Raptors can thank Kyle Lowry for an ugly win in Sacramento; time to replace Vasquez with Johnson?

- December 3rd, 2014

Sometimes to get a win in the NBA you have to be good. Other times, it pays to be lucky. Some nights, it’s  a bit of both. And then there are nights like Tuesday, where the Raptors were neither good, nor all that lucky, yet still managed to come away with a victory. The Raptors (James Johnson aside) declined to play any defence for 75% of the night and had a rare off-night from Lou Williams, but still hung on, to run their record to an impressive 14-4. Why? This might seem like a huge generalization, but it came down to Kyle Lowry suiting up and DeMarcus Cousins not doing so.

- Sure, the Kings posted gaudy numbers without Cousins, one of the league’s five most dominant players (37 trips to the free throw line, 109 points, 52% shooting) but with Cousins in, the teams would not have been even on the boards, it would have been a big edge for the Kings and likely, a 10-point win for the home side).

- But Cousins was a surprising scratch, meaning Lowry was the best player on the floor and he showed it, lifting the Raptors on his back when necessary at both ends of the floor. Lowry started off on fire (nine points and five assists as the Raptors got off to a great start – 13 points, eight assists and just one turnover at the half), then finished with a bang, scoring 10 points in the fourth without a turnover. After hitting a tough layup, he then took a big charge on Rudy Gay, two pivotal plays in the end.

- Liked the way Lowry again took advantage of a smaller guard, this time going at tiny Darren Collison early in the post. Lowry can score against most point guards down there and it continues to be a good look for an offence that is searching for ways to replace DeMar DeRozan’s scoring.
- Hard to like the lack of defence from the Raptors. The Kings have some players who are good at attacking off the dribble, but at times it was ridiculous. They were blowing by Raptors defenders and the help defenders were barely even in the right area code. The Kings shot 77% from the field in the second quarter. It’s difficult to win games when you allow opponents to score at that level. The Kings were at 58% through three quarters and only a far better defensive final quarter from the league’s best fourth quarter team saved this one.- You could argue I’m being too negative, but this was an uninspiring performance from a team that is trying to prove that it is one of the NBA’s better teams and certainly a top three group in the East. The Raptors looked lazy and uninspired for much of the evening, Lowry, James and Amir Johnson, Jonas Valanciunas and Terrence Ross aside.

- Speaking of  Ross -the third-year swingman gave the Raptors a huge boost, scoring 15 points in the first quarter and 20 in all. It was the first time in his career he managed 20 points in consecutive games. Ross had hit 46.7% of his three-point attempts over his previous three games and with a 4-of-8 performance Tuesday, is up to 43.8% for the season, including 46.4% over his past five games.

- Jonas Valanciunas over his previous five games heading into this one: 12.6 points, 9.8 rebounds, 1.4 blocks per game on 61.5% shooting from the field, 83.3% from the line. He had 15 points and eight rebounds, shooting 50% from the field (on only six attempts) and 9-for-10 from the line. The Raptors need to get him more than 11 attempts a night while DeRozan is out. He only had two attempts in the opening quarter (both resulting in trips to the free throw line) and as good as the start was, it should be a point of emphasis to get the big man involved in opening quarters. Over his career, he has tended to perform better in games where he was featured early.

- Sacramento’s bench delivered 58 points, Toronto’s, just 35. Much of that was due to an off-night from Williams but I’m very much in favour of returning Greivis Vasquez to the bench and starting James Johnson, who had 19 points and seven rebounds in a revenge game against a franchise he clearly doesn’t have fond feelings for. Vasquez and Williams have been a good pair and the offence would be strong if he went back to the reserves. However, perhaps Dwane Casey is worried that defensively, the second group could become something of a disaster if Johnson is taken out of the mix. The flip side is the starters would get far sounder defensively with Johnson replacing Vasquez and Ross moving to shooting guard. Theoretically, more touches for Valanciunas would cancel out losing the offence Vasquez provides. Amir Johnson has also shown increased range (6-for-13 from three on the season, though five of the makes have come at home) if part of the fear from Casey and his staff is Ross would be the only three-point threat for Lowry to kick to. However, the Raptors do just fine offensively with DeRozan starting and he is not a three-point threat at all, so adding Johnson would not be that foreign of a concept.

- Ben McLemore looks like a different player this season and far closer to what many expected after watching him at Kansas. He had a terrible rookie season, but looks far more confident and is now effective. McLemore threw down a monster dunk on Amir Johnson in the second quarter. To the credit of the Raptors, they came right back, with James Johnson throwing down a big dunk of his own and the next time McLemore tried to catch Amir, he was rejected at the rim.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Too much Kobe, too little fight; Valanciunas’ defensive improvements intrigue; Silver lining to DeRozan injury?

- December 1st, 2014

On a lot of nights, the Raptors can sleepwalk though a game early, but still come back to win. On Sunday in Los Angeles, without DeMar DeRozan, and with Kobe Bryant turning in a vintage performance, the challenge was just a little too steep.

- So concerned with Bryant, the Raptors converged on him, which left Lakers wide open all evening and Bryant was in a giving mood with the holiday season approaching. His teammates hit enough shots to get him his 20th triple double of his career – and – a much-needed win after four straight losses.

- Don’t get carried away by Toronto’s fine 25 assists, eight turnover numbers. The Lakers are atrocious defensively, so those stats don’t say much, other than the offence wasn’t the problem for the visitors. L.A. shot 57% in the second quarter and outrebounded the Raptors 14-9. You can’t follow one lazy quarter with another and be in good shape to grab a win.

- Yet, despite shooting 1-for-11 from three in the first half, despite Kobe’s near triple-double, the Raptors were within six points of the Lakers. How? Mostly it was because of a 34-12 points in the paint edge through 24 minutes. The Lakers lack rim protectors and Toronto took advantage.

- The Raptors kept attacking in the third quarter, something that powers their offensive attack and is a huge reason why they rank near the top of the NBA in scoring, and it paid off with 12 trips to the free throw line. With DeRozan sidelined, the rest of the players will have to make a concerted effort to make sure they are aggressive. Kyle Lowry can’t do it for 40 minutes a night, it would be too draining over a long season, but the others need to make sure they get to the line early and often.

- You can argue with some of the fouls – including half of the ones called on James Johnson – but the Raptors didn’t exactly deserve this one. Would the timeout Lowry was asking for after a great defensive play by Jonas Valanciunas stopped Bryant in his tracks have given them a shot? Sure, but those are the breaks. In the end, they had a shot in overtime and they couldn’t make it count. They took the Lakers lightly and paid for it, even though Dwane Casey warned Kobe and his teammates would be a “wounded animal” because of their losing streak.

- Tyler Hansbrough returned and played nine of Toronto’s better minutes. Coincidentally or not, the guy who had taken his minutes while he was out, Chuck Hayes, had perhaps his least effective effort of the year. The Lakers bigs converted far too easily throughout this entire game, though, surprisingly, the Lakers didn’t go to them often enough, considering the success they were having.

- They’ve been working a lot for a while now on Valanciunas’ verticality – going straight up to defend attempts at the rim without fouling – and he’s been far better at it this year. He’s also been better defending the pick-and-roll. Those are two great signs for the Raptors.

- It’s too bad that DeRozan will be out until at least the New Year, but the one positive is this will allow other players to gain some confidence as their roles get expanded and it will also give the Raptors a taste of adversity now that could pay off down the line. If you are rolling and everything seems easy, it is easy to get complacent. Complacency in pro sports means death. This shakes things up a little bit and makes DeRozan’s injury not solely a negative thing (though he’d argue differently).

- The trick now is avoiding a third consecutive loss and preventing doubt from creeping in. With DeMarcus Cousins battling a bad bug, the Raptors will have an advantage, but Sacramento has played well this year. You can bet they won’t take the Kings lightly.

- On the stats front, Toronto still ranks a troubling 30th in assist percentage, though leading the league in turnover percentage helps negate that a bit. The Raptors give up too many assists, only six teams surrender more per game.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

No shame in Raptors dropping that game; Welcome back Amir Johnson; Rare rebounding domination doesn’t pay off; Turnovers were the issue; Rose proud to see the progress of Canadian hoops

- November 29th, 2014

There is nothing wrong with losing to a team as good as the Dallas Mavericks. The Mavs lead the NBA, averaging 109.7 points per game, rank second in field goal percentage, first in offensive rating (a ridiculous 114.1 points scored per 100 possessions, well ahead of second-place Toronto’s 110.7), tops in assist-to-turnover ratio and second in effective field goal percentage. It is not hyperbole to say this Dallas squad boasts one of the five best attacks we’ve seen in the NBA in the past 10-15 years.

- Dallas spreads out opponents with lethal three-point shooters everywhere, Dirk Nowitzki remains a sublime, nearly unstoppable force, Monta Ellis can score at will and Tyson Chandler and Brandon Wright are too long and athletic to contain inside and get a ton of easy buckets and put-backs. Whether it’s pick-and-rolls, pick-and-pops or getting easy points off of turnovers, these Mavericks are for real (as Dwane Casey said afterward, they’ll be in the money in the West when it’s all said and done).

- Dallas forces a lot of turnovers, but the Raptors were quite sloppy on Friday night too. The team had 17 miscues, nearly twice what they had been averaging coming in (11.2, behind only New Orleans for fewest per game in the NBA) to go with only 17 assists. Meanwhile, Dallas had a ridiculous 27 assists and just eight turnovers. Looking at that number, it is pretty amazing that the Raptors even made a game out of it in the end. 95% of the time, a team will have no chance against an opponent operating at that absurd level of efficiency.

- The turnovers weren’t just one guy having a rough night, six players had at least two, but the starters only had six turnovers – total, none by Jonas Valanciunas in his 28 minutes, which is an excellent sign.

- Amir Johnson had one of his best outings of the season, scoring 20 points, grabbing six offensive rebounds. Johnson was a force, helping compensate for the loss of DeMar DeRozan due to a groin injury. Patrick Patterson also was excellent, turning in a 10 point, 12 rebound double-double. Johnson and Patterson combined to haul in 10 offensive rebounds, four more than the entire Dallas team managed. The board-work (55-37 edge overall) helped keep Toronto in this one.

- Credit Valanciunas for bouncing back after getting dominated by Chandler in the first half. Valanciunas was a different player in his 12 second half minutes, grabbing eight rebounds and scoring eight points. He had no points and five boards through the first two quarters. Chandler still had a big third, but did nothing in the fourth (though Valanciunas only played half of the fourth).

- Currently at practice awaiting word on DeRozan’s status. Not much is known at this point.

- Caught up with Mavs owner Mark Cuban for a one-on-one pre-game and he said Dallas doesn’t win the 2011 title without Casey. Also, was in a scrum with another one of the NBA’s best entertainers, Jalen Rose, and he did not disappoint.

One Jalen quote that didn’t make the paper, on the growth of Canadian basketball: “I’m happy to see the growth that Canada and Toronto in particular has had in basketball. Wiggins came up earlier, being the No. 1 pick, Anthony Bennett, I played with Steve Nash, who is a two-time MVP, so it’s not a novelty anymore, for a lot of people to feel: can they really play ball in Toronto? I remember being in eighth grade, I came over here with Michigan AAU, when I was rebounding, that was the only way they were going to keep me around, I was the ball boy. Run and get the Gatorades, rebound for the team. I remember standing on the baseline and we had some great players on our team, Steve Smith, a lot of notables. But I was watching the other end, watching the Toronto players warm up and it was between the legs, 360, I’m  like ‘You guys are going to get killed.’ That’s what I told them. They said ‘Well if they beat us, you’re going to stay here with them.’ Fortunately it was a good game and Michigan won, but I knew at that time that Toronto was on the rise.”

- Rose also said the misconceptions about Toronto as a basketball city are gone: ” I think people get the message now. You don’t hear the mumbling and groaning about players re-signing here. You just got Lou Williams to sign, Kyle Lowry re-signed, DeMar’s on his second contract, Amir’s been here for a long time. I think that novelty is over as it relates to winning. And when you follow winning in the NBA, it always starts from the top down. And I appreciate what Tim Leiweke has done with the franchise, creating a culture, bringing in Masai, who undid a lot of moves in the past that probably weren’t the best moves. So now the city has a team they can really be proud of.”

- One Greivis Vasquez post-game quote: “We have just got to continue to grind. It’s not the end of the world. We lost a game. So what? On to the next one. We get better. We have to defend better. We have to rebound better. We have to play transition defence better. We have to do a lot of different things better. But we’re still, what, 13-3? That’s a pretty good record to me … We fought, we don’t give up that’s one thing about our team that’s going to win us a lot of games down the road

- OK, can never keep the Greivis quotes short because he’s an almost Jalen-level orator. On who steps up if DeRozan has to sit out: “I think we’ve got one of the best, and I say this in a humble way, benches in the league. Somebody else is going to step up. Lou will step in or myself or James or whatever coach wants to do. Now he’s got a squad. He’s got a team. And now he needs to, and he will, put it together. Somebody went down and we almost won. That wasn’t good enough. I think we have guys that can step up and do their job.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Raptors are for real; Every night brings a different hero; Amir comes through when it counts

- November 27th, 2014

ATLANTA —  Overrated? Easy schedule? Lucky streak? No. No and No. These Raptors are quite good. They find ways to win, especially in the clutch and come at opponents in a variety of ways, putting all kinds of pressure on defenders.

- Toronto excels at getting to the free throw line because Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan relentlessly attack, Lou Williams does the same thing off of the bench and Jonas Valanciunas lately has been bullying opponents down low. Not only does this result in a lot of points, it also often leaves teams in foul trouble, forcing them to play good players less and also getting the Raptors into the bonus early.

- That was another true team effort, with everybody who took the floor contributing in one way or another. James Johnson and Patrick Patterson had some huge defensive moments off of the bench and Williams and Greivis Vasquez – turning in his best game of the season – were tremendous offensively.

- Kyle Lowry couldn’t buy a bucket, but he only had one turnover to go with 13 assists and once again made the plays when they mattered. The Raptors turn the ball over less than anybody but New Orleans and like the free throws, it is a major reason why they have such a good record.

“A lot of turnovers tonight was on me,” DeRozan said. “I had five, nobody else had more than one or two. Take my turnovers away, we took good care of the ball. We take pride in that.” Kyle Lowry commented on it as well. “Yeah, zoom, zoom, zoom. Ball movement’s been (good). Guys are starting to move the ball, they’re starting to find a rhythm with each other being in the right spot at the right times,” Lowry said.

“I just wanted to get my guys involved. Tonight, my shot wasn’t falling the way I wanted it to fall, but the guys did a good job of screening and getting on a roll and made some shots.”

- Amir Johnson continues to post the worst rebounding numbers of his Raptors career, but he has a knack for coming through at the right moments. The past two games have seen sparse rebounding totals, but the ones he has grabbed or the baskets he has scored have come at quite opportune moments.

- Friday and Rush Hour star Chris Tucker, a friend of assistant coach Bill Bayno, was in Toronto’s locker room post-game. Someone asked Valanciunas if he knew who Tucker was, prompting a funny response: “Yes, we have television in Lithuania, you know,” he said.

- The Raptors refuse to get overconfident based on this 13-2 start. To a man, they said while it was nice, they are thinking about Dallas (the most potent offensive team in the league) and then making a statement on a West Coast trip.

- Williams on every night featuring a different star: “We’ve got a lot of depth. It just shows the quality of a basketball team that we have. Three nights in a row it’s been somebody different stepping up. It was me with 36 in Cleveland and JV at home the other night and now Greivis having a breakout game so it just shows the depth and the character of this team.

“This is one of the better teams. I’ve been on some teams where everyone understood what they brought to the table in order for the team to be successful but this is definitely one of the better teams to do it.”

 - Of course Dwane Casey had a good quote: “He’s a scorer. He’s a born scorer. When you get 22 and 21 from your second unit guards, that’s big time. As they say in Kentucky, you’re cooking with gas with that. And those two guys came in with tremendous confidence but it wasn’t anything forced, it was within the offence,” Casey said.

- Lucas Nogueira and Bruno Caboclo might not play much, but they help keep the room loose. Bebe is always cracking jokes, while some of the players got a kick out of Bruno’s first encounter with a Chick-Fil-A sandwich.

- Atlanta’s players and head coach Mike Budenholzer had plenty of good things to say about the Raptors. They have made believers of the rest of the league, based on the comments we’ve been hearing lately.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Dominant Valanciunas, clutch plays by a variety of Raptors sunk the Suns

- November 25th, 2014

Remember when the Raptors were known as a franchise that never got it done in the clutch? It seemed to be that way for years. No team seemed to lose as many winnable games by doing one thing or another wrong late in fourth quarters. That simply doesn’t happen anymore. It started last year and has carried over to this season. What was different about the game against the Suns, was the way the fourth played out. Instead of mounting a furious rally, as has become their norm, the Raptors saw a 15-point lead get erased by the ridiculously explosive Suns. That forced the home side to have to make several key decisions in the biggest moments and they came through. DeMar DeRozan called some of those “muscle plays.”

- To that point, there was this crazy Kyle Lowry sequence, there was Lowry swiping the ball away from Isaiah Thomas, similarly to how he had won an earlier game in Boston by pickpocketing rookie Marcus Smart. There was Patrick Patterson hitting two free throws when he hadn’t yet scored. There was Patterson pulling a Kevin Love by launching the ball down the court and Amir Johnson making a significant play to go up and haul in the pass like Calvin Johnson (no easy feat, considering Johnson has not shown his usual life this season. A joke heard afterward was that Amir only jumped three times on Monday, but he sure picked his spots well).

- Told by a reporter that the Lowry steal and his pass to Johnson were “ballsy” Patterson responded, sometimes you have to be.

- Lou Williams winning player of the week, despite being a reserve, was one of the more unexpected storylines we’ve seen in years, though it probably shouldn’t have been all that shocking. Dwane Casey seems like a near lock for East coach of the month and Lowry likely will be an honourable mention (with a shot at winning if Toronto beats Dallas on Friday I’d say).

- Williams talked about fighting to get back from a devastating injury, a process that definitely had some dark moments. Williams admitted he had some doubts after tearing his ACL in January of 2013. When he returned last season, he was not the same player he had been before. Atlanta basically gave him away for nothing rather than paying a guy they worried might never be the same.

Williams can’t blame them. “Absolutely. When you’re sitting there and you have a cast on and wheel chair and crutches and can’t lift your leg up, you can’t ride a bike, you can’t run, you can’t jog, obviously there’s going to be some doubt there,” he said.

“Two years later it’s great to see some fruits of the labour to feel myself back to 100 per cent, being back healthy and having some success.”

Williams said he was buoyed by the knowledge his friend Lowry had battled back from the same injury, suffered while he was in college.

- A lot of anguish out there about Valanciunas not playing for most of the fourth despite his huge game, but the Suns went tiny, who was he going to guard? Yes, he was scoring easily, but Phoenix wasn’t going inside at all, preferring to just bomb away (it was working) and Valanciunas would not have been able to cover enough ground out there defensively. Against most teams, his sitting after a performance like that would be an outrage. Against Phoenix, it made sense.

“They had three point guards out there so that caused us to do some things. JV had to come out and JV had it rolling,” Casey said. “As long as they kept their big in, it really helped us but once they spread those perimeter guys out it put us at a disadvantage. Threes vs. our twos is not a good trade off.”

- Valanciunas, by the way, is fifth in the East in player efficiency rating, is shooting 59% from the field, 80% from the free throw line and putting up career best rebound and block rates, with the lowest turnover rate in his three seasons.

- James Johnson returned far earlier from his ankle injury than expected (he missed three games), but was only able to play four minutes. Tyler Hansbrough (shoulder) did not dress.

- Isaiah Thomas on Lowry: ” He’s been given a good opportunity to run a team and he’s taken advantage of it. Everyone knows what Kyle Lowry’s about. He’s like a pit bull, he’s a leader, he’s a guy that never backs down. I think his opportunity just got bigger and he just took advantage of the role that was given to him.”

- Seem to say this daily now, but the Raptors refuse to get caught up in what the standings say: “For me we’re still a growing team. It’s still too early to look at the records,” Casey said.

“My job is to continue to push, continue to improve in a lot of areas and not get caught up in records or anything like that. Once you start doing that, that’s when you get in trouble. I remember in Dallas, we were like 24-5, and you would never know we were 24-5 because everybody had a businesslike attitude. All of the fans were watching Cowboys football. We were 24-5, and you would never know. That’s the way you have to approach it. You can’t look at the record. You’ve got to make sure you do your job, not only game by game, but possession by possession. This is [an unforgiving] league and it will do you in once you start overlooking possessions or skipping letters from where you are or getting caught up in thinking you’re somewhere where you’re not.”

- Casey pointed out rebounding as the area the Raptors need to improve in the most. Williams said if this is Toronto’s “roof, we’re in trouble. I think we have a lot more things that we should accomplish and other teams that we need to beat in order to be taken seriously in this league.” Like beating the Suns.

- Ex-Raptor P.J. Tucker on the ACC crowd: “It is a lot different, it’s unbelievable,” Tucker said. “Definitely moved up to one of the best home courts, hands down in the league. It is unbelievable what they have done here.” I was impressed by the way the fans roared once Phoenix took the lead in the fourth, showing their support, helping the Raptors to get back on top.

 

 

 

 

Resilient Raptors are the real deal: Knock off LeBron James and the Cavs and didn’t even need Bruno’s help

- November 23rd, 2014

For the first time – maybe ever – the Raptors went down big against a loaded, hungry team and you felt like, ‘They’ll be fine, this one is a long way from over.’ And if you said that, you were right.  Forget, for a second, that Cleveland is deeply flawed – two defensive stiffs in Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love, no rim protection and bad chemistry – the Cavs came in feeling embarrassed and desperate for a win and came out like prime Mike Tyson, hammering away at the Raptors. But Dwane Casey had his charges well-prepared for the carnage and like the former Cassius Clay, Toronto rope-a-doped, took all the hits, turned the tables and came back to manage a decisive victory (that’s it for the boxing analogies, I promise).

- Lou Williams was the star of the game, thanks to his ridiculous performance, Williams had a career-high 36 points, was +37 and hit more buzzer-beaters. What a pickup Williams has been. He gives the Raptors a badly needed closer (I borrowed a line from Glengarry Glen Ross – Coffee is for closers and it will be my new tag-line for Williams) and has been far better defensively than anybody expected. The bench has gone from a weakness last year – particularly at backup shooting guard – to a huge strength.

- Once again, Chuck Hayes made a big difference. He helped steady the Raptors, played his typically excellent defence, boxed out and helped shift things around.

- Have to credit DeMar DeRozan for shaking off one of his worst starts to a game this season (his shot selection was awful early, he kept throwing the ball to the wrong team …) and rallying to end up with at least a close to respectable offensive night (he was 1-for-8 with three turnovers in the first half, 6-for-10, with four rebounds and no turnovers from there). And the bigger story was DeRozan’s strong defence, particularly on LeBron James. If he’s turned a corner at that end, the Raptors are in great shape. DeRozan used his athleticism and size to stay in front of James better than most of his teammates had been doing and ad least made things a bit difficult for the four-time MVP, who had looked like Magic Johnson in the first quarter.

- Yes, that was the barely 6-foot tall Kyle Lowry stepping in and taking a charge on the freight train that is James and living to tell about it. That was another turning point in the game. These Raptors are tough, gritty, resilient and talented. A winning combination, especially in the East.

- The wandering band of Raptors fans was something to see. They were noisier than the rest of the arena combined at many points and had the Raptors raving about them. By now, most of the NBA has become aware that this is one of the most vocal and dedicated fanbases in the entire league.

- Liked many things Casey did on Saturday including: Letting Lowry play through early foul trouble; Giving DeRozan the job of guarding LeBron; Rolling with Hayes; Telling the Raptors to go at Irving, perhaps the worst defender in the entire NBA (as well as Joe Harris); Continuing to give Williams the green light to close quarters and more

- The usual stats dump: Raptors beat LeBron on road for first time since 2004; Record fifth double-digit comeback victory this season tops in the NBA; The Raptors shot 38.1% in the second half – and won; Raptors now second in free throw attempts and makes, just 25th in rebounding and assists per game, second in fewest turnovers and in offensive rating, first in point differential, sixth in defensive rating, fourth in simple rating which takes into account point differential and strength of schedule and seventh in true shooting percentage. The Raptors don’t have much to do with this stat, since they aren’t the ones shooting, but opponents have hit just 67.7% of their free throws against them so far this season, the worst mark in the NBA.

- One more weird one: Terrence Ross was one of the NBA leaders last season, hitting over 47.4% of his three-point attempts from the left corner. This year, he has started just 4-for-15 (26.7%) from there.

Feel-good Raptors toy with young Bucks and unveil Bruno Caboclo to the NBA world

- November 22nd, 2014

You could probably count on one hand the number of nights at the ACC that have been more fun than Friday’s Raptors-palooza.

- That was something else. It was bizarre, surreal and a heck of a way to cap a record-setting homestand. Not only did the Raptors completely annihilate the Bucks, the team also unveiled Bruno Caboclo to his adoring public – and the rookie delivered, showing he has a bit of a flair for the dramatic – plus Landry Fields ran in to dunk a missed free throw, a rarity nowadays that once was a Michael Jordan specialty. That sneaky Fields has tried this before.

- Milwaukee might have been tired and definitely had been playing over its collective head this season, but nobody expected what went down. The Raptors completely throttled the Bucks. Jonas Valanciunas looked like he was battling against school children. Brandon Knight is a good player, but Kyle Lowry completely outclassed him. At one point Valanciunas and the six-foot Lowry had more rebounds than the Bucks had as a team. The Bucks looked lost trying to defend cuts or the interior. Former Raptor Jerryd Bayless said, “honestly, we got our ass beat pretty much,” and that wasn’t hyperbole. It was the truth. “That is why they are the best in the East and you have to tip your hat,” added Jared Dudley. “DeRozan didn’t even play that well (he had one of his worst nights in two years) and they still have a lot of contributions. They really embarrassed us.”

- Sure, Milwaukee had an off night and Toronto’s schedule has been pretty easy so far, but hard not to be impressed by this group. As Greivis Vasquez says, these guys are professionals. They are winning the games they should take and giving themselves some breathing room for when things get tough (which could be as soon as tonight in Cleveland).

- The story of the night was Bruno’s debut. The fans were great, calling for him in the third quarter, going nuts when he checked in and replacing the ‘let’s go Raptors’ and ‘de-fence’ chants with ‘let’s go Bruno’ and ‘Bru-no.’ Caboclo still can’t dribble, but he can really shoot the ball and isn’t afraid to fire away. He is already a fan favourite and his teammates love him too. “I feel like everything is good,” Caboclo said afterward, even though he added he didn’t feel comfortable and that the game was far different than the pre-season. “So different,” he said.

- “I thought they came in and did what we asked them to do,” Dwane Casey said of Caboclo and Bebe. “To get a taste of the NBA: It’s a lot different than being up there working out in practice once you get the adrenaline flowing, the aggressiveness of another team. The feel of a real NBA game was great for him.” Casey added that he loved the fan reaction and hopes the NBA will let coaches dress all 15 players eventually. “If he wasn’t in uniform tonight, he wouldn’t have gotten that opportunity.” Valanciunas said it “brought back good memories” of his own Toronto debut and the reception he got from the fans two years ago.

- Bebe said he was gassed the whole time he was out there (he played just shy of nine minutes) because he went through his usual, intense workout session with the training staff earlier Friday. Because nobody expects him to play, Nogueira goes through intense workouts on game days.

- Takeaways of what the Raptors did well: Pressured Knight, forcing somebody else to beat them; Moving the ball from side-to-side better than normal and driving into the paint and kicking out to the open man – something Casey had said beforehand would be a key to beating Milwaukee, a team that came in ranked fourth in the NBA in defence; Connecting from three (60% shooting) and using their size advantage (the Valanciunas dominance, Amir Johnson’s three blocks, a 15-8 edge on the offfensive glass and 57-30 rebounding edge overall).

- Casey said James Johnson was unlikely for the Cleveland game. “I doubt it because he’s still tender and sore.”

- Peak Greivis Vasquez quotes:  (On Chuck Hayes): “He’s a great leader, a great locker room guy because he could be pissed (about not getting much playing time). But he’s not, he’s happy. He gets in guys’ face, he’s a great leader. He’s ready whenever his name is called. We’re blessed. I don’t know whether you guys have seen a locker room like this. We’re expecting big things.”

(On his jump shot) “It’s not really a big concern. I get in the gym, I get better and I hit the big shots when I need to.” Kind of like this guy, who hit two more on Friday.


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

NBA-leading Grizzlies latest to fall to Raptors; Chuck Hayes for mayor? Ross, Amir wake up just in time; Carter finally forgiven? Vasquez not worried about low assist numbers

- November 20th, 2014

So, I guess the Raptors are for real. An easy early schedule had glossed over many of the team’s warts, but beating the Grizzlies – even a version depleted by the flu bug – is a major accomplishment.

- Colleague Mike Ganter covered Chuck Hayes here. What a bonus it is for Dwane Casey to have heady, effective vets like Hayes to call on when needed most. Sure, at some point, Jonas Valanciunas needs to be trusted late in games, but there is a balance and he wouldn’t have given the team a shot to win on Wednesday. Hayes did that by making life tough for Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph after they had treated the other Raptors like small children trying to compete against grown men. “That’s a true professional,” Greivis Vasquez said after giving Hayes a hug before leaving the Raptors locker room. Can’t argue with that. Assistant trainer Ray Chow, a Raptors lifer, yelled out “Chuck Hayes for mayor” drawing laughs and a lively discussion about Rob Ford.

- Terrence Ross and Amir Johnson were having horrid nights. Ross was basically invisible, Johnson was getting lit up by Gasol and Randolph down low and particularly on the boards, where Memphis ended up with a massive 15 rebound edge, including 15 offensive rebounds to Toronto’s seven). But to their credit, the two starters helped win the game for the Raptors in the end. Johnson played better defence, grabbed four rebounds in the fourth (Toronto actually outrebounded Memphis in the quarter after getting worked 40-24 through three quarters) and only committed one foul. It saved what could have been an awful night for Johnson. Meanwhile, Ross had two points through the first 36 minutes, then went supernova, hitting 5-of-7 shots for 14 points, including all three of his three-point attempts. Ross was the difference, carrying the Raptors all the way back (with help from Lowry), especially since DeMar DeRozan was struggling, going 1-for-5 in the final frame. The Raptors would love to see more consistency from the third-year swingman, but, for now, they’ll take his hot streaks.

- Lowry is not about to get carried way by the 9-2 start: “It’s not about the start, it’s about the finish,” Lowry said.

- Clearly the rebounding needs to improve and it would be nice if the assists started piling up again, but 9-2 is still 9-2. Last year, the Raptors finished 21st in the NBA in assists-per-game. By finally turning in a 20+ assist night on Wednesday (24 on 38 made baskets) the Raptors finally once again resembled last year’s unselfish group.

“That was huge, too, it made up a little bit for our lack of rebounding,” Casey said of the better assist numbers. “We’ve got to help each other whether it’s passing the ball, screening, spacing, all those things are very important.”

- Vasquez wasn’t aware the assist numbers had slipped, but wasn’t overly concerned, but recognizes moving the ball better would go a long way. “That’s our best game when we start playing together, start doing things together and that’s what we did tonight. Guys made shots at the right time and we were finding the open guy. That’s really how we identify our team, playing team basketball, whether it’s defensively or offensively,” Vasquez said.

“It’s something, it’s a concern right now, but it’s not like our main concern, we’ve just got to keep playing. We’re 9-2, so why would we change everything? We’ll get better, at the right time. Right now it’s working for us, so we’ve got to keep doing what we do.”

- The Vince Carter tribute was a nice moment and hopefully will provide some closure. It is long since time the franchise moved past all of this and embraced the fact that the future is probably brighter now than it has been at any point since Tracy McGrady fled (anything seemed possible when both Carter and McGrady were on the team).

- With all of the Carter hoopla fresh, I asked Amir if Carter had anything to do with his choosing No. 15 when he joined the Raptors. “Yeah, a little. It’s my birthday I guess. I don’t know, I was always 15,” Johnson said. So, no. “When I got the number here, I wasn’t really thinking about: ‘Vince Carter had this number,’ it was just my number, I had it through high school.” Johnson said he expected a mixed reaction for the Carter tribute, so was happy to see the positive response from the fans. “I mean, around the world, Half Man, Half Amazing. Seeing the guy just doing unbelievable stuff nobody’s seen before, definitely everybody knew who Vince was, Johnson said. “One of the most memorable dunks is probably the USA one where he jumped over (poor Fred Weiss). That went viral. He’s one of the greats.” Johnson quietly admitted that he’d give up his number one day if the Raptors wanted to retire it for Carter.

- Dwane Casey moved past Lenny Wilkens for second in all-time coaching wins with the Raptors.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Raptors still flawed but get it done against young Jazz; Valanciunas runs with chance; Bench shines again; Casey ties Lenny and Jazz building something intriguing

- November 16th, 2014

Toronto’s record continues to deceive, this team still has a number of issues – particularly with its help defence and willingness to share the ball – but all in all, a much better all-around performance on Saturday against a game Utah squad.

- In the run-up to this one, Dwane Casey was peppered with questions about his usage of Jonas Valanciunas. Valanciunas sat a lot against Chicago (to be fair, the stats say the team is far better defensively with the big Lithuanian on the bench). Against Utah, he played a ton and his teammates made a concerted effort to feed him. Valanciunas loves playing against Enes Kanter – they’ve been going at each other since they were kids and are friends – and responded with his best game of the season. He was aggressive, effective and a force on the boards. They need to keep feeding him, it seems to energize him and keep him in the game.

- Two things I’d like to see Valanciunas change in his game: (1) Stop with all of the shot fakes. He can hit a mid-range jumper. If you are open, fire away, without hesitation. Faking, putting it on the floor and attacking isn’t the best option for Valanciunas given he is a 7-footer without ridiculous speed and athleticism and because he also doesn’t protect the ball well enough. Again, he can make those shots and should take them. The exception would be when he is closer to the bucket and can use an up-fake to set up the driving hooks which have turned into a solid part of his game. (2) Valanciunas must take better care of the ball. He brings it down too low too often – something players are usually taught not to do – which leads to strips, steals, caroms off of feet, etc. But he’s getting there and the more confidence Casey and his teammates show in him, the better he will be.

- DeMar DeRozan took some awful shots against Chicago and wasn’t perfect against Utah either, but he was far smarter. He looked for others more often and generally made the right calls most of the time. He forced it a bit early, then got better. DeRozan racked up a lot of assists last season and had many games where he had four or more without a single turnover. He has only done that once so far, but has also not turned it over in three games in a row now. If he can generate more assists without making miscues, while getting Valanciunas more involved, this offence is going to be tough to stop.

- Another bad start – 10 assists for an opponent in a quarter can’t be acceptable – bad rotations, Amir Johnson sleep-walked a bit through the early going – the Raptors were a step slow against a team that had played the night before. It should have been the other way around, with the Raptors trying to run more on the Jazz. Eventually, the Jazz tired, but Toronto could have put more pressure on them early. Utah had 16 assists on 18 made baskets in the opening half. A damning indictment of how the Raptors were playing. The Raptors only managed 15 assists for the entire game and rank last in the NBA in assist percentage and one of only two teams that don’t assist on at least 50% of their shot attempts.

- Luckily for the home side, Utah looked tired in the third, getting soundly out-played and missing 5-of-10 free throws and the bench closed the door in the fourth with 10 points each from Lou Willimas and Patrick Patterson.

- Liked the way Kyle Lowry posted up on Trey Burke. Lowry can feast on smaller guards because he knows how to do work down there and use his body to create good shots.

- This Terrence Ross alley-oop was just ridiculous. A lot of things have gone wrong for the Raptors over the first 20 years, but one could argue no franchise has had as many transcendent dunkers as this one. Vince Carter is the greatest dunker of all time, and you could make a case Ross belongs in the top 10. Tracy McGrady wasn’t bad either and DeMar DeRozan is one of the better current dunkers.

- It was tough to see James Johnson hurt his ankle by stepping on a camera man. The NBA has booted out the print media in order to fit in more fans courtside, surely there is a way to inconvenience the camera guys as well. It’s just not worth the risk of injury. Move them back. An MRI on Johnson was negative. You can bet he’ll fight to play against his former team, Memphis, on Wednesday.
Mea culpa here, should have taken more time to think about what I was going to write above. In retrospect, this wasn’t about anything the camera operator did wrong. This is an NBA/MLSE issue. If they weren’t so hellbent on making as much money as possible from their richest customers by jamming in courtside seats everywhere, this likely would not have happened. The camera operators would have the space they need and everything wouldn’t be as crammed up. Plus, we’d still have our seats, which benefits the thousands of fans who read our copy (since being courtside allows us to provide better coverage), instead of the dozens of fans who can afford those seats.

- Utah has a chance to be quite good in time. This is one of the NBA’s youngest squads, but the intriguing thing is how talented some of these guys are. Dante Exum is only 19 and is new to basketball on this level. He has been one of the better rookies in the league so far, showed flashes Saturday and I believe he is going to be a superstar in time (saw him at summer league as well). Derrick Favors is a bonafide stud big man, Gordon Hayward could be an all-star one day and Kanter, Alec Burks, Rudy Gobert and Trey Burke all look like solid rotation players for years to come. Too bad for the Jazz that they play in the West and not in the East.

- Casey tied Lenny Wilkens for second on Toronto’s all-time coaching wins list (113), trailing only Sam Mitchell. He leads everybody in winning percentage.

- On a non Raptors note, history was made Saturday, when Minnesota started a pair of Canadians. Andrew Wiggins struggled, but Anthony Bennett had a nice game and has bounced back well in Minny from his brutal rookie season.
 

 

 

 

 

Bulls put Raptors in their place; Pro sports needs more athletes than Joakim Noah; Raptors frontcourt can’t yet compete; DeRozan should work it around

- November 14th, 2014

The Bulls taught the formerly high-flying Raptors a tough lesson on Thursday. Chicago has been a contender for years now, Toronto is still trying to make its way up that hill. The Bulls are bigger, tougher, meaner and a heck of a lot smarter (Kyle Lowry and a couple of other exceptions aside) on the basketball court and that all showed in this one. Sure, the refs didn’t distinguish themselves well, but they were not the reason why the Raptors lost the lead and eventually, the game.

- The frontcourt just isn’t good enough to match up with the best of the best. Nobody could come close to stopping Pau Gasol. Joakim Noah was dominant and Taj Gibson did his usual thing, provide great minutes as the team’s third big. Chicago’s group is just on a different level than Toronto’s. No shame in that, does anybody else in the NBA have three guys as good up front as Chicago does?

- If Toronto wants to close the gap though, Jonas Valanciunas has to get the ball more and has to do more with it. He has to go up stronger and hold onto it better. He gets stripped far too easily inside. Amir Johnson is a great defender and did a bit better on Gasol, but not much, and he doesn’t provide enough offence for the Raptors to get to the next level. If Patrick Patterson isn’t going either, it’s usually going to be a long night for the Raptors.

- Speaking of long nights … DeMar DeRozan turned in a stinker, shooting just 3-for-17. The alarming thing might be that head coach Dwane Casey was happy with his shot selection and said he simply missed some shots he’d normally make. Not too sure about that. Jimmy Butler is a great perimeter defender who has historically given DeRozan fits. He doesn’t let DeRozan do what he wants to do or go where he wants to go. The result is a lot of forced attempts. Remember Rudy Gay? Remember when Casey said he had no problems with Gay’s horrendous shot selection? This might be a problem. If the Raptors want to have a sustainably good offence and not the one built on a mirage that we’ve seen early this season (the turnover numbers and free throw attempts aren’t sustainable, so something has to change), the ball simply has to start moving again. The way it did when Gay was shipped out and DeRozan embraced both scoring and looking for his teammates. Only two teams average fewer assists than the Raptors. Keep it up, and the great record is going to go downhill in a hurry.

- Yes, I’ll fully admit that the Bulls make you do things offensively that you don’t want to and rotate so well it is hard to find the open man. But forcing shots isn’t a solution that will lead to victories.

- Valanciunas said meeting the Bulls was like taking a cold shower and admitted they weren’t ready for a team that good and physical. They had better be next time.

- Pro sports needs more athletes like Noah. He is honest. He tried not to be after the game, looking wary of the media and insinuating he wasn’t comfortable speaking because words get twisted, then went on an epic rant . Noah is right, this whole Derrick Rose witch hunt is silly. Folks get mad at athletes when they speak in cliches, then attack them when they are honest. They can’t win. It’s all about shock value and generating a story, often when there isn’t one. Society has gone downhill, and so has much of the media. Should Rose have been less honest? I don’t think so. The guy knows he isn’t physically able to play every game so he has to be cautious. He also knows he has a guaranteed contract and has many more years to live once he is done playing. He’s thinking about that, as is his right. When he is able to play, he gives it his all and helps his team win. Would it be tough to rely on a guy like that? Absolutely. But it’s not his fault that his body has betrayed him

- Guys like Butler and Gibson really show the value of smart drafting. Chicago stole the Marquette product with the 30th pick of the draft, while Gibson went 26th. Now they are two of the best two-way players in the league.

- Positives for the Raptors: Until the third, they played a decent game. Chicago probably should have had a bigger lead after the first, but the Raptors played an excellent second and should have been up by more than seven at the half. Lowry was solid, despite probably being the one Raptor who got a bit hosed in the foul call department.

- James Johnson was fantastic and changed the game in the second quarter. Terrence Ross has become pretty good at coming off a curl to hit a floater. DeRozan could stand to get back to doing more of that, though opponents play closer to Ross because of his outside shooting ability, which gives him a bit more room to get open. The team rallied late to make it respectable. That’s about it for the positives.