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.

 

The Warriors are the class of the league – but the Raptors didn’t love their swagger; Why bench Johnson; Amir resurfaces; More help needed

- January 3rd, 2015

This just in – the Golden State Warriors are really good at basketball. Now that we’ve established that fact, it is pretty tough to judge the Raptors on Friday night’s performance. Sure, they got throttled and had no answers defensively, but who has so far against that juggernaut? Especially at Oracle, long regarded as the hardest arena to play in in the entire NBA. The Warriors shot the lights out, didn’t get pressured into many mistakes (9 turnovers that turned into 11 Raptors points) and caught the Raptors on an off-night in terms of taking care of the ball.

- Toronto had turned it over 11 times or fewer in 9-of-11 games and the 17 miscues were the most since a 27 turnover night against the Knicks on Dec. 18. Even 47% shooting (40% from three) won’t win you a game when you turn it over 17 times and let your opponent shoot 53%.

- The Warriors handed out 13 assists in the first quarter and had only one turnover. They shot 70%. That’s as close to offensive perfection as you are going to see in the NBA.

- Not on the trip so not sure why James Johnson played only five minutes while the game was in doubt (and 12 minutes total). Johnson had been playing well defensively (aside from a few mental mistakes every now and then), averaging 10.4 points, 5.6 rebounds and 1.3 steals on 61.5% shooting over his previous five outings. Landry Fields shouldn’t lose his starting spot because of an injury, but if Johnson is performing noticeably better, he simply needs to play more minutes.

- Everyone seems to be griping about Jonas Valanciunas not getting much time, but is everyone forgetting the Raptors were getting killed with him on the floor? That he didn’t have any rebounds? That the Warriors were going super small? Fault Casey for the weird Johnson playing time if you want, but doing so about Valanciunas on Friday seems off-base to me.

- That said, the Raptors desperately need some rim protection and help up front. Just one blocked shot, killed on the offensive glass again … if this group wants to win more than a round, Masai Ujiri surely knows this group isn’t good enough without a difference maker who stands close to 7 feet. Incidentally, James Johnson offers some deterrence at the rim, another reason he needs to see more time against great offensive teams.

- Positives: Another double-double from Amir Johnson who seems to be back to his old self – finally; Opponents came in shooting 42% against Golden State, the best defence in the NBA, yet the Raptors did far better than that, including a 50% shooting first half; The return of Greivis Vasquez; This was the first blowout loss of the year.

- Atlanta moved into first place in the East, at least for a short while (they have tough games coming up, while Toronto’s schedule is about to get easier again and all-star DeMar DeRozan is days away from a return). The last time the Hawks led the East, prior to now – the Raptors did not even exist (1994).

- “We should mark it on the calendar,” Casey said afterward, a response to the non-stop taunting by the living high on the hog Warriors. Casey was caught on video muttering a few curse words under his breath at an unknown irritant

 

A great effort goes for naught for Raptors; Despite record, DeRozan greatly missed; D finally returns; NBA needs more good refs

- December 31st, 2014

If you didn’t stay up late to catch Raptors-Blazers, you missed out on one of the better games of the year. If you overlook the awful shooting from both sides before overtime, it was close to a classic. Both teams had chances to pull it out, Kyle Lowry – otherwise spectacular – missed a few looks he’d love to have back that could have turned the tide – counterpart Damian Lillard did the same – but ultimately, Portland is very good – and even better in the clutch (best in the league with Lillard being the NBA’s best clutch player) and the Raptors, minus a sorely missed DeMar DeRozan, just couldn’t quite get it done.

- Lowry did ridiculous things, especially a trio of offensive boards at pivotal points, but right now, he is being asked to do too much, something Greivis Vasquez pointed out post-game. Without DeRozan and when Lou Williams and Vasquez are struggling, Lowry not only needs to set up others, but he also needs to be the primary scorer, in addition to a key defender. It’s just not possible on a nightly basis without some slippage. Great effort though.

- We said a day earlier it would be interesting if these teams played a close one. Both are top five in the NBA in terms of fourth quarter point differential. Amir Johnson made a couple of excellent plays to give them a chance, including his bucket down low to tie it. In overtime, Portland’s threes started dropping and when that happens, they are extremely tough to top.

- James Johnson had a huge night. Would have preferred to see him out there more in the second half instead of the Raptors going small, forcing Portland to adjust or even if they didn’t (not like Steve Blake was a huge threat, Johnson could have guarded him if necessary). Forcing the issue with more Jonas Valanciunas could have made sense too, but he played the entire third quarter and was wretched in his four minutes in the fourth so I’m not sure why so many people were up in arms about his lack of playing time down the stretch. Add the fact that the Raptors are better defensively without him on the floor (despite his recent improved defensive play) and that Portland didn’t have its centres in, and not going with him makes even more sense. Again, sitting Johnson for so long doesn’t.

- Hate talking about officiating, but the fact remains that it really stinks that so many good NBA referees either got old or sick, forcing them out of action. There just aren’t enough quality refs left. Yesterday’s crew, especially Marc Davis, looked a bit like a Benny Hill skit. They made baffling calls both ways, hurting both teams, though the Raptors were impacted most, because the biggest mess-ups went against them.  Earlier in the game, Valanciunas was getting mauled, yet they were letting things go. At the other end LaMarcus Aldridge was given the benefit of the doubt on pretty much every play. All-star vs. developing player? Sure, but if you are making those calls, don’t call a technical on Valanciunas for waving his hand in disgust at your own bad call (the foul shouldn’t have been on Valanciunas that led him to be demonstrative). It came at a point where the Raptors could have basically locked up the game and helped to turn the tied. Up 13 with under two minutes remaining in the third, Valanciunas should have hauled in an offensive rebound, giving the Raptors  a shot at a 15-point bulge, which likely would have been enough. Instead, the technical was called, the Blazers scored six straight points and it was game on. Casey offered a “no comment” when Eric Smith asked him about the clear path foul calls.

- The other brutal moments included an offensive foul call on Amir Johnson that simply wasn’t (he wasn’t moving, he wasn’t holding, Wes Matthews simply flopped). Calling an offensive foul with 1:59 remaining in a tie game takes a lot of cajones. You had better get it right. The refs didn’t. I’m not an expert on clear path fouls, but the one that didn’t go the Raptors way seemed pretty baffling. Does it not matter that Lowry was way down the floor wide open? The one on Vasquez later seemed like the right call, but not sure how you make that one, when you let such an obvious one go the other way. Of course, Portland fans will tell you they didn’t like a bunch of first half calls much either.

- As tough as the loss was for the Raptors, they have to be heartened by having a shot to win again on this tough trip, against the team with the most wins in the NBA and without DeRozan. That’s impressive. They also should be buoyed by holding such a strong offensive club to 40% shooting and just 102 points in an overtime game. That came a game after holding Denver to 102 points and 43% shooting and two after the Clippers scored just 98 points. The defence seems to be stabilizing a bit.

- Again, it’s time the Raptors shake things up at the end of quarters. The Lou Williams isolation play is stale, ineffective and too predictable. For a team that is so good on out-of-bounds plays (including a few gems on Tuesday), it feels like a waste not to run the things they are capable of.

- No shame in losing to a Portland team that is 15-2 at home and had been winning at the Moda Center by 11 points a night including nearly 14 over the past six. Toronto has still won 75% of its games so far this season and went 58-27 in 2014 as a whole, the second best record in the NBA.

A few quotes:

“It’s so much load on him. He was driving in there, creating contact and he wasn’t getting any calls. You get beat up, it takes a toll on you.” – Dwane Casey on Kyle Lowry.

“I love the way we competed in a hostile environment. If you can compete in that environment, the way we did tonight, you can compete in a lot of places.” – Casey

“We didn’t have our best scorer. Imagine when he comes back. I’ve been saying, we need this guy. Right now we are asking K-Low to do too much” – Vasquez.

“I thought we had the game. We played well for 40 minutes. You’ve got to play well for 48.” – Vasquez

Happy New Year everybody, will be interesting to see how the Raptors build on the most successful calendar year in franchise history.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Impossible not to be impressed by these Raptors; Lou makes case again; Hansbrough provides a lift

- December 29th, 2014

After making a statement in Los Angeles on Saturday, the Raptors could have been forgiven for laying an egg on Sunday in Denver. That, of course, didn’t happen. The Raptors competed hard, despite their burning lungs, and obliterated the rested Nuggets in the fourth, when one would have expected the Raptors to run out of gas. It was just the latest impressive performance from Dwane Casey’s squad.

- Casey managed the rotations well. Playing in the altitude in Denver, with burning lungs and on the second half of a back-to-back, keeping everyone fresh was huge, and Casey did an excellent job of making sure he had players able to go hard in bursts at all times.- Tyler Hansbrough was one of the players who provided good minutes. Hansbrough had played just five minutes in each of the previous two games before playing five in the first half of this one. He made the most of this appearance, dropping six points and providing a physical edge in those first five minutes. That wasn’t it though. Hansbrough matched Kenneth Faried’s energy and was one of the better Raptors in the third quarter as well, chipping four points and three rebounds, including a momentum-seizing jam. Like everyone else on this squad, Hansbrough doesn’t complain about his playing time, but is ready to play when called upon. He was the unsung hero on Sunday.

- Greivis Vasquez certainly isn’t shy. He appears to be trying to shoot himself back into form. Vasquez was hoisting it up early and often on Sunday, but nothing was dropping, leading to some frustration from the point guard. He might want to get back to his passing ways, as that area of his game is working for him. Vasquez dropped six assists and had just a single turnover.

- Speaking of turnovers, we’ve been over Toronto’s ridiculously low turnover numbers many times but have to do it again today. Playing against a team that loves to get out and run off of miscues, the Raptors committed just two turnovers in the first half. Two. Remarkable. They didn’t create nearly as many at the other end (just four by Denver through two quarters), or else this could have been a laugher early. In the most important 12 minutes of the game, the fourth, the Raptors had just one turnover – a meaningless one by Kyle Lowry late when the game was already over – against seven assists. The NBA’s best fourth quarter team also held Denver to just 28% shooting in the fourth. Remember Denver, not Toronto, should have been the squad with life and good numbers late.

- Today’s lesson is don’t irritate Jonas Valanciunas. He seems fun-loving and laid-back, but that’s not the case on the court. Valanciunas took an elbow from Jusuf Nurkic (while Faried was going over his back) and was none too pleased after crumpling to the floor. Nurkic, feeling bad about it, tried to help Valanciunas up. Valanciunas swiped his hand away and got up on his own. Minutes later, the Raptors big man “accidentally” gave Nurkic an eblow to the side of the head, picking up a flagrant foul for his troubles. These Raptors are professional and play within the rules, but they have an edge and it helps them on the court. For too many years, the Raptors were soft and didn’t compete hard enough. Those days are over. Lowry, James Johnson, Hansbrough and Valanciunas play with a clear edge and go after it. Amir Johnson, Chuck Hayes, Patrick Patterson and Vasquez might not be as obvious about it, but also aren’t pushovers by any stretch. Everyone has talent in the NBA, on many nights, compete level is nearly as important.

- Not a great end to the first half by the Raptors and not a good beginning to the third quarter either. Too much of a track meet, which isn’t the greatest idea on the road against the quick, athletic Nuggets. Raptors looked a bit tired in the quarter. Lou Williams plays at his own pace, which helped the Raptors. Not only was Williams dominating at times with his scoring, he also helped turn the game and let his teammates get some much-needed rest by slowing things down, drawing fouls and making the Nuggets play more of a half-court style. Williams is a master of this, similar to former Nugget Andre Miller. Veteran savvy and a unique skill in forcing everyone to adapt to what he is doing.

- Starting to think that saying Lowry has been a top five player so far this season is underselling him a bit. Have four players really been better and more impactful than him so far?

- Toronto has dipped to only fifth-best in the NBA in fourth quarter point differential, two points behind Portland. It will be interesting to see what happens if the Blazers and Raptors are about even through three, given both dominate fourth quarters.

 

Raptors make major statement against Clippers; Lowry’s an MVP candidate; Turnovers tell the tale; Vasquez Mr. Reliable in clutch

- December 28th, 2014

They won’t say it out loud, but a lot of Raptors heard the talk from some corners that their record is inflated as a result of having an “easy” schedule so far. Never mind that that wasn’t true, the schedule has been home heavy, sure, but it has been pretty middle-of-the-pack and lots of teams with easier schedules don’t have a record anywhere near as good as Toronto’s. The Raptors went out and made a major statement on Saturday in Los Angeles by beating a very good Clippers team that has title aspirations and was 12-3 at home. Kyle Lowry soundly outplayed Chris Paul, merely the NBA’s best point guard for the past decade or so, to the point that Paul sang his praises afterward. Amir Johnson had another big outing at home, a bit of a trend for him and Jonas Valanciunas played well against DeAndre Jordan and Co.

- “Overrated” Toronto’s record against the West (before taking on Denver on Sunday) 8-2.

- Lowry has done some ridiculous things this season and had some incredible outings and this one was up there. Consider it his own personal statement, in front of one of the league’s biggest markets, that he is a no-doubt all-star and a legitimate MVP candidate. His third quarter was something to see and one of his finest quarters as a Raptor. What Lowry has been able to do without DeMar DeRozan has been eye-opening, even to those who knew what kind of a talent he was. Toronto’s 10-4 record since DeRozan went down also is stunning.

- Lowry got help from Greivis Vasquez, who has been scuffling this season, trying to find his way. Vasquez has a habit, whether he is struggling or on a hot streak, to step up when needed most and hit some huge shots. He has done it in the year or so he has been a Raptor consistently. Without Vasquez, it is doubtful the Raptors win this one. He keyed the run that slammed the door on the Clippers in the fourth by finding Patrick Patterson for a crucial three, then nailing one of his own. Just to make sure, he hit another jumper and then another three. Sometimes, you wonder why Vasquez is launching a certain shot, but it all comes down to confidence and a belief that every time he lets fly, it will be good. Chances are, if it is a big moment, the shot will indeed fall.

- Once again, the Raptors won by limiting turnovers (nine, even lower than their NBA-leading road average of 10.8). The offence is now the NBA’s best, overtaking Dallas, in large part because they seem to always make fewer mistakes than their opponents, while turning opposing miscues into points at the other end. Toronto trails only Charlotte in turnover ratio and ranks fifth in creating opposing turnovers.

- James Johnson as a starter: 11 points, 4.7 rebounds, 1.7 assists and steals per game and 1.3 blocks. He is shooting 62%, taking smart shots and not turning the ball over often. He has been huge for the Raptors and has fit in well.

Some stats:

- 128-132. Dwane Casey’s record as head coach of the Raptors (before Sunday’s game against Denver).

- With 23 wins, Toronto has now tied its win total from two lockout-shortened seasons, and has as many or more wins than five Raptors teams managed overall. Four more wins and it will be as many or more than seven previous Raptors teams

- 13 points, four offensive rebounds, two blocks in 20 minutes. – Bruno Caboclo’s NBA Development League debut stats.

Tired Raptors played like they were looking ahead to holidays against Bulls

- December 23rd, 2014

CHICAGO — Late in Monday’s loss to the Bulls, the Raptors really looked like a team that was tired and unwilling to push back against one of the NBA’s most physical outfits. Especially not with a much-needed vacation looming. And you know what? Toronto has played a good enough opening 29 games to deserve not to get killed for that ghastly fourth quarter. The Bulls scored 49 points in that frame, the most any Raptors team has conceded in a quarter and the most Chicago had ever scored. Ever. Even in the Michael Jordan days the Bulls didn’t notch more and even when Toronto was 16-66, there wasn’t as porous a quarter. Chicago shot 22 free throws in the quarter, which was nearly another Raptors record. The most impressive thing about last night was that I hit deadline despite the hour time difference and the 34 combined free throws in the fourth.

- In all seriousness, Though the Raptors managed to build some big leads against the Bulls, it always seemed puzzling how they were in the game at all. Chicago was outshooting them by a ton, getting to the line twice as often and blocking all kinds of shots (seven after a quarter, compared to none by the Raptors). Basically, 3-for-10 second quarter shooting from eventual stars Derrick Rose and Jimmy Butler, plus good three-point shooting early and an ability to turn Bulls mistakes into points at the other end allowed the Raptors to take a lead into the break.

- There was a lot of griping from the fan-base about the work of the referees, but the Bulls play a physical style and have been doing that for years. They might get away with some things, but it is a product of playing hard and going at opponents. Dwane Casey would love it if his team would emulate a lot of what Chicago does. On offence, Chicago draws legit foul calls. They attack and go into opponents. They love contact. Don’t forget as well that the Raptors are missing DeMar DeRozan, who draws more fouls than almost any other NBA player. With him in the game, the whistle disparity would have been a lot different.

- An aside, players on both teams were quite unhappy with the work of the officials as early as the first quarter. Aaron Brooks, Kyle Lowry, Terrence Ross, Jonas Valanciunas, Joakim Noah and Taj Gibson were amongst the many who loudly voiced their displeasure. It was surprising on a few of those occasions that nobody was hit with a technical foul for protesting. Eventually, Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau got one. The foul disparity was 20-18 in Chicago’s favour at that point. Post-technical, it went 27-14 for Chicago. Co-incidence …. ?

- The Raptors, like most teams so far, had all kinds of trouble trying to slow down Butler. With Rose in top form, the duo was devastating. When Butler was playing small forward, the Raptors couldn’t stop their attack.  Amir Johnson said the play “killed us.” Valanciunas broke it down further, or at least tried to: “Right now we’ve got to … I don’t really know, its’ really hard,” Valanciunas said of how to defend it better. “Rose and Butler are really high-end players so they know what to do on pick-and-roll, one-on-one stuff it’s really hard to guard those guys and they have really active big guys, Noah is active under the basket, Gasol is posting, Gasol is active down there so it’s really hard to defend.”

- At full strength, the Bulls are a really strong offensive team. Gasol destroyed the Raptors in the first meeting, then was bad offensively in this one (just 2-for-7 shooting with four turnovers) and it didn’t matter at all.

 

 

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

- December 22nd, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

- December 20th, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

- December 18th, 2014

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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