The Weekly Rap: December 8-14, 2014

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Photo: Darren Calabrese/The Canadian Press
 
Raptors edge the Nuggets in overtime

The Raptors opened up the week with a hard-fought win, overtime win over the Denver Nuggets. Early Sixth Man of the Year candidate Lou Williams was again huge for the Raptors—he’s been great all season—scoring 26 points against a banged-up Nuggets team that was missing key man Kenneth Faried. With Faried’s absence you’d expect Denver to at a major disadvantage on the glass, but the Raptors did a horrible job on the defensive boards and the Nuggets grabbed 19 offensive rebounds that compensated for their mediocre shooting from the field.

The Raptors made key plays when it mattered most, however, and Patrick Patterson was huge in that regard. The stretch-four had 19 points off the bench, and went 5-of-7 from beyond the arc, including the game-tying trifecta after a dish from Kyle Lowry, which sent the game into overtime. The Raps would take over after that crucial bucket. “I’m thankful that he (Lowry) did see me and made a pass and it went in”, said Patterson after the game. So are the Raptors.

Game of the week: Raps come up short in Cleveland
On Tuesday night—on the one-year anniversary of the Rudy Gay trade that drastically altered the team’s fortune—the Toronto Raptors marched into the Quicken Loans Arena to face the star-studded Cleveland Cavaliers. The Cavaliers are team that the Raps could face deep in the Eastern Conference playoffs if all goes well—last night certainly resembled a playoff game.

The Raps got off to a hot start—they shot 60 per cent from the field in the first-half—but faded down the stretch as LeBron James (35 points, four assists, two steals, two blocks), so often Toronto’s basketball nemesis, took over. The Cavaliers displayed their much-improved defense in the fourth quarter, restricting Toronto to just 13 points, as they ran out 105-101 winners.

The Raptors have struggled recently on the boards—again, they gave up 19 offensive rebounds to the Denver Nuggets on Monday night—and second-chance points were a crucial element down the stretch in the defeat. Canada’s own Tristan Thompson, who was excellent last night (as he was when they matched up at the ACC last Friday) pulled down a huge offensive board which eventually resulted in a LeBron three which put the Cavaliers up three with a minute left.

At the other end of the floor Thompson found himself switched onto Kyle Lowry, a daunting task. The Brampton native played textbook defense on the Raps’ point guard, however, and Lowry could only brick a shot off the top of the backboard. It was essentially game over after that play.

Tuesday’s tilt marked the first time all season that the Raps had lost a game after holding a lead going into the fourth quarter. Through three quarters they played a more than solid road game, once again having to find ways to adapt without DeMar DeRozan.

Landry Fields got his first start since March (many had forgotten the guy was still on the roster), slotting in at the small-forward position, which allowed Terrence Ross to play at shooting-guard, a position much more suited to his frame. Fields was excellent in the first half—he did an admirable job guarding LeBron (a visibly frustrated LeBron) and was active on offence distributing and moving off the ball. As a team the Raptors looked great offensively through three quarters, displaying the type of fluid ball movement that has seen them rank second in offensive efficiency at the quarter mark of the season.

The Raps were up by double figures as late as the third quarter, but that’s when the Cavaliers began to put on the squeeze.

Cleveland started the season disastrously at the defensive end, but since dropping a game to the Raps on November 22nd, they’ve been a different team at that end of the floor. Tristan Thompson’s play has helped, and the Cavaliers look great when he plays at the five in small-ball lineups, but overall the effort level and energy has gone up a notch. Realistically it was always going to take time for David Blatt’s team to mesh—championship-caliber teams don’t become world beaters overnight—but after their eighth win on the bounce last night the Cavaliers are beginning to look like a team to be feared come April.

Raps comfortably dispatch the Pacers
After dropping a game in Cleveland the Raptors got back to winning ways against the Pacers on Friday night at the ACC, winning 106-94. Lou Williams once again top-scored for the team off the bench with 26 points, while Jonas Valanciunas had a double-double. Both teams shot the ball poorly overall, but the Raptors nailed some big three-pointers what it mattered and the team grabbed 16 offensive rebounds, keeping possessions alive—a turnaround from recent games when they were on the receiving end of the rebounding disparity.

After the game Williams spoke to reporters about his and his fellow bench player’s role on the team, saying, “We’ve accepted the roles of being backups and guys coming off the bench and we take pride in that”. Overall the Raps got 64 points from their bench, and with the starters struggling, it was a crucial element in the win.

Raptors top Knicks after a sloppy game at MSG
The Raptors won their second overtime game of the week, beating the New York Knicks 95-90 in an ugly contest. The Raptors got solid production from Terrence Ross who top-scored for the team with 22 points, but things could’ve been so much easier for the Raps in this game if they were more careful with the basketball. The Raptors had a season-high, 21 turnovers in the contest, and floor-general Kyle Lowry was responsible for nine of those—it was probably Lowry’s worst game of the season.

But a sign of a good team is the ability to win games when you’re not playing well—to grind out results—and the Raps were certainly able to do that on Sunday night. Raptors coach Dwane Casey emphasized that point, post-game: “We had so many mistakes on both sides, even defensively” Casey told reporters. “But it was one of those games, if you’re serious about winning you find a way to get it done and our guys did it”.

After Carmelo Anthony, who top-scored for the Knicks with 34 points, sent the game into overtime with a driving lay-up, the Raptors took over. They squeezed the life out of the Knicks on defense, even forcing a five-second violation at one point, and on offence they were able to get crucial baskets. Lowry may not have had a good game overall, but he was responsible for the score that sealed the game for the Raptors, feeding the ball into Amir Johnson for an easy lay-up as the Knicks’ defense converged on him. Lowry punched the air after the basket—a cathartic release after a night of frustration.

Around the League

Nets shopping their stars
According to an ESPN report by Marc Stein the Brooklyn Nets, who are off to an extremely disappointing 10-12 start, are open to trading Joe Johnson, Deron Williams and Brook Lopez. The Nets currently have the biggest payroll in the NBA, with Johnson and Williams combining to form the most expensive backcourt in the NBA, and they’re not getting a whole lot of bang for their buck at the present time.

The Nets traded away draft picks to the Boston Celtics in that ill-fated deal for Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett, and it’s likely that the team would want to acquire picks in exchange for Johnson or Williams. That said, it’s going to be tough to trade underperforming players that are making big money, not just this season, but in the next two years.

Warriors remain the hottest team in the NBA
The Golden State Warriors reeled off their 16th straight win on Sunday night, as they bested the New Orleans Pelicans 128-122 after overtime. The Dubs got 34 points, seven rebounds and seven assists from their star man, point guard Steph Curry—an early MVP candidate.

The win puts the Warriors at 21-2—the best start in franchise history—three games ahead of their Pacific Division rivals, the Los Angeles Clippers, and 1.5 games ahead of the Portland Trail Blazers for the best record in the West. Steve Kerr has his team humming at the both ends of the floor in his first season as an NBA head coach—the team currently ranks fifth in offensive efficiency (a huge improvement from the iso-heavy ball of last year) and are the best defensive team in the league right now. It’s early, but the Dubs look like legitimate title contenders.

Magic Johnson wants the Lakers to tank
The fiercely competitive Kobe Bryant would probably disagree, but Lakers legend Magic Johnson feels that the Lakers might as well take advantage of a draft lottery system that incentivizes losing in the short-term to improve down the line. At a recent promotional event Magic told the audience, “I hope the Lakers lose every game. Because if you’re going to lose, lose. I’m serious”. Say what you really think, Magic.

The Lakers are going nowhere this season—in fact, with no one playing defense and Kobe chucking up a gazillion shots a game, they’re a bit of a laughing stock. It’s probably in their best interest to sink as low as possible this year in order to grab a high draft pick in the summer of 2015. However, with the Lakers playing as bad as they are (the team is currently 5-16) tanking might be less of an intentional strategy and more of a natural process.

That said, it’s interesting Magic was so openly critical of Mike D’Antoni and Mike Brown when those two coaches were struggling with the Lakers, but now that his good friend Byron Scott is in charge, he has no problem with the team losing. Funny how that works. 
 
 
‘I’m picking up on more things as each day goes by.’
INTERVIEW: The Raptors young wing is quickly becoming their best two-way player
Posted on Dec 15, 2014
 
Everything’s in place for the boys in red
Toronto’s recent record has inspired some bold predictions, but the defending Atlantic Division champs really do seem to have a shot at the top
Posted on Nov 28, 2014
 
Ross is a high-flier, now on both ends of the court
The shooting guard’s all-around improvement and what it means for the Toronto Raptors moving forward
Posted on Apr 14, 2014

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