Posts Tagged ‘James Johnson

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A better effort makes all the difference for Raptors against lowly Pacers; The bench has been absurdly good and Bruno speaks on Canadian weather

- December 13th, 2014

For the first time in a while, the Raptors played hard, played tough and played smart (at least defensively). Against a good team, it might not have been enough to finally get untracked offensively in the fourth and still come out with a win, but luckily for the Raptors, the punchless Pacers are missing three key pieces from last year’s East-leading group.

- Wrote about how ridiculous the bench – especially Lou Williams and Patrick Patterson have been here. For an update, after Friday night’s games, Lou Williams now leads all NBA reserves at +153 and Patrick Patterson is next at +136. Tyler Hansbrough is up to sixth at +92. James Johnson and Greivis Vasquez are also up there, as well as Canadians Tristan Thompson, Robert Sacre and Cory Joseph not too far below them.

- All week long, Dwane Casey has been harping on the team’s awful rebounding and constant defensive mental errors. Strides were made in tidying up those areas against the Pacers, the second-best rebounding team in the NBA. Jonas Valanciunas was a force, completely overwhelming Roy Hibbert and the other Pacers all evening, something he has done consistently against the Pacers the past couple of years now. Patterson stepped up his rebounding effort and Hansbrough gave them good minutes. When the Raptors come out aggressively, they tend to win games.

“That was big for us especially with the talented bigs that Indiana has and just the physical basketball that they play,” Williams said afterward. “It was important for us to hit first and I think it carried over for four quarters.”

- Clearly the bench is a major strength. “It’s good for teams to have a second group, to give the first group relief and then for them to have a group when they go out of the game that isn’t going to allow slippage,” Williams said. “we have a lot of guys that can start on other teams and we’ve accepted the role of being backups and we take that in pride, we take that in pride that we know we’re going into games and going to change the pace of the game. I think that’s a major plus.”

- It was a happy locker room post-game. Vasquez was talking up all of his teammates, Lowry was talking up Williams (well, everyone was actually doing that) and Brazilians Bruno Caboclo and Lucas Nogueira weighed in on the weather. Bebe said he has seen worse. Bruno was told last winter was far tougher and responded with a smile: “That’s because I am here now.”

A couple of notes that I had to cut from the paper due to space limitations:

REST FOR AMIR?

Amir Johnson has been playing through some injuries this season and has not looked as mobile as he or the Raptors would like on many nights.

So it was natural that head coach Dwane Casey was asked before the game whether giving Johnson a bit of enforced rest might be an option – eventually.

“(That) hadn’t been talked about. We’re already a man down (DeRozan),” Casey said. “At some point that could be a possibility but it hasn’t been talked about.”

Casey said the team has looked at “all scenarios” including playing Patterson at small forward, sitting Johnson for a bit, or something different.

Casey said Johnson has a collection of “knicks and knacks” little ailments that are adding up.

Even though Johnson’s rebounding numbers are way down this season though, he is still doing a good job at boxing out, which is creating more opportunities for teammates – especially Valanciunas – to go to work on the boards.

Johnson had more lift on Friday, throwing down a couple of dunks off of passes from Kyle Lowry.

ONE GAME AT A TIME

The Raptors are playing some of the league’s dregs for the next little while, but Dwane Casey is not eyeing a big run from his team.

“We’re not in a position to overlook anybody, any stretch of games,” Casey said.

“Tonight, last night, it’s all been about the Pacers. That’s the most important thing. Once, as a player, you start looking down the road, next game, two games, a stretch of games whatever, that’s where you get in trouble.”

Starting with the Pacers, the Raptors next six opponents were a combined 35-101 so far this season.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Valanciunas dominates Nuggets and needs to keep it up; OT monkey off Raptors backs; Bench comes through led by “Patman” who hears everything

- December 9th, 2014

Stop me if you’ve read this here before, but sometimes being lucky is as important as being good. Once again, the Raptors weren’t all that good and did their best to fumble away a game, before doing just enough to prevail. The team still has a long way to go and can’t play as haphazardly as it did against Denver against a good team and hope to win. There’s no excuse for letting a team finishing a back-to-back completely outwork a fully rested one. Denver wanted it more throughout the game and put in a lot more effort (with a couple of exceptions that we will get to).

- Denver players were left open far too often (might want to guard Wilson Chandler in the corner) and they missed a lot of shots later on in the game or else this one could have turned out differently. They attacked the boards and the Raptors, Jonas Valanciunas aside, did not seem too inclined to go up with them.

- The main positive has to be the play of Valanciunas. He dominated Timofey Mozgov, who had been in the midst of a solid season. Valanciunas was aggressive and effective. He bullied the Nuggets down low and also showed a new trick when he went left in the post for a score instead of his preferred turn toward the right and the middle of the floor. With DeMar DeRozan out, Valanciunas needs to bring the attitude and aggressiveness he brought on Monday. He was coming off one of his worst outings of the year, against Cleveland on Friday, so it was good that he bounced back with one of his better games the next time out.

- Offence wasn’t the only positive where Valanciunas is concerned. He also arguably turned in his best defensive outing of the season. He was a stopper, even when each of the other Raptors were only offering token resistance. He had four blocks, five fouls and was completely engaged. He looked like a wall in the middle and Dwane Casey and his staff had to be smiling about that. The trick now is doing it again. And again and not just against the behemoths like Mozgov that seem to bring out the best in him. Do it against the quicker, undersized centres like Cleveland’s Anderson Varejao, the opponent once again on Tuesday night.

- Speaking of new wrinkles, while Terrence Ross couldn’t buy an outside shot until one was needed the most, he looked good scoring off of the dribble. He is expanding his game in the absence of DeRozan, looking to put the ball on the floor to set up runners and even a hook. The more versatile Ross becomes on offence, the more effective he and the Raptors will be.

- For the second game in a row, Amir Johnson looked like his old self. He had a bounce in his step, set good screens and then … seemed to turn his ankle again. From there, he didn’t look right, but still converted a nice pick-and-roll at a pivotal moment. Still, with the way Valanciunas was rolling, it can be argued Valanciunas and Patterson should have closed the game, at least until Valanciunas picked up a sixth foul.

- Patterson obviously was great, hitting a career-best five threes including the one that forced overtime. On a night where Kyle Lowry couldn’t “hit the side of a barn with a bass fiddle” to steal a Casey quote (just 3-for-13), Patterson stepped up to provide the scoring the Raptors needed. Patterson was just as good afterward, telling the media, via TSN.ca’s Josh Lewenberg: “I hear everything. I hear the fans in whatever section, I can’t remember which one, there was a guy screaming, ‘Hey P-Pat.’ There’s another fan after I hit that three that says, ‘Yeah, that’s what I’m talking about PD-Patt,’ ‘Let’s go Pat-Man, save the day!’ I hear everything and I enjoy hearing it.” Great stuff.

- The Raptors still can’t stop teams off of the dribble. It’s a major concern. Ty Lawson is especially tough to corral because he is so quick, but he was just the latest point guard to go to town, creating open shots for his teammates. At least they came through when it mattered most, forcing Denver into a 24-second violation with the game on the line.

 

 

Raptors can thank Kyle Lowry for an ugly win in Sacramento; time to replace Vasquez with Johnson?

- December 3rd, 2014

Sometimes to get a win in the NBA you have to be good. Other times, it pays to be lucky. Some nights, it’s  a bit of both. And then there are nights like Tuesday, where the Raptors were neither good, nor all that lucky, yet still managed to come away with a victory. The Raptors (James Johnson aside) declined to play any defence for 75% of the night and had a rare off-night from Lou Williams, but still hung on, to run their record to an impressive 14-4. Why? This might seem like a huge generalization, but it came down to Kyle Lowry suiting up and DeMarcus Cousins not doing so.

- Sure, the Kings posted gaudy numbers without Cousins, one of the league’s five most dominant players (37 trips to the free throw line, 109 points, 52% shooting) but with Cousins in, the teams would not have been even on the boards, it would have been a big edge for the Kings and likely, a 10-point win for the home side).

- But Cousins was a surprising scratch, meaning Lowry was the best player on the floor and he showed it, lifting the Raptors on his back when necessary at both ends of the floor. Lowry started off on fire (nine points and five assists as the Raptors got off to a great start – 13 points, eight assists and just one turnover at the half), then finished with a bang, scoring 10 points in the fourth without a turnover. After hitting a tough layup, he then took a big charge on Rudy Gay, two pivotal plays in the end.

- Liked the way Lowry again took advantage of a smaller guard, this time going at tiny Darren Collison early in the post. Lowry can score against most point guards down there and it continues to be a good look for an offence that is searching for ways to replace DeMar DeRozan’s scoring.
- Hard to like the lack of defence from the Raptors. The Kings have some players who are good at attacking off the dribble, but at times it was ridiculous. They were blowing by Raptors defenders and the help defenders were barely even in the right area code. The Kings shot 77% from the field in the second quarter. It’s difficult to win games when you allow opponents to score at that level. The Kings were at 58% through three quarters and only a far better defensive final quarter from the league’s best fourth quarter team saved this one.- You could argue I’m being too negative, but this was an uninspiring performance from a team that is trying to prove that it is one of the NBA’s better teams and certainly a top three group in the East. The Raptors looked lazy and uninspired for much of the evening, Lowry, James and Amir Johnson, Jonas Valanciunas and Terrence Ross aside.

- Speaking of  Ross -the third-year swingman gave the Raptors a huge boost, scoring 15 points in the first quarter and 20 in all. It was the first time in his career he managed 20 points in consecutive games. Ross had hit 46.7% of his three-point attempts over his previous three games and with a 4-of-8 performance Tuesday, is up to 43.8% for the season, including 46.4% over his past five games.

- Jonas Valanciunas over his previous five games heading into this one: 12.6 points, 9.8 rebounds, 1.4 blocks per game on 61.5% shooting from the field, 83.3% from the line. He had 15 points and eight rebounds, shooting 50% from the field (on only six attempts) and 9-for-10 from the line. The Raptors need to get him more than 11 attempts a night while DeRozan is out. He only had two attempts in the opening quarter (both resulting in trips to the free throw line) and as good as the start was, it should be a point of emphasis to get the big man involved in opening quarters. Over his career, he has tended to perform better in games where he was featured early.

- Sacramento’s bench delivered 58 points, Toronto’s, just 35. Much of that was due to an off-night from Williams but I’m very much in favour of returning Greivis Vasquez to the bench and starting James Johnson, who had 19 points and seven rebounds in a revenge game against a franchise he clearly doesn’t have fond feelings for. Vasquez and Williams have been a good pair and the offence would be strong if he went back to the reserves. However, perhaps Dwane Casey is worried that defensively, the second group could become something of a disaster if Johnson is taken out of the mix. The flip side is the starters would get far sounder defensively with Johnson replacing Vasquez and Ross moving to shooting guard. Theoretically, more touches for Valanciunas would cancel out losing the offence Vasquez provides. Amir Johnson has also shown increased range (6-for-13 from three on the season, though five of the makes have come at home) if part of the fear from Casey and his staff is Ross would be the only three-point threat for Lowry to kick to. However, the Raptors do just fine offensively with DeRozan starting and he is not a three-point threat at all, so adding Johnson would not be that foreign of a concept.

- Ben McLemore looks like a different player this season and far closer to what many expected after watching him at Kansas. He had a terrible rookie season, but looks far more confident and is now effective. McLemore threw down a monster dunk on Amir Johnson in the second quarter. To the credit of the Raptors, they came right back, with James Johnson throwing down a big dunk of his own and the next time McLemore tried to catch Amir, he was rejected at the rim.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Dominant Valanciunas, clutch plays by a variety of Raptors sunk the Suns

- November 25th, 2014

Remember when the Raptors were known as a franchise that never got it done in the clutch? It seemed to be that way for years. No team seemed to lose as many winnable games by doing one thing or another wrong late in fourth quarters. That simply doesn’t happen anymore. It started last year and has carried over to this season. What was different about the game against the Suns, was the way the fourth played out. Instead of mounting a furious rally, as has become their norm, the Raptors saw a 15-point lead get erased by the ridiculously explosive Suns. That forced the home side to have to make several key decisions in the biggest moments and they came through. DeMar DeRozan called some of those “muscle plays.”

- To that point, there was this crazy Kyle Lowry sequence, there was Lowry swiping the ball away from Isaiah Thomas, similarly to how he had won an earlier game in Boston by pickpocketing rookie Marcus Smart. There was Patrick Patterson hitting two free throws when he hadn’t yet scored. There was Patterson pulling a Kevin Love by launching the ball down the court and Amir Johnson making a significant play to go up and haul in the pass like Calvin Johnson (no easy feat, considering Johnson has not shown his usual life this season. A joke heard afterward was that Amir only jumped three times on Monday, but he sure picked his spots well).

- Told by a reporter that the Lowry steal and his pass to Johnson were “ballsy” Patterson responded, sometimes you have to be.

- Lou Williams winning player of the week, despite being a reserve, was one of the more unexpected storylines we’ve seen in years, though it probably shouldn’t have been all that shocking. Dwane Casey seems like a near lock for East coach of the month and Lowry likely will be an honourable mention (with a shot at winning if Toronto beats Dallas on Friday I’d say).

- Williams talked about fighting to get back from a devastating injury, a process that definitely had some dark moments. Williams admitted he had some doubts after tearing his ACL in January of 2013. When he returned last season, he was not the same player he had been before. Atlanta basically gave him away for nothing rather than paying a guy they worried might never be the same.

Williams can’t blame them. “Absolutely. When you’re sitting there and you have a cast on and wheel chair and crutches and can’t lift your leg up, you can’t ride a bike, you can’t run, you can’t jog, obviously there’s going to be some doubt there,” he said.

“Two years later it’s great to see some fruits of the labour to feel myself back to 100 per cent, being back healthy and having some success.”

Williams said he was buoyed by the knowledge his friend Lowry had battled back from the same injury, suffered while he was in college.

- A lot of anguish out there about Valanciunas not playing for most of the fourth despite his huge game, but the Suns went tiny, who was he going to guard? Yes, he was scoring easily, but Phoenix wasn’t going inside at all, preferring to just bomb away (it was working) and Valanciunas would not have been able to cover enough ground out there defensively. Against most teams, his sitting after a performance like that would be an outrage. Against Phoenix, it made sense.

“They had three point guards out there so that caused us to do some things. JV had to come out and JV had it rolling,” Casey said. “As long as they kept their big in, it really helped us but once they spread those perimeter guys out it put us at a disadvantage. Threes vs. our twos is not a good trade off.”

- Valanciunas, by the way, is fifth in the East in player efficiency rating, is shooting 59% from the field, 80% from the free throw line and putting up career best rebound and block rates, with the lowest turnover rate in his three seasons.

- James Johnson returned far earlier from his ankle injury than expected (he missed three games), but was only able to play four minutes. Tyler Hansbrough (shoulder) did not dress.

- Isaiah Thomas on Lowry: ” He’s been given a good opportunity to run a team and he’s taken advantage of it. Everyone knows what Kyle Lowry’s about. He’s like a pit bull, he’s a leader, he’s a guy that never backs down. I think his opportunity just got bigger and he just took advantage of the role that was given to him.”

- Seem to say this daily now, but the Raptors refuse to get caught up in what the standings say: “For me we’re still a growing team. It’s still too early to look at the records,” Casey said.

“My job is to continue to push, continue to improve in a lot of areas and not get caught up in records or anything like that. Once you start doing that, that’s when you get in trouble. I remember in Dallas, we were like 24-5, and you would never know we were 24-5 because everybody had a businesslike attitude. All of the fans were watching Cowboys football. We were 24-5, and you would never know. That’s the way you have to approach it. You can’t look at the record. You’ve got to make sure you do your job, not only game by game, but possession by possession. This is [an unforgiving] league and it will do you in once you start overlooking possessions or skipping letters from where you are or getting caught up in thinking you’re somewhere where you’re not.”

- Casey pointed out rebounding as the area the Raptors need to improve in the most. Williams said if this is Toronto’s “roof, we’re in trouble. I think we have a lot more things that we should accomplish and other teams that we need to beat in order to be taken seriously in this league.” Like beating the Suns.

- Ex-Raptor P.J. Tucker on the ACC crowd: “It is a lot different, it’s unbelievable,” Tucker said. “Definitely moved up to one of the best home courts, hands down in the league. It is unbelievable what they have done here.” I was impressed by the way the fans roared once Phoenix took the lead in the fourth, showing their support, helping the Raptors to get back on top.

 

 

 

 

Bulls put Raptors in their place; Pro sports needs more athletes than Joakim Noah; Raptors frontcourt can’t yet compete; DeRozan should work it around

- November 14th, 2014

The Bulls taught the formerly high-flying Raptors a tough lesson on Thursday. Chicago has been a contender for years now, Toronto is still trying to make its way up that hill. The Bulls are bigger, tougher, meaner and a heck of a lot smarter (Kyle Lowry and a couple of other exceptions aside) on the basketball court and that all showed in this one. Sure, the refs didn’t distinguish themselves well, but they were not the reason why the Raptors lost the lead and eventually, the game.

- The frontcourt just isn’t good enough to match up with the best of the best. Nobody could come close to stopping Pau Gasol. Joakim Noah was dominant and Taj Gibson did his usual thing, provide great minutes as the team’s third big. Chicago’s group is just on a different level than Toronto’s. No shame in that, does anybody else in the NBA have three guys as good up front as Chicago does?

- If Toronto wants to close the gap though, Jonas Valanciunas has to get the ball more and has to do more with it. He has to go up stronger and hold onto it better. He gets stripped far too easily inside. Amir Johnson is a great defender and did a bit better on Gasol, but not much, and he doesn’t provide enough offence for the Raptors to get to the next level. If Patrick Patterson isn’t going either, it’s usually going to be a long night for the Raptors.

- Speaking of long nights … DeMar DeRozan turned in a stinker, shooting just 3-for-17. The alarming thing might be that head coach Dwane Casey was happy with his shot selection and said he simply missed some shots he’d normally make. Not too sure about that. Jimmy Butler is a great perimeter defender who has historically given DeRozan fits. He doesn’t let DeRozan do what he wants to do or go where he wants to go. The result is a lot of forced attempts. Remember Rudy Gay? Remember when Casey said he had no problems with Gay’s horrendous shot selection? This might be a problem. If the Raptors want to have a sustainably good offence and not the one built on a mirage that we’ve seen early this season (the turnover numbers and free throw attempts aren’t sustainable, so something has to change), the ball simply has to start moving again. The way it did when Gay was shipped out and DeRozan embraced both scoring and looking for his teammates. Only two teams average fewer assists than the Raptors. Keep it up, and the great record is going to go downhill in a hurry.

- Yes, I’ll fully admit that the Bulls make you do things offensively that you don’t want to and rotate so well it is hard to find the open man. But forcing shots isn’t a solution that will lead to victories.

- Valanciunas said meeting the Bulls was like taking a cold shower and admitted they weren’t ready for a team that good and physical. They had better be next time.

- Pro sports needs more athletes like Noah. He is honest. He tried not to be after the game, looking wary of the media and insinuating he wasn’t comfortable speaking because words get twisted, then went on an epic rant . Noah is right, this whole Derrick Rose witch hunt is silly. Folks get mad at athletes when they speak in cliches, then attack them when they are honest. They can’t win. It’s all about shock value and generating a story, often when there isn’t one. Society has gone downhill, and so has much of the media. Should Rose have been less honest? I don’t think so. The guy knows he isn’t physically able to play every game so he has to be cautious. He also knows he has a guaranteed contract and has many more years to live once he is done playing. He’s thinking about that, as is his right. When he is able to play, he gives it his all and helps his team win. Would it be tough to rely on a guy like that? Absolutely. But it’s not his fault that his body has betrayed him

- Guys like Butler and Gibson really show the value of smart drafting. Chicago stole the Marquette product with the 30th pick of the draft, while Gibson went 26th. Now they are two of the best two-way players in the league.

- Positives for the Raptors: Until the third, they played a decent game. Chicago probably should have had a bigger lead after the first, but the Raptors played an excellent second and should have been up by more than seven at the half. Lowry was solid, despite probably being the one Raptor who got a bit hosed in the foul call department.

- James Johnson was fantastic and changed the game in the second quarter. Terrence Ross has become pretty good at coming off a curl to hit a floater. DeRozan could stand to get back to doing more of that, though opponents play closer to Ross because of his outside shooting ability, which gives him a bit more room to get open. The team rallied late to make it respectable. That’s about it for the positives.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Raptors continue to tempt fate but Magic don’t have the experience yet to close games; Red hot Ross providing a boost; Bench the difference again

- November 11th, 2014

The Raptors are playing with fire, but until they get burned, things might not change. Until they start losing games that they “half-ass” at the beginning, they probably won’t alter the script. They were the best fourth quarter team a year ago and have picked up where they left off. They have all the confidence in the world that even if they coast early on, they will find a way to win games in the end. It’s a very dangerous game to play. Try it Thursday against Chicago and it is extremely doubtful the record gets to 8-1.

- The first quarter woes extended through the entire opening half against Orlando. The Magic shot 53%, had 16 assists (to seven by Toronto) and just five turnovers. It was basically a walk in the park for Elfrid Payton, Channing Frye, Nikola Vuvevic and the rest of the visitors. The Raptors were a first place team in name only.

- Assistant coach Bill Bayno made a good point at the break: The Raptors are a known team now. They have a large target on their backs. Teams go at them hard from the jump. It’s not an excuse, it’s reality. If the Raptors don’t come out aggressively early, you can bet most other teams will, because nobody is looking past the Raptors anymore. Those days are long gone.

- Top to bottom, Toronto just has a deeper, better team than Orlando. That depth carried the day on Tuesday, with Patrick Patterson, James Johnson, Lou Williams, Tyler Hansbrough playing the biggest roles, with some help from Greivis Vasquez, who had a poor game, but played well late. The reserves scored 11 straight points to tie the game, setting up the eventual victory. Not a lot of reserve units can match up with Toronto’s group.

“I like the resolve of our team. The second unit came in and did what they were supposed to do and really competed,” head coach Dwane Casey said afterward.

- Terrence Ross continues to sizzle. The third-year swingman has put a tough start behind him, rebounding with three straight strong offensive games. Ross has scored 18, 17 and 17 points in the games, and averaged nearly five rebounds. He has also hit 12-of-18 three-point attempts after hitting just six, total, over the first five games. By hitting 67% of his threes over the past three games, Ross has raised his average from outside to an outstanding 47%.

- Kyle Lowry was excellent and by far the best of the starters. DeMar DeRozan had a rough night. Johnson had a good offensive night and got better defensively as the game went on.

- Early on, Orlando simply outworked and outran the home side. Toronto’s big men were particularly disinterested in competing. Jonas Valanciunas has had some good games against Nikola Vucevic, but this certainly wasn’t one of them. He failed to run the floor and again looked a step slow defensively. Amir Johnson’s typical frenetic energy was absent early.

- Valanciunas has missed a lot of makeable shots so far this season and especially against Orlando. Valanciunas shot 61% on shots within five feet last year, but has been 10% worse so far. It is early, he has time to correct whatever is going on.

- Lowry has not been drawing as many charges as he did last year when he was right near the top of the NBA’s leaderboard, but he took a couple against Orlando at key moments.

- Not sure why exactly, but Toronto really has Orlando’s number. The games are usually pretty tight, but Toronto has won nine straight meetings, the closest being the one DeRozan won at the buzzer in Orlando a couple of years ago. It is the longest streak Toronto has against any team.

- Yes, the Raptors sit alone at the top of the NBA. Yes, it feels a little weird to type that.

One crazy night in Memphis

- March 17th, 2012

Until tonight, the craziest game I’ve ever covered was the NCAA title game where Gordon Hayward rimmed out what would have sealed the biggest upset win in the history of sports. That one didn’t go in, so this one tops it.

My brain almost exploded, the gamer didn’t make the paper for first edition, the referees left having somehow pissed off both the home fans and the Raptors.

And oh ya, Rudy Gay hit another crazy shot against the Raptors, but this time, Toronto pulled out a win.

- Huge work from Jerryd Bayless. He’s defending better than ever this year and is playing some fine offensive basketball as well. Sure he had a boneheaded play, one of many by his at times clueless teammates, but this was a heck of an effort. They fought tooth and nail with one of the scrappiest teams in the league.

- Sure they had no business winning – Memphis missed 20 free throw attempts and is a much better team – but the bottom line is they did.

- The Raptors were all stunned in the locker room afterwards. None of them have been in a game like this, nobody would go on record, but they were perplexed by the horrific refereeing.

- Gary Forbes showed he is an NBA player. He is laying claim to Leandro Barbosa’s minutes.

Some quotes:

“Jerryd did a great job in timeouts and wouldn’t let anybody quit. As a coach, I didn’t have to say anything. I was really happy to see him take the bull by the horn and show leadership.”

“It was such a hard-fought game. The guys were passionate in timeouts and it was one of those games that if you were a fan you enjoyed watching.”

- Dwane Casey

“For them to come to our house and beat us like they did, Rudy hitting a big shot at our house, we just came here with fight in our heart. We had some confidence and weren’t scared. We went out there and played. We didn’t let anybody get in our way and we executed down the stretch.”

- James Johnson

Spurs at Raptors Points Per Game:

- February 16th, 2012

Another good game, another tough loss. The Raptors are making an art of entertaining their fans, while still losing enough to stay in the Anthony Davis hunt. As usual, a few thoughts on the game and then some quotes I couldn’t get in to my story.

- DeMar DeRozan really needed that game after being a no-show too often of late. I keep harping on this, but he needs to be that aggressive player in order to succeed. He also took better control of the ball, which is needed since he can’t be turning it over off of strips 1-3 times every night.

- You have to appreciate the Spurs. Nobody ever pays any attention to them, yet all they do is win. Tony Parker: “We are nine in a row so if nobody talks about us, that’s good, we’ll keep playing good basketball.”

- Definitely some strange units out there. Dwane Casey said he was searching for offence with Bargnani, Bayless and Kleiza out. That left more defensive-minded players like James Johnson benched. He said he gave the red hot DeRozan a long break because of the back-to-back. Thought DeRozan would be able to give more down the stretch if he did that.

- Anthony Carter looked finished earlier this year, but now has found his game and is contributing.

- This team sure finds novel ways to lose eh? Five second call one night, two hands on the ball another. A foul out of bounds …

- The Raptors need to have better court awareness and stop taking a ton of offensive fouls. Too many Raptors are charging into opponents and it hurt them on Wednesday.

- Amir Johnson had been struggling mightily to hit mid-range jump shots this season, but he was nailing them on Wednesday

ONE OF A KIND

Metta World Peace one game, Popovich, the next? As a reporter, you can’t beat that.

The irascible Popovich is always a riot. With a dry, quick wit, Pop mixes bemusement with frustration as well as anybody.

He had some gems before the game:

To a larger crowd of media than he is used to: “It’s Toronto and San Antonio, take a break.”

On whether Cory Joseph should have stayed longer at Texas: “What am I, the answer man?”

On Joseph’s biggest challenge: “(Said dryly and in a short manner) “He’s a rookie.”

Some quotes on Joseph:

Cory Joseph:

“I don’t try to put pressure on myself, I just try to focus on the gameplan, play hard and let everything decide itself.

(Talks to Tristan about once a week). Only had like a week of training camp. Wanted me to get some game experience. Everybody looks at the D-League like it’s a bad thing, but Austin’s a good thing for me. Good coaching staff. (Soak up) A whole lot. Decision-making, what decisions I should do within the system. Just try to soak up as much as possible. Anybody can play in this league just given the opportunity.

(Watch Texas?) Obviously I miss it, but I’m happy where I am now. I watch them a couple of times when I’m able to. Hopefully they can win this next couple of games to solidify themselves in the tournament. That would make me happier.

Talk to Myck. Tell him to run your team, make sure you get the wins.”

Tony Parker:

“They played them all the way to the end. Just tough games for Toronto.

If we play like that, move the ball great and everybody’s healthy, we have a good chance to go all the way.

We played basketball all season long then TD got hurt and Manu went down the last game (last year).

On Cory: It’s tough as a point guard he’s not playing that much and we don’t practise so it’s tough for him to get some minutes because he doesn’t know the system, he doesn’t know the plays and Pop, sometimes he calls plays he didn’t call for 10 games. I’ve been here 11 years so I know the plays, so it’s tough for Cory. When you’re a point guard and you have a coach like Pop, you need practice time and you need to know all the plays and right now we never practice, we just rest, play, rest, play. He’s talented, we just have to be patient with him.”

Dwane Casey:

“Health is an important thing in this league and when you don’t have it you search. Tonight I was searching for any group that could help us.

This is a difficult team to play. We’ve played three emontional games, and I think our team competed in each of them. My hat is off to our guys because I think they competed and any basketball person, in seeing who we have in the floor, talked about how we competed.

That’s important to me, to the organization going forward. It’s going to help us once we get our program on the right spot. We want to continue this culture of playing hard, competing and putting yourself in position to win. What we have to do is execute … executing down the stretch. The game within the game (double dribble, holding call even though he was out of bounds). All the young guys need to learn how to play in those situations.”

“DeRozan. His major challenge this summer is going to be getting in the weight room, getting bigger, getting stronger. (Looking at Kobe and LeBron) looking at how big and strong those guys are and keeping the athleticism.”

“Good for psyche? No question. We don’t want to be satisfied with close, but with the growth that we’re making against the top teams (without top scorers), my hat is off to the guys who competed. The guys took up the slack.”

Lakers and Kobe stun Raptors Points Per Game:

- February 13th, 2012

That was one entertaining contest on Sunday, moreso because I wasn’t writing on deadline.

A few Raptor points before I get into some good stuff from the Lakers, who I was assigned to for the day.

- The shooting line for DeMar DeRozan was ugly but he did a lot of good things in other areas. Career high in assists was most notable, obviously, but he also played nice early defence on Kobe Bryant and looked to attack offensively. He had good looks but they weren’t falling. Metta World Peace and Bryant also are much beefier and stronger than DeRozan and they are great defenders who gave him some problems.

- Ed Davis rebounded from an invisible first half to play quite well in the second half. Amir Johnson went from outstanding against Boston to a complete non-factor. Have to give a hand to Jamaal Magloire – as LAkers head coach Mike Brown did – for his performance, which was a major reason why the Raptors came back from an 18-point deficit.

- James Johnson is starting to become a fan favourite for his energy, athleticism and defensive results. While his jumper is coming along, there is still work to do in that regard.

- From where I was sitting Rasual Butler definitely didn’t call time out in time … BUT Dwane Casey definitely did. The refs blew it, despite what the NBA says.

- Not sure I’ve seen Bryant utilize the Dirk-esque one-footed, leg kicking jumper he displayed. Like when Dirk shoots it, it is pretty much money every time.

- A lot of love for Jose Calderon after his career-high 30 points. Pau Gasol says he can do that whenever he wants to if defences aren’t going to challenge his shot. Bryant said he is a big fan of Calderon (hint hint Mitch Kupchak. Unfortunately for Bryant, there doesn’t seem to be a way to bring Calderon to L.A. trade-wise).

Now on to some quotes I couldn’t work in here or here

Kobe Bryant:
“I wasn’t surprised, it was five seconds. I didn’t go to college but I can count.
It’s five seconds, it was good defence on our part.
DeMar? I think the world of him as a player. I’ve seen his game grow tremendously from last year to this one in terms of adding a pull-up jumper to his game. He has a post game as well, but he wasn’t able to show it tonight because we have significantly bigger guards but he can post, he can handle, developed the mid-range jump shot, can obviously finish at the rim so I’m liking what he’s doing.
Olympics. It’s a big Olympics for us. We have an opportunity to kind of cement ourselves as the powerhouse. We won the last Olympics, we won the worlds, winning the Olympics in London will put us back where we belong. (Wear and tear). Not worried. With that team, I’ll just coast. I’m there if they need me. Big shots? That’s what I do. They can do all the heavy lifting.”

Pau Gasol:
“There’s games wehre he is going to take more shots because they are there. If he’s making them, he’ll continue to shoot things if they’re available. He’s not going to force things for you.
We have weapons. We have players that are experienced and have been successful throughout their careers offensively and defensively so that’s the depth and the weapons that we do have and we can go to them at a specific point.”

Metta World Peace:
“Ettore Messina. He’s a great coach. He’ll be a head coach. He reminds me a lot of Phil Jackson. He won championships. How many he win, 20, something stupid like that, it’s ridiculous. I just talk to him about the game. Cool to see European coaches come to the NBA. Changes it up.
(On mega-rich stars like Mike Tyson blowing all their money) “It’s cool. How many people get a chance to fail? Even a guy like Tyson. How many people have a chance to get $300 million and lose it? Not many people have a chance to fail. Not a bad thing, just move on with your life. Do something else, be positive. At least he touched it.

I can’t (score) with this team. Right before I came, I was on Houston, I was averaging 20 in the playoffs or something. I came here it went pffft. People forget, but that’s OK.
I can still put up numbers, there’s just no rhythm now. If I had to score. With Drew getting better, Kobe still playing better.

(On Kobe): “He’s in shape he takes care of his body. Those guys like Kobe, they came and they went. Kobe don’t take nights off, never. I seen him adjust his game sometimes, but no nights off. Maybe he passes more.
I’ve seen potentially more natural scorers, but Kobe got fundamentals. Kobe’s just different. I’ve seen people that were more talented than Kobe, but did they have the fundamentals and the work? He understands the little things the fundamentals, the footwork. It’s like writing a story, the same words over and over again, that’s not going to fly. You’ve got to change it up.
His technique is ridiculous.”

Mike Brown:
“Dwane Casey is a heck of a coach, those guys made a good choice picking him as the head coach. They did a terrific job of mixing in zones and brought us to a standstill a little bit at times.”