The Weekly Rap: March 2-8, 2015

Photo: Photo: Derick E. Hingle/USA TODAY Sports
All is not well north of the 49th parallel. The Toronto Raptors are 2-and-8 since the All-Star break and have lost eight of their last nine games—the team’s only win in that stretch came on Monday against the tank-tastic 76ers. After that predictable victory the Raptors dropped three straight. 

The glass half-full perspective: the Raptors’ offence has looked a tad more cohesive in recent games,with DeMar DeRozan regaining some of the form that made him an All-Star last season and Terrence Ross, who has been a shell of himself this season, breaking out with some solid performances. The team has moved the ball well in stretches, which makes a big difference.

Now, glass half empty: the Raptors’ defence continues to be a hot mess. After ranking in the top-10 in defensive efficiency last season the Raptors are currently languishing in 22nd—they haven’t been able to guard anyone with a pulse this season. That needs to change, and fast. The Raptors face the San Antonio Spurs, Miami Heat and Portland Trail Blazers this week—all tough games—and they need to bring it at both ends of the floor if they’re to halt their slide down the Eastern Conference playoff standings.

Raptors 114 Philadelphia 76ers 103
The Raptors ended their five-game skid with a win on Monday night against the unashamedly tanking Philadelphia 76ers. Kyle Lowry was rested once again, but in his absence DeMar DeRozan broke out of his recent slump to pour in 35 points (a season high) on 12-of-24 shooting. “It didn’t matter who we got this win against, we just needed to get this win to get the monkey off our back,” DeRozan said post-game. It certainly helped the Raptors that DeRozan attempted 10 free throws in the game. During his recent struggles DeRozan has settled for ill-advised, mid-range jumpers—shots that have hurt the team—instead of driving to the hoop. Against Philly he was far more assertive.

The same went for the team as a whole. Collectively the Raptors shot 50 per cent from the field, making 40 per cent of their three-point attempts in a cohesive, unselfish offensive display—the team racked up 24 assists on their 41 made field goals. The Sixers kept pace through two and a half quarters—talented centre Nerlens Noel made 17 points and seven boards for his frisky but limited squad—but the Raptors pulled away as the third quarter wore on and eventually ran out comfortable winners.

Cleveland Cavaliers 120 Raptors 112
Wednesday night’s tilt against the high-flying Cleveland Cavaliers was anything but comfortable, but after a disastrous second quarter the Raptors fought hard and came away with some pride intact. After a close opening quarter—a quarter in which DeMar DeRozan continued his strong play from Monday night—the Cavaliers began to pull away. The Raptors simply had no one who could stay in front of Kyrie Irving, and the Cavaliers point guard routinely tore through the lane, collapsing the defence and dishing out to Kevin Love situated wide open on the perimeter.

The Raptors came back strong (at least offensively) in the late third and early fourth quarters, however. Jonas Valanciunas had a monstrous game, putting up 26 points and 11 rebounds—he had Timofey Mozgov’s number all night long—while Lou Williams played out of his mind. Williams’ 26 points, coming on just eight field-goal attempts, helped propel the Raptors’ comeback—they led briefly 96-95 in the fourth quarter, after having trailed by 19 points. “I think in the second-half we played really good,” a visibly dejected Valanciunas told the media. “But we can’t let down in the first half. We’ve got to bring it the whole game.”

LeBron cut a frustrated figure during the Raptors’ furious comeback (and especially when Valanciunas wrestled him to the ground on a drive to the basket), but he took over late. Back-to-back trifectas from LeBron with under four minutes left in the game created some separation between the teams. After Valanciunas had cut the lead to two points, LeBron dished the ball to J.R. Smith who swished through a three-pointer signaling the beginning of the end for Dwane Casey’s team. LeBron, who’s been playing at an MVP-calibre level in recent weeks, finished with 29 points and 14 assists.

Raptors 94 Charlotte Hornets 103
Kyle Lowry’s return after three games of rest wasn’t enough to propel his team to victory in North Carolina, as the Charlotte Hornets continued their recent domination of the Raptors. Toronto has now lost six straight games to Charlotte.

DeRozan led the team with 30 points. Lowry himself had 25, but recent bad habits on offense—far too many contested, mid-range shots, and a lack of involvement for the big men —returned to frustrate fans after the moral victory against Cleveland. The Raptors trailed throughout the entire 48 minutes of play (a 17-3 run by Charlotte put them away in the fourth) and shot an underwhelming 40 per cent from the floor. The defence wasn’t much better, as articulated by Dwane Casey, post-game: “Until we commit to playing defence, and worry about our defensive rhythm, more so than our offensive rhythm, it’s going to be a long year.” 

The Hornets, in contrast with the Raptors, were far more efficient offensively. They received excellent production from Al Jefferson (somewhat of a Raptor-killer) and the recently acquired Mo Williams—both players put up 23 points for their team. The Raptors, in part because of Jefferson, but also thanks to the Swiss Army knife of a baller that is Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, were also dominated on the boards. The Hornets outrebounded the Raptors 56-32—which included 11 offensive boards.

Raptors 104 Oklahoma City Thunder 108
Russell Westbrook has been tearing through the league in recent weeks and the Raptors, like everyone else, had no answers for the MVP-candidate on Sunday night. Westbrook put up another triple-double—his seventh of the season—scoring 30 points, 11 rebounds and 17 assists in the Thunder’s win. For the Raptors, DeMar DeRozan had a strong start (7-of-10 in the first half)—as did the rest of the team—but he faded in the second as Westbrook and the Thunder took over.

The Raptors moved the ball much better than they did on Friday night against the Hornets, with the offence in general looking far more fluid. On a related note, Terrence Ross, inserted into the starting lineup, thankfully resembles a professional basketball player again. An effective Ross gives the team much better balance.

The real issue for the Raptors was once again their porous defence. The team simply couldn’t stop the Thunder for scoring—far too many missed assignments on the perimeter, while Valanciunas was manhandled all night by Enes Kanter. And once again the Raptors lost the battle on the boards—key offensive rebounds by the Thunder down the stretch really hurt Dwane Casey’s team. That said, it was a two-point game with under a minute left, after DeRozan slammed the ball home on a fast break. Westbrook kept his cool on the subsequent possession, however, to ice the game from the line.

Around the League

Denver Nuggets part ways with Brian Shaw
After floundering directionless in the Western Conference for the better part of two seasons, the Denver Nuggets announced last Tuesday that they had “relieved” (read: fired) Brian Shaw of his head-coaching duties. The Nuggets were 20-39 at the time of Shaw’s firing and had gone 56-85 since the former Indiana Pacers assistant took over the team.

Shaw had undoubtedly lost the locker room in recent months (rumours of him feuding with Ty Lawson were rife and team morale had hit an all-time low). Shaw also made the mistake of attempting to turn a run-and-gun team into a half-court, post-up unit. But he was given a baptism of fire by the organization, taking over a Nuggets team that had just fired Hall-of-Fame coach George Karl and lost general manager Masai Ujiri to the Raptors. To compound things his key players, particularly Kenneth Faried, have regressed alarmingly this season.

Portland loses Wesley Matthews for the season
The Portland Trail Blazers title hopes took a major hit last week with the news that shooting guard Wesley Matthews is out for the season, rupturing his Achilles tendon in a win over the Mavericks. Matthews, who went from an undrafted nobody to one of the best two-way wing players in the league, has been an integral part of the Blazers’ success in recent years—he’s an excellent shooter and can defend multiple positions. In his absence the Blazers will likely promote the newly signed Arron Afflalo to the starting line-up, but that move will drastically weaken an already shallow second unit.

Russell Westbrook dominating in Durant’s absence
Russell Westbrook has long been the league’s most divisive player—his talents are unquestioned, but many feel like he lacks true point guard smarts and takes shots away from Kevin Durant. This season, however, even Westbrook’s most vocal critics would have to concede that he’s been one of the best players in the league—a legitimate MVP candidate.

The Thunder point guard’s recent play has been nothing short of spectacular in the absence of Durant. Westbrook, who leads the league in points per game, recently became the first player since Michael Jordan to put up four consecutive triple-doubles (Jordan has seven straight back in 1989). And in Wednesday night’s win over the 76ers, Westbrook put up a jaw-dropping 49 points, 15 rebounds and 10 assists. Enough said.
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