At halftime, the Toronto Raptors had surrendered 50 points on 46 possessions to the Milwaukee Bucks and had let an excellent first quarter run stall. They entered half up 58-50, a relatively comfortable lead given the opponent but one that, by all rights, could have been larger.
What we saw in the third quarter is something that the team has flashed pretty consistently of late, with the obvious exceptions in Miami and Indiana – they showed off what National Post writer and perm-enthusiast Eric Koreen called “the extra gear.” But Koreen is a jabroni and the term is somewhat cliché, though it’s a very apt descriptor.
Because I’m a mature, well-adjusted adult, I like to think of “the extra gear” as a de facto finishing move. Stone Cold Steve Austin’s Stunner. Shawn Michaels’ Sweet Chin Music. Mitsuhara Misawa’s Roaring Elbow. Petey Williams’ Canadian Destroyer. They don’t always end the contest definitively, but it’s going to take a heck of an opponent to kick out and keep fighting.
The Toronto Raptors are flashing an ability to put a game away with a foot-on-their-throat run when the game seems to be getting a little too competitive.
The photoshop in the main image gives you an idea of what that looked like on Monday, when the Raptors unleashed a 27-15 run (with a 10-3 run contained within). But it’s also something the team did in the fourth quarter against the Brooklyn Nets on Saturday (a 13-1 run).
Likewise, on Wednesday against Detroit they played a ho-hum first half but decided there would be no more near-falls, going on a 24-13 third quarter run.
In each of these instances, there was little looking back. The Raptors felt the game reaching a tipping point and seized the opportunity to take control. This is something good teams do.
(It’s worth noting here that one of the reasons metrics like Basketball Reference’s Simple Rating, ESPN’s Hollinger Rankings and ESPN’s Playoff Odds all love the Raptors right now is because point differential matters; with a large enough sample, margin of victory becomes an even better predictor of future success than a team’s record. It’s not enough to win, you have to beat the hell out of the teams you’re supposed to beat the hell out of. I learned that in Mighty Ducks, too. No 1-2-3 Kid stuff for the holders of the NBA Championship Belt.)
I’m being light here, but blow-outs actually are a mark of good teams.
Since the trade of Rudy Gay, the Raptors are now 13-5. In that span, they’ve won 14 quarters by double digits and 27 by five points are more (keep in mind winning each quarter by five points, while it seems small, would get you a 20-point win). Some of that is noise, but consider that they’ve only lost eight quarters by double digits and 19 by five points or more (four of the latter coming from Indiana and Miami). In 18 games before the trade, they won just eight quarters by double figures and 19 by five points.
|Qtr +5||Qtr +10||Qtr -5||Qtr -10|
That’s a lot of numbers, but let me summate with another wrestling-ism – the Raptors are winning squash matches now. That’s not just important for the math-geek metrics, but winning handedly also allows you to play your key players less, keep your reserves in game-shape and work on things a tight game may not allow for.
Coming out of halftime on Monday, the Raptors clamped down on defense and got back to the ball movement that they’ve been so successful with. The Bucks scored just 44 points on 48 possessions and finished the game with a point a possession, a little better than their normal production but right in line with Toronto’s surprising top-six defense.
Some of that was the Bucks cooling down from long range, but the Raptors also did a far better job chasing shooters off the arc, limiting their long-range looks. They got more aggressive on the ball and caused the offense to get sticky and, while they didn’t do a great job taking care of their own boards, they really got after it on the offensive glass.
Offensively, the span from the start of the second half until 4:14 when human victory cigars Landry Fields and Steve Novak entered the game (and later, when human dick-swing Austin Daye checked in), the Raptors had 11 assists on 19 makes, only 15 of which weren’t second-chance buckets.
For the game as a whole, the Raptors did two things very well that some may consider “analytic” but are really just elements of smart basketball – they were aggressive driving to the rim and they spaced the floor with threes.
These things aren’t unrelated – it’s hardly a coincidence that the emergence of Terrence Ross and Patrick Patterson as willing 3-point threats (and a hot shooting streak from Kyle Lowry) have coincided with an up-tick in assists and free throw attempts for DeMar DeRozan. Patterson’s pick-and-pop game helps, too.
When a defense has to hang out in the corner, it limits the ability of a weak-side defender to help in the paint. When they have to stay on a wing shooter, cheating to help on a pick-and-roll is a less palatable option. If there’s a threat of the screener popping out for a high-elbow jumper, the defense has to switch and risk a mismatch or be less aggressive on the ballhandler.
Check out these screen shots of two of the plays on which DeRozan had assists on Monday (he had seven by the way, and is now averaging 4.6 a game since the Gay trade, well above his career rate of 1.9, his 2.5 average from last year and his pre-trade mark of 2.7):
Rather, teams can sag off those guys, but they’ll pay the price. Now have a look at one of DeRozan’s trips to the line:
The big stays on Amir Johnson off the screen; Lowry’s man eventually trails off of him but only once a DeRozan pass would be difficult, and he’s too late to effectively disrupt the drive; Larry Sanders has to stay within a stride or two of Patrick Patterson on the baseline and provides weak help, fouling DeRozan in the process.
Those are isolated plays but their good examples of how the pieces are working together to be greater than the sum of the parts (“synergy,” yo).
Of course, the individual parts are just playing better, too. Kyle Lowry is back to being Kyle Lowry Over Everything (KLOE) and he somehow scored 23 points while only taking eight field goal attempts. As usual, he was also great defensively and now has a comfortable cushion for the league lead in charges drawn (don’t quote me, but I believe he has 23, while Shane Battier is in second with 16 or 17). I’ve said it a dozen times this year, but nobody wants to win as much as this guy and it blows my mind it’s taken this long for him and a coach to trust each other enough to get the most out of his talents. A year and a half later, I’m still loving Kyle Lowry.
I touched on Ross, Patterson and DeRozan, but Jonas Valanciunas deserves kudos, too. Going up against one of the league’s premiere interior defenders (and a puppy-hating jerk-face), Valanciunas looked the part. He went 5-of-10 for 17 points, drew several foul calls and had a game-high 10 rebounds. The turnovers are still a necessary growing pain, and his pump-fake is painful (but somehow works occasionally), but progress is very clearly being made.
From here, the Raptors visit the Boston Celtics, proud owners of a nine-game losing streak. In a master stroke of luck, the Raptors also appear to be narrowly missing the return of Rajon Rondo.
Rondo’s 29,233,380 seconds tweet = 338 days = time between Feb 13 surgery and this Friday.
— Blake Murphy (@BlakeMurphyODC) January 14, 2014
That’s an extremely winnable game, and the schedule takes a moderately more difficult turn after that. Minnesota visits, the banged-up Lakers come to town, the Raps visit the always-give-them-trouble Bobcats, and then there’s the Jose Calderon return. That looked like a 1-3 stretch a month ago; now some will be disappointed with 3-1.