Posts Tagged ‘Dwane Casey

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.

 

Finally, a better start; Lowry’s bricks don’t matter if he’s doing everything else; Rarified air for Raptors; DeRozan’s heating up

- February 26th, 2014

Finally, a non-horrible start to a game. Progress? Maybe. Toronto didn’t get off to a good start on Tuesday in Cleveland, but it wasn’t a bad one either. And the team got it together in a first quarter for the first time in a while to take a six-point lead into the break.

In a reversal of recent fortunes, the league’s top second half team got outscored by seven in the third, before springing to life in the fourth.

- The team would probably prefer Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan to be less streaky, but when they’ve been on, they’ve been scorching. Quarters of 15 or so points are becoming routine lately for Toronto’s all-star caliber backcourt. I talked about DeRozan’s remarkable improvement as a playmaker here and he put up his 16th game of the season with five or more assists. Remarkably, it was the eighth time he did it without committing a single turnover.

- It wasn’t just their offence that helped the Raptors win for the 32nd time – two off of last season’s win total. Lowry took a massive charge late on Kyrie Irving and DeRozan made a key steal to finish off the Cavs, a .500 team at home heading in.

- Coaches don’t like it, but lulls happen nearly every game. It wasn’t at the start this time, but it came after a 15-0 run in the second quarter put the Raptors firmly in front 29-17. Cleveland managed to outscore Toronto 24-18 from there to crawl back within striking distance. It got worse for Toronto when the rare bad third quarter start took place.

- Greivis Vasquez gave the Raptors some much-needed secondary scoring. With Lowry struggling with his jumper and the rest of the bench AWOL (save for Tyler Hansbrough), every one of the 15 points Vasquez scored were helpful. He was the only Raptor going when Cleveland closed the gap in the second.

- Some areas for concern for the Raptors: Outscored 40-32 in the paint; Eleven combined turnovers by Amir Johnson, Terrence Ross and Patrick Patterson; No impact from Jonas Valanciunas, who dominated against these same Cavs last time out, but was benched for most of the second half in this one.

- Another one: Lowry’s shooting just 26% from three over his past 10 games and 38% overall. He’s shot just 35% over his past four. Still, he had nine assists and no turnovers, plus that huge charge taken on Irving.

“You’re not going to have a great game offensively all the time, so I tried to do other things. That’s how you’ve got to play. I just tried to get everyone in spots where they could be successful by attacking all night,” Lowry said afterward.

- Not a concern: The play of DeRozan. He’s averaging 23.7 points over his past three, along with 5.0 assists, just 2.0 turnovers and shooting 46.4%j from the field. In those three games, DeRozan has averaged 15 points on 53.1% shooting in the second half.

- Really liked what I saw from Brampton’s Anthony Bennett in Toronto last week, but that didn’t carry over into this one. Bennett had a rough start, airballing an easy shot and getting lost a couple of times on defence. Still, he’s one of the youngest players in the league and is only now getting back into top shape and getting consistent minutes. He’s a rookie, doing rookie things. Write him off now and look foolish later.

- Tristan Thompson continues to play well. One more rebound in this game and Friday’s against Toronto and he’d be on a seven game streak of double-doubles.

- Toronto stayed 1.5 games ahead of Chicago and picked up another half game over Brooklyn for the Atlantic Division lead. This is the first time the team has been seven games over .500 in six years. Toronto beat Washington Feb. 20th, 2010, to move seven games over .500 and hadn’t been there since.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

Raptors-Pelicans PPG: Keep Patrick Patterson in starting lineup? Valanciunas pissing off competition and Vasquez beneficiary of Monty’s tough coaching

- February 11th, 2014

The transition from Amir Johnson to Patrick Patterson in the starting lineup was a smooth one on Monday. With Tyler Hansbrough back in action, the Raptors should continue to sit Johnson out until he is feeling 100%. That means holding him out against Atlanta on Wednesday and maybe even against Washington and beyond following the all-star break.

Toronto’s best shot at hanging onto third place in the East and maybe even winning a playoff round is with a healthy Johnson. He’s been the team’s best overall player and certainly its best defender over each of the past three seasons. This year, December aside, he’s regressed significantly and his ankle woes are the main reason why.

Jonas Valanciunas has been playing like a maniac at times lately. Full of energy, swinging his elbows, attacking the glass. The result has been a bunch of double-doubles and, it appears, a few peeved opponents. Valanciunas said a few Pelicans told him to watch his elbows – some more forcefully than others. Greg Stiemsma actually jumped on his head and elbowed him at one point. Valanciunas got a technical for a retaliatory shove and said he also made sure to tell Stiemsma he wasn’t impressed with the tough guy act. Valanciunas is evolving into a confident pro and with the increased confidence has come an uptick in his performance.

After competing in the rookie sophomore challenge on Friday night in New Orleans (where he says he’ll teach Charles Barkley how to properly say his name), Valanciunas will take a brief trip to Mexico to relax on a beach.

With his tongue firmly in cheek, Steve Novak let out a good quip after being informed he had more blocks than Pelicans all-star Anthony Davis in the game. “Another night at the office. That’s just what I do,” said a smiling Novak.

The Chuck Hayes/Novak combination was a bit of a disaster. The two times they were on the court for a while, New Orleans completely outplayed the Raptors.

Tyreke Evans sure loves facing the Raptors. He approached a triple double and only scores more, over the course of his career, against Utah.

Kyle Lowry, brilliant again, said Wednesday’s game against fourth-place Atlanta will be a huge one and a good way to head into the break.

“It’s the team we’re jockeying with right now. It’s an important game. They have an all-star in Millsap, they have a great point guard in Teague, so we have to game-plan around that and go hard,” he said.

Lowry on the continual pursuit of developing Toronto’s identity:

“That’s his thing. Defence is his thing,” Lowry said of Dwane Casey. “That’s what he wants us to build on. We know that’s the kind of team we are defensive, hard-nosed guy type of team.

“It’s easier said than done (to play defence). It’s tough, but that’s what we practice, that’s what he preaches and that’s what we’ve got to do.”

Lowry was wearing Nike’s, instead of his customary Peak shoes. Asked if his contract was done with Peak, DeMar DeRozan interjected with a laugh, teasing his friend: “Peak’s done with him.”

 

This got scrapped from the paper at the last minute due to space limitations:

Greivis Vasquez doesn’t appear to have any hard feelings.

Though New Orleans traded him away last summer to Sacramento after Vasquez finished second in the NBA in assists, Vasquez, acquired by Toronto in the Rudy Gay swap with Sacramento, still had a big hug for Pelicans head coach Monty Williams before Monday’s game.

Ironically, Williams had just been talking about Vasquez in his pre-game scrum.
“Greivis probably doesn’t want to see me. I was so tough on him. He probably will start itching or sweating as soon as he sees me, thinking I’m going to yell at him or something,” Williams had said.

“He was a bright spot for me. He was a big-time flagship for our (player development) program. He came in, worked his tail off, and had our best year for us. I was fortunate to be able to coach Greivis.”
Williams said he could be hard on his players – “I’m probably the furthest thing from (a player’s coach)” – but it benefitted them in the end.

“I always tell guys we can be friends later. You need to get better now. You have to figure out which one you want. We can be friends now and you suffer. (Vasquez) was a guy that took hard coaching.”
“I’m hard on everybody except my wife. It’s just the nature of coaching. Great players want you to coach them. It just depends who you are. Some people look at it as me being hard on them. Some people look at it as coaching. My job is to make guys better.”

Raptors at Clippers Points Per Game: Too much Blake Griffin; OK with hack-a-Jordan; DeRozan’s passing has been great; Amir’s hurting; sked gets easier

- February 8th, 2014

Well, this one started OK. No first quarter slumber, pretty good defence on the Clippers not named Blake Griffin … but that Griffin guy is an all-star starter for a reason (and it’s not just because he’s popular owing to his dunks). Griffin has taken his game to a new level, even without Chris Paul and now gets the LeBron treatment from referees. Not only is he much better than he used to be and amongst the most polished scorers in the NBA, if you breathe on Griffin, you’re in danger of being whistled for a foul. That’s a tough combination to deter. Fouls were the only thing that slowed down the former No. 1 overall pick on Friday night.

- Since Chris Paul – merely the NBA’s top point guard – got hurt, Griffin has averaged 26.6 points, 9.3 rebounds and 3.9 assists on 53.9% shooting and 71.9% success from the line (this is a guy who used to shoot 55% from the stripe).

- Everything was OK through the first quarter-and-a-half, but then the Clippers started running and the Raptors had no answers for one of the league’s most athletic squads. Quickly, L.A. was up 18 and then as much as 22. It’s been a troubling trend for a while now. These Raptors fall behind by 15-20 points far too often. It seems like it happens to them more than other teams, but I don’t have the exact numbers on that.

- Part of the problem once again? Second effort, or a lack thereof. The Raptors were outworked outside and for loose balls for much of the contest. Part of that could be fatigue, but it was a factor in the outcome.

- DeMar DeRozan put on a show at home, dropping 36 points – the most he’s scored in L.A. The eight assists and zero turnovers were just as impressive, along with 19 trips to the line. Too often, DeRozan and Kyle Lowry are the only Raptors who attack the rim relentlessly. The team could really use another attacker. That’s the fifth time this season DeRozan’s notched at least three assists without a turnover. In February, he has 28 assists and just six turnovers.

- Hack-a-Jordan wasn’t a very popular strategy for Dwane Casey – ESPN’s J.A. Adande railed against the practice, but I don’t have a problem with it. Sure, it lowers the entertainment factor, but if a player is a bad as Jordan (and others like Dwight Howard have been) at the line and you are in serious trouble, why not try it? Put the onus on the opposing coach not to play the terrible free throw shooter or, imagine this, force the guy making millions of dollars to spend enough time working on his shot that he doesn’t shoot 35-55% anymore. With all the help and practice time available to them, there is no excuse for any NBA player to shoot less than 55% from the line.

- At least this time the Raptors were fouling on purpose. The referees in Sacramento merely assumed they were fouling on purpose.

- Speaking of free throws, have to think the long trip had something to do with Jonas Valanciunas – usually a guaranteed 70% or better – going just 3-for-9. These guys need a break. They get one Saturday, but will be back at practice Sunday. It probably will be a short one. That said, his teammates only missed three – combined.

- The good news is the Raptors return from the jaunt still tied for third in the East (though Atlanta has two games in hand and could pull ahead with a win Saturday night). Now, the hard parts of the schedule have been taken care of and the final three months of the season will be much less of a grind. Casey will play this down surely, that’s his job, but there’s no question life just got a lot easier for the Raptors. Eight of the next 10 will be at home, with the all-star break providing a needed rest (Amir Johnson said after the game he’s hurt and playing through it but it’s definitely impacting his game). There will still be some back-to-backs, but all trips are now two games or less from here on out.