Five thoughts on Game 26: Raptors 115, Suns 109

Toronto Raptors at Phoenix Suns, December 13

A few thoughts on the Toronto Raptors eking out a win—their 7th in the last 8 games—over the Phoenix Suns last night…

Have Serge Ibaka and Jonas Valanciunas learned to play together?

It’s taken about 60 games combined from last season to now, but in the last 8 games, the Raptors starters have an offensive rating of 123.2 and a defensive rating of 94.2. That’s really good! Ibaka and Valanciunas together are at 118.5 and 101.4. (As a point of comparison, through the first 10 games of the season, the pairing was broke even at 114.1 on both offense and defense.

But who needs advanced stats? Just look at the old school box scores. Serge is averaging 16.6 pts and 6.4 rebounds over the past 8; JV is at 13 and 9. Perhaps most importantly has been Serge’s shooting; he’s shooting 50% from three over that stretch and averaging 1.8 blocks. On the broadcast last night, Jack Armstrong mentioned that Ibaka might finally be turning into the third player the Raptors need; I still think Ibaka’s rebounding numbers need to come up, but the improvements in his shooting and defense are making a huge difference.

I’m super pleased with Fred VanVleet’s play, but…

… is he really the best choice to be closing games alongside Lowry? I ask not because of any Fred VanVleet deficiency, but rather that I think CJ Miles or OG Anunoby’s particular skill sets might be more suited to those lineups. I know Fred is smart and a good ball handler; but Miles’ shooting is so valuable, not just for his own offense but for the way he opens up spacing for DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry, that I would love to see more of it.

(At least last night, Dwane Casey left JV in the game in the fourth to bang with Greg Monroe; he got great offensive rebounding position on DeRozan’s shot with 30 seconds left, and got fouled. He only hit 1 of 2, but I’m glad he was in there!)

One thing I love about FVV though, is his confidence. It never wavers. Even last night—when the officials weren’t giving him anything—he kept scrapping and going to the rim. Another great example, on one possession early in the fourth, Fred missed an open three. Jakob Poeltl tracked down the rebound, and the ball swung back to FVV in the same spot—and he took it and drained it. That’s something a lot of young players would be hesitant to do; I love to see guys unafraid to take that shot.

The Toronto Raptors bench funk continues

Has the league caught up to the Raptors bench? Is it regression to the mean? Is it just a slump? Whatever it is, the bench has let the team down in the past several games. The 5-man bench unit is a negative 25.1 points per 100 possessions over these past 8. That’s unbelievably bad. It might be time to go back to staggering Kyle and DeMar more; 4-man bench lineups with one of the two, in small sample sizes, both have positive net ratings over the same period.

I know the arguments against it, specifically the rest that’s so valuable for Kyle and DeMar. But the Raps can’t keep giving up runs to start the third and fourth like this. The “rest” that Kyle and DeMar getting isn’t nearly as valuable if they have to work twice as hard to overcome deficits when they come back into games!

Speaking of “funks,” my goodness is Norman Powell struggling

I’m worried about Norm. I love Norm. He’s been the one Raptor out of all the young’uns that I want to see succeed. His slam dunk to seal game 5 against the Pacers two years ago is one of my favourite Raptors moments. But man, he is pressing right now. He’s not making anything, either inside or out; you can see that he’s scared to shoot from the outside and scared to get his shot blocked at the rim. And as Jack pointed out last night, after every play he’s looking back at the bench waiting to get subbed out. Over this 8-game stretch I keep talking about—in which the Raptors have won 7, don’t forget—Norm is shooting 40%, 24% from three, and has a plus-minus of negative 3.6 in 15 minutes a night.

I’m not sure what the answer is. Lack of consistency has been his hallmark since his first season, but it looked like his bench role after coming back from injury this season had provided some stability. He needs to get himself back on track, and soon.

Oh, one more funk! It’s Kyle Lowry

I’m not worried about Kyle. We know he’ll be fine, and he’ll continue to be clutch when it matters. (Like last night, when his 3-pointer with three minutes left put the Raps up 6.) But, he’s 11 for his last 42 shots (and 5 of 27 from three). That’s some pretty bad shooting, folks. Hopefully being back on the homecourt turns it around. (And as always with Lowry, you know he contributes in other ways, with 6 boards and 6 assists per game over the last three.)

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Overall it was a pretty ugly road trip for the Raptors, even though the came out of it 3-1. They’re back home against the scrappy Nets on Friday night, where we’ll see if the home cooking can cure what’s ailing the Raptors bench!

Five thoughts on Game 6: Raptors 99, Trailblazers 85

Toronto Raptors at Portland Trailblazers Oct 30

Five thoughts on the Toronto Raptors’ second straight road win, this time against the Trailblazers in Portland…

Lucas Nogueira came back, and started.

Serge Ibaka missed the game with a bad knee, and Jonas Valanciunas remains sidelined with a bum ankle. (Starting to wonder why Jonas came on this trip at all…) Bebe came back from his ankle injury, and it was the usual mixed bag—great, athletic plays off of pick and rolls and lobs, dumb fouls, a three, lackadaisical effort on a loose ball, an offensive rebound tap-out, not paying attention to a Kyle Lowry pass… you just never know what you’re gonna get from this guy. Naturally he finished with career highs in points (17) and blocks (5).

DeMar DeRozan owned the first quarter.

DeMar came out firing; he clearly was feeling it early tonight, scoring 13 of the Raps’ first 15 points on 5/5 shooting with a dazzling array of jumpers, floaters and layups; the Blazers were shooting hot from deep and DeMar kept them in it early. He had a little help from Kyle Lowry, who hit 3 of his first 4 3-point attempts, and the score was tied after 1. Overall the Raps all-star backcourt combined for 44.

OK, so what the heck happened to the Blazers in that second quarter?

Portland scored one (1) (one!) field goal—and it came with 5.4 seconds left, off of an offensive rebound on a broken play. I honestly thought they weren’t going to score a bucket (they had 4 FTs) which I don’t believe I have ever seen before. Part of it was the Blazers missing open looks, and generally looking a bit lost. But you gotta give the Raps’ speed and length some credit. Pascal Siakam, Jakob Poeltl, Bebe, Delon Wright and OG Anunoby were all getting in passing lanes, bothering shots, and chasing down loose balls. The Raps won the quarter 25-6. Special shoutout to Anunoby who was everywhere on defense (and whose name I shall endeavor to spell correctly going forward).

The marksmanship of the Raptors’ young bench backcourt is, ah, concerning.

That second-quarter lead would’ve been even greater had Delon Wright and Fred VanVleet been able to buy a basket. I’ve been patient with Delon’s shooting, but now he’s out here missing layups (two in the second quarter, at least one more in the fourth) as well as threes (he’s 2-19 on the year now). Meanwhile, I’m not sure what VanVleet is bringing to the table. He’s a smart player and, supposedly, a good shooter. But I’m beginning to think he’s too small and too slow to get his shot off. He’s now 6-24 on the year.

Norman Powell showed signs of life in the third quarter.

Norm had a terrible first half on offense (he was fine on D as usual); his confidence looked completely shot. On one play, DeMar kicked it to Norm on the wing on a delayed break, but he hesitated so long on the J, the D caught up. So Norm drove… right into the teeth of the D… got tied up… jump ball. Gotta shoot that, Norm, I yelled at the TV! (This is a thing I do.) (Often.) The third didn’t start out well for Norm either, as he traveled on his first possession. But then… he hit a three (without hesitation). Missed another. Then hit a drive. Hit another three. Drove and found Bebe on a lob. Could Norm be back? I hope so!

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Overall it was an easy win, fueled by defense, and the Blazers didn’t show me much. There are two games left on this trip—tough games at altitude, in Denver and Utah. Can the Raps come home over .500?

Five thoughts on Game 5: Raptors 101, Lakers 92

Toronto Raptors at Los Angeles Lakers Oct 27

Five thoughts on the Raptors squeaking out their first road win of the season:

  1. Pascal Siakam started for the second straight game; he earned it with his excellent play in the Warriors game, and he played just as well tonight. All told he’s 17-22 with 38 points in his two starts! He’s only grabbed 7 total rebounds, which isn’t ideal for a starting SF, but he’s also only turned the ball over once, which is impressive for a second-year player. Much like fellow sophomore Jakob Poeltl, I’m really impressed with his hands and his touch; big men and rookies often have a hard time catching tough passes, and getting the ball up on the rim or backboard quickly. Both of these guys have quick hands, are able to grab passes even when they aren’t on the money, and don’t need a lot of time to gather themselves and shoot.
  2. Speaking of Poeltl, he and the Raptors bench finally came back down to earth after four solid games. They pretty much crapped the bed at the end of the first quarter and into the second, giving up a 17-6 run and looking completely listless on both ends of the floor. Poeltl seemed outmathced by Julius Randle, Fred VanVleet and Delon Wright couldn’t get anything going outside or going to the rim, and OG Anonuby, while playing with good energy once again, shot 2-8. The Lakers bench definitely seemed like the better second unit!
  3. Thankfully, the Raptors starters finally delivered a decent all-around game. Kyle Lowry continues to shoot poorly, but he did earn a triple-double, and hit the game-sealing three with a minute left (after a wonderful, Steve Nash-ian zig-zag dribble right under the hoop, back out through the paint to the three-point line). DeMar DeRozan carried the Raps in the fourth with his usual array of midrange shots. Serge Ibaka and Siakam combined for 16-20 shooting. (You won’t believe this, but Ibaka finished with 0 assists.) Norm Powell is still struggling big-time on offense, but managed to finish with a +17, so he must be doing something right out there. Overall the five Raps starters were all positive in plus/minus, and the five bench players all negative. The Lakers? Exact opposite.
  4. Lonzo Ball is gonna be a good pro, no doubt about it. Everything everyone says about his court vision, awareness and timing is spot-on. He sees the floor extremely well; and not just when he has the ball, he just seems to be in the right place at the right time, even on defense, which is impressive for a rookie (even though his actual 1-1 defense isn’t strong yet). But that jump shot… I can’t believe the Lakers aren’t trying to correct that. His accuracy is terrible, so defenders are letting him shoot. But the mechanics are so poor—he shoots, basically, from the side of his chest—that, if he ever does get his accuracy up, defenders will stick to him and he won’t be able to get that shot off. So strange.
  5. As for the rest of the Lakers, it’s a weird team, man. Everyone’s heard the rumors that the team’s in a holding pattern, waiting for LeBron James to sign there next summer… and looking at the roster, you can’t help but think, “yep, they didn’t give a crap about this season.” I mean, they’re long and athletic,  they have nice young players in Ball, Kyle Kuzma, Brandon Ingram and Randle… but no one on this team can shoot! And they can’t defend for anything. If they Raptors could shoot, and if their bench didn’t look like they spent all night partying in Hollywood, I think the Raptors blow the doors of this team. But if they have indeed preserved enough flexibility to acquire LeBron James and another star and team them with Ball, then I guess they’re the winners in the long run!

The road trip is half-over! Up next, it’s the Trail Blazers in Portland.