Last night’s game was a perfect example of where the Raptors stand in the Eastern Conference. Amir Johnson was out, Valanciunas struggled all game, the team had one of their worst first quarters of the season on both ends of the floor and they shot 4 for 17 from 3 in the first half. And yet they somehow had a 1-point lead at halftime and cruised to an eventual 21-point blowout. This didn’t happen against the Milwaukee Bucks, but rather against the 5th place team in the East, sitting just two games behind them in the standings. But the blowout outcome felt very much like it was exactly what should have happened. Miami and Indiana are a clear tier above the rest of the East. But after them there is a second tier of teams, of which the Raptors are the lead with Brooklyn and Washington when they’re on, who are on another level above the remains of the East.

This is why there seems like there is so much negativity and complaining around a Raptors team that’s in 3rd place. The pushback from ecstatic fans who feel like every win should be a celebration is understandable. This fan-base hasn’t had much to get excited about in the last five years, and they’re lying if they tell you they thought they were going to get it this year coming in to the season. But 52 games in to the season, the Raptors aren’t a surprising fluke anymore. The pre-conceived notions and weighted prediction of the pre-season should be gone at this point. The Raptors aren’t just the 3rd place team in the East; they’re actually the third best team in the East. They should be blowing out an Atlanta Hawks team that’s lost Al Horford for the season and playing in the second night of a road back to back. This team is good enough that they shouldn’t be losing to an Eastern conference opponent outside of the Pacers, Heat, Nets or Wizards. It’s not being a hater; it’s holding the team to a higher standard. Because the 2013-2014 Toronto Raptors aren’t overachieving: they’re actually good. That’s what this win over the Hawks made clear to me.

Takeaways from Last Night:

1. Jonas Valanciunas looked lost for much of last night’s game. Engagement and confidence are night to night variables that have a huge affect on JV’s game. He had a couple of good looks early on at good shots that just didn’t drop. Who knows, maybe if those go in his night looks completely different. Confidence and comfort are a completely different issue for a developing 21-year old than they are for more seasoned players, and that’s fair. Valanciunas stayed active on the boards in this game, and used his size to quietly stack up 14 rebounds in just 23 minutes on the court. That’s no small feat. But what’s worrisome from last night’s game isn’t his shooting on offence, which will settle down over a broader sample size, but rather his off ball engagement. I’ve made jokes since the beginning of last season about how poor Valanciunas looked like Charlie Brown trying to kick the football while Lucy holds it every time he set a high screen and rolled to the basket. For all of his enthusiasm and effort in popping up high, sealing off the man and rolling to the basket with anticipation, he’s rarely seen a pass his way to take to the basket. Playing in the pick’n'roll is fun for a big man, but playing in the pick’n'run, much less so. It’s a lot of work for a seven footer to run all the way up and down both sides of the court, battle and then run up to the perimeter, set a screen and then work back down. The Raptors perimeter players as a group do not make good use of their bigs as partners (and Rudy Gay was the worst example of this before the trade). The result isn’t good. The enthusiasm that Valanciunas used to pop out to the perimeter with to set screens is gone. He knows that he isn’t going to get the ball while rolling o the rim, so he doesn’t really even try. Gustavo Ayon never even followed him out past the free throw line, knowing it wasn’t a threat. Worse still, Valanciunas has gotten lazy with his picks, and the Hawks wing defenders easily fought over or around his screen in most cases before the ball handler could make any kind of separation.
Yes, this falls on Valanciunas. There is no excuse for being lazy and even if you’re not playing the role you’d like to in a lazily schemed and executed offence, you’re getting paid $3.5 million dollars to stay engaged. Stay engaged. Having said that, any good point guard at any level of play knows the importance of keeping their big men involved on the offensive end. Lowry makes a clear effort to get the ball inside for a couple of JV post-ups in the first half of every game, but the team needs to find a way to involve Valanciunas more actively in order to get a full effort out of him and continue to develop his offensive confidence.

2. This was the perfect DeMar DeRozan game for me to head in to the all-star break. This was the most recent example of an increasingly common trend where the Raptors offence looks stagnant and blasé in the first half, only for DeMar to take over and score 20+ points in a much better second half. Kyle Lowry has been tremendous in his role, but he isn’t a Chris Paul or Steve Nash type who create an entire team’s offence on their own. The coaching on the offensive side of the ball has not done much to scheme an offensive system that creates good shots. That mantle falls to DeMar, who is relied on to score in isolation and create defensive breakdowns, free-throw opportunities, shots and offensive rebound opportunities by driving to the basket. DeMar has by and large delivered on that request this season, especially in the last month, where he is living at the free throw line. DeMar spoke post-game about knowing the adjustment that the team needed to make at halftime; him. DeMar is the catalyst for offence on this team. That doesn’t mean DeMar piling up long distance jumpers, it means using his ability to create an offensive opportunity by slashing to the basket and exploiting his athletic and size advantage over someone like Lou Williams. DeMar has done that, and he now looks comfortable when the team’s offence rests on his shoulders, when even just a year ago that crown looked to weigh too heavy on him when put there.

3. All of the Raptor’s perimeter players got themselves out of place on defence time and time again last night. Lowry has a bad habit of gambling for turnovers and sliding off of his man. While it pays off more for him than it does anybody else, the habit has problematically spread. It’s not uncommon for DeMar to lose track of his man from time to time on defence, but you simply can’t do that when your man shoots 46% from 3. You can’t lose Kyle Korver, and the Raptors are lucky that the Hawks didn’t find him for more shots. Dwayne Casey used his vaudeville cane to yank Terrence Ross off the court on two separate occasions last night after losing track of his man resulted in several back door cut baskets. Watching Casey’s frustration at this kind of routine breakdown has given me a genuine fear that he’s going to give himself an aneurysm at some point. His frustration is understandable though. When Vasquez or Steve Novak get pulled out of place or blown by on defence, it’s annoying, but not unforeseen. But with the Lowry-DeRozan-Ross trio, there is no excuse. Those three are athletic and long enough to guard any perimeter player in the league (Durant and Lebron notwithstanding). When they get beat or caught out of place, such as they did repeatedly in the first half of last game, it wasn’t the result of getting broken down by a San Antonio like offensive system. It was simply the result of being physically lazy and not moving their feet, or being mentally lazy, and challenging off of their man when the coverage didn’t call for it or just simply losing track of their cover. It’s bad defence, and if for no other reason than to save poor Coach Casey from a brain aneurysm, it needs to stop.

4. General Grevious’ ability to come off the bench and quickly establish an actual, functioning offence is a big boost for the Raptors. The Raptors were pitiful in the first quarter against one of the league’s worst defences. Vasquez subbed in and proceeded to easily break down the Hawks defence on 3 consecutive possessions. A bench full of functioning role players has been a huge boon.

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