Five thoughts on Game 33: Thunder 124, Raptors 107

The Toronto Raptors lost their second game in a row last night, to the streaking Thunder, who have now won 6 straight. Is it time to hit the panic button?

Nah, it’s not time to panic yet

These were bad losses, to be sure, and games the Raptors could have really used as they approach the tough part of their schedule. But, a road back-to-back in Dallas and Oklahoma City, starting the day after Christmas, is not an easy thing.

Gotta reverse a couple trends though

The Raptors have been getting pushed around a bit the past couple games; there’s a lack of energy and defensive focus that’s been concerning. Against Dallas, it manifested itself in points-in-the-paint; Dallas had free reign to get to the hoop at well. Against Oklahoma City, it was rebounding; the Raptors were a minus-18 on the boards. There were just too many occasions where the Raptors were standing around hoping the ball came to them, when Thunder players were working their butts off to secure them. That can’t happen.

The perimeter defense needs to improve as well. I know stopping Russell Westbrook is all but impossible, but he was allowed to drive right by our guards and get the Thunder offense moving, just like JJ Barea was the night before. That allowed for too many open shots with plenty of time for the Thunder shooters. Guess what? Paul George is gonna shoot 7-10 from downtown if your defense is 6 feet away, and the Thunder are gonna rack up 102 points through three quarters.

DeMar DeRozan need to give up the ball

Hmm, I said this yesterday, didn’t I? He’s got just three assists in the last 7 quarters, while shooting 7-29 over that same stretch. And as I said yesterday, it’s not the missed shot totals that bother me, it’s the type of misses; he’s forcing shots, trying to get to his spots and push his way to the rim, and defenses aren’t falling for it. He needs to move the ball to get better looks for his teammates… which will in turn open up better looks for him.

Overall the Raptors assisted on 24 of their 36 made field goals yesterday, which is a great number. And DeMar did have a couple “hockey assists” at the end of the first quarter. But I gotta see more. Teams know the blueprint for DeMar, and Dallas and OKC worked it perfectly: Body him up with a physical defender (Wes Matthews, Andre Roberson), swarm him with traps at the elbows, make him beat you with the pass. DeMar has to prove he can do it.

More CJ Miles please

One way to get DeMar more space could be to get him more minutes with CJ Miles. The Raptors’ best stretch yesterday—a 22-2 run spanning the first and second quarters—started with a DeMar+bench lineup that featured CJ Miles at the three. During their four minutes on the floor together, DeMar was 2-2 with 2 free throws for 6 points, and CJ was 2-4 (all from downtown) with 2 free throws for 8 points.

Defenses know they can’t leave CJ open. It’ll make them that much less likely to swarm DeMar if CJ is there as his outlet! He ended up with 22 minutes on the night (although the last three were when the game was out of reach), only the fourth time this year he’s hit that mark. I would really like to see that number pushed to 25 more regularly, with a few more of them alongside DeMar and Kyle Lowry.

Can the new-look Toronto Raptors stay consistent as the schedule gets tougher?

The Raptors “culture reset” still hasn’t fully resolved itself. Their assist percentage is now down to 22nd in the league, and their 289 passes a game are 20th in the league. Those are better places to be than last, sure, but should be closer to the middle. The good news is that their 2-point vs. 3-point shooting number have remained high (61% of their shots are twos, good for 7th fewest in the league).

Now the schedule is getting a bit tougher, we’ll really see if the Raptors are committed to the new offensive style. After Friday’s game against the league-worst Hawks, the Raps have a home-and-home playoff rematch with Milwaukee with a game against the streaking Bulls in between; then, after a trip to Brooklyn, home games against Miami, Cleveland and Golden State. Then it’s Philly, Detroit, San Antonio and Minnesota. A heck of a lot tougher than December. And against better competition, it can be easy to revert to old habits—even though those are exactly the types of teams those new habits are meant to combat.

It’ll be interesting to see how they fare!

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Hopefully the Raptors will see Friday night as an opportunity to right a few things and get themselves back on track.

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