Posts Tagged ‘Amir Johnson

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.


















Bloodied DeRozan carries the Raptors; Injuries ‘good’ for Raptors; Vasquez back in pass mode;

- April 3rd, 2014

DeMar DeRozan had an impressive night Wednesday. After struggling in the first quarter, DeRozan was excellent, putting the team on his back. He even wrapped up big Omer Asik, splitting his hand open, but kept on going, taking a big charge.

“I haven’t really played without Kyle. He played every game. It was an adjustment for me tonight. I figured it out there after the first quarter,” DeRozan said after the game.

“I kind of split the middle of my hand, the webbing of my hand. I didn’t even notice. I looked down and my whole hand was soaked.
“It wouldn’t stop bleeding. But it’s cool.”

Now the Raptors will have to try to stop the bleeding on the injury front. That said, Amir Johnson and Kyle Lowry should be back as soon as Friday, and some Raptors believe a brief absence by those two crucial players could actually help the team if one is thinking long-term.

“I thought this was good for us as a team because it gives guys confidence and gives guys more minutes going into the playoffs.” said Tyler Hansbrough, who has more post-season experience than most of his teammates combined.

“When you go deep in your bench and build, that it helps you for later on down the road.”

Added Patrick Patterson: “They’re all-stars, they’re leaders, the backbone of this team. Whenever Kyle’s not playing, that allows DeMar to get more shots, more opportunities and he capitalized on that tonight. Whenever DeMar’s not playing, Kyle does the same thing. When they’re both out there, it makes it a lot easier for all of us. When they’re out, it causes everybody to raise their game to another level.”

- Greivis Vasquez had been asked to score the ball for the past two months, playing a lot beside Lowry, but with Lowry out, he was asked to be a facilitator again. Vasquez responded, picking up eight assists and no turnovers.

Casey on the injuries: “We’ve been very lucky. Our training staff has done a great job of keeping guys prepared. We’ve been very lucky not to have had some major injuries, knock on wood, throughout the year. The little injury bug has hit us a little bit. The schedule’s not going to stop. We’ve got to keep going. Next man up.”

 A few stats:

Terrence Ross tied his career high with nine rebounds

Toronto is 31-2 when leading after three quarters. Houston shot .294 in the fourth quarter.The Rockets sat fourth in the NBA in field goal percentage and third in points per game coming in. No Dwight Howard obviously changes things for the Rockets considerably.

The Raptors sit at 19-8 when hitting 10+ threes. DeRozan has now scored 28+ points in three of the last four games.Houston went 23-7 against the East. Toronto is 15-8 since the all-star break.






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

- March 29th, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




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

- March 27th, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

- March 19th, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

- March 19th, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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











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

- March 15th, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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













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

- March 13th, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Raptors/Magic PPG: Another slow start? No problem; Another Lowry takeover; Ross more confident with ball; Impressive stats since the Rudy Gay trade

- February 24th, 2014

Cue the recording: Another slow start, another huge third quarter and another win for the Raptors. For once, these Raptors do a good job of putting away the league’s dregs. We haven’t seen that from a Raptors team in years. Dregs might be strong, but Orlando lost for the 15th straight time on the road and is full marks for its place near the bottom of the NBA’s standings. If Philadelphia wasn’t so brutal, the Magic could well have the worst record of anybody. In the midst of one of the easiest stretches of the schedule, Toronto’s come through, winning 5-of-6. Beatable Cleveland and a Washington team that has proven no match for the Raptors so far, are next.

- There haven’t been many blowouts at home, but the goal of making the Air Canada Centre a tough place to play for visitors seems to be coming to fruition as the Raptors own a 12-3 record there in the past 15 home games.

- Tough to see Amir Johnson hurt his ankle again, especially on a freak play. Casey said he was kicked and should be fine. Will be interesting to see if he practices tomorrow ahead of Tuesday’s game in Cleveland. Johnson was a big contributor to Friday’s win over Cleveland.

- Have joked here in the past that maybe the Raptors just enjoy the challenge of fighting back in games. They certainly do it often enough. DeMar DeRozan said:

“Maybe we just like a challenge sometimes.  Put ourselves in a tough situation so we can fight ourselves out, but we’ve got to stop that and understand we’ve got to come out of the gate so we don’t make the game that hard on us.”

- Lowry and DeRozan have had some absurd quarters this season, but the third on Sunday was up there with nearly any of them. Neither of them missed and Lowry played like he was an NBA Jam on fire character.

- That allowed the Raptors to overcome a very uncharacteristic 24 turnovers. That many miscues usually will make you lose, but not against struggling Orlando (a bad team without its best player, Arron Afflalo).

- Is Terrence Ross getting more comfortable handling the ball? Sure looks that way. He’s been putting it on the deck more often lately, which has set up a number of floaters, which appear to be good shots for him. On Sunday, we saw a new wrinkle when Ross, dribbling over halfcourt with his right, stutter-stepped, then moved the ball behind his back from right to left just above the arc, attacked the rim with his left, then spun away from a double-team for a fadeaway. It didn’t go in and was a tough shot, but it was the initial attack that caught my eye. Already an elite shooter and athlete, a Ross confident in his ability to create his own shot would be something to see.

- That’s 25-13 since the Rudy Gay trade. Here are some stats since Dec. 8, the day a short-handed group of Raptors knocked off the Lakers in Los Angeles. The next game, reinforcements arrived from Sacramento.

25 wins since then, tied for second behind only Oklahoma City.

.658 winning percentage, sixth in NBA.

8.7 made threes per game, tied for 7th and percentage is also 7th and also 7th in free throws made (a good sign the offence is mixing it up).

9th in assists per game, 10th-fewest turnovers per game.

10th in offensive rating.

7th in defensive rating.

More on Rondo and the trade deadline; Raptors have Wizards number; Lowry steps up again; Raptors coaching staff deserves credit

- February 19th, 2014

WASHINGTON – Everybody excited about the trade deadline? Of course you are. Even though stuff rarely happens, it’s still usually more interesting than the NHL’s trade deadline snoozefest that gets  absurd coverage in Canada.

Everyone likely wants to know more about Toronto’s interest in Rondo, which I first reported earlier this week. No change there. The Raptors still love Rondo and think he’s one of the NBA’s elite players, but he still won’t come cheaply and the odds of a deal getting ironed out by Thursday aren’t high. Perhaps in the off-season things could get revisited, though Toronto won’t have quite as many assets up for grabs then as would be the case if Kyle Lowry was flipped now for assets that would go to Boston in a Rondo deal.

Bringing back Lowry, of course, wouldn’t be a bad fallback. He’s really good, as he proved again on Tuesday in Washington by completely taking over a close game in the third quarter. Given his overplayed and quite embellished reputational issues and a buyer’s market for point guards this summer (few teams need one or have the money to pay Lowry an exorbitant amount), he likely won’t command what a player of his quality really should in the open market. Even if Lowry doesn’t play at his current level once he has a shiny new deal (ie. if he doesn’t come in in the same great shape or with the same chip on his shoulder, he’s still an excellent player even at 80% of how he’s performing this year). For $8-$9.5 million a season, that’s money well spent.

- The Raptors likely will stand pat Thursday, though a 7-foot bruiser is a legitimate need. The team also could improve its cap situation by finding a taker for either Steve Novak or Landry Fields, but that’s easier said than done. The players don’t want Masai Ujiri to mess with the stellar chemistry, but he’s taking the long view and will do something if it makes enough sense. The long-term future of newcomers Greivis Vasquez, John Salmons and even Tyler Hansbrough remain unclear, while Patrick Patterson can either get a contract extension or receive a qualifying offer in the off-season. An extension is far more likely, since a qualifying offer would make him a restricted free agent after next season, allowing other teams the opportunity to overpay and raise his cost significantly.

 Thoughts from Tuesday’s game:

- DeMar DeRozan knew he was being keyed on, so tried to spread the wealth and said he: “Wasn’t trying to force the issue, score as much as I usually do, especially when I saw all those other guys (shooting well). I was just trying to do other stuff,” DeRozan said.

- The team had a completely healthy roster for the first time that I can remember. Fields was active for the first time since his most recent surgery, though he did not play and Amir Johnson returned and was excellent.

- If the season ended right now, the two teams would meet in the playoffs. Bad news for the Wizards, since Toronto seems to have that team’s number. Washington has shown no ability to stop Toronto’s dribble penetration, something Wizards head coach Randy Wittman groused about after the game. Toronto’s players were too quick and too active, the same story as the last time the teams met in Washington.

- Toronto ranks near the top 5 in league defence for a reason. Dwane Casey and his staff have this group playing great on that side of the ball. DeRozan talked about how well the group adjusts – in particular in this one, that was in terms of how John Wall was being guarded. Washington loves to shoot three-pointers, especially from the corner (Martell Webster shoots 50% from he right corner, Trevor Ariza shoots 44%), yet, the Raptors took that shot away from the home side for most of the game.  The ability of Terrence Ross to cover ground is part of it, as is Toronto’s rotating on a rope mentality, where everyone shifts into position to help or close out in a smooth way.

Some money quotes:

“I guess they have more will than we have to win. They just want it more than we do.” – Marcin Gortat on Washington’s issues with Toronto.

I think we have good chemistry. One thing this coaching staff does well is give everybody their roles … You do not have to do more than what the coach is asking you to do, and when you accept that role like every one of us is doing right now, you create a winning atmosphere. We know our roles, we know what we are playing for and we want to make this season really, really special.” – Greivis Vasquez

“We’ll see. I’m not going to make a decision on that. Patrick (Patterson) played solid for us. Same thing happened when Tyler (Hansbrough) went down and Tyler came back. So, he’s going to feel his way into it and see as we go along.” – Dwane Casey on whether Amir Johnson will return to the starting lineup anytime soon.

“Everybody’s going to be gunning for him now. He’s got that all-star status.” – Casey on how life could change now for DeRozan.