Five thoughts on game 15: Raptors 107, Knicks 84

New York Knicks at Toronto Raptors Nov 17

A few thoughts on the Toronto Raptors’ beatdown of the New York Knicks on Friday night:

Injuries gave the Raptors a new look starting lineup

Norman Powell, Serge Ibaka and Delon Wright all sat this one out. (Delon has a separated shoulder; no timetable for his return yet.) Pascal Siakam and OG Anunoby started, and they did not disappoint. Siakam was everywhere, running the floor, moving the ball, even finishing delayed breaks with his left hand! And he guarded Kristaps Porzingis on the other end! (More on this in a minute.) Anunoby was equally impressive, guarding multiple positions and stretching the floor on offense. He somehow amassed a ridiculous +30 (!) in the first half. (Here’s an amazing stat: They ended up 10-10 from two-point range combined, but only went 1-11 from three-point range. In other words: Still lots of room for improvement.)

Kyle Lowry looked like his old self again

Lowry came out aggressive, going 3-4 with 2 assists in the first 8 minutes. (Another great stat: the Raptors assisted on 7 of their first 10 buckets, and 29 of 44 overall; they are so much fun to watch when they’re moving the ball.) Kyle ended up two rebounds shy of a triple-double in 32 minutes; one his 10 assists was a gorgeous alley-oop to DeMar DeRozan on a backdoor cut that brought the crowd to its feet, a play we haven’t seen those two connect on in some time. What’s really comforting, though, is the long-range shooting, which appears to be rounding into form. Lowry went 5-7 from distance, and is now 19-42 (45%) over the last five games.

Dwane Casey only played 11 guys!

Though I’m sure if even one of Wright, Powell and Ibaka were healthy, he’d have gone 12 deep again! A few bench notes: Lucas Nogueira was the first big in, ahead of Jakob Poeltl. Not sure what caused Casey to go that route; if I had to guess, the mobility of Kristaps Porzingis? But Bebe had 3 blocks, 3 boards and 2 alley-oop dunks in his first 7 minutes. (Of course, he also missed a three.) And when Poeltl did get in, he committed 3 fouls in 2 minutes. Yikes. Meanwhile Lorenzo Brown got his first action of the season, after being called up from Raptors 905 to take some of Delon Wright’s minutes. He was solid, playing 18 and while he didn’t score, he did nab 3 boards and 3 assists, and most importantly, didn’t force anything (0 turnovers). CJ Miles played great again, with an impressive 14 points on 3-5 shooting (he shot 6 straight free throws, after being fouled on 3-point attempts, to close out the first quarter) and he actually broke 22 minutes for the first time since October 27. He also added 2 blocks!

Kristaps Porzingies struggled mightily in this one

The unicorn didn’t look very legendary tonight, finishing with just 13 points on 3-13 shooting. I can’t complain; as a Raptors fan, obviously I want him to have his bad games against my team. But still, I was excited (like, nervous excited) to watch him play; he’s been sensational this season, keeping the Knicks afloat. Give credit to Pascal Siakam for some of Pozingis’ struggles; Pascal’s length and quickness really allowed him to stay with KP as he floated out around the 3-point line. But sometimes, even the greats have off nights. (Dare I point out that, despite KP’s off-night, the bigger problem might have been Doug McDermott? McBuckets came in with an 8-0 record against the Raptors! But Toronto held him in check (2-10) and finally managed to snag a W!)

The Raptors won this one by playing D, and by taking advantage of New York’s weaknesses

The Raptors defense was solid throughout, holding the Knicks to 33% shooting and using the aforementioned length of Anunoby and Siakam to stifle any momentum. But on the other end, the Raptors deserve credit for getting out on in transition off those NY misses (26 fast-break points) and for taking advantage of the Knicks lackluster defense (56 points in the point). Even when the Raptors committed sloppy turnovers and the Knicks looked like they might threaten, the Raps would get a stop and drive it into the heart of the defense on the other end, with DeMar DeRozan in particular muscling up tough shots around the rim (he finished 4-8 in the paint, and was fouled on at least two of those shots) . The Knicks may have cut the lead to 10 in the second half but the Raptors locked it down and won going away.

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The Wizards are back in town for another Sunday afternoon game tomorrow. Can the Raptors get up for this one against a full-strength Washington squad?

Five thoughts on game 12: Celtics 95, Raptors 94

Toronto Raptors at Boston Celtics Nov 12

The Toronto Raptors dropped a close one yesterday against the Celtics in Boston. I missed the game but I’ll offer a few observations based on the stats, highlights and post-game reports…

Norman Powell’s injury might be serious

Norm left the game with what they called a hip pointer, and didn’t return. He was on crutches after which isn’t a good sign. OG Anunoby started the second half in his place, which I think is the right call, based on his defence. The argument for CJ Miles there is strong but if Casey thinks he needs CJ’s offense with the second unit I can’t argue with that.

CJ Miles needs to play more

That said, CJ only played 21 minutes yesterday, and only averaged 16 over the previous three games. That’s pretty bizarre from a team trying to get better at spacing and shooting, to limit your best 3-point shooter’s minutes. I understand, again, Casey has a glut of wings to give minutes to, but, the Raptors need Miles’ shooting. He should be playing 23-24 mpg. I’m sure there are a few Fred VanVleet minutes that Miles can easily gobble up (and I would love to know why the heck FVV was on the floor for those final two possessions).

Pascal Siakam vs OG Anunoby is entertaining as heck

Speaking of the glut of wings, I’ve debated who of the Raptors young SFs deserve more minutes here, and although I’ve leaned towards Anunoby, Pascal Siakam continues to play extremely well. He played 19 minutes, had 8 points and went 2-3 from deep with 6 rebounds as well. With Norm out, both should see an uptick in minutes; they’ve both earned them!

It was the same old Raptors down the stretch

Lots of arguing about the final play selection. The Raptors had two chances, down 1 with the ball; on both, it was DeMar DeRozan iso-ball. In those situations, it’s hard to argue with the call; you want the ball in the hands of your best player. And on the second, DeMar generated a strong look, within 15 feet and just missed it. (If you want a counter argument, maybe it’s that one of those shots should have come from Lowry, who had what might have been his best shooting game of the year). What’s concerning is that it seems that’s what the Raptors were doing for the previous several minutes. We’ve seen it over the last two postseasons, that type of offense just doesn’t work. The Raptors need to keep the ball moving and work for better shots.

The Raptors are blowing great opportunities against important eastern conference foes

Last Sunday the Wizards were without John Wall and the Raps let that one get away. Today, the Celtics were without Kyrie Irving (and of course Gordon Hayward) and the Raps couldn’t put them away either. These games could come back to haunt the Raptors when it comes time for playoff seeding.

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The Raptors are in Texas tomorrow to take on the team with the league’s second-best record (behind Boston), the Houston Rockets. The Rockets have won six in a row—can the Raptors stop this streak?

Five thoughts on Game 9: Wizards 107, Raptors 96

Washington Wizards at Toronto Raptors Nov 5

Five thoughts on the Toronto Raptors predictably dropping their homecoming game to the Washington Wizards on Sunday night:

The Raptors were at full strength, and the Wizards weren’t… for a few minutes, anyway.

The Wizards’ John Wall, their top player, was on the shelf with a shoulder sprain; meanwhile the Raptors welcomed back CJ Miles from his stomach bug. You’d think the Raps would be at an advantage, but Kyle Lowry decided to even the matchup by getting tossed in the second quarter after picking up two technical fouls for arguing calls. You can definitely make the case that the young ref, JB DeRosa, should have had more patience with Lowry—they were about the two fastest techs I’ve ever seen, and definitely not for the worst arguing I’ve ever seen. But, he decided to flex his muscles and Lowry was done. (One of the veteran officials made it up to the Raps a little by tagging the Wizards’ Markieff Morris with a non-deserving tech two plays later).

Regardless of depth, the Wizards ran the Raptors off the court for the first 2.5 quarters

The Raptors were behind right out of the gate and it looked like a repeat of the Denver game, only this time at home, without the road or the altitude to blame. It was definitely a case of “we’re just happy to be home” as the Wizards took it to them; the Raptors were down 15 after 6 minutes, missing everything short, including free throws (6-13 in the first quarter) and getting beaten flat-footed on defense. Meanwhile the Wizards were running, hounding the Raptors’ guards and pounding the glass, and showing a ton more energy. In the first quarter they forced four turnovers that led to 10 fast-break points, and had three offensive rebounds that led to 8 second chance points.

Pet peeve alert: Dwane Casey, always late with the timeouts

I know I’m not an NBA coach so it’s easy for me to sit here and judge from my couch. But Dwane Casey always seems to be consistently one or two plays late when calling timeouts when the other team grabs momentum. And he used to work for Rick Carlisle, who’s one of the best! I think he needs to buy Gregg Popovich a bottle of wine and get Pop’s tips, because Pop’s the master of the momentum-stopping timeout.

The Raptors bench got them back in it, but Casey took it away from them

Speaking of Casey, I have to question his lineups down the stretch. The bench brought the Raptors all the way back in this one, with Fred Van Vleet leading the charge. FVV looked to be essentially out of the lineup, and deservedly so, after his poor performance so far this season. But with Lowry tossed, VanVleet got a second chance, and he made the most of it. He finished with 10 points on 5-7 shooting, and had a 6-0 run to close the third quarter and cut the Wizards’ lead to 8. Meanwhile, Pascal Siakam, OG Anunoby and Lucas Nogueira were all contributing on both ends, providing much needed energy and lift, enough to cut the Wizards’ 19-point lead all the way down to 3. But Casey chose to go with Delon Wright, Jonas Valanciunas and Serge Ibaka down the stretch, and they promptly threw the game away, giving up a 12-2 run and sealing it for the Wiz. Shame on Casey for that one; his bench earned the right to close that game and win or lose it themselves.

I’m not sure how I feel about this Wizards team

On the one hand, they’ve developed a couple young projects into legit solid NBA players—namely, Otto Porter and Kelly Oubre. That’s what the Raptors are trying to do with their young guns. And you can’t help but be impressed by Wall and Bradley Beal; Beal is very much an evolutionary DeMar DeRozan. He doesn’t have DeMar’s strength and doesn’t get to the line as much, but he’s got great footwork, can get what he wants from the midrange, and he has the 3-point shot that DeMar is missing. But this Wizards team plays dirty. Watch for the little shoves in the back, the jersey grabs and the elbow hooks on rebounds. Look out for the elbows and nudges when going through the lane. And how Marcin Gortat doesn’t get called for jamming out his hip on every screen he sets, I don’t know.

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Well it’s a disappointing result but one pretty much everyone saw coming. Thankfully, the 2-6 Bulls are here again Tuesday night, which should give the Raptors an opportunity to bounce back.

Five thoughts on game 8: Raptors 109, Jazz 100

Toronto Raptors at Utah Jazz Nov 3

Five thoughts on the Toronto Raptors bouncing back from a terrible performance to close out their road trip with a win against the Jazz in Utah.

The Raptors’ depth is proving to be a real advantage…

After one game with a full squad, the Raptors were down a man again, as CJ Miles missed this one with the flu. But the Raptors still played 11 players, and all of the frontcourt subs—Jakob Poeltl, Pascal Siakam, Lucas Nogueira, and OG Anunoby—got a chance to play and contribute.

…although it might be giving Dwane Casey headaches

Coach is gonna have to make some tough decisions about who gets playing time; I don’t think playing 12 guys a night is going to work. But who’s the odd man out? Fred VanVleet seems an obvious choice, as he’s played the poorest, comparatively, out of all the subs, but backcourt depth isn’t the issue. All three centers—Poeltl, Nogueira and starter Jonas Valanciunas—have played well. All the forwards—Serge Ibaka, Anunoby, Siakam—are also playing well. Miles and Normal Powell are also nominally forwards and they’re much needed. Ultimately I think Bebe’s minutes are the most likely to drop; despite all the pluses, he’s still mistake-prone, and consistency is critical for bench units, and that’s something Poeltl brings. I think VanVleet will also be relegated to the bench more, with Delon Wright playing alongside one of Kyle Lowry or DeRozan, or Powell or Miles playing more in what is essentially the 2-guard spot with one of Siakam or Anunoby on the wing.

Let’s talk about Pascal Siakam

The injuries have opened up minutes for Siakam, who barely played in the first two games, and he’s made the most of them. His effective field goal percentage is 59.6—good for 36th in the league in players who are playing more than 15 minutes a night (on admittedly a still-small sample size). He uses his length extremely well; he forced back-to-back turnovers at one point in the fourth quarter last night, and scored on a beautiful fast break layup—on which he used those long arms to keep the ball out of reach of the defense—in between. Perhaps most importantly, he never tries to do too much; he doesn’t force or rush things, and consequently, doesn’t usually find himself out of position or in the wrong spot, which is something you often see from young players. I’ve been really impressed with his development; I would love for him to continue working on his 3-point shooting and add that dimension to his game as well.

I want to appreciate DeMar DeRozan for a moment too

He finished with 37 on 20 shots, and scored 10 straight in the third as the Raptors took control of the game (after letting a second quarter lead slip away) and then locked it down with another 6 straight in the fourth. It’s easy to take DeMar for granted, especially because his game is easy to tire of—the mid-range jumpers, the head fakes, the free throws, etc. And it’s easy to point out the flaws and deficiencies (the lack of the three-point shot). But let’s just appreciate how damn good he is at the those things he does well. Kevin Durant singled him out for his excellent footwork on Bill Simmons’ podcast last summer, and that’s a no brainer. He gets to his spots effortlessly, whether it’s on post-ups, straight up drives or spin moves. The head fakes and ball fakes—everyone knows they’re coming, but they still work. It’s his 9th season and he’s still getting to the line 9 times a game. Yes, I’m as frustrated as anyone that a player who works as hard as he does hasn’t worked that hard (it seems) on developing a 3-point shot. But I have to appreciate the things he does do well. (And hey—3-7 from downtown last night, including a 4-point play! Maybe it’s coming…?)

The Raptors finished the road trip 3-3, which is probably as good as expected

You could perhaps have looked at these six games and declared 4 of them winnable – LA, Portland, Denver, and Utah. Toronto looks better on paper than those teams, it’s probably fair to say. But factor in the road arenas and sheer length of the trip, and anyone on our near the team was probably happy to get away with 3-3. The season is now about 10% done and the Raps are 5-3, which, again, should be where we expected them to be. They’re currently fourth in the east behind the surging Celtics (7 wins in a row!) and the shockingly good Pistons and Magic (each at 6-3).

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It’s a quick turnaround to tomorrow night’s 6pm home start agains the Wizards; those first home games back after long trips are often terrible performances, because you’re so glad to be home you don’t prepare properly for the game. Let’s hope the Raptors come out strong against Washington, one of the teams that—surprises like the Pistons and Magic aside—the Raptors will likely be fighting with for top playoff seeding come April.

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.