It’s an awful lot easier to win basketball games when your shots are going in. It’s even easier still when the other team is just plain bad. Those two stars aligned for the Raptors last night against the suddenly and shockingly terrible Memphis Grizzlies. The Raptors demonstrated some key improvement in a number of area’s that had been wanting so far this season in the process.

What worked:

-       Consistent effort on the defensive side of the floor from all five players on the court. Particular praise on this point goes to Terrence Ross and Rudy Gay. Ross played his second consecutive game of active and engaged defence. With his length and athleticism, it should be very difficult for players to get clean shots against him, and last night it was. Gay played defence as if he was the only player on the court from last season’s Memphis Grizzlies team. Gay picked off 5 steals and turned most of those in to points, getting back to what could be a huge weapon for the Raps.

-       The Fastbreak. I predicted that the Raptors would make a jump from the bottom 10 last season to the top 10 this season in fastbreak points per game. At 24th in the league with 10.6 points per game so far, not so much. But last night they got back to utilizing the potential that this young, long and fast lineup has there. The Raptors made turnovers (though Tony Allen was kind enough to simply give them several, as is his want) through defensive effort, and turned them in to points, almost doubling their season average in fastbreak points. Ross, DeRozan and Gay have the potential to be fastbreak scoring beasts, and it would be a tremendous boon to an offence that struggles to find creativity and efficiency.

-       Kyle Lowry really seems to be settling in to his role with the team. He seems to have accepted that he will not be a ball dominant point guard on this team (even if a little more of that might be a good thing). His effort level and body language are much more positive than they were last year when Lowry was visibly displeased with this role. He’s quietly starting to lead the offence; directing play, calling out screens and pointing out open space for teammates to move in to when he doesn’t have the ball. Most strikingly so far, Lowry has figured out where the spacing of this offence will create open spot-up shots for him. Lowry is getting 2-3 wide-open looks from 3 around the mid-way point of the arc and he continues to knock down over 40% of them.

-       Rudy Gay, passer of the ball. Gay was by means Chris Paul with the ball. But what he did do, especially in the first half of the game, was demonstrate what looked like a concerted effort to try and find his teammates in the flow of the offence. Hopefully, the fact that more of those passes than not turned in to points will mean that this effort continues. Passing is still something that you can tell Gay has to make an effort to remember in order to do. While he may never see the floor like a point guard, if he can put up a consistent 4 or 5 assists like this, I think we’ll all be happy to take it.

 

What didn’t work:

-       The Memphis Grizzlies. Yuck. This is a slow and sloppy team. Marc Gasol looks exhausted, Z-Bo looks like Z-Bo, Tayshaun Prince is auditioning for the AMC’s ‘The Walking Dead’ and Tony Allen’s defence is not making up for how bad his offence is when the rest of the team is giving up buckets.

-       Passes in to the post. Jonas was all but completely forgotten about on the offensive side of the ball last night. While it’s easy to say that it’s because Marc Gasol, reigning defensive player of the year was guarding him, that wasn’t really the cause. Gasol did not have a good game, and he wasn’t making a habit of bullying Valanciunas out of position either. The passes simply weren’t going down there. This has become a trend now. Casey seems to make a clear game-plan of dedicating a couple of the teams first 2 or 3 possessions every game to going to Jonas on the block. In hindsight, this is probably an effort just to make sure that he gets them at all. Jonas has a lot of work to do on his post game still, particularly in establishing his position closer to the basket, but he is a capable scorer from there and there is a lot of good offence to be found inside-out if he can make the defence collapse. This is being ignored by the ball-stopping perimeter play. What’s even more of a problem here though is that Valanciunas was visibly frustrated by this last night. Considering how much of an effort this team is relying on Jonas to run the floor, play tough defence, set screens and fight for rebounds, you do not want your heavy minutes big man and future of the franchise to resent his role or teammates. Worse still, it’s created a scenario where he’s likely to shoot it whether it’s a good look or not whenever he finally does get a post look, not knowing when he’ll get another chance.

-       As primary ball-handlers, Rudy and DeMar running in to a double-team results in a “MUST SHOOT NOW!” mentality. They NEED to learn to consider that the double team you see means that one of your teammates is wide open right now, and it’s almost always Jonas or Amir rolling to the basket or presenting for a pass.

-       The Raptors freelancing on defence is an issue. Yes, it was a much better defensive game, but some players are deciding to leave their man to double team on occasion, and not because of a system that calls for it. Lowry was the problem-maker with this last season, but so far has been much more disciplined. The guilty parties last night were Hansbrough and, as a repeat offender, DeMar, who has been abandoning his cover for disadvantageous double teams that leave his man wide open for easy perimeter shots. I like the idea of being enthusiastic on defence, but this actually does a lot more harm than help.

 

OK, let’s have a brief and rational conversation about Rudy Gay. This is possible, I swear. The Rudy Gay hate/humour dominated NBA twitter Tuesday night. Last night, the overreaction holy war swung completely the other way. It’s getting increasingly difficult to have a conversation about Rudy that is at once fair, honest and conclusive. I think that these past two Jekyl-and-Hyde games only go to perpetuate those story lines. But yelling that he’s amazing and clutch, or terrible and needs to be run out of town is neither helpful nor accurate for either side. It’s REALLY important to understand that the relentlessness and weight of the criticism of Rudy Gay is because he can and should be a Superstar. Not because he’s terrible or garbage or whatever else you might read on twitter. He’s REALLY good, and capable of being great. He has all the tools. But he just so rarely puts them all together, which is frustrating. Especially when so much of what he needs to fix seems like simply choices he needs to make, rather than skills that he doesn’t have. So he’s graded on a completely different curve than everyone else. Maybe that’s unfair. But that’s how it goes. It’s not because of the contract for me; it’s because of the capabilities.

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