Author Archive

DeRozan’s career night powers Raptors past depleted Rockets

- March 31st, 2015

I’ve covered about 60% of DeMar DeRozan’s games live since he entered the league (home and away) and watched the rest. Not sure I’ve ever seen him play better than he did against Houston and old pal James Harden on Monday night. When he hit some of those incredibly tough shots in the corner, you knew it was going to be DeRozan’s night, but he just kept getting it done, even though he was fighting the ball a bit when he was dribbling at times. He became just the fourth Raptor (Vince Carter, Chris Bosh and the one and only Acie Earl) with a 40 point, 10 rebound game to his credit. He also became just the seventh player to do that this season (only the third guard). As impressive as the offence was – especially all of the clutch finishes – it was DeRozan’s defence on James Harden and his rebounding that made this his best game yet. DeRozan was the first to admit that playing at an elite level on both ends is incredibly difficult, so he had to pick his spots, but he did it well against a depleted Rockets team. If he can play even half as well in the playoffs as he did in this one, the Raptors will be in good shape, especially if Kyle Lowry returns at close to 100%.

- In 15 March games DeRozan was fantastic, averaging 23.9 points (one of the best figures in the NBA), 6.0 rebounds and 4.1 assists on 44% shooting from the field (45% from three, which is unheard of for DeRozan) and 88.5% from the line. Casey said he thought DeRozan would have been an all-star selection had he stayed healthy (largely because of Toronto’s excellent record at the time. The numbers didn’t back that up, but in March, DeRozan played like a no-brainer all-star.

“I just wanted to go out there and win,” DeRozan said. “The crowd was into it and last time we played these guys they kind of got us pretty good. We were really just trying to go out there and be ourselves and understand we’ve got to use these next couple games to get ready for the playoffs.”

- The players definitely enjoyed that win. Valanciunas was full of jokes afterward, first pretending to leave before the media could talk to him after taking a while to get dressed, then saying “Who’s DeMar?” when asked about DeRozan’s performance. Asked if he or James Harden had a better beard, Valanciunas told Sportsnet’s Eric Smith that his beard was the best.

- Amir Johnson wasn’t jumping particularly high, but he had great positioning and tons of hustle on the way to a 16 rebound effort (six on the offensive boards) on a small Rockets frontcourt that was missing Dwight Howard, Terrence Jones and Donatas Motiejunas. It was tied for Johnson’s season-high and more than he had in a single game last season.

“I thought Amir did a great job,” Casey said. “The one thing that we had going in, we knew that they were going to switch a lot. One thing we wanted to do was punish them on the boards for switching. Amir did that. He did a heck of a job of going in and punishing them on the offensive boards, especially down the stretch when they were switching a lot.”

- This was Toronto’s last game against a team above .500. Toronto finishes just 14-21 against those clubs (Washington is just 10-22, Milwaukee an awful 9-27).

- Wrote a little bit about Lou Williams having to step up as a backup point guard and on Kevin McHale being a big fan of former Rockets forward Patrick Patterson here

.

 

 

Raptors clinch the Atlantic and Casey clarifies the one game will right ship comments and talks about the team’s poor defence

- March 28th, 2015

The Raptors have added a third division winner banner to their sparse collection and that should be celebrated, even if the division is the worst in the NBA by far. The problem is this second-half free-fall has made it tough to throw a party about the accomplishment. The Raptors did that to themselves by playing so poorly after the best start in team history.

After the Raptors beat a bad Lakers squad on Friday, head coach Dwane Casey tried to provide some perspective:

“We’ve dug ourselves a hole, (actually), I wouldn’t say we’ve dug a hole – we’ve qualified for the playoffs, which was one of our goals at the beginning of the season. We have an opportunity to win our division (this was before the game) … It’s not all gloom and doom, other than the way we’ve done it. We’ve done it more with offence than we’ve done with defence, which wouldn’t be my preference, but we kind of got it done,” Casey said.

“We’ve faltered here of late but not totally gloom and doom … not all is dead and sad and gloom and doom in Mudville.” Doom and gloom was a theme for Casey, he repeated the phrase often.

- I’ve honed in on the troubling trend the past two months or so of players like DeMar DeRozan, Greivis Vasquez and Lou Williams insisting that everything would come together for the club and all of the bad play and losing would be forgotten if they only played up to their potential one time. Casey has always insisted that no such magic wand exists, that you can’t snap your fingers and get the ship righted automatically. It just won’t happen and the coach said he things we might have gotten what the players were trying to say slightly twisted.

“One game will help. A few games will help even more, but you just can’t flip a switch in this league and go from a bad defensive team to a great one,” Casey said. “We’ll get better. I think the playoffs, will hopefully, with the preparation, get us more in tune with what we’re doing. You’re not going to go from flipping a switch, if that’s what we’re thinking. I think they mean it to just get some confidence. I don’t think they’re saying we’re going to go from where we are to great defensive team. I think it’s going to help our mojo to get this gloom and doom (off) us.”

- Casey also talked about the team’s near NBA-worst defence: “It’s a lot of things, I’m not going to get into details, we’re not playing good defence, there’s a lot of culprits. It’s not from a lack of effort. Guys are trying, they’re working at it, more mental probably than it is physical. It’s some physical, but they’re trying.” He also said the defence wasn’t as bad as it looked late against Chicago, adding that the Bulls made some incredibly difficult shots.”

- As for the game, the Raptors did enough to get it done and said afterward that they should enjoy the accomplishment of winning the division and should dwell on something positive for once. No disagreement, they just have to remember there is plenty of work – and improvements to be made – still to be done. Even though the Lakers are bad, winning without Kyle Lowry and with DeMar DeRozan going 1-for-10 from the field (he actually played a strong game, aside from the shooting) this was a good victory and a very needed one.

- The team played James Johnson and good things happened. Johnson made a big impact and was named player of the game with 17 points and a team-best +11 mark.

“James has been great, going from playing a lot to not playing at all, to come back when we need him, he’s a great pro,” said Lou Williams afterward.

- Casey said Lowry is still not ready to go. The team is going to be more cautious with him down the stretch than it was the past two weeks, to make sure he is as close to 100% as possible for the playoffs.

Fast start, brutal collapse against Bulls perfectly summed up Raptors season; False confidence killing the Raptors

- March 26th, 2015

Thank you, Raptors, for perfectly encapsulating your season in one game for me, making writing today’s blog an easy exercise.

Against the Bulls on Wednesday, the Raptors shot out of the gate, overwhelming with a scorching, outside attack. The Raptors assisted on nearly half of the 11 makes in the frame and only turned the ball over once, while forcing the Bulls into four miscues, the blueprint of the early season success that led to the best start in franchise history. Then, things went awry. The defence vanished, the Bulls got hot from three and the Raptors cooled off.

In the third, the Raptors offered even less defensive resistance and paid for it, but the coup de grace was still to come.

Just as has been the case of the fourth quarter of this season, the Raptors were a disaster in the fourth quarter of this one. Blame the back-to-back if you’d like or the clear fact that the Bulls are a far superior team, even without Derrick Rose (4-0 against Toronto this season), but most would say the lack of effort was a bigger deal. Again. The Raptors believed their own hype down the stretch, knowing they had the Atlantic wrapped up long ago and chose to focus more on off-court endorsement deals or other distractions than on their own games. Dwane Casey has blamed it on a lack of practice time and there is some weight to that, but effort, conditioning and focus all apply as well.

Simply put, the Raptors should be embarrassed by their play in the fourth. They let Chicago shoot 75%, got three stops in the final eight+ minutes of the frame allowed 10 assists on 15 baskets and didn’t force a turnover. A five-point lead after three (despite the fact the Raptors had not played all that well) quickly became an insurmountable lead. How does that happen? How do backup point guards like Aaron Brooks, Jarrett Jack, D.J. Augustin, Reggie Jackson (now a starter but a career reserve) and others constantly morph into Chris Paul against Toronto? And why does Jonas Valanciunas somehow always get blamed when it happens?

- DeMar DeRozan’s technical to begin the fourth started the spiral, but I don’t blame it for him, he was clearly hit and there is absolutely a double-standard in the NBA for physical teams like the Bulls. There is zero question that teams like Chicago with established defensive identities get more leeway from referees.

- Puzzlingly, DeRozan continues to insist the Raptors simply need one good game to figure themselves out and everything will come around from there. There is zero evidence this will be the case. Rather, it appears that delusion has taken over in that room. Again, they believed the hype and continue to do so, even as all of the evidence to the contrary continues to build up to the point it is becoming the world’s biggest fire hazard. The Raptors would be wise to heed the warnings, for once, otherwise this most promising of all seasons will have gone up in flames six weeks from now.

- Casey seems to be grasping at straws at this point, trying to find something that works. He admitted as much post-game. Tyler Hansbrough had been playing big minutes recently, but suddenly the rotation changed again and he played just four in this one. James Johnson isn’t playing enough still, but the main issue starts at the point. Greivis Vasquez can’t guard anyone, Lou Williams isn’t far behind and Kyle Lowry (who is injured again and did not play) sacrificed his once stellar defence at some point on the way to becoming one of the league’s better offensive players.

 

What in the name of Chris Childs happened?

- March 25th, 2015

So, that was a bad one, wasn’t it? The Detroit Pistons aren’t a good team, yet have now beaten the Raptors twice in four meetings this season, plus dropped 110 points on them in a four-point loss. Detroit has averaged about 108 points in the four meetings. Against that team, that’s just not nearly good enough.

- It was quite different, but given the opponent and the arena, did anybody have any flashbacks to one of the lowest moments in franchise history when Lou Williams made his ill-advised decision late? You know, when Chris Childs knocked the Raptors out of the playoffs by forgetting the score at the Palace and going for a three when they only needed a two? I’m sure I wasn’t the only one.

- The big problem with the Williams shot was, despite what anyone says, it has not been an effective shot for the team this year. His red hot start closing quarters gave him free reign to launch with impunity, but it simply has not been a good shot for the team. The conversion rate is miniscule and given how frequently that shot doesn’t go in, why not try it far earlier in the shot clock instead of winding down the clock and going into hero-mode. Not a good look. Williams has won the Raptors some games and can really help a team, but not sure the fit is right here. Dwane Casey gives him way too much leeway and he takes advantage. Like DeMar DeRozan, Williams has been at his best when he isn’t in “chuck-mode” and when he is also looking to find teammates. In other words, when they keep the defence guessing, instead of doing what everyone in the building is expecting, they are far more effective.

- All that said, Williams made a mistake (though he or Casey didn’t see it that way) but the Raptors would not have been in this game without him. He carried the Raptors for long stretches and sometimes when that happens, it breeds irrational confidence. It is hard to find a balance.

- No James Johnson against a team he has been great against this season. I think it is a mistake to bench Johnson. For a coach who preaches is primary concerns are on the defensive end, it is hard to figure out why the focus is always on offence when it comes to lineups (except where Jonas Valanciunas is concerned). Johnson might be an overrated defender because he gambles too much, but he is far better than Terrence Ross or Williams, He doesn’t have range, but Ross only hits every two games anyway. Are you really losing something by playing him decent minutes? The Raptors are dead in the water right now and nobody has confidence they can win a playoff series. The status quo isn’t working. Masai Ujiri brought in Johnson for a reason and knew his faults. Play the man.

- Toronto’s defence is a flat-out tire fire and that is a far bigger problem than anything offensively. One positive though was the interior defence was rock solid in this one. Detroit lit up Toronto’s guards at the rim 12-for-16, but shot just 10-for-33 against Amir Johnson (who was excellent), Patrick Patterson, Tyler Hansbrough and Jonas Valanciunas (2-for-11 against Patterson).

- Patterson, Johnson, Hansbrough and Valanciunas all deserve minutes, but so does James Johnson. The team likes him best as an undersized power forward, but given the depth in that area, replacing Ross with Johnson again needs to be seriously considered for the reasons stated above, as well as because this starting lineup consistently loafs through the start of games. The aggressive, zoned in Johnson could help in that regard.

Much better effort from the Raptors but don’t get carried away – the Knicks are dead-last for a reason; DeRozan revival a rare good sign in Raptor-land

- March 23rd, 2015

The Raptors finally played some defence, won a rebounding battle for what felt like the first time in months and cranked up the give a crap meter – even without Kyle Lowry, who was smartly given more time to heal his sore back – but don’t get carried away, the Knicks don’t sit at the bottom of the NBA standings because of some cosmic injustice. They are just stunningly awful. Like the Philadelphia 76ers, but far, far worse.

- The Knicks just don’t defend. They can’t guard inside, they can’t guard on the perimeter and they are particularly hideous trying to get back in transition.

- Not sure what got into DeMar DeRozan, but not sure we’ve seen consistent hops throughout a game from him like this in a few seasons now. He looked like the guy who participated in two slam dunk contests (and was robbed of winning one of them).

- DeRozan has followed what probably was the worst month of his career (33.9% shooting, nearly as many turnovers per game as assists) with one of his best. He has shot 46.3% from the field, 50% from three, 91.4% from the line on 7.4 makes a game. DeRozan is 8th in the NBA in scoring this month and only three players have made more free throws per game (all on far more attempts).

- Was interesting to see the Raptors use DeRozan as the primary ball-handler early on, even though Vasquez was on the floor. Usually, when Kyle Lowry doesn’t play, Vasquez sees his usage rate skyrocket, but they were letting DeRozan initiate the offence and he did a good job with it. Have said it here dozens of times now, but when DeRozan plays with a balance and looks to get his teammates involved as well as get to the line himself, he goes from a net negative to the team to a significant positive. Vasquez had only a single assist (to five by DeRozan) despite having 23 more touches, but he did have four “hockey assists” the rest of the team had one combined.

- Enjoy the win, Raptors, and nice to see that Dwane Casey was happy with the defensive effort for once, but keep in mind this was the Knicks and that the team still hasn’t proven anything since the calendar changed to 2015 (Toronto’s wins in 2015 have come against the awful Knicks, the awful Timberwolves, a streaking Pacers team that hit the skids immediately after the Raptors game, a good win against the Heat, a victory against the brutal Sixers, one of the best wins of the year against the Hawks, which followed three straight against the Clippers, Spurs and Wizards and a few OK performances in January. Other than the surge heading into the all-star break and against the Hawks right after, Toronto has been a mess with few signature wins to show for the past 2.5 months.

- Looking ahead, there are a few opportunities left to make a statement. These games include: Vs. Chicago on Wednesday; vs. Houston on Monday; At Brooklyn on April 3; At Charlotte on April 8; At Miami on April 11 and vs. Charlotte on April 15. Win four of those outings and then maybe this will look at least a bit like a team that has a shot of doing anything in the playoffs.

- Tyler Hansbrough and James Johnson were both excellent for the Raptors and both should be in the rotation, but the trouble is, there just aren’t enough minutes to go around when Lowry is healthy. Might make sense to limit Amir Johnson to as close to 20 minutes as possible until the playoffs, letting Hansbrough and Johnson pick up the slack. Could cut Lou Williams and Patrick Patterson’s minutes by one or two a game too.

- So, Andrea Bargnani has stayed healthy and scored a few points recently. Coincidence? Not a chance. This is his last chance to show he deserves a new contract in the NBA and he isn’t going to sit through the injuries he usually sits through with so much on the line. The fans seemed too bored to even bother booing Bargnani like they usually do.

- With so much cap space opening up, Carmelo Anthony healthy and Jahlil Okafor, Karl Towns or Emmanuel Mudiay likely on the way, it is hard to see the Knicks being this bad next year. Denver might not be a bottom 10 team again either. But it is also hard to see either of those teams being  a playoff team next year (especially Denver), so the Raptors likely get a lottery pick in the 2016 draft to go with their own, thanks to the Bargnani trade (Denver gets the better of the two picks, so there is no chance the Raptors get the top pick of the 2016 draft).

- Bizarre stat of the day: Amir Johnson, the guy who should have been starting for Bargnani all those years since he is an infinitely better player, has hit two-thirds of his three-point attempts at home, but barely 20% on the road. He loves that home cooking.

- Again, it’s the Knicks, but Jonas Valanciunas held his opponents to just 3-for-11 shooting at the rim. New York shot just 32.1% overall at the rim, Toronto shot 68.8%.

Yet again, Raptors compete level not high enough in loss to Bulls

- March 21st, 2015

Even if the Raptors played hard, Friday’s game in Chicago was going to be a tough one. The Bulls are one of the best passing teams in the NBA and have the best collection of passing big men, they punish every team that way. But they particularly make life tough on teams that don’t meet their compete level and don’t react quickly defensively. The Raptors were guilty on both counts – again. They didn’t play hard enough, a trend that doesn’t seem to be going away and they didn’t make particularly good reads defensively in dropping to 0-3 against the Bulls this season. You want to talk bad playoff matchups – outside of LeBron James and the Cavaliers, there is not a worse opponent for the Raptors to face than the Bulls.

- Joakim Noah and Co. picked the Raptors apart (career-best 16 points) and Toronto declined to do much to stop it. There is no doubt the Bulls big are extremely talented, but if you don’t offer any physical resistance and just let them do what they want they are going to make you look foolish.

- What’s up with this Raptors malaise? Kyle Lowry, who sat out due to his back injury, said they are looking too far ahead, to what they have to do in the playoffs instead of what is required in the here and now. There is a lot to that. Dwane Casey has been harping on it for a while. At some point, this group got complacent and perhaps started to believe the hype about it. A playoff spot has been locked up basically since December and so has the Atlantic. It is tough to keep the focus needed to compete with other NBA teams for a full season, but this has dragged on far too long. I don’t think they’ve tuned out Casey, they have just gotten “fat and sassy” living high on the hog. If that doesn’t change, someone (sure looks like Washington right now) is going to make quick work of the them in the playoffs.

- Haven’t seen too many teams hit a “switch” and turn everything around like the Raptors seem to think they can do. It rarely happens. As Lowry said, it is time to right the ship now.

- Everyone seems to be putting this on Casey and his staff and I’ve pointed out issues I’ve had with them in this space many times throughout the season (particularly when it comes to the usage of Jonas Valanciunas) – but I wonder why the players are getting a pass? They are the ones sleep-walking through games, not being physical enough, not playing smart enough. That’s the far bigger issue with this team.

- It wasn’t just the big men getting burned defensively. Terrence Ross, who once showed so much promise as a defender, had his lunch handed to him by Mike Dunleavy. Dunleavy’s a crafty vet, but this was damning stuff. Ross is Toronto’s main X-factor, and if that isn’t a huge concern for this franchise, it sure should be. If they are relying on Ross to take them over the top, they are setting themselves up for disappointment. The only thing consistent about Ross this season has been that his defence has not been where it used to be. Offensively, he has been completely inconsistent, fluctuating wildly from game to game.

- DeRozan had one of his best quarters of the season in the first and kept the Raptors in the game, but overall, he had the worst +/- on the team. This was the second time in his career he has gone 3-for-3 from three-point land.

- For once, not picking out any positives, because right now, there is nothing positive to say about this squad, other than the rest of the schedule looks like a walk in the park (though that’s the type of thinking that has gotten these players into all sorts of trouble).

- Toronto has dropped to 25th in the NBA in defensive rating (and 30th in March, allowing 110.5 points per 100 possessions).

Wiggins night a bit of a let-down thanks to many factors, Raptors still in cruise control, Valanciunas emerging

- March 19th, 2015

So, a few things conspired to make Andrew Wiggins night a bit of a bust: The refs forgot that first and foremost, the NBA is about entertainment, and took Wiggins out of the game for far too long by calling a couple of highly debatable fouls on him early; the announcer rushed through the introduction, which didn’t allow the fans to give Wiggins the reception they wanted to (when stars like Kobe Bryant and Kevin Durant are here, they get a longer pause); the game itself was pretty horrible because Minnesota could barely field a roster and because the Raptors were sleep-walking for much of  it Prime Minister Harper bungled a tweet and Anthony Bennett couldn’t play, due to an ankle injury.

That said, Canada Basketball Night (the proper name for the evening) was still quite cool to see for someone who has been covering the burgeoning hoops scene in this country for a decade now.

More on the game itself and some repercussions:

- Kyle Lowry took a knee to the back during a spill and had to leave. He was in pain and noticeably hurt afterward. He has a high pain threshold though, so barring any bad test results, expect him back soon. The team also said Terrence Ross is now fine (after some back issues of his own) and Jonas Valanciunas is a bit under the weather (maybe because he is adjusting to the presence of his son – but at least said newborn is a great sleeper, according to Poppa Valanciunas).

- Chicago pummeled Indy and Washington survived against Utah to keep pace with the Raptors, though it is not clear whether finishing third would be better than finishing fourth for the Raptors (would facing Washington or Milwaukee be better in the first round? Wouldn’t facing Atlanta, as crazy as that seems, be better than facing LeBron James and the Cavaliers in Round 2?)

- Once again, DeMar DeRozan’s 4-for-14 shooting line doesn’t look good, but if you factor in he hit his only three and hit all 12 of his free throws, his true shooting percentage was actually excellent and his defence wasn’t bad either. Same can’t be said for Lou Williams, though at least he defended (his offence was atrocious).

- When Patrick Patterson and Terrence Ross are hitting 50% (or better) of their three-point attempts, the Raptors are extremely tough to stop.

- Greivis Vasquez took advantage of Lowry’s absence and played a strong game, especially later on when his big shots were needed. When Lowry is out of action, Vasquez shifts more to a facilitator role which is his ideal game.

- Dwane Casey responded simply, “we won,” when asked for his thoughts on the game, but later expanded on that, saying how the team performs is more important than winning or losing right now.

“That’s more important than the wins and losses right now, in terms of how we play, how we start. I’m more concerned with how we start the game. They outworked us in the beginning. Our execution defensively, running the floor, being where we’re supposed to be, walling defensively, being up at the level of the screen, all those little things are what we are trying to do. We have to do it in games, because practice time is so precious. You just don’t have a lot of practice time to get it in and improve the way we need to,” Casey said.

- Sam Mitchell on Casey being poised to catch him either late this season or early next for all-time coaching wins with the Raptors, after initially pretending we were giving him a kick in the knees by reminding him: “Guys I don’t think about that. Dwane is a heck of a coach, man. He’s done a heck of a job. I’m glad he’s doing well and I’m glad the Raptors are doing well. They treated me well. I have nothing but great, fond memories of the city, the organization and the team and the organization I was lucky enough to coach,” Mitchell said.

Some Wiggins reaction:

From Patrick Patterson:

“Tough energetic, active, resilient and that’s rare for a kid his age. For him to take the reins of the team, you know the team’s not quite successful, but he’s still playing hard, he’s playing well, he’s playing smart out there. He doesn’t back down to anyone, he accepts every single challenge out there and I admire the kid for that.”

(Still follow him in Huntington, West Virginia, Patterson’s home)? “Oh yeah, they love him as if he was from West Virginia. Everyone back home admires that kid to death, I know they definitely miss him at Huntington Prep, the guys always still talk about him, the coaching staff still raves about him. I’ve always followed him, I’ve followed him for a long time.”

Amir Johnson: “Very athletic, goes to the boards relentlessly. I think he’s going to be good, he just has to keep working and he’ll come into his own.”

DeRozan: “He’s talented. He’s going to be alright. He’s just a rookie. He’s going to be alright. He’s still young. Once he gets experience playing in the league, being in a lot of different situations, understanding the game, he’s going to be alright.”

 

 

Raptors show resilience in win over Pacers but there is still work to be done; Passing and rebounding are a winning combination

- March 17th, 2015

That was more like it for the Raptors on Monday night.  Coming off of a home loss to a good team that was made worse by the fact the home side didn’t play hard enough, the Raptors continued to thrive finishing off back-to-backs by putting in a far better effort in order to beat the streaking Pacers. For once, the Raptors came out slugging, throwing that “first punch” Dwane Casey is always looking for. While that refers more to effort on defence and on the boards, this time, it was offensive haymakers that were thrown early by the Raptors. Toronto shot 55% from the frame, including 3-for-5 from three and got to the line five times. The big men overwhelmed the Pacers’ formerly star-caliber front-line, dominating the glass, while holding David West and Roy Hibbert to 0-for-8 shooting in the first quarter.

- It is no secret that when Lowry (and to a lesser extent, DeMar DeRozan) look to facilitate, the Raptors become as good as the second most dangerous attack in the league (the Warriors are the clear No. 1, despite Chris Paul willing the Clippers to the current top spot in offensive efficiency). When they don’t force, instead probing for better shots, the Raptors are a handful. Lowry touched the ball 76 times in the game and passed it 55 times. He had 10 assists, plus two more which led to free throw attempts. Lowry stumbled after a torrid start on Sunday. A day later, he was spectacular throughout in notching a triple double. Greivis Vasquez also passed more frequently than usual.

- While the offence was ahead of the defence – like usual – and while Indiana is about half as good as Portland offensively, it can still be noted that after the Blazers shot 79.2% at the rim against the Raptors on Sunday, Indiana only shot 50% at the rim.

- At the cost of minutes for James Johnson (who didn’t even play) Tyler Hansbrough has been playing well for the Raptors. He didn’t stuff the stat-sheet Monday like Johnson usually does, but he was quietly effective against his former team. Johnson could draw back in Wednesday against Andrew Wiggins and Minnesota, with Terrence Ross questionable due to a back issue.

- Is DeRozan really sure he shoots better with a hand in his face? Ball don’t lie. He was 3-for-15 on contested shots, 3-for-4 on uncontested attempts.  We’ll cut DeMar some slack though, he got to the line 11 times and has been an all-star level player in March, a month that sees Toronto third in the NBA in offensive rating. Here’s a crazy stat: Lowry, the barely six-foot point guard, led Toronto in rebound chances with 17, one more than Jonas Valanciunas, who stands at least a foot taller. Does that mean Lowry was leaving his man too early on defence to get on the glass, or was he just impeccably positioned?

- Valanciunas was a key factor in the win. Beside the strong defence, he had a dominant third quarter.

- Don’t look now, but Washington has won four straight games, including Monday’s impressive takedown of the same Portland Trail Blazers team that crushed the Raptors a day earlier. Bradley Beal had one of his best games of the season, John Wall is rolling and Marcin Gortat seems to be back in form as well. Washington is only a game back of the Raptors and just a half game behind Chicago (before Tuesday’s games) and is suddenly trending in the right direction again. One note of interest: Being able to win on the road, as the Raptors did to finish a back-to-back in Indy is an impressive trait of any team. There seems to be a separation between the East’s current top four and the 5-7 group in that regard. Toronto has gone 18-15 on the road, Cleveland 19-17, Atlanta a brilliant 23-10, Chicago a solid 20-14. Washington is an ugly 14-18, Milwaukee just 15-20.

 

Raptors not on Portland’s level but a better effort certainly would have made Sunday more of a game

- March 16th, 2015

Portland and Toronto might both be third in their respective conferences, but you’d have to be wearing the most rose-coloured of glasses to actually believe they are teams of a similar caliber. It isn’t even close. Even without Wes Matthews, the Blazers are an offensive juggernaut with an enviable inside-out combo of legit all-stars Damian Lillard and LaMarcus Aldridge. They spread the floor better and have more efficient and deadly offensive players. They have as much size as anybody (NBA leaders in defensive rebounding and behind only Oklahoma City in total boards per game), generate a ton of assists (9th in the league) without making many mistakes (9th in fewest turnovers). Is Portland an actual contender? In the West, it’s tough to say, Golden State is probably on another level, but Portland is there with anybody else in the NBA as far as threats other than the Warriors to make a deep run.

- Which isn’t to say Sunday’s clinic over the Raptors was only about Portland being really good. The Raptors helped the visitors by leaving them open from three-point range far too often and by allowing Aldridge to get to his comfort spots far too easily.

- The star version of Kyle Lowry showed up early – 3-for-3 for eight points in the first quarter – and it looked like it would be another great night for the resurgent point guard, but he lacked aggression in the second quarter, had a brutal third (0-for-5) and sat most of the fourth. In the end, it was an ugly line, but if you only watched the first quarter, you would have thought it would have been a huge game for Lowry. It wasn’t just Lowry’s offence that fell off, he also didn’t look like himself defensively – though he fared better than Greivis Vasquez, who basically was a human turnstile.

- Jonas Valanciunas seems to be the whipping boy, but he has to cover an awful lot of ground covering for the other Raptors getting blown by like they have a cape and a matador’s gig doesn’t he? Sure, Patrick Patterson and Amir Johnson are far fleeter and have a better idea of where they should be defensively than Valanciunas, but isn’t the inability of most of the roster to contain their man a massive issue and not the fault of the big man? Given how effective Valanciunas is at the other end and on the boards, it is a shame the Raptors have to sit him down so often because he can’t make up for the failings of the rest of the team.

- Sometimes you are good and sometimes you are lucky. Blazers general manager Neil Olshey did well with the Clippers and has been fantastic with Portland. He’s arguably a top 5-10 executive in the entire NBA and did a tremendous job of building up his team’s depth on the cheap. He made the smart call, knowing this group is close to contention, of adding Arron Afflalo, which would have shored up the bench. Instead, the move might have saved the season. With Matthews going down, Afflalo easily steps in as only a slightly lesser version. Had Matthews gotten hurt earlier, acquiring Afflalo would have been far more expensive for Olshey, hence the luck part.

Return to form from Lowry and to a lesser extent, Ross, bodes well for Raptors

- March 14th, 2015

They aren’t out of the woods yet, but two recent developments might signal the turn of the tide for the Raptors. The Kyle Lowry of old seems to have returned just in the nick of time to save this season. Lowry flirted with a quadruple double against Miami on Friday, finishing two rebounds and assists and three steals short. He was as good as he has been all season – he even threw in a Michael Jordan-esque shrug after one ridiculous three-pointer – and the rest seems to have done him good. In four games this month, Lowry is averaging four made three-pointers a game (on 53% shooting), 22.5 points, 5.8 assists and 4.8 rebounds. He is hitting shots, keeping his turnovers low and also taking a couple of charges a game. He is back in all-star form. Statistically, Lowry is playing twice as well as he did in February.

- While the Raptors expect this from Lowry (or at least 90% of what he has been doing), the re-emergence of Ross since he was returned to the starting lineup has also been crucial. While his defence has not returned to last year’s level, Ross is starting to get it again offensively. The spacing his shooting provides is huge as it opens everything up for Lowry and DeMar DeRozan. Other than a terrible game against San Antonio, Ross has given the Raptors what they need. Ross has shot 44% from three in March and close to 50% if you take away the Spurs letdown. It would be great if he stopped being allergic to contact and did other things offensively, but his recent seven assist game was intriguing and the bottom line is as long as he is hitting over 40% of his outside attempts, he is helping the Raptors. The team is +12 with Ross on the floor in March after going -77 in January and -27 in February.

- It is a leap to connect these two things merely to Jonas Valanciunas being out of the lineup, but the Raptors moved the ball as well as they have all season (they made 340 passes in the game, versus a season average of 282 per game, according to Raptors Republic) and were much better than usual defensively. Valanciunas does many things well, but he does struggle to pass and to cover ground in Dwane Casey’s demanding scheme. The trick for the Raptors will be finding a way to still keep the assist totals high and the defence on track when Valanciunas returns against Portland on Sunday.

- While DeRozan’s 3-for-12 shooting performance looks ugly, he actually had a decent game. Hear me out – field goal percentage is overrated. DeRozan got to the free throw line 13 times, making 12 of them, handed out six assists and grabbed six rebounds. His true shooting percentage was still above 50%, which is quite hard to do when you miss 9-of-12 shots and don’t hit a three. (As an aside, James Johnson ranks 12th in the NBA in true shooting percentage, Jonas Valanciunas ranks 15th, Amir Johnson 21st, DeRozan is way down at 294th at 49%).

- Charles Oakley was as entertaining as ever pre-game. He clearly doesn’t like the current state of the game. Raptors big man Chuck Hayes favourited a few tweets on Twitter detailing Oakley’s disdain. I asked him about it and he said he wasn’t insulted or anything (Hayes is a throwback player) and he actually agrees with Oakley. Hayes said the game has completely changed even from when he broke in with the Rockets.

- Toronto now has four games remaining against teams above .500, including Sunday against Portland, 13 against teams below .500.