Last week was somewhat bittersweet for the Toronto Raptors. With the Boston Celtics’ loss on Wednesday night, the Raptors officially made the post-season—a win over the Lakers on Friday meant that the team also sealed the Atlantic Division title. These are no trivial accomplishments, as they would be for some of the more historically successful franchises in the NBA. The Raptors have only made the playoffs six times in their 20-year history—they had only won their division twice before this season. Any success is welcomed.
The team’s recent form is still worrying, however. Clinching the playoffs on Wednesday resulted from a Boston loss, rather than a win over their opponent that night. The Raptors have the worst defence of any team currently occupying a playoff spot and they have a losing record in 2015. The team began the season on fire, tearing the league up in November and early December, but they have been mediocre since.
The Raptors desperately need to build up some momentum heading into the post-season—especially on defence—and they have the opportunity to do so this week. The team faces a tough game tonight against the Houston Rockets, but that’s followed by three very winnable games against the Timberwolves, Nets and Celtics.
Raptors 104 Detroit Pistons 108
Raptors fans successfully drowned out the home crowd at the Palace of Auburn Hills on Tuesday night, but their team couldn’t overcome Reggie Jackson and the Detroit Pistons on the court. DeMar DeRozan paced a Raptors teams that lost Kyle Lowry to back spasms in the second quarter (a worrying development) with 22 points, but the Pistons received a combined 54 points from their young backcourt of Jackson and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. Andre Drummond also hurt the Raptors with 21 points and 18 rebounds.
The Raptors forced their way back into the game after a brutal opening—they were down 16 points at one stage. DeRozan gave his team the lead, in fact, with five minutes left, but the Pistons regained the initiative. Lou Williams then found himself with the ball in his hands with 18 seconds left, his team down two points. Coach Dwane Casey declined to call a timeout and Williams essentially dribbled the clock out before launching a contested three-pointer: terrible clock management and terrible shot selection. Post-game Casey claimed that there had been a play of sorts drawn up for Williams: “We had just scored on the same play—a high pick-n-roll—but for whatever reason Lou didn’t use it.”
In truth, too often this season the Raptors have elected to let Williams freestyle at the end of quarters. When it comes off it looks great, but more often than not it doesn’t. Some sort of set-play would surely be a better option.
Chicago Bulls 116 Raptors 103
For the second time in two weeks—and the third time this season—the Raptors fell to the Chicago Bulls, losing their tenuous grip on the three-seed in the process. The Raptors do not want to face this group at any point in the post-season, as Tom Thibodeau’s team has beaten up Toronto in every facet of the game this year.
In Kyle Lowry’s absence the Raptors did get great production from DeMar DeRozan and Greivis Vasquez in their backcourt—20 and 22 two points, respectively—and even Terrence Ross chipped in with 16 points after getting off to a hot start. In fact, the Raptors played very well offensively in this game and led for most of the first three quarters. DeRozan talked up some of the positives for his team, post game. “Our confidence is still high. All we need is that one game to get ourselves going,” he said.
As a team the Raptors shot 47 per cent from the field and over 40 per cent from three, but still fell by double digits. That’s because the Bulls were scorching hot (and the Raptors were, you know, not great defensively). Chicago nailed a ridiculous 60 per cent of their shots for the game and blew the Raptors away with a 39-point fourth quarter—a quarter in which the Raptors missed 12 of 18 shots. Jimmy Butler and Pau Gasol gave the Raptors endless problems, but it was the bench tandem of Nikola Mirotic and Tony Snell who made a massive difference, combining to score 32 points off the pine.
Los Angeles Lakers 83 Raptors 94
The Raptors overcame another rough opening to beat the lowly Lakers and finish the week on a high. Jeremy Lin had 18 points to lead the Lakers, but the Raptors received some solid bench production from Lou Williams and James Johnson—plus 19 points from Jonas Valanciunas—to ensure a comfortable victory in the end. The first half was close, but the Raptors held the Lakers to just 35 points in the third and fourth quarters.
Most importantly, the win sealed the Raptors’ second straight Atlantic Division title. For Dwane Casey, it’s just one small bridge crossed in a season where the organization has big aspirations. “We had three goals,” Casey said after the game. “One was to make the playoffs, two was to win the division and three was to continue on and win into the playoffs.”
Around the League
Dwight Howard returns from injury
The Houston Rockets have been riddled by injuries all season, but on Sunday they received a big boost when All-Star centre Dwight Howard returned to the lineup. Howard looked solid on his return, putting up 11 points and 10 rebounds in 19 minutes of action. Howard, a three-time Defensive Player of the Year, has missed 37 games this season, and while MVP-candidate James Harden has done a remarkable job of keeping the Rockets in contention for a top-four seed in Howard’s absence, the Rockets won’t be a contenders in the post-season without a defensive presence in the middle.
Golden State Warriors clinch the top seed in the West
The Golden State Warriors, the best team in the NBA this season, have earned the number one seed in the Western Conference. They sport a 60-13 record , have both the best defence and offence in the league and beat opponents by 11 points on average. The Warriors will have home-court advantage throughout the playoffs in the West, and with such a raucous crowd in the Bay Area, that could make a big difference.
Enes Kanter happy to have left the Utah Jazz
Enes Kanter’s departure from the Utah Jazz to the Oklahoma City Thunder on trade deadline day was one of the bigger storylines of what was a crazy 24 hours in the NBA. Kanther has become a key player in the Thunder’s late-season playoff push and has gelled very well with point guard Russell Westbrook. But Kanter wasn’t happy in the three years he played for his previous employer. After returning to Utah to face off against his former team, Kanther said that he had “never liked playing basketball before in [his] NBA career” until he joined the Oklahoma City Thunder. He also said that, after joining OKC, “I was like ‘Oh man, this is how an NBA teams is.’” Ouch.
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