Let’s talk ball.
Over the last two months more ink has been spilled over the subject of “tanking” than anything else on this site, and quite frankly, it gets tiresome.
Is the future of this franchise worth discussing? Of course it is. By all accounts, this upcoming draft class is chocked full of talent, Kyle Lowry’s deal expires after this season, and the key pieces on the roster aren’t all that great, so change is both necessary and imminent. However, do we really need to talk about the future in every freaking comment section? What more is there to be said? Masai Ujiri, like many others, is clearly of the opinion that the Raptors, as currently constructed, are not very good. Therefore, he’s choosing (or chosen, in the case of Rudy Gay) to exchange his present assets for future value. We get it. It’s been discussed ad naseum.
So how’s this for a change? Instead of debating the merits and demerits of trading player X for player Y and fantasizing over how bad it would make the Raptors, let’s actually talk about basketball for once?
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The Raptors and 76ers, two purportedly tanking teams played a basketball game last night and in my opinion, it was quite entertaining. The Raptors got off to a scorching hot start in the first thanks in large part to some excellent ball movement (Demar Derozan and Kyle Lowry both racked up five assists apiece in the first). Derozan was confident and aggressive early on, repeatedly driving into the paint, drawing help defenders to him, and then finding the open shooters. Terrence Ross was the main beneficiary as he hit a couple of spot-up corner three’s from the right side of the floor. Lowry and Valanciunas even successfully teamed up to execute a screen-and-roll!
The Sixers did their part to help the Raptors along by being very careless with the ball. They turned it over 6 times in the first quarter which allowed the Raptors to push the tempo and capitalize on some easy transition opportunities (9 transition points in the first quarter).
Late in the first, we got our first glimpse at the scrap heap that we received in the Rudy Gay trade. Patrick Patterson made his first appearance as a Raptor with four minutes left in the first quarter and looked mostly lost on both sides of the floor (which is expected given that he’s only had one practice with the team). He looked slow-footed and provided very little rim-protection. He was unafraid to shoot from mid-range and beyond, but he only hit 1-5 in this game (a layup off a nice dish from Lowry).
Greivis Vasquez (I’m dubbing him Greasy Baskets, let’s see if it sticks) checked in to start the second and he didn’t mess around. Every play he ran was a pick-and-roll with either Jonas or Amir but it was clear that he and his bigs had yet to nail down the timing on the play. Greasy Baskets tried particularly hard to feed Jonas, but Jonas had trouble timing the roll – at times rolling too soon and sometimes lingering too long – which resulted in a slew of turnovers for the Raptors. Once Greasy Baskets realized that his roll-men weren’t up to the task, he decided to score instead. He dropped two very nice floaters in the lane and while he lacks quickness, he was able to create space for himself by subtly changing speeds (slow to less slow, hey it worked).
We also saw the return of Tyler Hansbrough, who had been sidelined since the game against Phoenix due to a separated shoulder. Hansbrough rocked a brace, a new haircut and his usual psychotic expression and proceeded to do what he always does – grab rebounds and draw fouls. He nearly got into a tussle with Evan Turner near the end of the second, but Hansbrough thought better of it and cooler heads prevailed. He looked a little hesitant to bang in the post, but I’m sure he’ll be back to his body bangerz ways when his shoulder is fully healthy. It’s good to have our goon back.
Terrence Ross was also quite impressive. Ross did most of his damage in the first half, scoring 16 points mostly through spotting up in the corners, but Ross took a more self-directed approach in the second half. On numerous occasions, Ross drove into the lane and pulled up for mid-range jumpers, which normally is a bad shot but it was falling for Ross. He finished the game with a season-high 24 points on 16 shots.
The Raptors went into the fourth with a 7 point lead and Dwane Casey, armed with an upgraded bench, was actually able to give most of his starters a breather. Greasy Baskets captained the ship for most of the quarter, generating great looks that the Raptors simply failed to capitalize on. Amir Johnson chipped in with a few baskets, including two drives to the rim.
The Sixers got to within four points of the Raptors, but the Raps hit three three-pointers in a row – two from Baskets, one from Johnson – to secure the victory for good. Dwane Casey gave the fans quite the scare when his misadventures in lineup tinkering allowed the Sixers to get within single-digits of the Raptors (2 point guards, Ross, 2Pat and JV didn’t look so great as a unit), but the he rectified his mistake by putting his starters in to end the game. Amir Johnson recorded a fantastic block on Tony Wroten late in the fourth and on the ensuing possession, Derozan sunk a baseline pull-up jumper to seal the 108-100 victory for the Raptors. Solid all-around win against an inferior squad.
For better or worse, the Raptors roster will be an endless revolving door until the trade deadline. Rudy Gay’s departure has left a surplus of possessions to his former teammates and players like Ross, Derozan and Johnson have really profited. The offense looks significantly different – there is much more passing, less isolation and the Raptors are playing at a higher pace. Soon, Lowry will also be traded and Greasy Baskets will likely become the starting point guard, which will change the offense once more. With every trade, with every shuffle of the deck, this team and it’s play style will look vastly different, and while we’ll always be looking to the future with this team, it’s still worth tuning in every game to see the development of the young core. I know losing gets us close to Wiggins/Randle/Parker, but it’s okay to enjoy the ride in the meantime.