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The Raptors played little-to-no defense, but the Sixers are historically bad.

All roads lead to Rome

I tend to get sentimental on account of the Raptors. It’s a weakness of mine.

For most of my life, the Raptors were little more than the laughing stock of the NBA. It’s sad, but it’s true. I experienced every season like a lucid dream. I bought into the hype, and I willingly suspended my rightful cynicism, but ultimately come April, I’d inevitably wake up, and find myself cheering for the likes of Sonny Weems and Solomon Alabi. It’s an all-too familiar routine.

In an desperate attempt to break the habit, many fans turned to the strategy of tanking. The idea of yet another season of hoping in hope was repulsive. Sometimes, things are so bad, change for the sake of change onto itself is good.

That’s the very same position that the Sixers found themselves in last off-season. Philadelphia’s distended run of treadmill trudging wasn’t nearly as long as ours, but they faced the same predicament. Jrue Holiday, Thaddeus Young, Evan Turner and Spencer Hawes all held promise, but as a collective, that team wasn’t going anywhere. When New Orleans offered a pair of picks, and a ticket off the carousel, GM Sam Hinkie happily forked over Holiday, and settled into a holding pattern for a tank-job of epic proportion.

As we know, Masai Ujiri chose a different direction for the Raptors. Rather than tearing down the walls, and strip-mining his team, he opted for optimality instead. He capitalized on a CAA-pimped Knicks, and shipped off Bargnani. He pulled a similar trick on the Kings.

Altogether, the moves paved the way for DeRozan and Lowry to take the reins, which has allowed the team to flourish. Instead of precious possessions wasted on line-drive bricks from Bargnani, or long-two iso-heaves from Gay, the Raptors ran pin-downs and pick-and-rolls. The difference has bore fruit on both sides of the ball.

But along the way, a sneaky side-effect reared its head — the absence of Gay and Bargnani freed up swaths of playing time for sophomores Jonas Valanciunas and Terrence Ross, and both players blossomed. Much like Hinkie, Ujiri managed to till the soil and sow the seeds, only Ross and Valanciunas were given veteran stakes upon which to guide their growth.

Rather than letting Ross running wild on the perimeter without a leash — similar to that of MCW — he was taught the subtle skill of curling around screens, and finding opponents’ blind-spots for open spot-ups. Rather than having Jonas run aimlessly, crashing the board at random like that of the Sixers’ Henry Sims, Valanciunas learned the principle of verticality, and developed a post-game.

And although the Sixers’ process is less father along, the difference in results is already apparent.

Take last night for example. Yes, the Raptors’ defense was bad, but the game was never in question. For the most part, the Raptors led from start to finish. The Raptors couldn’t resist the temptation of playing up-tempo, which played right into the hands of the Sixers, but even though they were out of their element, the Raptors were still able to out-execute the opponent.

Consider the differences in their play. What’s the difference in the Suns ’7 Seconds or Less’ offense, and the Spurs’ meticulously orchestrated present-day attack? Randomness. Sometimes, NBA teams prioritize randomness, especially if they’re up against a superior opponent. More randomness means less place for order, of which favors the favored. The Raptors elected to run specific plays to get Jonas Valanciunas in the post, or have Lowry drive into the paint, draw extra defenders, and kick-out to find the open man on the perimeter. Conversely, the Sixers simply pushed the ball whenever they had the chance, and let the chips fall where they may.

And that’s not to say that Philadelphia’s play style was inferior. The results speak for themselves. When the benches matched up against each other, the Sixers ran circles around the Raptors’ snail-paced squad. My point is that eventually, when the Sixers intend to actually win NBA games, what purpose did this exercise serve for Carter-Williams? How did it serve Thaddeus Young, a disciplined defender in previous years, who was forced to repeatedly bail out his teammates on defensive miscues.

The truth, it doesn’t, at least not in a meaningful sense. Perhaps I’m wrong, and the Sixers — armed with a highly-touted prospect borne as the lone prize of a miserable and humiliating season — tread in the footsteps of the Thunder, and the Raptors’ bubble eventually bursts. If and when that day happens, I’ll gladly eat my words, and hope for the Raptors embark on a similar strip-down process of rebuilding. But until that day comes, I’m more than thrilled with the results of the present-day Raptors, who currently sit third in the East, in-line for a new franchise-high in wins.

It seems, at last, that the Raptors finally stepped off the treadmill, and they didn’t need to become the Sixers to do it. I, for one, am thankful for it.

jonasAP Photo/The Canadian Press, Peter Power

Jonas Valanciunas’ redemption

As you’re undoubtedly aware, Jonas has been mired in a controversy surrounding a DUI charge. While I’m happy the Raptors have finally arisen to the top of the Canadian sports story-stack, I’m disappointed that it was Jonas’ legal troubles, rather than his team’s success, that captivated audiences across the Great White North.

Valanciunas' teammates on his performance

Lowry on Jonas: “Much more aggressive. Much more hungry. He wants the ball. Tonight he was literally yelling at me to give him the ball. And I’ve got to do nothing but give him the ball, because he’s our big fella”.

DeRozan: “I hope everybody leave him alone. He understands we need him. We all go through things, especially at a young age and we all learn from them”

Personally, I think Jonas made a stupid and irresponsible decision, but by no means should it define his character, nor his career. Perhaps we’re ashamed to admit it, or to be fully truthful, but the incidence of driving under the influence is far more prevalent than that on legal censuses. As long as people understand the irresponsibility of their decisions, and seek to change their practice, they should be rewarded the luxury of forgiveness.

And, let’s be real here — Jonas is 21 years old. He and I were born in the same year, and I can personally (ron) attest: 21-year-olds are incredibly irresponsible. Maybe we don’t all get booked for DUIs, but we’re also not in a foreign country, constantly in the spot-light, and offered an open invitation to every party and opportunity to slip up wherever we go. His age doesn’t excuse him from his decision, but it should afford him some leeway in the matter.

Last night, Jonas made a concerted effort to redeem himself. Of course, succeeding or failing on a basketball court doesn’t tip the scales of morality one way or the other, but it was a relief to see his relief. As explained by Lowry, “basketball is like our space, our secret spot and that’s where guys can release a lot of energy and intensity”. Jonas came to play with a purpose, and thoroughly dominated the Sixers frontline. He executed a litany of beautiful drop-steps, he crashed the boards hard, and threw down a nasty jam over some dude named Jarvis Varnado.

He finished the night with a career high 26 points on 10-of-14 shooting from the field, and grabbed 12 rebounds. He also breathed a sigh of relief for the first time in three days. That’s a good thing for both he and the Raptors.

lowryRon Turenne/NBAE via Getty Images

It’s as if he were never gone

Matt Devlin, as is his wont, had a hilarious slip-up on the broadcast. As per his “Ask Matt” section, he was asked for his picks for the Raptors’ most-improved, defensive player of the year, MVP, etc etc. He named Lowry as the defensive player of the year, he named Lowry the co-MVP (along with DeRozan), and stopped himself short of an answer for most-improved, presumably because one could connect the dots.

But here’s the thing: he’s right! Lowry is all of the above, and more to this team. He’s the facilitator, he’s the primary ball-handler, he shuts down the pick-and-roll, he takes charges, he fights through injuries, and most of all, he’s the closest thing this team has to a closer. With the game tight down the stretch, Lowry scored on four consecutive possessions to secure the win for his team. That’s what a leader does.

Assorted game notes

  • Patrick Patterson’s defense on Thaddeus Young was very impressive. He bodied him in the post, and he shadowed him step-for-step on the perimeter. Young hit a string of difficult shots in the fourth quarter, which inflated his numbers, but that doesn’t detract from Patman’s defensive effort.
  • Hey! John Salmons was a net positive on the court! It couldn’t possibly been because he got sufficient rest in-between games, right?
  • The Raptors’ bench unit coughed up the lead in the second quarter because they physically couldn’t keep up in transition. Also, it made little sense to run Novak out there against a small-ball lineup. He’s effective when he’s pulling bigs out of the paint, not when he’s tasked with closing out on threes, or defending in the post.
  • If you need a late-season boost in points and rebounds for your fantasy team, go pick up Henry Sims. He’s quick, mobile, and looks like he can effectively roll on pick-and-rolls.
  • If you haven’t already seen this turn-around three from Ross, you should. It’s kinda crazy.
  • There goes any hope of Lowry getting back to full health. In his words, one or two weeks won’t make a difference. He needs a full two months off before he’s 100%, which means he’ll be good to go in time for the Finals.

Cover photo credit: AP Photo, The Canadian Press, Peter Power