Following Sunday’s huge statement win versus Golden State the Raptors enter an uncharacteristic four-day break which also marks the final seven weeks of the regular season. With several players nursing injuries varying from twisted ankles to sore knees, and I’m sure a number of undisclosed ailments, this break is a welcome gift.
On the other hand, Toronto has been on a tear of late winning 7 of their last 10. Consider that those three losses came against the red hot Clippers, a 2-point loss to Chicago (the NBA’s second best defensive unit), and a triple overtime loss to Washington. Toronto could just as easily have gone 9-1.
However, with 15 games and four back-to-backs to play in March it stands to reason that this is the perfect sojourn given what lies on the horizon. Specifically, the Raptors’ final 23 games feature 17 games against sub-.500 teams who represent an ideal test group to fine-tune untried strategies.
With this in mind I thought I’d highlight specific areas of emphasis the coaching staff may focus on this week.
End of Game Offense:
Thursday’s triple overtime game featured a rarity: final plays featuring something other than a DeMar DeRozan isolation play. At least we are seeing something different and perhaps a sign the coaching staff recognizes the need for variety.
Moving forward, many of us want to see the Raptors become less predictable and have a minimum of three options depending on match-ups.
- As the designated closer, teams load up on DeRozan expecting an isolation play, so Dwane Casey needs to get DeRozan the ball in motion where he is much more successful as a spot up shooter.
- Lowry has consistently been the wisest man on court stopping opposing runs and making timely and proper decisions. He should be the primary ball distributor on final plays with a series of options open for him to choose from.
- The NBA’s best fourth quarter differential is due primarily to having a strong defense, however having both Greivis Vasquez and Lowry on the floor helps the offense. Options should be developed with Vasquez being the ball distributor so Lowry can spot up for a field goal or, depending on match-ups, run a pick-and-roll featuring one of the big men.
- As per above, Amir Johnson has shown a propensity to score with players draped all over him and Patrick Patterson has made key shots such as his game-winner in Brooklyn. With zebra’s less open to calling fouls outside the paint at game-end, one option should definitely include a higher percentage shot near the rim.
Following the trade the greatest stride the Raptors made offensively came via increased ball movement and the uncertainty of who would take the shot. It stands to reason that they could achieve the same success at game end by employing the same strategy with players running patterns, spreading the floor and moving the ball.
By virtue of the opposition not knowing who will take the last shot it forces them to defend everyone and subsequently increases the probability of Toronto being successful. Casey can test his options in the final 23 games to see which ones work best. In fact, Casey should test the multi-optioned play to close each quarter and increase the team’s familiarity in running it.
The Raptors are ranked 7th in defense so they don’t need to reinvent the wheel. What they do need to do is focus on paint defense as most losses occur when they get manhandled in the key.
I’ve noted in the past few games there are quite a few plays where a trailing Raptor has a chance at blocking shots from behind the unsuspecting shooter. Terrence Ross, Patterson and Lowry have all utilized this move but DeRozan and Vasquez should practice this trick since they are often caught trailing a play on switches or chasing their appointed cover. It could produce an extra stop or two a game.
We repeatedly highlight the lack of a 48-minute effort against teams they know they can beat. Sunday proved that when the Raptors view an opponent as difficult they play defense for the entire game. With so many lower-end teams on tap it’s important the Raptors make a habit of not underestimating their opponent.
The sophomore started the season on fire showcasing moves in the post with either hand and more importantly, he fired at will from 10 feet, occasionally moving as deep as 15 feet successfully. This offensive variety disappeared in the fall as he completely lost all confidence in his shot, electing to repeatedly fake his way to the basket. Recently we’ve seen him return to hit an occasional outside shot as teams are now staying down on him in expectation of the pump fake.
Jonas is the player who stands to benefit the most from this week and from the final 23 games. Time needs to be spent watching as much film as possible to show the young center where he can grow and subsequently get more touches and minutes. Let’s just say by Friday I hope he feels like he’s completed a diploma from the film academy based on hours of reviewing game tape.
Against the bevy of low seeds he needs to be encouraged to shoot. A confident Valanciunas who mixes up his offense will make the Raptors a much more difficult team to defend since teams won’t be able to camp out in the paint and driving lanes will open for his teammates.
Indiana and Chicago have publicly stated they want the first and third seeds. While I don’t think any Raptors player should publicly out their desire to be third I do actually believe it is a goal.
Toronto battled the Hawks for months finally surpassing them, but while Atlanta has plummeted to eighth the Raptors have maintained their third seed. Now Chicago has supplanted the Hawks while the Wizards await their shot to step in as contenders. Could it be that Toronto will put all their critics in check by season’s end by simply remaining consistent?
Success is the natural consequence of consistently applying basic fundamentals.”
― Jim Rohn
In my last article I called for Toronto to win the Atlantic Division, set a franchise benchmark with 48 wins and finish in third. Much of my reasoning had to do with Toronto taking care of business against the East, specifically their division.
I remain committed to this prediction for several reasons:
Since Toronto has managed to tie and win the series against Chicago and Washington, respectively, the next factor will be their divisional record and games they have left to play within the division.
Remaining Divisional Games:
Team,Record,# Remaining,1 Game,2 Games,3 Games,Total
Toronto has the best divisional record and the easiest schedule so unless Chicago or Washington start winning at a higher percentage than Toronto it bodes well for the Raps to remain third.
In terms of the Atlantic Division, only Brooklyn remains a possibility to catch Toronto which is highly unlikely. The key for the Nets is their back-to-back games in which they have only won both games once out of 13 tries. With 5 sets still to come and sitting 4 games back, it’s like handing Toronto another 5 losses to play with. Make sure you circle March 10, on your calendar as it’s bound to be a big game where the Raptors can send a very loud message to the Nets.
This week several players were bought out or released, with teams positioned for long runs in the post-season quickly adding them to their rosters:
Clippers: Danny Granger and Big Baby Davis
Oklahoma: Caron Butler
Chicago: Jimmer Fredette
Memphis: Beno Udrih
I still feel Toronto could use another front court player and thought of two possible candidates the Raptors could add prior to the post-season:
Kris Humphries: Though Boston has yet to release him he would be a great addition to the Raptors given he provides size and rebounding.
Ivan Johnson: Remember Ivan the terrible? Well he didn’t get the name without reason, so this one could be a stretch as his temperament may be an issue with a locker room full of positivity. However, if Masai Ujiri was convinced he would play ball he could provide scoring and rebounding as well as a bit of edge.
Finally, as our Raptors embark on a week of healthy rejuvenation, practice and film work let’s take a moment to recognize and appreciate the efforts of this year’s squad. For the first time since 2008 the Raptors are on the precipice of post-season play, a division title and a record-breaking win total. Those six long years have left many a fan parched for improvement, victories and something to celebrate in April, May and dare we say possibly June. It’s not exactly the seven-year itch, but the fact we finally found the solution is worthy of at least a happy scratch.
Tipping off to another exciting week of Raptor Basketball; follow me on Twitter: @TTOTambz