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.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Raptors at Celtics PPG: Forget East logjam. Kyle Lowry’s an all-star PG; What’s with the awful starts? Time to start James Johnson? Valanciunas and Amir back Friday?

- November 6th, 2014

BOSTON — Forget about the stockpile of quality point guards in the East. Kyle Lowry is an all-star. He seems to prove it whenever the Raptors need him most, like in Wednesday’s game in Boston. Lowry simply took over, scoring 14 of his 35 points in the third quarter. He also stole the ball from Marcus Smart to set up DeMar DeRozan’s winning three-point play and, for good measure, fronted Boston players in the post resulting in turnovers (the Celtics had 28 in all, which basically was the difference in the game since the Raptors had just seven turnovers).

- Not a lot separates Lowry and Washington’s John Wall. Ideally, they’d probably both be all-stars. Rajon Rondo is still pretty good too, as his triple-double indicated – “triple-double dog,” was Lowry’s response to a Boston reporter who asked if Lowry’s good friend Rondo was all the way back from injury. But one of Derrick Rose and Kyrie Irving likely get voted in, even though neither is in Lowry, Wall or Rondo’s class at the moment (for all his offensive brilliance, Irving is still a ball-hog and perhaps the league’s worst defender, while Rose is not yet the same guy he once was). As Celtics coach Brad Stevens said post-game, “I said before the game that I thought he should have been an all-star last year. He must’ve taken that seriously, because he sure looked like one tonight … there’s a lot of guys like Kyle Lowry (that Marcus Smart can learn from), but there’s only one Kyle Lowry.” Stevens is right on that. Other players might have more natural talent, but Lowry’s combination, of skill, fearlessness, intensity and will to win make him Toronto’s most valuable player and one of the best players in the East.

- Five games into the season, Lowry’s stats are pretty ridiculous: He is shooting 50% from the field (though just 29% from three), averaging 5.2 assists against just 0.4 turnovers and 19.6 points per game. The Raptors rank fourth in the NBA in points per game, despite ranking just 22nd in field goal percentage. A league-best assist-to-turnover ratio has a lot to do with it and Lowry has been especially good with his decision-making.

- Patrick Patterson had another excellent game in place of Amir Johnson. His improvement could not have come at a more necessary time. After slumping badly to start the season, Patterson’s hit six of his past eight threes and looks more comfortable all over the floor. He says it is all a matter of him relaxing, not ruminating so much on his jump shot and not letting whether his shot is falling dictate how good he is defensively. Patterson said by putting the ball on the floor more and not just being a standstill jump shooter, he has been able to be far more effective.

- Patterson on Lowry:

“Tonight he was just extremely aggressive at times that we really needed him. He just stepped up as a leader and came through in the clutch for us. He’s got that angry face. That’s what he always looks like … Because we played so poorly in the first half, I think Kyle pretty much wanted to step up for himself.”

- Obviously, the worst start out of all of the terrible opening quarters this season is a major concern. That most of the big comeback came with the same players on the floor in the third has to trouble Dwane Casey. For whatever reason, the Raptors aren’t coming out with intensity, aren’t hitting first and taking it to opponents. DeRozan joked (we think he was joking) that he and his teammates are “Drama Queens” who like to make games suspenseful. Is a change to the starting lineup needed? James Johnson has played quite well off of the bench and has strong advanced stats, while Terrence Ross has alternated between invisible and poor. In theory, the offence needs the floor spacing Ross provides with his outside shooting, but he’s not taking as many shots and has hit just 30% of his threes so far. Would Johnson try to do too much as a starter, as he has in the past, particularly, forcing bad shots? The point is moot as long as either Valanciunas or Johnson are out, since Patterson is a floor spacer too.

- Pre-game, Casey made it seem academic that Valanciunas and Johnson would be back for Friday’s game against Washington, but post-game, Casey was not nearly as definitive. He used “if” a couple of times in reference to his front-court playing.

- It awfully tough to sit a few games, come in and make an impact, but Greg Stiemsma stepped up and did that on consecutive nights. He’s validating the decision to keep him around already. Stiemsma provides some rim protection, rebounding and toughness up front.

- Will have more on DeRozan moving up to fourth all-time in Raptors scoring in the paper. It is quite an achievement for a guy who keeps exceeding expectations.

- The Raptors are the first team to start a season with fewer than four turnovers in four consecutive and now five consecutive games.

Don’t tell Casey Toronto isn’t a free agent destination.

“We’ve got every amenity, every situation for a free agent in Toronto,” Casey said before the game.

“The key thing is winning. Guys want to go where you have an opportunity to win and we did that last year, we’re building that in Toronto. We have the resources, we’ll have the cap room in a couple of years and Kyle took advantage of it this year and our guys will be rewarded for winning. That’s what you’re rewarded for in this league, is winning, or should be.”

Casey says now that he has spent time in the city he realizes that the Raptors should be regarded as a “big-time organization.”

  – More on the bad starts:

Casey can’t figure out why Toronto has gotten off to hideous starts. Wednesday’s was probably the worst.

“You tell me and we’ll both know,” Casey told a reporter. “It’s one of those things, psychology, it’s not like guys are not working at it.

“Defensively we’ve got to get a rhythm, understanding of how hard you’ve got to play. How much more aggressive you’ve got to be on your challenges, on your shots, just all around defensive approach to the game. Miami shot 52% int he first half, 38% in the second half. We’re a team of two different halves.” Casey said the Raptors have to make opponents start missing shots by getting up on them tighter. The team’s defensive rotations have also been poor.

- All that said, 4-1 is still 4-1.

 

Undermanned Thunder nearly humble Raptors; Another awful start; Patterson rebounds and the bench carries the day

- November 5th, 2014

- The Oklahoma City Thunder has pride, so it wasn’t all that shocking to see the team come out strong on Tuesday night, following Monday’s embarrassing, blowout loss against Brooklyn. The Raptors showed they too have some pride, by clamping down defensively in the second half, to avoid what would have been an equally embarrassing defeat to a n OKC squad that had seven players for most of the night.

- What is behind Toronto’s awful starts? It isn’t Amir Johnson. He was sitting again with a sore ankle (and won’t play Wednesday in Boston either). Jonas Valanciunas struggled without him, as did Patrick Patterson. The Thunder big men, Serge Ibaka and Steven Adams, were both strong in the first quarter. In each of the games so far, an opposing big has taken it to Toronto’s frontcourt, and often Valanciunas (Nikola Vucevic, Al Horford, who missed some easy shots, Chris Bosh and Ibaka). Of course, Kyle Lowry letting opposing point guards blow by him and set up easy shots isn’t helping either. Both Valanciunas and Lowry need to do a better job defensively.

- Of course hitting some shots might help. Only four teams have shot worse than Toronto’s 41.7% field goal percentage. Only two have shot worse from three than Toronto’s 25.5%. A team that prided itself on zipping the ball around last year following the Rudy Gay trade currently ranks second-last in assists per game. Part of that is due simply to shots not falling, but it is more than just those struggles. The extra passes that were so frequent in the past, have not been as prevalent. Somehow, the Raptors still rank sixth in points per game and seventh in offensive rating (points per 100 possessions) so far.

- Somehow, opponents are shooting 56.4% against the Raptors in first quarters. The number is 51.9% in second quarters, but dips all the way down to 42.4% in fourth quarters. Shooting traditionally trails off in the final quarter of games, but that is a massive difference and indicates the Raptors can indeed play defence, but only when they feel like it.

- Here is what opponents have managed in opening quarters against the Raptors: 70.6% – Thunder. 63.2% – Heat. 55% – Magic. 40.9% – Hawks. The Atlanta game to open the season was the outlier, since the defence got progressively worse in that one. The numbers in the past three games have been ugly.

- Patrick Patterson had a cryptic tweet on Monday: “I will fix this.” If it was a reference to his poor play to start the season, Patterson delivered when needed most on Tuesday. He was one of the only Raptors to show up in the first quarter and was excellent in the fourth as well and in the third, when the Raptors took off. With Johnson out, Patterson was required to hit shots (he did, including both of his threes) and rebound (he had eight) as well as defend. Aside from one pre-season game against Boston, Patterson’s jumper had completely vanished

- Greg Stiemsma did a decent job in his 13 minutes. Stiemsma scored a couple of buckets, grabbed three offensive rebounds and got his money’s worth in the foul department, handing out five fouls. He made his presence felt in place of Valanciunas.

- Tyler Hansbrough continues to deliver for the Raptors. He’s rebounded nicely so far from last year’s lost season.

Heat hand Raptors a reality check; Hard to replace Amir; Hansbrough doing his part; Some interesting Raptors SportVu stats

- November 3rd, 2014

- Well, that was rather predictable, no? The Raptors arrived in Miami 2-0, despite not playing all that well defensively. A scorching offence had been enough to get by a good Atlanta team (the amped-up season-opening crowd and some Al Horford rust didn’t hurt either) and Orlando just isn’t yet a good team (but still held leads for stretches of Saturday’s game). Miami is better than either of those two squads and came in playing a lot better overall than the Raptors had been. With the Raptors not playing any better, a win was not in the cards. “It caught up with us,” head coach Dwane Casey said of the team’s lackluster defensive efforts.

- It is never an ideal team to be without Amir Johnson, but going up against Chris Bosh and the Heat made Johnson’s absence especially problematic. Johnson tweaked his ankle yet again and, early in the season, the Raptors opted to be cautious, rather than risk a nagging, long-term issue. The team’s defence had been iffy through two games. Minus Johnson, the top post, help, rim and one-on-one defender on the squad, it was easy to predict what came next. Johnson is an elite rim protector. Greg Stiemsma is the only other Raptor who offers any deterrence at the rim (Bebe isn’t ready yet) and he did not get into the game.

- Effort was a problem for the Raptors on Sunday, and that isn’t often the case for a Dwane Casey-coached squad. Johnson’s absence can’t explain away what happened on the boards. Getting crushed 43-28 in the rebounding department by one of the NBA’s worst rebounding teams had to sting. Dwyane Wade nearly outrebounded Toronto’s starters by himself. Most of the discrepancy was a result of effort – Miami had it, Toronto did not – and smarts – The Heat did a better job blocking out and getting to the right areas.

- Patrick Patterson insisted the Heat was still a top opponent, even without LeBron James, then went out and had what might have been his worst outing as a Raptor. As Casey said afterward, it was a really bad time for Patterson to play poorly. He was a complete non-factor, failing to score a point or haul in a rebound. Unfortunately, reality says Johnson is going to miss a few games every so often because of his ankles. Patterson needs to play like he did last season when that happens.

- The Raptors really struggled to defend the pick-and-roll and were particularly susceptible to back-door cuts, often coming off of big-to-big passes. Jack Armstrong noted it on the broadcast, the Chrish Bosh-Josh McRoberts combo is going to produce a smart, high efficiency offence. We’ll see the same thing in Chicago with Joakim Noah and Pau Gasol.

- A lot of people think the Heat are going to fall off and struggle to make the playoffs. I don’t share that view (picked them to finish 5th in the East). This is still a good team. It has some flaws (troubling lack of size, rely too much on Bosh to score), but if  Wade looks like he did on Sunday, they’ll be fine. Wade looked like himself (sure, playing the porous Raptors helped, but still …) he split through the defence at will, getting into the middle whenever he wanted to. Though Wade doesn’t take it all the way to the hoop as often as he liked to, when he sliced through, he easily set up teammates for open looks. Without a true point guard, Wade could be going make to his earlier days, where he was tasked with generating a high level of assists every night. Arguably the best shot-blocking guard of all-time, Wade also got up to make an unreal rejection on a Valanciunas attempt. It’s a long season and Wade will surely wear down, but, for now, he looks like the guy who has been one of the NBA’s best players for a solid decade now.

- One Raptor positive through three games: The play of Tyler Hansbrough. Hansbrough never looked comfortable in his initial season in Toronto, but has been the first big man off of the bench in 2014-15 and has played well. Hansbrough might have modest stats, but he is getting under the skin of opponents, is hitting the glass, taking charges and not forcing as many shots as he has in the past. It has been a nice-bounce back so far for the former North Carolina legend.

- Another: Kyle Lowry is averaging nine assists for every turnover through three games (though he had only three assists and his first two turnovers of the year against Miami).

- The bottom line: There is no need to panic, it is early yet. Once Johnson comes back, the newcomers get comfortable, Patterson returns to form and the Raptors wake up defensively, this will be a good squad. Are there flaws? Absolutely, but not enough to prevent a top 4 or 5 finish in the East, with the potential to be pretty solid.

- Some bonus stats courtesy of FanSided, via the SportVu tracking cameras (stats are from last season): Only five players shot 50% or better on wide-open threes. Kyle Korver led the way and Terrence Ross was one of them; Opponents guarded DeRozan more closely on three-point attempts than anybody else in the league (4.52 feet away, just ahead of how closely Kevin Durant was covered from beyond the line).

 

Magic/Raptors PPG: Raptors need to get in gear; Perimeter defence is a mess; Orlando is stacked up front

- November 2nd, 2014

The Raptors continue to win games, despite not playing their best. Orlando is a mediocre squad – at best – yet, not a lot separated the two teams for much of Sunday’s contest. As advertised, the Raptors can score with anybody, but the defence is nowhere close to what it was at times last season. Is it too early to be concerned? Yes, but, remember, the defence got worse down the stretch last year. It has been a while since the Raptors were actually operating at top 10 level defensive efficiency. Part of it is they appear to be sleep-walking a bit early on. Going through the motions a bit. The alarm bell has to go off, letting them know the season has started. Right now, they are still good enough to win on talent some nights, but that will shift if they don’t get in gear.

- The primary issue at the moment appears to be trouble stopping players 1-on-1 on the perimeter. If they aren’t getting all the way to the rim, they are blowing by Raptors, then finding wide open teammates when the help comes. I predict some long practices coming up. Dwane Casey is going to be on them about it.

- A scorching offence is covering for a lot of things right now. Close to a week into the season, only two teams had higher offensive ratings (points per 100 possessions) than the Raptors, before Sunday’s games. It is really early for statistical analysis, but the Raptors also came into Sunday second in rebound percentage and tied for second in assist-to-turnover ration. Toronto’s assists are way down compared to last season, but because the team is turning it over so rarely, that has not been a big deal.

-  Casey was expecting a lot out of Jonas Valanciunas in his battle against Nikola Vucevic, and the big man delivered. Valanciunas looked energetic early, grabbing rebounds, being assertive in the post, generally making Vucevic work. The more he tired Orlando’s top player, the less Vucevic was able to do at the other end.

- Valanciunas needs to get better at protecting the ball. It is too easy for opponents to poke it away or to force him into mistakes by double-teaming him.

- James Johnson was brought in to defend, but when he makes smart decisions on offence, he can be helpful at that end as well. Johnson has the size and athleticism to score over nearly anybody at the rim. Like a few players in the league with shaky jumpers and with at times poor shot selection, Johnson is a ridiculous natural athlete, who is best served operating as close to the rim as possible.

- Have seen the Raptors go to DeRozan in the post early in seasons before. Hopefully they stick with it, because, not only can DeRozan score from the block against most opposing shooting guards, he is also quite good at finding his teammates when he gets double-teamed. DeRozan has been part of the problem at the other end, but one thing he has done well so far (Kyle Lowry rubbing off, perhaps?) is step in and put himself into position to take charges. He took a key one late in the third quarter and it helped the Raptors take control.

- Liked Evan Fournier when he was buried a bit in Denver and think he can thrive in Orlando. Fournier is dangerous with the ball. His Eurostep is extremely effective, but he also can step up and hit shots. He has a bit of Manu Ginobili in his game. He is shifty on his drives and attacks the rim many different ways, which makes him difficult to stop.

- Orlando is a long way from being relevant, but has an enviable collection of talent up front. Vucevic, Channing Frye and combo forwards Aaron Gordon and Tobias Harris would be fits anywhere. Kyle O’Quinn was last season’s out of nowhere revelation and now 7-footer Dewayne Dedmon (who looked excellent against the Raptors) appears to be a find as well. Where does that leave Mississauga’s Andrew Nicholson? On the trade block, one would have to think.