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 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!