DeRozan makes statement after missing all-star cut; Casey and staff coached a strong game; Raptors fans continue to travel well

- January 31st, 2015

BROOKLYN — He would never come right out and say it because he loathes controversy and creating drama, but DeMar DeRozan feels slighted at not making a repeat trip to the all-star game. He gets that he has missed nearly half of the season, but is confident in his abilities that his game remains all-star caliber. More importantly, he feels that the best start in Raptors history should count for something where all-star picks are concerned.

“I think you should reward winning, must come first,” DeRozan said before he went out and played like a star, propelling the Raptors past the Nets on Friday night in Brooklyn. “Just like you did with Atlanta. All them guys that’s on it deserve to be on it and you could make the argument of four (Kyle Korver might yet be added, joining Al Horford, Paul Millsap and Jeff Teague). Look at back in the day when Detroit had four players (at the all-star game). Because they were winning. You’ve got to reward winning, first and foremost,” he said.

- Earlier in the day, DeRozan had said about as tersely as he ever gets (which isn’t very) “I ain’t got no comment (on being snubbed).” Afterward, he smiled, then again declined to take the bait. “Everyday is extra motivation, honestly,” DeRozan said.

- That might have been DeRozan’s best overall outing of the season. Earlier in the game, he passed it around as well as he ever has, constantly setting up his teammates for good shots. After the Nets fought back, he put the Raptors on his back, both by hitting a series of incredibly difficult shots and also by making great finds when the Nets swarmed him – most notably, the dish to a cutting Amir Johnson that forced overtime. He also had to guard Joe Johnson, who killed the Raptors in the playoffs, and did a decent job on him.

“I know I can draw a lot of attention, especially when I’m in the paint. I just feel three or four collapsing on me and I know where my guys are going to be at, from the three-point shooters to our bigs,” he said.

- Despite the win, the Raptors did a lot of things wrong. They continue to get lit up by opposing point guards far too often. For all of his offensive brilliance, and he’s one of the best offensive players in the entire league by any metric, Kyle Lowry has taken a noticeable step back defensively. Yes, playing two point guards at the same time (and the fact that one of them is Greivis Vasquez, who is a poor defender) doesn’t help either, but Lowry has to be better. It’s one thing to let players like Stephen Curry, Jeff Teague or Damian Lillard go off, quite another when it is D.J. Augustin or Jarrett Jack.

- They also let Brook Lopez absolutely carve them up repeatedly inside. The Nets had no answers for Toronto’s bigs either (Jonas Valancunas and Amir Johnson were dominant offensively and Patrick Patterson made some big plays as well), but I had not problem taking Valanciunas out late. He was getting torched and they don’t give him the ball anyway late in games, so that negates a lot of what he brings to the table. They could have used his rebounding, but Patterson has emerged as an elite offensive rebounder and hauled in some crucial ones while there is simply no case to remove Amir Johnson, who along with DeRozan won the Raptors that game. On other nights, sure, Valanciunas should be out there. It made sense to have him on the bench. And while we are talking about the coaching staff, thought they did an excellent job. The after timeout plays were exceptional, most notably the DeRozan to Johnson connection.

- It is impossible not to be impressed by the dedicated Raptors fans who follow the team on the road. They were louder than all of the Nets fans combined at many points on Friday, just like they were at Madison Square Garden earlier in the season. Asked Amir if he heard them: “Oh yeah, we sure did,” he said. They even take over the local bars post-game.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ice cold Raptors heat up in a flash; Johnson absence explained again; Extra sweet win for ex-Kings; Stauskas absorbing lessons as rookie, excited about future of Canada Basketball

- January 29th, 2015

Talk about heating up. Shooting slumps don’t get much worse than what the Raptors have been going through for the past month or so. The team was connecting on 25% or so of its three-point attempts on many nights, on 30% during better ones, all the while, continuing to launch a ton of outside attempts, confident that things would turn around. Dwane Casey had said most of the shots were good looks and told his charges to keep firing away. They did, and everything turned on Wednesday against Sacramento. Suddenly, the Raptors couldn’t miss from deep. They had five (on eight attempts in the first quarter) after averaging about six makes over the previous 14 games), cooled down in a 2-for-8 second quarter, before nailing 8-of-10 in a ridiculous third quarter explosion. By the end, Toronto had made 17 threes, tied for the second-most in franchise history for one game, on 50% shooting. That kind of shooting is never going to be sustainable and it covered up some at times poor defence, but it will do wonders for a team that wasn’t feeling as confident as usual on offence lately because shots simply weren’t falling.

- Covered the job Chuck Hayes did on DeMarcus Cousins in great detail in the game story, but one more note on it from Patrick Patterson, if you don’t mind:

“It’s hard for anyone to guard that guy. He’s hands down one of the best big men in the league. He’s extremely talented. He’s pretty much a guard in a big’s body. For what Chuck did tonight on him, I throw my hat off. Chuck was with him in Sacramento, we all have a great relationship with DeMarcus. Chuck knows him better than anybody and did a great job with him tonight as far as forcing him to turn over the ball,” Patterson said.

- Patterson said it is “night-and-day” when Cousins is on the floor for the Kings, versus when he is on the bench. Hayes said he’d put him on the West’s all-star team, despite Sacramento’s record.

- Casey had a lot to say about James Johnson pre-game, saying he has handled his demotion well and has been a true professional. Someone had to lose their minutes with DeRozan back, Vasquez starting and Terrence Ross needing to get his confidence restored (which seems to have happened, judging by recent results) and Johnson was the guy, despite how well he has played. You can argue about it, and I have, but there is nothing more to it than that.

- Was interesting to see Casey leave Valanciunas out on the floor for a longer stretch again and against different type of big men, including ones fleeter of foot like Carl Landry and Jason Thompson. He was chasing them out to the three-point line at times, and doing a decent job of it. He told me he was happy to get the chance and hopes it is a sign that the coaching stuff has more trust in him now.

-Nik Stauskas seems to be finding his game a bit lately and that’s a good sign. He has struggled to adjust to the NBA, but is extremely talented. It just takes time for almost all rookies, something Kings head coach Tyrone Corbin was quick to point out.

” He’s a rookie, he’s a rookie,” Corbin repeated. “He’s learning what’s going to give him a chance in this league. He’s a shooter. . .to find his shots, be ready for his shots, when you get the double teams on the weak side, to come off and be ready when the shot’s there, if not read and take things that are available for him quickly. On defence, his body has to get stronger to be able to defend guys in this league. But he’s working hard, he’s a rookie in this league so he’s trying to find his way.”

- Stauskas said he has been in touch with Steve Nash and Rowan Barrett, Canada Basketball’s senior men’s grand poobahs, and is looking forward to the team Canada can put together this summer. “Having (Nash) now as a mentor and a friend, I couldn’t be more happy,” Stauskas said, adding there will be more serious talks about playing for Canada closer to the summer. “It’s crazy to see, especially from the Toronto area, how many guys have come out of here. We’re all happy for each other, we’re all proud of each other and hopefully we can put a good team together this summer and show people what Canada is all about.

- One more thing, I agree with DeRozan that the booing of Rudy Gay is stupid. Why boo him? He didn’t leave under bad circumstances like others or say anything bad about the franchise or the city. He was a model citizen who just didn’t fit here. Save the booing for those who deserve it.

 

More baby steps for the Raptors, major steps for DeRozan; Pacers just don’t have the horses; Delving into the Four Factors

- January 28th, 2015

After the last game, I asked, “if Jonas Valanciunas can’t play in the fourth against Detroit who can he close games against” and got an answer pretty quickly: The Pacers. That makes sense, considering he has a long history going up against Roy Hibbert, one of the biggest centres in the league. While Patrick Patterson again played the entire fourth (or close to it), Valanciunas was inserted to close the final half of it, after Tyler Hansbrough did a solid job. Perhaps because the team will be playing four games in five nights, three of them on the road, Amir Johnson didn’t play at all in the fourth. Valanciunas didn’t have a particularly great game, only stars Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan did that in terms of the starters, but he was decent and Hibbert didn’t go off and actually got outscored while he was on the floor, while Valanciunas provided some good rim resistance down the stretch, gathered up a couple of big rebounds and set some great screens (and one bad one).

- Another brutal start obviously wasn’t a good sign. Indiana went up 9-0 as the starters basically sleep-walked. DeRozan and Lowry were the only ones with any life it seemed. Still not sure Amir Johnson is best utilized as a starter at this point, given he doesn’t seem to start games out with energy, instead gaining effectiveness and mobility as games go on. Still vouching for Patrick Patterson and forgotten man James Johnson in the starting lineup, though that won’t happen as long as this team keeps winning. Will they keep winning with this group when the competition gets tougher, we’ll have to wait a bit to find out.

- The revival of DeRozan following his brutal slump has given the offence the boost it needed. The Raptors thrive by limiting turnovers and by getting to the free throw line. DeRozan gets to the line as well as just about any Raptor ever. He won’t get there 13 times a game, as he did Tuesday, but if he makes eight trips a night or so, the Raptors usually will be in a good place. The four turnovers look concerning on paper, but two were charges, which you’ll take every day of the week if the player also gets to the line 13 times, one was him just not being into the game at the beginning – dribbling it off himself out of bounds on the first play of the game, and one was a bad pass turnover). He had no turnovers in the previous game and generally seems a lot more comfortable dribbling the ball and attacking than he has at any point since returning from injury.

‎- With DeRozan back, the bench is again looking like one of the best in the league. Again, would prefer to see Greivis Vasquez running pick-and-rolls with Amir Johnson and having Lou Williams and Terrence Ross bombing away and Hansbrough battling for boards as a group, but that’s not going to happen right now.
- Terrence Ross got lost a few times on defence, but also was a big part of the 20-0 run and had his best quarter in weeks with nine points and four rebounds in the second. Indiana just doesn’t have the depth (with no Paul George and no Lance Stephenson) to compete against a good group of reserves like Toronto’s.
- Lowry had his best all-around game in ages. Though he thrived, carrying the team when DeRozan was out, there is little question his efficiency rises considerably when he has DeRozan out there with him.
STATS GALORE
- The Raptors have dipped a bit in offensive rating (points scored per 100 possessions), to fourth, but have climbed back to 19th in defensive rating. They likely need to get up to middle of the pack to be taken seriously as a team that can win a couple of rounds. Their net rating is sixth-best in the entire NBA.
- Coaches love to look at the “Four Factors” and “Defensive Four Factors.” Here is where Toronto ranks now that we are more than half-way through the 82-game season and how they have been trending in these categories over the past 10 games:
Effective field goal percentage – 9th (16th past 10 games)
Free throw attempt rate – 5th (and rising, now that DeMar DeRozan is back, but still 6th past 10 games, as DeRozan readjusts).
Turnover ratio – 4th (but dropping a lot lately, just 19th over past 10 games)
Offensive rebound % – 11th (6th over past 10 as Jonas Valanciunas gets more time and thrives).
So overall, quite good, and those numbers go a long way to revealing why the team has won 67% of its games so far (that and feasting on bad teams).
Defensive Four Factors:
Opponent effective field goal percentage – 22nd (a big concern, but improving to 16th over past 10).
Opponent free throw attempt rate – 22nd (decent concern, especially since just 24th over past 10).
Opponent turnover ratio – 11th (solid and a key to their success as well, stayed at 11th over past 10).
Opponent rebound % – 24th (Massive concern, but 21st over past 10).

Signs of progress for Raptors but not there yet; If Valanciunas can’t play in the fourth against Detroit who can he play against? Keep moving the ball

- January 26th, 2015

The Raptors made a lot of mistakes and tried to hand the Pistons a game they should have been in control of throughout on Sunday, but, nonetheless, there were definite signs of progress shown by the home side: DeMar DeRozan rediscovered his jump shot after one of the worst shooting stretches of his career (8-for-14 from the field after going six for his previous 34). DeRozan also got to the free throw line 10 times, a huge part of his game, after going there only three times combined over his previous three. DeRozan’s determination to get a couple of three-point attempts off each game also is an encouraging sign. He has hit three in six games, but has connected on only 25% of his attempts. His second four (or more) assist game with zero turnovers also was encouraging, considering he did it many times last season.

- Toronto moved the ball around far better than we’ve seen in recent games. That was perhaps the best development. Getting 23 assists against eight turnovers will win you most games. The determination to get the ball inside to Jonas Valanciunas early and often also was a great sign. Valanciunas thrives against Detroit and he was quite good. He scored from both sides of the block and was aggressive at both ends. He also offered solid resistance defensively, continuing a recent trend of improved play there. Valanciunas is going up straighter and impacting a lot of opposing shots. He blocked three shots after getting four against the Sixers (which caused Chuck Hayes and Patrick Patterson to rib him a little bit – ‘Oh, you’re a shot-blocker now, huh?”  He ran the floor well, despite a lot of minutes through three quarters and was rewarded for it. In turn, since he was involved more, he seemed to give more of an effort everywhere else.

- Everyone wants to know why Valanciunas took a seat for the fourth after a dominant third quarter where he played the entire frame, missing only one shot on the way to eight points, five rebounds and two of his blocks. Dwane Casey prefers to play Amir Johnson and Patrick Patterson down the stretch of games largely because they are far quicker and more technically sound. He also likes having Patterson’s shooting, since the team basically abandons the inside game in fourth quarters. I get that against many opponents, but Valanciunas consistently dominates the Pistons and wasn’t just doing it with his offence in this one. Detroit players scored on just 7-of-17 attempts at the rim on Valanciunas (41%) which is an excellent mark. They went 4-for-10 against Johnson, 3-for-6 against Patterson and 3-for-3 against Tyler Hansbrough, who had been doing a nice job protecting the rim before this one). Valanciunas had been Toronto’s most efficient scorer and one of its best defenders. Since Greg Monroe was on the floor, the excuse of no big being out there which has been a fine justification for Valanciunas sitting in the past does not apply. Johnson easily could have checked Anthony Tolliver. Not playing Valanciunas down the stretch simply didn’t make sense in this case, especially not if Ross is playing the whole quarter, which negates the need for Patterson’s shooting.

A few other points:

- Letting Greivis Vasquez or Lou Williams handle the ball a lot in the first two quarters of games is a good way to make sure Kyle Lowry is fresher later.

- The Raptors played a bit faster and as mentioned earlier, didn’t stop the ball on offence as much as usual.

- Terrence Ross made a smart cut for a dunk. He should do more to get open off of the ball instead of simply hanging out in the corners.

- Great play call at the end of the third quarter. Instead of doing the usual, give Lou Williams the ball and let him shoot thing, the Raptors used him as a decoy and Williams found an open teammate (two of them were open actually). Mixing things up instead of being too predictable will go a long way.

- So glad Stan Van Gundy is back roaming the sidelines, he’s the best. One example of why came later in the game, after the Pistons botched coverage of an in-bounds play (the one where Kyle Lowry charged right to the hoop and got fed a pass for a wide open layup). Van Gundy bolted up from his seat, did a full spin with his hands raised, paced a step or two, sat back down and glanced skyward. It was hilarious.

- Attention to detail still is not great (tons of bad turnovers that kept Detroit in the game and at least two crucial rebounds allowed), but this was still a good win against a team that fights extremely hard and was playing for injured teammate Brandon Jennings.

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.