Posts Tagged ‘Amir Johnson

More baby steps for the Raptors, major steps for DeRozan; Pacers just don’t have the horses; Delving into the Four Factors

- January 28th, 2015

After the last game, I asked, “if Jonas Valanciunas can’t play in the fourth against Detroit who can he close games against” and got an answer pretty quickly: The Pacers. That makes sense, considering he has a long history going up against Roy Hibbert, one of the biggest centres in the league. While Patrick Patterson again played the entire fourth (or close to it), Valanciunas was inserted to close the final half of it, after Tyler Hansbrough did a solid job. Perhaps because the team will be playing four games in five nights, three of them on the road, Amir Johnson didn’t play at all in the fourth. Valanciunas didn’t have a particularly great game, only stars Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan did that in terms of the starters, but he was decent and Hibbert didn’t go off and actually got outscored while he was on the floor, while Valanciunas provided some good rim resistance down the stretch, gathered up a couple of big rebounds and set some great screens (and one bad one).

- Another brutal start obviously wasn’t a good sign. Indiana went up 9-0 as the starters basically sleep-walked. DeRozan and Lowry were the only ones with any life it seemed. Still not sure Amir Johnson is best utilized as a starter at this point, given he doesn’t seem to start games out with energy, instead gaining effectiveness and mobility as games go on. Still vouching for Patrick Patterson and forgotten man James Johnson in the starting lineup, though that won’t happen as long as this team keeps winning. Will they keep winning with this group when the competition gets tougher, we’ll have to wait a bit to find out.

- The revival of DeRozan following his brutal slump has given the offence the boost it needed. The Raptors thrive by limiting turnovers and by getting to the free throw line. DeRozan gets to the line as well as just about any Raptor ever. He won’t get there 13 times a game, as he did Tuesday, but if he makes eight trips a night or so, the Raptors usually will be in a good place. The four turnovers look concerning on paper, but two were charges, which you’ll take every day of the week if the player also gets to the line 13 times, one was him just not being into the game at the beginning – dribbling it off himself out of bounds on the first play of the game, and one was a bad pass turnover). He had no turnovers in the previous game and generally seems a lot more comfortable dribbling the ball and attacking than he has at any point since returning from injury.

‎- With DeRozan back, the bench is again looking like one of the best in the league. Again, would prefer to see Greivis Vasquez running pick-and-rolls with Amir Johnson and having Lou Williams and Terrence Ross bombing away and Hansbrough battling for boards as a group, but that’s not going to happen right now.
- Terrence Ross got lost a few times on defence, but also was a big part of the 20-0 run and had his best quarter in weeks with nine points and four rebounds in the second. Indiana just doesn’t have the depth (with no Paul George and no Lance Stephenson) to compete against a good group of reserves like Toronto’s.
- Lowry had his best all-around game in ages. Though he thrived, carrying the team when DeRozan was out, there is little question his efficiency rises considerably when he has DeRozan out there with him.
STATS GALORE
- The Raptors have dipped a bit in offensive rating (points scored per 100 possessions), to fourth, but have climbed back to 19th in defensive rating. They likely need to get up to middle of the pack to be taken seriously as a team that can win a couple of rounds. Their net rating is sixth-best in the entire NBA.
- Coaches love to look at the “Four Factors” and “Defensive Four Factors.” Here is where Toronto ranks now that we are more than half-way through the 82-game season and how they have been trending in these categories over the past 10 games:
Effective field goal percentage – 9th (16th past 10 games)
Free throw attempt rate – 5th (and rising, now that DeMar DeRozan is back, but still 6th past 10 games, as DeRozan readjusts).
Turnover ratio – 4th (but dropping a lot lately, just 19th over past 10 games)
Offensive rebound % – 11th (6th over past 10 as Jonas Valanciunas gets more time and thrives).
So overall, quite good, and those numbers go a long way to revealing why the team has won 67% of its games so far (that and feasting on bad teams).
Defensive Four Factors:
Opponent effective field goal percentage – 22nd (a big concern, but improving to 16th over past 10).
Opponent free throw attempt rate – 22nd (decent concern, especially since just 24th over past 10).
Opponent turnover ratio – 11th (solid and a key to their success as well, stayed at 11th over past 10).
Opponent rebound % – 24th (Massive concern, but 21st over past 10).

Signs of progress for Raptors but not there yet; If Valanciunas can’t play in the fourth against Detroit who can he play against? Keep moving the ball

- January 26th, 2015

The Raptors made a lot of mistakes and tried to hand the Pistons a game they should have been in control of throughout on Sunday, but, nonetheless, there were definite signs of progress shown by the home side: DeMar DeRozan rediscovered his jump shot after one of the worst shooting stretches of his career (8-for-14 from the field after going six for his previous 34). DeRozan also got to the free throw line 10 times, a huge part of his game, after going there only three times combined over his previous three. DeRozan’s determination to get a couple of three-point attempts off each game also is an encouraging sign. He has hit three in six games, but has connected on only 25% of his attempts. His second four (or more) assist game with zero turnovers also was encouraging, considering he did it many times last season.

- Toronto moved the ball around far better than we’ve seen in recent games. That was perhaps the best development. Getting 23 assists against eight turnovers will win you most games. The determination to get the ball inside to Jonas Valanciunas early and often also was a great sign. Valanciunas thrives against Detroit and he was quite good. He scored from both sides of the block and was aggressive at both ends. He also offered solid resistance defensively, continuing a recent trend of improved play there. Valanciunas is going up straighter and impacting a lot of opposing shots. He blocked three shots after getting four against the Sixers (which caused Chuck Hayes and Patrick Patterson to rib him a little bit – ‘Oh, you’re a shot-blocker now, huh?”  He ran the floor well, despite a lot of minutes through three quarters and was rewarded for it. In turn, since he was involved more, he seemed to give more of an effort everywhere else.

- Everyone wants to know why Valanciunas took a seat for the fourth after a dominant third quarter where he played the entire frame, missing only one shot on the way to eight points, five rebounds and two of his blocks. Dwane Casey prefers to play Amir Johnson and Patrick Patterson down the stretch of games largely because they are far quicker and more technically sound. He also likes having Patterson’s shooting, since the team basically abandons the inside game in fourth quarters. I get that against many opponents, but Valanciunas consistently dominates the Pistons and wasn’t just doing it with his offence in this one. Detroit players scored on just 7-of-17 attempts at the rim on Valanciunas (41%) which is an excellent mark. They went 4-for-10 against Johnson, 3-for-6 against Patterson and 3-for-3 against Tyler Hansbrough, who had been doing a nice job protecting the rim before this one). Valanciunas had been Toronto’s most efficient scorer and one of its best defenders. Since Greg Monroe was on the floor, the excuse of no big being out there which has been a fine justification for Valanciunas sitting in the past does not apply. Johnson easily could have checked Anthony Tolliver. Not playing Valanciunas down the stretch simply didn’t make sense in this case, especially not if Ross is playing the whole quarter, which negates the need for Patterson’s shooting.

A few other points:

- Letting Greivis Vasquez or Lou Williams handle the ball a lot in the first two quarters of games is a good way to make sure Kyle Lowry is fresher later.

- The Raptors played a bit faster and as mentioned earlier, didn’t stop the ball on offence as much as usual.

- Terrence Ross made a smart cut for a dunk. He should do more to get open off of the ball instead of simply hanging out in the corners.

- Great play call at the end of the third quarter. Instead of doing the usual, give Lou Williams the ball and let him shoot thing, the Raptors used him as a decoy and Williams found an open teammate (two of them were open actually). Mixing things up instead of being too predictable will go a long way.

- So glad Stan Van Gundy is back roaming the sidelines, he’s the best. One example of why came later in the game, after the Pistons botched coverage of an in-bounds play (the one where Kyle Lowry charged right to the hoop and got fed a pass for a wide open layup). Van Gundy bolted up from his seat, did a full spin with his hands raised, paced a step or two, sat back down and glanced skyward. It was hilarious.

- Attention to detail still is not great (tons of bad turnovers that kept Detroit in the game and at least two crucial rebounds allowed), but this was still a good win against a team that fights extremely hard and was playing for injured teammate Brandon Jennings.

Raptors should feel better about loss in Memphis than win in Philadelphia; Time to switch up the starting lineup

- January 24th, 2015

PHILADELPHIA — Life, in sports, isn’t always fair. The Raptors worked incredibly hard in a gritty, encouraging effort against Memphis on Wednesday and came away with a loss. Then they basically were awful for large swaths of Friday’s game against Philadelphia, “expecting to simply walk on the floor to get a win,” as Dwane Casey put it afterward, but managed to escape with a win. How is that fair? It isn’t, but the Raptors return home from this trip with two wins in three tries and that will cover up some ugly moments. It shouldn’t. This group is a mess right now. The energy is lacking to start games, the offence has morphed from world-beating into a bit of a tire fire and the swagger and confidence that was so evident for the first two months of the season has completely vanished.

- It’s time to make a change. Two, in fact. Amir Johnson was a -21 against Philly. Patrick Patterson was +26. I’m not a huge fan of +/- (especially of the individual variety, since many players can look great because they mostly face backups instead of starters, with the opposite also being true), but for January, Patterson is +61 and Johnson is -95. The numbers for the entire season are even more striking. More than that, Johnson has been battling a series of nagging injuries and often takes a while to really start making an impact on games. Bringing him off the bench could be a big boost. They’d miss his excellent screens, his defence and his ability to score inside, but he’d still provide a lot of that off of the bench. If Patterson started, the team could also get away with starting the offensively limited James Johnson, who is the second-best defender on the team after Amir. That would be a big upgrade over Greivis Vasquez and would return DeMar DeRozan to shooting guard, where he is more comfortable. The new lineup would have energy, decent size, enough offensive capabilities and would allow pick-and-roll maestros Vasquez and Amir Johnson more of an opportunity to connect with Terrence Ross spotting up for threes. Or, they can keep things status quo and hope things change. Casey mentioned “nagging injuries” as one reason why the starters aren’t getting it done and it didn’t take much sleuthing to deduct he was mainly talking about Amir, who has been dealing with a bit of a shoulder issue (he is wearing more padding for games).

- Toronto had won just three of 16 quarters over the past four games, before winning two against the Sixers.

- The offence has become far too predictable. There is little movement, less pick-and-roll action than we’ve seen in past months and pretty bad shot selection. The team has shot 25% from three for most of January, yet continues to launch threes instead of going inside. Some of them are good looks that normally drop, but many more are just bad decisions. Mixing it up could be beneficial. Giving Jonas Valanciunas the ball more could help. He’s No. 7 in the league in field goal percentage and gets them higher efficiency looks than DeRozan isolations.

- Speaking of which, DeRozan is in one of the worst slumps of his career. He made a surprisingly effective return from his six-week injury layoff, largely because he let the game come to him. In the first three games, DeRozan didn’t force anything, everything came within the flow of the game. Now, he has gone back to forcing shots, most of them being at an extremely high level of difficulty. DeRozan is just six for his past 34 shot attempts and has has only been to the free throw line three times over the past three games.

“I kind of find myself looking for fouls now, instead of it coming naturally to me,” DeRozan said. Not surprisingly, he also said he didn’t think the starting lineup needed to be altered. “No, it’s on us, whoever starts because we’re the ones that come out and depict the start of the game. We don’t need to be fighting back from down 30-7. We don’t need to put ourselves in that type of hole because it can easily turn out bad,” he said.

- Credit Lowry for doing what he can do. He was unreal in the fourth, basically, strapping his teammates on his back and carrying them to a win. That’s what true all-stars do and Lowry has certainly earned his spot.

- Patrick Patterson has basically doubled his usual production on the offensive boards and has come up with some huge rebounds lately. With opponents taking away his three-point shooting lately, he said he has been trying to do other things. He also sees getting better as a rebounder as a natural progression. “I haven’t been known as a great rebounder. That’s a thing I’ve been lacking throughout my NBA career. Shot hasn’t been falling, teams are closing on me,” Patterson said. “Every year in the NBA I’ve added something. Three-point shooting. Perimeter defence. Every year is something different.”

MORE QUOTES:

“They’ve got to decide. They’ve got to make a decision from top to bottom. We can continue to say, ‘We’re going to be okay, we’re going to be okay;’ we’re not going to be okay if we continue to perform like that.” – Casey

“We have an air of complacency and I didn’t like it”.

-  “I always say, things always happen for a reason. Just sitting at his house with his family, with his son, that’s a memorable experience that’s going to go down, not just for the night, not for this year, you look back at it 20, 30 years from now, it’s something he can look back at, not only (just) for him but for his son as well.” – DeRozan to the Sun on Lowry having everyone at his house for the all-star announcement.

STATS:

- Toronto is now 20 games in front of the Sixers.

- Toronto has not scored 100 points in the past five games. The team is 5-7 when scoring below 100 and had given up 100 or more in four of five games before this run.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Finally, 48 minutes of effort; Credit Ross for answering the bell; Johnson benching was puzzling

- January 20th, 2015

MILWAUKEE — That was one of the biggest wins of the season for the Raptors. No question about it. With Memphis on deck and what could have been eight losses in 10 games, the game was as close to a must-win in January as you will see in the NBA. The Raptors answered the bell accordingly, they avoided the lulls that have plagued them lately. Sure, there were periods when the shooting went south, but it wasn’t for lack of trying and the defensive intensity was far better than it has been in recent games.

- After Atlanta shot 61% from the field and New Orleans 63% in the fourth quarter, the Raptors were desperate to show some defensive mettle. Against a weak offensive squad they did that, limiting the Bucks to 44.7% shooting and only one excellent shooting quarter (the third, where Milwaukee shot 57%, but on just 14 attempts). When the Raptors needed stops, they got them and the rim protection was far better than we’ve seen for a while. Whether it was Jonas Valanciunas, Amir Johnson, Patrick Patterson, Tyler Hansbrough, or even Kyle Lowry, the Raptors challenged shots at the rim well. (digging deeper at the stat-sheet, it seems Amir wasn’t as good as I thought at the rim, but Hansbrough and Valanciunas allowed just two field goals on seven attempts at the rim between them).

- Yes, I thought it was a bit strange to bench James Johnson. Johnson had been playing quite well, averaging 9.6 points, 5.2 rebounds and 1.0 block over the past five games on 66% shooting. He had slipped defensively like everybody else, but he is still one of the two or three best defenders on the team. Dwane Casey said Johnson didn’t do anything to get removed from the lineup, but rather it was a case of someone needing to fall out of the rotation with Greivis Vasquez starting and Terrence Ross coming off of the bench. With the team going smaller, there were fewer minutes available at small forward and with Hansbrough and Patrick Patterson playing well, it was hard to find any time for Johnson. I would have cut Vasquez from 30 minutes to about 26 and cut Hansbrough back by a couple just to not completely take Johnson out of the rotation. You don’t want to risk losing a player, especially one who has been a bit mercurial in the past. Plus, his play has been solid and you are losing something by not having him out there at all.

- You have to give Terrence Ross props for turning in such a nice effort. He didn’t let a couple of early misses from three-point range get him down. He was able to forget about his slump and just get through it. I think being aggressive helped him – he put it on the floor and got into the paint for a floater then later got a big dunk to get him going. He was steady and made some big plays, especially the two late in the fourth. He still looks like he has regressed defensively, but playing more against reserves should help him get his defensive game back.

- The Raptors only shot 40%, but that’s a top four defence they were facing and a bunch of long, athletic players. Turning it over 15 times wasn’t terrible against that group (especially since eight of the mistakes came in one quarter) and a lot of the missed shots were pretty good looks. The team seems to be hitting only about 25-30% of its three-point attempts lately, but most of them are the same shots they were making earlier in the year. Didn’t see as many forces and bad attempts as usual.

- DeMar DeRozan was due for one of these – maybe not a 0 point, 0-for-9 outing, but you try playing three games in four nights after missing a quarter of a season. It’s a lot to ask DeRozan to keep dropping 20 points when he isn’t yet back in rhythm. It’s actually amazing how well he did in the three games he played before this one. Giannis had something to do with his tough game, but it was much more a matter of DeRozan just not having it than what the Greek Freak was doing in particular.

- Weird stats: On contested field goals (ones where a defender is within three feet), Ross shot 83% (4-for-5). When he was wide open, Ross shot just 2-for-6 (33%). Lou Williams shot 4-for-8 contested, 0-for-4 uncontested. Guess they like having a hand in their face. Lowry shot about the same contested vs. uncontested (poorly).

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Atlanta’s good, but credit Raptors for making them look THAT good; How about an APB for Ross; Patterson slumping; Will player’s only meeting help?

- January 17th, 2015

There’s no question the Atlanta Hawks are really good – duh, they’ve won 25 of 27 games and are building a solid lead atop the East – BUT, they aren’t quite as good as Toronto made them look on Friday night at the ACC.

As good as the Hawks have played during this stretch, they had shot better than 60% from the floor only one other time this season. Toronto’s defence was horrible. Players got lost on screens, they constantly got tricked or picked into bad matchups (ie. point guard guarding a centre, centre guarding a small forward, etc.) and they left the Hawks wide open all night, most damningly, during a third quarter that saw Atlanta shoot 7-for-9 from three-point range. The Raptors also scored a season-low 89 points. Again, Atlanta’s excellent, but Toronto did a lot of this to themselves.

- Could the aliens who have beamed up Terrence Ross kindly return him to the Raptors. They could really use the old Ross. This current version is in a wretched slump. He’s in the midst of his first single-digit scoring month in over a year, has hit under 30% of his three-point attempts over his past 10 games and 33% overall from the field, seems reluctant to dribble the ball, isn’t grabbing any rebounds and has lost his effectiveness as a defender. It’s not yet a crisis and you risk ruining his confidence by benching him for James Johnson, but at some point, if nothing changes, Dwane Casey simply needs to make a move. There are other culprits that have contributed to this free-fall (six losses in eight games), but Ross is right at the top of the list.

- Patrick Patterson’s game has also fallen off of a cliff. Patterson had a massive start to the season and still ranks near the top of the NBA’s three-point shooting leaderboard, but he’s really struggled lately. He’s hit only 25% from three over his past eight appearances, and 30% overall. With Ross and Patterson dipping so much, is it any wonder that things haven’t gone well for the Raptors? With the defence regressing so much, they’d need some great offensive efforts to stay afloat and neither Ross or Patterson have been providing that.

- This is a mature, largely veteran group. They will figure things out. Could they use a jolt and an upgrade or two? Absolutely, but if that doesn’t come, expect them to at least get closer to where they were prior. The player’s only meeting after the game called by Kyle Lowry was a start and the comments afterward by James Johnson about overconfidence based on the great start and the recognition that they were lacking in attention to detail were good signs. They’ve also been saying (Johnson, Greivis Vasquez and DeMar DeRozan in particular), that going through this now is a good thing. Now, the trick is to make sure they aren’t just empty words. This is a team that still has a great record, but has not actually fared well against good teams. If they want to be taken seriously, they need to start getting results against the cream of the crop. The next chance comes Wednesday in Memphis. Before that, wins will be difficult to achieve against New Orleans Sunday (assuming Anthony Davis plays) and Milwaukee Monday (the Bucks surely remember getting humiliated by Bruno and the Raptors earlier this season in Toronto).

- Some people are going to ask about why the lack of touches for Valanciunas. Well, it’s pretty easy. Al Horford and Paul Millsap are smaller and far more mobile. They also are far better basketball players than Valanciunas right now and light years better as defenders. They wouldn’t let Valanciunas get the ball even when the Raptors wanted to give it to him (it is still a valid issue that they jack up too many three-pointers, but it’s not like they could have force-fed Valanciunas in this one). He had to work to guard Horford or Millsap or the other stretch bigs the Hawks have and didn’t seem to have the energy, the ability, or the will to establish himself at the other end.

- James Johnson noted that teams seem to have the book on the Raptors right now. They have been scouted well. Couple that with not “cherishing the ball” like they were earlier in the season, and this has become quite problematic.

QUOTE OF THE NIGHT FROM DWANE CASEY:

“You should be frustrated. We’re getting our butts kicked, we’re all frustrated and you should be. If you’re a competitor you should be frustrated, but there’s no frustration in pointing fingers, ‘your fault, your fault, your fault.’ It’s everybody. You can go right through the roster, coaches players, say you can do this better, we can do this better. That’s what we’ve got to do, because, we’ve done it. We did it at a high level for a couple of months. We’ve just got to get that mojo back and get that 2X4 off our shoulder, the weight of the world, feels like, on your shoulder. We’re still in a good place, but we’ve got to fight through this and grind through this tough spot right now.”

HARDEST QUOTE OF THE NIGHT TO UNDERSTAND (FROM KYLE LOWRY)
“Our meeting was more about what we talked about.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Rejuvenated Jennings soundly outplays Lowry; Raptors badly missing DeRozan’s FT drawing ability; the best and worst of Valanciunas; Stan’s still the man

- January 13th, 2015

As a long-standing member of the Brandon Jennings is bad at basketball and kills his teams club, the arrival of this new, highly effective version of Jennings is a little stunning to see. He has been nothing short of all-star caliber since the Pistons waived Josh Smith and he soundly outplayed MVP candidate Kyle Lowry on Monday night in Detroit’s win. Jennings is so much better when he doesn’t just launch shot after shot. When he plays like an actual point guard, taking advantage of his speed and the threat of his shooting ability to penetrate and create easy shots for his teammates, he can be excellent.

“He plays with great aggressiveness and great confidence,” said Pistons head coach Stan Van Gundy. “Sometimes you’re going (makes squirrel face) about some of his shots, but I’m not trying to put a leash on it because he’s playing great. You’ve got to let those go. He’s playing as well as I’ve seen him play since he got into the league.”

- The Raptors are consistently losing the battle at the free throw line and it was a major factor in this most recent loss. Few players get to the line as often as DeMar DeRozan, and that is perhaps where he is missed the most. The offence isn’t getting nearly as many easy shots, everyone has to do more, which is resulting in far more turnovers – which is killing the Raptors on a regular basis – and opponents wear down the Raptors by living at the line, instead of the other way around, which used to be the norm. DeRozan hinted that a return is close, but the Raptors’ braintrust revels in being Fort Knox-like and the team is full of conflicting information when it comes to providing a timeline, so really, who knows?

- Kudos to Jonas Valanciunas, he had a heck of a night and was as dominant as we’ve ever seen him. Detroit just couldn’t stop him down low. It was like men against boys, which is saying something, considering Andre Drummond is the most powerfully built player in the entire NBA and Greg Monroe is a quite large human being as well. He looked confident, assertive and aggressive down low and on the boards. But even in turning in such a dominant outing, Valanciunas also managed to go a game-worst -14. It’s hard to believe that is even possible. But before we all kill Valanciunas for his defensive deficiencies, it should be noted that Amir Johnson, who seemed – by the eye test at least – to be playing an energized, solid game (and had a double-double of his own with 12 points and 10 rebounds) also was -14. That’s the guy who is by far Toronto’s best defender. Both Valanciunas and Johnson got worked inside by Monroe and others and both were punished by all of the turnovers their teammates committed, which led to easy scores the other way, which impacts +/-. In any event, it’s baffling to think that even on a career night where he shot 14-for-15, Valanciunas could be such a net negative. In any event, what else does he have to do offensively to convince his teammates that they should be giving him the ball more often? Valanciunas was wide open several times and players either launched silly threes, or tried difficult two-point attempts.

- The Raptors have to play smarter. The horrible shot selection and rising turnover numbers can’t all be chalked up to the team missing DeRozan. There is more at work here. Maybe many of the players just don’t have high enough basketball IQs (Lowry’s the exception, he’s as smart as they come on the court, but still tries to force the issue too much). They also struggle to come up with important rebounds when they need them most, giving opponents too many second chances.

- It’s great to have Van Gundy back in the league. Nobody, not Pop, Doc, Thibs, Blatt, or anybody else are more entertaining and engaging.

Some gems from post-game: “We got real technical, we said we’ve got to try.”

(Meeks three) “We got lucky on that.”

 

(On Valanciunas): “22 and 10 in the first half. He was 14-for-15 on the night, the guy crushed us. He was catching the ball so deep. It was a coaching mistake. (he said he told the staff they’d switch Monroe onto Valanciunas to start the third quarter but …) Stan did not inform the players.”

(Were they motivated based on getting embarrassed at the Palace in December?) “Well did we look motivated to start the game (the answer is no). Not at all. We didn’t look the least bit motivated to start the game. I don’t believe that stuff would kick in at half-time. (Facetiously) We weren’t ready to play at the beginning, but you know what? Now, I remember what happened.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A great effort goes for naught for Raptors; Despite record, DeRozan greatly missed; D finally returns; NBA needs more good refs

- December 31st, 2014

If you didn’t stay up late to catch Raptors-Blazers, you missed out on one of the better games of the year. If you overlook the awful shooting from both sides before overtime, it was close to a classic. Both teams had chances to pull it out, Kyle Lowry – otherwise spectacular – missed a few looks he’d love to have back that could have turned the tide – counterpart Damian Lillard did the same – but ultimately, Portland is very good – and even better in the clutch (best in the league with Lillard being the NBA’s best clutch player) and the Raptors, minus a sorely missed DeMar DeRozan, just couldn’t quite get it done.

- Lowry did ridiculous things, especially a trio of offensive boards at pivotal points, but right now, he is being asked to do too much, something Greivis Vasquez pointed out post-game. Without DeRozan and when Lou Williams and Vasquez are struggling, Lowry not only needs to set up others, but he also needs to be the primary scorer, in addition to a key defender. It’s just not possible on a nightly basis without some slippage. Great effort though.

- We said a day earlier it would be interesting if these teams played a close one. Both are top five in the NBA in terms of fourth quarter point differential. Amir Johnson made a couple of excellent plays to give them a chance, including his bucket down low to tie it. In overtime, Portland’s threes started dropping and when that happens, they are extremely tough to top.

- James Johnson had a huge night. Would have preferred to see him out there more in the second half instead of the Raptors going small, forcing Portland to adjust or even if they didn’t (not like Steve Blake was a huge threat, Johnson could have guarded him if necessary). Forcing the issue with more Jonas Valanciunas could have made sense too, but he played the entire third quarter and was wretched in his four minutes in the fourth so I’m not sure why so many people were up in arms about his lack of playing time down the stretch. Add the fact that the Raptors are better defensively without him on the floor (despite his recent improved defensive play) and that Portland didn’t have its centres in, and not going with him makes even more sense. Again, sitting Johnson for so long doesn’t.

- Hate talking about officiating, but the fact remains that it really stinks that so many good NBA referees either got old or sick, forcing them out of action. There just aren’t enough quality refs left. Yesterday’s crew, especially Marc Davis, looked a bit like a Benny Hill skit. They made baffling calls both ways, hurting both teams, though the Raptors were impacted most, because the biggest mess-ups went against them.  Earlier in the game, Valanciunas was getting mauled, yet they were letting things go. At the other end LaMarcus Aldridge was given the benefit of the doubt on pretty much every play. All-star vs. developing player? Sure, but if you are making those calls, don’t call a technical on Valanciunas for waving his hand in disgust at your own bad call (the foul shouldn’t have been on Valanciunas that led him to be demonstrative). It came at a point where the Raptors could have basically locked up the game and helped to turn the tied. Up 13 with under two minutes remaining in the third, Valanciunas should have hauled in an offensive rebound, giving the Raptors  a shot at a 15-point bulge, which likely would have been enough. Instead, the technical was called, the Blazers scored six straight points and it was game on. Casey offered a “no comment” when Eric Smith asked him about the clear path foul calls.

- The other brutal moments included an offensive foul call on Amir Johnson that simply wasn’t (he wasn’t moving, he wasn’t holding, Wes Matthews simply flopped). Calling an offensive foul with 1:59 remaining in a tie game takes a lot of cajones. You had better get it right. The refs didn’t. I’m not an expert on clear path fouls, but the one that didn’t go the Raptors way seemed pretty baffling. Does it not matter that Lowry was way down the floor wide open? The one on Vasquez later seemed like the right call, but not sure how you make that one, when you let such an obvious one go the other way. Of course, Portland fans will tell you they didn’t like a bunch of first half calls much either.

- As tough as the loss was for the Raptors, they have to be heartened by having a shot to win again on this tough trip, against the team with the most wins in the NBA and without DeRozan. That’s impressive. They also should be buoyed by holding such a strong offensive club to 40% shooting and just 102 points in an overtime game. That came a game after holding Denver to 102 points and 43% shooting and two after the Clippers scored just 98 points. The defence seems to be stabilizing a bit.

- Again, it’s time the Raptors shake things up at the end of quarters. The Lou Williams isolation play is stale, ineffective and too predictable. For a team that is so good on out-of-bounds plays (including a few gems on Tuesday), it feels like a waste not to run the things they are capable of.

- No shame in losing to a Portland team that is 15-2 at home and had been winning at the Moda Center by 11 points a night including nearly 14 over the past six. Toronto has still won 75% of its games so far this season and went 58-27 in 2014 as a whole, the second best record in the NBA.

A few quotes:

“It’s so much load on him. He was driving in there, creating contact and he wasn’t getting any calls. You get beat up, it takes a toll on you.” – Dwane Casey on Kyle Lowry.

“I love the way we competed in a hostile environment. If you can compete in that environment, the way we did tonight, you can compete in a lot of places.” – Casey

“We didn’t have our best scorer. Imagine when he comes back. I’ve been saying, we need this guy. Right now we are asking K-Low to do too much” – Vasquez.

“I thought we had the game. We played well for 40 minutes. You’ve got to play well for 48.” – Vasquez

Happy New Year everybody, will be interesting to see how the Raptors build on the most successful calendar year in franchise history.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

New Raptors logos don’t go over so well; Drummond makes a big mistake; Band of Brothers make another statement and so do the fans

- December 20th, 2014

AUBURN HILLS, MI — So, the new Raptors logo is going to take some getting used to. I’m sure most people will come around on it (two thirds of the reaction I received Friday was of the negative variety) and the way it was unveiled will never be used as a template for Marketing 101 courses, but I don’t think it’s that bad. Of course, I never really liked the Barney pajamas or the red dino logo (though the throwbacks look great and I still like the claw). Wish they would have gone back to the two-tone black and purple beauties (think Vince Carter slam dunk contest) those ones really were the best. But my opinion doesn’t matter, let’s take it to the players (who shall remain mostly nameless, because none of this was exactly on the record):

Me: “Do you like the logo?” One Raptor: “Nope.” DeMar DeRozan: (Shrugs shoulders, does the classic I’m not sure signal with his arms). Another: “Shouldn’t the new one be better than the old one? I like the old one.” Landry Fields loved the new one. James Johnson was a fan and Amir Johnson gave it one thumbs up, but admitted that he’d wear anything with Toronto Raptors on it so it wasn’t a big deal either way. Masai Ujiri and Jeff Weltman love it and everyone assured us that it will all look far better on the actual jerseys and merchandise. Speaking of that, can’t verify the authenticity, but this was making the rounds and it does look pretty good.

- “We the North” travels well. Before the game, most of the early-arriving fans (as in 75% of those there an hour before tipoff) were Raptors supporters. They were loud, had nice signs and even banners. Patrick Patterson signed a Canadian flag pre-game. Once the game started, even the Detroit media commented on the Raptors supporters, saying they actually brought some atmosphere to the morgue-like Palace for once. Of course, James Johnson had the best line, saying: “It felt like Detroit was hosting  a Toronto Raptors night.” The “We the North” chants easily drowned out the “USA, USA” competition in an arena where they once booed the Canadian anthem during a Raptors-Pistons playoff series (the one where Chris Childs forgot the score). The best moment was when they twice chanted in support of Landry Fields, who had just taken a horrific spill that left him a bloody mess.

- Johnson showed some maturity in not getting himself into any trouble after getting checked by Andre Drummond following his massive dunk in Drummond’s face. Afterward, Johnson alternated between seeming ready to chase after the Pistons into the night and joking about the incident. He’s an interesting dude. His quotes were some of the best of the season. The aftermath was yet another example of the chemistry this group has. They have each others’ backs and as Kyle Lowry says, are a band of brothers.

- Why do the Raptors tend to play so much better later in games? “You get a reset. You get a chance to kind of start the game over and put our effect on the game big-time. We’re just coming out and coach is just really making our adjustments at half-time and making our changes and we’ve been going from there,” Lowry said. “You’ve got to put your effect on the game, you’ve got to put your will on the third quarter and that’s huge. You can kind of start the game and get the first run and make them call a timeout.”

- Lowry on if he minded getting a rest down the stretch? “I wanted to play, but once James got the dunk, honestly, I was like, you know what, ‘let them guys rock out, I can’t match that, so go ahead, y’all got it.’

- Stan Van Gundy isn’t having a good time, despite all the money the Pistons gave him to turn this mess around.The Raptors had a 26-9 run at one point. Afterward, Van Gundy weighed in: “We had absolutely no defensive will or resolve whatsoever. I mean 60 points in paint. You’re not doing anything defensively when you give that up.”

- One statistical quirk: Teams continue to stink at the free throw line against the Raptors. Detroit hit just 66.7% and opponents are hitting just 70.9% against them for the season. Only Milwaukee (70.3%) gets more help at the line.

- Amir Johnson played his 400th game for the Raptors, beating DeMar DeRozan, who has been stuck on 399 because of his injury. Fittingly, he was at the Palace, where his career started.

 The Pistons selected Johnson straight out of high school, making him the answer to a trivia question (the last NBAer to go prep to pros), but on a deep, contending squad, he mostly had to watch and learn from veterans like Ben and Rasheed Wallace and Dale Davis.

Johnson eventually was dealt to Milwaukee, but never played for the Bucks, being re-routed to the Raptors for Carlos Delfino. Since then, he has grown into one of the league’s better defensive big man, with a sneakily effective inside game.

Before the game, Johnson did not even know about the milestone.

“Is it? 400? Wow. Yea, man. It makes me think how many NBA games I’ve played throughout the year. But it’s a blessing,” Johnson said.

“Six years with the Raptors, I’ve been through the ups and downs and I guess the only thing to do is keep on going, right?”

Head coach Dwane Casey called Johnson “Mr. Consistency,” adding, “what you see is what you’re going to get. His biggest nemesis has been health, more than anything else, but he’s a warrior and he goes out and gives you everything he has even though he’s hurt.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

Tired Raptors power through Magic; Amir makes an adjustment; Life great for Lowry and Bruno’s pants

- December 16th, 2014

These Raptors sure seem to enjoy playing with fire, but at 19-6, you can’t argue with the results. They believe they can turn it on and off at will and against some teams, perhaps they can, but it is a dangerous game to play. Everyone could see a tough game coming on Monday. Orlando is young, was rested (unlike the Raptors who played the night before), extremely athletic and stocked with some good shooters, including the improved Victor Oladipo. That’s why it wasn’t surprising that they gave them a game and even took control for a bit in the second quarter before Kyle Lowry did Kyle Lowry things.

- I wrote all about Lowry in the main, so we’ll skip over just how ridiculous he was in the third quarter here. He didn’t do it by himself. Terrence Ross hit a trio of threes, snapping a shooting skid at home (though he still went 3-for-11 overall from the field), Patrick Patterson nailed a pair, James Johnson and Tyler Hansbrough were excellent in the second half off of the bench and Amir Johnson, again looking healthy – a good sign – had his moments as well.

- Dwane Casey credited his group for fighting through being mentally and physically tired to win the game. He said they had a tough night and didn’t get a lot of sleep. “I don’t want to give our guys an excuse but we get in at two in the morning, come through Customs; we have to sit at the gate in New York forever – I don’t know if they do that on purpose or what – and then we get in late, back-to-back, overtime game.
We had every excuse in the world and that’s what I told them at halftime,” Casey said, not mentioning the other things he said (or yelled) at them at the half.

“The second half we found our voice, our energy, our spirit and we held them to 13 and 17 (points) … we found our defensive mojo in the second half.”

- Casey didn’t like Amir’s work guarding Channing Frye in the previous outing – “He didn’t do a good job the last game and I just talked to Amir about that. He hit like three straight buckets, had 13 points in the first quarter so his attention to detail on Frye has to be on point because if not, he’s one of those guys that can get out there and space the floor,” Casey said. This time, Johnson played Frye a little closer and Frye missed all three first quarter shots and went just 1-for-6 in a poor outing.

- Jonas Valanciunas, who really hates talking about himself, always trying to direct the conversation back to the team, on being nominated for player of the week: “Yeah (he is happy). First of all happy that we won today, it’s tough, tough win, tough game, but we won so I’m happy for that one. And I’m happy for the player of the week … sure,” Valanciunas said rather non-plussed.

- Life seems to be great for Lowry right now. He’s been the most upbeat guy in the locker room (aside from Bebe, who cannot be topped in that department, ever) for a week or so now. He took some kids shopping on Tuesday, knows he’ll be an all-star in a couple of months and generally seems comfortable. We’ve got something big on Lowry planned in the near future. Anyway, funny moment after the game. Lowry spotted Bruno Caboclo two stalls over in bright red pants. “Damn Bruno, those are some red ass pants! It must be Christmas.” All Bruno could do was smile.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Patterson “Tells on himself”; An ugly win is still a win; Raptors better on road?; Knicks are a mess and no relief coming anytime soon

- December 15th, 2014

Ugly games, there have been a few. Especially lately. At least it sure seems that way. Sunday’s Raptors-Knicks tilt was a pretty hideous affair and I’m glad I wasn’t on this road trip. The Raptors again came out flat. They were pretty lethargic, letting the Knicks get to the line too often and could have blown a game against a horrid opponent, but like good teams do, Toronto found a way to leave Manhattan with another victory.

- Give Patrick Patterson the game ball for this one. He kept the Raptors afloat in the first quarter with his offence, hitting  all three of his shots for seven points (only Kyle Lowry also played well in the opening quarter), then saved the day for them late, by finally providing some resistance against Carmelo Anthony. Anthony had been having a solid scoring game, notching 27 points on better than 50% shooting, with 10 free throw attempts, before the Raptors opted to try Patterson against Anthony. Dwane Casey had mused the other day about possibly letting Patterson try his luck against small forwards. Anthony isn’t a traditional three, he’s more of a tweener so it’s not a perfect science, but Patterson showed something against him. As Casey put it afterward, Patterson “told on himself” as in he let the coaching staff know he can guard a scoring combo forward like Anthony. Carmelo did not attempt a free throw once Patterson was switched onto him and missed six-of-nine attempts from the field. There is no doubt Patterson has been one of the team’s best performers so far this season.

- I’m surprised the Raptors didn’t go to Valanciunas more often. Amar’e Stoudemire can’t come close to guarding him, yet Valanciunas only got one shot attempt in the first quarter – an aggressive move to the bucket for a score – just two more in the second. His teammates and coaching staff simply have to make sure Valanciunas gets more involved on offence. He is a good player down low. Use him. This isn’t a debate on whether he should be on the floor or not and when, it is about when he is out there, take advantage of what he can do.

- Terrence Ross has not been sinking threes as consistently as he did when DeMar DeRozan was around to create more open shots for him with his presence, but he’s been solid overall. Since DeRozan went down eight games ago (including the ninth game, since DeRozan only played a small portion of that game), Ross has averaged 14.2 points and 4.3 rebounds, shooting 48.6% from the field and 90% from the free throw line. He has shown more of an in-between game – putting the ball on the floor more, scoring on floaters and even a hook at times. One free throw attempt a game is not nearly enough though. Ross needs to be more aggressive and needs to draw some fouls. Especially for as long as DeRozan is out.

- More Ross, and this is a bizarre one – Including the game where DeRozan got hurt up until Sunday against the Knicks, Ross has shot 48.1% from three on the road, just 19% at home. Ross has basically been the force the Raptors want him to be on the road – 18.2 points on 58% shooting in the five games – but poor at home without DeRozan – 9.3 points on 35% shooting.

- The Kyle Lowry splits are also quite interesting. Using this same 9-game span, Lowry has averaged 26.4 points on the road and 2.6 steals and 10.2 assists per game vs. 17.3, 0.5 and 8.3. He’s also shot 36% at home, 43% on the road. It’s a small sample size, only about 11% of the season, but a bit intriguing. (Late add from a reader on Twitter: perhaps it has something to do with the Raptors facing far better teams at home during this stretch – those teams are 47-48 – vs. the 30-68 dregs they’ve faced on the road).

- So much for Phil Jackson and Derek Fisher instantly turning things around for the Knicks. They are an unmitigated disaster. The 5-21 start is the worst in team history. They owe Carmelo Anthony a ton of money for four more seasons ($22-$28 million a year, yikes). They have their own first round pick this year (luckily for them, since it’s going to be a high one), but send next year’s first either to Toronto or Denver (Denver gets the better pick, Toronto the lesser one) and they have no second rounders until 2020. Seriously. They have only seven players signed for next season, but even with the cap rising, will have a hard time adding star talent and filling out the roster. It’s more of the same the next summer. This is going to take some time. It’s too bad, considering how important the Knicks franchise is to the NBA and how terrible it has been for years now.