Raptors should feel better about loss in Memphis than win in Philadelphia; Time to switch up the starting lineup

- January 24th, 2015

PHILADELPHIA — Life, in sports, isn’t always fair. The Raptors worked incredibly hard in a gritty, encouraging effort against Memphis on Wednesday and came away with a loss. Then they basically were awful for large swaths of Friday’s game against Philadelphia, “expecting to simply walk on the floor to get a win,” as Dwane Casey put it afterward, but managed to escape with a win. How is that fair? It isn’t, but the Raptors return home from this trip with two wins in three tries and that will cover up some ugly moments. It shouldn’t. This group is a mess right now. The energy is lacking to start games, the offence has morphed from world-beating into a bit of a tire fire and the swagger and confidence that was so evident for the first two months of the season has completely vanished.

- It’s time to make a change. Two, in fact. Amir Johnson was a -21 against Philly. Patrick Patterson was +26. I’m not a huge fan of +/- (especially of the individual variety, since many players can look great because they mostly face backups instead of starters, with the opposite also being true), but for January, Patterson is +61 and Johnson is -95. The numbers for the entire season are even more striking. More than that, Johnson has been battling a series of nagging injuries and often takes a while to really start making an impact on games. Bringing him off the bench could be a big boost. They’d miss his excellent screens, his defence and his ability to score inside, but he’d still provide a lot of that off of the bench. If Patterson started, the team could also get away with starting the offensively limited James Johnson, who is the second-best defender on the team after Amir. That would be a big upgrade over Greivis Vasquez and would return DeMar DeRozan to shooting guard, where he is more comfortable. The new lineup would have energy, decent size, enough offensive capabilities and would allow pick-and-roll maestros Vasquez and Amir Johnson more of an opportunity to connect with Terrence Ross spotting up for threes. Or, they can keep things status quo and hope things change. Casey mentioned “nagging injuries” as one reason why the starters aren’t getting it done and it didn’t take much sleuthing to deduct he was mainly talking about Amir, who has been dealing with a bit of a shoulder issue (he is wearing more padding for games).

- Toronto had won just three of 16 quarters over the past four games, before winning two against the Sixers.

- The offence has become far too predictable. There is little movement, less pick-and-roll action than we’ve seen in past months and pretty bad shot selection. The team has shot 25% from three for most of January, yet continues to launch threes instead of going inside. Some of them are good looks that normally drop, but many more are just bad decisions. Mixing it up could be beneficial. Giving Jonas Valanciunas the ball more could help. He’s No. 7 in the league in field goal percentage and gets them higher efficiency looks than DeRozan isolations.

- Speaking of which, DeRozan is in one of the worst slumps of his career. He made a surprisingly effective return from his six-week injury layoff, largely because he let the game come to him. In the first three games, DeRozan didn’t force anything, everything came within the flow of the game. Now, he has gone back to forcing shots, most of them being at an extremely high level of difficulty. DeRozan is just six for his past 34 shot attempts and has has only been to the free throw line three times over the past three games.

“I kind of find myself looking for fouls now, instead of it coming naturally to me,” DeRozan said. Not surprisingly, he also said he didn’t think the starting lineup needed to be altered. “No, it’s on us, whoever starts because we’re the ones that come out and depict the start of the game. We don’t need to be fighting back from down 30-7. We don’t need to put ourselves in that type of hole because it can easily turn out bad,” he said.

- Credit Lowry for doing what he can do. He was unreal in the fourth, basically, strapping his teammates on his back and carrying them to a win. That’s what true all-stars do and Lowry has certainly earned his spot.

- Patrick Patterson has basically doubled his usual production on the offensive boards and has come up with some huge rebounds lately. With opponents taking away his three-point shooting lately, he said he has been trying to do other things. He also sees getting better as a rebounder as a natural progression. “I haven’t been known as a great rebounder. That’s a thing I’ve been lacking throughout my NBA career. Shot hasn’t been falling, teams are closing on me,” Patterson said. “Every year in the NBA I’ve added something. Three-point shooting. Perimeter defence. Every year is something different.”

MORE QUOTES:

“They’ve got to decide. They’ve got to make a decision from top to bottom. We can continue to say, ‘We’re going to be okay, we’re going to be okay;’ we’re not going to be okay if we continue to perform like that.” – Casey

“We have an air of complacency and I didn’t like it”.

-  “I always say, things always happen for a reason. Just sitting at his house with his family, with his son, that’s a memorable experience that’s going to go down, not just for the night, not for this year, you look back at it 20, 30 years from now, it’s something he can look back at, not only (just) for him but for his son as well.” – DeRozan to the Sun on Lowry having everyone at his house for the all-star announcement.

STATS:

- Toronto is now 20 games in front of the Sixers.

- Toronto has not scored 100 points in the past five games. The team is 5-7 when scoring below 100 and had given up 100 or more in four of five games before this run.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Raptors fit right in at the Grind Factory; Encouraging steps; DeRozan’s frustration and Lowry all-star talk

- January 22nd, 2015

MEMPHIS — The Raptors tried to pull a Freaky Friday and borrow the identity of the Memphis Grizzlies on Wednesday night, but the Grizz didn’t return the favour and swap identities with them. The result was far from a thing of beauty. The two teams slugged it out, shot a whole lot of bricks and spent a ton of time at the free throw line in a foul-plagued affair.

- While the struggling offence is a major concern for the Raptors, they can take heart at least in the fact that their defence has finally done a 180 and is getting back to where it once was. They turned 13 Memphis turnovers into 24 points. Thriving off the mistakes of opponents was a hallmark earlier on. They also held the Grizzlies to just a single three-pointer, though the big, tough Grizzlies got to the line far too often.

- DeMar DeRozan is as frustrated as I’ve ever seen him. He is just 2-for-20 over his past two games. He knew it wouldn’t be easy to bounce back after missing so much time, but what is really bugging him is that his teammates, who had been so deadly offensively all season, have gone ice cold at exactly the same time.

- An example of what Lowry does to put the Raptors in position to win games, even when his shot isn’t falling: With the game tight, Lowry willed the Raptors back to a tie at one point by pulling down two offensive rebounds in a row (never mind that he stands a foot shorter than some players). Late in the third, he dropped in a spinning layup after the second of those boards to tie the game and give the Raptors some momentum. Unfortunately for them, they couldn’t take advantage.

- Casey had talked beforehand about how difficult it is to try to match the Memphis front-court. “We’ve got to play our style, whether it’s up-tempo and make sure we get the ball to the weak side once we get down. This team is a very difficult team to go toe-to-toe with. You better have some bazookas on your side because they are two of the best interior players in the league as far as in the paint, controlling the restricted area so our bigs are going to have to do an extra special job,” Casey said. Jonas Valanciunas and Amir Johnson answered the bell, playing quite well, while Tyler Hansbrough and Patrick Patterson weren’t great, but at least were quite impactful on the boards. Patterson had six more offensive rebounds and is hauling in more offensive boards the past few games than ever before. Memphis leads the NBA in points in the paint, yet the Raptors were right with them for most of the game in that category, until the Grizz hammered them 18-6 inside in the decisive fourth.

- What a luxury it is for Memphis coach Dave Joerger to have Kosta Koufos behind all-world centre  Gasol. Koufos was known more as a scorer while at Ohio State, but has morphed into an excellent defender, particularly at the rim. No wonder Cleveland was after him, before settling for Timofey Mozgov, who isn’t close to the defender Koufos is, but is a better overall player. When Gasol had to leave in the third quarter with four fouls, Koufos came in and was excellent, making three great plays at the rim to deter the Raptors. He had two blocks in the frame, a steal and six points.

- Terrence Ross couldn’t build on his best game in ages. While his defence was better than it had been, he couldn’t get untracked on offence and was held scoreless.

- What would Lowry do if he was named an all-star starter on Thursday night? “I don’t even know,” Lowry said. “Honestly, I wouldn’t even know what to say. I’d be shocked but we’ll see. I’m not really banking on it, I’m just going out there. I know the Canadian fans did a great job of voting for me and I appreciate them. Hopefully they did their job and something special happens from it.”

Finally, 48 minutes of effort; Credit Ross for answering the bell; Johnson benching was puzzling

- January 20th, 2015

MILWAUKEE — That was one of the biggest wins of the season for the Raptors. No question about it. With Memphis on deck and what could have been eight losses in 10 games, the game was as close to a must-win in January as you will see in the NBA. The Raptors answered the bell accordingly, they avoided the lulls that have plagued them lately. Sure, there were periods when the shooting went south, but it wasn’t for lack of trying and the defensive intensity was far better than it has been in recent games.

- After Atlanta shot 61% from the field and New Orleans 63% in the fourth quarter, the Raptors were desperate to show some defensive mettle. Against a weak offensive squad they did that, limiting the Bucks to 44.7% shooting and only one excellent shooting quarter (the third, where Milwaukee shot 57%, but on just 14 attempts). When the Raptors needed stops, they got them and the rim protection was far better than we’ve seen for a while. Whether it was Jonas Valanciunas, Amir Johnson, Patrick Patterson, Tyler Hansbrough, or even Kyle Lowry, the Raptors challenged shots at the rim well. (digging deeper at the stat-sheet, it seems Amir wasn’t as good as I thought at the rim, but Hansbrough and Valanciunas allowed just two field goals on seven attempts at the rim between them).

- Yes, I thought it was a bit strange to bench James Johnson. Johnson had been playing quite well, averaging 9.6 points, 5.2 rebounds and 1.0 block over the past five games on 66% shooting. He had slipped defensively like everybody else, but he is still one of the two or three best defenders on the team. Dwane Casey said Johnson didn’t do anything to get removed from the lineup, but rather it was a case of someone needing to fall out of the rotation with Greivis Vasquez starting and Terrence Ross coming off of the bench. With the team going smaller, there were fewer minutes available at small forward and with Hansbrough and Patrick Patterson playing well, it was hard to find any time for Johnson. I would have cut Vasquez from 30 minutes to about 26 and cut Hansbrough back by a couple just to not completely take Johnson out of the rotation. You don’t want to risk losing a player, especially one who has been a bit mercurial in the past. Plus, his play has been solid and you are losing something by not having him out there at all.

- You have to give Terrence Ross props for turning in such a nice effort. He didn’t let a couple of early misses from three-point range get him down. He was able to forget about his slump and just get through it. I think being aggressive helped him – he put it on the floor and got into the paint for a floater then later got a big dunk to get him going. He was steady and made some big plays, especially the two late in the fourth. He still looks like he has regressed defensively, but playing more against reserves should help him get his defensive game back.

- The Raptors only shot 40%, but that’s a top four defence they were facing and a bunch of long, athletic players. Turning it over 15 times wasn’t terrible against that group (especially since eight of the mistakes came in one quarter) and a lot of the missed shots were pretty good looks. The team seems to be hitting only about 25-30% of its three-point attempts lately, but most of them are the same shots they were making earlier in the year. Didn’t see as many forces and bad attempts as usual.

- DeMar DeRozan was due for one of these – maybe not a 0 point, 0-for-9 outing, but you try playing three games in four nights after missing a quarter of a season. It’s a lot to ask DeRozan to keep dropping 20 points when he isn’t yet back in rhythm. It’s actually amazing how well he did in the three games he played before this one. Giannis had something to do with his tough game, but it was much more a matter of DeRozan just not having it than what the Greek Freak was doing in particular.

- Weird stats: On contested field goals (ones where a defender is within three feet), Ross shot 83% (4-for-5). When he was wide open, Ross shot just 2-for-6 (33%). Lou Williams shot 4-for-8 contested, 0-for-4 uncontested. Guess they like having a hand in their face. Lowry shot about the same contested vs. uncontested (poorly).

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It’s up to the players in the room to get Raptors train back on the track

- January 19th, 2015

Talent trumps all in the NBA, but confidence and momentum go a long way on any given night as well. Right now, most of the Raptors have zero confidence and momentum is flowing only one way – downhill. Sunday’s loss to New Orleans was one of the most wretched of the year. Alexis Ajinca, a former Raptor non-factor and one of the softest big men in the entire league, had his way with Toronto’s frontcourt. Just one of many troubling signs.

“He made his shots. He was open at the basket. Maybe we didn’t do good rotation with him,” said Jonas Valanciunas afterward. “Somehow we’ve got to find a way to dig in and get out from the losing streak … Everybody wants to win so that’s kind of pressure. Losing, we feel upset, upset at losing. We want to get back. This is something inside. We got to regroup, we got to bring the energy back and just play like we played in the third quarter.”

- Ah yes, the third quarter, the frame that saw the Raptors push the pace, trying to run at every opportunity, while also pressing and trapping the Pelicans, which led to turnovers that they capitalized on. It was not a sustainable way to play and eventually, it went back to same old, same old for the Raptors. They clearly play better when they play tighter defence and force mistakes (insert duh here), the trick is finding a way to do that more often.

- I was pretty blunt about the decision to put Greivis Vasquez on Tyreke Evans one-on-one with the game on the line on Twitter Sunday night. Dwane Casey’s explanation was that he felt Vasquez had done a better job than anyone else on Evans throughout the game (Evans had pretty much scorched everyone they put on him ), but Vasquez is a weak defender and the odds were he was not going to be able to come close to stopping Evans. he didn’t and the Raptors lost. Not as simple as that, but why did they bring James Johnson to town if not to use him in that situation. Even if he fouled (which Johnson is prone to), Evans would have had to beat them at the line and they would have had time to set up a decent shot to try to force overtime or win it. It was a baffling decision.

“Greivis did the best job, other than that last possession, of all of our guys during the game,” Casey said. “That’s why we stuck with Greivis on him. He did a good job of containing him, making him score over a big body. I thought he did a good job, other than the last play. Guys like that, one-on-one players, are going to make plays. We had talked about putting James on him (but didn’t).”

- Don’t think it’s fair to blame Vasquez. It was a challenging assignment and he was excellent offensively. Without him, the Raptors don’t get back in the game in the third quarter. Whether he should start long-term for Terrence Ross is another question. It would juice the offence, but the fading defence would get even worse. I’d see how Ross responds to being benched. If he still shows no pulse the next couple of games, then you probably have to make a switch.

- I asked Casey pre-game if he was happy with the recent shot selection. I believe it is hurting the team. They have gone (particularly late in games) to one (or no) pass plays, content to launch tough shots, instead of moving the ball around. It’s not coincidence that the offence is operating at its worst efficiency of the season right now.

“It’s a fine line. We had success with some of those shots. Trying to pull the reins in is a slow process. Some of them are quick. Kyle has been good in the walk-in threes. Lou has had those. Now when you miss them, it’s hard to say, ‘Hey, don’t take them,’ because now you’ve got to think. We’d rather play on the second side, get a rhythm shot, more so than in transition pull-up threes, or pull-up shots,” Casey said. “Those are the ones that you question. When you make them. When you miss them, they’re ugly as you know what. It’s hard to say, because a lot of those shots that those guys are missing are the same shots they’d been making. Like a baseball player, guys go through slumps, miss shots. But again, you’ve got to tell a shooter to continue to take them, but let’s try to get them in rhythm: one pass, on the weak side, in transition, which is our highest PPP right now, on drag scenes. Let’s try to get them on the weak side.”

- Perhaps the most troubling thing of all: For days, Casey has been imploring his team to do one thing: “Play hard.” For too long on Sunday, including right off the bat again, the team simply wasn’t playing hard enough.

“We have the players here to compete, to play hard,” Casey said the other day. “You’re in the NBA, you can play hard. That’s the number one thing we’re asking. Play hard within our schemes, our schemes work.” But not if they aren’t being executed with passion and intensity. The Raptors let New Orleans shoot 63% in the fourth quarter (while shooting 29% themselves). With Anthony Davis and Jrue Holiday out, that’s simply unacceptable.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Atlanta’s good, but credit Raptors for making them look THAT good; How about an APB for Ross; Patterson slumping; Will player’s only meeting help?

- January 17th, 2015

There’s no question the Atlanta Hawks are really good – duh, they’ve won 25 of 27 games and are building a solid lead atop the East – BUT, they aren’t quite as good as Toronto made them look on Friday night at the ACC.

As good as the Hawks have played during this stretch, they had shot better than 60% from the floor only one other time this season. Toronto’s defence was horrible. Players got lost on screens, they constantly got tricked or picked into bad matchups (ie. point guard guarding a centre, centre guarding a small forward, etc.) and they left the Hawks wide open all night, most damningly, during a third quarter that saw Atlanta shoot 7-for-9 from three-point range. The Raptors also scored a season-low 89 points. Again, Atlanta’s excellent, but Toronto did a lot of this to themselves.

- Could the aliens who have beamed up Terrence Ross kindly return him to the Raptors. They could really use the old Ross. This current version is in a wretched slump. He’s in the midst of his first single-digit scoring month in over a year, has hit under 30% of his three-point attempts over his past 10 games and 33% overall from the field, seems reluctant to dribble the ball, isn’t grabbing any rebounds and has lost his effectiveness as a defender. It’s not yet a crisis and you risk ruining his confidence by benching him for James Johnson, but at some point, if nothing changes, Dwane Casey simply needs to make a move. There are other culprits that have contributed to this free-fall (six losses in eight games), but Ross is right at the top of the list.

- Patrick Patterson’s game has also fallen off of a cliff. Patterson had a massive start to the season and still ranks near the top of the NBA’s three-point shooting leaderboard, but he’s really struggled lately. He’s hit only 25% from three over his past eight appearances, and 30% overall. With Ross and Patterson dipping so much, is it any wonder that things haven’t gone well for the Raptors? With the defence regressing so much, they’d need some great offensive efforts to stay afloat and neither Ross or Patterson have been providing that.

- This is a mature, largely veteran group. They will figure things out. Could they use a jolt and an upgrade or two? Absolutely, but if that doesn’t come, expect them to at least get closer to where they were prior. The player’s only meeting after the game called by Kyle Lowry was a start and the comments afterward by James Johnson about overconfidence based on the great start and the recognition that they were lacking in attention to detail were good signs. They’ve also been saying (Johnson, Greivis Vasquez and DeMar DeRozan in particular), that going through this now is a good thing. Now, the trick is to make sure they aren’t just empty words. This is a team that still has a great record, but has not actually fared well against good teams. If they want to be taken seriously, they need to start getting results against the cream of the crop. The next chance comes Wednesday in Memphis. Before that, wins will be difficult to achieve against New Orleans Sunday (assuming Anthony Davis plays) and Milwaukee Monday (the Bucks surely remember getting humiliated by Bruno and the Raptors earlier this season in Toronto).

- Some people are going to ask about why the lack of touches for Valanciunas. Well, it’s pretty easy. Al Horford and Paul Millsap are smaller and far more mobile. They also are far better basketball players than Valanciunas right now and light years better as defenders. They wouldn’t let Valanciunas get the ball even when the Raptors wanted to give it to him (it is still a valid issue that they jack up too many three-pointers, but it’s not like they could have force-fed Valanciunas in this one). He had to work to guard Horford or Millsap or the other stretch bigs the Hawks have and didn’t seem to have the energy, the ability, or the will to establish himself at the other end.

- James Johnson noted that teams seem to have the book on the Raptors right now. They have been scouted well. Couple that with not “cherishing the ball” like they were earlier in the season, and this has become quite problematic.

QUOTE OF THE NIGHT FROM DWANE CASEY:

“You should be frustrated. We’re getting our butts kicked, we’re all frustrated and you should be. If you’re a competitor you should be frustrated, but there’s no frustration in pointing fingers, ‘your fault, your fault, your fault.’ It’s everybody. You can go right through the roster, coaches players, say you can do this better, we can do this better. That’s what we’ve got to do, because, we’ve done it. We did it at a high level for a couple of months. We’ve just got to get that mojo back and get that 2X4 off our shoulder, the weight of the world, feels like, on your shoulder. We’re still in a good place, but we’ve got to fight through this and grind through this tough spot right now.”

HARDEST QUOTE OF THE NIGHT TO UNDERSTAND (FROM KYLE LOWRY)
“Our meeting was more about what we talked about.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Impressive DeRozan return and wretchedness of Sixers masks so-so Raptors effort; Not playing smart basketball

- January 15th, 2015

Just what the doctor ordered. DeMar DeRozan finally returned and it was a very good thing, since there is a good chance the Raptors would have fallen to the Sixers without him on Wednesday night. Even though the Raptors are far more talented and deeper (DeRozan or not) than Philly, the Sixers played harder and seemed like they could have stolen this one had DeRozan not arrived to give the Raptors a huge list. DeRozan was extremely impressive. Don’t think anybody could have seen him fitting in so seamlessly, taking good shots, letting the game come to him and returning with a team-high 20 points. DeRozan didn’t force things (unlike many of his teammates), Dwane Casey did a great job resting him to keep him fresh throughout and he also played pretty good defence on a quick, athletic team.

- The Raptors have made a bad habit recently of going for “home run passes” instead of making simpler plays. Kyle Lowry has been the main culprit, he’s been throwing ridiculous lobs that not even Terrence Ross or prime Vince Carter could convert. He’s also getting a bit too cute, such as when he threw a no-look, over-the-shoulder dish to Amir Johnson inside. Johnson wasn’t ready for it because it was such a ballsy attempt and point guards have to recognize the likelihood of whether a pass will be hauled in. If nobody is expecting that pass, it’s unlikely it will be converted. Just calm down a bit. Related – Lowry needs to stop taking threes from the parking lot (some of them seem to from two feet behind the line). Those rarely go in (you basically have to swish them because you aren’t getting a friendly bounce from that far out) and they can kill momentum. His pull-up, or feet set threes from right around the line are great, but the ones he seems to be launching twice a game these days have to go. That said, Lowry still had a heck of a game.

- There were stretches where the team had great ball movement. It was zinging all around the court, extra passes were consistently being made, which created open looks. DeRozan made a few beauties. Scoring isn’t the only way he helps. He draws opponents and has matured into a player who makes great decisions with the ball when a double-team comes or when a single opponent is pressuring him. DeRozan is one of the best “hockey assist” guys on the team.

- Philly has some intriguing pieces and can jump out of the gym (poor Greivis Vasquez just keeps getting put on the highlight reels when he tries to shoot over K.J. McDaniels) but there is still so much work to be done. Joel Embiid has the chance to be a superstar one day, so he’ll certainly help, but they also badly need to get a couple of elite shooters to space the floor. If that happens, the Sixers might actually be good. Once McDaniels and Jerami Grant can become really solid bench defenders because there is enough talent in the starting lineup, Philly will have something. Brett Brown coaches his butt off. It’s a wonder these guys stay in games so often, considering they are so outmatched talent and experience-wise every night.

- What’s wrong with Terrence Ross? Good question. Nobody can figure out the answer. We thought DeRozan’s return would help him by giving him more space, taking pressure off of him and letting him get back to camping out in the corners, but he was invisible again. Casey’s going to have to think hard about swapping James Johnson in for Ross, even though the first group will not be able to space the floor since neither DeRozan or Johnson can hit from outside. Either that or try out Patrick Patterson at small forward and keep Johnson as the utility knife off of the bench.

- Tyler Hansbrough gave the Raptors a nice lift. He was willing to battle, to box out and go at the plucky Sixers and it was sorely needed in this one.

- Still not sure what I think about Michael Carter-Williams. Somebody has to get stats on a bad team, but no question he is skilled and will look better when he gets some shooters to play off of. He certainly had Toronto’s attention. Counted three different defenders on him in the first quarter (Lowry, Ross and Johnson).

- Patterson is really struggling with his three-point shot. His early-season numbers were not sustainable (close to 48% from three), but he’s slumping, shooting just 29% in six games in January after hitting a ridiculous 53% in December. Opponents seem to be closing out on him a tiny bit quicker than earlier this season (that happens when you hit more than 50% of your attempts), which is forcing Patterson to rush just a bit. The return of DeRozan should help a bit in that regard as he will command a lot of attention.

- Nerlens Noel should have been the top pick last year (with apologies to Giannis and Victor Oladipo). He’s going to be a better, bigger version of Kenneth Faried. That said, his touch inside is awful. Everything is too strong. If he can get a softer touch eventually, he has a chance to be effective offensively as well, instead of just a ridiculous defensive player.

 

Rejuvenated Jennings soundly outplays Lowry; Raptors badly missing DeRozan’s FT drawing ability; the best and worst of Valanciunas; Stan’s still the man

- January 13th, 2015

As a long-standing member of the Brandon Jennings is bad at basketball and kills his teams club, the arrival of this new, highly effective version of Jennings is a little stunning to see. He has been nothing short of all-star caliber since the Pistons waived Josh Smith and he soundly outplayed MVP candidate Kyle Lowry on Monday night in Detroit’s win. Jennings is so much better when he doesn’t just launch shot after shot. When he plays like an actual point guard, taking advantage of his speed and the threat of his shooting ability to penetrate and create easy shots for his teammates, he can be excellent.

“He plays with great aggressiveness and great confidence,” said Pistons head coach Stan Van Gundy. “Sometimes you’re going (makes squirrel face) about some of his shots, but I’m not trying to put a leash on it because he’s playing great. You’ve got to let those go. He’s playing as well as I’ve seen him play since he got into the league.”

- The Raptors are consistently losing the battle at the free throw line and it was a major factor in this most recent loss. Few players get to the line as often as DeMar DeRozan, and that is perhaps where he is missed the most. The offence isn’t getting nearly as many easy shots, everyone has to do more, which is resulting in far more turnovers – which is killing the Raptors on a regular basis – and opponents wear down the Raptors by living at the line, instead of the other way around, which used to be the norm. DeRozan hinted that a return is close, but the Raptors’ braintrust revels in being Fort Knox-like and the team is full of conflicting information when it comes to providing a timeline, so really, who knows?

- Kudos to Jonas Valanciunas, he had a heck of a night and was as dominant as we’ve ever seen him. Detroit just couldn’t stop him down low. It was like men against boys, which is saying something, considering Andre Drummond is the most powerfully built player in the entire NBA and Greg Monroe is a quite large human being as well. He looked confident, assertive and aggressive down low and on the boards. But even in turning in such a dominant outing, Valanciunas also managed to go a game-worst -14. It’s hard to believe that is even possible. But before we all kill Valanciunas for his defensive deficiencies, it should be noted that Amir Johnson, who seemed – by the eye test at least – to be playing an energized, solid game (and had a double-double of his own with 12 points and 10 rebounds) also was -14. That’s the guy who is by far Toronto’s best defender. Both Valanciunas and Johnson got worked inside by Monroe and others and both were punished by all of the turnovers their teammates committed, which led to easy scores the other way, which impacts +/-. In any event, it’s baffling to think that even on a career night where he shot 14-for-15, Valanciunas could be such a net negative. In any event, what else does he have to do offensively to convince his teammates that they should be giving him the ball more often? Valanciunas was wide open several times and players either launched silly threes, or tried difficult two-point attempts.

- The Raptors have to play smarter. The horrible shot selection and rising turnover numbers can’t all be chalked up to the team missing DeRozan. There is more at work here. Maybe many of the players just don’t have high enough basketball IQs (Lowry’s the exception, he’s as smart as they come on the court, but still tries to force the issue too much). They also struggle to come up with important rebounds when they need them most, giving opponents too many second chances.

- It’s great to have Van Gundy back in the league. Nobody, not Pop, Doc, Thibs, Blatt, or anybody else are more entertaining and engaging.

Some gems from post-game: “We got real technical, we said we’ve got to try.”

(Meeks three) “We got lucky on that.”

 

(On Valanciunas): “22 and 10 in the first half. He was 14-for-15 on the night, the guy crushed us. He was catching the ball so deep. It was a coaching mistake. (he said he told the staff they’d switch Monroe onto Valanciunas to start the third quarter but …) Stan did not inform the players.”

(Were they motivated based on getting embarrassed at the Palace in December?) “Well did we look motivated to start the game (the answer is no). Not at all. We didn’t look the least bit motivated to start the game. I don’t believe that stuff would kick in at half-time. (Facetiously) We weren’t ready to play at the beginning, but you know what? Now, I remember what happened.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Raptors find a tonic in the brutal Celtics; Valanciunas springs to life; Keep J. Johnson the starter; One happy locker room

- January 11th, 2015

“We was tired of it.” That basically sums up what changed for the Raptors on Saturday night after another bad start. James Johnson said the words, after backing them up earlier in the evening. Johnson, back in the starting lineup for Landry Fields, was arguably Toronto’s game MVP for the night, with a big impact at both ends.

- Now Johnson didn’t do it all himself and he might have caused Dwane Casey some panic with his aggressiveness offensively (the worry is always that Johnson will try to do too much, instead of being the ultra-effective Swiss army knife) but here’s how he impacted the turnaround:

Down by seven midway through the second quarter, Johnson entered for the invisible Terrence Ross. He got called for a highly debatable offensive foul (he was out of control, but Jae Crowder was clearly moving and nowhere close to set) and that seemed to fire him up. He kept attacking the rim, and though he was missing in the second, Johnson’s aggressiveness helped open up the floor for the Raptors offensively and he blocked a Marcus Smart three-point attempt at the buzzer to cut off any Boston momentum heading into the second half. In the third, he gave the Raptors back the lead for good with a driving layup to put them up one, set up Jonas Valanciunas for a dunk, made a tough turnaround jump shot off of the glass and generally was a disturbance defensively. By the time he checked out, the Raptors were up 10. He shot 4-for-4 in the quarter, with three rebounds, an assist and no turnovers. Playing the entire fourth quarter, a testament to his conditioning, Johnson became a playmaker and helped the Raptors seal it following a Boston rally.

- Johnson never should have been replaced by Landry Fields once Fields got healthy. He had been excellent as a starter and the Raptors had played well. Fields does some nice things off of the ball and can also defend and rebound, but Johnson is simply a far better player and is three times the offensive threat, despite his limited range. Now that the Eurostep is really working for Johnson, he has become a dangerous slasher. Now it’s time for Dwane Casey to seriously think about leaving Johnson with the starters once DeMar DeRozan returns and leaving Ross to bring instant offence off of the bench. Ross needs a wakeup call, he starts too many games in a listless fashion. Yes, it might ruin his confidence, but it also might provide the spark he clearly needs.

- Though beating the Celtics isn’t a grand accomplishment, given they are a scrappy, but limited squad, that was one happy locker room post-game. Valanciunas did a little jig and said it was his victory dance. He joked that Ross “needs me” after being told the only two buckets Ross scored on the night came off of Valanciunas kick-outs. Lou Williams yelled out “I’m in love with Caboclo” (a play on the I’m in Love With the Coco” song that inexplicably is popular right now despite being pretty awful. Williams also implored Johnson to give another classic soundbite when he saw that the media throng was 10-deep by Johnson’s locker. “I cocked that joint back … give them one of those,” Williams said, drawing laughs. DeRozan loved the attention his buddy Johnson was getting and told him he made it. DeRozan, worried the media would try to talk to him, said to ask Lowry any questions, saying Lowry knows exactly when he will be back. Nothing like a win to lighten the mood.

- Told a few Raptors that Quincy Acy was getting MVP chants at Madison Square Garden. “S—, he’s the only one playing hard,” was one response. Valanciunas, who entered the league as a rookie with Acy and is a friend, was happy to hear it and is glad Acy is establishing himself as an NBAer in New York. Told Knicks fans also booed a baby picture of Andrea Bargnani on Saturday, Valanciunas shook his head and said he felt bad for him.

DeRozan can’t come back soon enough; Another stinker against Charlotte; Henderson the new Bibby? Raptors turning back into a pumpkin?

- January 9th, 2015

Pretty pleased that the end of my vacation coincided with possibly the worst Raptors game of the season. Was a good one to miss. Some hideous offensive stretches for the Raptors, continued struggles stopping opponents from cruising into the paint and scoring while there. I did watch the tape though and it hurt my eyes. Some thoughts:

- It was again evident just how much Kyle Lowry misses DeMar DeRozan at both ends of the court. Lowry is trying to do it all himself on offence and simply can’t. He shot 7-for-22 and seems to really be wearing down. He is shooting just 38% from the field over his past four games, with 3.3 turnovers per contest, far higher than his season averages. He has hit only a third of his shots over the past two games and is a cumulative -20 (-39 over the past three). The +/- speaks to how he is getting absolutely torched on a nightly basis defensively by opposing guards. With this much of a workload, Lowry simply doesn’t seem to have the energy to give a proper effort defensively. He can’t keep anybody in front of him right now. Kemba Walker was blowing by him when they matched up and it happened with others as well. DeRozan will allow Lowry to play fewer minutes, and even more important, he will lighten his load significantly when he is on the floor. DeRozan draws a ton of fouls and a ton of attention offensively and has also improved significantly as a defender.

- Remember when Mike Bibby used to torch the Raptors whenever he faced them? Bibby, the one-time Vancouver Grizzlies point guard,always seemed to play twice as well against Toronto compared to any other team. Bibby would hit dagger after dagger and terrorize Toronto. For the past few years, Gerald Henderson has been Mike Bibby. The former Duke star is a pretty average NBAer, but he plays like a star whenever he faces players in Toronto jerseys. It is like clockwork. Usually Henderson slows DeRozan down defensively while being decent offensively. On Thursday, with DeRozan again absent, Henderson was able to focus on scoring and turned in a 31-point effort. Henderson got the shots he wanted, got to the free throw line and was a force. Henderson now averages 15.4 points in 14 meetings with the Raptors, tied with his average against the Knicks and nearly two full points more than he averages against any other club.

- Something else that has become clear: The Landry Fields as starter experiment needs to end. Luckily, with DeRozan back soon, it will, but if he has to sit any longer, it’s time to put James Johnson back in there. Yes, it will take a needed sparkplug off of the bench and sure, Johnson makes some infuriating mental mistakes that Dwane Casey loathes, but he’s an impact defender on a team that has been an abomination defensively for some time now. I’d even think about starting Johnson in place of Terrence Ross once DeRozan is back, though then you go away from the three-point game that has served the Raptors so well. The plus side is you add an above average defender and rebounder who will help protect the rim. You give something up offensively, but you gain a lot on defence. A second unit with Ross, Lou Williams, Greivis Vasquez and Patrick Patterson would be non-stop three-pointers and perhaps a bit too predictable, or, it could overpower opponents.

- Ross looked more aggressive, looking to attack off of the dribble. He needs to keep doing that. He can’t just be a three-point shooter.

- Have the Raptors turned back into a pumpkin? Was the great start just a mirage? Don’t think so. They will get their focus back. They have some practice time now and it is badly needed. They have a long homestand to get back on track and most importantly, DeRozan’s return is near. Still maintain that a reinforcement up front is needed and Masai has the expiring contracts, future picks and maybe even Ross to dangle for the right return.

- Dangle Ross? You’d have to consider it, no? Would you feel comfortable handing him at least $8 million a season on an extension? Would the Raptors?

 

Give Raptors another mulligan, but time for excuses now over; A defensive disaster over past month; Make Ross permanent SG?

- January 5th, 2015

About the cruelest thing a schedule-maker can do to a an East-based team finishing up a long, Western swing is to to give them the Phoenix Suns to end the trip. The quick, athletic, deep Suns are exhausting to compete against every night, but Sunday brought a not-so-special treat for the Raptors. Not surprisingly, the Raptors looked “flat as a pancake,” according to Dwane Casey afterward, and got spanked. So, it is fair to give the Raptors mulligans for this one and for the carnage against Golden State … however, the excuse wagon has now pulled out of the station. DeMar DeRozan is coming back, the schedule is getting quite a bit friendlier (Charlotte, Boston, Detroit, Philly at home before tough ones against Atlanta and New Orleans). If some things don’t change though, even the upcoming games will be massive challenges. Simply put, the Raptors need to figure out how to defend again.

- Since Dec. 1, only eight teams are surrendering more field goals per game, only six are surrendering a higher field goal percentage and it has mostly come inside, where the Raptors are getting throttled nightly (they aren’t surrendering too many three-pointers, comparatively). Part of that is facing devastating attacking teams like the Suns and Warriors, part of that is not having much rim protection, part of it is Kyle  Lowry being exhausted, simply worn down by his expanded workload with DeRozan out. The Raptors continue to turn in awful efforts on the glass (only two teams have allowed more offensive rebounds per game since Dec. 1) and they aren’t creating as many turnovers with their defence as they were earlier in the season.

- Offensively, Toronto has simply not gotten to the free throw line while DeRozan has been out, which has caused a huge fallout in many areas, on both sides of the floor. That, like Lowry’s fatigue level, should change once DeRozan is back. Which isn’t to say he will be a savior, his absence wasn’t the only thing that caused all of this … but it will be a good start.

- It was too bad that the bad Amir Johnson reappeared after such a nice run. He was invisible and didn’t have his usual defensive impact. I’d chalk that up to fatigue as well.

- Still think James Johnson should be playing more, even against the tiny Suns. The dual Lowry-Vasquez or Lowry-Lou Williams look might have worked in the past, but it might be time to shelve it until Lowry is back to 100% and Vasquez and Williams dig their way out of brutal slumps. It really is too bad that DeRozan doesn’t have deep range, because I think the team would be far better suited starting him and James Johnson and using Ross as a weapon off of the bench. Ross simply isn’t big enough to match up nightly against most small forwards. Of course another answer could be keeping Ross at shooting guard permanently and making the bigger, stronger, tougher, more consistent DeRozan officially the small forward. The positions are often interchangeable now that the league has gotten smaller as a whole, but when the Raptors are playing more traditional squads and against teams with dual point guards, Ross should be on the smaller man at both ends of the floor. That said, Ross isn’t a good ball-handler and can be at risk of getting it poked away by smaller defenders – a problem DeRozan has had as well over the years. Ross’ new tear-drop floater should be a help, as opponents will not be able to crowd him as much, thinking his only weapon is a three-pointer.