The Weekly Rap: Jan. 26-Feb. 1, 2015

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The Toronto Raptors have got their mojo back. The team swept the the board last week and have now won six straight games and seven of their last eight. The wins over the Pacers and Kings were two of their more impressive all-round performances of the season, with the team clicking at both ends of the floor. Although the blown leads over the Nets and Wizards will irk Coach Dwane Casey, their overtime poise in those contests was impressive. Just as impressive has been the play of DeMar DeRozan and Amir Johnson. Those two players make a great difference to the team’s offence when they’re on-form, as they have been in recent games.

The Raptors are playing well, but things don’t get any easier this week. They play the surprisingly competent Milwaukee Bucks tonight, the Nets again on Wednesday and end the week facing off against two Western Conference powerhouses, the Los Angeles Clippers and the San Antonio Spurs. If they end the week relatively unscathed it’ll be a mighty impressive feat.

 

Photo: AP


Raptors 104 Indiana Pacers 91
The Raptors survived another horrific opening (horrific openings are one of the sub-plots to their season) to overcome the well-coached, hardworking, but ultimately limited Indiana Pacers. Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan combined to score 43 points—the first time in a while that they’ve both played well in the same game—as the Raptors picked up speed after trailing 9-0 early. Rodney Stuckey top-scored with 22 points for a Pacers team who started hot, but eventually regressed to their usual offensively-stagnant selves. The Raptors held Indiana to a shade over 40 per cent shooting for the game.

DeRozan, who paced the Raptors with 24 points in the win, looks to have hit his stride after a four game, post-injury stretch where he looked out-of-sync. “I’m getting more comfortable every day,” DeRozan told ESPN, post-game. That certainly looks to be the case. The biggest indicator of his progression on Tuesday night was his ability to get to the free-throw line, which he did seemingly at will. DeRozan attempted 13 free-throws and overall Toronto had 11 more attempts from the charity stripe than Indiana, a team desperately lacking an off-the-bounce shot creator.

With the victory, the Raptors hit the 30-win mark quicker than at any point in franchise history. Last season—the best season in franchise history up until this point—the Raptors didn’t get to 30 wins until Feb. 26.

Sacramento Kings 102 Raptors 119
The Raptors won their fourth straight game Wednesday night, blowing out Boogie Cousins and the Sacramento Kings. It was their most impressive performance in quite some time, with the team playing at a high clip at both ends of the floor.

Lou Williams poured in 27 points off the bench—doing his burgeoning Sixth Man of the Year candidacy no harm whatsoever—while Greivis Vasquez, who continues to start in place of Terrence Ross, had a beautifully efficient night against his former team. Vasquez scored 18 points on 7-of-9 shooting. “We want to continue this winning streak and then continue to get better,” Vasquez told reporters after the game. With such a well-rounded team effort—six Raptors scored in double-digits—the team was able to lessen the burden on its star backcourt, vital during a brutal stretch of four games in five days.

Despite the Kings mediocre looking record (16-27 prior to Wednesday’s game) this was, in theory, far from an easy game. The Kings, and Cousins specifically, have had the Raptors number in recent seasons. And the game was close until the end of the third quarter, tied up until the pouting Cousins hit the bench with his fourth foul. The Raptors took full advantage of Cousins sitting by going on a 29-10 run that was fuelled by some white-hot shooting from beyond the arc. The Raptors hit a season-high 17 three-pointers, going 50 percent from 24 feet and leaving the Kings in their rearview mirror in the process.

Raptors 127 Brooklyn Nets 122 (O.T.)
The Raptors made things tougher on themselves than they needed to be, but thanks to some excellent offensive performances from DeMar DeRozan and Amir Johnson in particular, they inched past the Nets in overtime to win their fifth straight game. DeRozan appeared to be back at his best—something close to the player that made the All-Star team last season—scoring 26 points and racking up nine assists. On more than one occasion he drove to the rim and was fouled. However, he still managed to force in a shot in the process, making vital three-point plays. Whatever work he’s put in at the gym paid dividends on Friday night.

DeRozan’s ability to drive to the rim off-the-dribble has done wonders for the Raptors’ spacing and their overall offence in recent games and largely thanks to that the team built up a 17-point lead by the third quarter. But it wouldn’t last. Former Raptor Jarrett Jack was excellent for the Nets (the Raptors are still getting killed by point guards) and his 35 points contributed to the huge run Brooklyn went on in the fourth quarter. They led by two points, in fact, with just 20 seconds left. It was then that Dwane Casey ran an excellent play where DeRozan attracted two Nets defenders only to dish it off to the cutting Amir Johnson, who forced overtime with an easy dunk. DeRozan continued to dominate in overtime, scoring six points, and the Raptors were finally able to put the squeeze on the Nets at the defensive end.

Raptors 120 Washington Wizards 116 (O.T.)
The Raptors won their second straight overtime game on Saturday, defeating the Washington Wizards and increasing the gap between the second and third seeds to two games. Kyle Lowry led the way for the Raptors with 23 points, with Lou Williams once again providing ample scoring support off the bench. For the Wizards, John Wall and Bradley Beal combined to score 54 points. Both played a huge role in their team’s furious second-half comeback.

For the Raptors, this game was eerily similar to Friday night’s contest in Brooklyn. They were up by 18 points in the fourth quarter before letting their opponents back in the game, making the last five-minute overtime period a particular challenge.

After hitting on 61 per cent of their three-pointers in the first half, the Raptors couldn’t buy a trifecta in the second and the Wizards started to rally. Toronto’s old nemesis, Paul Pierce, made a three to tie the game and send it to overtime. Pierce then gave the Wizards their first lead of the game, but after that point the fatigued Wizards (coming off a Western Conference road trip) began to fade and the Raptors, led by Lowry’s seven points, put their foot on the gas. “It shows that we’re a poised, mature team,” DeRozan said post-game, regarding the team’s ability to come through when it mattered. “We’re definitely a team to be reckoned with.” 

Around the League

Three Atlanta Hawks named to the Eastern Conference All-Star team
Head coaches from around the league have selected the reserve players who will be participating in the NBA All-Star festivities following Jan. 22’s announcement of the game’s fan-elected starters. (Toronto’s Kyle Lowry made that list). The Eastern Conference team is conspicuous for its inclusion of three Atlanta Hawks—Jeff Teague, Paul Millsap and Al Horford. The Hawks (at the time of writing) have won 18 straight games and such team dominance, despite no single player on the team putting up mind-blowing stats, cried out to be rewarded with multiple All-Star selections. And they may well get a fourth All-Star if Dwyane Wade, currently nursing a hamstring injury, pulls out of the game as he is expected to do—the team’s brilliant shooter, Kyle Korver.

DeMarcus Cousins named to his first All-Star team
First there was outrage, then indignation, then disbelief. And then all was well in the world again. DeMarcus Cousins, currently averaging 23 points and 12 rebounds with a PER over 25, was initially snubbed for All-Star selection in the Western Conference before being picked as a replacement for the injured Kobe Bryant. Cousins, who is a force of nature on the basketball court, will make his first All-Star appearance in a few weeks’ time and many feel that it’s richly deserved. The Sacramento Kings’ centre is having his best season at both ends of the floor and prior to missing games with viral meningitis (and losing his head coach to the strange whims of ownership) he had the Kings contending for a playoff spot in the loaded Western Conference.

Kyrie Irving drops 55 on the Portland Trail Blazers
Few players are more divisive in today’s NBA than Cavaliers point guard Kyrie Irving. Some people love him for his gorgeous handle, nasty crossovers and ability to finish at the rim, while others hate him for his porous defence and me-first basketball philosophy. Few deny that he’s supremely talented, however. And on Wednesday night that talent was there for all to see, as Irving dropped 55 points on the third-best defence in the league (a league-wide season high), including the game-winning three-point shot.

Irving’s outburst was even more impressive considering it took place with LeBron James watching, injured on the sidelines. The Cavaliers have been heavily criticized for their inability to win, or even look moderately competent, without James on the floor. But Irving stepped up to the plate in a big way to silence the critics. 
 
 
Raptors tie for second in the Eastern Conference
This week: Toronto loses to Memphis’ championship contenders, scores a narrow win over Milwaukee and gets set to play Washington, plus more top news from around the league
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