It’s been tough to pin down who the Raptors are this season from game to game. The names on the jerseys and the 5-man lineups that have played together have been under so much flux in the last two weeks that it’s tough to expect anything else. In the last week we’ve seen the Raptors lose in unimpressive fashion to a bad Bobcats team at home, and win against a tough Mavericks team on the road. Your guess is as good as mine as to which Raptors team comes out to play today, but there does seem to be something to quality opponents bringing out better focus and effort on the court. Which is good, because the Raptors can not afford any stretches of undisciplined or uninspired play against the Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook led OKC Thunder.
Some teams take nights off against teams they know they’re better than, which often as not surprises them with an L on the record column. The Thunder are not one of those teams. Their only loss this season to a non-title contender was the second game of the season against a spry Minnesota team without Russell Westbrook. Since the lockout, the Thunder have only lost 12 games against non-playoff teams. Of those 12, 4 of those losses were against teams like the post lockout Kevin Love-Ricky Rubio Timberwolves who would have been playoff teams if not for injuries later on in the season, and another was the last game of the season when the Thunder essentially rested their entire starting lineup. So we’re left with 7 losses in 3 seasons to non-playoff teams. OKC simply does not take nights off.
What I’m getting at here is that this is the Lloyd Christmas “So you’re telling me we’ve got a chance!” part of the breakdown. The result isn’t a foregone conclusion, but if you’re short money for last minute Christmas shopping, putting what money you have on the Raptors moneyline is almost guaranteed to end up leaving you as that broke guy who gives everyone handmade ‘gift certificates.’ Despite what the wisdom of Lloyd Christmas suggests, an IOU is not as good as money.
Having said that, the Thunder are not the juggernaut they were with Harden, or even the one they were with Kevin Martin in that role. The Thunder are divided into two teams. There is Kevin Durant and Jeremy Lamb, who have both been sensational from beyond the 3-point line, and then there is everyone else, who have been sensationally bad from deep. Thabo Sefolosha, Derek Fisher, Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka have gone a combined 72 for 253. That’s 28.4%, which isn’t DJ Augustin bad, but is exactly what DeMar DeRozan shot from beyond the arc last season. Remember your reaction to every single 2012-2013 DeRozan 3 point attempt? That’s how OKC fans feel every time someone not named Durant or Lamb spots-up. OKC is not the 3-point machine they’ve been in the past. The Raptors have let opponents shoot 37% from 3 this season, which has been a product of the occasional zone defense, freelancing for steals on man coverage and a general apathy towards the defensive suggestions poor coach Casey was screaming from the sideline to start the season. The defensive attitude has improved, and the result is a slightly better than average defensive rating. Less Steve Novak has meant less zone defense, and less open jumpers.
Terrence Ross has been starting at small forward. I’ve enjoyed the minutes from Ross, whose stock I’m still buying up. Any minutes on the court help his development, so I’ll take them. But he doesn’t play like a forward on either end of the court, and the Raptors do not play a position-less Miami Heat style. Matchups matter. Terrence Ross can play that spot, but the larger forwards like Durant make it clear that Ross is a guard, not a forward. Having said that, if ‘he can’t guard Kevin Durant’ was an argument against a player’s value, there would only be six players in the league to have a discussion about. Expect Kevin Durant to do whatever kind of Kevin Durant things he wants to.
The good news though: Grievis Vasquez is faster than Derek Fisher! Vasquez not being a defensive liability is exciting, because General Greivis can do some very entertaining things on the offensive end of the court, especially out of the pick-and-roll. Kendrick Perkins and Derek Fisher trying to guard pick and rolls together is every bit as much defensive basketball schadenfreude as Steve Novak. It’s like watching hurricane news coverage of people trying to walk against category 3 winds and rain.
Kendrick Perkins is fascinating. Did he really think that his NBA grump title belt was under fire when he tossed Joakim Noah out of the Thunder change room this week? He sounds exactly like an angry old man yelling from his front porch at those damn neighborhood kids to get off his lawn. You don’t need to defend that title Kendrick; you are the undisputed champion of sour looks, angrily swearing as you storm off to the bench without making eye contact with any teammates and confusing competitiveness with taking absolutely everything too seriously. What is the over-under for Perkins vs. Hansbrough awkward and/or hard fouls followed by intense head shaking and stinkfaces? Both players average 18 minutes a game. If we assume that they’re on the court for half of that time together, that’s 9 minutes. The over/under has to be 9, right?
Finally, my main focus in watching the Raptors through this road trip is on the only player promised to be on next year’s team: Jonas Valanciunas. Watching to see what Jonas Valanciunas shows up and how the Raptors decide to use him remains one of the more interesting storylines from game to game. You can guarantee that one of the Raptor’s first two possessions will always be a Valanciunas post-up. They go to him twice in the first two minutes, and then usually wait until the start of the third quarter to hit him on the block again, regardless of whether his possessions look good or bad. The variance between the effectiveness of Jonas’ post game from night to night is notable. He let’s himself get pushed a few feet out of the low post before he can get the ball, and his fake-pump-fake is a drinking game, not a basketball move. Everybody knows he isn’t taking that shot, so when he bends his knees for the pump fake, then fakes like he’s going to put the ball on the floor, then goes back to the pump fake, and then does nothing (all the while with his defender waiting patiently with complete certainty that he isn’t going to do anything), take a shot. Because you know he isn’t going to. Which is too bad, because Jonas has touch, speed, size and co-ordination near the basket. It’s very easy for him to score there; he just needs to believe that and do it. And then he’ll need the team to give him more than two attempts in a half at it, but baby steps, baby steps.
Finally, your benediction for this Sunday sermon:
Player A per 36 minute career stats:
12pts, 57% FG%, 1.5 assists, 1 steal, 9.4 rebounds, 1.9 blocks
Player B per 36 minute career stats:
13.7 pts, 54% FG%, 0.5 assists, 0.5 steals, 9.9 rebounds, 3.5 blocks
Now consider that Player B has spent his entire career playing with Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and James Harden, while player A has slugged it out with Andrea Bargnani, DeMar DeRozan, Jose Calderon and Kyle Lowry. I’m not trying to besmirch the good names of anyone in that latter list who hasn’t appeared in a string of hilariously bad Primo pasta and sauce commercials, just to say that player B, Serge Ibaka, has had an incredible boost in quality shots, wide open spacing and meaningful experience from playing with 3 different 1st team All NBA quality players. Player B, Amir Johnson, has put up equally impressive numbers while having played more time on the court with Sonny Weems than he ever has with a 1st, 2nd or 3rd All NBA quality player. That matters. The lesson here, as always, is that Amir Johnson is really good, and we should all appreciate him. Now go forth, and enjoy the game.