Five thoughts on Game 24: Raptors 102, Kings 87

Toronto Raptors at Sacramento Kings December 10 2017

A few thoughts from the Toronto Raptors 102-87 victory over the Sacramento Kings, the Raptors’ sixth win in a row:

The Raptors started off strong, but inexplicably took their foot off the pedal

It was a 17-2 Raptors lead with 8 minutes left in the first quarter; it ended with the Raptors up 22-17. The Kings took the lead four minutes into the second quarter. Although the outcome never really seemed in doubt, it is frustrating how rarely the Raptors put the clamps down on bad teams. They managed to do it in Atlanta, but here, after the strong start the Raptors started settling for long shots, making lazy passes, and letting the Kings do whatever they want. Buddy Hield went 6-8 in the first half, including 2-2 from deep, as he led the Kings bench in their comeback. Overall the Kings bench outscored their starters 28-17 in the half; perhaps they were a little perturbed by all this talk of the Raps bench being best in the league.

The improvement in DeMar DeRozan’s passing has been great to see

DeRozan posted a season-high 9 assists, and he’s now averaging an even 7 per game over the six-game winning streak. And it’s not just on one or two pet plays or drive-and-kicks, either. He’s finding Jonas Valanciunas in the pick-n-roll. He’s swinging the ball back after dribble hand-offs. He’s looking for cutters when he’s in the post. And he’s keeping his head up on fast break opportunities. It’s wonderful to see.

All of that said, there was one play in the first quarter that is the exact type of play that makes the stat-heads pull their hair out when talking about DeRozan. Kyle Lowry had the ball, pump faked, got the defence moving, and drove the lane, which pulled the defense in. He kicked it out to DeMar at the top of key, who was wide open for three-point attempt. But it’s DeMar. So he didn’t take the open three, he drove straight ahead… right into the defence that was already parked in the lane. He ended up doing a spin move, followed by a fadeaway, which Buddy Hield got a piece of. DeMar passed up a simple, open shot worth three points for a much more difficult shot, worth only three points.

I mean, I love DeMar, and I can live with the three not being a big part of his game… but when a look like that presents itself, you gotta take it.

Boy, CJ Miles is struggling

He missed his first five shots of the game, after going 0-4 on Friday night. He finally hit a three-pointer in the second, after the Kings had taken the lead, so it was nice he made one when they needed it. But he forced a couple, and he’s clearly searching for something. He had a couple of sweet drives in the fourth, and I love it when slumping shooters mix it up like that. Hopefully it goes towards busting him out of it,  because the Raps need his shooting; even with OG Anunoby, Serge Ibaka and Lowry shooting well from deep lately, CJ’s shot volume, range and quick release creates a ton of space on the floor for everyone else.

Speaking of struggling, Pascal Siakam went 1-7, including 0-2 from deep; he’s now 2 for his last 27 three point attempts and 20% on the year. I know the three is not his shot, but I sure hope he’s working on it. It would be a welcome addition to an otherwise well-rounded game.

The Raptors bigs had another solid game

In the first half JV had few good looks around the bucket thanks to some Kyle and DeMar passes, and he drained a three; he was 3-3 with 5 boards in 14 minutes, and finished with 9 and 8 and a +17. On one great third quarter sequence, he bodied up Zach Randolph, tipped an offensive rebound to himself, caught it and kicked it to Lowry (who rimmed out a wide-open triple). Meanwhile, Serge continued his hot shooting, going 4-7 from deep and scoring 20 points, and adding a couple great defensive plays at the rim including breaking up a De’Aaron Fox dunk attempt to open the third quarter. And I really liked the way both of them ran the floor tonight as well.

As for the big man off the bench, Poeltl had a great transition dunk off a tough Lowry pass, another great spin move off a Lowry offensive rebound and pass, and oh yeah, his first three-pointer!

This game featured one of the worst replay situations I’ve ever seen

DeMar and Bogdan Bogdanovich got tangled up on a jump ball in the third quarter. Bogdan didn’t like it, DeMar shoved him, stern looks were exchanged. The refs called for time to look at the replay, see who was at fault and assess appropriate fouls. First of all, why the need to go to replay? This happened on a jump ball, everyone is looking at the same thing! How did they miss it? Second of all, the replay review feed wasn’t working, so the refs couldn’t see the replay. Instead of cueing up an iPad or looking at the jumbotron, everybody just stood around waiting. Like, they’re literally showing it in the arena. They’re showing it on TV. But they can’t show it on the screen. SO WE WAIT. Finally they give up… and call nothing. Are you kidding? Have the officials gotten that reliant on replay that they can’t make a call without it? That was embarrassing. All that time wasted for nothing.

And for the record, DeMar should have been assessed a tech for the shove.

—–

It’s s 2-0 start on the four-game trip, which is excellent; the next test is tonight, on a back-to-back against the Clippers. LA is struggling; can the road-weary Raps take advantage?

Five thoughts on Game 23: Raptors 116, Grizzlies 107

Toronto Raptors at Memphis Grizzlies, December 8 2017

The Toronto Raptors went into Memphis and beat the Grizzlies last night, their fifth straight win. I missed the game unfortunately, and so I found myself living vicariously through my Twitter timeline, well after the final buzzer had sounded.

Fortunately, my Raptors Twitter feed has become on my favourite parts of following the team. With that in mind I thought I’d try and replicate the experience for you, with a few fun, smart, hilarious moments from my Raptors Twitter feed last night.

Things got off to a slow start with a way-too-easy Ben Macklemore joke

Blake Murphy provides injury- and lineup-related notes before every game, and he dropped this total groaner before tip-off:

Of course, Macklemore sold it by playing his ass off in the first half, giving us equally eye-rolling Eric Koreen response:

Macklemore finished 3-5 for 10 points in 10 minutes in the half.

Of course, he also blew a 360-dunk:

Bad jokes, terrible dunk attempt… in the end I’d say it’s a wash.

Getting the “reaction preview” from Twitter before the video hits

First, there’s this, from Eric:

Then there’s Blake’s reaction:

And finally the video from the Raptors:

That’s a hell of a dunk. OG played 34 minutes, scored 8 points and had no rebounds and no assists. But it sounds like his impact came on the defensive end, and not in the stat sheet (though he did have two steals):

The Toronto Raptors bench has impressed the Twitterati

That kinda love isn’t just reserved for OG; Twitter adores the Raptors bench. Last night, after struggling in the first half, the bench settled things down in the fourth and helped the Raptors finally take the lead.

Fred VanVleet is… The Closer

VanVleet played the final 15 minutes. They were down by one when he came back in, and finished +9. He went 3-6 from deep and finished with 12 points.

This extraordinary ‘90s-tinged exchange between Blake and Eric

Who knew Bush would tear these two apart:

The best part is, it led to this in Blake’s recap at Raptors Republic (which you should read for an actual recap of this game):

Blake Murphy Toronto Raptors Memphis Grizzlies recap w/Bush

—–

And there you have it. The bench found its way in the second half, Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan were solid, Serge Ibaka had another great shooting night and the Raps managed to put the Grizzlies away in the end.

I’m always bummed when I miss a game, but I’m grateful to have Blake, Eric, Doug, Holly and the rest of Raptors Twitter to provide an entertaining play by play…

…but of course, some things really can’t make up for watching a broadcast.

What you really miss when you miss a game is the game beyond the game, you know?

Comic book review: Marvel Masterworks Fantastic Four Volume 4

Marvel Masterworks Fantastic Four Volume 4

It’s another “Fantastic Four Friday,” with a look back at Marvel Masterworks Fantastic Four Volume 4! Stan Lee and Jack Kirby are really rounding into form here, and the characters and supporting cast are becoming more and more fleshed out.

What is it? Marvel Masterworks Fantastic Four Volume 4
Who did it? Stan Lee and Jack Kirby
When did it come out? 2003 (revised edition)
What does it collect? Fantastic Four #31-40, Annual #2

Fantastic Four Annual #2 might just be Stan and Jack’s finest work on the series so far

Marvel Masterworks Fantastic Four Volume 4 opens with Fantastic Four Annual #2. It’s a fascinating book. It starts out with a 12 page Dr. Doom origin story in which the Fantastic Four do not appear, except for flashback cameos of Reed and Ben; goes in to a pin-up gallery; then a reprint of issue #5; then another pin-up gallery; then finally, the “feature” story, “The Final Victory of Doctor Doom.”

Let’s talk about “The Fantastic Origin of Doctor Doom.” It’s a masterpiece. This is the story where we are finally introduced to Victor Von Doom’s home country of Latveria, and his rule over it as monarch; his faithful servant Boris; his deep love of his sorcerer mother, who died when he was an infant; the tragic death of his father; the Tibetan monastery where he fashioned his armor; it’s all here. And it’s glorious. I feel confident saying that no other comic book villain had ever received an origin story like this, with such tragedy and pathos; and, it hasn’t really changed, in the 50+ years since. Amazing.

As for Doom’s “Final Victory,” it is of course not that, but it is his best master plan yet (he’s had some kooky ones) with him inviting the FF to a state dinner, turning the FF against each other, and then agreeing to an honourable battle of the minds with Reed; which Reed wins, and Doom will eventually chalk up to trickery (of course). And we are introduced to the concept of Doom’s “diplomatic immunity” for the first time.

The whole thing is brilliant. Well, except maybe for one thing…

Sue is still battling 1960s stereotypes

I should probably stop writing about this, because I suspect it’ll keep popping up in the next, oh, 8-10 volumes… but man, does it suck seeing Sue treated so poorly throughout. In Annual #2, Sue chastises Reed because of an illusion Dr. Doom plants in her head (where she sees Reed kissing another woman); after she snap out of it, she apologizes to Reed, who dismisses her by saying she’s “merely a female” and couldn’t have reacted any differently. Then he doesn’t want to let her fight Dr. Doom in the same issue. Next, the Mole Man takes her hostage in issue #31. Then you might think, hmm, maybe they’ve given up on the Sue-as-hostage trope… but no, the Frightful Four do it again in issue #38. Sigh.

Sue's "just a female" - from Marvel Masterworks Fantastic Four Volume 4
First, Sue’s “merely a female” (from FF Annual #2)…
Sue's one of the team - from Marvel Masterworks Fantastic Four Volume 4
…think Reed gets it now? (from FF Annual #2)
Sue's taken captive again... and again - from Marvel Masterworks Fantastic Four Volume 4
The Mole Man and The Frightful Four didn’t get the memo (from FF #31 and #38)

Speaking of repetitive tropes, Stan and Jack sure do go back to the well a lot

“Sue gets taken hostage” isn’t the only thing that we see over and over and over… and over… again in these early issues. I know it’s easy for me to judge this now, when I’m binge-reading the book as an adult when it was really written for 11-15 year olds who were reading it at most once a month… but then again, the Lee-Kirby FF is hailed as an unending stream of creative genius. I really should’ve been keeping a tally of the amount of times:

  • Sue gets taken hostage (twice in this volume)
  • Ben turns human momentarily, only to turn back in short order (twice in this volume)
  • Johnny’s flame burns out, and Reed has to stretch to save him (twice in this volume)
  • Reed act like a jerk instead of a leader (only once in this volume; he must be mellowing)
  • The FF turn against one another (twice in this volume)

Enough with the Mole Man already

Issue #31 is the Mole Man’s third appearance, and each time, his plot is basically the same (cause some underground calamity that destroys something above ground), the FF go underground to fight him, defeat some monsters, then defeat the Mole Man himself. And the Mole Man is just a sad, pathetic little man, not much of a villain. I think even Stan and Jack got bored with him in this issue; he only appears in 2 panels on the final 8 pages and the FF defeat him, essentially, off-panel. Other than a cameo in Annual #3, he won’t appear again for another 57 issues!

The other villains in this volume fare much better. The Super-Skull returns in issue #32, ultimately causing the death of Franklin Storm, and sending the FF off on a revenge mission to the Skull galaxy in #37; we get Namor and Attuma (in an ultimately forgettable tale in which the FF help Namor defend his throne) in #33; Gideon, one of Stan’s classic offbeat not-really-a-villain villains (who might just be a precursor to Donald Trump; check out the man’s desk!); Diablo, and the brilliant King Kong-like Dragon Man, in issue #35; and finally, the Frightful Four, in issues #36 and #38, who very nearly defeat the FF each time and will menace them again in the next volume.

Oh, and of course, Dr. Doom returns in issues #39-40, for the all-time classic “Battle of the Baxter Building.” This two-parter is tense, fast-paced and fun (even if it has a pretty lame deus ex machina), and culminates in a Thing vs. Doom fight that is one of Jack’s highlight fight sequences.

Real character growth and progression is starting to happen

For the first time we meet a family member from outside the FF proper: Sue and Johnnny’s father, Franklin, and learn more about their backstory: their mother, Mary, was killed in a car accident; Franklin, a famed and brilliant surgeon, was driving, and blamed himself, and his career went off the rails. He got into gambling debt, and killed a loan shark who came to collect. Even though it was self-defence, he allowed himself to convicted of murder because he thought his children were better off without him. Hardly your typical super-hero origin story! Of course, Franklin is killed in this volume, but we see Ben’s fears about leaving Alicia behind, we see Johnny finally mention Dorrie Evans, his girlfriend from Strange Tales, and of course, we finally—FINALLY!—see Reed and Sue get engaged and begin wedding preparations.

This issue also ends on a true cliffhanger, as we see Ben finally succumb to the reality that he’s trapped in the body of a monster and he leaves the FF in a grief-fuelled rage.

—–

There’s no doubt this is the best volume of the FF Masterworks to date, bookended as it is with two all-time classic Dr. Doom stories and the introduction of Dragon Man, the Frightful Four and Johnny and Sue’s father in between. Stan and Jack are truly hitting their stride, and I already know the next volume is going to reach even greater heights!

(Though one has to wonder if anything can top this:)

Ben thinks about joining that other Fab Four - from Marvel Masterworks Fantastic Four Volume 4
Ben thinks about joining that other Fab Four (from FF #34)

Television review: Netflix’s The Punisher

Netflix's The Punisher

I finished up Netflix’s The Punisher the other day, and wanted to put a few thoughts down, because I really enjoyed it. There will be SPOILERS in the following review! So stop here if you haven’t finished watching it yet. Come back later! I won’t be offended.

What is it? The Punisher Season 1 (13-episodes)
Who made it? Netflix; Steve Lightfoot, Executive producer
Who’s in it? Jon Bernthal (The Punisher); Ben Barnes (Billy Russo); Ebon Moss-Bachrach (Micro); Amber Rose Revah (Dinah Madani)
When did it come out? November 2017

Netflix’s The Punisher might be their best Marvel show yet

From top to bottom, I think this is best overall thing Marvel and Netflix have done. Every other Netflix show, with the exception of the much shorter Defenders, has really struggled to hold its story together for 13 episodes. They felt like they all should have been 8-10 episodes. But The Punisher doesn’t. The story is compelling and has enough layers to it to keep it interesting and engaging over the entire run. And it has a truly compelling hook, that of examining the challenges that veterans of combat face integrating back into “regular society” following their service. I mean, that’s not new—we’ve been seeing it since The Deer Hunter and Rambo—but we certainly haven’t seen it in a comic-book based television show, and it’s truly impressive how well thought out this backdrop of veterans dealing with PTSD is.

Now, I’m not saying it’s my favourite Marvel Netflix show—I think at the end of the day, I still found Cage the most entertaining, and Daredevil Season 2 the most thrilling from a comic book fan standpoint—but I think it’s the most well-made. And I think when you factor in the difficulty of translating a character like the Punisher to a television show (or movie), I think Steve Lightfoot and his team deserve a ton of credit—this show is really good.

… but is it really a Punisher show?

The thing is though… this interpretation of the Punisher doesn’t really have much basis in the comic book character. (At least in my view of the Punisher through the years.) Frank Castle came back from Vietnam a broken man and then his family was killed and it shattered him, never to be put back together again. He’s a remorseless, relentless killing machine who has no desire to stop putting bad guys in the ground. Yet in this show, we see him trying to escape his life of violence right in the beginning. He shows a gentle side, a family man side, with Micro’s family (and even Micro himself) and especially Karen Page that I don’t think the (comic book) Punisher really has; he doesn’t make human connections like that. Netflix Frank Castle doesn’t even reclaim the Punisher mantle until episode 11; and even in the second last episode, when it seems like he leaves his memory of his dead wife behind and accepts his life of violence… he comes back from that edge at the end of the last episode. (He even lets Billy Russo live, which I don’t think the Punisher would ever do.)

So with all of that in mind, I don’t really think of this character as the same one I see in the comics. He’s not really the Punisher. But… I’m OK with it. In fact I love the choices they made. Because I honestly wasn’t sure I wanted to watch 13 episodes of an unsympathetic character like Frank Castle. What would be the point? Comic book Frank Castle has no real character arc; there is no coming back for him, there is no growth for him. That would be difficult to do on TV. And although it doesn’t ring true to the comic book character, the final scene is truly fantastic, and it could only have been done with this version of the character.

The cast is excellent…

I would also say, expressionless killing machine Frank Castle would be a waste of Jon Bernthal’s talents. He is really great in this show. I wasn’t a big of his on The Walked Dead, but looking back, maybe that’s because his character was such a dick. Here he shows the range complete from loving and caring father figure to… well, to expressionless killing machine, when he has to. He was a great choice for the role in Daredevil and he erased any doubts anyone may have had about him carrying his own show. Meanwhile the supporting cast is also damn good. Ben Barnes almost veers into snarling villain territory a couple times, but the conflicted soldier who still holds the bonds of brotherhood is still there. Ebon Moss-Bachrach is perfect as the frantic, nebbishy Micro, who’s uncomfortable with guns and killing but willing to let Frank do the dirty work. He also manages to balance the line where he’s the nerdy tech guy, but he’s also not a coward—he did a lot of brave things to protect his family, and his anguish at seeing them suffer without him is true. Daniel Webber is great as Lewis, the vet who goes off the rails, and Jason R. Moore provides a strong, steady hand as Curtis, Frank’s confidant.

And how about the recurring guest roles? You’ve got C. Thomas Howell, Shohreh Aghdashloo, and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio—a great range of character actors. You’ve also Deborah Ann Wall reprising her role as Karen Page, and she’s joined by Rob Morgan and Royce Johnson as Turk and Officer Mahoney, respectively.

… but Amber Rose Revah’s Dinah Madani is the weak link

All right, so part of this is on the character; Madani is often clueless and seems to make one bad decision (or non-decision) after another. (Example: why she didn’t call for backup/first aid during the raid in episode 8 until Stein was stabbed (and all the bad guys were dead or escaped)? About 10 other officers were shot before that!) She’s also a terrible cop (how the heck did she manage to get herself shot in the last episode after sneaking up on two guys hell-bent on beating the shit out of each other?) Meanwhile, there were just a few too many scenes that Amber Rose Revah drifted through with a blank stare. Maybe that was the character, maybe that was the actor, I don’t know. But I thought the character left a lot to be desired.

The show seems to have an odd relationship with the violence it portrays

The show’s only real misstep was in the gun debate that spanned episodes 9-10. It seemed out of place in a show where the main character’s claim to fame is his proficiency with guns, and how many people he’s killed with them. It was also presented so lightly, that it did the entire debate disservice; this isn’t something that can or should be debated in three scenes of a television show. It was also, frankly, one-sided; pro-gun Karen is a character we know and love, whereas pro-gun-control Senator Ori exists only to (weakly) present the other side. What was the point? And the thing is, the debate seemed out of place in the context of the show; the character who sparked it, Lewis, was using bombs, not guns, in his attacks. That was a potentially interesting debate—at one point, Frank says he hates bombs and prefers guns—but it wasn’t really followed up on.

—–

All of that said I highly recommend Netflix’s The Punisher to comic book fans and action fans. It’s violent—gruesomely so, at times—so it’s not for everyone. But I think it’s got a compelling narrative, a great cast, and some fantastic action pieces.

Five things that are worth your time: December 6

Five things that are worth your time: December 6

This week’s five things are highly movie-inspired, as I share articles on two of my all time favourites—or is it three of my all-time favourites?—plus the latest on the Marvel Universe. I also share some advice on an important soft skill, and one beautiful story of a Holocaust survivor, which—for obvious reasons—is an important story to share right now as we wind down 2017.

Remembering the Wonderful Little Idiosyncrasies of Good Will Hunting on Its 20th Anniversary

Shea Serrano, The Ringer

Good Will Hunting is one of the my favourite movies. Shea Serrano is one of my favourite writers. There was no doubt this was making the list this week! Shea nails the truth of Good Will Hunting here: For all of the things that we remember about the film that make it memorable and enjoyable, it’s the little things between the lines that make it a classic. I love “Here’s ya fuckin’ double burger” sooo much. But Shea missed a couple: Billy’s “That’s a good takedown” when Will and Chuckie are wrestling at the batting cages; and Morgan’s Brando-inspired “I swallowed a bug” as he extricates himself from the scene when Skylar finally approaches Will at the bar.

A quote: ”The way Will leans in to propose a fight with Clark. That’s how you know he was serious about fighting. If Will wanted to just show out for the girls, then he’d have been really loud and blustery so everyone could see and hear the confrontation. He wasn’t, though, which is why you see Clark get filled with fear so quickly. As soon as Will lowered his voice and proposed stepping outside, Clark was like, “Oh fuck, this guy really wants to fight.””

Secrets of the Marvel Universe

Joanna Robinson, Vanity Fair

Speaking of things in my wheelhouse, here’s the great Joanna Robinson with a great “state of the union” of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and a look inside exec producer/architect Kevin Feige’s head. It’s a little light on actual “secrets,” of course—Marvel and Disney guard those details as if they were actual infinity stones—but it’s still a fun read, and the photos of everyone in costume are brilliantly outrageous.

A quote: ”One day on set (of Fox’s X-Men, 2000), (Lauren) Shuler Donner and Avi Arad, then head of Marvel Studios, watched as an exasperated stylist, at Feige’s insistence, sprayed and teased actor Hugh Jackman’s hair higher and higher to create the hairstyle that would become the signature look of the character Wolverine. The stylist “eventually went ‘Fine!’ and did a ridiculous version,” Feige recalls. “If you go back and look at it,” he admits, “he’s got big-ass hair in that first movie. But that’s Wolverine!” The experience stuck with Feige.”

Debate Club: Which is Better, Star Wars or The Empire Strikes Back?

Tim Grierson and Will Leitch, SyFy

I am a big fan of Tim Grierson and Will Leitch’s movie reviews (and also, possibly, their podcast, of which I’ve saved every episode but have not yet found time to listen to). Here they tackle the age-old debate: What’s the best Star Wars film? For most of my life I’ve leaned slightly towards Star Wars, because even though Empire is, technically speaking, a better film, how can you top the original? But this article makes the case for Empire, all while neglecting to mention one thing: The music. And as much as I love Luke’s theme, and as memorable as the Star Wars fanfare is, Empire contains the one piece of music that may in fact be more famous than the Star Wars fanfare: the Imperial March (Darth Vader’s theme). It’s also got Yoda’s music and Han and Leia’s theme (used to great effect in The Force Awakens trailer). So yeah. With that in mind, I think I’m giving Empire the slight nod. For now.

A quote: Empire is enhanced by Lucas settling into his more comfortable position as producer and overseer, hiring Oscar-nominated filmmaker Lawrence Kasdan to work on the screenplay, and bringing in director Irvin Kershner and cinematographer Peter Suschitzky to give the sequel a more layered, somber tone. Also, Empire introduced some of the franchise’s best characters, including Lando Calrissian, Boba Fett, and Yoda, who’s the movie’s spiritual center”

I Have a Message For you

Matan Rochlitz, The New York Times

This is the story of Klara, a Holocaust survivor from Belgium; specifically, her escape from a train taking her to a concentration camp, and who she had to leave behind on that train. And of a message that she receives many years later. It’s more important than ever to pay attention to and share these stories like this right now, of course, since Nazis are all but running the United States, but even setting that insanity aside, it’s just a lovely story and it’s beautifully presented. Here’s Rochlitz with some more detail behind the story.

A quote: ”You know what those cattle wagons are like? There’s a little window, like this. I put my legs through and turned around and I slid between the two wagons. The train kept going and going. It was very difficult because the SS would shoot at us. I waited a moment. Then I put my hands up to protect my head. And then I jumped from the train.”

Here’s the Key to Great Conversation in 1 Sentence

Wanda Thibodeaux, Inc.com

Most of the time, when someone’s talking to us, we’re listening—but only so that we can respond. We’re focused on what we’re going to say next, not what the other person is saying. And that sucks. But active listening is a skill that takes time to master. There are some good tips here to help. (Just try and ignore the typo in the first sentence…)

A quote: ”Formulate your answer only after the other person has finished talking. Embrace the silence that happens as you think. Your partner isn’t going to care about the pause if you give a thoughtful answer that demonstrates respect.”

That’s all for this week! Come back next Wednesday for another five things.

PS I’ve changed my mind already. I still like Star Wars more.

Five thoughts on Game 22: Raptors 126, Suns 113

Phoenix Suns at Toronto Raptors, December 5

A few thoughts on the Toronto Raptors’ fourth win a row, a victory over the Phoenix Suns at home before heading out on the road:

That was a fun first quarter

The Raptors came out with a ton of energy, as you’d expect from a team coming off three days rest (and facing a team on the second night of a road back-to-back). They were forcing turnovers, hitting the glass, getting out in transition and moving the ball on the perimeter. They notched 10 assists on 14 field goals in the quarter. They even ran a play at the end of the quarter—a longtime bane of mine under Dwane Casey, who seems to have nothing other than “iso” in end-of-quarter situations in his playbook. It was a lovely little weave play at the top of the key where four players touched the ball, and that led to a Jakob Poeltl rim runner. (Unfortunately he missed it, and the Raps were lazy in transition and Josh Jackson scored the other way, but hey. Progress!)

Did the bench let the positive press get to their heads?

After a strong first quarter it was an unusually sloppy second, as a five-man bench unit started the quarter 0-6 and added in a handful of turnovers. They were uncharacteristically sloppy on defense as well, letting the Suns have several uncontested shots; the Raptors even gave up more fast break points than they scored (4-2) and let the Suns outscore them 12-4 in the paint! Alex Len was beasting with 9 points in the quarter. All told the Suns won the quarter by 4 and had the lead down to single digits at the half. The Raps’ starters proceeded to remind everyone that “hey, we know our bench is the tops but we’re pretty good too!” in the third, scoring 42 in the frame and pushing the lead to 18—only to have the bench let it get back to 10 in the fourth! Thankfully Fred VanVleet settled things down with a couple makes, and then Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan and Serge Ibaka came back in and put the Suns away.

This might have been Serge Ibaka’s best game of the season

Perhaps the native son of the Congo was inspired on Giants of Africa night and the presence of Dikembe Mutombo? Whatever it was, Serge was great tonight; he shot 8-13, grabbed 6 boards, had three blocks and one finger wag. He finished with 19 points in 33 minutes and a plus-10 on the night. (He even added an assist!).

Let’s talk about Giants of Africa

This is one of the best things the NBA does and I’m proud that the Raptors, through their GM, are a part of it. I love listening to Masai Ujiri talk about this program; he’s so passionate about it, it’s clearly so important to him, you can hear the joy and enthusiasm come out in him whenever he speaks about it. I definitely recommend the film if you’d like to see that passion come out, and learn more about the program. And how about the halftime act last night!? It was a wonderful hip-hop dance tribute to Africa incorporating basketballs from a diverse group of young dancers; it was fantastic. I didn’t catch the name of the group—I think it was Jane’s Hip Hop Academy? Regardless, kudos to those kids, and to the NBA, the Raptors and Masai for this wonderful program.

Sure wish I knew what happened on all those techs in the third quarter!

I try not to slag on announcers too much ‘cause it’s a damn hard job. But man, it’s frustrating when Matt and Leo (or Jack) can’t accurately tell us what’s going on. Here’s the situation: DeMar fouled Devin Booker on a J, and a technical foul was called right after. Matt said it was on DeMar; a replay showed DeMar (barely) mouthing off and then giving a “who, me?” look. But then when we cut back to live action, DeMar was shooting the free throw! As Matt and Leo tried to figure out who the tech was on and what for, another tech was called. This one was on TJ Warren, and he was ejected—making it clear the first one was also on him, even though Matt and Leo never confirmed that. So DeMar shoots and hits the second free throw. But we never learned why TJ Warren was T’ed up in the first place, never saw a replay, nothing. Then a couple plays later, Markeese Chriss got a tech! But again, no replay was shown to tell us why. What the heck, SportsNet? That was incredibly frustrating.

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All in all, despite some sloppy bench play, that was a satisfying Raptors win, their fourth in a row. They head west now on a four game trip starting in Memphis on Friday night!

Five thoughts on the Toronto Raptors at the quarter-season mark

The Toronto Raptors at the quarter-season mark

We’re 21 games in! How about a quick check-in on the Toronto Raptors at the quarter-season mark?

The bench has been the best part of the season

This is the story of the Raptors season, to be certain. Coming in to the year it was really unclear how the Raptors would replace Cory Joseph, Patrick Patterson and PJ Tucker, and how the young guys would respond. So far they have exceeded every expectation.

The youth amongst that group is kind of unbelievable. Outside of bench dad CJ Miles you have a rookie: OG Anunoby. Three sophomores: Fred VanVleet, Jakob Poeltl and Pascal Siakam. Two third-year players: Norman Powell and Delon Wright. A fourth-year player: Lucas Nogueira. And all of those guys were drafted by the Raptors or acquired in draft day trades. It’s pretty much unheard of to build such a solid second unit out of your own picks, all of whom came out of drafts following playoff seasons. I think we have to give Masai Ujiri, Dwane Casey and the coaching staff, and all of these young men a ton of credit.

The depth has also helped them weather minor injuries extremely well; the Raps have had a few small injuries (Jonas Valanciunas, Norm, Serge Ibaka), one potentially serious injury (Delon) and one baby birth (CJ). They haven’t missed a beat! I’ve been frustrated at times with Casey’s long bench, but I’m starting to come around; everyone can play, they can all play together (except maybe Ibaka and JV—see below) and when an injury does happen, guys fill in seamlessly. It’s enabled Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan to get more rest (even at the same time), which, hopefully, will reduce the likelihood of any injury to them this year.

The new offense looks great—until the Raptors abandon it in close games

The ball movement and three-point bombing has been fun to watch, hasn’t it? They’re third in the league in both scoring and point differential (+7.3); 37% of their shots are threes (up from 29% last year) and their assist rate has jumped from 47% (dead last in the league!) to 57% (still only good for 19th, but hey…). They’re even running on occasion—7th in the league in fast break points per game. All good things!

Thing is, the old habits creep in whenever the games get close. They walk it up. The ball doesn’t get swung from side to side. It goes to DeMar DeRozan and it sticks. Everyone clears out and it’s the DeMar iso-ball show. It’s cost them a winnable game in Boston and maybe another one at Golden State. And sure, sometimes when the defense tightens up that’s all you can get… but I think the old habits are dying hard in high-pressure moments.

The Serge Ibaka/Jonas Valanciunas pairing is not working out

Serge Ibaka is not rebounding. Jonas Valanciunas is not defending. They have the two worst defensive ratings (and net ratings) on the team. It was understood when signing Ibaka that he was a better fit in today’s NBA playing centre. But the Raptors aren’t using him there enough. And the game has just passed JV by, sadly. His type of centre play just isn’t the way the game is played now. Of course, the problem is they are #3 and #4 on the Raps’ salary chart, so can you sit one of them? Maybe you don’t have to. Maybe you just sub JV out sooner (three minutes) against most teams, and bring Siakam in; and bring JV back in sooner, replacing Ibaka, to play a little more with the second unit. And against certain teams (Detroit and New Orleans come to mind) he gets more run. Poeltl remains your third centre.

Kyle and DeMar have been good, but not great

At this point I don’t know if either one of the Raptors’ all-star guards will be selected to the team this year. Both are putting up totally fine numbers but Kyle started slowly and has picked up, while DeMar started strong and has tailed off a bit (only 4.4 FTAs in the last five games). I mean, I can’t complain—the team is 14-7 and in third place, after an incredibly tough schedule to start the year. But I can’t help but feel we haven’t gotten peak play from our backcourt yet. They can’t be tired—their minutes are both down and the stretched-out schedule has meant more off days. They could be a bit banged up I guess. Or maybe they’ve finally caught some of that regular season fatigue? If that’s the case I’m gonna have pretty damn high post-season expectations, especially after their well-known playoff struggles!

Those third quarters…

I wrote about it the other day, but, the Raptors third quarters are really the only negative on the year. On the one hand, you could call those Knicks and Pacers games outliers; after all, on the year they’re only getting outscored by a point in the third. But… looking a little deeper, their net rating in the third is a negative 5.3, good for 22nd in the league; their defensive rating is 115, good for dead last. So it’s something that still needs work. Subbing JV out sooner, as noted above, may help. But mostly I think it just comes down to coming out of half-time being prepared to play, not taking a lead for granted or taking teams lightly. CJ said last week it’s all mental and I tend to agree.

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Overall I’m extremely pleased with the team at the quarter-mark. The early schedule has been tough (and they’ve got another four-game west coast trip coming), to be here at 14-7 after the departures the team saw in the offseason is damn impressive. Let’s see if they can keep it up for another 61!

Image via Getty images 

Five thoughts on Game 22: Raptors 120, Pacers 115

Indiana Pacers at Toronto Raptors, Dec 1

A few thoughts on the Toronto Raptors winning their third straight game, an entertaining—if at times frustrating—affair against the Indiana Pacers.

The first quarter is the new third quarter

You might walk away from last night’s game thinking, oh, the Raptors were better in the third quarter at least! And they were! But all the same problems that plagued the starters in recent third quarters plagued them in the first quarter last night. The Pacers went on a 14-0 run at one point, and it was the same lackadaisical play from the starters that fueled it. Dwane Casey went to the bench, bringing in Jakob Poeltl, then CJ Miles, then Pascal Siakam… the run continued. Until Fred VanVleet came in.

I’m eating all the crow on Fred VanVleet

He’s been awesome. Your traditional stats don’t tell the whole story; he’s averaging 5.8 points, 1.6 rebounds and 2.8 assists on the season. But he leads the league in Net Rating at 20.4, which indicates the Raptors outscore their opponents by 20.4 points per 100 possessions when he’s on the floor. Pretty good! I was tough on FVV to start the year but he’s turned it around completely, and has become the stabilizing force for the team off the bench. For more, check out Blake Murphy and Eric Koreen for their recent takes on Fred VanVleet.

Victor Oladipo went off on the Raps… but guess who slowed down in the fourth?

Oladipo is finally showing everyone that the potential he flashed in college is for real. (He was clearly wasted on the Russell Westbrook Thunder last year.) He’s averaging 23-5-4 on 48% shooting (43% from three) and has led the Pacers to their surprising early start (12-11 after last night). He looked unstoppable last night, torching the Raps for 20 in the first half on 9-12 shooting. He added 11 more in the third but was finally slowed in the fourth (he had five points on 0-4 shooting, 5-6 from the line); guess who guarded him for stretches in that fourth? Yep, Fred VanVleet.

Sometimes it’s nice to put teams away, but drama is fun too

Even though I never felt the Raptors were in danger in this one, the Pacers managed to keep it interesting down the stretch, getting to within five with two minutes left. A poor stretch by Serge Ibaka—a missed jumper and two bobbled balls—gave the Pacers hope, but the Raps closed it out on the free throw line. On the one hand, it’s more fun to watch that than say, a blowout like the Hawks win; but on the other, you’d like the Raps to play a little more evenly in the final minutes.

This an important stretch for the Raptors

Their next eight games are against opponents with sub.-500 records, including 2 each against Phoenix and Sacramento. This is a great opportunity for the Raptors to both make a move in the standings and fix some of their nagging problems (namely, the inconsistent play of the starting unit). Five of those games are on the road, though, including a 4-game west coast swing. I’d really like to see a 7-1 record coming out of it!

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Next up for the Raptors—after a nice three-day rest first— it’s our old friend Jay Triano (former Raptors and team Canada coach) and the Phoenix Suns on Tuesday night!