The Weekly Rap: January 5-11, 2015

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The Toronto Raptors returned to their winning ways on Saturday night against the Boston Celtics after dropping a favourable match-up against the Charlotte Hornets earlier in the week. Trailing the red-hot Atlanta Hawks by three games for first place in the Eastern Conference—and currently deadlocked with the other big boys in the East—the Raptors can’t afford to drop too many more games against inferior opponents if they want to secure a top seed come playoff time.

This week will be a busy one for the Raptors. Four home games lie ahead, including a match-up against the rejuvenated, post-Josh Smith Pistons later tonight, and a showdown against the aforementioned conference-leading Hawks on Friday. Dwane Casey’s team will need to get back to playing the type of defence they exhibited last season (the team currently ranks a lowly 22nd in defensive efficiency) in order to put another winning streak together.

 
Photo: Chris Young/The Canadian Press 
 

Charlotte Hornets 103 Raptors 95
Heading home to the ACC did little to cure the Raptors’ recent woes, as they dropped their fourth straight game—a season-high losing streak—to the Charlotte Hornets on Thursday night.

Coming off two blow-out losses at the tail end of a brutally-tough, six-game road trip, it was expected that a home game against the struggling Hornets would provide the necessary tonic for Dwane Casey’s team—especially given the fact that the Hornets were missing key-man Al Jefferson. But Charlotte has had Toronto’s number in recent seasons; Thursday night’s win was Charlotte’s fifth straight against the Raptors. Gerald Henderson, who we can now officially call a Raptor-killer (seriously, the guy looks like Michael Jordan whenever he plays Toronto) top-scored with 31 points, while Kemba Walker added 29. The Raptors simply had no answer to Charlotte’s potent backcourt.

The Raptors’ Kyle Lowry had 24 points, but the team could only shoot 39 per cent from the field overall. The Hornets shot close to 50 per cent for the game. Defensively, the Raptors were awful—Hornets players glided through the paint at will and their perimeter shooters weren’t closed down quickly enough all night. Raptors forward Patrick Patterson was blunt about the team’s latest defeat in a string of poor play, telling ESPN that “our lack of intensity, our lack of focus and our lack of will out there is as baffling to me as it is to anyone else on the team.” 

Whether it was down to a lack of intensity or something else entirely, the Raptors got off to another characteristically slow start—they trailed by eight points after the first quarter. They did manage to take the lead in the second quarter thanks to some key buckets from James Johnson, but an awful third in which Toronto’s lack of a rim protector was again clearly evident, opening things up again for the Hornets who kept the Raptors at arms length for the rest of the game.

Boston Celtics 96 Raptors 109
The Raptors overcame another slow start to best the Boston Celtics on Saturday night, breaking their four-game losing skid. The Raptors haven’t lost back-to-back games at home since March 2014, and in the end they ran out comfortable winners against a spirited, but limited, Celtics. Kyle Lowry and Lou Williams had 19 points each for the Raptors, while James Johnson, replacing the ineffective Landry Fields in the starting line-up, had a huge 15 points and 10 boards. Canadian Kelly Olynyk top-scored for the Celtics with 23.

Once again the Raptors made things hard on themselves. The started off like they were caught in the midst of a pre-game nap. Casey’s team missed 10 of their first 13 shots and trailed 26-19 after the first quarter. According to ESPN, the Raptors have now trailed after nine of the past 11 first quarters they’ve played in and haven’t led after 12 minutes of basketball since December 28, 2014. That’s a problem.

Their plodding start didn’t end up hurting the Raptors against the Celtics, however, as they upped the defensive intensity, restricting their opponents to just 39 points over the second and third quarters. They opened up a 17-point lead after a 23-6 run in the third.

James Johnson told NBA.com after the game that the team was getting tired of their ongoing defensive slump and that “everyone buckled in, everyone took responsibility for what we were doing and we started playing Toronto Raptors defence.” Lowry sealed the victory with 10 of his 19 points in the fourth quarter and the Raptors ran out comfortable winners in the end. With the win, the Raptors remain unbeaten against their fellow Atlantic Division teams.

Around the League

Cavaliers, Thunder and Knicks involved in 3-team trade
The Cleveland Cavaliers, desperate for a change of fortunes after a miserable last few weeks, pulled the trigger on a multi-team trade that saw them acquire Knick-misfits J.R. Smith and Iman Shumpert in exchange for sending their own problem child, Dion Waiters, to the Oklahoma City Thunder. The Knicks picked up rookies Lance Thomas, Alex Kirk and a second-round pick in the deal. More importantly from their perspective, they also shed unwanted salary. They are now in full-on tank mode.

The Cavaliers have been awful at the defensive end so far this season and they’ll hope that Shumpert, who on his best day is a solid perimeter defender, will provide some measure of protection at that end of the floor. J.R. Smith, who’s been a disaster for the last two seasons, was the poison pill the team had to swallow in order to acquire Shumpert.

For the Thunder, Dion Waiters could provide some useful scoring depth off the bench, supporting the likes of Durant and Westbrook, but he’ll need to quickly learn the pecking order on that team. He’ll be a third or fourth offensive option at times and will need to turn himself into a spot-up shooter when he shares the floor with the aforementioned superstars.

Jeff Green looks set to be traded to the Memphis Grizzlies
The Memphis Grizzlies, already a contender in the Western Conference, are on the verge of bolstering their roster with the addition of enigmatic small forward Jeff Green. The Grizzlies are already strong at point guard and in the front-court, but are looking to improve at the 3-spot where Tayshaun Prince, who will likely be going the other way in the trade with Boston, is the weak link in their starting lineup.

Green, who’s averaging 17 points per game this season, can provide Memphis with off-the-dribble scoring, as well as solid defence and some shooting from deep. He can fill in at his natural position, but is also able to spot minutes at power forward in smallball line-ups. Green has disappointed Celtics fans during his time with the team because of his inconsistency—one night he can take over a game, the next he’s invisible—but Memphis doesn’t need Green to be the main guy. Green will slot in as a role player on the Grizzlies.

For the Celtics, the offloading of Green is just the next step of Danny Ainge’s strategic dismantling of the roster after trading off Rajon Rondo.

Atlanta Hawks extend winning streak to eight games
The Atlanta Hawks are the surprise team of the 2014-15 NBA season. Many predicted that the Hawks, with a roster full of talented players but no superstars, would be competitive; few envisaged them being 29-8, with a 3.5-game lead in the Eastern Conference.

On Sunday night the Hawks destroyed the Washington Wizards, a very talented team in their own right, to the tune of 120-89. The win extended their winning streak to eight games, meaning that they’ve now won 13 of their last 14 games. Just as impressive is the fact that the Hawks gave won nine straight games against the ferocious Western Conference, which includes wins on the road against the Mavericks, Rockets and Trail Blazers.

The Hawks’ success is predicated on ball movement (they’re currently second in the league in assist ratio) much like the San Antonio Spurs out West—the team coach Mike Budenholzer started his career with. The ball never sticks and everyone on the roster can pass and shoot, including big men Paul Millsap and Al Horford. And speaking of shooting, the Hawks might just have the best spot-up shooter in the NBA in Kyle Korver. Korver’s insane shooting—51 per cent from 3 and a true-shooting percentage of 71—opens up the floor for his teammates and makes doubling their big men a scary proposition.

Teams like the Cavaliers and Bulls may be more talented on paper, but at this moment in time the Atlanta Hawks look like the team most likely to book a place in the NBA Finals come June.
 
  
 
The road-weary Raptors hit a rough patch with three straight losses
This week: Toronto gets edged out by Portland, steamrolled by Golden State and blown out by Charlotte, plus more top news from around the league
Posted on Jan 5, 2015
 
Sometimes, you have to draw a chart
Decoding the confusing mess that saw J.R. Smith, Iman Shumpert and other players swapped
Posted on Jan 6, 2015
 
Rondo’s season-ending injury could mean the end of an era in Boston
In the post-game press conference on Sunday afternoon, with all the focus on Rajon Rondo’s season ending ACL tear,
Posted on Jan 30, 2013

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