Toronto Raptors beat the Washington Wizards 96-88

Third seed. That seems to be the general consensus where this team will finish next season. Right on top of the craptastic Atlantic division which now features a slimmed down Carmelo Anthony who, despite losing a brick-ton of weight, will no doubt use his new-found shape to execute even more pointless jab-steps before launching a jumper that’ll make Phil Jackson wish he was smoking a peace pipe in Montana while Jeanie Buss belly-danced to the tune of Black Magic Woman.

The loftiness of the Raptors aspirations do appear to have a hard ceiling, with the Bulls forming the popcorn part and the Cavaliers the brand new shingles.   Most Raptors fans are quite comfortable with this, knowing in their heart of hearts that though the Raptors are a good team, they’re not that good.  It’s much like settling for a job that pays above the median salary but well below what the executives make. It’s a good feeling where you want to pat yourself on the back, buy a barbecue, and perhaps even start a family where the kids’ names all start with the same letter.  That’s where the Raptors are,  snug in the top half of the Eastern Conference, perched up like a gargoyle just below two other gargoyles.

Not so fast, though.  There are threats in the conference which make that third seed look like a bit of a trap.  I’m sure I don’t need to remind the esteemed reader that both times the Raptors finished third in the conference, they lost, once because Jose Calderon couldn’t weigh a pass, and the other because Paul Pierce forgot to trim his fingernails.  If you look at the teams that are likely to be 4-8, it’s a shuffle between Miami, Atlanta, Washington, Charlotte, and one of Brooklyn, Indiana, and New York.  There are no guarantees in the first batch, and the second isn’t even worth talking about since they’re just prey for Chicago and Cleveland.

If the goal of next season is to climb out of the first round, the Raptors will have to beat a pretty good team.  Miami is obviously going to be decent, though I do think they’re going to get off to a slow start, mostly due to the shock of realizing that Chris Bosh is now their cornerstone.  Atlanta was fantastic last season and had firm grasp of the third seed right up until Al Horford tore his pectoral muscles like a dry twig.  Washington actually won a playoff round and arguably have the best backcourt in the East, the fastest with-the-ball end-to-end guard in the league, an experienced frontline, and can match the Raptors for that oh-so-special intangible of chemistry.  Charlotte, well, Charlotte could be had, and I’m thinking Charlotte becomes last year’s Washington for the Raptors where the Raptors would be angling to want to face them in the playoffs.

I have little doubt the Raptors will win the Atlantic and finish with home court, but even getting that far and throwing yourself into the playoff mix as described is going to be tough.  Why? Because teams aren’t going to let the success of last year simply repeat without doing something about it.  Adjustments, is where I’m going with this.  You got to make them as you grow older and realize that you can’t scale two steps at a time, and so do other teams when they face the Raptors.

The first adjustment teams will make is to test DeMar DeRozan’s jumper.  The 39% he shot between 10-16 feet is not going to cut it, or at least, shooting that percentage from that area isn’t going to net him 8 FTAs per game.  Teams will make him prove that he can shoot it before allowing him to drive.  The two wings that shot more FTs than him, Kevin Durant and James Harden, shot 44% and 46% from that range, and that’s probably where DeRozan will need to take his game to, in order for his drive game to open up, which Greg Mason talked about yesterday.  His tighter handles may yield him more blow-buy opportunities, but ultimately it’s his jumper that’ll need to improve.

Kyle Lowry will be game-planned for more than ever.  The man has enough talent to score against most defenses so I’m not worried about him getting his points – he has enough of a first-step, reads the defense well, and is physically able to bump off defenders to create space for a shot, even if he’s a tad bit off-balance.  Watching the tape, he was simply not respected enough as a three-point shooter last season.  Teams tended to cheat off him, especially in two-guard lineups allowing him to settle in behind screens for jumpers that he drilled at a 38% clip from three.  They will close him down more which doesn’t bother me much because his drive game is good enough to negotiate that.  Last year he took a whopping 6.3 threes a game, which was 2.2 threes more than the year before.  Long story short, he took more threes than he’s ever taken and hit them very efficiently, and if I noticed that, you can bet that NBA scouts did.  A reduction in 3FGAs is a certainty, it’s whether Lowry can compensate for that loss in points through other areas that’s going to be key.

Terrence Ross shot close to 40% from three last season and 54% of his shots were threes (Random comparison: 64% of Kyle Korver’s shots were threes and he shot 47%).  Having two guys like DeRozan and Lowry on the floor helps Ross tremendously, because there’s only so many players you can game-plan for.  Ross came into last season shooting only 33% from downtown in his rookie year, so he wasn’t considered a three-point threat for a big chunk of the season, with defenses  testing his shot more than seriously contesting it.   Given his success last season, you would think that that will change a bit, and as William Lou mentioned, he may be capable of the drive-and-punish more than he’d led us to believe.  One thing which is known is that he’s going to be treated like a three-point shooter coming into next season and will have to put the ball on the floor more than he has so far in his career.  Much like Sam at the Rail, Ross now likes to park himself in the corner, eye the game from a wide angle, and pounce when opportunity presents.

From a bench standpoint, Patrick Patterson’s preference to step-out for a the mid-range jumper, and Greivis Vasquez’s inclination for the floater, are now known more than ever.  What’s comforting as a Raptors fan is that both these guys are smart basketball players who can adapt to what a defense is giving you rather than continually forcing their game.  In truth, it’s one of the reasons I really like this team: there aren’t any dumb guys like Jamario Moon, Joey Graham, Andrea Bargnani, etc., that try to fit a square peg in a round hole without stopping to think, ‘Hey man, I’m trying to fit a square peg in a round hole’.

From an offensive setup, teams will try to get the ball out of Lowry hands and force DeRozan or Ross to initiate the offense.  Casey could respond by promptly inserting Vasquez, but it remains to be seen how sustainable a strategy that is, and it also depends much on what Lou Williams has to offer (Will’s got a thunderf**k of an article about him tomorrow).   My comfort-level in watching the offense run though DeRozan has increased because he’s shown he’s capable of either making the right pass and, other than the playoffs, gives the ball up when he needs to.  He’s may not ever be a point-forwardish ball-handler like Scottie Pippen or Kevin Durant, but he knows how to prevent the ball from being stuck (again, other than the Nets series).

Ross happens to have a tighter dribble than DeRozan and will find himself in positions where he’s going to be asked to more than just catch-and-shoot, which accounted for 52% of his shots last season.  He averaged 1.7 drives per game and 1 assist in almost 27 minutes a game.  Those are not flattering numbers, and to be fair, his role was strictly catch-and-shoot last year.  As his game evolves, the next step for him is to use that soft, feathery release in a pull-up or floater, because he has enough of a first step that he can evade a defender to get into the 7-12 feet range on either side of the court.  Rather than having to rely on Vasquez to move Lowry off the ball, it would be a tremendous luxury for Dwane Casey to have Ross be a ball-handler.  It should be noted with a fountain pen that James Johnson is an adept ball-handler as well, and could be used similarly, but simply doesn’t stretch the floor as Ross does.

Much like this lump on my chest, the defense is difficult for me to diagnose.  The Raptors were 5th in the NBA in January and February, but fell to 17th in the final quarter of the season, and finished the season at a respectable 10th place.  That poor defense carried over into the playoffs which didn’t bode well, and serves as a mild warning heading into next season.  On that front, James Johnson should help.  How the overall defense changes also depends on Bebe Nogueira’s impact off the bench and whether his rim-defense can start fast breaks (like JaVale McGee) , or whether his pick ‘n roll defense can force guards to pick up dribbles and cause short-clock situations.

At the very least, the Raptors have to improve their defense of the corner three, which they were bottom-third in defending from a percentage perspective in that miserable last quarter of the season where teams shot over 42% from the corners.  When you think about it, that three is a by-product of the opposition moving the ball well, usually after some amount of dribble penetration. As the season wore on, guys like DeRozan and Lowry paid the price for playing a career-high in minutes with 38.2 and 36.2, respectively.  This partially led to a leaky perimeter defense both in the later stages of the season and the playoffs, which lends some credence to the idea that their minutes should be monitored rather than being played to death as if Tom Thibodeau was head coach.   Ideally, you’d like to bring down DeRozan and Lowry’s minutes to around 32, which would mean they’re fresher for when it counts, and are also able to go harder on defense the time they’re on the court.  Obviously, the Spurs model of everyone playing under 30 minutes is ideal, but the Raptors may not have the depth to pull that off.

Heading into next season, there are tweaks to be made and preventive measures needing to be taken.  Most of all, let not the familiarity of the roster make us believe that key adjustments aren’t required.