I went back and forth a number of times about how I should write this recap. On one hand, it’s well known what I feel the best course of action for the Raptors is. On the other hand, the Raptors beat one of the best teams in the league and the team is playing the best basketball since Chris Bosh wore the Raptor name across his chest.
In the end, I decided the recap should match this dichotomy.
I know there are many Raptor fans who enjoyed seeing the Raptors beat the Pacers last night and want nothing more than to bathe in the glory of it a little longer. When the team has had the history, both recent and long term, that the Raptors have had, it’s natural to look at this short term success as the best thing for the franchise.
A man dying of thirst in the desert will be thankful for any drop of water he gets. Even if that water is dirty and stale.
And in a desert, there are mirages and there are truths. Just like in the game against the Pacers and the last twelve games.
If there’s one thing that Dwane Casey is known for it’s his defense. He was supposed to be the brains behind the defense when the Dallas Mavericks won their lone Championship and he brought that same mentality to the Raptors when he came to Toronto.
Defense relies on three things. The first is a good strategy. Casey may not be the best head coach around, but he understands defense. And he understands how to build a good, solid defense.
The second thing is the right talent. Andrea Bargnani being traded away did more to help the defense than any strategy. But even without Bargnani, the Raptors defense wouldn’t be where it is without three players. Kyle Lowry, Amir Johnson and Jonas Valanciunas. Lowry still gambles a little too much and still needs to be more consistent, but Matt Devlin and Jack Armstrong zeroed in on what Lowry does really well. He takes charges.
While I’m still not convinced Lowry has what it takes run the offense on a contender, his ability and willingness to take charges sets the tone for the Raptors’ entire defense. And last night he made one of the biggest plays of the night when he took the charge that knocked Roy Hibbert out of the game (see the above screenshot).
Of course, no matter what Lowry does, without the interior defense of Amir and Valanciunas. The “Doctor of Denial” is the best interior defender the Raptors have had since Antonio Davis roamed the baseline. He doesn’t have Davis’ strength, but he’s got grit, desire and very good defensive instincts. And he ended up taking a couple of charges himself that changed the course of the game.
Valanciunas still has a lot to learn defensively, still makes a lot of mistakes and gives up deep post position far too much, but the Raptors are a better team when he’s on the floor. He doesn’t have the defensive instincts or potential to make you think he’ll ever be in the running for any Defensive Player of the Year award, but he’s decent now and he’ll only get better.
Speaking of Valanciunas, it’s been great to see the development of the 21 year old Lithuanian since Rudy Gay left for Sacramento. Before Gay was traded, Valanciunas looked to be struggling with the sophomore jinx. He was shooting closer to 40% than 50% and his minutes were few and sporadic. Since the trade, he’s shown more of what we saw from him at the end of last season.
In the last 10 games, Valanciunas is averaging 13.1 ppg on .526 shooting and 10.4 rpg. And against one of the best defensive centers/centres in the league, Valanciunas held his own and then some. He scored most of his points on Hibbert and defended him fairly well.
The future is bright for Valanciunas and while it’s important not to get expectations too high, it’s good to see Valanciunas’ development back on track.
Through the first month and a half, Ross looked like a guy who might not have an NBA job at the end of his contract, let alone being a decent NBA player. When Gay was traded, Ross stepped into the starting lineup and never looked back. As a starter, he’s averaging 14 ppg, while shooting .468 from three.
He’s also handled the toughest wing defenders and done an admirable job. He’s not shown much in the rebounding or passing department, but a 3-and-D wing player is always useful.
DeRozan was hot right after the Gay trade and shooting the lights out, including from three. But he simply wasn’t good enough to think he’d sustain that pace. And he didn’t. In the last ten games, DeRozan has struggled scoring, shooting less than 40% from the field and his range from three has wavered. He’s now just shooting .307 from beyond the arc for the season. Against the Pacers, he went 9 for 24, in a Rudy Gay-like showing, and while he ended up scoring 26 points on the night, it was not an efficient 26 points.
And DeRozan’s defense has continued to be subpar, for the most part. He loses his man too much and doesn’t sustain his defensive effort enough. Mostly, though, he just doesn’t have the defensive instincts to suggest he’ll be anything close to the defensive player many Raptor fans hope.
On the plus side, DeRozan is passing and rebounding the ball better, but he’s not a good enough decision maker to make you want the ball in his hands a lot. I stand by my assertion I made earlier in the season that the Raptors would be better of trading DeRozan while his stock is as high as it is. Even if the goal isn’t to tank.
NINE AND THREE
After 30 games into the season, the Raptors have valiantly fought through a losing record for the first month and a half to reach .500. For those unclear, that’s smack dab in the middle of mediocrity.
Of course, they haven’t been playing .500 ball lately. They’re 9-3 in their last twelve, which would put them on pace for 61 wins over the course of a season. But this isn’t a 61 win team. This isn’t even a 51 win team, most likely. It wouldn’t even be a question if the East wasn’t as horrible as it is.
While they are playing .750 ball, that’s not going to last. They’re just not that good. In the past two weeks they’ve beat Oklahoma, Dallas and Indiana, and the players should be commended for playing as well as they have. But all teams go through streaks.
Back in 2010, the Raptors went 24-11 over 35 games from December 4th to February 20th. Keep in mind, this was the year that Hedo Turkoglu was a Raptor and it was also Chris Bosh’s last season. Even if Bosh had not gotten hurt, does anyone think that team would have been a playoff contender? Ever?
When your best player is Chris Bosh and your second best player is Hedo Turkoglu, it’s really hard to argue that even if the Raptors had remained healthy and made the playoffs, and then convinced Bosh to stay, that that team was not built to contend. It was built to compete. And for a lot of fans, that would be fine. For a lot of fans, they just want to enjoy each win as it comes and not worry about the big picture.
When you’re a fan of a bad team, it’s almost necessary to just take each game as they come and enjoy each win, not thinking about the big picture because, in the back of their mind, they know they don’t come around often.
It’s ironic that the Raptors beat the Pacers to get to .500, because so many Raptor fans point to the Pacers as the blueprint the Raptors should follow. The problem, of course, is that the Raptors lack the one player that makes the Pacers into the elite team they are and not a good team that simply doesn’t have the talent to be anything more.
They don’t have a Paul George.
And yes, George was taken 10th in the 2010 draft, proving that you can find elite talent anywhere, but go back and look at what other players were taken 10th over the years and who was available. The pickings are VERY slim if you’re looking for anything other than a decent player.
Besides, with the course the Raptors are currently on, a 10th pick is going to be as likely as a 3rd pick. If they make the playoffs, and continue to do so year after year, then even drafting in the top ten is out.
This recent streak of good play may be great for the short term, but it just makes the bigger picture that much fuzzier.