Raptors stick to the script, blitz Knicks out of half-time break then hold on against woeful opponent

- December 22nd, 2014

CHICAGO — Dwane Casey sure knows how to get the Raptors going after half-time breaks. Nobody likes to say exactly what is said “keep it in the room” and all of that, but whatever it is, it sure seems to light a fire under the Raptors.

Against the Knicks on Sunday, the Raptors sleep-walked through the second quarter, resulting in a slim, and to be honest, disappointing, seven-point lead over New York at the break. It was clear nobody on the home side was impressed by the effort in the second.

Lou Williams said they lost a bit of focus, which happens. Assistant coach Jesse Mermuys said they “started to coast” and “relaxed.” Mermuys wanted the Raptors to come out with “extreme intensity and put this team away.” His charges complied. The offence took off, shooting 63% in the frame, many of the points being of the easy variety, thanks to breakaways. The Raptors heated up from three and also got to the line far more frequently than the Knicks.

- A common denominator to the Raptors starting well both in the first and third quarters could have been the presence of James Johnson in the starting lineup. Johnson gave them some energy, at both ends. He made an impact and the Knicks couldn’t match his size and athleticism. I don’t think it was coincidental that the Knicks made a game of it in the fourth and scored at will with Johnson on the bench for the entire time. Carmelo Anthony had a typical game, but he did his best work when Johnson was on the bench and not guarding him.

- The Raptors have often talked about “asserting their will” on games and that happened early. A couple of examples: Kyle Lowry challenging an  Anthony shot and later knocking a guy a foot taller than him, Jason Smith, on his butt while boxing him out. Plus Patrick Patterson and James Johnson offering defensive resistance with two tough blocks early.

- Jonas Valanciunas registered just his second assist over the past nine games, but it was a beauty. After grabbing an offensive rebound, Valanciunas made a clever, no-look dumpoff to Terrerence Ross for a big, one-handed flush. Valanciunas’ play has been a mixed bag over his past four games. Two poor ones (including this one against the Knicks, where he again shot 2-for-6 from the field and two really good ones in a row before this one). It was nice to see Valanciunas spin left on the block instead of right toward the centre of the floor like he usually does, not once, but twice in the first quarter. The less predictable Valanciunas becomes, the more effective he will be.

- Noticed at one point Valanciunas got a little frustrated with Ross for not throwing him the ball down low, but it looked like Ross made the right call. Samuel Dalembert (pre-elbow) had pushed him way too far out of his comfort zone and there was no way he was going to be posting up effectively from where he was. There are many times when Raptors players stupidly ignore the big man down low, but this was not one of them.

- Without Greivis Vasquez’ fantastic fourth quarter (5-for-5 shooting), the Raptors shot just 4-for-17 in the quarter. An ugly finish, but at least the fans got what they wanted … Bruno!

New Raptors logos don’t go over so well; Drummond makes a big mistake; Band of Brothers make another statement and so do the fans

- December 20th, 2014

AUBURN HILLS, MI — So, the new Raptors logo is going to take some getting used to. I’m sure most people will come around on it (two thirds of the reaction I received Friday was of the negative variety) and the way it was unveiled will never be used as a template for Marketing 101 courses, but I don’t think it’s that bad. Of course, I never really liked the Barney pajamas or the red dino logo (though the throwbacks look great and I still like the claw). Wish they would have gone back to the two-tone black and purple beauties (think Vince Carter slam dunk contest) those ones really were the best. But my opinion doesn’t matter, let’s take it to the players (who shall remain mostly nameless, because none of this was exactly on the record):

Me: “Do you like the logo?” One Raptor: “Nope.” DeMar DeRozan: (Shrugs shoulders, does the classic I’m not sure signal with his arms). Another: “Shouldn’t the new one be better than the old one? I like the old one.” Landry Fields loved the new one. James Johnson was a fan and Amir Johnson gave it one thumbs up, but admitted that he’d wear anything with Toronto Raptors on it so it wasn’t a big deal either way. Masai Ujiri and Jeff Weltman love it and everyone assured us that it will all look far better on the actual jerseys and merchandise. Speaking of that, can’t verify the authenticity, but this was making the rounds and it does look pretty good.

- “We the North” travels well. Before the game, most of the early-arriving fans (as in 75% of those there an hour before tipoff) were Raptors supporters. They were loud, had nice signs and even banners. Patrick Patterson signed a Canadian flag pre-game. Once the game started, even the Detroit media commented on the Raptors supporters, saying they actually brought some atmosphere to the morgue-like Palace for once. Of course, James Johnson had the best line, saying: “It felt like Detroit was hosting  a Toronto Raptors night.” The “We the North” chants easily drowned out the “USA, USA” competition in an arena where they once booed the Canadian anthem during a Raptors-Pistons playoff series (the one where Chris Childs forgot the score). The best moment was when they twice chanted in support of Landry Fields, who had just taken a horrific spill that left him a bloody mess.

- Johnson showed some maturity in not getting himself into any trouble after getting checked by Andre Drummond following his massive dunk in Drummond’s face. Afterward, Johnson alternated between seeming ready to chase after the Pistons into the night and joking about the incident. He’s an interesting dude. His quotes were some of the best of the season. The aftermath was yet another example of the chemistry this group has. They have each others’ backs and as Kyle Lowry says, are a band of brothers.

- Why do the Raptors tend to play so much better later in games? “You get a reset. You get a chance to kind of start the game over and put our effect on the game big-time. We’re just coming out and coach is just really making our adjustments at half-time and making our changes and we’ve been going from there,” Lowry said. “You’ve got to put your effect on the game, you’ve got to put your will on the third quarter and that’s huge. You can kind of start the game and get the first run and make them call a timeout.”

- Lowry on if he minded getting a rest down the stretch? “I wanted to play, but once James got the dunk, honestly, I was like, you know what, ‘let them guys rock out, I can’t match that, so go ahead, y’all got it.’

- Stan Van Gundy isn’t having a good time, despite all the money the Pistons gave him to turn this mess around.The Raptors had a 26-9 run at one point. Afterward, Van Gundy weighed in: “We had absolutely no defensive will or resolve whatsoever. I mean 60 points in paint. You’re not doing anything defensively when you give that up.”

- One statistical quirk: Teams continue to stink at the free throw line against the Raptors. Detroit hit just 66.7% and opponents are hitting just 70.9% against them for the season. Only Milwaukee (70.3%) gets more help at the line.

- Amir Johnson played his 400th game for the Raptors, beating DeMar DeRozan, who has been stuck on 399 because of his injury. Fittingly, he was at the Palace, where his career started.

 The Pistons selected Johnson straight out of high school, making him the answer to a trivia question (the last NBAer to go prep to pros), but on a deep, contending squad, he mostly had to watch and learn from veterans like Ben and Rasheed Wallace and Dale Davis.

Johnson eventually was dealt to Milwaukee, but never played for the Bucks, being re-routed to the Raptors for Carlos Delfino. Since then, he has grown into one of the league’s better defensive big man, with a sneakily effective inside game.

Before the game, Johnson did not even know about the milestone.

“Is it? 400? Wow. Yea, man. It makes me think how many NBA games I’ve played throughout the year. But it’s a blessing,” Johnson said.

“Six years with the Raptors, I’ve been through the ups and downs and I guess the only thing to do is keep on going, right?”

Head coach Dwane Casey called Johnson “Mr. Consistency,” adding, “what you see is what you’re going to get. His biggest nemesis has been health, more than anything else, but he’s a warrior and he goes out and gives you everything he has even though he’s hurt.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

Drake Night another success thanks to Lowry; Dunks a sruggle for Patterson but threes no problem; JV chairman of the boards; That’s what James Johnson’s here for

- December 18th, 2014

 

Drake wasn’t offering any clues about the upcoming Raptors rebrand, but it’s clear the guys on the court don’t need much revamping. The team got a bit of revenge on the Brooklyn Nets with a convincing win on Wednesday night. Like usual, Kyle Lowry propelled the Raptors with another great effort. If he keeps this up all season, Lowry will be in the top 5-7 in MVP voting. He’s been that good.

- Was interesting to gather different perspectives on just how often the playoff series is on the minds of certain Raptors. Amir Johnson said he has not watched the tape of the Game 7 loss even once … “It’s a brand new season, put that behind us,” Johnson said pre-game, while Patrick Patterson said “That Game 7 was on my mind from the time I woke up this morning to even now.” Patterson said “we handled our business and it was a bit of revenge.” Dwane Casey also said he’s gone over the series dozens of times, thinking about what could have been done different, but also added that it is time to move on. “If its and buts were candies and nuts, we’d all have a Merry Christmas,” said the coach at his post-game press conference.

- So with that, let’s turn to the present. James Johnson was brought in largely because the team couldn’t stop big, one-on-one scorers like Joe Johnson. Though they perhaps didn’t play him quite enough on Wednesday, when James Johnson was guarding his namesake, he did the best job on the team. The Raptors’ Johnson had the game’s best plus-minus and was far more effective than the final boxscore tally of five points, six rebounds and three assists indicates. He did a little bit of everything and the Raptors seized control and also closed the game when he was out there.

- What can we say about Patterson at this point? He was giving himself a hard time for blowing a dunk that would have given Bruno Caboclo an assist, but is simply on fire from deep. Since a tough 1-for-6 outing from three-point range, Patterson has shot 5-for-7, 2-for-2, 1-for-3, 3-for-4, 2-for-4 and 3-for-4. Simply incredible, and he thought he should have been 4-for-4 Wednesday, with the shot rolling around the rim before falling out. He’s shooting 60% from three for December, better than the 58% he is managing on two-point attempts.

- Patterson isn’t the only one in the frontcourt putting up gaudy numbers. Amir Johnson seems to finally be healthy and Jonas Valanciunas has jumped to 16th overall in rebounding (nine per game, in the fewest minutes of anyone on that list) and over his last six games is averaging 12 rebounds, 12.7 points and shooting 57% from the field. The only non-encouraging thing is the Raptors have been better with him off the floor a lot of the time and he is only a cumulative +1 over those six games.

- Casey says Bruno is going to be good. “  I tell you what, the young kid is going to be a player. He works … I’ve never seen a young kid work as hard as he works on his game each and every day. He lives basketball,” Casey said

“You don’t get to see it but behind the scenes he’s working as hard as any young player I’ve been around.”

- Bruno and Bebe also found the time to have a little fun.

 

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

- December 16th, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

- December 15th, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

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

- December 13th, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

REST FOR AMIR?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ONE GAME AT A TIME

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

- December 10th, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

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

- December 9th, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

- December 6th, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s more Masai from Friday night on forgiveness:

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

- December 4th, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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