Common themes are emerging whenever the Raptors lose. The predictors of recent Raptors defeats against opposition of dubious quality have been easy to spot, and the good news is that they are correctable. Emotions for those of us actually rooting for this team can turn quite intense when opportunities, seemingly there for the taking, against the C**tics, Lakers, and Bobcats slip away, but the fact that this observer is feeling any kind of emotion is a sign of progress in itself. After years of numbness the pain felt in these old bones is a signal that I do care.
William’s already provided a concise summary of events so allow me to take a step back and examine the broader triggers for these distasteful setbacks.
Underestimating the Opponent
There is only one reason why one NBA team would be down to another by 30 points and it has nothing to do with talent, ability, or payroll. It’s that they weren’t ready to play. This is perhaps the more disappointing aspect of these three losses, that the Raptors thought themselves to be in a position that they could get away without putting in an honest shift. Anyone can beat anyone, and the Raptors have trotted out to tip-off with something that isn’t confidence but neglect in preparation.
At the halftime of the Minnesota game, Rod Black asked Dwane Casey about “how it felt to be the hunted”, to which Casey shook his head and promptly kneed Black in the groin…um…I mean…quickly corrected Black by saying that “we haven’t done anything yet” and that any such talk is premature, hallucinatory, and most of all, wrong. Similar comments have been heard from DeMar DeRozan as well, for example when he remarked that “we’re not a joke” on ESPN. Although that one contains far less hubris that Black’s, why the topic of Raptors accomplishments is even coming up is to be questioned. The recent successes have somewhat gone to the head and as much as you love to see the team believe in themselves, I fear the Raptors are overrating their own ability and thinking that the game is in the bag before tip-off. We need to embrace the role of underdog and not have any delusions of being a franchise that has done anything but zilch.
Jumpers and Missed FTs
Kyle Lowry’s missed free-throw which would’ve tied the game with 24 seconds left was crushing and the lasting memory of this game, but far more pertinent is that that was the Raptors lone free throw of the fourth quarter. Against the Lakers, when needing scores late the Raptors abandoned their drive and settled for the first springer on offer. The fourth quarter free throw total in that game? 1-3. Against the C**tics, much like against the Bobcats, a big early deficit needed to be trimmed and when the team was close to doing so, the stripe haunted them in the fourth: 5-9 FTs.
Whether their reluctance to drive is born out of a growing love of the jumper (ahem, DeRozan) or fear that the zebras will swallow the whistle, I do not know. What is apparent, and it is crystal clear this, is that the Raptors are not putting enough pressure on the defense in half-court sets as they used to when they beat teams. DeRozan, their primary means of getting to the line and stopping the clock, has adopted an approach where he’s rather peel off screens and take jumpers rather than use those same screens to create seams which get him to the rim, and further to the stripe.
Depreciating Big Man Defense
Amir Johnson has been, more or less, non-existent the last week. Johnson has been averaging just 4.7 rebounds in these three losses and when trying to pinpoint why that is the case, you can throw out intangible factors such as effort or preparation out. He is the consummate professional who has played hard even when there’s nothing to play for. My theory on his dip is that:
- He’s not 100% – the ankle sprain he suffered in Boston is bugging him, affecting his jumping ability on the boards and his lateral movement in help situations.
- The 29.8 minutes he’s averaging is a career-high and once again he’s been asked to fight above his punching weight at center far too often. The deeper issue is of the Raptors depth at center, the immediate is sparing Johnson some punishment. When you saw him unable to bend down to reach for a Vasquez pass on the pick ‘n roll, you knew something was up.
- He’s a guy who needs to be involved in the offense to be at his best on defense, and in these three losses he’s 2-4, 6-13, and 1-4. More concerning is that the Raptors aren’t running as much action through him as they were before, and he ends up finding himself with the ball in long-two positions instead of closer to the rim where his strengths lie.
I’m hesitant to call Jonas Valanciunas’s performances a sophomore slump. In my view, he’s simply being overwhelmed by the variety of players he has to face every night and the unique challenges they present. From Al Jefferson’s center of gravity-enabled strength to Pau Gasol’s languid but deadly arsenal to Roy Hibbert’s imposing presence, Valanciunas is simply too young and too inexperienced to handle these sorts of challenges without going through some valleys.
His struggles are a signal, what’s crucial is what Dwane Casey’s response will be. His minutes can’t be tuned because the next center the Raptors have on the depth chart is Austin Daye, and he’s barely an NBA player let alone a backup center. He also remains the Raptors only post-up threat, which speaks to both the scarcity of post-up skill on the team and the dearth of centers available. The natural remedy for Valanciunas is simply experience, only that will teach him not to fall for Jefferson’s fakes when his shoulder’s turned away from the rim.
Many have noticed that he’s looked a bit stiff of late, his vertical is non-existent and his knees don’t appear to bend. He finds himself tip-toeing to get rebounds rather than jumping and grabbing them, but I’m not going to dwell too much on that. Much like Amir, he needs timely breathers since his usage-jump stemming from the trade, and the current center situation doesn’t afford him that.
DeMar DeRozan’s inner Rudy Gay
Every NBA player has a little Rudy Gay inside of him. The one that begs him to be the hero instead of deferring to the team. The one that needs to be fed lest he devour you at night. The one that wants the limelight, the All-Star votes, the recognition, the glory, the one that needs to be ‘The Man’, needs to justify the contract, needs to be in the headlines, needs to be the saviour. Sadly for DeRozan’s inner Rudy Gay, this team does not need saviours, it needs soldiers who stand in unison under the standard of team play.
DeRozan’s role in the fourth quarter – when the game slows down, the value of possessions increase, the defense sets in – is not to play into enemy hands by taking low-percentage, out-of-context shots but to pressure the defense enough that the FTAs go up along with clean looks for Ross and the ilk. DeRozan’s skill is increasing but he’s not at the level where he can single-handedly carry a team in the fourth quarter ala Kobe Bryant, Kevin Durant or LeBron James. DeRozan is the knife on the bayonet, not the bayonet.
The absence of Tyler Hansbrough who has missed nine-straight games due to an ankle injury cannot be understated. He brings a measure of brute force and physicality to the frontline that none of the other bigs provide. The extra possessions he generates and the contagious energy he produces is sorely missed, with their absence accentuated whenever Valanciunas and Johnson struggle.
Surprisingly, I found myself searching for John Salmons against the Lakers when Nick Young was going off, and also last night when the Bobcats were pressuring. Injuries aren’t an excuse as relatively speaking, the Raptors have been lucky this season so I’m merely mentioning this for completeness.
I’m not buying the ‘regression to the mean’ theory here because these are teams the Raptors should have beaten pre-trade as well. The games have ended up being competitive and the differences between winning and losing are identifiable and correctable. The Raptors end up going 4-3 on a stretch I had expected them to go 6-1 on, which is disappointing after the promising 3-0 start. Up next is a chance to regroup against the Mavericks at home where a win would reaffirm some lost faith.