Raptors are for real; Every night brings a different hero; Amir comes through when it counts

- November 27th, 2014

ATLANTA —  Overrated? Easy schedule? Lucky streak? No. No and No. These Raptors are quite good. They find ways to win, especially in the clutch and come at opponents in a variety of ways, putting all kinds of pressure on defenders.

- Toronto excels at getting to the free throw line because Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan relentlessly attack, Lou Williams does the same thing off of the bench and Jonas Valanciunas lately has been bullying opponents down low. Not only does this result in a lot of points, it also often leaves teams in foul trouble, forcing them to play good players less and also getting the Raptors into the bonus early.

- That was another true team effort, with everybody who took the floor contributing in one way or another. James Johnson and Patrick Patterson had some huge defensive moments off of the bench and Williams and Greivis Vasquez – turning in his best game of the season – were tremendous offensively.

- Kyle Lowry couldn’t buy a bucket, but he only had one turnover to go with 13 assists and once again made the plays when they mattered. The Raptors turn the ball over less than anybody but New Orleans and like the free throws, it is a major reason why they have such a good record.

“A lot of turnovers tonight was on me,” DeRozan said. “I had five, nobody else had more than one or two. Take my turnovers away, we took good care of the ball. We take pride in that.” Kyle Lowry commented on it as well. “Yeah, zoom, zoom, zoom. Ball movement’s been (good). Guys are starting to move the ball, they’re starting to find a rhythm with each other being in the right spot at the right times,” Lowry said.

“I just wanted to get my guys involved. Tonight, my shot wasn’t falling the way I wanted it to fall, but the guys did a good job of screening and getting on a roll and made some shots.”

- Amir Johnson continues to post the worst rebounding numbers of his Raptors career, but he has a knack for coming through at the right moments. The past two games have seen sparse rebounding totals, but the ones he has grabbed or the baskets he has scored have come at quite opportune moments.

- Friday and Rush Hour star Chris Tucker, a friend of assistant coach Bill Bayno, was in Toronto’s locker room post-game. Someone asked Valanciunas if he knew who Tucker was, prompting a funny response: “Yes, we have television in Lithuania, you know,” he said.

- The Raptors refuse to get overconfident based on this 13-2 start. To a man, they said while it was nice, they are thinking about Dallas (the most potent offensive team in the league) and then making a statement on a West Coast trip.

- Williams on every night featuring a different star: “We’ve got a lot of depth. It just shows the quality of a basketball team that we have. Three nights in a row it’s been somebody different stepping up. It was me with 36 in Cleveland and JV at home the other night and now Greivis having a breakout game so it just shows the depth and the character of this team.

“This is one of the better teams. I’ve been on some teams where everyone understood what they brought to the table in order for the team to be successful but this is definitely one of the better teams to do it.”

 - Of course Dwane Casey had a good quote: “He’s a scorer. He’s a born scorer. When you get 22 and 21 from your second unit guards, that’s big time. As they say in Kentucky, you’re cooking with gas with that. And those two guys came in with tremendous confidence but it wasn’t anything forced, it was within the offence,” Casey said.

- Lucas Nogueira and Bruno Caboclo might not play much, but they help keep the room loose. Bebe is always cracking jokes, while some of the players got a kick out of Bruno’s first encounter with a Chick-Fil-A sandwich.

- Atlanta’s players and head coach Mike Budenholzer had plenty of good things to say about the Raptors. They have made believers of the rest of the league, based on the comments we’ve been hearing lately.

















Dominant Valanciunas, clutch plays by a variety of Raptors sunk the Suns

- November 25th, 2014

Remember when the Raptors were known as a franchise that never got it done in the clutch? It seemed to be that way for years. No team seemed to lose as many winnable games by doing one thing or another wrong late in fourth quarters. That simply doesn’t happen anymore. It started last year and has carried over to this season. What was different about the game against the Suns, was the way the fourth played out. Instead of mounting a furious rally, as has become their norm, the Raptors saw a 15-point lead get erased by the ridiculously explosive Suns. That forced the home side to have to make several key decisions in the biggest moments and they came through. DeMar DeRozan called some of those “muscle plays.”

- To that point, there was this crazy Kyle Lowry sequence, there was Lowry swiping the ball away from Isaiah Thomas, similarly to how he had won an earlier game in Boston by pickpocketing rookie Marcus Smart. There was Patrick Patterson hitting two free throws when he hadn’t yet scored. There was Patterson pulling a Kevin Love by launching the ball down the court and Amir Johnson making a significant play to go up and haul in the pass like Calvin Johnson (no easy feat, considering Johnson has not shown his usual life this season. A joke heard afterward was that Amir only jumped three times on Monday, but he sure picked his spots well).

- Told by a reporter that the Lowry steal and his pass to Johnson were “ballsy” Patterson responded, sometimes you have to be.

- Lou Williams winning player of the week, despite being a reserve, was one of the more unexpected storylines we’ve seen in years, though it probably shouldn’t have been all that shocking. Dwane Casey seems like a near lock for East coach of the month and Lowry likely will be an honourable mention (with a shot at winning if Toronto beats Dallas on Friday I’d say).

- Williams talked about fighting to get back from a devastating injury, a process that definitely had some dark moments. Williams admitted he had some doubts after tearing his ACL in January of 2013. When he returned last season, he was not the same player he had been before. Atlanta basically gave him away for nothing rather than paying a guy they worried might never be the same.

Williams can’t blame them. “Absolutely. When you’re sitting there and you have a cast on and wheel chair and crutches and can’t lift your leg up, you can’t ride a bike, you can’t run, you can’t jog, obviously there’s going to be some doubt there,” he said.

“Two years later it’s great to see some fruits of the labour to feel myself back to 100 per cent, being back healthy and having some success.”

Williams said he was buoyed by the knowledge his friend Lowry had battled back from the same injury, suffered while he was in college.

- A lot of anguish out there about Valanciunas not playing for most of the fourth despite his huge game, but the Suns went tiny, who was he going to guard? Yes, he was scoring easily, but Phoenix wasn’t going inside at all, preferring to just bomb away (it was working) and Valanciunas would not have been able to cover enough ground out there defensively. Against most teams, his sitting after a performance like that would be an outrage. Against Phoenix, it made sense.

“They had three point guards out there so that caused us to do some things. JV had to come out and JV had it rolling,” Casey said. “As long as they kept their big in, it really helped us but once they spread those perimeter guys out it put us at a disadvantage. Threes vs. our twos is not a good trade off.”

- Valanciunas, by the way, is fifth in the East in player efficiency rating, is shooting 59% from the field, 80% from the free throw line and putting up career best rebound and block rates, with the lowest turnover rate in his three seasons.

- James Johnson returned far earlier from his ankle injury than expected (he missed three games), but was only able to play four minutes. Tyler Hansbrough (shoulder) did not dress.

- Isaiah Thomas on Lowry: ” He’s been given a good opportunity to run a team and he’s taken advantage of it. Everyone knows what Kyle Lowry’s about. He’s like a pit bull, he’s a leader, he’s a guy that never backs down. I think his opportunity just got bigger and he just took advantage of the role that was given to him.”

- Seem to say this daily now, but the Raptors refuse to get caught up in what the standings say: “For me we’re still a growing team. It’s still too early to look at the records,” Casey said.

“My job is to continue to push, continue to improve in a lot of areas and not get caught up in records or anything like that. Once you start doing that, that’s when you get in trouble. I remember in Dallas, we were like 24-5, and you would never know we were 24-5 because everybody had a businesslike attitude. All of the fans were watching Cowboys football. We were 24-5, and you would never know. That’s the way you have to approach it. You can’t look at the record. You’ve got to make sure you do your job, not only game by game, but possession by possession. This is [an unforgiving] league and it will do you in once you start overlooking possessions or skipping letters from where you are or getting caught up in thinking you’re somewhere where you’re not.”

- Casey pointed out rebounding as the area the Raptors need to improve in the most. Williams said if this is Toronto’s “roof, we’re in trouble. I think we have a lot more things that we should accomplish and other teams that we need to beat in order to be taken seriously in this league.” Like beating the Suns.

- Ex-Raptor P.J. Tucker on the ACC crowd: “It is a lot different, it’s unbelievable,” Tucker said. “Definitely moved up to one of the best home courts, hands down in the league. It is unbelievable what they have done here.” I was impressed by the way the fans roared once Phoenix took the lead in the fourth, showing their support, helping the Raptors to get back on top.





Resilient Raptors are the real deal: Knock off LeBron James and the Cavs and didn’t even need Bruno’s help

- November 23rd, 2014

For the first time – maybe ever – the Raptors went down big against a loaded, hungry team and you felt like, ‘They’ll be fine, this one is a long way from over.’ And if you said that, you were right.  Forget, for a second, that Cleveland is deeply flawed – two defensive stiffs in Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love, no rim protection and bad chemistry – the Cavs came in feeling embarrassed and desperate for a win and came out like prime Mike Tyson, hammering away at the Raptors. But Dwane Casey had his charges well-prepared for the carnage and like the former Cassius Clay, Toronto rope-a-doped, took all the hits, turned the tables and came back to manage a decisive victory (that’s it for the boxing analogies, I promise).

- Lou Williams was the star of the game, thanks to his ridiculous performance, Williams had a career-high 36 points, was +37 and hit more buzzer-beaters. What a pickup Williams has been. He gives the Raptors a badly needed closer (I borrowed a line from Glengarry Glen Ross – Coffee is for closers and it will be my new tag-line for Williams) and has been far better defensively than anybody expected. The bench has gone from a weakness last year – particularly at backup shooting guard – to a huge strength.

- Once again, Chuck Hayes made a big difference. He helped steady the Raptors, played his typically excellent defence, boxed out and helped shift things around.

- Have to credit DeMar DeRozan for shaking off one of his worst starts to a game this season (his shot selection was awful early, he kept throwing the ball to the wrong team …) and rallying to end up with at least a close to respectable offensive night (he was 1-for-8 with three turnovers in the first half, 6-for-10, with four rebounds and no turnovers from there). And the bigger story was DeRozan’s strong defence, particularly on LeBron James. If he’s turned a corner at that end, the Raptors are in great shape. DeRozan used his athleticism and size to stay in front of James better than most of his teammates had been doing and ad least made things a bit difficult for the four-time MVP, who had looked like Magic Johnson in the first quarter.

- Yes, that was the barely 6-foot tall Kyle Lowry stepping in and taking a charge on the freight train that is James and living to tell about it. That was another turning point in the game. These Raptors are tough, gritty, resilient and talented. A winning combination, especially in the East.

- The wandering band of Raptors fans was something to see. They were noisier than the rest of the arena combined at many points and had the Raptors raving about them. By now, most of the NBA has become aware that this is one of the most vocal and dedicated fanbases in the entire league.

- Liked many things Casey did on Saturday including: Letting Lowry play through early foul trouble; Giving DeRozan the job of guarding LeBron; Rolling with Hayes; Telling the Raptors to go at Irving, perhaps the worst defender in the entire NBA (as well as Joe Harris); Continuing to give Williams the green light to close quarters and more

- The usual stats dump: Raptors beat LeBron on road for first time since 2004; Record fifth double-digit comeback victory this season tops in the NBA; The Raptors shot 38.1% in the second half – and won; Raptors now second in free throw attempts and makes, just 25th in rebounding and assists per game, second in fewest turnovers and in offensive rating, first in point differential, sixth in defensive rating, fourth in simple rating which takes into account point differential and strength of schedule and seventh in true shooting percentage. The Raptors don’t have much to do with this stat, since they aren’t the ones shooting, but opponents have hit just 67.7% of their free throws against them so far this season, the worst mark in the NBA.

- One more weird one: Terrence Ross was one of the NBA leaders last season, hitting over 47.4% of his three-point attempts from the left corner. This year, he has started just 4-for-15 (26.7%) from there.

Feel-good Raptors toy with young Bucks and unveil Bruno Caboclo to the NBA world

- November 22nd, 2014

You could probably count on one hand the number of nights at the ACC that have been more fun than Friday’s Raptors-palooza.

- That was something else. It was bizarre, surreal and a heck of a way to cap a record-setting homestand. Not only did the Raptors completely annihilate the Bucks, the team also unveiled Bruno Caboclo to his adoring public – and the rookie delivered, showing he has a bit of a flair for the dramatic – plus Landry Fields ran in to dunk a missed free throw, a rarity nowadays that once was a Michael Jordan specialty. That sneaky Fields has tried this before.

- Milwaukee might have been tired and definitely had been playing over its collective head this season, but nobody expected what went down. The Raptors completely throttled the Bucks. Jonas Valanciunas looked like he was battling against school children. Brandon Knight is a good player, but Kyle Lowry completely outclassed him. At one point Valanciunas and the six-foot Lowry had more rebounds than the Bucks had as a team. The Bucks looked lost trying to defend cuts or the interior. Former Raptor Jerryd Bayless said, “honestly, we got our ass beat pretty much,” and that wasn’t hyperbole. It was the truth. “That is why they are the best in the East and you have to tip your hat,” added Jared Dudley. “DeRozan didn’t even play that well (he had one of his worst nights in two years) and they still have a lot of contributions. They really embarrassed us.”

- Sure, Milwaukee had an off night and Toronto’s schedule has been pretty easy so far, but hard not to be impressed by this group. As Greivis Vasquez says, these guys are professionals. They are winning the games they should take and giving themselves some breathing room for when things get tough (which could be as soon as tonight in Cleveland).

- The story of the night was Bruno’s debut. The fans were great, calling for him in the third quarter, going nuts when he checked in and replacing the ‘let’s go Raptors’ and ‘de-fence’ chants with ‘let’s go Bruno’ and ‘Bru-no.’ Caboclo still can’t dribble, but he can really shoot the ball and isn’t afraid to fire away. He is already a fan favourite and his teammates love him too. “I feel like everything is good,” Caboclo said afterward, even though he added he didn’t feel comfortable and that the game was far different than the pre-season. “So different,” he said.

- “I thought they came in and did what we asked them to do,” Dwane Casey said of Caboclo and Bebe. “To get a taste of the NBA: It’s a lot different than being up there working out in practice once you get the adrenaline flowing, the aggressiveness of another team. The feel of a real NBA game was great for him.” Casey added that he loved the fan reaction and hopes the NBA will let coaches dress all 15 players eventually. “If he wasn’t in uniform tonight, he wouldn’t have gotten that opportunity.” Valanciunas said it “brought back good memories” of his own Toronto debut and the reception he got from the fans two years ago.

- Bebe said he was gassed the whole time he was out there (he played just shy of nine minutes) because he went through his usual, intense workout session with the training staff earlier Friday. Because nobody expects him to play, Nogueira goes through intense workouts on game days.

- Takeaways of what the Raptors did well: Pressured Knight, forcing somebody else to beat them; Moving the ball from side-to-side better than normal and driving into the paint and kicking out to the open man – something Casey had said beforehand would be a key to beating Milwaukee, a team that came in ranked fourth in the NBA in defence; Connecting from three (60% shooting) and using their size advantage (the Valanciunas dominance, Amir Johnson’s three blocks, a 15-8 edge on the offfensive glass and 57-30 rebounding edge overall).

- Casey said James Johnson was unlikely for the Cleveland game. “I doubt it because he’s still tender and sore.”

- Peak Greivis Vasquez quotes:  (On Chuck Hayes): “He’s a great leader, a great locker room guy because he could be pissed (about not getting much playing time). But he’s not, he’s happy. He gets in guys’ face, he’s a great leader. He’s ready whenever his name is called. We’re blessed. I don’t know whether you guys have seen a locker room like this. We’re expecting big things.”

(On his jump shot) “It’s not really a big concern. I get in the gym, I get better and I hit the big shots when I need to.” Kind of like this guy, who hit two more on Friday.










NBA-leading Grizzlies latest to fall to Raptors; Chuck Hayes for mayor? Ross, Amir wake up just in time; Carter finally forgiven? Vasquez not worried about low assist numbers

- November 20th, 2014

So, I guess the Raptors are for real. An easy early schedule had glossed over many of the team’s warts, but beating the Grizzlies – even a version depleted by the flu bug – is a major accomplishment.

- Colleague Mike Ganter covered Chuck Hayes here. What a bonus it is for Dwane Casey to have heady, effective vets like Hayes to call on when needed most. Sure, at some point, Jonas Valanciunas needs to be trusted late in games, but there is a balance and he wouldn’t have given the team a shot to win on Wednesday. Hayes did that by making life tough for Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph after they had treated the other Raptors like small children trying to compete against grown men. “That’s a true professional,” Greivis Vasquez said after giving Hayes a hug before leaving the Raptors locker room. Can’t argue with that. Assistant trainer Ray Chow, a Raptors lifer, yelled out “Chuck Hayes for mayor” drawing laughs and a lively discussion about Rob Ford.

- Terrence Ross and Amir Johnson were having horrid nights. Ross was basically invisible, Johnson was getting lit up by Gasol and Randolph down low and particularly on the boards, where Memphis ended up with a massive 15 rebound edge, including 15 offensive rebounds to Toronto’s seven). But to their credit, the two starters helped win the game for the Raptors in the end. Johnson played better defence, grabbed four rebounds in the fourth (Toronto actually outrebounded Memphis in the quarter after getting worked 40-24 through three quarters) and only committed one foul. It saved what could have been an awful night for Johnson. Meanwhile, Ross had two points through the first 36 minutes, then went supernova, hitting 5-of-7 shots for 14 points, including all three of his three-point attempts. Ross was the difference, carrying the Raptors all the way back (with help from Lowry), especially since DeMar DeRozan was struggling, going 1-for-5 in the final frame. The Raptors would love to see more consistency from the third-year swingman, but, for now, they’ll take his hot streaks.

- Lowry is not about to get carried way by the 9-2 start: “It’s not about the start, it’s about the finish,” Lowry said.

- Clearly the rebounding needs to improve and it would be nice if the assists started piling up again, but 9-2 is still 9-2. Last year, the Raptors finished 21st in the NBA in assists-per-game. By finally turning in a 20+ assist night on Wednesday (24 on 38 made baskets) the Raptors finally once again resembled last year’s unselfish group.

“That was huge, too, it made up a little bit for our lack of rebounding,” Casey said of the better assist numbers. “We’ve got to help each other whether it’s passing the ball, screening, spacing, all those things are very important.”

- Vasquez wasn’t aware the assist numbers had slipped, but wasn’t overly concerned, but recognizes moving the ball better would go a long way. “That’s our best game when we start playing together, start doing things together and that’s what we did tonight. Guys made shots at the right time and we were finding the open guy. That’s really how we identify our team, playing team basketball, whether it’s defensively or offensively,” Vasquez said.

“It’s something, it’s a concern right now, but it’s not like our main concern, we’ve just got to keep playing. We’re 9-2, so why would we change everything? We’ll get better, at the right time. Right now it’s working for us, so we’ve got to keep doing what we do.”

- The Vince Carter tribute was a nice moment and hopefully will provide some closure. It is long since time the franchise moved past all of this and embraced the fact that the future is probably brighter now than it has been at any point since Tracy McGrady fled (anything seemed possible when both Carter and McGrady were on the team).

- With all of the Carter hoopla fresh, I asked Amir if Carter had anything to do with his choosing No. 15 when he joined the Raptors. “Yeah, a little. It’s my birthday I guess. I don’t know, I was always 15,” Johnson said. So, no. “When I got the number here, I wasn’t really thinking about: ‘Vince Carter had this number,’ it was just my number, I had it through high school.” Johnson said he expected a mixed reaction for the Carter tribute, so was happy to see the positive response from the fans. “I mean, around the world, Half Man, Half Amazing. Seeing the guy just doing unbelievable stuff nobody’s seen before, definitely everybody knew who Vince was, Johnson said. “One of the most memorable dunks is probably the USA one where he jumped over (poor Fred Weiss). That went viral. He’s one of the greats.” Johnson quietly admitted that he’d give up his number one day if the Raptors wanted to retire it for Carter.

- Dwane Casey moved past Lenny Wilkens for second in all-time coaching wins with the Raptors.




































Raptors still flawed but get it done against young Jazz; Valanciunas runs with chance; Bench shines again; Casey ties Lenny and Jazz building something intriguing

- November 16th, 2014

Toronto’s record continues to deceive, this team still has a number of issues – particularly with its help defence and willingness to share the ball – but all in all, a much better all-around performance on Saturday against a game Utah squad.

- In the run-up to this one, Dwane Casey was peppered with questions about his usage of Jonas Valanciunas. Valanciunas sat a lot against Chicago (to be fair, the stats say the team is far better defensively with the big Lithuanian on the bench). Against Utah, he played a ton and his teammates made a concerted effort to feed him. Valanciunas loves playing against Enes Kanter – they’ve been going at each other since they were kids and are friends – and responded with his best game of the season. He was aggressive, effective and a force on the boards. They need to keep feeding him, it seems to energize him and keep him in the game.

- Two things I’d like to see Valanciunas change in his game: (1) Stop with all of the shot fakes. He can hit a mid-range jumper. If you are open, fire away, without hesitation. Faking, putting it on the floor and attacking isn’t the best option for Valanciunas given he is a 7-footer without ridiculous speed and athleticism and because he also doesn’t protect the ball well enough. Again, he can make those shots and should take them. The exception would be when he is closer to the bucket and can use an up-fake to set up the driving hooks which have turned into a solid part of his game. (2) Valanciunas must take better care of the ball. He brings it down too low too often – something players are usually taught not to do – which leads to strips, steals, caroms off of feet, etc. But he’s getting there and the more confidence Casey and his teammates show in him, the better he will be.

- DeMar DeRozan took some awful shots against Chicago and wasn’t perfect against Utah either, but he was far smarter. He looked for others more often and generally made the right calls most of the time. He forced it a bit early, then got better. DeRozan racked up a lot of assists last season and had many games where he had four or more without a single turnover. He has only done that once so far, but has also not turned it over in three games in a row now. If he can generate more assists without making miscues, while getting Valanciunas more involved, this offence is going to be tough to stop.

- Another bad start – 10 assists for an opponent in a quarter can’t be acceptable – bad rotations, Amir Johnson sleep-walked a bit through the early going – the Raptors were a step slow against a team that had played the night before. It should have been the other way around, with the Raptors trying to run more on the Jazz. Eventually, the Jazz tired, but Toronto could have put more pressure on them early. Utah had 16 assists on 18 made baskets in the opening half. A damning indictment of how the Raptors were playing. The Raptors only managed 15 assists for the entire game and rank last in the NBA in assist percentage and one of only two teams that don’t assist on at least 50% of their shot attempts.

- Luckily for the home side, Utah looked tired in the third, getting soundly out-played and missing 5-of-10 free throws and the bench closed the door in the fourth with 10 points each from Lou Willimas and Patrick Patterson.

- Liked the way Kyle Lowry posted up on Trey Burke. Lowry can feast on smaller guards because he knows how to do work down there and use his body to create good shots.

- This Terrence Ross alley-oop was just ridiculous. A lot of things have gone wrong for the Raptors over the first 20 years, but one could argue no franchise has had as many transcendent dunkers as this one. Vince Carter is the greatest dunker of all time, and you could make a case Ross belongs in the top 10. Tracy McGrady wasn’t bad either and DeMar DeRozan is one of the better current dunkers.

- It was tough to see James Johnson hurt his ankle by stepping on a camera man. The NBA has booted out the print media in order to fit in more fans courtside, surely there is a way to inconvenience the camera guys as well. It’s just not worth the risk of injury. Move them back. An MRI on Johnson was negative. You can bet he’ll fight to play against his former team, Memphis, on Wednesday.
Mea culpa here, should have taken more time to think about what I was going to write above. In retrospect, this wasn’t about anything the camera operator did wrong. This is an NBA/MLSE issue. If they weren’t so hellbent on making as much money as possible from their richest customers by jamming in courtside seats everywhere, this likely would not have happened. The camera operators would have the space they need and everything wouldn’t be as crammed up. Plus, we’d still have our seats, which benefits the thousands of fans who read our copy (since being courtside allows us to provide better coverage), instead of the dozens of fans who can afford those seats.

- Utah has a chance to be quite good in time. This is one of the NBA’s youngest squads, but the intriguing thing is how talented some of these guys are. Dante Exum is only 19 and is new to basketball on this level. He has been one of the better rookies in the league so far, showed flashes Saturday and I believe he is going to be a superstar in time (saw him at summer league as well). Derrick Favors is a bonafide stud big man, Gordon Hayward could be an all-star one day and Kanter, Alec Burks, Rudy Gobert and Trey Burke all look like solid rotation players for years to come. Too bad for the Jazz that they play in the West and not in the East.

- Casey tied Lenny Wilkens for second on Toronto’s all-time coaching wins list (113), trailing only Sam Mitchell. He leads everybody in winning percentage.

- On a non Raptors note, history was made Saturday, when Minnesota started a pair of Canadians. Andrew Wiggins struggled, but Anthony Bennett had a nice game and has bounced back well in Minny from his brutal rookie season.





Bulls put Raptors in their place; Pro sports needs more athletes than Joakim Noah; Raptors frontcourt can’t yet compete; DeRozan should work it around

- November 14th, 2014

The Bulls taught the formerly high-flying Raptors a tough lesson on Thursday. Chicago has been a contender for years now, Toronto is still trying to make its way up that hill. The Bulls are bigger, tougher, meaner and a heck of a lot smarter (Kyle Lowry and a couple of other exceptions aside) on the basketball court and that all showed in this one. Sure, the refs didn’t distinguish themselves well, but they were not the reason why the Raptors lost the lead and eventually, the game.

- The frontcourt just isn’t good enough to match up with the best of the best. Nobody could come close to stopping Pau Gasol. Joakim Noah was dominant and Taj Gibson did his usual thing, provide great minutes as the team’s third big. Chicago’s group is just on a different level than Toronto’s. No shame in that, does anybody else in the NBA have three guys as good up front as Chicago does?

- If Toronto wants to close the gap though, Jonas Valanciunas has to get the ball more and has to do more with it. He has to go up stronger and hold onto it better. He gets stripped far too easily inside. Amir Johnson is a great defender and did a bit better on Gasol, but not much, and he doesn’t provide enough offence for the Raptors to get to the next level. If Patrick Patterson isn’t going either, it’s usually going to be a long night for the Raptors.

- Speaking of long nights … DeMar DeRozan turned in a stinker, shooting just 3-for-17. The alarming thing might be that head coach Dwane Casey was happy with his shot selection and said he simply missed some shots he’d normally make. Not too sure about that. Jimmy Butler is a great perimeter defender who has historically given DeRozan fits. He doesn’t let DeRozan do what he wants to do or go where he wants to go. The result is a lot of forced attempts. Remember Rudy Gay? Remember when Casey said he had no problems with Gay’s horrendous shot selection? This might be a problem. If the Raptors want to have a sustainably good offence and not the one built on a mirage that we’ve seen early this season (the turnover numbers and free throw attempts aren’t sustainable, so something has to change), the ball simply has to start moving again. The way it did when Gay was shipped out and DeRozan embraced both scoring and looking for his teammates. Only two teams average fewer assists than the Raptors. Keep it up, and the great record is going to go downhill in a hurry.

- Yes, I’ll fully admit that the Bulls make you do things offensively that you don’t want to and rotate so well it is hard to find the open man. But forcing shots isn’t a solution that will lead to victories.

- Valanciunas said meeting the Bulls was like taking a cold shower and admitted they weren’t ready for a team that good and physical. They had better be next time.

- Pro sports needs more athletes like Noah. He is honest. He tried not to be after the game, looking wary of the media and insinuating he wasn’t comfortable speaking because words get twisted, then went on an epic rant . Noah is right, this whole Derrick Rose witch hunt is silly. Folks get mad at athletes when they speak in cliches, then attack them when they are honest. They can’t win. It’s all about shock value and generating a story, often when there isn’t one. Society has gone downhill, and so has much of the media. Should Rose have been less honest? I don’t think so. The guy knows he isn’t physically able to play every game so he has to be cautious. He also knows he has a guaranteed contract and has many more years to live once he is done playing. He’s thinking about that, as is his right. When he is able to play, he gives it his all and helps his team win. Would it be tough to rely on a guy like that? Absolutely. But it’s not his fault that his body has betrayed him

- Guys like Butler and Gibson really show the value of smart drafting. Chicago stole the Marquette product with the 30th pick of the draft, while Gibson went 26th. Now they are two of the best two-way players in the league.

- Positives for the Raptors: Until the third, they played a decent game. Chicago probably should have had a bigger lead after the first, but the Raptors played an excellent second and should have been up by more than seven at the half. Lowry was solid, despite probably being the one Raptor who got a bit hosed in the foul call department.

- James Johnson was fantastic and changed the game in the second quarter. Terrence Ross has become pretty good at coming off a curl to hit a floater. DeRozan could stand to get back to doing more of that, though opponents play closer to Ross because of his outside shooting ability, which gives him a bit more room to get open. The team rallied late to make it respectable. That’s about it for the positives.














Raptors continue to tempt fate but Magic don’t have the experience yet to close games; Red hot Ross providing a boost; Bench the difference again

- November 11th, 2014

The Raptors are playing with fire, but until they get burned, things might not change. Until they start losing games that they “half-ass” at the beginning, they probably won’t alter the script. They were the best fourth quarter team a year ago and have picked up where they left off. They have all the confidence in the world that even if they coast early on, they will find a way to win games in the end. It’s a very dangerous game to play. Try it Thursday against Chicago and it is extremely doubtful the record gets to 8-1.

- The first quarter woes extended through the entire opening half against Orlando. The Magic shot 53%, had 16 assists (to seven by Toronto) and just five turnovers. It was basically a walk in the park for Elfrid Payton, Channing Frye, Nikola Vuvevic and the rest of the visitors. The Raptors were a first place team in name only.

- Assistant coach Bill Bayno made a good point at the break: The Raptors are a known team now. They have a large target on their backs. Teams go at them hard from the jump. It’s not an excuse, it’s reality. If the Raptors don’t come out aggressively early, you can bet most other teams will, because nobody is looking past the Raptors anymore. Those days are long gone.

- Top to bottom, Toronto just has a deeper, better team than Orlando. That depth carried the day on Tuesday, with Patrick Patterson, James Johnson, Lou Williams, Tyler Hansbrough playing the biggest roles, with some help from Greivis Vasquez, who had a poor game, but played well late. The reserves scored 11 straight points to tie the game, setting up the eventual victory. Not a lot of reserve units can match up with Toronto’s group.

“I like the resolve of our team. The second unit came in and did what they were supposed to do and really competed,” head coach Dwane Casey said afterward.

- Terrence Ross continues to sizzle. The third-year swingman has put a tough start behind him, rebounding with three straight strong offensive games. Ross has scored 18, 17 and 17 points in the games, and averaged nearly five rebounds. He has also hit 12-of-18 three-point attempts after hitting just six, total, over the first five games. By hitting 67% of his threes over the past three games, Ross has raised his average from outside to an outstanding 47%.

- Kyle Lowry was excellent and by far the best of the starters. DeMar DeRozan had a rough night. Johnson had a good offensive night and got better defensively as the game went on.

- Early on, Orlando simply outworked and outran the home side. Toronto’s big men were particularly disinterested in competing. Jonas Valanciunas has had some good games against Nikola Vucevic, but this certainly wasn’t one of them. He failed to run the floor and again looked a step slow defensively. Amir Johnson’s typical frenetic energy was absent early.

- Valanciunas has missed a lot of makeable shots so far this season and especially against Orlando. Valanciunas shot 61% on shots within five feet last year, but has been 10% worse so far. It is early, he has time to correct whatever is going on.

- Lowry has not been drawing as many charges as he did last year when he was right near the top of the NBA’s leaderboard, but he took a couple against Orlando at key moments.

- Not sure why exactly, but Toronto really has Orlando’s number. The games are usually pretty tight, but Toronto has won nine straight meetings, the closest being the one DeRozan won at the buzzer in Orlando a couple of years ago. It is the longest streak Toronto has against any team.

- Yes, the Raptors sit alone at the top of the NBA. Yes, it feels a little weird to type that.

Varsity Raptors make quick work of junior varsity Sixers squad; Lowry not getting overconfident; Some mistakes being fixed

- November 10th, 2014

It is hard to do much analysis when the Raptors play against a team in the Sixers that is nowhere close to being an NBA outfit. But, we’ll give it a try anyway:

- Dwane Casey called Sunday’s 120-88 beatdown a “professional” outing and that describes it perfectly. The Raptors treated the contest like a real game and went at the terrible, young Sixers. Well aware that the visitors were the league’s worst defensive group, one of the NBA’s better offensive squads simply overmatched them. DeMar DeRozan toyed with his defenders, either getting buckets or drawing fouls and Kyle Lowry looked like he could do whatever he wanted, even though this was likely his worst outing of the season. Philly had no answers for Toronto’s bench guards, Lou Williams and Greivis Vasquez (though Vasquez got a bit too cute a couple of times and was rewarded by seeing his attempts swatted into the stands quite spectacularly). You’ll want to watch the evidence.

- Sixers or not, that Toronto has now gotten off to a couple of strong starts in a row is an encouraging sign, given how disastrous they had been at responding to the opening bell. For the second straight game, the home side seized control in the opening minutes and never let up.

- Terrence Ross had a second solid game in a row and might have turned a corner. This is timely, considering James Johnson has been very good for the Raptors off of the bench, making a case for more minutes.

- I wondered why they let Amir Johnson play, given the opponent, but thinking about it more, it set a good tone. It helped let everyone on the team know that there would be no complacency – no just show up at the arena and get a win feeling. Johnson only played 18+ minutes, but it was enough.

-It is cool that most Sixers fans are on board with what the franchise is doing, but, man, this thing is going to take years. Even if Embiid, Noel, Saric and next summer’s gem all pan out, there are no heady vets to teach them how to be pros, the culture, no matter how hard Brett Brown works, is going to be bad because of all of the losses and mockery. Sportsnet’s Michael Grange said it well: “The Sixers are the Bruno Caboclo of the NBA – two years away from being two years away.” In the here and now, it is damn ugly to watch. That K.J. McDaniels sure looks like a player though.

- Philly has been in most games this year, but not this one. “That was not us,” said Brown. “We come in here and got manhandled … they have elite athletes that can score. We got jumped and we didn’t have any answers.” Top Philly player Tony Wroten had this to say: “We came out and got embarrassed.”

- Proud Philadelphia native Lowry thinks they will be fine though. “I think they’re just rebuilding. I think they have great management, I think they have a hell of a head coach, I think they have a plan. But that’s not for me to worry about, that’s for the Philadelphia 76ers organization to worry about,” Lowry said after the game.

- It was fascinating listening to Brown talk about his job pre-game.

- As befits a 6-1 team coming off a laugher, the locker room was as relaxed as it has been all season. Jonas Valanciunas cracked jokes, the players passed around a clip of Global Ambassador Drake admiring a late-game James Johnson dunk that was nothing if not spectacular. And Lowry and DeRozan had a little exchange when DeRozan was asked what he was thinking on his pretty, near-360 layup.

“That s__ was luck,” Lowry bellowed out from the next locker, before DeRozan could even reply. “Nah, it was skill,” DeRozan shot back. They debated it for a bit, before DeRozan said “you do it then.” Lowry just laughed and eventually conceded in his own scrum that it was a heck of a play and was part of the reason why DeRozan is an all-star. Indeed, there is a short list of NBA players able to finish through contact as strongly as DeRozan does.

- DeRozan is hitting 7.6 free throws per game, second only to James Harden. Only Harden, DeMarcus Cousins and Dwight Howard (shooting a wretched 49%) have attempted more freebies. Only Cousins’ Sacramento Kings have attempted more free throws than the Raptors. DeRozan needs 21 points to pass Andrea Bargnani for third place on the Raptors all-time scoring list.

- Toronto ranks third in the NBA in offensive rating, seventh in defensive rating, eighth in true shooting percentage and have forced the fourth-most turnovers by opponents per game.

- Alone in first in the East and tied for first overall in the NBA is an achievement, even though the season just started, but it is also doesn’t mean a whole lot. It is an achievement because the history of the franchise is so dismal. To their credit, nobody on the Raptors is celebrating. Yet.
































Raptors up to the challenge in biggest game of the season; Toronto frontcourt dominates; Lowry Stoudamire’s spiritual successor; Amir Johnson says he is fine

- November 8th, 2014

Facing their best opponent of the season, the Raptors put together their best game so far. The Wizards will be right there with the Raptors all year, but struggled in this one, as Toronto finally hit first and was the aggressor. Head coach Dwane Casey had been looking for that type of intensity out of the gate and finally got it.

- Kyle Lowry led the way once more, with a triple-double. Lowry once played with Damon Stoudamire and in many ways, really is the spiritual successor to Toronto’s first star performer. he’s undersize, is tough as nails, with a will to win. Lowry does a little bit of everything. He’s shooting nearly 50% for the year and has turned the ball over only six times with 36 assists (a 6-to-1 ratio).

- Amir Johnson insists he is fine, despite leaving the game early after missing the previous three contests: “Ankle is good. I didn’t re-injure it or anything. It was just a precaution thing. We were up by 20 or so so I just figured call it quits right here and get a little bit more rest,” Johnson said.

- Casey said Johnson and Valanciunas help defensively, but also on offence, because they set good screens and help their teammates get in good scoring positions.

-Terrence Ross was a fan of the throwback jerseys: “I grew up in Portland and Damon Stoudamire was the first pick here so I remember watching him and thinking they had the best uniforms. And then Vince was here and T-Mac and everybody. They just always had the best uniforms,” Ross said. Ross, who had been struggling with his jump shot, said he got up 500 shots the night before. It worked, as he finally found his missing jumper.

- Borrowing from the Globe and Mail’s Cathal Kelly, Casey had a horse analogy for the Raptors. He agrees they are like Sea Biscuit, who often came from behind to win races, rather than Secretariat, who tended to lead wire-to-wire.

“I’d much rather be Secretariat than Sea Biscuit, I’ll tell you what. It’s hard to be Sea Biscuit, there’s a story behind Sea Biscuit but that was us last year, we’ve got to learn how to start the game the way we want to play and we showed that tonight.,” Casey said.

“They decided to compete. That’s the thing. You take the whip out in the derby and just keep cracking the whip, cracking the whip, cracking the whip. We can’t be that way. It shouldn’t have to come from me to crack the whip at every turn to get us going. But they did. They decided to get going. To be a playoff or championship calibre team we shouldn’t have to say giddy up.”

- DeRozan on what he says to Lowry about facing the East’s absurdly talented point guards: “Yeah, I tell him, ‘good luck’ every night, honestly. “But we all understand it’s not just one-on-one, it’s a team thing, especially when we go against guys like that. We have to play as a team defensively, to slow down those type of guys.”

- The Raptors were happy to finally come out with a good start. “We’re going to figure it out because we’re getting tired of it too,” DeRozan had said pre-game.

“Half-time, having to have the speeches, argue and get yelled at by Casey and everything. It’s just something we’ve got to learn from and get past it if we want to be good.”

- Washington shot 55% in the fourth quarter. The Raptors came in only allowing opponents to shoot 41% in the fourth.

- Toronto is now 5-0 this year when leading after three quarters, 38-2 since last year when leading after three including 23-0 at home and has won 30 straight games when leading entering the fourth quarter.

- Washington shot nearly twice as poorly (.279) from the field in the first half as Toronto’s opponents had managed (.545) in the opening couple of quarters of the first five games.

- Washington’s starters shot just 22.9%.

- Wizards coach Randy Wittman on the game: “It was a good old fashioned butt whooping.”