Latest loss more about Raptors than Charlotte curse; The offence defies logic

- March 7th, 2015

Charlotte is officially Toronto’s house of horrors. Eight straight losses there for various groups of Raptors and for once DeMar DeRozan didn’t get locked down by Gerald Henderson and Co. and the Raptors still managed to lose. Dwane Casey again pointed to the team’s inconsistent defence (lack of focus, lack of intensity) and it certainly was an issue – there is no reason a bad offensive team like Charlotte (third-worst in the NBA in offensive rating, second-last in true shooting percentage) should so far exceed its normal production. The Hornets got far too many open shots, weren’t forced into enough turnovers and got to the line far too often.

- It is now officially time to worry about this group. If the seven losses in eight games weren’t enough, how about 14-16 since the calendar switched to 2015 (after going 24-8 in the 2014 portion of the schedule). The intensity that was a staple of Dwane Casey teams throughout his tenure in Toronto has wavered, defensively, the Raptors can’t guard the perimeter at all and the offence lacks consistency and smarts. Getting a healthy Kyle Lowry back was nice, but he forced too many shots and even admitted as much afterward, saying though the Raptors are a jumpshooting team, they simply must get Jonas Valanciunas (and, theoretically, other bigs) more involved down low. It makes perfect sense, but Lowry and the others have played this tune in the past and nothing changed. Valanciunas got three shots. Three. Amir Johnson and Patrick Patterson eight combined. Patterson is in a deep slump and Lou Williams has been great, but with massive variance from game-to-game, but the Raptors have guaranteed efficient production staring them in the face in the form of Valanciunas and they ignore him. It is baffling. Nobody on hand wants to explain why it is the case either. It is like the entire organization has horse blinders on it, starting with the star backcourt and the coaching staff.

- Regardless of whether or not the NBA is going away from the traditional big man, Valanciunas is an effective force and a key part of the team’s future. The Raptors decline to take advantage of what he can provide both at their short – and long-term peril.

-  Was it the proper time to put Terrence Ross back in the starting lineup in place of James Johnson for the first time since Jan. 18? Ross had been showing some signs of life, but had still not found the consistency the Raptors were eager for him to show. But the team was just 9-9 with Johnson starting this season, including 4-5 recently. They are 26-15 when Ross starts. In this one, Ross was OK, he posted a career-best seven assists (nearly doubling his previous career best of four), but couldn’t hit the shots he is in the lineup to make (just 2-for-7 from three). If Ross isn’t hitting, he isn’t helping. Not that Johnson was either. He might have turned in his worst game of the season, the Raptors were pummeled when he was on the floor. Overall, Toronto had been much better with Johnson coming off the bench this season compared to when he starts, but that trend didn’t hold true in this one. I’m still not convinced starting both Johnson and Patterson isn’t the best look for this team.

More observations:- Thought Valanciunas played good interior defence on Al Jefferson, forcing him into tough shots (he made some, but that’s what he does). The same could be said for Amir Johnson. The Raptors also were at their best when they went inside. Jefferson and Cody Zeller aren’t good defenders and Bismack Biyombo only played 13 minutes. It should have happened more often.

- DeRozan is taking a ton of shots right now – they are going in, but it’s a dangerous game. He has only gone to the free throw line five combined times over the past two games. He had no assists against Cleveland, three against Charlotte. Do like that he is going in the post a bit more.

- Random point: Cleveland sits big man Timofey Mozgov in most fourth quarters too, opting to go with the more mobile Tristan Thompson, so it’s not just a Toronto thing.

- If Charlotte had an elite two-way swingman like Paul George, Jimmy Butler or Kawhi Leonard, the Hornets would be a contender in the East. That’s no stunner, but even with a lesser version of one of those guys, simply a consistent three-point gunner who plays average defence, the Hornets would be in really good shape.

- That’s back-to-back goose eggs for Patterson, the first time he has done that as a Raptor. Patterson’s been to the free throw line once in the past 12 games. Couple that with the allergy Ross has for contact and it’s not wonder the offence has some issues. Even if you are primarily a three-point threat, as both Patterson and Ross are, you have to at least try to create contact once in a blue moon.

- This was a rare game when Lou Williams was a complete tire fire. Usually when he misses 70-90% of his shot attempts, he at least gets to the line often and/or hits some threes. Not this time.
- Lowry was 3-for-14 on contested field goals, 6-for-8 on uncontested.

- Thunder, Spurs, Heat, Blazers, surging Pacers, inspired Wiggins coming home for first time, then Bulls on deck. This could get really ugly.

A fine effort from Raptors not enough because LeBron remains LeBron; Good offence (mostly) poor defence; Foul no big deal

- March 5th, 2015

The Cleveland Cavaliers were being mocked, they were losing games and many were writing them off as the biggest bust in the NBA in years. Then, LeBron James sat out eight games to rest his battered body. When he returned, everything changed. Cleveland has won 19 of 23 games since and LeBron has regained his MVP form, re-emerging as the NBA’s best player (with apologies to Steph Curry, Russell Westbrook, James Harden and Kevin Durant), averaging 27.7 points, 6.9 assists, 6.3 rebounds and 50% shooting since his return. Amazingly James has been far from perfect (4.7 turnovers per game in that stretch, 68% shooting from the free throw line) but is has barely mattered.

- The Raptors got an up close look on Wednesday night at the James that has been terrorizing the league since mid-January. He was the difference. When the Raptors had seized momentum and control, fighting all the way back to take a lead, James decided he had had enough. He set up J.R. Smith for a three to regain the lead, missed a dunk, but quickly threw down another, then set up James Jones for a three. He also hit a pair of free throws then finished the Raptors off with consecutive three-pointers. In all, James scored 15 points in the fourth quarter, missing only one shot. He also added three assists and did not commit a turnover. Kyrie Irving was deadly too, but James did in the Raptors.

More thoughts:

- The Raptors played good defence for half of the game – the first and third quarters – but got absolutely destroyed in the second and fourth frames (Cleveland shot a combined 59% with just three turnovers, none in the fourth). The issues were widespread. Greivis Vasquez can’t stay in front of Iriving (not that many can), and Cleveland effortlessly broke down the initial defender all night, which allowed the Cavaliers to set up scores of open shots, a great many of them coming from outside (The Raptors allowed a season-worst 15 threes). Part of that is LeBron and Irving do that to everyone – it is what makes Cleveland so dangerous – but part of it was Toronto just wasn’t rotating quickly enough and wasn’t doing a good enough job of putting pressure on whoever had the ball. One exception – DeMar DeRozan did a nice job on LeBron. That’s the second time this season he has done that.

- DeRozan had a second straight strong offensive game, an encouraging sign for the Raptors considering his well-documented recent struggles. The offence looked great, even though Kyle Lowry again wasn’t playing. Part of that was Lou Williams absolutely went off – a franchise-record 21 points in the fourth quarter, the second time this season he has obliterated the Cavaliers – the Raptors drew tons of fouls and were on fire from three after a slow start and also hit all but one free throw. The team only committed nine turnovers, Greivis Vasquez had 13 assists and only one turnover and Williams again looked great as a backup point guard, picking up six more assists.

- I think the Jonas Valanciunas foul on James is much ado about nothing. It was barely a flagrant and wouldn’t have been a flagrant back in the day. As Valanciunas said, with James being so big and so strong, you have to put some effort into fouling him, or else you will just bounce off of him. It wasn’t a big deal at all.

- Looks like JaVale McGee is signing with the Celtics. Told by someone who would know that if the Raptors wanted to do something they would have at the deadline with one or two of their expiring contracts. They chose not to. They weren’t going to get into a bidding war with McGee and can’t offer starting minutes like Boston can. EDIT: After publication, the McGee-Boston deal fell through and he remains on the market.

 

You could see DeRozan’s breakout coming; The defence still rests; Greivis and Lou come through at the point

- March 3rd, 2015

PHILADELPHIA — The next time DeMar DeRozan finds himself in a lull, the Raptors should fly in Jakarr Sampson for some scrimmage work. For whatever reason, DeRozan seems to have his way with the Sixers rookie. Sampson bites on all of his fakes and that allows DeRozan to get a lot of easy points.

With Kyle Lowry being rested, the Raptors couldn’t afford to have the February version of DeRozan show up, even against the overmatched Sixers. If that came to pass, the Raptors wouldn’t have won, not with the defence playing so terribly for the bulk of the game. But DeRozan had perhaps his best game of the season and carried his team to a win, the way stars are supposed to.

 

- In Lowry’s absence, the point guards were rock solid. Greivis Vasquez predicted DeRozan would have a big game and that he would be OK as well and then delivered. Vasquez hit most of his shots and ran the pick-and-roll well. His swagger and confidence helped. Lou Williams had been tried out at point guard in the pre-season and the coaching staff loved the job he did, but with Lowry and Vasquez around, he had barely been required to run the show at all. On Monday, Williams became the backup point guard and he was excellent, dishing out five assists without a turnover, as well as chipping in with 21 points. Williams wasn’t as predictable in this role, since opponents have to respect the fact that he will look for teammates more often when he is playing the point. In addition to his assists, Williams also had a team best three secondary assists (hockey assists).

 

- The team talked pre-game about how good Jonas Valanciunas was against New York and how they had to establish him early, then – they totally decided not to do that. He got posted up a few times – most memorably, when James Johnson yelled at him to establish position, but he was mostly a decoy. Afterward, Valanciunas didn’t care, he was just happy to get the win. The only thing he was miffed about was some of the calls that got him into foul trouble.

 

- Dwane Casey and his staff made a smart call in scheduling a fun, laid back shoot-around. The team was tight and not feeling great about itself after losing to New York, the fifth loss in a row, so having the Raptors relax by playing a shooting game in the morning loosened them up for the game.

 

- It was far from a strong defensive performance. While the Raptors had far more energy than they have had in a while, Philadelphia is the NBA’s worst offensive team (and was missing top shooters Robert Covington and Jason Richardson) so there is really no way the team should shoot 53% for the game and notch 32 assists. The defence was lazy at times and far too scattered. The offence was dominant, so it didn’t matter much, but the Raptors good run of defence seems to have hit the skids a little bit. Philadelphia shot 64% at the rim, which is just atrocious defending. On the plus side, after a brutal first half, Tyler Hansbrough really stepped up defensively down the stretch.

 

- DeRozan’s controversial comments about preferring to shoot with a hand in his face weighed true for one night at least. He shot 6-for-9 on contested attempts, just 6-for-15 on uncontested (though it really was 6-for-13, since two of them were end of quarter heaves. Either way, still better when contested in this one).

 

Same old story for Raptors and it starts with DeRozan’s bad decision-making; The stats aren’t pretty over the past 15 games

- March 1st, 2015

Here we go again, another rough loss, another game where the Raptors couldn’t – or wouldn’t – play the right way. Another embarrassing setback. Kyle Lowry or not, this team should not be losing to the NBA-worst New York Knicks. Recall that the Raptors almost lost to the Knicks back in December, committing a season-high turnover number. There were only 12 turnovers this time, but there was also all kinds of foul trouble, some lackluster defence, not enough energy and not nearly enough passion.

- This is not all on DeMar DeRozan, it is a team game, but at what point does he try something else ie. looking for teammates like Jonas Valanciunas, who he constantly ignores down low, instead of forcing yet another extremely difficult shot attempt? I’m a broken record now, but DeRozan has shown in the past many times that he can be a good facilitator, it might be the most underrated part of his game, but instead, he seems hell-bent on imitating good friend Rudy Gay. It is not going to work and he is not going to shoot his way out of this. Salvation lies in passing the ball.

- Lowry always has big games in New York City, but it was the right call to sit him. The prize is down the line, not right now, even though the five game losing streak is extremely troubling. If Lowry isn’t right, the Raptors won’t do anything, so the priority is getting him back to where he once was. Whether that means sitting him out at home on Monday, so be it. Can’t imagine he misses Wednesday’s big tilt with Cleveland.

- If you cancelled the all points bulletin on Terrence Ross after his strong game on Friday night … turn the bat signal back on, the Raptors are still looking for him.

- What looked good? Valanciunas offensively; The Greivis Vasquez-Amir Johnson pick and roll and … that’s all we can come up with.

 - From a couple of weeks ago but applied last night, on Toronto’s defence:

“It’s a team defence. It’s a situation where someone should be in the gap. Last night, there were a few times where the big guys were stretched out; they were supposed to be in the gap to help the guy on the ball. It’s a team thing. When you get by that guy, the bottom guy has a rotational responsibility. It’s not just on one guy. Yes, that’s where the problem starts, ball containment. But there are other safety measures behind that, to help him and help the measure,” Casey had said. That issue continues. The guard can’t stop the initial attack and the help isn’t there, whether because it is late or because a gamble has occurred elsewhere.

- New York remains 24.5 games back of the Raptors.

- Matt Devlin fell ill before the game. Get well soon Matty D and props to Eric Smith for stepping up and out of his comfort zone. I’ve never done any broadcasting, but can imagine it is extremely difficult to be thrown into TV work when you are used to calling a game on radio an entirely different animal altogether.

- In the past 15 games, Toronto is just 8-7, ranks sixth-worst in assist-to-turnover ratio, which has long been a team strength and a major factor in why they won so many games. Toronto is also the NBA’s fifth-worst rebounding team in that span, and only six teams have allowed more free throws. That is not a winning recipe. Also problematic? One of the best teams at drawing fouls ranks 26th in those 15 games.

Raptors offence continues to be troubling; Lineup change didn’t work, but give it time; Where is the old fight?

- February 28th, 2015

The worst shooting quarter in team history was an unmissable, comet spark of an indicator that Toronto’s offence is far from optimal, no matter what the metrics say. The team doesn’t run the type of offence that wins in the playoffs (doesn’t run enough of an offence in general, if we are being honest) and simply doesn’t play smart far too often.

Afterward, DeMar DeRozan said everybody on the team – “including myself” – has to pass the ball more, but there is a difference between words and actions. DeRozan must prove that he actually believes what he is saying.

It is troubling that Dwane Casey talked pre-game about how the team focus at practice had been on spacing and on moving the ball. “Teams are sagging off of certain people in the starting lineup, not just James. Certain teams, some of them help off of JV, they don’t guard him, some of them help off of Amir, some of them help off of James. So different teams have different schemes and we’ve got to be able to see that and recognize that and make sure each of those guys get to their spots … When you do go iso… and again, that’s who DeMar is, he’s a semi-postup player and he’s going to be in that situation. But it’s up to his teammates to make sure they get to their spots, get the proper spacing. If they see their man cut, relocate. We have certain position on the floor when he is in the post and it’s up to them to get to where they are. But at the end of the day we do have to do a better job of moving the ball.”

- The problem with putting a lot of this on teammates not cutting or not moving, is DeRozan has shown incredible reluctance in at least half of the games this season to look for them at all. His modus operandi has been to force up shots, even with two defenders on him, instead of finding wide open teammates.

- Casey had talked a few weeks ago about finding more time for Patterson, saying “Pat’s energy is contagious, the way he plays, how hard he plays … It’s nothing against Amir, JV or Tyler, but he plays at a different level that’s an NBA skill.” For whatever reason, being elevated to starter didn’t have a positive impact on Patterson for this one night. Like most of his teammates, Patterson didn’t seem to have his usual pop

- Is Valanciunas running around too much? For the second time in the previous five, he ran more than any other Raptor. Your centre shouldn’t really be doing that. Could his running be more productive if he is in the right spots more? Perhaps. Also, a lot of his running on offence gets wasted because his teammates simply don’t look for him.

- Was interesting to hear Valanciunas tell me the team played “too soft.” He has said that a few times lately. Don’t forget that the Warriors showed up the Raptors a bit in a win in Oakland earlier this season and only Casey was royally perturbed about it afterward, noting that the Raptors should mark Friday’s date in their calendar. Only Tyler Hansbrough did that, apparently.

- The first quarter was actually an improvement (defensively at least!) to what went down in Oakland, when the Warriors shot 70% and handed out 14 assists against only one turnover.

- Being selfish here, but sure hope the Warriors make it to the Finals. Not only because they are incredibly entertaining, but also because I have never been to San Francisco, because it is the most in-demand trip on the NBA beat.

- Found Steve Kerr’s comments insightful. He said that last year’s edition of the Warriors should not have been just the 12th-best offensive team in basketball with the personnel they had on hand.  He sped things up – because “we don’t have Kareem or Hakeem to thrown the ball to,” Kerr said and made sure the players became far more unselfish. They now lead the league in passes per game, assists and secondary assists per game, while still dominating defensively, despite playing at an incredibly quick pace. “Teams have won that way (slowing it down), but every team has to play to its strengths and we feel that’s its strength,” he said.

- Golden State earned its fourth season series sweep (2-0) over Toronto in the last six years.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 
 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Shoddy shot selection continues to sink Raptors

- February 25th, 2015

It was another tough loss on Tuesday night for the Raptors in a game that could have gone their way had they played a bit smarter. Similar to what went down in New Orleans, in fact. Losing three straight after the stunningly easy win over Atlanta to open the post-all-star break portion of the schedule isn’t the end of the world, but some things need to change if the Raptors want to stay on track.

- Following the loss to the Pelicans, Dwane Casey said his team’s shot selection leaves something to be desired, that the team falls in love with three-point attempts too often instead of driving to the basket. This corner would argue that the extremely difficult two-point attempts favoured by DeMar DeRozan are a bigger issue. Like Rudy Gay before him, DeRozan seems to need to hit some sort of quote of two-point attempts on many evenings. Some games he doesn’t play like this – he moves the ball with aplomb and looks for his teammates – but too often, he forces up brutal attempts by the half-dozen. That needs to change, if that’s even possible. Patrick Patterson said the Raptors are too ISO-heavy and try to do too much on their own instead of playing the team game. The East-leading Atlanta Hawks assist on 67.6% of their baskets, the Raptors draw assists just 54.5% of the time, fourth-fewest in the NBA.

- If DeRozan wasn’t capable of playing more effectively, we wouldn’t harp on this, but he has shown many times what type of player he can be when he moves the ball. A great example of what DeRozan could be doing came late in third. On a break, he could have forced a tough jumper but instead, made a great pass to Patrick Patterson for three. When he attacks, he usually either gets to the free throw line or creates open shots for his teammates. When he settles, bad things happen. Since going to the line 35 times in the final three games heading into the break (just shy of 12 per outing), DeRozan has made just 14 appearances at the line in four games (3.5 per game).

- Add up way too many turnovers on the wrong spots of the floor to bad shot selection and nearly always, the result is going to be a defeat. The Raptors shot smartly enough through the first quarter and carried it through the half (53.3% shooting) and committed just seven turnovers, but only led by six against a solid Dallas team. The Raptors weren’t great in the third, but neither was Dallas, so this still could have been a win, had the fourth not been a bit of a disaster. DeRozan and Kyle Lowry combined to miss all six of their attempts, the team shot just 32% (2-for-7 from three) and Dallas turned six turnovers into nine points and that was pretty much the difference.

A few more observations:

- J.J. Barea treated the Raptors the way he usually treats Canada while playing for Puerto Rico. He was a sparkplug.

- Patterson got the yips late, committing two of the team’s worst turnovers in the game.

- The mistakes down the stretch just added up and were too many to overcome.
- Positives would include looking for Jonas Valanciunas early – especially Lowry – the strong play at both ends in the first half from the team and the play of James Johnson, who was once again arguably the best Raptor on the floor.
Some grisly stats:
DeRozan shooting 36% in February Lowry 35%, Patterson 40% (30% from three after 45% earlier in year), Lou Williams 33%, team 42% for Feb. 26th in NBA. 22nd in true shooting percentage and effective field goal percentage. Though those perimeter players (and Patterson) have been woeful, James and Amir Johnson and Valanciunas have all shot at least 60% from the floor in February, yet barely see the ball. Not exactly a winning formula is it?

- The bright side – Toronto’s defence has been No. 4 overall in February.

Troubling signs as Raptors collapse against Pelicans

- February 24th, 2015

It all looked so promising early on. Responding to a lethargic performance in Houston that disappointed head coach Dwane Casey, the Raptors came out aggressive and intense against New Orleans. The defence was superb particularly from Kyle Lowry, James Johnson and Jonas Valanciunas and nobody could stop Valanciunas inside. But that all faded and eventually, “they played harder than us,”  Lowry said of the Pelicans. That’s two out of the past three games that an opponent “threw a bigger punch” than the Raptors and seemed to want it more. That’s a bit troubling.

- Also troubling: The lack of creativity on offence. The Raptors are a three-point shooting team and that’s not going to change, as Lowry also pointed out, but how can a team that runs such efficient out of timeout plays, be so brutal at the end of quarters and of games? The Lou Williams isolation plays don’t work, because there is no variety and opponents know what to expect. You might get a call on the road with your six foot guard driving into a 7-foot shot-blocker once or twice a season. It’s just a bad decision by Lowry, the success rate is tiny. Even Casey said the team wasn’t running the plays and was just trying to “take an opportunity to do something different.” Again, troubling. DeMar DeRozan’s 22-foot fadeaways? Also troubling. DeRozan has been extremely effective when he moves the ball, doesn’t force his shots and takes what the defence is giving him. That’s the all-star version of DeRozan. We have only seen it sporadically. Perhaps it is patience that Lowry and DeRozan lack? Instead of forcing, if they’d just slow it down and make better decisions (like keeping Valanciunas involved) the Raptors would be a lot more threatening and it would be far easier to see them as a legitimate contender to make the Eastern Conference Finals or at least win a round and nearly take another. Right now, that seems like wishful thinking. Masai Ujiri gets this. It’s why he didn’t make a small move and it is why huge changes are coming the next two summers as he puts his stamp on a team that is still heavily-dominated by Bryan Colangelo acquisitions.

- Lou Williams was badly missed in Houston and Patrick Patterson was badly missed in this one. The team has grown used to closing games with Patterson on the floor and obviously couldn’t, due to his knee injury. Patterson is one of the three best pick-and-roll defenders on the team and also has a habit of hitting big shots for the club. If he had been healthy, perhaps the outcome would have been different.

- The play of Terrence Ross is still a gigantic concern. They let him play the entire second quarter and Ross only scored once on four tries, didn’t grab a rebound and like usual, didn’t get to the line. He did make at least one big shot though. All they can do is be patient in the off-season, as nobody will trade anything of value for him at this point with his value cratered.

- The coaching staff has been great all season and I’ve been the first to point it out and don’t want to seem like I’m piling on today, but why play the starters so much in the third? Three of them played the whole frame, DeRozan only a minute and a half less. Of course they were going to be tired in the fourth with Patterson sidelined. Chuck Hayes or Tyler Hansbrough should have battled against the plodding Omer Asik, allowing Amir Johnson or Valanciunas to get some rest to be fresh for the fourth (part of the reason Valanciunas didn’t play during the decisive final minutes was because the team said he didn’t have enough in the tank …). The team was up 11 when DeRozan split a pair of free throws half-way through the third, that was the perfect time to give the bigs and Lowry a break (or even up eight with three minutes left). Give the Pelicans full marks for coming back, but part of it was due to Toronto’s fatigue.

- The Raptors are adamant that James Johnson is not an infallible one-on-one defender – he makes a lot of mistakes, he just covers up for them extremely quickly – and Tyreke Evans still had his way with him, but still believe Johnson on Evans would have made more sense than Greivis Vasquez. Evans likely still blows by Johnson, but Johnson would have made him work harder and perhaps thrown him off a bit. Still, why don’t players back up off of Evans? He is a well below average shooter and a fantastic driver. Give him more room and dare him to shoot over you.

- Amir Johnson got annihilated down low, mainly by Alexis Ajinca. The Pelicans shot 10-for-13 against him at the rim, just 4-for-9 against Valanciunas.

Raptors not named James Johnson fail to bring it in Houston and nobody picks up slack for struggling stars, injured Lou Williams

- February 22nd, 2015

- The Raptors played like a team finishing a tough back-to-back on Saturday night in Houston. Not surprisingly, that’s because they were. Even though they got some rest in the fourth quarter the night before, Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan looked way off in this one early on. They shot 2-for-9, combined, in the first quarter. When they went just 2-for-11 in the third quarter, that was basically the game. They just weren’t in it, something Dwane Casey felt was a problem for the whole team. ““When you don’t come out in this league ready to play mentally and physically, I don’t care who you are, you are going to get your behind handed to you,” Casey said afterward. “Tonight we didn’t come out with the right mind set. They were the hungrier team. They did all the hard and grimy things that we did Friday in Atlanta.”

- Overall, it was a hideous shooting night for Toronto’s two best players (2-for-13 for Lowry, 4-for-14 for DeRozan). With Lou Williams out due to an ankle injury, there was nobody to pick up the offensive slack, to make up for their struggles. Lowry is now a troubling 37% shooter (30% from three) over his past five games. He has averaged just 5.4 assists against a whopping 3.4 turnovers per game in that span. The hope is the all-star break gave Lowry the rest he needed to get back into top form. He was excellent in Atlanta, but turned in one of his worst outings on Saturday.

- No shame to losing to a strong squad in a building that has a loud crowd when you didn’t get much sleep. Houston, even with Dwight Howard injured, is a good squad. If Howard returns, the Howard rebound to a streaking Corey Brewer should be an effective wrinkle. As is, the team seems to be missing something (depth perhaps) to really challenge the West’s big boys, but a good team nonetheless. It was a lot to ask taking out both the Hawks and Rockets in a road back-to-back. Still, Casey didn’t think they were mentally in it and believes there is no excuse to not be ready to compete, even if you are tired. And hey, Houston was playing for the second night in a row too and still doubled Toronto’s energy.

- James Johnson was excellent. He has been quite a good fit in the starting lineup. He played excellent defence on Kyle Korver on Friday, then made life far more difficult than usual for James Harden, an MVP candidate. Johnson blocked a couple of Harden’s shots, crowded him and made him work. Harden had five turnovers and Johnson causes a lot of them. At the other end, Johnson was by far the best Raptor. Consistent throughout, Johnson got to the line and finished when he wasn’t getting fouled, on the way to a career-best 27 points. He also had four steals and four blocks. Johnson just needs to find a teammate playing at his level, because right now, no other Raptor is excelling (save for the absent Williams).

- Yes, the referees were letting them play. Yes, it seemed to impact the Raptors mentally a bit -  further proving Casey’s point that they weren’t mentally ready for this one.

- It was a season-high 25 turnovers for the Raptors and the first time they had as many turnovers as made field goals in a game in 20 seasons. Toronto only got two free throw attempts from its bench and Terrence Ross remains missing in action.

- A game after defending the rim like a team full of Bill Russells, the Raptors stunk guarding the inside, allowing Houston to shoot nearly 50% at the rim. Only Jonas Valanciunas, maybe the second-best Raptor in the game, proved a deterrent down low (Houston shot just 1-for-7 at the rim against him, 21-for-38 against rest of team).

 

Raptors fulfill the prophecy – “Boomin’ out in South Gwinnett like Lou Will” – throttle first-place Hawks again behind hometown scoring machine

- February 21st, 2015

In case you missed it, Raptors global ambassador Drake recently released an extremely popular mixtape, complete with a track called 6 Man that begins with a shout out to Lou Williams, Toronto’s scoring machine, who has probably been the premier sixth man in the entire NBA this season. No reserve has nearly as many 20+ point games as Williams this year and he has been the key factor in a few of Toronto’s biggest victories this season (remember the comeback in Cleveland?), including Saturday’s stunning blowout of the East-leading Atlanta Hawks. Think Williams enjoys showing his hometown club what they are missing (the Hawks inexplicably gave Williams and Lucas Nogueira away last summer in a money-saving effort)? Williams has averaged 15.3 points against them in just 21.8 minutes in four meetings as a Raptor, shooting 51% from the field and 56% from three (by far his best numbers against any team, efficency-wise). His second quarter explosion (11 points on perfect shooting was huge, since only he and DeMar DeRozan could shoot straight in that frame 2-for-16).

- Of course Toronto isn’t going to hit 43% from deep every night and Atlanta, a team filled with sharp-shooters is not going to shoot 21% on 38 attempts more than two other times this season, but neither marks were merely flukes. Atlanta didn’t get the same number of wide open looks it usually gets from deep. Early on, the Raptors set a tone by rotating quickly and getting a hand up on most of the attempts, making them far more difficult shots. Even if they were a bit late, Toronto’s defenders did a good job of getting a long arm and hand into the line of vision of the Hawks players (Kyle Korver was listed as 2-for-11 on uncontested shots, but many of those labeled uncontested discount the fact a Toronto player was flying at him a millisecond after he released the shot). The defence on mid-range attempts was even better. The Raptors swarmed the Hawks, pressuring them into many tough shots. It was the best the defence has looked in some time.

- Being rested really helped the Raptors in this one, but Atlanta had a ton of rest too (even if most of them were at all-star weekend) so don’t think that was a huge advantage or anything. No, I believe the Raptors throttled the Hawks in large part because they wanted to send a message to management that they appreciated the vote of confidence. Masai Ujiri declined to make a move, knowing that this science experiment has yielded chemistry at a level that is rarely seen in pro sports. Everyone knows this isn’t a true contender, but with nothing available worth messing the current chemistry up, the Raptors stood pat, and the players clearly appreciated it.

- Speaking of rest, being able to hold DeRozan and Kyle Lowry out in the fourth will be huge, since there are still three more games in the next four nights on this run.

- Jonas Valanciunas had a rough game offensively, but he owned the glass and had two more blocks. Atlanta shot just 2-for-8 at the rim against Valanciunas and 1-for-4 against Amir Johnson and 1-for-4 against James Johnson and 3-for-7 against Patrick Patterson.

- The activity from Amir Johnson and James Johnson defensively gave the Raptors a big spark. The defence is just much more formidable with Johnson starting at small forward and Greivis Vasquez returning to his more effective role as the captain of the reserves.

- Dwane Casey moved to .500 with the Raptors, a remarkable achievement considering the roster he was working with early in his tenure here. To return to a Drakism to close – started from the bottom indeed.

 

Raptors still have Washington’s number; DeRozan just gets it done; Lowry play was vintage Kyle Lowry

- February 12th, 2015

As we said here the last time the Raptors took on the Wizards, sometimes teams just match up well against certain opponents and seem to have their number. That seems to be the case with the Raptors, as three wins in three tries this year against Washington indicate. Toronto also blew out the Wizards at the Verizon Center last year and the Raptor players seem to be able to do whatever they want offensively against John Wall and Co. Sure, the shooting percentage might not always look great, but whenever they’ve needed a big play, a big shot, or a game-changing offensive play, they have come through. The fact that both Nene and Marcin Gortat never seem to both play well against Toronto at the same time also might be a factor – and not having to go up against Bradley Beal doesn’t hurt either.

- Speaking of poor shooting numbers, DeMar DeRozan is shooting a career-low 39.4% from the field, yet his presence in the lineup is absolutely vital for the Raptors. In this case, shooting percentage is not everything. DeRozan gets to the free throw line at an elite rate (more on that here). He takes all kinds of pressure off of Kyle Lowry, giving the Raptors a two-headed monster on offence. His ability to draw fouls puts the Raptors in the bonus earlier in games and also forces opposing coaches to go to their bench players earlier than they would like to. When DeRozan is moving the ball, he also creates plenty of good looks for his teammates. He also has taken strides defensively and is averaging 1.3 steals a game. Particularly when he is at his natural shooting guard position, the team’s defence just looks better than it does when he is absent. The team is 24-8 when he has played this season.

- The Raptors have been subbing offence for defence or vice versa late in games more often recently. It was a great call to put Jonas Valanciunas back in for Lou Williams in the dying seconds. The big man’s length made Wall’s desperation potential winner far more difficult. You try shooting over a nearly 8-foot (when he is straight up and jumping) wall.

- At one point, there was a footrace between Lowry and Wall, perhaps the NBA’s fastest player. Nobody thought Lowry had a chance to win the race, but he did. Lowry slid on the ground to come up with the ball (sticklers would say he traveled, but it was too entertaining a play to call). “Calculated risk, baby, calculated risk,” Lowry said of his decision to abandon the spring and hit the court. “I’m pretty smart when it comes to that type of stuff.”

“It hurts, but it doesn’t matter, because we won the game. At the end of the day, we won the game and I’m excited that we won the game and we’re going into the break on a high note,” Lowry said.

- “That’s him, that’s the type of player he is. That’s Kyle Lowry,” DeRozan added.

- Final word to Dwane Casey: “We’re not going to out-talent anybody, we’ve got to do it collectively. If we don’t grind it, get on the floor for loose balls – like when Kyle dove on the floor from like 15 feet and hurt his hand, those are the plays we need to make.”