The Weekly Rap: January 12-18, 2015

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The Toronto Raptors are now 6.5 games behind the Atlanta Hawks for first place in the Eastern Conference after a brutally disappointing week in which they dropped three out of their four games—the only win coming against the struggling Philadelphia 76ers. Despite DeMar DeRozan’s return that night, the Raptors continue to have issues defensively, particularly defending the point of attack. Speedy points guard burn the Raptors, and the lack of a true rim protector has made that problem all the more glaring. The offence has sputtered recently too, drying up in key stretches against the Pistons and Pelicans, who both came back after being down by double digits.

The Raptors have now lost seven of their last 10 games and desperately need to put a winning streak together during the busy upcoming week to regain some confidence. Four games appear on the schedule, including tonight’s tough game against the Milwaukee Bucks.

 

Photo: Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press


Detroit Pistons 114 Raptors 111
Despite Jonas Valanciunas’ 31-point outburst—a career high—the Raptors let a game slip out of their hands on Monday night against the rejuvenated Detroit Pistons who dominated the paint in the second half. The Raptors shot 54 per cent from the field overall, but were outdone at the free throw line 31-14.

Valanciunas was unguardable in the first half, besting Pistons centre Andre Drummond and helping his team build up a 12-point lead after one quarter (a lead they would maintain until the half). Post-game, Valanciunas didn’t dwell on his career night, telling the assembled media: “I feel pretty bad, it was a tough game. They found a way to score, to stop us, so it was a pretty bad game for us.”

For whatever reason, the Raptors deviated from their inside-out approach in the second half. Valanciunas only made two shot attempts in the fourth quarter, and their guards—Kyle Lowry in particular—played far too much one-on-one ball, turning the rock over in the process. The Raptors had 18 turnovers that night to the Pistons’ eight. Lowry was responsible for seven of those.

At the other end, Detroit overcame an offensively anemic first-half to go ballistic in the second. They put up 66 points in the third and fourth quarters combined, in large part thanks to Brandon Jennings—a Brandon Jennings who looks like a completely different player since Josh Smith’s departure from the team. Jennings finished with 34 points and 10 assists. The Raptors seemed powerless to stop his drives to the basket, where he was able to finish or dish the ball off to his grateful big men underneath.

Despite the Raptors’ brutal second-half display, the game still went down to the wire. Jodie Meeks made an insane three-pointer after the play initially broke down to put the Pistons up by four with just under a minute left. Lowry responded with a three of his own, before missing a tough runner that would’ve given the Raptors the lead. Free throws gave Detroit a three-point lead before Jennings stole the ball from Lowry to ice the game.

Philadelphia 76ers 84 Raptors 100
The Raptors welcomed back DeMar DeRozan on Wednesday night against the Philadelphia 76ers, and their All-Star shooting guard didn’t miss a beat. Despite being out for 21 games with a groin injury sustained last November against the Dallas Mavericks, DeRozan was back to his smooth-shooting self, finishing the game with 20 points on 9-of-14 shooting. Nothing appeared forced. “I didn’t want to go out there and do too much,” DeRozan told reporters after the game. “I just played within the rhythm of the game.” 

Kyle Lowry bounced back nicely from his disappointing performance against the Detroit Pistons, putting up 18 points and 12 assists, while Lou Williams had 19 points off the bench. The frisky 76ers were led by reigning Rookie of the Year Michael Carter-Williams, who had 29 points and gave the Raptors some issues with his speed and length.

The Raptors started the game—somewhat uncharacteristically, it must be said—like a house on fire, scoring 13 points before Philadelphia had made a single basket. They led by 15 after one quarter, but let the 76ers back into the game in the second. Carter-Williams sparked a 12-1 run for his team and it was just a four-point game at the half.

Given the 76ers lack of talent, this was a game when the Raptors had the luxury of lifting their foot off the gas pedal and applying pressure as needed. They held Philadelphia to just 15 points in the third quarter and, thanks to some quick Lou Williams offence, opened up a double-digit lead into the fourth that they wouldn’t relinquish.

Atlanta Hawks 110 Raptors 89
The Raptors ran into the conference-leading Atlanta Hawks on Friday night and were obliterated—there isn’t really a nice way of putting it. Atlanta was superior to the Raptors in every respect.

The Hawks came into the contest on an 11-game winning streak, having won 24 of their last 26 games. The run began, somewhat ironically, after a double-digit loss to the Raptors back on Nov. 26. On Friday night, all five starters for the Hawks finished the game with double figures (the brilliant Al Horford led the way with 22 points, on a perfect 8-8 shooting), underscoring their beautifully balanced attack. The team, overall, shot 60 per cent from the floor.

By contrast, the Raptors only shot a shade over 40 per cent, turned the ball over constantly (the Hawks lightning-quick hands contributed to that) and only managed to connect on 6-of-25 attempts from beyond the arc.“That game was not us,” Dwane Casey told ESPN post-game. “We didn’t come out and put our best game on the court.”

The Hawks won every quarter of the game, blowing the game open at the beginning of the third off a 14-point lead at the half. Mike Budenholzer’s team featured beautiful ball movement—Atlanta consistently made the extra pass to the open shooter, carving open the Raptors’ defence and ending the night with 30 assists. The Raptors once again had major issues guarding the point of attack. Point guards Jeff Teague and Dennis Schroeder did whatever they wanted to all night—and the lack of an inside defensive presence to compensate for that weak perimeter defence stood out alarmingly once again.

Offensively things were just as bad—too much isolation ball, poor turnovers and a bunch of bricked shots clanging off the front of the rim. Terrence Ross was particularly bad. The third-year man has looked extremely low on confidence in recent weeks—his shooting touch has evaporated and defensively he’s been very mediocre. Casey benched him for large portions of the game in favour of the more productive James Johnson.

The one bright spot in the game was the play of DeMar DeRozan, who finished with 25 points on 11-of-18 shooting in just his second game back.

New Orleans Pelicans 95 Raptors 93
The Raptors capped off a disappointing week with a loss to the New Orleans Pelicans, who were missing two of their best players, Anthony Davis and Jrue Holiday. Tyreke Evans—a notorious Raptor-killer and the game’s top-scorer with 26—sunk the game-winner with two seconds left. The Raptors had a chance to win the game at the other end, but DeMar DeRozan missed a tough turnaround 3-pointer as time expired.

The short-handed Pelicans, in a battle for the Western Conference’s eighth seed, built up a big lead over the Raptors in the first and second quarters. They held the Raptors to just 14 points in the first quarter and led by 14 at the half. Former Raptor Alexis Ajinca had an improbable 22 points off the bench and gave the Raptors all sorts of problems. The Raptors, for their part, were awful early on—they couldn’t buy a basket and shot just 36 per cent in the first half.

Things turned around in the second, however, as Dwane Casey switched to a two-guard lineup with Greivis Vasquez, who had 16 points in the game, playing in the backcourt with Kyle Lowry and DeRozan sliding down to the 3-spot. Terrence Ross didn’t play a single minute in the second half after struggling in the first. Ross has been poor at both ends in recent weeks and continues to look horribly short on confidence.

A 35-point third quarter, in which DeRozan had 13, helped open up the game for the Raptors (they led by 12 points midway through the fourth). However, Evans asserted himself as the final quarter wore on (a 9-0 run got New Orleans back into it) and the buckets dried up for the Raptors. The Pelicans win over the Raptors was their first in seven meetings between the two teams.

Around the League

Different continent, same old issues for the Knicks
The NBA held its now-annual regular season game in London, England, on Thursday afternoon as the overachieving Milwaukee Bucks battled the rapidly imploding New York Knicks.

In front of a sold-out 02 Arena—the majority of which was rooting for the Knicks—the Bucks blew the doors off the worst team in the league, sending New York to its 16th straight loss. Brandon Knight and OJ Mayo had 20 and 22 points, respectively, as the Bucks opened up a 31-13 lead at the end of the first quarter. Jason Kidd’s team ran out comfortable 95-79 winners.

Carmelo Anthony gave Knicks fans something small to cheer for, scoring 25 points in his return from injury, but the season continues to go from bad to worse for New York.

Thunder rumoured to be in the mix for Brook Lopez
The Oklahoma City Thunder, currently in an almighty battle to stay in the playoff hunt in the Western Conference, are reportedly trying to add Brooklyn Nets centre Brook Lopez to their roster. Lopez, who has battled injuries for the last few seasons, is an offensively-gifted big man that can score with his back to the basket and on the pick-n-roll. Currently, the Thunder lack a scoring presence inside. Serge Ibaka is a decent roll-man and can shoot from mid-range, but he lacks a post-up game. All the while, Kendrick Perkins is a non-factor on offence.

The Thunder are understandably desperate not just to make the playoffs, but to make a real run at the NBA championship after coming close in recent seasons. With Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook both set to become free agents in the summer of 2016, the Thunder might not have many more opportunities to win a title and convince their star duo to sign on for the long term. There will be teams a-plenty vying for their signatures. A trade for Lopez would push the Thunder into luxury-tax territory for the first time in the franchise’s existence, but it may be a financial burden worth bearing at this stage.

Nets owner Mikhail Prokhorov looking to sell
ESPN’s Marc Stein and Ohm Youngmisuk reported last week that Brooklyn Nets owner, Russian billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov, is putting his team on the market after five years at the helm.

The value of NBA teams has never been higher (Steve Ballmer recently paid $2 billion for the Clippers!) and the Nets should fetch a hefty sum on the market—given the current downturn in the Russian economy Prokhorov is looking to cash in quickly. The team lost $144 million last season, after spending over $100 million on player salaries and almost as much paying the luxury tax.

Prokhorov purchased the Nets—then in New Jersey—in 2010 before moving them to Brooklyn with much fanfare. The outspoken owner promised Nets fans that the team would win a championship soon after, but after pumping millions of dollars into the franchise—much of it poorly spent on underachieving players—the Nets look as far away from being championship contenders as their hapless neighbours across town in Manhattan. The Nets are 17-23 at the time of writing, barely hanging on to the eighth seed in a weak Eastern Conference.
 
 
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