Heat hand Raptors a reality check; Hard to replace Amir; Hansbrough doing his part; Some interesting Raptors SportVu stats

- November 3rd, 2014

- Well, that was rather predictable, no? The Raptors arrived in Miami 2-0, despite not playing all that well defensively. A scorching offence had been enough to get by a good Atlanta team (the amped-up season-opening crowd and some Al Horford rust didn’t hurt either) and Orlando just isn’t yet a good team (but still held leads for stretches of Saturday’s game). Miami is better than either of those two squads and came in playing a lot better overall than the Raptors had been. With the Raptors not playing any better, a win was not in the cards. “It caught up with us,” head coach Dwane Casey said of the team’s lackluster defensive efforts.

- It is never an ideal team to be without Amir Johnson, but going up against Chris Bosh and the Heat made Johnson’s absence especially problematic. Johnson tweaked his ankle yet again and, early in the season, the Raptors opted to be cautious, rather than risk a nagging, long-term issue. The team’s defence had been iffy through two games. Minus Johnson, the top post, help, rim and one-on-one defender on the squad, it was easy to predict what came next. Johnson is an elite rim protector. Greg Stiemsma is the only other Raptor who offers any deterrence at the rim (Bebe isn’t ready yet) and he did not get into the game.

- Effort was a problem for the Raptors on Sunday, and that isn’t often the case for a Dwane Casey-coached squad. Johnson’s absence can’t explain away what happened on the boards. Getting crushed 43-28 in the rebounding department by one of the NBA’s worst rebounding teams had to sting. Dwyane Wade nearly outrebounded Toronto’s starters by himself. Most of the discrepancy was a result of effort – Miami had it, Toronto did not – and smarts – The Heat did a better job blocking out and getting to the right areas.

- Patrick Patterson insisted the Heat was still a top opponent, even without LeBron James, then went out and had what might have been his worst outing as a Raptor. As Casey said afterward, it was a really bad time for Patterson to play poorly. He was a complete non-factor, failing to score a point or haul in a rebound. Unfortunately, reality says Johnson is going to miss a few games every so often because of his ankles. Patterson needs to play like he did last season when that happens.

- The Raptors really struggled to defend the pick-and-roll and were particularly susceptible to back-door cuts, often coming off of big-to-big passes. Jack Armstrong noted it on the broadcast, the Chrish Bosh-Josh McRoberts combo is going to produce a smart, high efficiency offence. We’ll see the same thing in Chicago with Joakim Noah and Pau Gasol.

- A lot of people think the Heat are going to fall off and struggle to make the playoffs. I don’t share that view (picked them to finish 5th in the East). This is still a good team. It has some flaws (troubling lack of size, rely too much on Bosh to score), but if  Wade looks like he did on Sunday, they’ll be fine. Wade looked like himself (sure, playing the porous Raptors helped, but still …) he split through the defence at will, getting into the middle whenever he wanted to. Though Wade doesn’t take it all the way to the hoop as often as he liked to, when he sliced through, he easily set up teammates for open looks. Without a true point guard, Wade could be going make to his earlier days, where he was tasked with generating a high level of assists every night. Arguably the best shot-blocking guard of all-time, Wade also got up to make an unreal rejection on a Valanciunas attempt. It’s a long season and Wade will surely wear down, but, for now, he looks like the guy who has been one of the NBA’s best players for a solid decade now.

- One Raptor positive through three games: The play of Tyler Hansbrough. Hansbrough never looked comfortable in his initial season in Toronto, but has been the first big man off of the bench in 2014-15 and has played well. Hansbrough might have modest stats, but he is getting under the skin of opponents, is hitting the glass, taking charges and not forcing as many shots as he has in the past. It has been a nice-bounce back so far for the former North Carolina legend.

- Another: Kyle Lowry is averaging nine assists for every turnover through three games (though he had only three assists and his first two turnovers of the year against Miami).

- The bottom line: There is no need to panic, it is early yet. Once Johnson comes back, the newcomers get comfortable, Patterson returns to form and the Raptors wake up defensively, this will be a good squad. Are there flaws? Absolutely, but not enough to prevent a top 4 or 5 finish in the East, with the potential to be pretty solid.

- Some bonus stats courtesy of FanSided, via the SportVu tracking cameras (stats are from last season): Only five players shot 50% or better on wide-open threes. Kyle Korver led the way and Terrence Ross was one of them; Opponents guarded DeRozan more closely on three-point attempts than anybody else in the league (4.52 feet away, just ahead of how closely Kevin Durant was covered from beyond the line).


Magic/Raptors PPG: Raptors need to get in gear; Perimeter defence is a mess; Orlando is stacked up front

- November 2nd, 2014

The Raptors continue to win games, despite not playing their best. Orlando is a mediocre squad – at best – yet, not a lot separated the two teams for much of Sunday’s contest. As advertised, the Raptors can score with anybody, but the defence is nowhere close to what it was at times last season. Is it too early to be concerned? Yes, but, remember, the defence got worse down the stretch last year. It has been a while since the Raptors were actually operating at top 10 level defensive efficiency. Part of it is they appear to be sleep-walking a bit early on. Going through the motions a bit. The alarm bell has to go off, letting them know the season has started. Right now, they are still good enough to win on talent some nights, but that will shift if they don’t get in gear.

- The primary issue at the moment appears to be trouble stopping players 1-on-1 on the perimeter. If they aren’t getting all the way to the rim, they are blowing by Raptors, then finding wide open teammates when the help comes. I predict some long practices coming up. Dwane Casey is going to be on them about it.

- A scorching offence is covering for a lot of things right now. Close to a week into the season, only two teams had higher offensive ratings (points per 100 possessions) than the Raptors, before Sunday’s games. It is really early for statistical analysis, but the Raptors also came into Sunday second in rebound percentage and tied for second in assist-to-turnover ration. Toronto’s assists are way down compared to last season, but because the team is turning it over so rarely, that has not been a big deal.

-  Casey was expecting a lot out of Jonas Valanciunas in his battle against Nikola Vucevic, and the big man delivered. Valanciunas looked energetic early, grabbing rebounds, being assertive in the post, generally making Vucevic work. The more he tired Orlando’s top player, the less Vucevic was able to do at the other end.

- Valanciunas needs to get better at protecting the ball. It is too easy for opponents to poke it away or to force him into mistakes by double-teaming him.

- James Johnson was brought in to defend, but when he makes smart decisions on offence, he can be helpful at that end as well. Johnson has the size and athleticism to score over nearly anybody at the rim. Like a few players in the league with shaky jumpers and with at times poor shot selection, Johnson is a ridiculous natural athlete, who is best served operating as close to the rim as possible.

- Have seen the Raptors go to DeRozan in the post early in seasons before. Hopefully they stick with it, because, not only can DeRozan score from the block against most opposing shooting guards, he is also quite good at finding his teammates when he gets double-teamed. DeRozan has been part of the problem at the other end, but one thing he has done well so far (Kyle Lowry rubbing off, perhaps?) is step in and put himself into position to take charges. He took a key one late in the third quarter and it helped the Raptors take control.

- Liked Evan Fournier when he was buried a bit in Denver and think he can thrive in Orlando. Fournier is dangerous with the ball. His Eurostep is extremely effective, but he also can step up and hit shots. He has a bit of Manu Ginobili in his game. He is shifty on his drives and attacks the rim many different ways, which makes him difficult to stop.

- Orlando is a long way from being relevant, but has an enviable collection of talent up front. Vucevic, Channing Frye and combo forwards Aaron Gordon and Tobias Harris would be fits anywhere. Kyle O’Quinn was last season’s out of nowhere revelation and now 7-footer Dewayne Dedmon (who looked excellent against the Raptors) appears to be a find as well. Where does that leave Mississauga’s Andrew Nicholson? On the trade block, one would have to think.

Happy new Raptors season, the Points Per Game blog is back; Fear Contract Year Amir; Confident Vasquez leads stellar bench; JV’s Halloween “costume”

- October 30th, 2014

Greetings everyone. With the new Raptors season, the Points Per Game blog, posted the morning after every Raptors game also returns.

As a refresher, this blog is named PPG because I break down a few interesting points from the previous game (I also usually sprinkle in some interesting quotes and relevant quotes).

Let’s get rolling:

- Welcome back Amir Johnson. Johnson, savvy veteran that he is, might just have coasted a bit through the pre-season. Johnson averaged 6.5 points and five rebounds during the exhibition slog and never seemed particularly engaged. That all changed in the opener, where Johnson got off to a fast start and probably was Toronto’s best overall player. Johnson scored 16 points, grabbed 10 boards (five of them offensive, helping the Raptors to a 48-42 advantage on the glass against one of the best rebounders in NCAA history, Paul Millsap, and the excellent Al Horford). Johnson attempted 15 shots (second on the team), something he did only four times all of last season. Johnson had a bounce in his step that wasn’t there earlier this month, in the playoffs against Brooklyn or really, since last February or so. A healthy Amir is a wonderful thing for the Raptors.

- His teammates provided another reason why Johnson was so good Wednesday: “Amir had a great game and it’s a contract year, so he gotta do what he gotta do, huh?” said Greivis Vasquez with a knowing smile. Vasquez was asked whether players keep track of contract year status. “Yeah, like you guys don’t?” Then he continued on Amir: “I don’t blame him. I hope he gets all double doubles, I hope he gets the max.”

- The bench was fantastic and that was the focus of my story last night. A bit more on that: Vasquez was a team-best +11 and looked good playing alongside Lou Williams. Patric Patterson was +10, Williams +8, Tyler Hansbrough +5. For sake of comparing, Kyle Lowry was a -2, a rarity and DeMar DeRozan led the starters at +5 (I’ll say it now and repeat it often, I’m not huge on +/- in basketball, but it was worth mentioning about Wednesday’s game).

- Vasquez on the Louquez pairing: “It’s going to be really interesting. Lou and I, we can do so much. Run pick-and-rolls, he can score, I’m definitely going to get him going, because we need him. He’s big-time, he can score at any time at any given point.”

- Dwane Casey said Hansbrough seems to have a better idea of what he should be doing while on the floor and where he should be and that is leading to improved spacing for the whole team.

- Asked Jonas Valanciunas what his Halloween costume would be … “My face!” he said, pointing to his bushy beard. “That doesn’t even make sense,” I replied as he walked off. Valanciunas just waved his hand in the air, grinning.

- Don’t think the Hawks will be quite as good as the Raptors this season, but that is definitely a playoff team in the East. They zip the ball around the court well, Jeff Teague penetrates at will, creating easy shots and the roster is stocked with gunners, including Kyle Korver, who is flat out ridiculous. Patrick Patterson mentioned afterward that Horford was clearly rusty, given his long layoff and would be back to being a force in no time. When that happens, the Hawks are going to be solid. Thabo Sefolosha was a sneaky good add who will help the Hawks guard the East’s better wings, something DeMarre Carroll can also do.

- Round of applause for the fans. Let’s see how they do when it isn’t a special occasion (I’m sure they’ll still trump most of the rest of the league), but on opening night, they were tremendous.

- Patterson wants the fans to come up with a name for the bench. Get on it, folks.

- Credit to DeMar DeRozan. Couldn’t get things going offensively, forced some shots, couldn’t get a call, but did other things extremely well. Career-high in rebounds (11) and steals (six).

- One thing Casey wants the Raptors to do a much better job of this year is get to the rim. For one night, at least, it was mission accomplished. The Raptors shot 33 free throws, Atlanta just 17. And Toronto, a good free throw shooting team, hit 82% of the shots.


















PPG: Goodbye Manhattan, hello Brooklyn; Raptors-Nets should be a classic; We the North spot looks like a winner

- April 17th, 2014

Analyzing games in the final week or two of the NBA season is a foolish exercise. There’s nothing to be gleaned from teams either going through the motions with visions of sitting on a beach in the heads of the players while others desperately try to avoid suffering injuries ahead of the playoffs.

- So, we’ll sum up Wednesday’s Raptors-Knicks tilt as a win for both sides.  A nice going away present for Mike Woodson, who everyone expects to be ousted by Phil Jackson this summer and a (relatively) pain-free experience for Toronto’s players (though Amir Johnson scared more than a few people when he tweaked his ankle yet again). The starters got a bit of a run, which will help, since there will be two off-days before the playoffs start, but they didn’t get too much time. The bench got a chance to play extended minutes.

- People were e-mailing me months ago saying a Raptors-Nets series was pre-destined. Many came from people that have been fans of the Raptors since the inception of the franchise, who, know how things work when it comes to the Raptors. But hold the doom and gloom, “this is an exact repeat of 2006-07″ talk. It’s not. This is a better Raptors team and, arguably a worse Nets group (certainly an older one) and the Raptors aren’t missing a glue starter (Jorge Garbajosa) and have far more depth than the Chris Bosh-led group that wilted against Jason Kidd, Vince Carter (and Mikki Moore!). The black cloud that seemed to always follow the Raptors over the years took off this season following the Rudy Gay trade. There’s no guarantees it will return just for the playoffs. I think the series will go seven and I think the Raptors will win. But much more on that later this week.

- Got an early look at the ‘We the North’ promo on Tuesday and I’m not at all surprised how much the fans have loved it. It’s well done. Tim Leiweke said the ad agency kept throwing ideas at he and Masai Ujiri, but they refused to let this one go. They liked it too much and kept going back to it. In the end, it got moved up for these playoffs, instead of heralding the 20th anniversary season next year. Seems like the right call. The players saw it Thursday morning and loved it, though another version could have more of the players in it, instead of just a select few.



PPG: Banner-mania; Still lots of work to be done; Vasquez heating up; Lowry has bounce back

- April 15th, 2014

One more tuneup to go before the Raptors return to the playoffs. Is the team ready? It doesn’t look like it. Not with teams – even horrible ones like Milwaukee – consistently shooting 50% from the field against Toronto. The team has slipped into a tie with Washington for 9th in defensive rating and has also fallen to ninth in opponent’s effective field goal percentage, a Dwane Casey and Masai Ujiri favourite category. This is all troubling.

- However, this has always been a team that feels it can turn it on and off. That’s a dangerous way to live, but we’ve consistently seen bad starts or quarters get erased by dynamite fourth quarters. Maybe these guys have been easing in to the post-season, just doing enough to play out the dog days of the regular season, confident that when more is required, they’ll be able to summon that extra effort. Count on the Raptors to collectively raise their games when the games get serious again. Or at least count on them to try to do that.

- On the bright side, while the defence has floundered, Toronto’s offence has been sizzling. Only five teams have a better offensive rating in March and April and Toronto’s 115.2 offensive rating in April is by far the best in the NBA. One of the main reasons the offence has been so productive stems from high assist numbers and a low turnover rate.

- Kyle Lowry and Greivis Vasquez have a lot to do with that. Lowry’s back to his All-NBA caliber form following his brief rest period. He scorched Milwaukee when the game was mildly in doubt, and appears to be able to attack the rim whenever he wants to, something he was having a bit of trouble with when the minutes piled up in late March. Before he got his break, Lowry compiled 17 assists and 17 turnovers in the four games before sitting down. In the four since, Lowry has posted 21 assists, just six turnovers and averaged 26.5 points per game.

- Vasquez might have had his best game of the year against Milwaukee and has 18 assists and just eight turnovers over his past five games. He’s shot 17-for-28 from three (61%) over that span. No. 3 point guard Nando de Colo also has helped the offence surge, posting 13 assists against just three turnovers over his past four games,

- Said it on Twitter and will repeat: No problem with raising the banner Monday night to celebrate winning the Atlantic Division. A bit of a gimmick? Meh, the great franchises don’t have to do it because they have a long history of success. The Raptors don’t, so why not celebrate this? It’s an achievement, even if it was won in a down year with Philadelphia and Boston happier to lose games than win. Plus, this group won’t be back next year, Masai Ujiri likes to make moves, some of the pieces will change, so waiting until the opener next October means a team that got here by being a true team, won’t have all of its pieces on hand to celebrate the achievement.

- Jonas Valanciunas in April: 18 points, 11.7 rebounds per game.

PPG: Forget worrying about playoff bracket if Raptors don’t get it together, first round will be end of season; Rough night for the refs; Pistons’ parts don’t work

- April 14th, 2014

There will be another banner going up at the ACC. While that’s all well and great, the Raptors desperately need to get back on track so that this year isn’t a replica of the last year that produced a banner. In 2006/07, Toronto excelled against a watered-down East that had many teams retooling or outright tanking for a shot at Greg Oden or Kevin Durant. That team surprised everyone by winning the division, but drew a Nets team that was better on paper, had far more experience and was healthy (unlike Toronto, which had lost its glue player, Jorge Garbajosa to injury). Of course the Nets pulled off the “upset” and things went downhill in the seasons to come from there for the Raptors.

If Toronto doesn’t get its defence back on track, history could repeat itself, even though Chicago’s loss means the team currently isn’t in position to revisit that scenario, by having to square off against another solid Nets team in the first round.

- Speaking of that … It seems the bulk of the fan-base is caught up in the playoff bracket these days and what would be best for the Raptors. Is it better to face a better team (Brooklyn) in Round 1, but avoid Miami in Round 2, or go up against Washington or Charlotte, but have to meet the Heat next?

It looks like Indiana is going to come away with the No. 1 spot in the East and Miami will be No. 2, despite a late push as the Pacers faltered. That means the No. 4 vs No. 5 combatants will be in the bracket with No. 1 Indiana and the No. 3 vs. No. 6 teams will face the winner of No. 2 vs. No. 7 (so, barring one of the biggest upsets in NBA history, the Heat). Don’t worry about any of that. Looking ahead in pro sports seldom ends well. You lose focus and things never seem to go the way you want them to. Toronto is not nearly good enough to look ahead and plan for life after the first round. The franchise has only reached such lofty heights once in 19 seasons and this group, though fantastic since the Dec. 7 traded, has slipped substantially defensively over the past five weeks. If Dwane Casey can’t get the team playing significantly better by the weekend, it doesn’t really matter who the Raptors play. Washington or Charlotte could easily dispatch this version of the Raptors. Those teams might not be favoured, as Brooklyn would be if Toronto slips to No. 4, but they’d be no gimmes. The focus for Toronto should be on getting back in gear and letting the playoff chips fall where they may after that.

Some thoughts on the Pistons game:

- I’ve seen some atrocious refereeing and it’s not an easy job by any stretch, but Sunday’s crew struggled. They called everything early, seemingly favouring the Raptors to the point that various Pistons got incensed, then swallowed the whistles for a long stretch, letting both teams club each other. Then, as the fourth quarter unfolded, calls started being made in excess again to the point that Toronto lost top player Kyle Lowry for the final half of the fourth thanks to a pair of bogus calls. Lowry didn’t have position on a block call, but Peyton Siva clearly could have been called for an offensive foul on the play because he used his hand to swat Lowry away. Even worse was Lowry’s sixth. Andre Drummond tripped on his own two feet with Lowry looking on. Because Drummond fell, the refs booted Lowry. One of the worst calls of the season considering Detroit had made the game interesting and it was getting into crunch time.

- The Toronto support in the crowd was impressive. It’s always been good when I’ve covered games at the Palace, but seemed to be more than ever on Sunday.

- The Drummond-Jonas Valanciunas battle is going to be a great one for years to come. Valanciunas is far more skilled, but Drummond is a ridiculous athlete that nobody can keep off of the glass. If he ever figures out where to be positionally on defence and doesn’t just rely on his freakish athleticism, the league is going to have a problem (also, if he starts hitting even 60% of his free throws).

- Joe Dumars is out and it’s time. He was great early on, but it’s been misstep after misstep since with some of the worst calls any GM has made over the past six years. The new guy will have to move either Greg Monroe or Josh Smith and dealing Brandon Jennings wouldn’t hurt either. Good luck with all of that, because it won’t be easy to move any of those contracts (once Monroe gets huge money).

- The obvious: Big-time effort from DeMar DeRozan with Lowry out. Carried the team; Nando de Colo looks like a solid pickup by Masai Ujiri. Fantastic feel for the game, as Jack Armstrong noted on the broadcast and is a stellar passer. Particularly good at leading teammates to the bucket and then finding them in perfect position to score.



Raptors Knicks PPG: The Atlantic’s been won, but not because of efforts like this; Valanciunas laments missed easy ones; Amir and DeMar, longest-serving Raptors, proud; Lots of love for Wiggins boys

- April 12th, 2014

At what point does Toronto’s awful defensive play start to get worrisome? Yes, as Dwane Casey stated, the team is still elite in terms of defensive rating (ninth in the league), but there’s been considerable slippage lately. Winning the Atlantic Division is a notable achievement, as is returning to the playoffs, but if the team doesn’t start playing like it did for most of the season again, the post-season run will be a short one.

- For the first three months following the Rudy Gay trade, the Raptors ranked No. 4 in the league in defensive rating (100.5 points allowed per 100 possessions). Since then (just over a month), Toronto ranks 20th (106.4 defensive rating). That’s a massive difference. Losing Amir Johnson and Kyle Lowry for much of the stretch and Patrick Patterson before that has a lot to do with the drastic falloff, but it’s not the only excuse. Fatigue, a lack of practice time and sub-par concentration also could be to blame. Things need to change, and quickly.

- There wasn’t much celebrating going on in the locker room, hard to get too excited when you just lost, they all said, but there was genuine pride in winning the division. “It’s awesome. Wasn’t the way we wanted to do it, but we got it. It’s big man, This is what we’ve been playing for, to get a chance to be in the playoffs and winning the division it’s just a big cherry on top,” Johnson told the Sun. “We’ve got a lot more to go, but it’s a proud moment.”

Johnson on things looking bleak when the team started 6-12: “We kept fighting, some new changes, we stuck with it, we stayed here, we worked hard and it’s definitely, I feel like it’s well-deserved.”

- Jonas Valanciunas continues to surge on the boards. While he uncharacteristically struggled to finish inside, like his teammates (We missed a lot of bunnies. I think we shot 30% inside the three-point line,” Casey said) he was Dwight Howard-like on the glass. He even did the old Moses Malone a couple of times, knocking the ball off of the glass to himself, padding his stats by getting to the ball before anybody else could. Only Chris Bosh, Donyell Marshall and Reggie Evans have hauled in more rebounds in a game as Raptors. Amir’s best is 18 and Kevin Willis once did that as well.

- Casey on the loss: “It’s funny how the expectations change. We go from developing and now all at once we lost to Carmelo Anthony and a team like this and the world (is collapsing). We still have some growing to do. We have a great foundation from where we are. Now we just want to be ready to go into the playoffs with some momentum.”
- Lowry on setting franchise-record for three-point shots and how he’s developed his jump shot: “Hard work, man. It’s part of my game now. You can’t just expect me to be a driver like my first couple years in the league. Now, it’s a threat.”

- It was nice to see Amar’e Stoudemire having a turn back the clock effort. He’s a good guy that has been through a lot. He had a lot of time for Andrew Wiggins post-game. I asked how he knows him and what he said to the potential No. 1 overall draft pick:

“Oh, I met Wiggins back when he was in high school for the Jordan Classic and I was giving him words of encouragement back then before he went off to Kansas,” Stoudemire said post-game. ” Just told him congratulations on a phenomenal year at Kansas and I’ll see him soon (in the NBA).” Kansas alum Cole Aldrich also went over to say hello and Knicks guard Toure Murray, a Wichita State product, did the same to Nick Wiggins and Chadrack Lufile, who are seniors at the school and went undefeated this year until facing Kentucky at the NCAA tournament.

 Some stats: Toronto has still never been 15 games above .500 and will need to win its next two to get there. Valanciunas reached double figures in scoring for the eighth consecutive game. Toronto’s 39-20 record since the trade coming in was the best record in the Eastern Conference.

Toronto had made at least 10 three-pointers in five straight games and shooting about 45% from outside in that stretch. The team fell to 22-9 when it makes 10 or more threes. Toronto is now 11-4 against the Atlantic Division.
- While a Toronto-Brooklyn matchup is looking likely at the moment, if Toronto draws Charlotte, the chatter is the U.S. networks won’t even bother to send up a crew for that series and instead will use the Toronto broadcast. That’s because there will be little interest in watching those two teams in the States.


















Raptors-Sixers PPG: Valanciunas shakes off distractions and has huge night; Lowry back with a bang; Magic number is one

- April 10th, 2014

We weren’t sure exactly how the night would go for Jonas Valanciunas after a couple of us informally shot the breeze with him before he got some shots up pre-game. His recent brush with the law obviously was on his mind. Would he be able to deal with the distractions? Would a young man who very much cares about being a good person and being liked by all let the situation get to him?

Apparently not. Valanciunas was on a mission from the get-go against the undersized Sixers, scoring three buckets in the paint in each of the first two quarters. He scored four more baskets in close in the third and shot 10-for-14 overall, adding a game-high 12 rebounds and a pair of blocks. It looked like he was taking some of the frustration built over the past few days out on the hapless Sixers. Valanciunas has shot 60% in the paint this season, but was particularly emphatic with his finishing on Wednesday.

- Valanciunas has shot a sizzling 69% from the field over his past 5 games, averaging 18.8 points per game and 61% over his past 20. It was a good sign that his offence didn’t slip even with the return of Kyle Lowry. He’d been getting more touches with Lowry sidelined. After the game he thanked the fans for their support as well as his teammates. On the court, he says his increased productivity stems from feeling more trust from the coaches, his teammates and “Getting the ball, doing what I’m supposed to do. Playing with energy, concentration.”

- Lowry on Valanciunas: “Yeah, I mean he’s a young kid. he’s 21. Everything’s a learning process for him, every single day, every single game, every single part of life. He’s going to grow up and like all of us in here we all grow up and make mistakes. He’s going to make mistakes but the thing about it is we’ve got a chance to redeem ourselves.”

- Lowry on why things are clicking for his big centre: “Much more aggressive, much more hungry. He wants the ball. Tonight he was literally yelling at me to give him the ball and I’ve got to do nothing but give him the ball because he’s our big fella.”

- DeMar DeRozan added the game seems to be slowing down a bit for Valanciunas and he’s not rushing as much when he gets the ball.

- Lowry also said he was pleased to be back because, “when you miss games, you feel like you’re letting your team down.”

 -A terrible night for Knicks fans would mean a great night for their Raptor counterparts Friday. With New York still mathematically alive, Atlanta will surely be playing inspired basketball against Brooklyn on Friday. That’s good for the Raptors, because a Hawks win clinches the Atlantic Division for Toronto. Or, the Raptors could win in front of the home crowd to also clinch the division. A winning night for both New York City squads would pull the Knicks within a game of eighth place with only three to play and give Brooklyn faint hope of still winning the division.

- The defensive slippage is Toronto’s primary concern at the moment. Part of it is being in the “dog days” as Dwane Casey put it. Players are tired, some teams have nothing to lose and are unpredictable, Amir Johnson, the defensive anchor, has been injured … but part of it is a lack of concentration and desire. At this time of year, meaningless games can be a major challenge to get up for. Toronto has to find a way around it and get back on track. While still eighth in the league in defensive rating, Toronto’s slipped to 17th in the past 10 and past 5 games.

- Casey said the problems have been mostly on the perimeter. Without Johnson to clean up the mess after the initial breakdowns, the team has struggled.










At Bucks PPG: Kingz of the fourth quarter – and the road, but this one wasn’t impressive in the slightest; Vasquez, de Colo, Valanciunas stepping up; Patterson looking to find his game

- April 6th, 2014

Because I was covering the two NCAA semi-final tilts, I couldn’t see much of the comeback win over Milwaukee. But it went much like many Raptors games this season. The team got off to a hot start, with ex-Kings Greivis Vasquez, Patrick Patterson and John Salmons doing most of the offensive work. Then, there was a complete defensive collapse in the second quarter that proved even an awful NBA team can do damage if its opponent isn’t going to offer any resistance. Vasquez kept rolling in the third and DeMar DeRozan and Jonas Valanciunas got going, bringing the Raptors within one heading into the fourth and everyone knew what would happen from there.

- Allowing Milwaukee to go to town in the paint in that ugly second quarter didn’t please Dwane Casey very much. He’s going to stay on this group even if these are the dog days of the season and even though key pieces were missing.

“First half we played like crap,’’ said Casey. “There’s no nice words you could put to it. We can’t approach the game that way. It’s just not acceptable to where we want to go and how we want to do it. If we want to be average, fine. But to get to where we want to go and be a playoff-calibre team, we have to perform better than that. No matter who you play, doesn’t matter if it’s Indiana or a high school team, it doesn’t matter. We got to come out and perform.”

- Even without Kyle Lowry and Amir Johnson again, this team has supreme confidence in the final quarter of games. Success can do that and nobody’s been better, nobody close really, in the final quarters of games this season.

- Vasquez still is in score-first mode, but he had eight assists and zero turnovers two games ago and after notching just three assists and two turnovers on Friday, came back with four helpers and no turnovers. He’s red-hot from outside, connecting on 12 of his past 20 three-point attempts.  He might not be able to defend anybody, but he’s not afraid to take – and make tough shots.

-  Nando de Colo continues to make an impact. He’s handed out 11 assists, scored 17 points and collected three steals over the past two wins.

- More stats: DeRozan has 18 assists over his past three games; Jonas Valanciunas has 47 rebounds over his past five games; Patterson’s shooting has not returned to form since he got back from injury. He’s shot just 32% (25% from three) in the four games.

- With Chicago and Brooklyn both winning again, Toronto held serve. If that continues, the Atlantic Division and third spot in the East will be property of the Raptors.

- There will be no NBA games on Monday, because of the Final Four.



Vs. Pacers PPG: Short-handed Raptors make a statement; Valanciunas stands tall; Playoff preview; East races tight

- April 5th, 2014

Add another highlight to a season filled with them for the Raptors. Beating the Pacers, the No. 1 team in the East for the vast majority of this season is impressive. Even if Indiana seems to be coming apart at the seams, completely discombobulated, a shadow of its former self, that’s still a statement win. Dwane Casey said as much afterward. It would have been less impressive had Kyle Lowry or Amir Johnson been in the lineup, but without them it was a massive jolt of confidence.
Lowry is the initial point of defence, the quarterback at the top, while Johnson is the anchor at the back, the guy that makes it all work. At the other end, Lowry and DeRozan are the offence, period and Johnson is the most efficient finisher the team has. Those are two huge players to be without.

- How did the win happen then? Well, Jonas Valanciunas was fantastic again, continuing a monster 15-game stretch that has to be quite heartening to team brass. He’s really starting to come into his own at both ends of the floor. Roy Hibbert used to give Valanciunas all kinds of trouble, but Valanciunas whupped him on Friday. Meanwhile, fellow sophomore Terrence Ross did his best to replace Lowry’s offence and even a bit of his defence. Ross has grabbed 20 rebounds and scored 40 points over his past three games.

- The Raptors played tough, refusing to back down. Chuck Hayes and John Salmons were at the forefront of that, but Valanciunas wasn’t backing down either.

- Nando de Colo looks like a bit of a find. The passing was there from the beginning, but now he appears to be gaining some confidence with his jump shot. The Raptors will bring him back for cheap next season and will have an interesting decision to make if Lowry gets the money he deserves (it will be a lot) – let Greivis Vasquez go and save about $1.4 million at the backup PG spot (or bring them both back, Vasquez is due only a small qualifying offer, just over $3M, unless he gets a contract extension or another team signs him to an offer sheet).

- Interesting comments from Dwane Casey related to Tim Leiweke saying he wants to bring Lowry back on a long-term contract.

“That’s out of my department,” Casey said. “That’s the front office. That’s their paycheck. I would if I was general manager of a team. But that’s their decision.

“Kyle has done everything we’ve asked him to do. He’s helped put us in this position with this team. He’s grown, he’s matured, and that’s huge as far as we’re concerned.”

- The East race is getting mighty tight. Brooklyn and Chicago kept pace with the Raptors with blowout wins.

Toronto now has home games against Philadelphia, New York and Milwaukee and road tilts with Milwaukee, Detroit and New York. The Knicks are highly motivated, but the rest of the games could be cakewalks, with, or without Lowry and Johnson.

Chicago has home games against Detroit and Orlando and road meetings with Atlanta, Washington, Minnesota, New York and Charlotte. That’s far more challenging, so the math says the Raptors will finish ahead of Chicago, but once again, that’s why they play the games.

Brooklyn has a game in hand on both teams and will play Atlanta, Orlando and New York at home and Philadelphia, Miami, Orlando and Cleveland on the road, but sits three games back in the win column. Toronto holds tie-breakers over both Chicago and Brooklyn in the event they finish tied.

- Washington survived against the Knicks by a point, so held serve with Charlotte. The Bobcats and Wizards will meet in a huge contest in Washington next Wednesday. If Charlotte wins, it owns the tie-breaker if they end up even.