Raptors PPG: Playoffs, we’re talking playoffs? Raptors go from tank to bank; What’s happened since the Raptors last made the post-season

- March 29th, 2014

So, the Raptors are in. Fittingly, Amir Johnson, exemplifying everything he brings to the table, was the one to supply the last push Friday against Boston. Amir and DeMar DeRozan have been suffering through down seasons together here longer than anyone else, the last remaining players from the end of the Chris Bosh era.

It’s been a long time coming, that’s for sure. A lot of bad basketball has been played since Bosh broke his face. It’s a new day. While nobody knows what the off-season will bring (a lot of change, or stability?) the tank is long-dead and thoughts about potential playoff opponents can now be voiced.

- Johnson’s been Toronto’s best overall player in the three seasons previous to this one and works harder and plays through more injuries than anybody on the team (though DeRozan is about his equal in both of those regards). That’s why it was nice to see him get the Raptors through.

- No question Kyle Lowry’s been the top Raptor this season (again, with apologies to DeRozan) and he showed what he’s all about as well in fighting off an ankle injury to make some decisive drives to the bucket that helped seal the win.

- DeRozan wasn’t about to let the pesky Celtics, who he’d already seen five times this season, including the two exhibition games, come back again. With his jumper shaky, DeRozan looked to repeatedly attack, getting five shots in the paint in both the third and fourth quarters. Now that he’s an all-star, DeRozan  is getting calls from the officials, which helps quite a bit, but it’s his mindset that is the key.

- Nice to see John Salmons find his game. To say he’s been struggling is a massive understatement. His game had completely vanished, but Dwane Casey kept the faith, even though using Landry Fields instead would have made a lot of sense, and Salmons responded by nailing his first two shots, picking up two assists, a couple of steals and no turnovers. He was also +15, tied for the team lead.

- A bonus thought: +/- is way down on the list of useful stats, but it’s a lot more relevant in basketball than it is in hockey, where power plays mess with the numbers. While it’s not a be all, end all, the eye test shows that Chuck Hayes has been excellent for the team lately. The +/- check shows Hayes has been +15 (tied for team lead), +3 (best of the reserves), +17 (2nd on team) and +16 (best on team) in his past four games. He’s supplied strong defence and helps move the ball around thanks to his surprisingly strong passing skills.

- Since Dwight Howard and Hedo Turkoglu took out the Raptors in five games in the playoffs, Toronto witnessed (a lot more than this, but a few highlights/lowlights):

The ill-fated Jermaine O’Neal deal; The end of the Sam Mitchell era and the elevation of Jay Triano to head coach; Bryan Colangelo gifting  the Heat with the cap space to form the Big Three by dumping O’Neal for Shawn Marion and Marcus Banks; The drafting of DeMar DeRozan; The Raptors “winning” the Turkoglu sweepstakes, only to almost immediately regret it once Turkoglu showed up to camp fat and unwilling to justify his payday; DeRozan starting 65 games as a rookie; the Jarrett Jack\Jose Calderon controversy at the point; A career year from Bosh, that ended prematurely when he got hurt and shut himself down in advance of his free agent flight to Miami; Bosh leaving, Bryan Colangelo ripping him, then saving some face by somehow dumping Turkoglu on the Suns (his former agent was in charge there); A disastrous season that ended with Triano out, Dwane Casey in and Jonas Valanciunas drafted in Colangelo’s ballsiest move, since he wouldn’t come over for a year and because Bargnani had soured nearly everyone in the city on European players; A lockout, followed by a shortened season where the Raptors were horrible to watch because the talent simply wasn’t there, but where Casey turned around the defensive culture and started turning around Toronto’s reputation as a soft team; The development of the youngsters and the drafting of Terrence Ross and Quincy Acy; Last season’s brutal start; The Kyle Lowry/Calderon and Lowry/Casey situations; Ross wins the slam dunk contest; The trade for Rudy Gay which sent Calderon elsewhere; The regression and booing of Bargnani; The arrival of Tim Leiweke and Masai Ujiri; The miraculous Bargnani trade that actually brought back draft picks; The tank talk; This season’s bad start and the Lowry trade rumours and questions about Casey’s future; The trade of Gay to Sacramento; The stunning turnaround of the team into a squad that wins two thirds of the time; Lowry’s all-NBA caliber campaign; DeRozan’s all-star nod; The return to the playoffs.

 

 

 

Celtics PPG: Raptors not scaring anybody at the moment; Patrick Patterson return will be huge because the bench has been woeful; Lowry won’t be denied; Playoff race tightening up in East

- March 27th, 2014

Wednesday was an important bounce-back win for the Raptors, but this is a team right now that isn’t scaring anybody. The group just isn’t playing the way it did for the first couple of months following the Rudy Gay trade. Kyle Lowry and at times, DeMar DeRozan, are making sure the Raptors still pull out more wins than losses, but every game has been a battle. Even without the desperately missed Patrick Patterson, Toronto shouldn’t be losing to Cleveland and nearly blowing games to lowly Boston.

- Luckily, Lowry remains a late-game destroyer. The guy just won’t let his team lose. Lowry shot 2-for-6 in the first half, went 2-for-4 in the third (both threes), then went 4-for-7 in the fourth. Since his minutes restriction of about 35 minutes a night went into effect, Lowry has averaged 23.3 points on 48% shooting (45.4% from three), six assists and more than five rebounds and two steals per the three contests. Playing fewer minutes appears to be agreeing with Lowry’s shooting percentage.

- Less Lowry means more Greivis Vasquez and Vasquez had responded with his best stretch of games as a Raptor, before struggling a bit in Boston. Perhaps he was still thinking about his decisive miscue in Cleveland? That said, he’s still giving far more than anybody else on Toronto’s bench (Chuck Hayes aside, and we’ll get to him). John Salmons has been an outright disaster for well over a month now. He was part of the reason the bench again gave back the good work of the starters. Toronto was up by 11 in the second quarter and the bench blew that edge in less than two minutes. We’ll say it again, Patrick Patterson can’t come back soon enough. The good news is, Patterson’s been cleared for contact and though the team won’t have a practice on Thursday, there’s a good chance he returns on Friday in the rematch with Boston.

- We argued here last week that Salmons could use some rest and his minutes should be limited, particularly on back-to-backs. The numbers back that up. Salmons has shot 23.4% on the tail ends of back-to-backs, 34.8% on one day of rest, 42.6% with two days of rest, 45.5% with three days and 50% the rare times he has had four days of rest. Salmons has a lot of miles on his body, he should be used sparingly so he has something left to give in the playoffs. Salmons has shot just 13% over his past five games (two made field goals) and 25.7% over his past 10. While his defence remains OK, it has slipped and his great play with the ball when he first arrived is a memory. He’s now turning it over about as often as he manages an assist.

-  Hayes, on the other hand, has upped his play. That’s three good games in a row now. He can’t jump but still blocked three Boston shots. His positioning was terrific, he grabbed big rebounds and spaced the floor well, a feat, considering he’s not an offensive force (his passing ability and screen setting are both solid). While it would be nice to see more minutes for Tyler Hansbrough to help out the struggling bench (he can score and get to the line and provides energy), it’s tough to find him time if Jonas Valanciunas is playing fantastic basketball (which earned him 35 minutes on Wednesday) and if Hayes is making that kind of impact (Amir Johnson’s always going to get his 30 minutes).

- Valanciunas was terrific against a smaller team scoring 15 points and grabbing 14 rebounds. Dwane Casey likes to talk about the advantages Valanciunas’ length gives the team when he’s going well and Valanciunas illustrated that in this one. Loved the ice fishing with Jonas Valanciunas half-time piece. He told me when he got back from the trip it was fun, but disappointing because he didn’t catch anything. I told him Lake Simcoe’s way better in the summer. His response: “I hope so.”

- Call off the APB on Terrence Ross. He scored 20 or more for just the third time since his 51-point stunner and more importantly, put together two straight decent games for the first time since the start of this month.

- Another game with under 20 assists (17, against 16 turnovers). Rajon Rondo’s defence on DeRozan had a lot to do with that, but Patterson’s absence, to me, is the biggest reason why the assist numbers have slipped.

- A Toronto win on Friday or a Knicks loss in Phoenix will end the five year playoff drought. Brooklyn’s loss to Charlotte gave the Raptors some breathing room, but tightened the East’s playoff race. The Raptors squeezed back into third by virtue of leading a division.

Washington is slipping and Charlotte is now just 1.5 games back of sixth. Of course, Toronto’s had issues with the Bobcats and big man Al Jefferson, so that would be no playoff walk in the park. The Raptors crushed Washington a couple of times, but didn’t look good against them the last time they met. New York’s just two games out of 8th and could slip in, since Atlanta has been struggling. But there’s still a bunch of games to go, so, let’s revisit the race in a week.

 

 

Cavs PPG: Raptors can keep playing catchup at their peril; Playoff drought nearly over

- March 26th, 2014

So, the comeback kids can’t get it done every time after all. The Raptors went to the well once too often Tuesday in Cleveland and came away without any water. As a result, the team moved back into fourth in the East, just 1.5 games up on fifth-place Brooklyn in the race for the Atlantic Division crown.

- Once again, the Raptors offered little defensive resistance early on in a game. And this time, the team also couldn’t find its shooting touch in the first quarter either. That’s a bad combination. Dwane Casey and the team have no answers for all of the poor starts. “Maybe we just like a challenge” isn’t a good enough excuse. Again, if you play with fire long enough, you’re going to get doused in flames. The energy coming back from large deficits a few times a week takes is not sustainable. Toronto was very lucky to beat New Orleans and Atlanta recently and to nearly upend Cleveland despite digging huge holes. The team seems to be banking on its ability to rally in fourth quarters. That’s a very bad thing. One the playoffs come, those comebacks likely won’t happen anymore.

Casey knows it: “You spot a team 21 points and you’re not going to win that way. Until we fix that then its going to be an uphill battle every night,” Casey said.

- Of course the failure to execute in tight games remains a concern for the Raptors. The only thing the team misses about Rudy Gay is his ability to close games.

-  Casey took a couple of early timeouts to try to get the Raptors back on track, but it didn’t work.

- Talk about bad timing. The Maple Leafs completely fell apart with top player Jonathan Bernier sidelined due to a groin injury recently (and he’s still not 100% healthy) and now Kyle Lowry, the best Raptor, is battling a groin issue of his own. His minutes are down as a result, but this is the type of injury that can linger. Toronto’s fighting hard for playoff positioning, but having Lowry as close to top form as possible once the post-season begins is even more important.

- Dion Waiters looks much-improved. He’s not forcing as often and is thriving as the lead offensive option in the absence of Kyrie Irving. Nobody questions the talent of Waiters, it’s whether mentally he can put it all together, be consistent, play the right way, co-exist with Irving. We’ll see, but with Waiters playing smart basketball for once, that pick doesn’t look quite as horrible as it once did (though Andre Drummond clearly should have been the selection). It’s hard to judge players early on. Everyone was convinced both the Raptors and Cavs would have been far better off with Harrison Barnes than either Ross or Waiters, but Barnes has been horrible as a sophomore and nobody is quibbling with Ross and Waiters over Barnes now (though the spectre of Drummond will always be there, especially for the Cavs, who passed on Jonas Valanciunas the year before and badly needed a centre).

- Terrence Ross had been pretty good lately guarding quick guards, but Waiters ate him up early.

- A Raptors win in Boston and a Knicks loss in Sacramento would end Toronto’s five-year playoff drought.

- DeMar DeRozan had his latest 5+ assist, low turnover game. This time, eight assists and just one turnover. His improvement in that area this season has been one of the keys to his improved game. Toronto moved the ball extremely well against a decent defensive group. After struggling a bit to notch 20 assists recently, the team had 30.

- After a strong run, Jonas Valanciunas had a disastrous outing. This isn’t the greatest stat, but, somehow, Valanciunas was -27 in his 18 minutes. Tyler Hansbrough was -7 in his nine minutes. Chuck Hayes again was a huge positive.

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Hawks PPG – 4th Quarter Kingz; Lowry wills another win; DeRozan big too; Ross solves Teague problem with his D; Hayes provides a lift; Vasquez balling

- March 24th, 2014

The media has been referring to the 2013-14, post-trade Toronto basketball team as the “Bizarro Raptors” for some time now. They showed why once again on Sunday. For a good decade now, Raptors teams made a habit of either fighting back from a big deficit only to lose in demoralizing fashion right at the end or of blowing leads in the clutch. Not anymore.

Trailing 74-60 early in the fourth quarter, things looked bleak for the home side and the – ‘The Raptor is a jinx’ – angles were already being written up with the mascot returning Sunday. Then Nando de Colo decided to hit his first shot as a Raptor and it was a huge one. It restored some life to what had been a quiet building and sparked the Raptors. It came off of a great pass from Chuck Hayes, who had a quietly excellent game in true Chuck Hayes, understated fashion. Hayes played some superb defence in the fourth when a battered Amir Johnson was getting some rest. The length of Jonas Valanciunas – missed the other night when he was injured – also was quite useful. Atlanta’s bigs are talented and have long arms and wide posteriors, but they are shorter than Toronto’s bigs (Hayes aside).

- Valanciunas has his faults as a help defender, but he really played well on Sunday. When the quick Atlanta players got by their initial defender in the fourth, Valanciunas was a wall, making them adjust their shots.

- Without Kyle Korver, the three-point happy Hawks just weren’t the same. They didn’t attempt as many as usual and they weren’t nearly as effective from outside. No surprise there considering Korver’s one of the three best outside shooters in the league.

- Jeff Teague dominated the Raptors in the previous meeting, but this time, Terrence Ross did a solid job keeping the speedy Teague in front of him. Ross didn’t do a perfect job, Teague’s a hard player to prevent from driving, but he did far better than any Toronto player managed previously. Teague had to work a lot harder.

- At the other end, Kyle Lowry simply lit Teague up. Once again, Lowry would not be denied in the fourth quarter and DeMar DeRozan also stepped up again. A weird note:: Lowry attempted three long twos, quite odd for the analytics crowd’s poster child (he almost always only takes threes and inside shots).

- Amir Johnson’s pain threshold is ridiculous. Has to be one of the toughest players in the entire NBA.

- Like in the New Orleans game, Toronto appeared poised to give up a very winnable game in disappointing fashion. Luckily, the team can do little wrong in the fourth quarter. With Brooklyn charging and Chicago not going away, grinding out both of those wins could end up being huge.

- Greivis Vasquez continues to be Toronto’s top reserve in the absence of Patrick Patterson, who thankfully should return soon. Vasquez has put together several strong games in a row and has found his missing jump shot.

- Since the Rudy Gay trade, Toronto is +252, behind only title contenders Los Angeles (Clippers), Oklahoma City and San Antonio. In fourth quarters, Toronto is a completely absurd +203. Miami’s next in final quarters at just +100. Again, the number is ridiculous.

 

 

Thunder-Raptors PPG: Where Kevin Durant happens; A night to remember – and to forget; Rough stretch for Salmons hits its bottom; Amir remains Toronto’s unsung hero

- March 22nd, 2014

Well, that happened. What a memorable night at the ACC. One of the most improbable, entertaining and potentially season-defining game for two franchises you’ll ever see.

Watching Kevin Durant at Texas, I knew he’d be good. Seeing him in the NBA it was obvious he was special. Seeing him live five games in a row two years ago at the Finals it was clear he’d be an all-time great. The scary thing? He’s clearly hit another level compared to where he was when the Thunder lost to the Heat. The man is flat out ridiculous. Near seven-footers shouldn’t be able to shoot the ball like Kyle Korver, handle it like teammate Reggie Jackson, all the while, being as cool as a cucumber. It’s not really fair.

More thoughts:

- Questions: Why don’t you foul Durant before he can even attempt his game-winning three from the parking lot? “We tried,” said Dwane Casey. If a player is going to raise up and shoot from that far back, it’s nearly impossible to get the ball out of his hands. The double team was coming, it just couldn’t get there quickly enough. That said, Toronto’s defending of three-point attempts hasn’t just slipped recently, it’s vanished. A strength has become a weakness. Come back soon Patrick Patterson.

Why was John Salmons playing instead of Terrence Ross? Ross suffered a minor injury and was unavailable.

- It’s a shame the referees were so awful. They hurt the Raptors more than the Thunder, but also made some truly horrific calls in Toronto’s favour, particularly that clear foul on Durant after  Salmons bungled the inbounds.

- You have to feel for Salmons. He was crushed afterward after missing two free throws and failing to execute the inbounds. He was so good for the Raptors early on, that steadying veteran influence who took care of the ball, never panicked and hit some clutch shots. For five weeks, Salmons was great. Then, it all started going awry. There’s no sugar-coating it, while his defence has only slipped a bit, Salmons has cratered offensively. He’s shooting 28.6% in March (20% from three), even worse than how he was performing to end February. It’s time for Casey to see if rest will get Salmons back on track. It will be humbling, but Salmons needs to sit out a few games. Then see if rest was the cure for what ailed him. Because, he’s  not getting out of this by playing through it. If he’s not hitting shots and not calmly handling the ball late in games, there has to be another option. Landry Fields perhaps? Salmons was huge for the Raptors early in his Toronto tenure, but, sadly, he needs some rest.

“He’s a veteran,” Casey said of Salmons. “In those situations, you’ve got to believe in him, that he’s going to make those free throws in that situation. Terrence goes down. He hurts his hip. We had to go with John in that situation. He’s been one of our best defenders in that situation. But it’s not just one guy. We’ve got to get one more guy to step in and step up in that situation to give us a boost. Kyle and DeMar and Amir are laying it on the line, and JV did a good job down the stretch, too.”

- Classy move by DeMar DeRozan to check on Russell Westbrook after the game. DeRozan went into the Thunder room with his daughter. Hopefully the MRI checks out. Westbrook looked fine and said he felt good. The game was huge for OKC, since it came in double overtime at the end of a back-to-back and because it showed that Durant is capable of carrying the team through whatever needs to be done, even if Westbrook is out.

- It’s too early for all of this Durant to Toronto chatter. Sure, he grew up with Toronto being his favourite team and Greivis Vasquez and Landry Fields are two of his best friends in the league, but 29 other teams will be trying to sign him and who knows if Vasquez and Fields are even Raptors by the time Durant is a free agent. Vasquez will be a restricted free agent this summer and Fields will be on the final year of his ill-fated deal next season.

- Unfortunately, Durant’s brilliance will completely overshadow one of the best games of Amir Johnson’s career. In his 500th NBA contest, Johnson was quietly spectacular himself. He had 25 points, 12 rebounds, five blocks and four assists. He was everywhere defensively, serving as both Toronto’s lone rim protector (Jonas Valanciunas needs to get better at this) and best help defender. Offensively, he was a machine. Johnson’s now scored 10+ in eight straight games, averaging about 17 points per game on shooting north of 65% in those contests. He’s no longer criminally underrated, but remains one of the NBA’s best-kept secrets.

- Toronto was oh so close to sweeping one of the league’s true title contenders. This one will hurt.

“We’ve got a lot of basketball left. We’ve got 14 more games to go down the stretch,” Casey said. “We can’t let it be a hangover. We can’t let this game be a hangover in that situation. A big learning experience for our guys. You’re playing with one of the teams in the league, one of the top players, scorers — he’ll probably go down all time as a scorer in the league. And you give yourself a chance to win in [double] overtime.”

- The offensive foul call on Vasquez that fouled him out was brutal, and, in the end, a game-changer. That’s either a no-call (the right call) or a foul on Durant. Durant got him early, then the refs called Vasquez for jumping into Durant. But Durant got him before Vasquez exaggerated it. Without Vasquez, who was playing what might have been his best game as a Raptor (continuing a strong run), Salmons had to come in and that was a massive drop-off.

 

 

 

 

Raptors at Pelicans PPG: Horrible start, but finish counts; Hansbrough, Vasquez provide a lift; A lucky win, but a win’s a win; DeRozan/Lowry dominate; Amir’s second-half surge

- March 19th, 2014

That could have been ugly. The Raptors got lucky, but once again, the team showed why it’s the NBA’s best fourth quarter team in stealing a win in New Orleans.

- There’s really no excuses for the start. No Anthony Davis, no Jrue Holiday, no Ryan Anderson … should mean a gimme of a game. Yet, the Raptors, perhaps stunned from the absence of Davis, or maybe just tired from overtime the night before, came out in a daze.

- One big early problem: Lletting Tyreke Evans get into the paint at will – again. The guy kills the Raptors constantly, even though he can’t shoot, yet instead of backing up, the team gives him all kinds of space to attack. With his combination of ball-handling ability, quick first step and brute strength, Evans is a load. But if you dare him to shoot, you’re giving yourself the best way to stop him.

- Raptors rebounded and only gave up two points in the paint in final 15 minutes of the game after allowing 50 in the previous 33. The points in the paint battle stood at an absurd 20-2 after a quarter.

- Brutal to let in so many points in the paint against a team with no real inside presence. Just a lack of effort and lack of help defence.

- Nando de Colo at least provided a spark and made a case for more time as one of the only positives off of the bench.

- Not to be outdone, former Pelican (well, they were the Hornets then) Greivis Vasquez made his biggest contributions in the fourth, particularly on a huge play where he was fouled and hit a shot not long after Toronto had finally taken the lead. Vasquez loves punishing his former teams.

- In a stunning reversal, the Raptors just wanted it more down the stretch. Out-battled, outworked the Pelicans.

- Amir Johnson exemplified that. On a bad ankle, Johnson fought through and was a difference-maker in the fourth quarter. He went into the half with just two rebounds and had three after three, then started doing it all in the fourth. Locking down the paint, grabbing six boards, three of them offensive, and six total in the fourth quarter.

- A positive on the defensive side of things: Toronto held New Orleans to just 16 assists against 12 turnovers.

- Tyler Hansbrough had a massive effort with 13 boards, including seven offensive rebounds. Have been mentioning for a bit that he’s a better option than Steve Novak and Hansbrough backed that up with a great effort as a fill-in starter for Jonas Valanciunas.

- It was a huge win because with a loss, a visit by Oklahoma City coming up and another game against Atlanta on tap, the team could have been facing a five-game losing streak.

Raptors-Hawks PPG: The wheels coming off? Toronto’s defence has slipped; Novak experiment not working; Overtime woes for Raptors and DeRozan

- March 19th, 2014

Atlanta is fighting for its playoff life and Toronto just isn’t feeling that urgency right now. That was evident Tuesday, when the Hawks battled back from an early deficit and then came through when it mattered most, in overtime. The Raptors once again couldn’t sustain some early great play and refused to take advantage of a clear advantage inside (once Jonas Valanciunas left with an injury, that advantage disappeared). Before he left though, the team had not been going to him nearly as much as they had in the first quarter. That’s happened too many times to count this season. Keep feeding him if he’s hot.

- Toronto’s really defended point guards well all year (top 5 in fewest points scored per game by opposing point guards), but lately there’s been slippage. Kyle Lowry and Co. have been torched by quick point guards like Jeff Teague and Eric Bledsoe. No shame in that, but the help needs to be better once they rocket by Lowry, something Lowry himself pointed out post-game.

- It will be at least another two games until Patrick Patterson returns, maybe more, and to say he’s dearly missed is a massive understatement. The bench looks lost without him and some of that help defence Lowry needs is provided better by Patterson than nearly anybody else on the team. Plus, in search of a replacement for Patterson’s missing offence, Dwane Casey has turned to Steve Novak and that’s been – trying to put it politely, a disaster – Novak can’t defend at all, doesn’t really rebound and is only out there to hit shots. While his three threes were nice, it’s not worth the tradeoff. Tyler Hansbrough has his faults, but he needs to take all of Novak’s minutes until Patterson returns. The team won’t replace Patterson’s offence that way, but will get scoring from put-backs and free throws and much more on the boards and defensively.

- Of course if Valanciunas has to miss any time due to his sore back, the team will be in an even worse position. Hansbrough would likely start and the bench would remain weak.

- The bench has provided a big edge for the team since the deal, but everybody except for Greivis Vasquez has regressed noticeably since Patterson went down.

- Toronto, Brooklyn and Chicago each have easy schedules the rest of the way, so it will be a tossup who ends up in the 3-4-5 positions in the East. Washington is in the conversation as well, but has a slightly tougher slog. It’s wide open and every game becomes crucial at this point with the third seed very much in play for all of those teams.

- New Orleans isn’t very good, but Anthony Davis has been playing like a top five player lately, so Wednesday’s game won’t be easy for the Raptors either. Especially if Valanciunas can’t play.

- Lowry now has nine technicals, tied for ninth-most in the league. DeRozan has eight.

- Paul Millsap remains a Raptor-killer. He’s a great player. How he slipped into the mid-second round in 2006 is one of the great draft mysteries. The man was a record-setting rebounder in the NCAA, yet nobody wanted him.

- Has to be at least a little concerning that the Raptors are 1-5 in overtime this season and that DeMar DeRozan’s numbers in fourth quarters and overtime are downright hideous. The great fourth quarter record has kind of glossed over DeRozan’s struggles in close games.

- DeRozan still has all kinds of trouble playing well against long, aggressive defenders like Tony Allen, DeMarre Carroll and Jimmy Butler. Overall, he’s had a tough time in March after a great February. His shooting percentage is down to 42%, his scoring down five points compared to February, his assists down, his turnovers are slightly up. DeRozan was 5-for-7 from the floor in the second and third quarters and did a great job on the boards and moving the ball, but the huge minutes could catch up with him toward the end of games, leading to poor late results.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Suns-Raptors PPG: One tough matchup for the Raptors; Hornacek could be coach of the year; Lowry concussion update; More Hansbrough

- March 17th, 2014

Don’t get too high, nor too low. The NBA season is a long one. There will be many good nights, many poor ones and a lot more that fall somewhere in between.
Sunday’s Raptors performance firmly falls in the poor category.
Outplayed in pretty much every way. Out-hustled, out-competed against the Suns.
There was little defensive resistance and against a team as quick and deadly when shooting the ball as the Suns, even though Toronto hung around, this was always going to be a tough one to win.
Especially if the three-point line is guarded so poorly – if Eric Bledsoe is allowed to attack, rather than launch his suspect jumper.
- As everyone said after the game, you won’t face a team as fast and athletic as the Suns again, so no point getting too carried away over what went down.

- If Phoenix, expected to be a bottom three team, instead makes the playoffs in the super tough West, Jeff Hornacek is the NBA’s coach of the year. If not, he’s probably third, behind Gregg Popovich (the man needs to be recognized for doing it yet again) and Tom Thibodeau. With apologies to Dwane Casey and his good friend Terry Stotts. You could argue Thibs over Pop, but I wouldnt.
- Should Kyle Lowry have gone to the quiet room after getting kneed in the head a la Macho Man Randy Savage? The NBA rules say yes, only if he’s showing concussion symptoms, and, (1) Toronto’s medical staff is very good and knows what it’s doing and says it followed protocol  and he didn’t show any (2) You’d need four people to drag Lowry off of the court. Obviously (1) is the guideline, and (2) would only come into play if he showed symptoms and was demanding to stay in the game.

LOWRY UPDATE:

The Raptors said Monday morning that Lowry had the flu before Sunday’s game and still has it today. He was tested twice by the medical staff during the game for concussion symptoms, had none. Decision by Dwane Casey to play him. He saw team doctor today, was fine other than the flu and cleared to play, if flu isn’t bothering him too much.
- Toronto can make a statement this week by beating Atlanta on U.S. Television and following that up with a win in New Orleans. As back-to-backs go, this is not an ultra tough test (though Atlanta is hanging on to a playoff spot for dear life and Anthony Davis just had a 40 point, 20 rebound game for the Pelicans).

- One thing that’s been puzzling me lately, why so few minutes for Tyler Hansbrough? When it’s a bad matchup, I fully understand, but he could have helped in recent games when the team was getting its hat handed to it on the boards. The John Salmons-Terrence Ross minutes strategy also might need some revisiting.

- Of course, if Patrick Patterson was in the lineup, the Hansbrough-Hayes point would be moot. Patterson’s agent is going to have a great argument for an expensive extension this summer. The Raptors look lost without him.

 

Raptors/Grizzlies PPG: Valanciunas makes a statement; Vasquez wants more minutes

- March 15th, 2014

The Raptors made a statement against Memphis on Friday night. The team’s young centre more than anyone. While most of the world expected 21-year-old Jonas Valanciunas to have all kinds of issues with the imposing combo of Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph, instead, the sophomore was stellar, chipping in game highs of 23 points (also a season best total) and nine rebounds. Valanciunas was dominant in the first quarter, scoring 10 of Toronto’s 19 points, but that’s no rarity, many of his best moments have come in first frames this season. What was different, was the team kept looking for him, kept finding success in the pick and roll and he was impactful in every quarter. “JV earned some respect tonight,” said Kyle Lowry. “You’re playing against two of the best. They’re probably one of the top three frontcourts in the league with Marc and Zach. The way he played tonight — he battled and played great defence on Zach — he earned some respect. That’s just the learning curve. He’s going to keep getting better.”

- It wasn’t just what Valanciunas was doing on offence or to slow down Randolph. He’s been a terror on the glass for a while now, particularly over the past two games. That’s impressive since he had the Randolph-Gasol combination to deal with on Friday, the Andre Drummond-Greg Monroe-Josh Smith trio two nights earlier. He’s shown some intriguing flashes lately. There’s a ton of potential in the young big man.

- A few of us weren’t sure why Memphis coach Dave Joerger kept Randolph on Valanciunas instead of going with Gasol, which seemed like the more obvious matchup. It was odd, especially when Valanciunas kept scoring on a frustrated Randolph. Casey was eager to put Valanciunas on Randolph at the other end because the coach felt his length would bother Randolph. With Amir Johnson more able to contend with the perimeter-oriented Gasol (though Gasol can bang in the post when he wants to), the plan worked perfectly for Casey, not so much for Joerger on this night.

- Valanciunas credited Greivis Vasquez, the one-time Memphis draftee, for helping Toronto pull off the win. Vasquez was a key performer in the second and fourth quarters, when Toronto was by far at its best. “He’s really important for us,” Valanciunas said of Vasquez.

“When Kyle gets tired, he’s a key and gives us a lot, especially with his penetration, shots, able to pass the basketball.”

- Valanciunas also liked the loud crowd. “You know, it’s like a sixth player. When you hear everybody cheering for you and screaming, it’s like a sixth player,” he said.

- The fans are loud for good reason. The team is 10 games over .500 for the first time since April 6-18, 2007, has won 5-of-6, is 20-12 at home and an impressive 14-12 against teams from the West.

- Shooting 59% against a gritty, defensively sound team that features reigning defensive player of the year Marc Gasol and one that came in a robust 18-12 on the road is yet another impressive feat for Dwane Casey’s crew.

- Lowry on Toronto hitting first against a “bully” – ““I don’t know no bullies.”

- Vasquez loves playing with Lowry and angled afterward for more minutes from Casey. Vasquez said he’s more effective the more minutes he plays.

“When I play regular minutes it allows me to have a presence in the game, you know what I mean? A lot of times it’s really, really hard coming off the bench and just be effective or have a presence in the game real quick,” Vasquez said.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Pistons PPG: Valanciunas-Johnson combo shines; Lowry, DeRozan do the usual; Vasquez/Salmons lead otherwise dormant bench

- March 13th, 2014

People love to talk about the athleticism and talent of Andre Drummond, Josh Smith and Greg Monroe (well, maybe not the athleticism part for Monroe). How good they should be. But it’s clear they don’t work as a trio and that there’s more to the game than natural talent. Like basketball IQ and experience. Smith has experience, but some of the worst hoops smarts I’ve ever seen and he constantly hurts his teams. Instead of being a dominant force, which he has the body, athleticism and skills to be, most of the time, Smith actually hurts his squads with his awful shot selection and decision-making. He’s one of the NBA’s great wastes of talent. Hopefully he puts it together one day, perhaps if he reunites with good friend Rajon Rondo, something both have talked about doing.

Drummond just isn’t really sure where to be positionally, but remains a marvelous talent. But until he figures out where to be most of the time, the Pistons will continue to struggle. Monroe’s an offensive force, but his slowness and lack of lift really hurts him at the other end. In short, the Pistons are a mess, won’t be making the playoffs and, surely will be adding a new general manager and head coach this summer. Will Bynum seems to be the only Piston that plays any semblance of smart basketball. I’ve never seen a team with such poor shot selection combined with so much trouble catching the ball, in large part because passes are such a shocker, the players just aren’t ready to receive them.

- Meanwhile, the Raptors continue to do what needs to be done against average-poor teams. That’s wins in 11-of-12 against clubs that are below .500. Sure, Dwane Casey doesn’t love blowing big leads, but that happens in the NBA. When the Raptors needed to step on Detroit’s throats, the team did. DeMar DeRozan shook off a poor start to finish strong. Kyle Lowry was his usual dominant self throughout and John Salmons and Greivis Vasquez salvaged the night for an otherwise invisible bench that dearly misses Patrick Patterson. Patterson will miss at least Friday’s game against Memphis and Sunday’s against Phoenix, if you go by the 7-10 days of rest timetable.

- What did the Raptors do well? Attacking the feet of Pistons defenders. Detroit might have had size advantages all over the floor, but by putting pressure on the defenders by going right at them, Toronto was able to convert at a high rate. Either scoring inside, or kicking it out for three-pointers.- Amir Johnson appears to be back to his old self and might have been the most impactful player on the court. He had 20 points, nine rebounds, too many great defensive rotations to remember, set good screens and had great second effort all night. Jonas Valanciunas wasn’t far behind him and actually helped finish off the Pistons with his relentless board work in the second half. As mentioned last week in this space, Valanciunas had a sign put up in his locker reminding him of what the team wants from him: Rebound, set good, legal screens and give a great effort at both ends every time he’s on the court. There’s no worrying about how many points he scores, if he does everything else, the coaching staff is going to be quite pleased with the sophomore centre. Drummond gets most of the press because he’s the closest thing to Dwight Howard, but Valanciunas has outplayed him in both meetings this season (and if memory serves, in at least one of the games they played as rookies).

- Terrence Ross didn’t have a great night and the team’s defence of the three-point line continues to be a recent problem, but Ross waas covering a lot of ground out there. When caught up in a screen, he recovered quickly to contest with his hands up, throwing Kyle Singler and others off.
- Vasquez and the second unit looked completely off early and overall had a rough night, but Vasquez and Salmons at least ended up being key contributors during the time of the game that Toronto put Detroit away.

- The message from the coaching staff at the half was stop getting embarrassed on the boards and to the credit of the team, the Raptors recovered. A negative area turned into a huge positive as Valanciunas led the second-half rebounding surge. Detroit was completely dominated on the boards after the half. Toronto more than doubled Detroit in rebounding in the second half, had a huge edge in points in the paint and in second-chance points.

- One positive of this team is it takes direction well. Another is the direction it has been given from the coaching staff has been quite good, as the record and all of the stats indicate.