Posts Tagged ‘Toronto Raptors

Fast start, brutal collapse against Bulls perfectly summed up Raptors season; False confidence killing the Raptors

- March 26th, 2015

Thank you, Raptors, for perfectly encapsulating your season in one game for me, making writing today’s blog an easy exercise.

Against the Bulls on Wednesday, the Raptors shot out of the gate, overwhelming with a scorching, outside attack. The Raptors assisted on nearly half of the 11 makes in the frame and only turned the ball over once, while forcing the Bulls into four miscues, the blueprint of the early season success that led to the best start in franchise history. Then, things went awry. The defence vanished, the Bulls got hot from three and the Raptors cooled off.

In the third, the Raptors offered even less defensive resistance and paid for it, but the coup de grace was still to come.

Just as has been the case of the fourth quarter of this season, the Raptors were a disaster in the fourth quarter of this one. Blame the back-to-back if you’d like or the clear fact that the Bulls are a far superior team, even without Derrick Rose (4-0 against Toronto this season), but most would say the lack of effort was a bigger deal. Again. The Raptors believed their own hype down the stretch, knowing they had the Atlantic wrapped up long ago and chose to focus more on off-court endorsement deals or other distractions than on their own games. Dwane Casey has blamed it on a lack of practice time and there is some weight to that, but effort, conditioning and focus all apply as well.

Simply put, the Raptors should be embarrassed by their play in the fourth. They let Chicago shoot 75%, got three stops in the final eight+ minutes of the frame allowed 10 assists on 15 baskets and didn’t force a turnover. A five-point lead after three (despite the fact the Raptors had not played all that well) quickly became an insurmountable lead. How does that happen? How do backup point guards like Aaron Brooks, Jarrett Jack, D.J. Augustin, Reggie Jackson (now a starter but a career reserve) and others constantly morph into Chris Paul against Toronto? And why does Jonas Valanciunas somehow always get blamed when it happens?

- DeMar DeRozan’s technical to begin the fourth started the spiral, but I don’t blame it for him, he was clearly hit and there is absolutely a double-standard in the NBA for physical teams like the Bulls. There is zero question that teams like Chicago with established defensive identities get more leeway from referees.

- Puzzlingly, DeRozan continues to insist the Raptors simply need one good game to figure themselves out and everything will come around from there. There is zero evidence this will be the case. Rather, it appears that delusion has taken over in that room. Again, they believed the hype and continue to do so, even as all of the evidence to the contrary continues to build up to the point it is becoming the world’s biggest fire hazard. The Raptors would be wise to heed the warnings, for once, otherwise this most promising of all seasons will have gone up in flames six weeks from now.

- Casey seems to be grasping at straws at this point, trying to find something that works. He admitted as much post-game. Tyler Hansbrough had been playing big minutes recently, but suddenly the rotation changed again and he played just four in this one. James Johnson isn’t playing enough still, but the main issue starts at the point. Greivis Vasquez can’t guard anyone, Lou Williams isn’t far behind and Kyle Lowry (who is injured again and did not play) sacrificed his once stellar defence at some point on the way to becoming one of the league’s better offensive players.

 

What in the name of Chris Childs happened?

- March 25th, 2015

So, that was a bad one, wasn’t it? The Detroit Pistons aren’t a good team, yet have now beaten the Raptors twice in four meetings this season, plus dropped 110 points on them in a four-point loss. Detroit has averaged about 108 points in the four meetings. Against that team, that’s just not nearly good enough.

- It was quite different, but given the opponent and the arena, did anybody have any flashbacks to one of the lowest moments in franchise history when Lou Williams made his ill-advised decision late? You know, when Chris Childs knocked the Raptors out of the playoffs by forgetting the score at the Palace and going for a three when they only needed a two? I’m sure I wasn’t the only one.

- The big problem with the Williams shot was, despite what anyone says, it has not been an effective shot for the team this year. His red hot start closing quarters gave him free reign to launch with impunity, but it simply has not been a good shot for the team. The conversion rate is miniscule and given how frequently that shot doesn’t go in, why not try it far earlier in the shot clock instead of winding down the clock and going into hero-mode. Not a good look. Williams has won the Raptors some games and can really help a team, but not sure the fit is right here. Dwane Casey gives him way too much leeway and he takes advantage. Like DeMar DeRozan, Williams has been at his best when he isn’t in “chuck-mode” and when he is also looking to find teammates. In other words, when they keep the defence guessing, instead of doing what everyone in the building is expecting, they are far more effective.

- All that said, Williams made a mistake (though he or Casey didn’t see it that way) but the Raptors would not have been in this game without him. He carried the Raptors for long stretches and sometimes when that happens, it breeds irrational confidence. It is hard to find a balance.

- No James Johnson against a team he has been great against this season. I think it is a mistake to bench Johnson. For a coach who preaches is primary concerns are on the defensive end, it is hard to figure out why the focus is always on offence when it comes to lineups (except where Jonas Valanciunas is concerned). Johnson might be an overrated defender because he gambles too much, but he is far better than Terrence Ross or Williams, He doesn’t have range, but Ross only hits every two games anyway. Are you really losing something by playing him decent minutes? The Raptors are dead in the water right now and nobody has confidence they can win a playoff series. The status quo isn’t working. Masai Ujiri brought in Johnson for a reason and knew his faults. Play the man.

- Toronto’s defence is a flat-out tire fire and that is a far bigger problem than anything offensively. One positive though was the interior defence was rock solid in this one. Detroit lit up Toronto’s guards at the rim 12-for-16, but shot just 10-for-33 against Amir Johnson (who was excellent), Patrick Patterson, Tyler Hansbrough and Jonas Valanciunas (2-for-11 against Patterson).

- Patterson, Johnson, Hansbrough and Valanciunas all deserve minutes, but so does James Johnson. The team likes him best as an undersized power forward, but given the depth in that area, replacing Ross with Johnson again needs to be seriously considered for the reasons stated above, as well as because this starting lineup consistently loafs through the start of games. The aggressive, zoned in Johnson could help in that regard.

Yet again, Raptors compete level not high enough in loss to Bulls

- March 21st, 2015

Even if the Raptors played hard, Friday’s game in Chicago was going to be a tough one. The Bulls are one of the best passing teams in the NBA and have the best collection of passing big men, they punish every team that way. But they particularly make life tough on teams that don’t meet their compete level and don’t react quickly defensively. The Raptors were guilty on both counts – again. They didn’t play hard enough, a trend that doesn’t seem to be going away and they didn’t make particularly good reads defensively in dropping to 0-3 against the Bulls this season. You want to talk bad playoff matchups – outside of LeBron James and the Cavaliers, there is not a worse opponent for the Raptors to face than the Bulls.

- Joakim Noah and Co. picked the Raptors apart (career-best 16 points) and Toronto declined to do much to stop it. There is no doubt the Bulls big are extremely talented, but if you don’t offer any physical resistance and just let them do what they want they are going to make you look foolish.

- What’s up with this Raptors malaise? Kyle Lowry, who sat out due to his back injury, said they are looking too far ahead, to what they have to do in the playoffs instead of what is required in the here and now. There is a lot to that. Dwane Casey has been harping on it for a while. At some point, this group got complacent and perhaps started to believe the hype about it. A playoff spot has been locked up basically since December and so has the Atlantic. It is tough to keep the focus needed to compete with other NBA teams for a full season, but this has dragged on far too long. I don’t think they’ve tuned out Casey, they have just gotten “fat and sassy” living high on the hog. If that doesn’t change, someone (sure looks like Washington right now) is going to make quick work of the them in the playoffs.

- Haven’t seen too many teams hit a “switch” and turn everything around like the Raptors seem to think they can do. It rarely happens. As Lowry said, it is time to right the ship now.

- Everyone seems to be putting this on Casey and his staff and I’ve pointed out issues I’ve had with them in this space many times throughout the season (particularly when it comes to the usage of Jonas Valanciunas) – but I wonder why the players are getting a pass? They are the ones sleep-walking through games, not being physical enough, not playing smart enough. That’s the far bigger issue with this team.

- It wasn’t just the big men getting burned defensively. Terrence Ross, who once showed so much promise as a defender, had his lunch handed to him by Mike Dunleavy. Dunleavy’s a crafty vet, but this was damning stuff. Ross is Toronto’s main X-factor, and if that isn’t a huge concern for this franchise, it sure should be. If they are relying on Ross to take them over the top, they are setting themselves up for disappointment. The only thing consistent about Ross this season has been that his defence has not been where it used to be. Offensively, he has been completely inconsistent, fluctuating wildly from game to game.

- DeRozan had one of his best quarters of the season in the first and kept the Raptors in the game, but overall, he had the worst +/- on the team. This was the second time in his career he has gone 3-for-3 from three-point land.

- For once, not picking out any positives, because right now, there is nothing positive to say about this squad, other than the rest of the schedule looks like a walk in the park (though that’s the type of thinking that has gotten these players into all sorts of trouble).

- Toronto has dropped to 25th in the NBA in defensive rating (and 30th in March, allowing 110.5 points per 100 possessions).

Wiggins night a bit of a let-down thanks to many factors, Raptors still in cruise control, Valanciunas emerging

- March 19th, 2015

So, a few things conspired to make Andrew Wiggins night a bit of a bust: The refs forgot that first and foremost, the NBA is about entertainment, and took Wiggins out of the game for far too long by calling a couple of highly debatable fouls on him early; the announcer rushed through the introduction, which didn’t allow the fans to give Wiggins the reception they wanted to (when stars like Kobe Bryant and Kevin Durant are here, they get a longer pause); the game itself was pretty horrible because Minnesota could barely field a roster and because the Raptors were sleep-walking for much of  it Prime Minister Harper bungled a tweet and Anthony Bennett couldn’t play, due to an ankle injury.

That said, Canada Basketball Night (the proper name for the evening) was still quite cool to see for someone who has been covering the burgeoning hoops scene in this country for a decade now.

More on the game itself and some repercussions:

- Kyle Lowry took a knee to the back during a spill and had to leave. He was in pain and noticeably hurt afterward. He has a high pain threshold though, so barring any bad test results, expect him back soon. The team also said Terrence Ross is now fine (after some back issues of his own) and Jonas Valanciunas is a bit under the weather (maybe because he is adjusting to the presence of his son – but at least said newborn is a great sleeper, according to Poppa Valanciunas).

- Chicago pummeled Indy and Washington survived against Utah to keep pace with the Raptors, though it is not clear whether finishing third would be better than finishing fourth for the Raptors (would facing Washington or Milwaukee be better in the first round? Wouldn’t facing Atlanta, as crazy as that seems, be better than facing LeBron James and the Cavaliers in Round 2?)

- Once again, DeMar DeRozan’s 4-for-14 shooting line doesn’t look good, but if you factor in he hit his only three and hit all 12 of his free throws, his true shooting percentage was actually excellent and his defence wasn’t bad either. Same can’t be said for Lou Williams, though at least he defended (his offence was atrocious).

- When Patrick Patterson and Terrence Ross are hitting 50% (or better) of their three-point attempts, the Raptors are extremely tough to stop.

- Greivis Vasquez took advantage of Lowry’s absence and played a strong game, especially later on when his big shots were needed. When Lowry is out of action, Vasquez shifts more to a facilitator role which is his ideal game.

- Dwane Casey responded simply, “we won,” when asked for his thoughts on the game, but later expanded on that, saying how the team performs is more important than winning or losing right now.

“That’s more important than the wins and losses right now, in terms of how we play, how we start. I’m more concerned with how we start the game. They outworked us in the beginning. Our execution defensively, running the floor, being where we’re supposed to be, walling defensively, being up at the level of the screen, all those little things are what we are trying to do. We have to do it in games, because practice time is so precious. You just don’t have a lot of practice time to get it in and improve the way we need to,” Casey said.

- Sam Mitchell on Casey being poised to catch him either late this season or early next for all-time coaching wins with the Raptors, after initially pretending we were giving him a kick in the knees by reminding him: “Guys I don’t think about that. Dwane is a heck of a coach, man. He’s done a heck of a job. I’m glad he’s doing well and I’m glad the Raptors are doing well. They treated me well. I have nothing but great, fond memories of the city, the organization and the team and the organization I was lucky enough to coach,” Mitchell said.

Some Wiggins reaction:

From Patrick Patterson:

“Tough energetic, active, resilient and that’s rare for a kid his age. For him to take the reins of the team, you know the team’s not quite successful, but he’s still playing hard, he’s playing well, he’s playing smart out there. He doesn’t back down to anyone, he accepts every single challenge out there and I admire the kid for that.”

(Still follow him in Huntington, West Virginia, Patterson’s home)? “Oh yeah, they love him as if he was from West Virginia. Everyone back home admires that kid to death, I know they definitely miss him at Huntington Prep, the guys always still talk about him, the coaching staff still raves about him. I’ve always followed him, I’ve followed him for a long time.”

Amir Johnson: “Very athletic, goes to the boards relentlessly. I think he’s going to be good, he just has to keep working and he’ll come into his own.”

DeRozan: “He’s talented. He’s going to be alright. He’s just a rookie. He’s going to be alright. He’s still young. Once he gets experience playing in the league, being in a lot of different situations, understanding the game, he’s going to be alright.”

 

 

Raptors show resilience in win over Pacers but there is still work to be done; Passing and rebounding are a winning combination

- March 17th, 2015

That was more like it for the Raptors on Monday night.  Coming off of a home loss to a good team that was made worse by the fact the home side didn’t play hard enough, the Raptors continued to thrive finishing off back-to-backs by putting in a far better effort in order to beat the streaking Pacers. For once, the Raptors came out slugging, throwing that “first punch” Dwane Casey is always looking for. While that refers more to effort on defence and on the boards, this time, it was offensive haymakers that were thrown early by the Raptors. Toronto shot 55% from the frame, including 3-for-5 from three and got to the line five times. The big men overwhelmed the Pacers’ formerly star-caliber front-line, dominating the glass, while holding David West and Roy Hibbert to 0-for-8 shooting in the first quarter.

- It is no secret that when Lowry (and to a lesser extent, DeMar DeRozan) look to facilitate, the Raptors become as good as the second most dangerous attack in the league (the Warriors are the clear No. 1, despite Chris Paul willing the Clippers to the current top spot in offensive efficiency). When they don’t force, instead probing for better shots, the Raptors are a handful. Lowry touched the ball 76 times in the game and passed it 55 times. He had 10 assists, plus two more which led to free throw attempts. Lowry stumbled after a torrid start on Sunday. A day later, he was spectacular throughout in notching a triple double. Greivis Vasquez also passed more frequently than usual.

- While the offence was ahead of the defence – like usual – and while Indiana is about half as good as Portland offensively, it can still be noted that after the Blazers shot 79.2% at the rim against the Raptors on Sunday, Indiana only shot 50% at the rim.

- At the cost of minutes for James Johnson (who didn’t even play) Tyler Hansbrough has been playing well for the Raptors. He didn’t stuff the stat-sheet Monday like Johnson usually does, but he was quietly effective against his former team. Johnson could draw back in Wednesday against Andrew Wiggins and Minnesota, with Terrence Ross questionable due to a back issue.

- Is DeRozan really sure he shoots better with a hand in his face? Ball don’t lie. He was 3-for-15 on contested shots, 3-for-4 on uncontested attempts.  We’ll cut DeMar some slack though, he got to the line 11 times and has been an all-star level player in March, a month that sees Toronto third in the NBA in offensive rating. Here’s a crazy stat: Lowry, the barely six-foot point guard, led Toronto in rebound chances with 17, one more than Jonas Valanciunas, who stands at least a foot taller. Does that mean Lowry was leaving his man too early on defence to get on the glass, or was he just impeccably positioned?

- Valanciunas was a key factor in the win. Beside the strong defence, he had a dominant third quarter.

- Don’t look now, but Washington has won four straight games, including Monday’s impressive takedown of the same Portland Trail Blazers team that crushed the Raptors a day earlier. Bradley Beal had one of his best games of the season, John Wall is rolling and Marcin Gortat seems to be back in form as well. Washington is only a game back of the Raptors and just a half game behind Chicago (before Tuesday’s games) and is suddenly trending in the right direction again. One note of interest: Being able to win on the road, as the Raptors did to finish a back-to-back in Indy is an impressive trait of any team. There seems to be a separation between the East’s current top four and the 5-7 group in that regard. Toronto has gone 18-15 on the road, Cleveland 19-17, Atlanta a brilliant 23-10, Chicago a solid 20-14. Washington is an ugly 14-18, Milwaukee just 15-20.

 

You could see DeRozan’s breakout coming; The defence still rests; Greivis and Lou come through at the point

- March 3rd, 2015

PHILADELPHIA — The next time DeMar DeRozan finds himself in a lull, the Raptors should fly in Jakarr Sampson for some scrimmage work. For whatever reason, DeRozan seems to have his way with the Sixers rookie. Sampson bites on all of his fakes and that allows DeRozan to get a lot of easy points.

With Kyle Lowry being rested, the Raptors couldn’t afford to have the February version of DeRozan show up, even against the overmatched Sixers. If that came to pass, the Raptors wouldn’t have won, not with the defence playing so terribly for the bulk of the game. But DeRozan had perhaps his best game of the season and carried his team to a win, the way stars are supposed to.

 

- In Lowry’s absence, the point guards were rock solid. Greivis Vasquez predicted DeRozan would have a big game and that he would be OK as well and then delivered. Vasquez hit most of his shots and ran the pick-and-roll well. His swagger and confidence helped. Lou Williams had been tried out at point guard in the pre-season and the coaching staff loved the job he did, but with Lowry and Vasquez around, he had barely been required to run the show at all. On Monday, Williams became the backup point guard and he was excellent, dishing out five assists without a turnover, as well as chipping in with 21 points. Williams wasn’t as predictable in this role, since opponents have to respect the fact that he will look for teammates more often when he is playing the point. In addition to his assists, Williams also had a team best three secondary assists (hockey assists).

 

- The team talked pre-game about how good Jonas Valanciunas was against New York and how they had to establish him early, then – they totally decided not to do that. He got posted up a few times – most memorably, when James Johnson yelled at him to establish position, but he was mostly a decoy. Afterward, Valanciunas didn’t care, he was just happy to get the win. The only thing he was miffed about was some of the calls that got him into foul trouble.

 

- Dwane Casey and his staff made a smart call in scheduling a fun, laid back shoot-around. The team was tight and not feeling great about itself after losing to New York, the fifth loss in a row, so having the Raptors relax by playing a shooting game in the morning loosened them up for the game.

 

- It was far from a strong defensive performance. While the Raptors had far more energy than they have had in a while, Philadelphia is the NBA’s worst offensive team (and was missing top shooters Robert Covington and Jason Richardson) so there is really no way the team should shoot 53% for the game and notch 32 assists. The defence was lazy at times and far too scattered. The offence was dominant, so it didn’t matter much, but the Raptors good run of defence seems to have hit the skids a little bit. Philadelphia shot 64% at the rim, which is just atrocious defending. On the plus side, after a brutal first half, Tyler Hansbrough really stepped up defensively down the stretch.

 

- DeRozan’s controversial comments about preferring to shoot with a hand in his face weighed true for one night at least. He shot 6-for-9 on contested attempts, just 6-for-15 on uncontested (though it really was 6-for-13, since two of them were end of quarter heaves. Either way, still better when contested in this one).

 

Shoddy shot selection continues to sink Raptors

- February 25th, 2015

It was another tough loss on Tuesday night for the Raptors in a game that could have gone their way had they played a bit smarter. Similar to what went down in New Orleans, in fact. Losing three straight after the stunningly easy win over Atlanta to open the post-all-star break portion of the schedule isn’t the end of the world, but some things need to change if the Raptors want to stay on track.

- Following the loss to the Pelicans, Dwane Casey said his team’s shot selection leaves something to be desired, that the team falls in love with three-point attempts too often instead of driving to the basket. This corner would argue that the extremely difficult two-point attempts favoured by DeMar DeRozan are a bigger issue. Like Rudy Gay before him, DeRozan seems to need to hit some sort of quote of two-point attempts on many evenings. Some games he doesn’t play like this – he moves the ball with aplomb and looks for his teammates – but too often, he forces up brutal attempts by the half-dozen. That needs to change, if that’s even possible. Patrick Patterson said the Raptors are too ISO-heavy and try to do too much on their own instead of playing the team game. The East-leading Atlanta Hawks assist on 67.6% of their baskets, the Raptors draw assists just 54.5% of the time, fourth-fewest in the NBA.

- If DeRozan wasn’t capable of playing more effectively, we wouldn’t harp on this, but he has shown many times what type of player he can be when he moves the ball. A great example of what DeRozan could be doing came late in third. On a break, he could have forced a tough jumper but instead, made a great pass to Patrick Patterson for three. When he attacks, he usually either gets to the free throw line or creates open shots for his teammates. When he settles, bad things happen. Since going to the line 35 times in the final three games heading into the break (just shy of 12 per outing), DeRozan has made just 14 appearances at the line in four games (3.5 per game).

- Add up way too many turnovers on the wrong spots of the floor to bad shot selection and nearly always, the result is going to be a defeat. The Raptors shot smartly enough through the first quarter and carried it through the half (53.3% shooting) and committed just seven turnovers, but only led by six against a solid Dallas team. The Raptors weren’t great in the third, but neither was Dallas, so this still could have been a win, had the fourth not been a bit of a disaster. DeRozan and Kyle Lowry combined to miss all six of their attempts, the team shot just 32% (2-for-7 from three) and Dallas turned six turnovers into nine points and that was pretty much the difference.

A few more observations:

- J.J. Barea treated the Raptors the way he usually treats Canada while playing for Puerto Rico. He was a sparkplug.

- Patterson got the yips late, committing two of the team’s worst turnovers in the game.

- The mistakes down the stretch just added up and were too many to overcome.
- Positives would include looking for Jonas Valanciunas early – especially Lowry – the strong play at both ends in the first half from the team and the play of James Johnson, who was once again arguably the best Raptor on the floor.
Some grisly stats:
DeRozan shooting 36% in February Lowry 35%, Patterson 40% (30% from three after 45% earlier in year), Lou Williams 33%, team 42% for Feb. 26th in NBA. 22nd in true shooting percentage and effective field goal percentage. Though those perimeter players (and Patterson) have been woeful, James and Amir Johnson and Valanciunas have all shot at least 60% from the floor in February, yet barely see the ball. Not exactly a winning formula is it?

- The bright side – Toronto’s defence has been No. 4 overall in February.

Troubling signs as Raptors collapse against Pelicans

- February 24th, 2015

It all looked so promising early on. Responding to a lethargic performance in Houston that disappointed head coach Dwane Casey, the Raptors came out aggressive and intense against New Orleans. The defence was superb particularly from Kyle Lowry, James Johnson and Jonas Valanciunas and nobody could stop Valanciunas inside. But that all faded and eventually, “they played harder than us,”  Lowry said of the Pelicans. That’s two out of the past three games that an opponent “threw a bigger punch” than the Raptors and seemed to want it more. That’s a bit troubling.

- Also troubling: The lack of creativity on offence. The Raptors are a three-point shooting team and that’s not going to change, as Lowry also pointed out, but how can a team that runs such efficient out of timeout plays, be so brutal at the end of quarters and of games? The Lou Williams isolation plays don’t work, because there is no variety and opponents know what to expect. You might get a call on the road with your six foot guard driving into a 7-foot shot-blocker once or twice a season. It’s just a bad decision by Lowry, the success rate is tiny. Even Casey said the team wasn’t running the plays and was just trying to “take an opportunity to do something different.” Again, troubling. DeMar DeRozan’s 22-foot fadeaways? Also troubling. DeRozan has been extremely effective when he moves the ball, doesn’t force his shots and takes what the defence is giving him. That’s the all-star version of DeRozan. We have only seen it sporadically. Perhaps it is patience that Lowry and DeRozan lack? Instead of forcing, if they’d just slow it down and make better decisions (like keeping Valanciunas involved) the Raptors would be a lot more threatening and it would be far easier to see them as a legitimate contender to make the Eastern Conference Finals or at least win a round and nearly take another. Right now, that seems like wishful thinking. Masai Ujiri gets this. It’s why he didn’t make a small move and it is why huge changes are coming the next two summers as he puts his stamp on a team that is still heavily-dominated by Bryan Colangelo acquisitions.

- Lou Williams was badly missed in Houston and Patrick Patterson was badly missed in this one. The team has grown used to closing games with Patterson on the floor and obviously couldn’t, due to his knee injury. Patterson is one of the three best pick-and-roll defenders on the team and also has a habit of hitting big shots for the club. If he had been healthy, perhaps the outcome would have been different.

- The play of Terrence Ross is still a gigantic concern. They let him play the entire second quarter and Ross only scored once on four tries, didn’t grab a rebound and like usual, didn’t get to the line. He did make at least one big shot though. All they can do is be patient in the off-season, as nobody will trade anything of value for him at this point with his value cratered.

- The coaching staff has been great all season and I’ve been the first to point it out and don’t want to seem like I’m piling on today, but why play the starters so much in the third? Three of them played the whole frame, DeRozan only a minute and a half less. Of course they were going to be tired in the fourth with Patterson sidelined. Chuck Hayes or Tyler Hansbrough should have battled against the plodding Omer Asik, allowing Amir Johnson or Valanciunas to get some rest to be fresh for the fourth (part of the reason Valanciunas didn’t play during the decisive final minutes was because the team said he didn’t have enough in the tank …). The team was up 11 when DeRozan split a pair of free throws half-way through the third, that was the perfect time to give the bigs and Lowry a break (or even up eight with three minutes left). Give the Pelicans full marks for coming back, but part of it was due to Toronto’s fatigue.

- The Raptors are adamant that James Johnson is not an infallible one-on-one defender – he makes a lot of mistakes, he just covers up for them extremely quickly – and Tyreke Evans still had his way with him, but still believe Johnson on Evans would have made more sense than Greivis Vasquez. Evans likely still blows by Johnson, but Johnson would have made him work harder and perhaps thrown him off a bit. Still, why don’t players back up off of Evans? He is a well below average shooter and a fantastic driver. Give him more room and dare him to shoot over you.

- Amir Johnson got annihilated down low, mainly by Alexis Ajinca. The Pelicans shot 10-for-13 against him at the rim, just 4-for-9 against Valanciunas.

Raptors not named James Johnson fail to bring it in Houston and nobody picks up slack for struggling stars, injured Lou Williams

- February 22nd, 2015

- The Raptors played like a team finishing a tough back-to-back on Saturday night in Houston. Not surprisingly, that’s because they were. Even though they got some rest in the fourth quarter the night before, Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan looked way off in this one early on. They shot 2-for-9, combined, in the first quarter. When they went just 2-for-11 in the third quarter, that was basically the game. They just weren’t in it, something Dwane Casey felt was a problem for the whole team. ““When you don’t come out in this league ready to play mentally and physically, I don’t care who you are, you are going to get your behind handed to you,” Casey said afterward. “Tonight we didn’t come out with the right mind set. They were the hungrier team. They did all the hard and grimy things that we did Friday in Atlanta.”

- Overall, it was a hideous shooting night for Toronto’s two best players (2-for-13 for Lowry, 4-for-14 for DeRozan). With Lou Williams out due to an ankle injury, there was nobody to pick up the offensive slack, to make up for their struggles. Lowry is now a troubling 37% shooter (30% from three) over his past five games. He has averaged just 5.4 assists against a whopping 3.4 turnovers per game in that span. The hope is the all-star break gave Lowry the rest he needed to get back into top form. He was excellent in Atlanta, but turned in one of his worst outings on Saturday.

- No shame to losing to a strong squad in a building that has a loud crowd when you didn’t get much sleep. Houston, even with Dwight Howard injured, is a good squad. If Howard returns, the Howard rebound to a streaking Corey Brewer should be an effective wrinkle. As is, the team seems to be missing something (depth perhaps) to really challenge the West’s big boys, but a good team nonetheless. It was a lot to ask taking out both the Hawks and Rockets in a road back-to-back. Still, Casey didn’t think they were mentally in it and believes there is no excuse to not be ready to compete, even if you are tired. And hey, Houston was playing for the second night in a row too and still doubled Toronto’s energy.

- James Johnson was excellent. He has been quite a good fit in the starting lineup. He played excellent defence on Kyle Korver on Friday, then made life far more difficult than usual for James Harden, an MVP candidate. Johnson blocked a couple of Harden’s shots, crowded him and made him work. Harden had five turnovers and Johnson causes a lot of them. At the other end, Johnson was by far the best Raptor. Consistent throughout, Johnson got to the line and finished when he wasn’t getting fouled, on the way to a career-best 27 points. He also had four steals and four blocks. Johnson just needs to find a teammate playing at his level, because right now, no other Raptor is excelling (save for the absent Williams).

- Yes, the referees were letting them play. Yes, it seemed to impact the Raptors mentally a bit -  further proving Casey’s point that they weren’t mentally ready for this one.

- It was a season-high 25 turnovers for the Raptors and the first time they had as many turnovers as made field goals in a game in 20 seasons. Toronto only got two free throw attempts from its bench and Terrence Ross remains missing in action.

- A game after defending the rim like a team full of Bill Russells, the Raptors stunk guarding the inside, allowing Houston to shoot nearly 50% at the rim. Only Jonas Valanciunas, maybe the second-best Raptor in the game, proved a deterrent down low (Houston shot just 1-for-7 at the rim against him, 21-for-38 against rest of team).

 

Raptors fulfill the prophecy – “Boomin’ out in South Gwinnett like Lou Will” – throttle first-place Hawks again behind hometown scoring machine

- February 21st, 2015

In case you missed it, Raptors global ambassador Drake recently released an extremely popular mixtape, complete with a track called 6 Man that begins with a shout out to Lou Williams, Toronto’s scoring machine, who has probably been the premier sixth man in the entire NBA this season. No reserve has nearly as many 20+ point games as Williams this year and he has been the key factor in a few of Toronto’s biggest victories this season (remember the comeback in Cleveland?), including Saturday’s stunning blowout of the East-leading Atlanta Hawks. Think Williams enjoys showing his hometown club what they are missing (the Hawks inexplicably gave Williams and Lucas Nogueira away last summer in a money-saving effort)? Williams has averaged 15.3 points against them in just 21.8 minutes in four meetings as a Raptor, shooting 51% from the field and 56% from three (by far his best numbers against any team, efficency-wise). His second quarter explosion (11 points on perfect shooting was huge, since only he and DeMar DeRozan could shoot straight in that frame 2-for-16).

- Of course Toronto isn’t going to hit 43% from deep every night and Atlanta, a team filled with sharp-shooters is not going to shoot 21% on 38 attempts more than two other times this season, but neither marks were merely flukes. Atlanta didn’t get the same number of wide open looks it usually gets from deep. Early on, the Raptors set a tone by rotating quickly and getting a hand up on most of the attempts, making them far more difficult shots. Even if they were a bit late, Toronto’s defenders did a good job of getting a long arm and hand into the line of vision of the Hawks players (Kyle Korver was listed as 2-for-11 on uncontested shots, but many of those labeled uncontested discount the fact a Toronto player was flying at him a millisecond after he released the shot). The defence on mid-range attempts was even better. The Raptors swarmed the Hawks, pressuring them into many tough shots. It was the best the defence has looked in some time.

- Being rested really helped the Raptors in this one, but Atlanta had a ton of rest too (even if most of them were at all-star weekend) so don’t think that was a huge advantage or anything. No, I believe the Raptors throttled the Hawks in large part because they wanted to send a message to management that they appreciated the vote of confidence. Masai Ujiri declined to make a move, knowing that this science experiment has yielded chemistry at a level that is rarely seen in pro sports. Everyone knows this isn’t a true contender, but with nothing available worth messing the current chemistry up, the Raptors stood pat, and the players clearly appreciated it.

- Speaking of rest, being able to hold DeRozan and Kyle Lowry out in the fourth will be huge, since there are still three more games in the next four nights on this run.

- Jonas Valanciunas had a rough game offensively, but he owned the glass and had two more blocks. Atlanta shot just 2-for-8 at the rim against Valanciunas and 1-for-4 against Amir Johnson and 1-for-4 against James Johnson and 3-for-7 against Patrick Patterson.

- The activity from Amir Johnson and James Johnson defensively gave the Raptors a big spark. The defence is just much more formidable with Johnson starting at small forward and Greivis Vasquez returning to his more effective role as the captain of the reserves.

- Dwane Casey moved to .500 with the Raptors, a remarkable achievement considering the roster he was working with early in his tenure here. To return to a Drakism to close – started from the bottom indeed.