The Weekly Rap: January 19-25, 2014

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The Toronto Raptors got back on track last week, winning three games and dropping a hard-fought road contest to the championship-contending Memphis Grizzlies. The Raptors still aren’t back to the level of play that saw them tear up the league in November and early December, but they provided many reasons to feel positive about moving forward. There are signs that the defence is getting back to an acceptable standard—the Raptors held three of their opponents to under 95 points last week—and Patrick Patterson has been giving the team great, and much needed, production on the glass. Even DeRozan, who has laid a few eggs since returning from his groin injury, gave fans something to smile about with a solid performance on Sunday night.

Meanwhile the games keep coming thick and fast, with no let-up until the All-Star break. Match-ups against the Pacers, Kings, Nets and Wizards make up the schedule for this week. Saturday night’s game against the Wizards will be huge for Dwane Casey’s team. With Sunday’s win the Raptors moved into a tie with the Wizards for second place in the Eastern Conference. The Raptors haven’t beaten an elite team in some time and Saturday would be a good time to score a big win and secure their playoff credentials.

 

Photo: Jeff Hanisch/USA TODAY Sports


Raptors 92 Milwaukee Bucks 89
The Raptors returned to their winning ways on Monday night with an ugly win of the grind-it-out variety over the Milwaukee Bucks. After losing seven of their past 10 games it was gut-check time for Dwane Casey’s team—the ship needed to be steadied—and they duly responded. It was far from pretty, but it was a win nonetheless.

After receiving a hefty amount of criticism—much of it deserved—for their sieve-like defence over the last month, it was their play at that end of the floor that won the Raptors the game. Kyle Lowry led the team scoring-wise with 18, while Jonas Valanciunas had a double-double (11 points and 13 boards). But overall the Raptors shot the ball poorly. They hit just 40 per cent of their shots from the floor (DeMar DeRozan went 0-for-9), only managing to stay afloat offensively by snagging 20 offensive rebounds.

Defensively, however, the team was excellent. The Raptors did a great job harassing Milwaukee’s guards (Brandon Knight had a terrible game as a result), forcing turnovers and poor shots. On the inside they controlled the glass, with Patrick Patterson (who played heavy minutes down the stretch) particularly good. Patterson has struggled shooting the ball recently, but his defence and work on the glass more than compensated for that. “I’m just trying to figure out other ways to be more involved,” Patterson said after the game. “I’m trying to find a way to be more active, more into the game and tonight it was rebounding.”

The story of the night for the Raptors, however—and a big boon for the team—was the play of Terrence Ross. Ross has struggled mightily in recent weeks and has come in for some heavy criticism from fans and the media. He barely played against the Pelicans last Sunday and started Monday night’s game on the bench. But he responded. Ross had 16 points on 7-of-12 shooting, which included a key baseline jumper with 25 seconds left which extended the Raptors lead to three points. He was aggressive from the start, letting fly without hesitation. He appeared to react to situations instinctively instead of overthinking things like he often did during his recent funk.

Raptors 86 Memphis Grizzlies 92
The Raptors came up short in their attempt to sweep the season series against the Memphis Grizzlies on Wednesday night. Earlier in the season the Raptors bested a flu-ridden Memphis team, but Kyle Lowry and company came up against a fully-fit, fully-healthy team of players at the FedExForum and got a taste of what it’s like to clash with a legitimate championship contender.

The Grizzlies were led by Memphis’ bruising frontcourt duo of Marc Gasol (who had a game-high 26 points and seven rebounds) and Zach Randolph (who dropped 19 points and 13 boards). Gasol, named as a starter on the Western Conference All-Star team, dominated proceedings early with a nifty array of running hook shots and face-up jumpers. Take nothing away from the Raptors, however—they battled all night long. “I thought we played physical, we played hard,” Greivis Vasquez said post-game. “They couldn’t score either.” 

Thanks in large part to Lowry, who finished the game with 20 points and eight rebounds, the Raptors led by a point heading into the fourth quarter where they fought defensively until the end. The Raptors bested the Grizzlies on the glass, and 21 offensive rebounds, including six from the excellent Patrick Patterson, kept the game close despite the team’s anemic shooting. It was a 13-3 run from the Grizzlies in the fourth quarter that finally blew the game open and left the Raptors with too much to do.

But back to that shooting: the Raptors were held to a season-low 32 per cent from the floor. Granted, the Grizzlies are an elite defensive unit, with length on the perimeter and punishing low-post defence, but the Raptors’ ball movement just wasn’t good enough. There were too many isolation sets, and not enough overall motion. It certainly didn’t help that DeMar DeRozan, as he did in the previous game against Milwaukee, struggled shooting the ball. DeRozan played three solid games last week after coming back from a substantial injury absence. Those performances were a little deceptive—perhaps fuelled by adrenaline—and it’s only natural that DeMar is now struggling to find his game after such a long time on the sidelines.

Raptors 91 Philadelphia 76ers 86
The Raptors got in trouble once again, but some late Kyle Lowry hero-ball took them over the hump against the lowly Philadelphia 76ers on Friday night. Lowry had 17 points in the final quarter and the Raptors needed every one of those to eke out a victory and maintain their unbeaten record versus the Atlantic Division. Lowry finished with 21 points and five assists, while the team once again leaned heavily on Patrick Patterson who nabbed 14 points and 13 boards. Patterson’s work on the glass in recent weeks—especially his work on the offensive glass—has been crucial for the team’s sputtering offence. His knack for generating second-chance opportunities has been huge.

As has become the norm for the Raptors this season, they came out of the gate looking comatose. The Sixers built up a 15-0 lead (Robert Covington gave the Raptors all sorts of issues) before Dwane Casey brought the second unit into the game and Patterson and Lou Williams stopped the bleeding. Casey didn’t mince his words post-game: “We’ve got an air of complacency and I don’t like it,” Casey told ESPN. “It’s everybody collectively. We have to come out with a better effort. We can’t come out and perform like that.” 

The Raptors were much better in the second quarter—both in terms of effort and execution—holding Philadelphia to just 11 points. However, their play slipped again in the third. With five minutes left in the fourth, the Raptors trailed by nine points. Enter All-Star starter, Kyle Lowry.

Lowry scored every point on a 13-4 run for the Raptors, eventually tying the game up at 81-81 on a three-pointer. Michael Carter-Williams would hit a three of his own, plus a lay-up, to give the Sixers a one-point lead with 40 seconds left. But a Greivis Vasquez lay-up gave the Raptors the lead again. Free throws sealed the game after Carter-Williams turned the ball over.

The final result came as a relief to the team and their fans, but against a less-than-talented outfit like the 76ers the Raptors shouldn’t have had to rely on Kyle Lowry making crazy, low-percentage shots in isolation. It’s not a formula for success. Sometimes the process is just as important as the result, and the process right now is not ideal.

Detroit Pistons 110 Raptors 114
The Raptors scraped past the Detroit Pistons on Sunday night, gaining some measure of revenge for their narrow loss when the two teams last met on Jan. 12. And just like that game, last night’s contest was a high-scoring affair—the Raptors had their best offensive game of the week, in fact. The team shot 53 per cent from the field and racked up 23 assists along the way. Jonas Valanciunas, who seems to save his best performances for the Pistons, had 20 points and 11 rebounds (still no burn in the fourth quarter, however). DeMar DeRozan top-scored for the Raptors with 25 points. DeRozan has struggled mightily in the past few weeks, but bounced back in a big way against Detroit.

And the Raptors needed every one of DeRozan’s points because a certain former Raptor, D.J Augustin, was on fire. Augustin finished with a career-high 35 points, which included 5-of-9 from three-point range. Augustin got the start for Detroit after Brandon Jennings tore his Achilles tendon on Saturday night, ending his season. When Augustin wasn’t bombing trifectas he was gliding through the lane for easy lay-ups. After improving over the last few games, the Raptors defence was back to being porous.

The Pistons battled admirably down the stretch without Jennings, despite trailing by eight points with just under two minutes left. After a pair of Kyle Lowry free throws, the Raptors guard fouled Kentavious Caldwell-Pope as he sunk home a three. The four-point play cut the Raptors’ lead to two points, but Terrence Ross kept his cool after being fouled and made both free throws to ice the game and finish the Raptors week on a high.

Around the League

Kyle Lowry named an All-Star starter
This time last year Kyle Lowry, the driving force for one of the best teams in the East, was on the receiving end of one of the most egregious All-Star snubs in NBA history and robbed of an All-Star berth. The NBA’s head coaches, who vote for the non-starters, selected Joe Johnson over Lowry, in part because of Lowry’s reputation as a difficult player to work with. There was no such robbery this year, however. Fans around the league (a huge Canadian contingent, no doubt, who refused to leave the decision in the coaches’ hands) voted Lowry as an All-Star starter.

Lowry, who’s averaging a career-best 19.8 points per game this season and a career-best PER of 22.1—finished second in voting among guards in the East, with roughly 805,000 votes. Many of the votes can be credited to a late surge aided by MLSE-led promotions (thank, Matt Devlin!).

Lowry will be teamed up in the backcourt with Washington’s John Wall, while LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony and Pau Gasol will start in the frontcourt for the East. Out West, Steph Curry led all vote getters with over 1.5 million votes. Kobe Bryant was also voted as a starter in the backcourt, but he’ll soon be replaced due to injury (see below). Anthony Davis, Blake Griffin and Marc Gasol (facing off against his brother in the East) also start for the Western Conference.

Klay Thompson breaks NBA record for points in a quarter
Golden State Warriors coach Steve Kerr has been quietly pushing for his team to have two representatives in the All-Star game—and with a record of 35-6, it’s hard to fight him on the point. As mentioned, Steph Curry was named an All-Star starter for the West, but after his performance on Friday night, shooting guard Klay Thompson ought to be joining him for the festivities in New York City.

In a 126-101 victory over the Sacramento Kings Friday night, Thompson finished with a career high 52 points, stunning fans at the Oracle Arena with a 37-point outburst in the third quarter. Thompson broke the previous record of 33 points set by George Gervin and later equaled by Carmelo Anthony. Thompson made all nine of his three-point attempts in the quarter (also an NBA record), going 13-for-13 overall.

The Warriors decision to opt-against trading Thompson for Kevin Love this past summer is looking wiser with each passing week.

Kobe Bryant out for the season
It happened on a fairly innocuous baseline dunk in a game against the New Orleans Pelicans, but that move, which resulted in a torn rotator cuff, seems to have cost Kobe Bryant the rest of his season.

The five-time NBA champion only played six games last season after tearing his Achilles tendon the year before, and it seems like this year will end in similar injury frustration. Bryant has struggled with his shooting, hitting a career-low 37 per cent of his shots from the floor. There’s talk of Bryant retiring after fulfilling the final year he has left on his $25-million contract, but it’s hard to imagine the freakishly competitive Bryant walking off into the sunset just yet.

From the perspective of the Lakers it makes sense for Bryant to rest up and take his time returning to the hardcourt. Byron Scott’s team is going nowhere this year. This is the worst Lakers team in a generation. Continuing to lose games, as much as it irks the Lakers faithful, and snagging a high pick in the draft lottery is the most logical plan of attack for the franchise. 
 
 
The Raptors are officially in a funk
This week: Toronto loses every game except the one against the Philadelphia 76ers, plus more top news from around the league
Posted on Jan 19, 2015
 
Raptors return home, but old issues linger
This week: Raptors drop the ball against Charlotte, break their losing streak in Boston and are poised for a big fight against Atlanta, plus more top news from around the league
Posted on Jan 12, 2015
  
They’re getting there
Taking a look at how 2014’s top 10 draft picks are faring
Posted on Jan 7, 2015

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