credit, he said the team would move on and can play a lot better: “We could have done a few different things. It was poor execution on my part, and as the point guard, I’ve got to get into better situations,” Lowry said of being forced into a bad shot with the game still in the balance by Tristan Thompson, who has nearly a foot on him.

- As good as Lowry was early at running the show, and he was great, finding a dominant Jonas Valanciunas to finish off pick-and-rolls with dunks several times, Lowry and the rest of the Raptors completely went away from what was working for them in the fourth quarter. They stopped feeding Valanciunas, who had annihilated Cleveland’s frontline all evening, missing just a single shot on seven attempts and shooting six of Toronto’s 10 free throws on the evening (making them all). If you have something that is working so well, going away from it just doesn’t make any sense. Lowry and the other Raptors have to be smarter. Of course, not having DeMar DeRozan to share the load and having Greivis Vasquez unavailable due to the flu definitely made life tougher for Lowry and the other players on the floor aren’t necessarily capable of running a pick-and-roll with Valanciunas.

- Were the referees a bit dicey? Sure, but that’s nothing new when James is playing. The NBA has always given superstars like James, Michael Jordan and Dwyane Wade a far wider berth. Doesn’t make it right, but that’s the way the NBA works. Amir Johnson, in particular, was incensed about the way it went down, but I think he was just as upset about he and the other Raptors not being able to come down with rebounds at opportune times, something that also sunk them against the Cavaliers on Friday night. Again, Thompson needs to be accounted for on the offensive boards. He is an elite offensive rebounder. Valanciunas said they need to be far more physical with him and must push him away from the basket.

- I gripe at times about Casey’s decisions, it’s part of my job, but I also point out when he makes some excellent calls. Starting Landry Fields turned out to be a great move and it also served to inspire James Johnson, who didn’t get the promotion. Casey’s decisions down the stretch of how to deploy his big men were bang-on. With Valanciunas and Patrick Patterson proving to be the best combination on this night, Casey rode them. When he needed a bit of Amir with Valanciunas he tried that too. The right players were on the floor. The problem (besides not going to Valanciunas), especially against a great rebounding team like the Cavs, is Toronto doesn’t really have a complementary big for Valanciunas right now. Amir looks like a shadow of his former self on too many nights. He can barely get off the floor some nights (just two rebounds, though it’s amazing how effective he can still be on basically one leg and without jumping). He just can’t help Valanciunas on the boards at the moment. Meanwhile Patterson, for all of his strengths, is a below average rebounder, it is the weakest part of his game. Without DeRozan, playing Chuck Hayes or Tyler Hansbrough isn’t an option, because they don’t offer enough offensively. Clearly, when Masai Ujiri decides to make a move, getting an upgrade at power forward has to be the focus.

- There is no shame to losing to that team, especially when you don’t have your top scorer. Cleveland is not perfect, but in the East, you don’t have to be. The Cavs could win the conference and are going to come back to beat good teams on many nights because James is basically unstoppable. Once Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving heat up, the Cavs become a problem. Toronto just didn’t have enough answers. Part of the reason for that was because they were shooting themselves in the foot though.

 

 

 

Valanciunas dominates Nuggets and needs to keep it up; OT monkey off Raptors backs; Bench comes through led by “Patman” who hears everything

- December 9th, 2014

Stop me if you’ve read this here before, but sometimes being lucky is as important as being good. Once again, the Raptors weren’t all that good and did their best to fumble away a game, before doing just enough to prevail. The team still has a long way to go and can’t play as haphazardly as it did against Denver against a good team and hope to win. There’s no excuse for letting a team finishing a back-to-back completely outwork a fully rested one. Denver wanted it more throughout the game and put in a lot more effort (with a couple of exceptions that we will get to).

- Denver players were left open far too often (might want to guard Wilson Chandler in the corner) and they missed a lot of shots later on in the game or else this one could have turned out differently. They attacked the boards and the Raptors, Jonas Valanciunas aside, did not seem too inclined to go up with them.

- The main positive has to be the play of Valanciunas. He dominated Timofey Mozgov, who had been in the midst of a solid season. Valanciunas was aggressive and effective. He bullied the Nuggets down low and also showed a new trick when he went left in the post for a score instead of his preferred turn toward the right and the middle of the floor. With DeMar DeRozan out, Valanciunas needs to bring the attitude and aggressiveness he brought on Monday. He was coming off one of his worst outings of the year, against Cleveland on Friday, so it was good that he bounced back with one of his better games the next time out.

- Offence wasn’t the only positive where Valanciunas is concerned. He also arguably turned in his best defensive outing of the season. He was a stopper, even when each of the other Raptors were only offering token resistance. He had four blocks, five fouls and was completely engaged. He looked like a wall in the middle and Dwane Casey and his staff had to be smiling about that. The trick now is doing it again. And again and not just against the behemoths like Mozgov that seem to bring out the best in him. Do it against the quicker, undersized centres like Cleveland’s Anderson Varejao, the opponent once again on Tuesday night.

- Speaking of new wrinkles, while Terrence Ross couldn’t buy an outside shot until one was needed the most, he looked good scoring off of the dribble. He is expanding his game in the absence of DeRozan, looking to put the ball on the floor to set up runners and even a hook. The more versatile Ross becomes on offence, the more effective he and the Raptors will be.

- For the second game in a row, Amir Johnson looked like his old self. He had a bounce in his step, set good screens and then … seemed to turn his ankle again. From there, he didn’t look right, but still converted a nice pick-and-roll at a pivotal moment. Still, with the way Valanciunas was rolling, it can be argued Valanciunas and Patterson should have closed the game, at least until Valanciunas picked up a sixth foul.

- Patterson obviously was great, hitting a career-best five threes including the one that forced overtime. On a night where Kyle Lowry couldn’t “hit the side of a barn with a bass fiddle” to steal a Casey quote (just 3-for-13), Patterson stepped up to provide the scoring the Raptors needed. Patterson was just as good afterward, telling the media, via TSN.ca’s Josh Lewenberg: “I hear everything. I hear the fans in whatever section, I can’t remember which one, there was a guy screaming, ‘Hey P-Pat.’ There’s another fan after I hit that three that says, ‘Yeah, that’s what I’m talking about PD-Patt,’ ‘Let’s go Pat-Man, save the day!’ I hear everything and I enjoy hearing it.” Great stuff.

- The Raptors still can’t stop teams off of the dribble. It’s a major concern. Ty Lawson is especially tough to corral because he is so quick, but he was just the latest point guard to go to town, creating open shots for his teammates. At least they came through when it mattered most, forcing Denver into a 24-second violation with the game on the line.

 

 

With megastars in the building Raptors were flat but LeBron James was not; Lowry needs help; Cavs solid but missing something

- December 6th, 2014

After LeBron James and the Cavaliers took apart a bunch of mostly listless Raptors Dwane Casey said: “This wasn’t us.” He was both right and wrong with that statement. It’s true that 40% shooting (including 33% from three) is an aberration for this talented group of scorers and usually they offer a lot more fight but, they also aren’t a particularly sound defensive group that is not ideally equipped to defend pick-and-rolls, especially if James is the guy setting everything up. But then again, who is? Despite the bad shooting, the Raptors  managed 25 assists and just 11 turnovers, which is quite good, but still were rarely ever really in the game.

- Kyle Lowry did his best with another strong effort in 40 minutes of action, but he needs some help. It was nice to see the Amir Johnson of old back, for at least one night (he said he has a bit of spring back in his step, since he is finally recovering from some nagging injuries), but at some point, getting both Johnson and Patrick Patterson firing on all cylinders on the same night would be quite helpful. The Raptors won’t win without DeMar DeRozan if Terrence Ross and Greivis Vasquez shoot 4-for-20 and don’t play a lick of defence (OK, Ross had at least a couple of good defensive moments, but Vasquez is a liability on that end, unless he can be hidden on a Shawn Marion, which doesn’t happen most nights). Jonas Valanciunas can’t be laying eggs either. He didn’t seem to be in this game from the minute it tipped. He didn’t have his usual energy and aggressiveness and any defensive progress he has made lately was not evident.

- The Cavaliers are pretty good and pretty good translates to excellent once you calculate the Eastern Conference exchange rate. I don’t think they can beat the best of the West in a seven-game series because they don’t have enough players that can provide even average (let-alone above average) defence and lack depth, but they’ll be in the mix with Chicago, Toronto and Washington in the East, despite that bad start. James is just too good and Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving too lethal as offensive sidekicks for the Cavs not to get homecourt at least for the first round and probably for longer than that. They’ll surely make a deal or two to bring in some reinforcements. Ideally for them, Dion Waiters would not play horribly most nights, giving himself some trade value, but, alas, that doesn’t seem to be in the cards.

- Credit to Tristan Thompson for putting on a show at home. Offensive rebounding ability is his one elite NBA skill and it has gotten him far. He clobbered the Raptors over and over on the boards on Friday night. Thompson was relentless and his second effort was simply far better than anybody else on this night. Thompson loves playing at home and has tended to have some of his better outings at the ACC. Since struggling in two appearances here as a rookie, Thompson had averaged about 13 points and nine rebounds on better than 50% shooting here, before his 21 point, 13 rebound (nine offensive) clinic. When they meet in Cleveland, Valanciunas tends to make the Cavaliers sad that they passed on him for Thompson. When they meet in Toronto, Thompson tends to turn the tables. Still, while the Raptors like Thompson, they are quite happy how that draft night turned out and both teams are ecstatic they didn’t end up with a Jan Vesely, who went two picks after Thompson, one after Valanciunas to Washington.

- Amir said it was great to see all of the celebrities in the house for the Nelson Mandela tribute. He said it felt like the Staples Centre and he’d like to see more of it. In a weird anecdote, he added that his mother and Magic Johnson are pals and take Tae Bo classes together in Los Angeles.

- Another amusing moment: When former Argos superstars Pinball Clemons and Damon Allen were exiting the lower bowl after the game, a few fans bellowed “Aaaaaaaaaargos.” Clemons and Allen loved it.

- Masai says it’s time to forget about the past and celebrate the fact that great players like Vince Carter and Tracy McGrady are Raptors. Now that the Raptors are actually a good team, it’s a lot easier to get fans on board with that idea than ever before. Still, McGrady’s welcome was nowhere close the reception Magic, Charles Barkley and even Dikembe Mutombo received. McGrady was a kid who had a lot of justifiable complaints. He had many valid reasons for leaving to go home, the only issue most should have had with him was the way he told Glen Grunwald the Raptors would have a great shot at re-signing him, then cutting off all communication and bolting as soon as he could. That intriguing Raptors core could have helped make up for his loss by dealing him during his last season for some useful parts. But it is all ancient history at this point and not worth dwelling on. As Masai says, what’s the point of caring anymore? Grudges and resentment aren’t good for anybody.

Here’s more Masai from Friday night on forgiveness:

“People are people and we all have to embrace it. There’s no colour, there’s no colour in everybody’s skin. People are people and who they are and that’s who he was, he forgave after all he went through. I think we should learn to be that way,” Ujiri said of Mandela.

“We all the problems in Ferguson and all these things going on. Just forgive and move on. People need to learn that. That’s what he taught us, he sacrificed his life for 27 years. I know it seems easy to say but, I tell you what, we are blessed in a country like Canada because we have peace here, we have good people. There’s good people all around the world and a very low percentage of people not so good. That  big percentage has to work harder to make that little percentage shrink.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Raptors attack is a wrecking ball even without DeRozan; Valanciunas clearly improving; Lowry’s been a top five player so far

- December 4th, 2014

So much for the Raptors struggling offensively in the absence of top scorer DeMar DeRozan. While DeRozan generates a lot of points through his mid-range game and ability to get to the line like few others, the Raptors have a roster filled with talented scorers who can pick up much of the slack. The team shot 57% in Wednesday’s 123-104 blowout of Utah. A few thoughts on the game:

- We’ll start with the defence. It wasn’t great, but it was far better than what we saw in California against the Lakers and Kings. Early resistance was there, for the most part, though there were too many times where the Jazz created openings by moving the ball quickly. The main positives defensively probably would be the fact that Toronto played its best defence at the most opportune times – early on, during the initial first quarter push – and in the fourth quarter, when the Raptors put the game away. Opponents are scoring too much (100 points nearly every night now), but they are also getting more possessions to do something with because the Raptors are scoring at such an insane clip.

- Clearly 8-for-11 three-point shooting is not sustainable. That’s what the numbers were in the first half for the visitors, compared to a more reasonable 4-for-10 in the second half. The overall shooting percentage fell from 63% through the first two quarters against an overmatched Utah team, to 48% in the second half. How overmatched were the Utah players? Very. Raptors consistently drove right at them and got what they wanted. Even with Derrick Favors, Rudy Gobert and Enes Kanter, Utah offered no resistance in the paint (though to be fair, on many occasions, the bigs couldn’t possibly get over quickly enough to help the guards after they were beaten like linebackers trying to slow down prime Barry Sanders). Toronto’s smaller players went around and through Utah’s defenders as easily as various Kings players had throttled Toronto’s players a night earlier.

- Lou Williams took just one night off and was back in fine form, scoring 17, the same as Greivis Vasquez. They also combined for nine rebounds and seven assists. Still don’t love Vasquez starting over James Johnson, especially with Amir Johnson battling so many issues, but with him in there, the Raptors simply overpower most teams with their attack. Don’t see it as a long-term play though as, again, that kind of shooting is not sustainable.

- Toronto’s impressive depth allowed the Raptors to play fast and look great throughout, conditioning-wise, even though it was the second game of a back-to-back and it was held in Utah.

- The Raptors have to be encouraged by the play of Jonas Valanciunas. While the final numbers don’t look like much (9 points, 6 rebounds, 1 block, 2 free throw attempts) most nights Valanciunas seems to do one or two things that indicate that he is clearly growing. Against the Jazz, Valanciunas made three particularly intriguing plays. The first showcased his increased recent confidence with the ball and his lower turnover numbers (just six turnovers over his past six games).  With a double team coming on the left block, he held the ball up high, forcing the smaller guard to keep going, then took a dribble toward the centre of the floor and made a strong move to drop a baby hook on  Favors on a play that could have earned him a trip to the line as well. Next, Valanciunas showcased his improved ability to go vertical – something the Raptors work with him on every day – by blocking a Gordon Hayward dunk attempt. Valanciunas was called for the foul on the play, but it was a good example of verticality that the referees simply missed. Finally, Valanciunas looked pretty nimble in getting around Utah giant Rudy Gobert, before finishing a pretty reverse layup.

- Dwane Casey did an excellent job calling timeouts at the most beneficial moments. The best example came early in the third quarter, after Utah closed within nine points. Casey didn’t like how his team started the second half and sensing this was a dicey moment, read his team the riot act making it clear how he felt. Of course Kyle Lowry responded. After missing a shot, Lowry got the rebound, converted a three-point play, hit another jumper, then found Terrence Ross for a three. The game never again felt in doubt. Lowry again took 20 shots (four straight games since DeRozan got hurt after not doing it once while he was in the lineup this year … Lowry is adapting again, taking on as big a role as necessary, just as he did when Rudy Gay got traded).

- Not sure what else to say about Lowry, other than he deserves in the MVP conversation. The only point guard who has been better this season is Stephen Curry. Marc Gasol and Anthony Davis have been better too, but Lowry has to be right up there with James Harden, LeBron James and LaMarcus Aldridge to fill out the top five so far

. Jimmy Butler had a good case for East player of the month, but Lowry probably should have won it and has been the better overall player so far.

- Mentioned this on Twitter: Who do the East coaches leave out at all-star time? Lowry, John Wall, Derrick Rose, Rajon Rondo, Jeff Teague, Kyrie Irving? Irving or Rose likely get voted in, Rondo leads the league in assists, Wall’s been almost as good as Lowry, Teague’s really coming on … if I was asked to make the call, I’d look at the win-loss column and go Wall, Lowry for sure. I expect Irving to get voted in.

- The Raptors now have 15 wins, tied for tops in the NBA as of Thursday morning and are tied with Golden State for best point differential at +10 per game. Amazingly, nobody else in the Atlantic Division is even in the + category.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Raptors can thank Kyle Lowry for an ugly win in Sacramento; time to replace Vasquez with Johnson?

- December 3rd, 2014

Sometimes to get a win in the NBA you have to be good. Other times, it pays to be lucky. Some nights, it’s  a bit of both. And then there are nights like Tuesday, where the Raptors were neither good, nor all that lucky, yet still managed to come away with a victory. The Raptors (James Johnson aside) declined to play any defence for 75% of the night and had a rare off-night from Lou Williams, but still hung on, to run their record to an impressive 14-4. Why? This might seem like a huge generalization, but it came down to Kyle Lowry suiting up and DeMarcus Cousins not doing so.

- Sure, the Kings posted gaudy numbers without Cousins, one of the league’s five most dominant players (37 trips to the free throw line, 109 points, 52% shooting) but with Cousins in, the teams would not have been even on the boards, it would have been a big edge for the Kings and likely, a 10-point win for the home side).

- But Cousins was a surprising scratch, meaning Lowry was the best player on the floor and he showed it, lifting the Raptors on his back when necessary at both ends of the floor. Lowry started off on fire (nine points and five assists as the Raptors got off to a great start – 13 points, eight assists and just one turnover at the half), then finished with a bang, scoring 10 points in the fourth without a turnover. After hitting a tough layup, he then took a big charge on Rudy Gay, two pivotal plays in the end.

- Liked the way Lowry again took advantage of a smaller guard, this time going at tiny Darren Collison early in the post. Lowry can score against most point guards down there and it continues to be a good look for an offence that is searching for ways to replace DeMar DeRozan’s scoring.
- Hard to like the lack of defence from the Raptors. The Kings have some players who are good at attacking off the dribble, but at times it was ridiculous. They were blowing by Raptors defenders and the help defenders were barely even in the right area code. The Kings shot 77% from the field in the second quarter. It’s difficult to win games when you allow opponents to score at that level. The Kings were at 58% through three quarters and only a far better defensive final quarter from the league’s best fourth quarter team saved this one.- You could argue I’m being too negative, but this was an uninspiring performance from a team that is trying to prove that it is one of the NBA’s better teams and certainly a top three group in the East. The Raptors looked lazy and uninspired for much of the evening, Lowry, James and Amir Johnson, Jonas Valanciunas and Terrence Ross aside.

- Speaking of  Ross -the third-year swingman gave the Raptors a huge boost, scoring 15 points in the first quarter and 20 in all. It was the first time in his career he managed 20 points in consecutive games. Ross had hit 46.7% of his three-point attempts over his previous three games and with a 4-of-8 performance Tuesday, is up to 43.8% for the season, including 46.4% over his past five games.

- Jonas Valanciunas over his previous five games heading into this one: 12.6 points, 9.8 rebounds, 1.4 blocks per game on 61.5% shooting from the field, 83.3% from the line. He had 15 points and eight rebounds, shooting 50% from the field (on only six attempts) and 9-for-10 from the line. The Raptors need to get him more than 11 attempts a night while DeRozan is out. He only had two attempts in the opening quarter (both resulting in trips to the free throw line) and as good as the start was, it should be a point of emphasis to get the big man involved in opening quarters. Over his career, he has tended to perform better in games where he was featured early.

- Sacramento’s bench delivered 58 points, Toronto’s, just 35. Much of that was due to an off-night from Williams but I’m very much in favour of returning Greivis Vasquez to the bench and starting James Johnson, who had 19 points and seven rebounds in a revenge game against a franchise he clearly doesn’t have fond feelings for. Vasquez and Williams have been a good pair and the offence would be strong if he went back to the reserves. However, perhaps Dwane Casey is worried that defensively, the second group could become something of a disaster if Johnson is taken out of the mix. The flip side is the starters would get far sounder defensively with Johnson replacing Vasquez and Ross moving to shooting guard. Theoretically, more touches for Valanciunas would cancel out losing the offence Vasquez provides. Amir Johnson has also shown increased range (6-for-13 from three on the season, though five of the makes have come at home) if part of the fear from Casey and his staff is Ross would be the only three-point threat for Lowry to kick to. However, the Raptors do just fine offensively with DeRozan starting and he is not a three-point threat at all, so adding Johnson would not be that foreign of a concept.

- Ben McLemore looks like a different player this season and far closer to what many expected after watching him at Kansas. He had a terrible rookie season, but looks far more confident and is now effective. McLemore threw down a monster dunk on Amir Johnson in the second quarter. To the credit of the Raptors, they came right back, with James Johnson throwing down a big dunk of his own and the next time McLemore tried to catch Amir, he was rejected at the rim.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Too much Kobe, too little fight; Valanciunas’ defensive improvements intrigue; Silver lining to DeRozan injury?

- December 1st, 2014

On a lot of nights, the Raptors can sleepwalk though a game early, but still come back to win. On Sunday in Los Angeles, without DeMar DeRozan, and with Kobe Bryant turning in a vintage performance, the challenge was just a little too steep.

- So concerned with Bryant, the Raptors converged on him, which left Lakers wide open all evening and Bryant was in a giving mood with the holiday season approaching. His teammates hit enough shots to get him his 20th triple double of his career – and – a much-needed win after four straight losses.

- Don’t get carried away by Toronto’s fine 25 assists, eight turnover numbers. The Lakers are atrocious defensively, so those stats don’t say much, other than the offence wasn’t the problem for the visitors. L.A. shot 57% in the second quarter and outrebounded the Raptors 14-9. You can’t follow one lazy quarter with another and be in good shape to grab a win.

- Yet, despite shooting 1-for-11 from three in the first half, despite Kobe’s near triple-double, the Raptors were within six points of the Lakers. How? Mostly it was because of a 34-12 points in the paint edge through 24 minutes. The Lakers lack rim protectors and Toronto took advantage.

- The Raptors kept attacking in the third quarter, something that powers their offensive attack and is a huge reason why they rank near the top of the NBA in scoring, and it paid off with 12 trips to the free throw line. With DeRozan sidelined, the rest of the players will have to make a concerted effort to make sure they are aggressive. Kyle Lowry can’t do it for 40 minutes a night, it would be too draining over a long season, but the others need to make sure they get to the line early and often.

- You can argue with some of the fouls – including half of the ones called on James Johnson – but the Raptors didn’t exactly deserve this one. Would the timeout Lowry was asking for after a great defensive play by Jonas Valanciunas stopped Bryant in his tracks have given them a shot? Sure, but those are the breaks. In the end, they had a shot in overtime and they couldn’t make it count. They took the Lakers lightly and paid for it, even though Dwane Casey warned Kobe and his teammates would be a “wounded animal” because of their losing streak.

- Tyler Hansbrough returned and played nine of Toronto’s better minutes. Coincidentally or not, the guy who had taken his minutes while he was out, Chuck Hayes, had perhaps his least effective effort of the year. The Lakers bigs converted far too easily throughout this entire game, though, surprisingly, the Lakers didn’t go to them often enough, considering the success they were having.

- They’ve been working a lot for a while now on Valanciunas’ verticality – going straight up to defend attempts at the rim without fouling – and he’s been far better at it this year. He’s also been better defending the pick-and-roll. Those are two great signs for the Raptors.

- It’s too bad that DeRozan will be out until at least the New Year, but the one positive is this will allow other players to gain some confidence as their roles get expanded and it will also give the Raptors a taste of adversity now that could pay off down the line. If you are rolling and everything seems easy, it is easy to get complacent. Complacency in pro sports means death. This shakes things up a little bit and makes DeRozan’s injury not solely a negative thing (though he’d argue differently).

- The trick now is avoiding a third consecutive loss and preventing doubt from creeping in. With DeMarcus Cousins battling a bad bug, the Raptors will have an advantage, but Sacramento has played well this year. You can bet they won’t take the Kings lightly.

- On the stats front, Toronto still ranks a troubling 30th in assist percentage, though leading the league in turnover percentage helps negate that a bit. The Raptors give up too many assists, only six teams surrender more per game.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

No shame in Raptors dropping that game; Welcome back Amir Johnson; Rare rebounding domination doesn’t pay off; Turnovers were the issue; Rose proud to see the progress of Canadian hoops

- November 29th, 2014

There is nothing wrong with losing to a team as good as the Dallas Mavericks. The Mavs lead the NBA, averaging 109.7 points per game, rank second in field goal percentage, first in offensive rating (a ridiculous 114.1 points scored per 100 possessions, well ahead of second-place Toronto’s 110.7), tops in assist-to-turnover ratio and second in effective field goal percentage. It is not hyperbole to say this Dallas squad boasts one of the five best attacks we’ve seen in the NBA in the past 10-15 years.

- Dallas spreads out opponents with lethal three-point shooters everywhere, Dirk Nowitzki remains a sublime, nearly unstoppable force, Monta Ellis can score at will and Tyson Chandler and Brandon Wright are too long and athletic to contain inside and get a ton of easy buckets and put-backs. Whether it’s pick-and-rolls, pick-and-pops or getting easy points off of turnovers, these Mavericks are for real (as Dwane Casey said afterward, they’ll be in the money in the West when it’s all said and done).

- Dallas forces a lot of turnovers, but the Raptors were quite sloppy on Friday night too. The team had 17 miscues, nearly twice what they had been averaging coming in (11.2, behind only New Orleans for fewest per game in the NBA) to go with only 17 assists. Meanwhile, Dallas had a ridiculous 27 assists and just eight turnovers. Looking at that number, it is pretty amazing that the Raptors even made a game out of it in the end. 95% of the time, a team will have no chance against an opponent operating at that absurd level of efficiency.

- The turnovers weren’t just one guy having a rough night, six players had at least two, but the starters only had six turnovers – total, none by Jonas Valanciunas in his 28 minutes, which is an excellent sign.

- Amir Johnson had one of his best outings of the season, scoring 20 points, grabbing six offensive rebounds. Johnson was a force, helping compensate for the loss of DeMar DeRozan due to a groin injury. Patrick Patterson also was excellent, turning in a 10 point, 12 rebound double-double. Johnson and Patterson combined to haul in 10 offensive rebounds, four more than the entire Dallas team managed. The board-work (55-37 edge overall) helped keep Toronto in this one.

- Credit Valanciunas for bouncing back after getting dominated by Chandler in the first half. Valanciunas was a different player in his 12 second half minutes, grabbing eight rebounds and scoring eight points. He had no points and five boards through the first two quarters. Chandler still had a big third, but did nothing in the fourth (though Valanciunas only played half of the fourth).

- Currently at practice awaiting word on DeRozan’s status. Not much is known at this point.

- Caught up with Mavs owner Mark Cuban for a one-on-one pre-game and he said Dallas doesn’t win the 2011 title without Casey. Also, was in a scrum with another one of the NBA’s best entertainers, Jalen Rose, and he did not disappoint.

One Jalen quote that didn’t make the paper, on the growth of Canadian basketball: “I’m happy to see the growth that Canada and Toronto in particular has had in basketball. Wiggins came up earlier, being the No. 1 pick, Anthony Bennett, I played with Steve Nash, who is a two-time MVP, so it’s not a novelty anymore, for a lot of people to feel: can they really play ball in Toronto? I remember being in eighth grade, I came over here with Michigan AAU, when I was rebounding, that was the only way they were going to keep me around, I was the ball boy. Run and get the Gatorades, rebound for the team. I remember standing on the baseline and we had some great players on our team, Steve Smith, a lot of notables. But I was watching the other end, watching the Toronto players warm up and it was between the legs, 360, I’m  like ‘You guys are going to get killed.’ That’s what I told them. They said ‘Well if they beat us, you’re going to stay here with them.’ Fortunately it was a good game and Michigan won, but I knew at that time that Toronto was on the rise.”

- Rose also said the misconceptions about Toronto as a basketball city are gone: ” I think people get the message now. You don’t hear the mumbling and groaning about players re-signing here. You just got Lou Williams to sign, Kyle Lowry re-signed, DeMar’s on his second contract, Amir’s been here for a long time. I think that novelty is over as it relates to winning. And when you follow winning in the NBA, it always starts from the top down. And I appreciate what Tim Leiweke has done with the franchise, creating a culture, bringing in Masai, who undid a lot of moves in the past that probably weren’t the best moves. So now the city has a team they can really be proud of.”

- One Greivis Vasquez post-game quote: “We have just got to continue to grind. It’s not the end of the world. We lost a game. So what? On to the next one. We get better. We have to defend better. We have to rebound better. We have to play transition defence better. We have to do a lot of different things better. But we’re still, what, 13-3? That’s a pretty good record to me … We fought, we don’t give up that’s one thing about our team that’s going to win us a lot of games down the road

- OK, can never keep the Greivis quotes short because he’s an almost Jalen-level orator. On who steps up if DeRozan has to sit out: “I think we’ve got one of the best, and I say this in a humble way, benches in the league. Somebody else is going to step up. Lou will step in or myself or James or whatever coach wants to do. Now he’s got a squad. He’s got a team. And now he needs to, and he will, put it together. Somebody went down and we almost won. That wasn’t good enough. I think we have guys that can step up and do their job.”