cover

The Raptors might actually be a good team.

I struggled a little bit with the direction of this recap, only it wasn’t the usual grind of finding an angle or forcing a storyline, I was legitimately too excited to pick just one.

Do I just do a straight recap of the game? Do I post their numbers and show you the shot chart? Perhaps I should break down the video and detail why the Raptors were so successful? Do I discuss why this win means nothing and why the Raptors should tank? (kidding, I’ve always been anti-tank) Or maybe I should just gush about how good this team looked last night? I really couldn’t decide.

So eff it, let’s just do all three.

Game Recap

Had the playoffs started last night, this would have been the 4-5 match-up in the Eastern Conference. Yes, that’s right – the 15-15 Raptors vs the 14-15 Wizards would have battled it out for the right to get trampled by the Indiana Pacers. That’s how bad the Eastern conference is right now.

Like many others, I dreaded this game because it had all the makings of a trap game. The team was coming off such an emotionally and physically draining win over the Indiana Pacers — would they bring that same intensity against a lesser foe? Would the relentless schedule — third game in four nights — finally get to them? Derozan looked exhausted in the Pacers game; how could he possibly chase Beal around screens all night? I thought at the very least the Raptors would come out sluggish and play catch-up in the fourth (as they’ve become so adept at doing).

[check out Sam Holako's player grades]

Instead, the Raptors came out of the gate on fire and the offense was clicking thanks to Kyle Lowry. Let me just spoil the surprise — the Raptors generated 10 assists on 11 made field goals en route to a 26-17 lead after one thanks in large part to Lowry’s passing. KLOE had 6 points and 5 assists in the quarter — hitting Derozan on a cut across the paint, setting up a Derozan spot-up jumper, finding Ross on a pin-down, twice running P&R with Amir — and hit two three’s from the wing. He got himself into a bit of foul trouble and had to sit until midway through the second, but he had a hand in just about every play for the Raptors in the first.

The Raptors bench came in and coughed up a bit of the lead. With Lowry sitting out due to foul trouble, Greivis Vasquez was saddled with the task of staying in front of John Wall which went as well as you’d expect. Vasquez has the lateral quickness of a giraffe on skis and Wall torched him, especially in transition. With Tyler Hansbrough out, we caught our first glimpse of Chuck Hayes in a Raptors uniform and he was immediately tasked with guarding Eric Koreen Nene, which produced mixed results. Nene had the advantage in quickness, size and athleticism which allowed him to score 8 points in the quarter, but Hayes did pull out some veteran moves on the Brazilian– pulling the chair on one occasion in the third — and generally held his ground. His abilities and contributions are nowhere near $5-6 million per year (which is what he’s owed), but he’s still a very serviceable insurance big.

In fact the Wizards probably would have taken the lead in the second had it not been for one Patrick Patterson. I’ve chided the man in my previous recaps because quite frankly he just wasn’t very good, but he was fantastic against the Wizards. He went 8/10 in the game and 8 of his attempts were jumpers from outside the paint. He didn’t take any crazy Steph Curry transition 35-footers, he just simply took what the Wizards gave him. He provided a late shot-clock option either at the top of the key or outside the arc. Lowry hit a three late in the quarter to give the Raptors the 48-45 lead going into the half.

And then the Raptors simply went off in the third. They outscored the Wizards 36-16. They had the Wizards on some “bury all the pictures and tell the kids that I’m okay” stuff.

Ross hit four three-pointers, including three from the same spot in the right corner. Patterson kept hitting jumpers like he was a beefy version of Dirk (5 for 5 in the third). Lowry racked up 4 assists and Derozan drew double-teams in the post. They defended well, playing excellent help defense at a proficiency not seen since the pre-Bargnani days. They held Wall to 0-4 shooting. Jonas jammed a two-hander on Marcin Gortat. Ross blocked the shit out of Wall. It was marvelous.

And honestly, the Raptors played so well in the third that I basically tuned out of the game. The boxscore says the Wizards won the fourth by a margin of 27-17, but it really didn’t matter — the lead was never in doubt. Lowry sliced through the Wizards’ defense for layups on back-to-back possessions late in the fourth to put the nail in coffin, but really it was game, set and match way back in the third. The Raptors routed the Wizards — the tanking-inspired Wiz with their three fancy top-six picks (Wall, Beal and Vesely) — and the fans knew it. There weren’t that many in attendance (it was really cold out) but the boos were loud. It was that kind of game.

Notable Numbers and a Shot Chart

  • 32.3% – The Raptors limited John Wall and Bradley Beal (#1 and #3 picks respectively) to a combined 10/31 shooting. This Wizards team only goes as far as those two will take them and they carried them to the locker room amid boo’s from the crowd last night. Lowry did a great job covering Wall, denying penetration and forcing him into shooting jumpers. Beal got a lot of open looks and didn’t sink them because his jumper was uncharacteristically off last night, but you need to make the open one’s like…
  • 80% – …Patrick Patterson, who hit 8 of his 10 field goal attempts. When his jumper is falling, he’s a perfect third-big. He rebounds, he can defend and he knows where to pop-out to get open looks.
  • 5.5 — Lowry’s assist to turnover ratio tonight (11:2). Lowry’s careful handling of the ball has really gone unnoticed during his fantastic career year. Not including tonight’s game, he’s 5th in the NBA amongst PG’s in assist to turnover ratio at 3.33. Lowry has cut his turnover% (percentage of possessions resulting in a turnover) from 17.7% to 14.0% from last season.
  • 29 – Number of minutes played by Valanciunas tonight. He really struggled against Marcin Gortat in the first and never really found his groove. He was also whistled for a bogus tech-foul by Joey Crawford. Speaking of which…
  • 1 – Number of ejections from tonight’s game issued by Joey Crawford because of course. From me and every other fan in the world: please quit. You’re a clown.
  • 3 – with 7 rebounds collected tonight, Amir Johnson has moved into a tie for third most rebounds in Raptors franchise history with…Andrea Bargnani? Yeah no offense but our franchise kinda sucks, but hey, a very sincere congratulations to Amir for the feat. I hope he shatters Chris Bosh’s franchise record of 4776 rebounds. He’s only…2681 rebounds shy. Go Amir!
  • You see that right corner? That’s all Terrence Ross. Dude’s balling right now.
shot chart

Breaking it Down: The Raptors’ Three Core Plays

Alright I’m already at nearly 1200 words so I’ll try to keep this brief. The Raptors offense posted an offensive rating of 115.1 last night, which translates to 115 points per 100 possessions which is better than Portland’s seasonal average, so needless to say, a lot was working. Here are three plays in particular that caught my eye.

1. Pin-downs for Ross

The Raptors have run this play for Ross and Derozan a lot of late, and it’s really basic stuff. Lowry brings the ball up the ball up the court, dumps it to Valanciunas, and cuts around Patterson. Jonas tosses it back to Patterson.

RossPinDown1

At this point, the Raptors have a couple of options. Valanciunas could set a screen for Ross, who can flash to the break, get the pass and hit a three. Patterson could also swing it down to Salmons, and they can run a side pick-and-roll. Instead, Lowry cuts back to the ball while Ross cuts towards the weakside.

RossPinDown2

From here, Lowry dribbles a bit towards the middle and Patterson goes to set the down-screen. Nene is too focused on Patterson and doesn’t notice that Ross’s defender is about to get picked and fails to step up.

RossPinDown3

Ross curls around Patterson, is wide-open, Lowry hits Ross with the pass on the money, Nene is too slow to close out, and Ross sticks the jumper. Easy-peasy, lemon-squeeze-y (PSA: Community is back! #6SeasonsandaMovie)

2. Lowry/Amir Pick-and-Roll

Again, nothing complicated (Dwane Casey is known as a defensive head coach for a reason). This isn’t elevator doors or the Blazers’ crazy circle the globe play. It’s just a nice and simple pick-and-roll between two very experienced players. Play starts with Amir setting a ball-screen for Lowry.

AmirPR1

Johnson’s excellent screen affords Lowry some separation, thus forcing Nene to cut off Lowry’s path t0 the basket. However, Nene takes the wrong path — he steps up towards Lowry rather than simply sliding over on the same plane — which allows Lowry to beat him to the spot. Beal’s already out of the equation at this point. Seeing this, Amir alertly rolls to the basket.

AmirPR2

Amir gets the pass from Lowry in-stride and the Wizards are stuck guarding a 2-on-1. Gortat has to guard both Jonas and Amir, but he’s too slow to react anyway. Amir drives right to the hoop and gets the easy lay-in. Notice that even if Amir missed the shot, Jonas was in excellent offensive rebounding position.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_detailpage&v=0lgdyUQl3Ao#t=26

3. Patterson as the Release Valve

This last one is my favorite. A lot of Patteron’s shots early in the game weren’t really designed with him in mind, but since he was on fire, the Raptors specifically ran one for 2Pat. Play starts off real simple. Hayes sets a high ball screen for Lowry and then rolls to the middle of the court. The Wizards are clearly want to be aggressive and trap Lowry, but Hayes’ defender doesn’t really cut off the over-the-top pass to Hayes, who rolls to the center of the court.

PatPop1

Once he catches the ball, Hayes takes a dribble to get into the lane and the Wizards are once again facing an odd-man advantage. The Wizards have three defenders guarding both wing players, Hayes and Patterson along the baseline. Everyone except Hayes can shoot, but Hayes will be at the rim in no time. At this point Hayes has a whole bunch of options. He could kick it to Salmons for a spot up three. Same goes for Ross, who is inexplicably wide open. It’s not like he’s sunk three triples from that very spot during this quarter or anything.

PatPop2

Instead, Hayes draws Nene to the paint and kicks it out to a wide-open Patrick Patterson, who wisely stayed a fair distance away from the rim so that Nene couldn’t recover in time. 2Pat drills the baseline jumper and I swoon a tiny bit. After all, this was an out-of-timeout play for Dwane Casey that actually worked to perfection. Imagine that?

Parting Shots

I’ve already gone on for over 1800 words so I won’t keep you for much longer. The Raptors went into Washington — a place they’ve struggled in the past — and beat the Wizards in convincing fashion. They shut down their two primary options on offense and exploited their porous defense. The starters looked great (aside from Jonas but the dude’s probably just exhausted) and Patrick Patterson stepped up to give the Raptors some production off the bench. What impresses me most is that the victory was never in doubt — even when the Wizards stormed back to tie it at the end of the first half, I was very confident that the Raptors were the better team, and that they’d pull out the victory. Lo and behold, the Raptors came out in the third and put the game out of reach. I had been so used to seeing this story before — better team toys with lesser competition for a half before turning it on in the third — but the Raptors were always that lesser team. Now, at least against middling teams like Washington, the script has been flipped and it’s damn fun to watch. Thanks for reading everyone, I apologize for the absurd length of the post but I know you’ll forgive me for getting excited over this team as I’m sure you are too.