The Weekly Rap: December 15-21, 2014

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Photo: NBA.com

Although the Toronto Raptors’ marketing department unveiled the team’s new logo for the 2015-2016 season—a logo that’s certainly been divisive among the team’s fan base—it was more of the same from the team on the court last week. The Raptors were victorious in all four games they played between Monday and Sunday, improving their record to 22-6 in the process. They are now riding a six-game winning streak. That streak keeps them 1.5 games ahead of the Washington Wizards, a team also on a six-game tear, for first place in the Eastern Conference.

The upcoming schedule gets a lot harder for the Raptors, with a road game against the Bulls tonight and a West Coast swing starting at the end of the week. But regardless of their relatively easy schedule up until this point, Dwane Casey’s team can only defeat the teams that have been put in front of them and they’ve done a fine job of doing that.

Here’s how last week shook down:

Orlando Magic 82 Raptors 95
The Raptors started the week with a win over the frisky but limited Orlando Magic at the Air Canada Centre. Lou Williams, whose fantastic offensive production off the bench has gone some way towards masking the impact of an injured DeMar DeRozan, top-scored for the team with 18 points, while floor-general Kyle Lowry kept things moving on offence with 17 points and eight assists. Tobias Harris led the Magic with 18 points, but his team could get nothing going offensively in the second half .

The Raptors, as they have a tendency to do, started the game off slowly and were down at the half, 52-44. But after a disappointing second quarter they squeezed the life out of the Magic in the third and fourth, restricting them to a measly 30 points in those quarters combined. “In the second half we found our voice,” coach Casey told reporters after the game. “We found our energy, our spirit.”

The Raptors were coming off a game in New York against the Knicks the previous night; a loss to the Magic, on the second night of a back-to-back, would’ve been somewhat understandable. It’s a testament to the resilience of this Raptors team that they were able to battle back and win despite playing nowhere near close to their potential.

Brooklyn Nets 89 Raptors 105
Wednesday night was Drake Night at the Air Canada Centre and the Raptors were able to put a big smile on the face of the hometown rapper/team ambassador with a commanding win over the Brooklyn Nets. The win also brought some measure of revenge after last spring’s agonizing playoff loss—no regular season win will fully banish that memory, but it was a satisfying victory nonetheless.

“That Game 7 was on my mind from the time I woke up this morning, to even now,” said Raptors power-forward Patrick Patterson after the game. Kyle Lowry, who also must have been thinking about that series—missing a shot on the final play of Game 7 will still hurt the super-competitive point guard—paced the Raptors with 20 points and 12 assists.

Just as it was on Monday, the Raptors got off to a slow start, conceding 30 points in the first quarter, but key buckets from Terrence Ross in the second and another great performance from the bench saw the Raptors home. Patterson and Lou Williams had eight points each in the final quarter—a 29-16 quarter for the Raptors —while the Nets turned the ball over six times.

Raptors 110 Detroit Pistons 100
The Raptors cruised to their third win of the week on Friday night over the floundering Detroit Pistons, a team currently languishing near the bottom of the Eastern Conference with a record of 5-22. Jonas Valanciunas had his best performance of the week, scoring 17 points and pulling down seven boards, getting the better of Andre Drummond in the process. The Raptors bench was spectacular once again, contributing with 59 points and playing with an intensity that second units on opposing teams around the league are having trouble coping with.

And speaking of intensity, the Raptors fans flocked to Detroit in droves for Friday night’s game—so much so that it sounded like a home game for the Raptors at the Palace of Auburn Hills, particularly as the score got more and more out of hand. Earlier in the day general manager Masai Ujiri even made an appearance on one of the Raptor fan buses heading down to Detroit.

Unfortunately, the comfortable win for the Raptors will be remembered more for an ugly foul by Drummond on James Johnson than for anything particularly skill-related. After Johnson dunked on Drummond, the young centre was hit with a flagrant after smashing Johnson with his forearm on the next possession. To his credit Johnson took the foul in his stride, telling the media, “Frustration sets in when you want to win—no hard feelings.”

New York Knicks 108 Raptors 118
As they did last Sunday night, the Raptors finished off the week with a clinical win over the comically bad New York Knicks. Kyle Lowry led the way for the Raptors with 22 points and nine assists—the crowd was chanting “MVP!” late in the game—while Greivis Vasquez emerged from a shooting slump to rack up 21 points on 9-of-13 shooting. Carmelo Anthony top-scored for the Knicks with 28 points, but as has been the case so often this season, his efforts were in vain for a team that’s fallen to a barely believable 5-25.

Unlike their games earlier in the week the Raptors led this game from start to finish—they were given a nice shot in the arm early from Terrence Ross, who scored 10 of the team’s opening 15 points. It also helped that the Raptors obliterated the Knicks on the offensive boards, pulling down 16 and out-rebounding New York overall 43-32. That disparity was aided by the ejection of Canadian Samuel Dalembert who was thrown out of the game for an elbow on Jonas Valanciunas. The Raptors are certainly frustrating opposing centres at the moment.

As mentioned above, the team now embarks on a six-game road trip, which will include five brutally tough games against the Western Conference. “We should be ready for it, because we’ve been preaching it,” Dwane Casey said post-game. With a huge upgrade in competition coming up, let’s hope that’s true.

Around the League

Celtics trade Rajon Rondo to the Dallas Mavericks
It’s been long-rumoured that the Boston Celtics were looking to trade four-time All-Star Rajon Rondo—the last player remaining from their 2008 championship team—and on Thursday Danny Ainge finally pulled the trigger on a deal. The trade sent Rondo to the Dallas Mavericks in exchange for Brandan Wright, Jameer Nelson, Jae Crowder and—the real kicker—a 2015 first round pick.

With the trade the Celtics have signaled that they are entering into full-on rebuilding mode—a process in which they didn’t feel Rondo could play a part in—and they’ll hope to snag some talent late in next summer’s draft with the Maverick’s pick. Dallas, on the other hand, are all-in for a title run this season.

Rondo is certainly an upgrade over Jameer Nelson—he’s a transcendent passer who can be a pest at the defensive with his length and tenacity. But the point guard hasn’t been the same player since his ACL tear two seasons ago and it remains to be seen whether a player who can’t shoot—or shoot free-throws—can offer anything to a team who already has the best offense in the league.

Sacramento fires Mike Malone
Just when you thought the Sacramento Kings were moving past their long history of dysfunction they go ahead a do something crazy. Fans woke up on Monday morning to the news that the Kings had fired head-coach Mike Malone, despite the fact that Malone had led the team to a 9-6 start and as late as Sunday night were just two games under .500. Their recent slump was largely due to a brutal, West-heavy schedule and an illness that had kept star-man DeMarcus Cousins out of action in recent weeks.

Malone was likely fired due to philosophical difference with general manager Pete D’Alessandro—remember, Malone was hired by owner Vivek Ranadive and not by D’Alessandro himself. The two had reportedly clashed over D’Alessandro’s desire to trade for Pistons mega-flop Josh Smith and over Malone’s insistence of playing a half-court system; posting-up Cousins, rather than a run-and-gun approach favoured by the general manager and owner.

Tyrone Corbin has taken the reins as interim head coach, but the team is faring no better under his stewardship, losing both of their games this week.

Adam Silver doesn’t believe any team is trying to lose
A couple glances at the Philadelphia 76ers roster—and record—would lead you to believe that general manager Sam Hinkie is positioning his team to lose big this season, in order to take advantage of a draft system that incentivizes just that. NBA commissioner Adam Silver doesn’t see things that way, however.

In an interview with ESPN’s Outside the Lines, Silver told Andy Katz, “No player is going out there to lose. In terms of management I think there is a legitimate rebuilding process that goes on. It’s so hard to win in this league, and it’s so complex.”

Silver has a point when it comes to the players—no player, in any sport, wants to lose. But when it comes to a strategy undertaken by the front office, it’s clear that certain general managers set their teams up to lose, whether by allowing veteran free agents to walk, taking a back seat in free agency altogether, or fielding a team of borderline D-leaguers—or all three when it comes to the Sixers. It’s an ugly but understandable strategy that can result in rewards further down the line, but whether we euphemistically label it “rebuilding,” it’s still a strategy predicated on losing a bunch of games. You can put lipstick on a pig, but it’s still a pig. 
 
  
 
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