Three Stray Thoughts from Raptors vs Timberwolves

A gripe about the horrible commute into downtown Toronto, then a few thoughts on Demar Derozan’s newfound post-game, Toronto’s poor pick-and-roll defense and even poorer bench unit.

Are you familiar with Dante’s Inferno? The nine circles of hell? Well, Dante missed one; the tenth circle of hell is when you’re on the Gardiner “Express”-way during rush hour. I got four free tickets thanks to a fan appreciation event, but the commute into downtown Toronto was a nightmare. A 45 minute trip turned into a 2 hour long re-enactment of this scene from Wayne’s World (only replace Bohemian Rhapsody with G-Unit tracks). Needless to say, I was late and I missed the first ~15 minutes of the game. Ugh.

Moving on, here are three key takeaways from yesterday’s preseason match-up between the Raptors and the Timberwolves.

1. Demar Derozan’s Development on Offense

I’m not a big fan of Derozan’s game. His game never looks any good in the boxscore (volume shooter at slightly below average efficiency, nothing else), he’s a below-average defender and every time I watch him play, he always seems to be jacking up a mid-range jumper. Maybe it’s just a “when in Rome…” thing, but I’ve always wanted him to become a Kawhi Leonard type; someone who can knock down open threes, move well without the ball, make good decisions and be an effective wing defender.

My biggest gripe with Derozan is that he hasn’t really shown any development since his sophomore year. He added a mid-range jumper to his game between year 1 and year 2, but aside from that, he really hasn’t made any other tangible changes. I know the boxscore isn’t everything, but look at his per-36 numbers over the last three seasons:

dd per 36

Can you honestly tell me that there has been any tangible or significant changes in his production? I doubt it. Despite his elite athleticism, he hasn’t become a good defender, he hasn’t really developed good handles to allow him to attack the paint and he isn’t a great passer either.

That being said, he’s looked like a different player in his last two games (small sample size and it’s pre-season; duly noted). His handles look tighter which is allowing him to attack the basket off-the-dribble with regularity. He’s also flashed a bit of a post-game, showing off some nice spin-moves and a couple of up-and-unders. He’s a little more calm when attacking the basket, taking his time to settle in, throwing in a newly minted set of jab-steps and shot-fakes, and it is working for him. Look at his shot chart from yesterday’s game. Isn’t this what we all want to see from DD?

DD shot chart

Altogether, the new aggressive approach has allowed him to score 30 points on only 19 shots through two games. Obviously he won’t touch those numbers come the regular season, but if he continues to trade off-balanced jumpshots for forays to the rim, Demar might very well be in for a breakout season. Let’s hope we see more of this aggression from Derozan this season:

But let’s also hope that he develops a three-pointer and that he somehow lives up to his ridiculous contract.

2. The Pick and Roll Defense is a Problem

Maybe I should preface this with the fact that it’s preseason, and that Ricky Rubio is a basketball wizard, but Toronto’s pick-and-roll defense was horrible. Pekovic and Love are both big dudes, but they’re not so big that they should be able to single-handedly pick two defenders, which happened on a couple of occasions. I don’t know if it was just a lack of communication, but Lowry and Johnson/Hansbrough/Valanciunas were not on the same page. Minnesota ran an endless stream of pick and rolls with the starters, and Toronto looked completely out of sorts.

Sometimes, Lowry would try to fight over the screen to chase Rubio around the perimeter (dumb idea because Rubio isn’t much of a threat from the outside) which allowed Rubio to have momentum going to the rim. Johnson/Hansbrough/Valanciunas did a poor job of denying the ball to either Pek or Love, which allowed them to score in the paint. Once Rubio got through the initial line of defense, he picked the Raptors apart with his passing. It wasn’t pretty, as you can see from the link below:

In this day and age, the most important thing on defense is the ability to defend the pick-and-roll. If you can shut down the pick-and-roll (like the Bulls), you will have an excellent defense. If not, you’re screwed. It’s a pick-and-roll league, and if you can’t swim, you’ll be eaten by the sharks (or consequently, if you can’t ski, you’ll be bitten by the timberwolves?). The impetus is on Dwane Casey to find a strategy that works, and it’s on the players to effectively execute it.

3. Our Bench Unit Cannot Function as a Unit

You thought the bench was bad last season? Oh boy. Casey went to a line-up of Buycks-Ross-Novak-Hansbrough-Fields (with a few variations) for much of the third and the entirety of the fourth, and let me tell you, it was really ugly. The unit mustered a whopping total of 17 points in a quarter and a half and the defense wasn’t too hot either. Minnesota’s bench demolished ours.

The main issue with the bench unit is that there is no shot creation whatsoever. Some of you might scoff at the notion of “shot creation”, but it is a real thing, and it’s a real thing that the bench lacks. Buycks struggled to initiate the offense for anyone other than himself, and Landry Fields inexplicably got about half the play-making duties out there, and let me tell you, his playmaking is about as pretty as his jumpshot. It was miserable. At one point, Tyler Hansbrough was the go to scorer. Tyler Hansbrough!

Our bench is a collection of tools; they’re useful, but you can’t build something with tools alone; you need materials to work with. Novak is a great spot-up three point shooter which the starting lineup could really use, Hansbrough is a great energy guy and he’s a decent third big, but when Demar, Gay or Lowry isn’t on the court, the ball stops and the offense is relegated to contested jumpers.

One potential solution is to have Derozan come off the bench. First, he would theoretically be facing weaker competition which should allow him to be more effective offensively. Second, it gives the second unit a much needed ball-handler (Fields is only effective on offense as a cutter). Third, there will actually  be someone on the court who can put the ball in the basket without assistance. It just makes too much sense to me.

Miscellaneous Notes

  • We saw some small-ball, with Novak at the four. This left Rudy Gay to defend Kevin Love on defense, and this resulted in me putting a sad face in my game notes (Love backed down Gay and scored)
  • When Demar and Gay shared the floor, the better defender (Corey Brewer) guarded Gay. Is this why Demar’s numbers have looked so good? Cue the On/Off numbers debate in 3, 2, 1…
  • Amir sunk a three! His release is still slow as molasses but he looks comfortable shooting from outside, but he’s smart enough to not shoot it very often. That’s why we love you, Amir!
  • Lots of ticky tack fouls called on the Raptors in the third. I thought the Raptors spoke to the league about this?
  • Kevin Love looks really skinny as compared to when he first entered the league. He was quick and lithe, while being just as deadly as ever ensnaring rebounds. Grab him in your fantasy leagues, folks!
  • Nikola Pekovic is as big in person as you would imagine.
  • The atmosphere for a Wednesday night preseason tilt was great. The place looked ~85% full and it was loud in the first half. Maybe it was because they gave out so many free seats?
  • Dwane Casey draws up some terrible plays out of the time out. I’m really displeased with Casey’s coaching.
  • Once again, Ricky Rubio is a wizard
  • Landry Fields should not shoot in public. His shot somehow looks even worse than last year. He sticks out both his elbows on the shot and he seems to push the ball towards the rim with both hands. He only made 2/6 three pointers in the halftime shootaround. It’s not looking good 🙁
  • Ronnie Turiaf is the angel to Tyler Hansbrough’s devil
  • Next game will be played at 7 PM on Friday October 11th. They’ll be taking on the beloved New York Knicks and everyone’s favorite Italian Stalion, Andrea Bargnani. I am so excited to see him not in a Raptors uniform. I can’t wait.

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