Last 200 articles shown.

Date Title Author
Mar 17, 18 Raptors need overtime for Mavericks, tie franchise record with 11th in a row Blake Murphy
Mar 17, 18 Raptors-Mavericks Reaction Podcast – Franchise record 11-game win streak Blake Murphy
Mar 17, 18 Career night from Meeks helps Raptors 905 clinch playoff berth Blake Murphy
Mar 16, 18 Quick Reaction: Mavericks 115, Raptors 122 (OT) Anthony Doyle
Mar 16, 18 Pre-game news & notes: Lowry rests, Powell out, Hayes 10-day official, Wright/Anunoby start Blake Murphy
Mar 16, 18 Open Gym Ep. 22 Blake Murphy
Mar 16, 18 An Investigation into CJ Miles’ Domination: Part Two Louis Zatzman
Mar 16, 18 Gameday: Raptors @ Mavericks, March 16 Katie Heindl
Mar 16, 18 Raptors survive turnover woes, win 10th in a row Blake Murphy
Mar 16, 18 Raptors-Pacers Reaction Podcast – Gritty win Blake Murphy
Mar 15, 18 Quick Reaction: Raptors 106 Pacers 99 Cameron Dorrett
Mar 15, 18 Pre-game news & notes: Powell in boot, Sabonis out, Anunoby back but Miller starts Blake Murphy
Mar 15, 18 VIDEO: Raptors ‘The Office’ parody Blake Murphy
Mar 15, 18 Kennedy Meeks’ favorite time of year Vivek Jacob
Mar 15, 18 OG Anunoby to return Thursday; Norman Powell in walking boot Blake Murphy
Mar 15, 18 Bench Behemoth: Raptors Reserves Ready for Playoffs Joshua Howe
Mar 15, 18 Gameday: Raptors @ Pacers, March 15 Blake Murphy
Mar 14, 18 Report: Nigel Hayes getting 2nd 10-day with Raptors Blake Murphy
Mar 14, 18 Raptors Playbook: Snap Series Cooper Smither
Mar 14, 18 Matching Up Anthony Doyle
Mar 14, 18 Raptors weather Russell’s early storm, win 50th of the season Blake Murphy
Mar 14, 18 Raptors-Nets Reaction Podcast – Fred VanGOAT Blake Murphy
Mar 13, 18 Quick Reaction: Raptors 116, Nets 102 Josh Weinstein
Mar 13, 18 Pre-game news & notes: Anunoby sits and Powell starts, Allen out for Nets Blake Murphy
Mar 13, 18 Raptors 905 bottle up Swarm, inch closer to playoff berth Blake Murphy
Mar 13, 18 The Raptors Have Found ‘It’ Katie Heindl
Mar 13, 18 To Rest or Not to Rest? It May Not Matter If Raptors Stay Hot Sahal Abdi
Mar 13, 18 Talking Raptors Podcast – S5 E16 – Thank you to the Academy Nick Reynoldson
Mar 13, 18 Gameday: Raptors @ Nets, March 12 Blake Murphy
Mar 12, 18 DeMar DeRozan named Eastern Conference Player of the Week Blake Murphy
Mar 12, 18 Raptors Have Only One Thing Left To Prove Tim Chisholm
Mar 12, 18 Powell remains a wrinkle in Casey’s pristine season Vivek Jacob
Mar 12, 18 Raptors beat Knicks in a Laugher Louis Zatzman
Mar 12, 18 Raptors Weekly Podcast – It’s for real Blake Murphy
Mar 12, 18 Raptors-Knicks Reaction Podcast – Uncharted waters Blake Murphy
Mar 11, 18 Quick Reaction: Raptors 132, Knicks 106 Blake Murphy
Mar 11, 18 Pre-game news & notes: Anunoby out, Powell starts, Kanter and Thomas sit, Wright available after all Blake Murphy
Mar 11, 18 Gameday: Raptors @ Knicks, March 11 Blake Murphy
Mar 10, 18 Brown’s 30, bench lead Raptors 905 to comeback over Canton Blake Murphy
Mar 10, 18 Raptors snap Rockets’ 17-game streak in Game of the Year candidate Blake Murphy
Mar 10, 18 Raptors-Rockets Reaction Podcast – Rockets regression Blake Murphy
Mar 9, 18 Quick Reaction: Rockets 105, Raptors 108 Anthony Doyle
Mar 9, 18 Pre-game news & notes: Wright, Anunoby, and Anderson all out for NBA Finals preview Blake Murphy
Mar 9, 18 Open Gym Ep. 21 Blake Murphy
Mar 9, 18 The Spice is Right Katie Heindl
Mar 9, 18 The Packed House: Feelin’ the Pulse of Raptorland Mike Nelson III
Mar 9, 18 Gameday: Rockets @ Raptors, March 9 Blake Murphy
Mar 8, 18 The Unwinnable Race Alex Gres
Mar 8, 18 A closer look at DeRozan’s near-historic clutch night Blake Murphy
Mar 8, 18 Raptors Clinch Playoff Berth, Defeat Pistons 121–119 in Overtime Joshua Howe
Mar 8, 18 Raptors-Pistons Reaction Podcast – DeMar is that dude Blake Murphy
Mar 7, 18 Raptors clinch 5th consecutive playoff berth Blake Murphy
Mar 7, 18 Quick Reaction: Raptors 122, Pistons 119 Sahal Abdi
Mar 7, 18 Delon Wright leaves game with toe sprain again Blake Murphy
Mar 7, 18 Serge Ibaka ejected in 2nd quarter vs. Pistons Blake Murphy
Mar 7, 18 Pre-game news & notes: Raptors and Pistons both down starting SFs; Powell starts Blake Murphy
Mar 7, 18 Key Raptors to Watch as Playoffs Approach RR
Mar 7, 18 Has Miles Solved his Early-Season Issues? Louis Zatzman
Mar 7, 18 Gameday: Raptors @ Pistons, March 7 Vivek Jacob
Mar 7, 18 Raptors’ bench takes over in 4th, complete sweep of Hawks Blake Murphy
Mar 7, 18 Raptors-Hawks Reaction Podcast – Praise the bench Blake Murphy
Mar 6, 18 Quick Reaction: Hawks 90, Raptors 106 Cameron Dorrett
Mar 6, 18 Delon Wright leaves game with sprained toe Blake Murphy
Mar 6, 18 Pre-game news & notes: Anunoby sits again, Miller starts, Hayes signed but inactive Blake Murphy
Mar 6, 18 The Austrian Hammer Anthony Doyle
Mar 6, 18 Norman Powell an unfortunate victim of Toronto’s culture change Vivek Jacob
Mar 6, 18 Gameday: Hawks @ Raptors, March 6 Blake Murphy
Mar 5, 18 DeMar DeRozan named Eastern Conference Player of the Week Blake Murphy
Mar 5, 18 Raptors signing Nigel Hayes to 10-day contract Blake Murphy
Mar 5, 18 Clutch Reps and Baby Steps Joshua Howe
Mar 5, 18 Valanciunas’ Miraculous Defensive Improvements Louis Zatzman
Mar 5, 18 Raptors complete season series sweep of Hornets Shyam Baskaran
Mar 5, 18 Raptors Weekly – Credit where it’s due Blake Murphy
Mar 4, 18 Raptors-Hornets Reaction Podcast – Hornets are annoying AF Blake Murphy
Mar 4, 18 Quick Reaction: Hornets 98, Raptors 103 Katie Heindl
Mar 4, 18 Pre-game news & notes: Anunoby sits for final meeting with Hornets; Miller starts Blake Murphy
Mar 4, 18 Gameday: Hornets @ Raptors, March 4 Blake Murphy
Mar 4, 18 905 Crush Herd to Sweep Season Series Louis Zatzman
Mar 3, 18 Miles catches fire, Raptors close out strong against Wizards Blake Murphy
Mar 3, 18 Raptors-Wizards Reaction Podcast – A satisfying victory Blake Murphy
Mar 2, 18 Quick Reaction: Raptors 102, Wizards 95 Joshua Howe
Mar 2, 18 Pre-game news & notes: Anunoby misses 1st game, Powell starts Blake Murphy
Mar 2, 18 Raptors Road Diary: Part 3 of a month-long conversation with Steve from PUP Blake Murphy
Mar 2, 18 3 burning questions about the Raptors’ stretch run Vivek Jacob
Mar 2, 18 Open Gym Ep. 20 Blake Murphy
Mar 2, 18 The Bench and the Playoffs Anthony Doyle
Mar 2, 18 Gameday: Raptors @ Wizards, March 2 Blake Murphy
Mar 1, 18 Playmaking from the Wings Louis Zatzman
Mar 1, 18 Raptors-Magic Reaction Podcast – Yak & Skillz Blake Murphy
Mar 1, 18 Raptors turn it on very late, still beat Magic by 13 Blake Murphy
Feb 28, 18 Nets bring league-best defence in 4th to beat 905 Vivek Jacob
Feb 28, 18 Quick Reaction: Raptors 117, Magic 104 Anthony Doyle
Feb 28, 18 OG Anunoby leaves game with right ankle sprain Blake Murphy
Feb 28, 18 Pre-game news & notes: Brown still hurt for 905; Gordon plays for Magic Blake Murphy
Feb 28, 18 Old Faithful: Why Kyle Lowry is Having a Better Season than You Think Joshua Howe
Feb 28, 18 Do Toronto’s Wins Paper Over Potential Playoff Woes? Tim Chisholm
Feb 28, 18 Gameday: Raptors @ Magic, Feb. 28 Katie Heindl
Feb 28, 18 Talking Raptors Podcast – S5 E15 – With Jack Armstrong Nick Reynoldson
Feb 27, 18 DeRozan’s Defence: A Study in Eight Parts Louis Zatzman
Feb 27, 18 Lorenzo Brown rounding out the edges Vivek Jacob
Feb 27, 18 Raptors 905 waive Kuran Iverson Blake Murphy
Feb 27, 18 Raptors leave little to chance in blowout of Pistons Blake Murphy
Feb 27, 18 Raptors-Pistons Reaction Podcast – Demolition Blake Murphy
Feb 26, 18 Quick Reaction: Pistons 94, Raptors 123 Joshua Howe
Feb 26, 18 Pre-game news & notes: Raptors get first crack at new-look Pistons Blake Murphy
Feb 26, 18 The OG Expectation Cameron Dorrett
Feb 26, 18 Please read DeMar DeRozan speaking about depression Blake Murphy
Feb 26, 18 Gameday: Pistons @ Raptors, Feb. 26 Blake Murphy
Feb 26, 18 Raptors Weekly Podcast – Down the stretch Blake Murphy
Feb 25, 18 Canada cruises to 113-67 win over Bahamas Scott Hastie
Feb 25, 18 Raptors 905 top Jennings, Herd in offensive showdown Blake Murphy
Feb 25, 18 Welcome to Lithuania Shyam Baskaran
Feb 24, 18 Raptors 905 lose nail-biter to Knicks Blake Murphy
Feb 24, 18 Raptors lose to Bucks in overtime, ‘didn’t deserve to win’ Blake Murphy
Feb 24, 18 Raptors-Bucks Reaction Podcast – Freaked out in OT Blake Murphy
Feb 23, 18 Quick Reaction: Bucks 122, Raptors 119 (OT) Anthony Doyle
Feb 23, 18 Pre-game news & notes: Raptors could have interest in Ilyasova; Bucks visit again Blake Murphy
Feb 23, 18 Open Gym Ep. 19 Blake Murphy
Feb 23, 18 After the Break Katie Heindl
Feb 23, 18 Raptors’ 3/4 Season Awards Louis Zatzman
Feb 23, 18 Talking Raptors Podcast – S5 E14 – With Dan Gladman Nick Reynoldson
Feb 23, 18 Gameday: Raptors vs. Bucks, Feb. 23 Anthony Doyle
Feb 22, 18 Canada pulls away from U.S. Virgin Islands to move to 2-1 in FIBA qualifiers Blake Murphy
Feb 22, 18 Look how far we’ve come with the finish line in sight Josh Weinstein
Feb 22, 18 The Mirror of the G.O.A.T. Alex Gres
Feb 22, 18 Raptors 905 start post-break stretch run with win over Erie Blake Murphy
Feb 21, 18 Raptors 905 add Roger Moute a Bidias; Lorenzo Brown still sidelined Blake Murphy
Feb 21, 18 Off-Day Open Thread Blake Murphy
Feb 20, 18 DeRozan’s Magic Weekend Louis Zatzman
Feb 19, 18 The Raptors are Really Good, now what? Cameron Dorrett
Feb 19, 18 Raptors Weekly Podcast – Chasing 60 wins Blake Murphy
Feb 19, 18 Canada reveals roster for Feb. 22 & 25 FIBA qualifiers Blake Murphy
Feb 19, 18 Another watershed moment in Raptors history Vivek Jacob
Feb 18, 18 Casey tops DeRozan and Lowry in All-Star Game Blake Murphy
Feb 18, 18 Aaron Best scores 44 and 49 in G League Dunk Contest Blake Murphy
Feb 18, 18 The home stretch awaits Shyam Baskaran
Feb 17, 18 Kyle Lowry misses out on the Three-Point Contest Finals Anthony Doyle
Feb 17, 18 An All-Star Break Toast Mike Nelson III
Feb 16, 18 Open Gym Ep. 18 Blake Murphy
Feb 16, 18 Read this DeMar DeRozan feature Blake Murphy
Feb 16, 18 Raptors Road Diary: Part 2 of a month-long conversation with Steve from PUP Blake Murphy
Feb 16, 18 Examining potential buyout candidates for the Raptors Blake Murphy
Feb 16, 18 Don’t Be Dumb Katie Heindl
Feb 16, 18 Breaking down Anunoby’s Slump Louis Zatzman
Feb 15, 18 The Raptors will keep on rolling after the all-star break Josh Weinstein
Feb 15, 18 Raptors handle Bulls, cruise into All-Star break Joshua Howe
Feb 15, 18 Raptors-Bulls Reaction Podcast – On vacation Blake Murphy
Feb 14, 18 Quick Reaction: Raptors 122, Bulls 98 Blake Murphy
Feb 14, 18 Pre-game news & notes: Dunn returns for Bulls, Raptors have Valentine’s Day poems Blake Murphy
Feb 14, 18 Raptors Playbook: SLOB Horns Down Cooper Smither
Feb 14, 18 Raptors-Heat Reaction Podcast – A win that felt like a loss Blake Murphy
Feb 14, 18 Gameday: Raptors @ Bulls, Feb. 14 Blake Murphy
Feb 14, 18 Raptors 905 can’t complete comeback against Bulls Blake Murphy
Feb 14, 18 Raptors survive late collapse, old habits against Heat Blake Murphy
Feb 13, 18 Quick Reaction: Heat 112, Raptors 115 Matt Shantz
Feb 13, 18 VIDEO: Tribute for The Raptor’s 1000th game Blake Murphy
Feb 13, 18 Pre-game news & notes: Anunoby plays, The Raptor plays in 1,000th home game Blake Murphy
Feb 13, 18 Your All-Raptors All-Star Game Cameron Dorrett
Feb 13, 18 This Post-Bruno World Louis Zatzman
Feb 13, 18 Gameday: Heat @ Raptors, Feb. 13 Vivek Jacob
Feb 12, 18 McKinnie’s late put-back helps Raptors 905 top Red Claws Blake Murphy
Feb 12, 18 Lorenzo Brown leaves 905 game with ankle sprain Blake Murphy
Feb 12, 18 Malachi Richardson, The New Experiment Matt Shantz
Feb 12, 18 Vince Carter’s Time In Toronto Ended Fourteen Years Ago Tim Chisholm
Feb 12, 18 The Raptors are a Championship Contender Louis Zatzman
Feb 12, 18 Raptors Ring Up Another One Against Charlotte Anthony Doyle
Feb 12, 18 Raptors Weekly Podcast – All about that bench Blake Murphy
Feb 12, 18 Raptors-Hornets Reaction Podcast – Vanquishing old demons Blake Murphy
Feb 11, 18 Quick Reaction: Raptors 123, Hornets 103 Blake Murphy
Feb 11, 18 OG Anunoby leaves game with ankle sprain Blake Murphy
Feb 11, 18 Pre-game news & notes: Raptors look for 5th in a row Blake Murphy
Feb 11, 18 Gameday: Raptors @ Hornets Feb. 11 Louis Zatzman
Feb 10, 18 Raptors 905 defence strangles Magic in 91-77 win Louis Zatzman
Feb 10, 18 Lorenzo Brown itching to show the NBA world what he’s about Andrew Damelin
Feb 10, 18 A model of consistency Shyam Baskaran
Feb 9, 18 Credit is Due Anthony Doyle
Feb 9, 18 VIDEO: Masai Ujiri post-deadline presser Blake Murphy
Feb 9, 18 Open Gym Ep. 17 Blake Murphy
Feb 9, 18 Susurrant Success: A Post-Deadline Recap Joshua Howe
Feb 9, 18 Raptors’ bench cruises in another blowout victory Blake Murphy
Feb 9, 18 Raptors-Knicks Reaction Podcast – Easy as you’d like Blake Murphy
Feb 9, 18 Raptors Trade Deadline Podcast – Bye bye Bruno Blake Murphy
Feb 8, 18 Raptors announce Bruno Caboclo-Malachi Richardson trade Blake Murphy
Feb 8, 18 Quick Reaction: Knicks 88, Raptors 113 Anthony Doyle
Feb 8, 18 Pre-game news & notes: The Knicks are down a lot of players Blake Murphy
Feb 8, 18 Report: Raptors trading Bruno Caboclo to Kings for Malachi Richardson Blake Murphy
Feb 8, 18 Trade Deadline Open Thread – BRUNO dealt, Cavs land Hood and Hill in 3-trade overhaul Blake Murphy
Feb 8, 18 Aaron Best to participate in G League Dunk Contest Blake Murphy
Feb 8, 18 A brief history of the Raptors on deadline day Blake Murphy
Feb 8, 18 Gameday: Knicks @ Raptors, Feb. 8 Blake Murphy
Feb 7, 18 Center of attention Vivek Jacob
Feb 7, 18 Raptors 905 get in unexpected shootout, lose to Nets Blake Murphy
Feb 7, 18 Raptors blow out Celtics in battle of East’s top teams Blake Murphy
Feb 6, 18 Raptors-Celtics Reaction Podcast – We Are The Champions Sam Holako
Feb 6, 18 Quick Reaction: Celtics 91, Raptors 111 Katie Heindl
Feb 6, 18 Pre-game news & notes: Irving and Morris return for Celtics Blake Murphy
Feb 6, 18 Raptors Road Diary: A month-long conversation with Steve from PUP Blake Murphy
Feb 6, 18 Value Added: Rookie Deals, Market Inefficiencies, and the Toronto Raptors Louis Zatzman
Feb 6, 18 Deadline Week Mailbag: Rules, scenarios, 2018-19 implications, and more Blake Murphy
Feb 6, 18 A Recipe for Defense Matt Shantz
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Raptors need overtime for Mavericks, tie franchise record with 11th in a row

Raptors 122, Mavericks 115 (OT) | Box Score | Quick Reaction | Reaction Podcast

Maybe it’s fitting that the 11th victory in the Toronto Raptors’ franchise record-tying winning streak was a near carbon copy of several of the wins that came before it. The Dallas Mavericks provided different wrinkles, sure, and the Raptors have chosen different areas to struggle in during the run, so each game’s been at least a little different. The end result of a 122-115 overtime victory on Friday, though, was the same: The Raptors are good enough to beat a lot of teams even when they don’t play their best.

That they keep proving so is at least a mild concern. Gone, apparently, are the halcyon days of picking everyone apart by 20 or 30, replaced with imprecise first halves that beget second-half comebacks. This hasn’t been uniform – only five of the past seven – and it’s hard to win night in, night out. In the big-picture, these nights are understood. In the moment, as a snapshot that feels like the specter of an impending punishment for flirting with disaster, you can forgive those who have had enough of the Groundhog Day act.

“I don’t know. We kinda play good in the fourth quarter but the start of the game was kind of funky, like four games in a row right now,” Jonas Valanciunas said. “We’re starting games flat. We gotta stop that. We’re getting lucky, I mean, not lucky, but we gotta start better. It’s been hard, I don’t know. You can blame anything. The schedule, this and that, I don’t know, we just gotta change it.”

The Raptors matched the energy of a sparse Air Canada Centre crowd early – there was a security issue that slowed fans from getting in – taking some time to gear up, as they often do. Some of that was two new starters working in, though Delon Wright (filling in for a resting Kyle Lowry) and OG Anunoby (returning from injury) both looked good out of the gate. Anunoby had a great cut to the basket to finish a Wright feed, one of Wright’s three assists in the first, and Wright added a triple of his own to keep the offense humming. Valanciunas had a nice moment, too, pump-faking a three that Nerlens Noel closed out on and then driving by him for a bucket.

Around those contributions, DeMar DeRozan had his way, scoring 11 points and getting to the line and the rim a few times early to give the false impression he could take over in a hurry if the situation called for it later. The offense managed, in other words, despite some cramped spacing with a lack of perceived shooters in the starting lineup and a clear Dallas edict to pack the paint. It was on the defensive end where the Raptors weren’t initially sharp, with Dallas shooting 55 percent in the quarter and Harrison Barnes in particular getting rolling with nine points. They held Dirk Nowitzki to one tough long jumper over an outstretched Jakob Poeltl, at least. Timeless.

The bench minutes looked a little different with Malcolm Miller in Wright’s place, and Miller had a bit of a rough go with a pair of fouls and a pair of missed threes quickly. It was a tumultuous stretch. First, a Nowitzki-led Mavericks group turned a two-point Raptors lead into a two-point hole. Dwane Casey stuck with that group out of a timeout, and they responded with an 8-2 run capped by a Miller three to get him back on the right foot and highlighted by a pair of Poeltl blocks on J.J. Barea and Yogi Ferrell. Naturally, Barea and Doug McDermott sparked a 10-2 Dallas counterpunch, because it’s Barea and McDermott against the Raptors, and because the Mavericks all of a sudden couldn’t miss from outside. All told, the bench played to a minus-nine in their seven minutes, an uncharacteristic loss.

Casey went with the full line change at that point, and while the starters scored mostly well thanks to Valanciunas feasting on the offensive glass and on dump-offs, they couldn’t stop Dallas, either. The Mavericks finished the half shooting 57 percent, which felt about 20 percentage points higher, and just two turnovers. The Raptors’ near-elite defense just hadn’t made itself felt yet, and they entered the break in a six-point hole despite scoring fairly well (an offensive rating of 114.9) as a result. Sound familiar? It marked the fifth time in seven games the Raptors were down at half, and they’d won all of the earlier instances. You know the drill from here.

“He’s been yelling a lot lately,” DeRozan said of Casey. “We’re trying to do whatever we can to stop him from yelling. It’s a lot.”

Four fouls in the opening minute of the third quarter was surely not the response Casey was looking for. DeRozan continued getting to the line, an important factor as he wasn’t shooting particularly well from the floor or facilitating quite up to the new standard he’s set for himself. Taking a knee to the unmentionables probably didn’t help. Valanciunas did his best to be a factor around both rims, though he couldn’t drive on Noel a second time, and Casey went to Miles earlier than usual trying to find a spark. It did not have the desired effect, the Raptors falling behind 10 before more of the bench began filtering in. That helped little until the very closing seconds, when Fred VanVleet and DeRozan hit back-to-back jumpers to close the gap to six entering the fourth.

There was once again left some pressure on an all-bench group at the top of the fourth, and Casey got a little creative, re-inserting Wright to reform the usual bench group. The gamble made some sense, as that group has had success all year long, and it wouldn’t matter much if the point guards were tired late in the fourth if the Raptors were down big. Wright answered with five straight points and Pascal Siakam began attacking aggressively, but the team still had no answer for Barea or McDermott, even with hands in their faces. VanVleet balked when Dallas threatened to pull away proper midway through the quarter, hitting a corner three to stay within six heading into the stretch.

For the second game in a row, the Raptors took a look at a Siakam-Ibaka frontcourt (along with both point guards and DeRozan). That didn’t have the desired effect on defense initially, instead playing even because the Raptors made a couple of shots. Eventually, that turned, with the league’s best fourth-quarter defense showing up. Siakam was a one-man perma-switch, Wright is a magnet for sloppy skip passes, VanVleet doubles the post excellently, and while Dallas still made some shots, they were of the more difficult variety. Sending extra attention at Barnes came with a trade-off in the form of Dwight Powell cutting behind it, but the Raptors aggression paid off – Ibaka stole an entry pass for Noel, Wright forced a Dennis Smith Jr. travel, and DeRozan tied the game with a baited mid-range foul and then a long two. Results over process, and all, though the long two was exceptionally wide open.

“It’s great,” VanVleet said of the smaller look. “Serge is very vocal, I think he’s great on the perimeter and moving his feet but if can just stand down there and quarterback things and wait for people at the rim, he’s really good at that. That’s what he was doing. He was moving guys around, he was positioning himself to be the low man and be able to help.”

The Raptors forced another turnover out of a Mavericks’ timeout (Siakam’s second half on Barnes is not safe to watch at work), giving them the possession advantage in a tie with 47 seconds to play. Out of their own timeout, Miles turned the inbound pass over, and it took an Ibaka block at the rim to get Toronto the advantage back, ball-in-hand with 21 seconds left. They called a timeout – a debatable call against a scrambled defense since the substitution (Valanciunas) just sat in the dunker slot, likely chosen because they were going to let the defense set to eat clock, anyway – and a decent Ibaka floater against an advantageous switch missed to send the game to overtime (his fourth-quarter shooting numbers are something).

Overtime began a mess. The Raptors turned it over immediately, let Smith Jr. get free for a dunk, saw DeRozan hoist an ill-advised mid-range shot, and got an unlucky bounce on their own rim to quickly fall behind. They’d pull back even with threes from Wright and DeRozan, then go ahead when a pair of offensive rebounds led to a VanVleet triple that nearly brought a now-full ACC down. (It was almost in spite of themselves, as they kept trying to goad Noel switches to attack even though he was the best defender on the floor.) Powell brought Dallas back to even with a three but DeRozan responded with a drive to the rim and a big defensive rebound at the other end. That gave the Raptors a chance to put it away – after using a pair of timeouts – and Valanciunas drew the intentional foul from Noel (fouling him out), then grabbed the offensive rebound when he missed the second (thanks, Siakam), putting the Raptors up five. His plan all along.

“Those end of game situations are great for us,” Casey said. “I haven’t seeen a perfect one yet, but I think our guys did a good job of being physical, coming to meet the ball. At the end, it’s a free throw game and JV did a good job of that.”

One five-second violation on Dallas later and the Raptors had once again pulled out a victory in a game where they didn’t seem particularly worried about it for the bulk of the night. That it’s a trend is becoming a little worrisome, though they have reasonable caveats here in that they were playing their seventh game in 11 nights (not a great time to go to overtime), were down Lowry, and need the sharpening that late-game scenarios provide.

“We make it hard on ourselves,” Casey said. “Every team is coming in and giving their best shot. We’re learning to be the hunted instead of the hunter, it’s a different mindset and if you want to get the best shots you have to be focused and mental mistakes can’t happen. I understand back-to-back, travel, get in late, all those are excuses but I thought our guy battled in the second half, made winning plays down the stretch to get ourselves back in it. We’re going to see that from here on out until the playoffs then in the playoffs.”

“I think we’re all looking at it like we get a bigger goal at hand,” DeRozan added. “As long as we’re playing well and we’re figuring out how to pull through adversity. Every game is not going to be pretty. As long as we’re figuring out how to win, and we’re doing it in the right way, that’s all that matters.”

Said differently, the Raptors are fine winning ugly, but they know there’s underlying progress that still needs to be made. The schedule won’t relent any time soon, as they’ll complete a 10-in-15 stretch with tough games against Oklahoma City and in Cleveland on a back-to-back. The margin for this style of win is going to get slimmer, and the Raptors are only going to be more fatigued over the next few.

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Raptors-Mavericks Reaction Podcast – Franchise record 11-game win streak

Host William Lou recaps the Toronto Raptors’ OT win over the Dallas Mavericks.


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Career night from Meeks helps Raptors 905 clinch playoff berth

Photo credit: Trung Ho /

Raptors 905 118, Northern Arizona Suns 114 | Box Score
Assignees: Malachi Richardson, Alfonzo McKinnie (905), None (Suns)
Two-ways: Lorenzo Brown (905), Alec Peters, Danuel House (Suns)

Raptors 905 have taken the next big step toward defending their G League Championship. Not long after the parent club Toronto Raptors closed out their own tight game on Friday, the 905 were hanging on through a wild finish to top the Northern Arizona Suns 118-114. In doing so, the 905 not only kept pace 1.5 games back of the Westchester Knicks in the race for the Atlantic Division title and a first-round bye, they also clinched their second consecutive playoff berth.

To do so, it took the 905 playing a style that doesn’t fit their modus operandi on the year but one that suited them well enough in this one. The Suns gameplan included a lot of 3-point shooting, a relative weakness for the 905, and Northern Arizona hit at a ridiculous clip most of the night, finishing 17-of-38 from long-range. The 905 aren’t equipped to keep up, and they didn’t – the shot 8-of-30 themselves, instead leveraging a massive edge on the offensive glass, out-rebounding the Suns 18-5 in that area, and embracing the pace without falling into turnover trouble. In news that won’t surprise anyone who’s watched the team all year, Kennedy Meeks was paramount in the rebounding battle. March’s favorite son not only came down with 15 rebounds, seven of them offensive, he also shot 12-of-16 to score a career-high 25 points.

Things looked dicey out of the gate, as the Suns came out on fire and Meeks got in early foul trouble. The game was hardly three minutes old when Phoenix Suns’ two-way player Alec Peters had hit his fourth three of the game, opening up a 16-11 lead and putting the visitors on their heels. Shevon Thompson would step in admirably for Meeks, and the 905 had a clear edict to attack inside against Peters playing at the center spot full-time (LaVoy Allen was unavailable). It looked for most of the quarter like Northern Arizona was one more shot from pulling away, but with each shot the 905 were able to respond to keep the lead at single-digits. As benches began filtering in, the 905 put together a late-quarter 9-0 run, one that would have had them ahead after the frame had Danuel House not hit a 67-footer to beat the buzzer.

That was a tough swing to come back from. The Suns attacked aggressively to start the second, taking advantage of a sped-up 905 backcourt. That group settled down eventually, with Kaza Keane and Davion Berry sandwiching a Thompson block with drives. It was short-lived, and not even a Jerry Stackhouse timeout after an Xavier Silas three and a House and-one settled things. Out of the breather, the Suns kept rolling, eventually going ahead by 16 and completing a 12-0 run. Perhaps sensing the game flow and the moment or just feeling himself at NCAA Tournament time, Meeks broke the drought with his first 3-point make of the season on his 15th attempt. That fired the 905 up, kick-starting a 22-5 run that involved a whole lot of Meeks inside, some nice defense from Alfonzo McKinnie, and another great boost from Fuquan Edwin, drawing a start once again here. Against long odds, the 905 held a one-point lead at halftime.

The game was far less about wild swings from there, and the 905 were able to assert their style a bit better in the third and grind the Suns down. They’d managed only 39-percent shooting in the quarter, and were it not for Josh Gray going off for 11 – including hitting all three of his threes – the 905 would have been firmly in control. As it was, their enormous rebounding edge was undercut by a 1-of-7 mark from outside and a handful of turnovers. There were bright spots, though, including another strong stretch from McKinnie and some great energy plays from Roger Moute a Bidias, even if he struggled to convert. The scene was set for a fourth quarter that would be a continued clash of styles, the 905 holding a four-point edge for cushioning.

That cushion was gone quickly. Archie Goodwin cut the lane for a dunk, Thompson missed a pair of free throws, and Rahlir Hollis-Jefferson unleashed a floater to tie things up. It was all back-and-forth from there, albeit with an extended stretch without much offense from either side. The 905 looked to be in a dire position again a few minutes in, with Lorenzo Brown getting picked off by Gray to set up a Goodwin dunk, and then a Meeks turnover once again leading to a Gray-Goodwin connection. A Stackhouse timeout settled things down some, and after Silas was fouled on a three, the comeback started in earnest – Meeks buckets inside bookended free throws for Aaron Best, and then a quick Brown run*out off of a Goodwin miss put the 905 back ahead with under six minutes to play, sending the Suns to a timeout of their own.

The story stayed largely the same, as the 905’s next offensive possession once again saw Meeks haul in an offensive board and put it back. They couldn’t pull away, with Hollis-Jefferson and House connecting for an alley-oop over the top of the 905’s transition defense. Another transition push for a dunk, this time from Silas, put the home side back ahead, but Best answered with a huge three from Brown. Brown had the ball in his hands plenty over the final two minutes, as has come to be expected. First he managed to corral his own miss and score to keep the 905 ahead, then he found McKinnie cutting baseline as a safety valve for a tough layup. That put the 905 up three, and after Hollis-Jefferson delivered a quick-two dunk, Brown found himself at the line to close things out. He’d connect on six straight in the final 15 seconds, negating a late Peters heave and locking in the 905’s place in the playoffs.

It’s a heck of a way to start a road trip, even if the Suns are a little below .500. West coast road games are tough, and largely unfamiliar for the 905 right now. Locking a win in early is huge with a back-to-back looming tomorrow against one of the best teams in the league, the South Bay Lakers. The Knicks – and in fact the best record in the G League – remain the target, and 1.5 games is still doable even if time’s running out. Failing that, the 905 at least know they’ll be playing a postseason game, and they’ll almost surely be hosting it (they are four games up on the likely five and six seeds, who will be the visiting teams in one-game opening-round series, but I’m unsure if they’ve clinched home court due to the potential for an unlikely multi-team tie). All of that is to say, a major goal was accomplished here. This team has come a long way from 4-9 and figuring out how to win games exactly like this.


  • Assignment notes
    • Alfonzo McKinnie was really effective at both ends here, shooting 6-of-11 for 15 points and hauling in six rebounds. His plus-5 might undersell his role in the pivotal swings in the game (although I guess, mathematically, that can’t be true). He’s really stepped up his defense with Malcolm Miller with the Raptors, and his cut to save Brown late in the fourth was a game-saving read of the floor.
    • Malachi Richardson continues to struggle with his shot and to find a permanent place in Stackhouse’s rotation. he was 0-of-5 here and 0-of-3 from outside, adding two rebounds in 15 minutes. It was just two games ago it looked like his confidence might be growing. Instead, he’s shooting 26.9 percent over 10 games with the team. Patience is warranted.
    • On a side-note, Nigel Hayes will be joining Raptors 905 tomorrow for the last three games of the road trip.
  • Other 905 player notes
    • Lorenzo Brown’s finals coring line doesn’t look like the stuff of high efficiency – he used 30 possessions to reach 26 points – but to say his late-game quarterbacking of the offense was important would be a dramatic understatement. He’s such an asset in these tight situations in a league where inexperience is fairly rampant, as he’s among the most calm, heady point guards there is at that level. He also grabbed seven rebounds and dished nine assists, so it’s hardly surprising he finished with a game-high plus-20.
    • Kennedy Meeks is the best. I want only good things for him. 25-and-15 on 12-of-16 shooting, playing through foul trouble, and even adding two assists and two steals. He might be the most improved player, in-season, in the G League this year…Fuquan Edwin is running with the chance to start, delivering another strong performance here with 18-and-10 and a plus-13 in 34 minutes…Shevon Thompson had 14 points (on 7-of-8) and eight rebounds in just 18 minutes…Aaron Best had a quiet offensive night but his threes came at big times, and he’s always a factor on defense.
  • Suns notes: Alec Peters cooled off after torching the nets early, still finishing with 23 points on 7-of-12 from outside. A starting center only managing three rebounds in 39 minutes is tough, though…Josh Gray is another in-season MIP candidate, finishing with 20-4-11 here…Danuel House (16-7) and Archie Goodwin (15-7-4) were effective offensively, outside of Goodwin’s turnovers.
  • The 905 have three more out west before closing the season at home on March 24. A friendly reminder that promo code “REPUBLIC905” will get you a discount at this link all season long.
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Quick Reaction: Mavericks 115, Raptors 122 (OT)

Dallas 115 Final
Box Score
122 Toronto

S. Ibaka35 MIN, 12 PTS, 7 REB, 2 AST, 1 STL, 5-10 FG, 2-5 3FG, 0-0 FT, 1 BLK, 1 TO, 7 +/-

My notes on Serge from tonight are less than kind before the fourth quarter, when Casey went to the Serge at center lineup, something I’m not a huge fan of, but it worked tonight in the fourth, to force overtime, and also to get the win.

O. Anunoby19 MIN, 4 PTS, 2 REB, 0 AST, 0 STL, 2-3 FG, 0-1 3FG, 0-0 FT, 1 BLK, 2 TO, 1 +/-

Great to see him back, and he was involved early in the offense, cutting to the bucket and showing the poise we’ve come to expect. Tough night defensively, as Dallas hit a lot of well-defended shots, but he looked to be back in form, which is great to see.

J. Valanciunas23 MIN, 21 PTS, 13 REB, 1 AST, 0 STL, 7-9 FG, 0-0 3FG, 7-8 FT, 1 BLK, 1 TO, 5 +/-

Jonas was the best Raptor tonight. The Mavericks simply had no answer for him inside, and he took advantage of the mismatches and his ability to beat them on the offensive boards. Didn’t play in the fourth or overtime aside from a few possessions where he was in shooting free throws, but not because he wasn’t good enough to be out there.

D. Wright39 MIN, 15 PTS, 5 REB, 6 AST, 2 STL, 6-15 FG, 3-7 3FG, 0-0 FT, 1 BLK, 1 TO, 13 +/-

Delon isn’t Kyle, and it’s not really fair to ask him to replace that production. At the same time, he was mostly good tonight offensively, showing confidence in his three-point shot and helping give some space to an offense missing their best shooter.

D. DeRozan41 MIN, 29 PTS, 4 REB, 6 AST, 1 STL, 8-23 FG, 1-3 3FG, 12-14 FT, 0 BLK, 3 TO, 19 +/-

DeMar’s first quarter was great, he hit some big shots at the end of the game to keep the Raptors in it and seal it in overtime, and in between there was a lot of stuff that wasn’t great. At the end of the day though, he did enough to get the win, which is what the team needed. Has to bring his fourth quarter defensive intensity to the first three quarters though.

F. VanVleet30 MIN, 14 PTS, 4 REB, 8 AST, 0 STL, 5-12 FG, 3-8 3FG, 1-2 FT, 1 BLK, 0 TO, 7 +/-

Good game from Fred offensively, who distributed well and hit some big shots. Didn’t have that same defensive impact fans have become accustomed to though, and JJ Barea got the better of him often.

P. Siakam29 MIN, 12 PTS, 2 REB, 1 AST, 0 STL, 5-6 FG, 0-0 3FG, 2-3 FT, 1 BLK, 1 TO, 8 +/-

Siakam didn’t fill the stat sheet like he can, but he gets the A tonight because of his fourth quarter defense, which was one of the biggest reasons the Raptors came away with the win. He was awesome late, creating turnovers and forcing shots as the Raptors clawed back.

C. Miles22 MIN, 10 PTS, 5 REB, 0 AST, 0 STL, 3-9 FG, 0-3 3FG, 4-4 FT, 0 BLK, 1 TO, -7 +/-

Tough night for CJ, who didn’t hit a three, and they needed that with Kyle out. Did make an impact on the boards and still managed 10 points, but if he had been able to hit some threes that would’ve been helpful.

J. Poeltl18 MIN, 2 PTS, 2 REB, 1 AST, 1 STL, 1-1 FG, 0-0 3FG, 0-0 FT, 2 BLK, 1 TO, -9 +/-

Aside from a pair of impressive blocks on the Mavericks point guards when they thought they had a mismatch against him, Jak just wasn’t impactful tonight. Got called for a brutal illegal screen in the fourth on a makeup call that absolutely was not a foul, too. Has had a few rough games in a row now, and will have to find his form again in the last month of the season.

M. Miller7 MIN, 3 PTS, 1 REB, 1 AST, 0 STL, 1-3 FG, 1-3 3FG, 0-0 FT, 0 BLK, 2 TO, -9 +/-

The toughest role on the Raptors right now is being the odd guy out on the wings, and only getting spot minutes to spare the other guys. That was Miller tonight, who was still solid, but the stats line isn’t kind.

Dwane Casey

At some point, the Raptors have to bring more intensity in the first halves of games, and it just hasn’t been there the last week or so. Still, hard to argue with the results and Casey made the right calls to get the win again tonight.

Things We Saw

  1. Dallas hit a lot of tough shots. The Raptors defense wasn’t as bad as the numbers appear for most of the night, but they did have some stretches that were lacking. JJ Barea, Dirk Nowitzki, and Harrison Barnes hit shots all night where the defense was there, though.
  2. Eleven in a row now, and 2-0 to start this stretch of 5 in 7 nights. A lot of minutes for DeMar and Delon tonight though, and it’ll be interesting to see who Casey decides to rest the rest of the way.
  3. This was a weird one late. A lot of discombobulated possessions and strange turnovers both ways.
  4. The Raptors clutch numbers will continue to improve with this win, and they’ve been showing over and over again lately that they can get it done late.
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Pre-game news & notes: Lowry rests, Powell out, Hayes 10-day official, Wright/Anunoby start

The Toronto Raptors continue to knock down records and set franchise bests in this, their best ever regular season. They’re doing it so regularly that each new mark seems more random and searched-for than the last. Oh, word, the Raptors have won a record 14 games in a row when a starting shooting guard hits a two with a toe on the line? They’re an NBA-best 18-2 when the team’s first 3-point attempt comes from a player who wore Supreme to the arena? This is the most times the Raptors have outscored an opponent by a Fibonacci number?

There are still two items left to tackle that are a little more straight-forward and standard fare. The first, obviously, is the best record in franchise history, something the Raptors could now back their way into. They’ve already won 51 this year, their second-most ever. They’re going to top 56 without issue. The team’s first 60-win season now seems downright likely when a couple weeks back it seemed like a longshot that hinged on whether players would rest down the stretch.

The other is the longest winning streak in franchise history, something the Raptors can match Friday with a victory over the visiting Dallas Mavericks. Streams are exercises in randomness, and there are better indicators of the Raptors’ dominance – their record, their SRS or advanced metric of choice, the sheer casualness with which they take care of their business – and still, a lengthy winning streak seems like it fits this historic regular season (notable: four of their 18 longest winning streaks in 23 seasons have come this year). The Raptors have won 10 in a row for only the second time ever, one off their best from January of 2016.

Standing in the way is a Mavericks team that was so blatantly tanking that their owner admitted it and got hit with a fine, then accidentally turned it around. Not only did they beat the Raptors on Boxing Day – Toronto’s last loss to a bad team – they’ve won three of four to “fall” to “seventh” in the tanking standings. That’s an organizational directive, but coaches and players don’t tank, and the Raptors got a look a few months back at how a poorly executed (and frigid shooting) game against the Mavericks may go. An 11th in a row is no guarantee, even if Toronto still hasn’t dropped a game to a sub-.500 team at the Air Canada Centre.

The game tips off at 7:30 on TSN 4 and Sportsnet 590. You can check out the full game preview here.

Raptors updates
Norman Powell is once again listed on the injury report as doubtful, and without the benefit of a shootaround on a back-to-back, there’s been no update to his status. Considering he was in a walking boot yesterday, it would seem this is more of a week-to-week thing than a day-to-day thing. Speaking of week-to-week ankle injuries, OG Anunoby is no longer on the injury report. Of course, that was the case Thursday, too, and he didn’t play. Dwane Casey’s availability is delayed tonight due to a closed walkthrough, so we won’t have a firm update on the plans for Anunoby moving forward. Malcolm Miller has played well filling in, but the team figures to get Anunoby reacclimated in his starting role sooner than later.

Here’s a look at how the four primary starters have done with different fifths, though it’s worth keeping in mind that some of these looks have either come in late-game scenarios (the point guards) or a bunch of tiny samples added together (Miles):

UPDATE: Casey said that Anunoby was available Thursday, he just opted not to use him because of the difficult Oladipo matchup and because Miller was playing well. He also said that the break may have been good for Anunoby, as he’s looked fresh in practice. He wouldn’t tip his hand on starters yet, though.

Also, I saw Powell out of a walking boot before the game. It might be an in-and-out thing for workouts and treatment, but he’d managed to get a good sweat in, at least.

UPDATE II: Kyle Lowry is getting the night off for rest. Powell is out. This is the first game Lowry will sit for rest this year and his fourth missed game overall. It’s also the first time the Raptors are claiming an absence for rest this year.

UPDATE III (so many updates!): Delon Wright and OG Anunoby are starting. This keeps Fred VanVleet in his usual rotations and avoids working Anunoby back in with the bench. Miller figures to take on Wright’s usual 10th-man role, unless the Raptors go super-sized off the bench to get a look at Hayes.

PG: Delon Wright, Fred VanVleet
SG: DeMar DeRozan
SF: OG Anunoby, C.J. Miles, Malcolm Miller
PF: Serge Ibaka, Pascal Siakam, Nigel Hayes
C: Jonas Valanciunas, Jakob Poeltl, Lucas Nogueira
OUT: Kyle Lowry, Norman Powell
TBD: None
905: Malachi Richardson, Lorenzo Brown, Alfonzo McKinnie

Mavericks updates
Dallas got their updates out of the way early on Friday, ruling Salah Mejri out with a hamstring injury and declaring that J.J. Barea is available despite a rib muscle strain. Normally, I’d say to go ahead and pencil Barea in as your Gerald Henderson Award winner, but this is a team that employs Doug McDermott. Ever wonder where Henderson is these days? McDermott absorbed his Raptor-killer spirit in a Monstars-level event. To wit, McDermott has averaged 12 points in 10 career games against the Raptors, second among all teams, and he’s done it on 62.8-percent true-shooting (third). Two of his three best games by Game Score have also come against Toronto. He’s already got eight points and the game hasn’t started.

The Mavericks are also without Seth Curry and Wesley Matthews for the remainder of the year, which has meant some new rotation wrinkles for Rick Carlisle. Most recently, that meant starting Dorian Finney-Smith, a player who appeared poised for a breakout sophomore season before injuries befell him. The projected starters have played nine minutes together over two games, posting ludicrous marks on both ends (74.6 offensive rating, 70.9 defensive rating). Dallas’ most commonly used lineup available here is a hybrid Ferrell-Bara-McDermott-Powell-Nowitzki look that owns a plus-24 net rating in 84 minutes.

Also, Dirk! This might be his last visit to Toronto. Appreciate it.

UPDATE: Finney-Smith is still starting but sliding a position, with Dwight Powell starting in place of Yogi Ferrell.

PG: Dennis Smith Jr., J.J. Barea
SG: Harrison Barnes, Yogi Ferrell, Kyle Collinsworth
SF: Dorian Finney-Smith, Doug McDermott, Jalen Jones
PF: Dwight Powell, Jameel Warney, Maxi Kleber
C: Dirk Nowitzki, Nerlens Noel
OUT: Salah Mejri, Seth Curry, Wesley Matthews
TBD: None
Texas: Jonathan Motley


The line
The Raptors are 11-point favorites with a 211 over-under. Even at home, that’s a big line for a team on the second night of a back-to-back with a rest disadvantage. Update: The line dropped to Raptors -10.5 with the Lowry news. Clearly not a lot of concern here.

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Open Gym Ep. 22

The latest episode of the terrific series examines just how spicy the bench is.

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An Investigation into CJ Miles’ Domination: Part Two

C.J. Miles has been dominating the NBA since the start of February. It is known. In fact, I already wrote a piece about his offence and how the shots he’s been hoisting during the hot streak are the same qualitatively and quantitatively as the shots he threw up before. My conclusions (that surprised me) were that he was simply hitting a few more shots, but not enough to account for his human embodiment of the fire emoji on the court. Therefore, much of his success must be attributed to improved defence (we’ll see about this later). So let’s get it.

Defence is harder to discuss than offence because there are fewer stats available, but let’s start with the most often used stat: defensive rating. Since January 31st, Miles has a defensive rating of 98.1, or 5th best on the team among rotation players. Give that to a team and it’s the best defensive rating on the season. You could say that Miles is carried by his defensive partners, as he’s played the majority of his minutes next to defensive mavens Fred VanVleet, Delon Wright, Pascal Siakam, and Jakob Poeltl. But he’s been playing next to them all year! And his defensive rating before January 31st, when he played the majority of his minutes alongside the same teammates, was 102.5. So rotations that include him have defended better, but that’s not enough information.

So where can we get more? An important indicator of defence is actually stopping your man, so let’s look at how players have shot while defended by Miles. Spoiler: it hasn’t been pretty.

Since January 31st, he hasn’t been any better at forcing opponents into missing shots. In fact, he’s been worse. Opponents shot 4.1% worse than their averages, overall, when directly defended by Miles until January 31st, and that’s decreased to 0.6% better than their averages since January 31st.

Perhaps more instructive than quality of Miles’ defence on attempted field goal is quantity; he’s only directly defended 67 shots – least on the team – in the few months since January 31st (teammates like Poeltl, Valanciunas, and Lowry have defended more than 200 each); this, perhaps more than any other statistic, speaks to how the coaches can gameplan Miles’ defence into respectability.

Going through some film, the Raptors seem to have some specific defensive principles that are unique to Miles (and maybe also DeRozan). First of all, the Raptors want Miles to cover the team’s worst wing shot-creator. This is despite Miles being the only true wing of the bench mob! However, Wright and Siakam are so versatile defensively that the Raptors can hide Miles on a variety of players. For example: against Washington, he guarded Kelly Oubre while Wright took the more threatening (and taller) Otto Porter.

It is important to note that with Miles and DeRozan on the floor, Miles defends the stronger wing player. When both play, many of their principles in terms of hiding Miles go out the window; both players seem to switch freely on all areas of the court.

However, most of his minutes come without DeRozan alongside him. In those situations, the Raptors like Miles to stay in the corners as much as possible. With Miles hidden from the action, the Raptors like to keep it that way; they work hard to keep him from switching in the middle of the floor.

Here, Poeltl bent the team’s defensive structure relatively far to provide help for Miles without switching, then he recovered to stymie the play. He displays ridiculous mobility and awareness on this play, all just to allow Miles to stay on his original man. There’s not many centers in the league that can do that, but fortunately Miles spends most of his minutes alongside one.

When Miles does switch, it’s to continue hiding him on defence. Here against the Knicks, the Raptors pre-emptively switch a ball screen defended by Miles and Siakam to get Siakam onto the ball. Miles is left guarding a Westchester Knick, which is fine for the Raps (although Miles does eventually foul).

The same thing happened later in the game when Miles switched a screen to pick up Beasley, who promptly posted up and isolated. The point is that the Raptors are ok with primary wing scorers isolating against Miles as long as it bogs down the offence and comes from the side of the floor and not the middle; the team can easily zone up the weak side and send the center to help. Against Beasley, Miles’ own quick hands saved the day:

Another area where the Raptors are happy for Miles to switch is into the corners. The Raptors will switch Miles onto ostensibly better offensive players if it keeps him away from the action. A benefit of this is that this unlocks Siakam onto the play, like releasing the hounds onto an intruder on your property, Mr. Burns-style:

Miles can be an intelligent defender; his issues come from lack of physical mobility, strength, and vertical. By keeping him out of the play, the Raptors limit the damage from those weaknesses. But he is still capable of identifying when defensive breakdowns are about to occur and rotating when needed:

He’s smart enough that he can involve himself in the bench’s trapping, force-turnovers scheme without being a monster athlete:

So the image that remains is that Miles is not a world-beating defender, but he won’t destroy a scheme. He’s smart enough to know his strengths and weaknesses, and he is heady enough to follow a scheme designed to minimize his weaknesses. So he mostly stays out of the way, which is by design. He is able to chip in when necessary, forcing some turnovers, and helping put out fires caused by defensive breakdowns, but in general his defence is solid, if uninspiring.

This is a far cry from early in the season, when he was a defensive issue. Against the Bucks on January 1st, Miles finished a -12 in a 4 points overtime win. The Raptors mostly played him against Malcolm Brogdon and Kris Middleton, who are quite involved in the Bucks offence. The Buck’s offence frequently created breakdowns in the Raptors defence by exploiting Miles’ involvement on important offensive players in high-leverage areas of the floor:

Every NBA offence has somebody standing in the corner. The Raptors just have had Miles guard that person as much as possible. Don’t get it twisted; these are smalls changes. Miles is not a defensive stopper, but he has become less of a negative during the majority of his minutes, which come alongside four defensive wizards. This is much of the point: Miles’ teammates drive his numbers, to a great extent.

In 460 possessions played alongside the bench mob (just over 1/3rd of his total possessions played), the lineup allows only 94.8 points per 100 possessions, per CTG. In 228 possessions played alongside both Jonas Valanciunas and DeMar DeRozan, the lineups allow 110.9 points per 100 possessions. That number shoots to 134.5 when Serge Ibaka fills the power forward position instead of Pascal Siakam. These are big differences based on personnel, but the important point is that alongside terrific defenders, Miles can be part of a good defence. Alongside less mobile, less aware, and less effortful defenders, Miles cannot boost the defence into tolerable levels (in fact, he likely makes it worse).

And if Miles can be part of a good team defence, he can absolutely dominate. That’s what we’ve seen over the past few months: utter annihilation. Miles has been torching the league like Ip Man (if the rest of the NBA were to be blackbelts who wronged him). His offence has been the hottest of hot fires, despite him still taking ridiculously difficult shots. He’s just been hitting more. And when his defence is passable? Forget about it. There’s a reason why the Raptors bench has been the best lineup (> 100 minutes played together) in the NBA.

So what are the takeaways here? CJ Miles’ defence can be gameplanned around. In fact, most poor defenders can probably be part of a good defensive lineup if the coaches are smart and the other four teammates capable. Can you imagine a wing in the NBA who would sink the bench mob’s defence to below-average levels? I can’t either. (Before you ask, in the 62 possessions DeRozan has played in Miles’ usual position alongside VanVleet, Wright, Siakam, and Poeltl, they have held opponents to 70.0 points per 100 possessions, which is ungodly and don’t you dare mention small sample sizes!).

I set out approximately 3000 words ago to discover how specifically Miles has been slaughtering opponents with such consistency. At first I thought: of course! he’s been making more shots. Well, yes, true, but only enough to add an extra point or two per game. And he’s taking the same shots, in the same sets, with the same levels of defensive attention as earlier in the year. Seems to be more smoke than fire. So next I assumed, of course, that Miles’ defence had improved massively. Not so much. He’s mostly just been asked to do less on defence, and that’s worked.

Miles has set opponents ablaze because of a variety of factors, including all of the above. Most likely, the largest factor has been his teammates’ various improvements; net rating is driven by five players on the court (and five opponents), so Miles hitting more shots isn’t enough to have driven his net rating through the roof since January 31st. Teammates, coaches – a long list of people must be credited for Miles’ improvements, in addition to his own play. Perhaps this is the most important takeaway of all.

All statistics used are taken from unless otherwise noted.

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Gameday: Raptors @ Mavericks, March 16

A song that lodged itself in my head as I started to write this was “I Fall To Pieces” by Patsy Cline, not for it’s heartfelt message of longing but for the literal action in which the Dallas Mavericks organization is taking part. Things do not look great in North Texas.

The on-again-off again question of tanking seems to be off again for the Mavs, with owner Mark Cuban fined 600K by the league for his recent comments in favour of flopping. Cuban’s comments came a day after Sports Illustrated published its fairly damning exposé on the broken and openly hostile work environment within the organization, including allegations of inappropriate sexual conduct by the team’s former president, Terdema Ussery. Even more recently came allegations against Cuban himself. Cuban has since denied—flatly, unsurprisingly, unconvincingly—the allegations, but the incident’s 2011 timing situates it smack dab in the height of Ussery’s tenure and if the fallout of the former president’s actions allowed for a hostile, misogynistic culture to run rampant within the Mavericks it’s a fair bet Mark Cuban clicked with that culture. A job posting for a Chief Ethics and Compliance officer currently sits open for Dallas.

I mention all this in a game day preview because the Cuban allegation, and the state of the Mavericks franchise, is flying under the radar with the more prominent piece of news being the state of the team itself. These two realities aren’t independent of one another. If you want a shining example closer to home just look at the Toronto Raptors. The team is flourishing because top-down, so is the entire organization. The value of respect is enforced at every step of the organizational ladder and intrinsic in the framework of decision making from management to playmaking on the court. To put it in Texas talk, you can’t cure a snakebite just by stomping the snake, you’ve got to remove the venom before it gets too far through the body. In the Maverick’s case, tanking might be the best fit, not just for the team, but from the very top-down. Cultural resets do wonders.

To help set up tonight’s game we reached out to Texas son and writer (Texas Monthly, The New Yorker, Real GM, VICE Sports) Jonny Auping for his insight.

Katie Heindl: How old do you think Dirk Nowitzki really is?

Jonny Auping:  Dirk Nowitzki’s defense is 68 years old. But, to his credit, his offense is still 34 years old. So I think that averages out to his true age being about 51 years old.

What’s something interesting you can share about a player on the team that Raptors fans, succumbing quickly to their own ego and limitless potential, might overlook?

Uhh, Dwight Powell is Canadian? I don’t know, Katie. This isn’t the most interesting team. I’ve personally always found Harrison Barnes’ bland personality interesting in its own special way. Like how even as an adult milk is still the best drink with certain foods (cookies, most things with peanut butter, etc.) When you combine it with all the good stuff he does in the community (he and his wife recently bought out a theater so a bunch of kids could screen Black Panther) his inability to be remotely controversial is almost like an endearing parlor trick.

Champ is an exceptional mascot as far as mascots go, personally he is everything I would want in a mascot (a horse). Why is there need for the Mavs Man? Is his white male mediocrity soothing to some people? Has the Mavs Man ever ridden Champ? 

Wow, typical Canadian presumptuousness. I won’t get into details, but I have personally played basketball against Mavs Man (sans the terrifying basketball mask) and I can give you a little exclusive: He is not white. Maybe we could all benefit from a little more open dialogue about mascots.

Is Seth is the superior Curry?

Yes. He is the superior Curry in the same sense that Luigi is the superior brother. I don’t think I have to elaborate on that so I won’t. Your readers are real ones.

What do you want next year for Dallas, perfect scenario? Remember you are talking to Raptors fans here so we know no dream is too small, too tenuous, too pathetic, too desperate, too hinged on any other given number of impossible qualifiers.

I would like them to draft Michael Porter Jr. because he is the biggest unknown and therefore you’ll have no retort when I project Hall of Fame potential upon him. I would like them to sign Aaron Gordon. I would also like them to trade Wes Matthews’ expiring contract for Dion Waiters. I would then like Dion Waiters to win MVP. That won’t result in an immediate championship, but patience will be one of the biggest points of emphasis for player/coach Dion Waiters.

If the team tanks do you think Mark Cuban should also tank and/or be locked in a tank and sunk into Lake Ray Hubbard, too? 

My opinion has long been that Mark Cuban is probably 5% smarter than the average person and probably about 35% less smart than he thinks he is. So I could certainly envision some sort of scenario where he accidentally locks himself in a tank while trying to prove that the free market should dictate whether or not tanks can open from the inside or something like that. As far as league-enforced mandates, I think that if we use the Cuban smirk of a 60-win Mavs team as the baseline, his facial expression should always be a direct reflection of the number of wins the Mavs are on pace for at any given moment.

Raptors updates

Toronto has been putting up some sticky starts in the last two weeks and while it’s not worrisome yet, it’s nowhere close to how they’ll need to come out in the post-season. Coming off a tight game against the Pacers and a close game against the uh, Nets, even the Swiss Army knife of the Raptors bench has been showing signs of wear.

There’s the question of coasting, namely are the Raptors doing it, with a playoff spot locked and a first seed all but confirmed, but it doesn’t seem aligned with the attitude the team has taken all year of obliterating franchise records wherever they can. A certain amount of fatigue makes sense with the end of the season looming on the horizon, but the Raptors need to lock it in before they get there.

C.J. Miles has been a clutch guy all week, landing deep threes when the team needs some solid ground to dig into and turn games around. And if the bench is a bit tired there are still boosts of energy, like Siakam last night with 12 points, 8 rebounds, and two assists on 5-of-7 shooting in his 20 minutes of game time. With the reach of Nowitzki and the speed of Dennis Smith Jr. to contend with tonight, checking the frequency of turnovers we saw in the Indiana game would be beneficial.

PG: Kyle Lowry, Fred VanVleet, Delon Wright
SG: DeMar DeRozan
SF: Malcolm Miller, C.J. Miles
PF: Serge Ibaka, Pascal Siakam, Nigel Hayes
C: Jonas Valanciunas, Jakob Poeltl, Lucas Nogueira
OUT: None
TBD: OG Anunoby, Norman Powell

Mavericks updates

With Wesley Matthews out indefinitely and other injuries punching holes through the Mavs rotation, the team’s M.O. is mostly to get the season done and over with. Dallas coach Rick Carlisle has been mixing up his lineups around rookie Dennis Smith Jr. and with 15 games left and a sparse amount of options, it’s what he’ll have to continue to do.

Harrison Barnes lit up the Knicks for 30 points on Tuesday and the team’s been resting since then. Not to say the Raptors should expect an onslaught but Dallas will be moving on much fresher legs.

PG: Dennis Smith Jr.
SG: Yogi Ferrell
SF: Harrison Barnes, Doug McDermott
PF: Dorian Finney-Smith, Harrison Barnes, Max Kleber
C: Dirk Nowitzki, Dwight Powell, Nerlens Noel
OUT: Wesley Matthews, Seth Curry
TBD: J.J. Barea, Salah Mejri

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Raptors survive turnover woes, win 10th in a row

Raptors 106, Pacers 99 | Box Score | Quick Reaction | Reaction Podcast

At some point – at least in theory – the Toronto Raptors will lose a game again. On paper, it would look something like this: A road game against a quality opponent where the Raptors play carelessly, the bench not having its usual spark, and one or two opposing players go off. A quick look at Thursday’s box score would show a game that certainly fit the bill. A quality Indiana Pacers team hosted the Raptors, forced 19 turnovers, grabbed an early lead, and got 20-plus points from two bench pieces, one of whom rarely plays.

And still, the Raptors won 106-99. This is what they do now. At some point, what’s now the second-longest winning streak in franchise history will end, sure. It’s apparently going to take something stiffer – or, in all likelihood, weirder – to keep the Raptors from toppling yet another team record.

The Raptors got off to a nice offensive start in this one, feeding Jonas Valanciunas in a nice carry-over from the Brooklyn game. He hit a three to open the game, posted up Myles Turner, and drew a foul attacking Turner after delivering a pump-fake. He responded on the defensive end, too, providing a pair of great contests for stops at the rim, including one in transition. While he was turning people away at the rim, his teammates picked him up on the glass, holding the Pacers without an offensive rebound for some time. The defense wasn’t perfect, particularly on an 8-0 Pacers counter-push that saw Malcolm Miller lose Victor Oladipo in transition after he scored on a terrific cut and then Bojan Bogdanovic break loose for a three. Miller would try to make up for it with a great rear-view contest block on Oladipo shortly after, and Kyle Lowry followed up with a three to get on the board and keep the Raptors ahead into the game’s first timeout.

Valanciunas’ touches kept coming, and while he had a hand in a pair of turnovers, he also made a great read out of a numbers advantage on the dive for a Serge Ibaka jumper. The Raptors’ offense took off from there, though outside of a Miller strip of Bogdanovic, the defense wasn’t strong enough to really pull away – DeMar DeRozan, Lowry, and Ibaka all hit threes in short order, only for a careless turnover to let the Pacers pull right back with consecutive baskets. The bench didn’t get any stingier with theball against the ample help Indiana was sending towards the middle, allowing for a 9-0 closing run. The Raptors wound up with eight turnovers in the quarter, almost the sole reason they found themselves in a two-point hole after one even though they had significant edges in shooting percentages and on the glass in favor of Toronto.

The second didn’t get off to any better of a start, with Poeltl getting whistled for an iffy and-one on Al Jefferson and Fred VanVleet getting the same treatment opposite Lance Stephenson. Dwane Casey was displeased, and the continued lack of shot-making for the Raptors and Al Jeffersoning for Al Jefferson for the Pacers saw Indiana stretch the lead to seven, the rare negative stretch for the Toronto reserves. Casey trusted the group a while longer, and they settled in a little bit from there outside of Jefferson continuing to work Poeltl and VanVleet taking a knee to the head. One play warrants specific pointing out, as Delon Wright and Pascal Siakam both faked out Stephenson on the same possession, eventually leading to a Siakam dunk. Naturally, Stephenson responded with a dunk, then drew an offensive foul.

Casey opted for a near-wholesale change from there, bringing four starters (and soon, a fifth) back in to try to swing the balance back. The stars were both able to get to the line with sharp cuts to the net – Valanciunas had a nice feed to DeRozan – but the Raptors continued turning the ball over, delaying a speedy comeback. It almost came, it was just more methodical, requiring the Raptors to string some stops together and Valanciunas to finally breaking through again with a big dunk on a rim-run. The Raptors were nearly all the way back until DeRozan picked up a technical foul and Jefferson returned for an injured Turner (he has a high ankle sprain, which is awful) to continue his throwback evening, stroking a pair of long jumpers to already reach his second-highest point total of the season. Valanciunas missed a couple of tough looks through contact at the buzzer, and the Raptors went into the break down eight again, sunk by 11 turnovers and the unruly Jefferson performance.

The Raptors couldn’t apply their halftime adjustments out of the gate, almost immediately driving into inside pressure and committing three straight turnovers. It was a minor miracle the Pacers didn’t run away with it in the opening minutes, with the Raptors defending mostly well around their frustration with the officials to keep things within striking distance. The offense came around despite being in their own way with some curious decision making, with an aggressive Ibaka drive, Valanciunas work on the glass, and a DeRozan three helping stay tight. There was just no answer for Jefferson, who continued stroking jumpers and pump-faking defenders into 2008. Oladipo continued making some tough shots against a really good effort from Miller, too (Miller had the second-best D-Rating on the team and Oladipo’s numbers took a noticeable dip opposite him).

Casey let the starters try to figure it out for nearly nine minutes before beginning to turn to the bench, only down six at the time since the defense had mostly picked up with the offense cooling off. When he did go to the bench, it was to get a quick look at a Siakam-Ibaka frontcourt to change up the coverage and try to deny Jefferson the ball by fronting on the block or sinking to prevent anything over the top. They also had a play-call ready designed to attack Jefferson with DeRozan almost immediately, producing an and-one. Siakam attacked Jefferson right after, too, capping an 8-0 run that pulled them back within one. Indiana responded by going small themselves, even as Poeltl returned, drawing a foul on an offensive rebound to stay within two entering the fourth.

Based on precedent, this would have been where the bench swung control to the Raptors. Initially, Indiana continued applying heavy defensive pressure, grinding Toronto into the half court and forcing some tough shots and, not surprisingly at this point, turnovers. C.J. Miles chose the right time to heat up, hitting a pair of threes (on essentially the same play) sandwiched around a Darren Collison three, opening the window for the Raptors to take their first lead since the first quarter on Wright free throws. Miles continued his week of unseasonably warm fourth-quarter shooting, hitting another triple off of a nice Lowry kick-out born from a Siakam offensive rebound. With the Pacers going nearly four minutes without scoring despite some good looks, the Raptors railed off a 9-0 run.

The close-out wouldn’t be as easy as a pull-away from there, as Miles appeared to injure his left elbow on a fall at the rim (he’d return later). Casey went to a Wright-and-starters look in response – a lineup that I really like but hasn’t had great results yet – and Lowry went into momentary takeover mode after a rough nigh to this point, hitting a tough fading three, scrambling everywhere on defense, grabbing offensive rebounds, and then drawing a foul to stay a few possessions ahead in the final minutes. Ibaka did the exact opposite, making a number of questionable choices in the closing stretch and continuing his shaky fourth-quarter shot-making. The league’s best fourth-quarter defense did a solid job for most of crunch time, but a Collison three after a tough DeRozan possession still had Indiana within a possession with 26 seconds remaining. DeRozan hit a pair of free throws, then came up with a steal and a dunk to effectively end it.

And like that, the Raptors have a 10th consecutive win (one off the franchise record), their 17th in the last 18 games, and their eighth in a row on the road. It was a familiar story here, with the difficulty dialed up – play a sloppy first half, take some time to find a groove, and shift gears in the second half and take control back. That the Raptors were able to do it on the road against a red-hot team fighting for home-court advantage in the playoffs says a lot more than doing so against inferior opponents did, and Casey continues to show an ability to tweak things on the fly to find the right groups and schemes for the occasion. The team’s composure and decision making in clutch situations has improved as the year’s gone on, too, and while there haven’t been enough instances of games staying within five points for the net rating to normalize, the Raptors are now 21-13 in games that are within five points at some point in the final five minutes.

With each passing game, each passing win, each passing rotation tweak or next-man-up performance, the Raptors leave fewer and fewer questions that they could conceivably answer before mid-April. On Thursday, it was whether their occasionally casual approach in first halves would doom them against stiffer competition. A few more tests are coming. This was the first of five games in seven days, there are two each left against Boston and Cleveland and one against Oklahoma City, and the Raptors need to work OG Anunoby back in at some point. These are wrinkles and tune-ups, though, not grand philosophicals. The Raptors are very good, even against good teams, even when that’s not necessarily true all game.

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Raptors-Pacers Reaction Podcast – Gritty win

Host William Lou recaps the Toronto Raptors’ win over the Indiana Pacers.


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Quick Reaction: Raptors 106 Pacers 99

Toronto 106 Final
Box Score
99 Indiana

S. Ibaka32 MIN, 13 PTS, 11 REB, 0 AST, 0 STL, 5-13 FG, 3-8 3FG, 0-0 FT, 0 BLK, 6 TO, 15 +/-

I don’t think his game was quite as bad as the rest of Raptors Twitter would suggest….but man he is frustrating to watch sometimes. Open threes and some rim protection are all we ask. When you don’t do that…it hurts. Please fix this.

M. Miller22 MIN, 4 PTS, 4 REB, 0 AST, 0 STL, 1-2 FG, 0-0 3FG, 2-2 FT, 1 BLK, 0 TO, 4 +/-

For a guy who got the start, played 24 minutes and recorded just 4 points…he still had a hell of a game. The way he moved on defense on Oladipo was downright nasty for a man his size and Casey should be proud of turning this guy into a full-blown rotation player.

J. Valanciunas27 MIN, 16 PTS, 16 REB, 2 AST, 0 STL, 5-13 FG, 1-1 3FG, 5-5 FT, 6 BLK, 0 TO, 6 +/-

Another MASSIVE double double with four blocks to boot. Dare I say JV has somehow taken a giant leap over the last, like, two weeks?! It feels that way and I would have liked to see even more of him down the stretch. The better he plays defense the more Casey trusts him. JV Hive is officially active…and justified.

K. Lowry32 MIN, 13 PTS, 6 REB, 6 AST, 1 STL, 3-10 FG, 3-7 3FG, 4-4 FT, 0 BLK, 4 TO, 12 +/-

As William Lou put it….”Kyle was extra doo doo tonight”. I’m fine with him only getting up for big games…if he actually keeps this going during the playoffs. To be fair though, this WAS a big game and he was downright brutal to start it. He literally couldnt make a basket inside the three point line and his turnovers were of the “what the hell was that variety?”.

D. DeRozan32 MIN, 24 PTS, 4 REB, 6 AST, 1 STL, 8-15 FG, 2-5 3FG, 6-7 FT, 0 BLK, 4 TO, 13 +/-

an all-around gem from DeMar. With the Robin to his Batman struggling tonight DeRozan was forced to carry a larger load both minutes-wise and scoring-wise and he delivered on both ends. Good to see him knock down some threes and he led the team in passing with the other guards struggling.

C. Miles21 MIN, 10 PTS, 1 REB, 1 AST, 1 STL, 3-9 FG, 3-7 3FG, 1-2 FT, 0 BLK, 0 TO, -2 +/-

I mean…he hits threes, and he misses threes. Sometimes he’s hot, sometimes he’s cold. This is not professional analysis, but it also is.

P. Siakam20 MIN, 12 PTS, 8 REB, 2 AST, 0 STL, 5-7 FG, 0-1 3FG, 2-2 FT, 0 BLK, 0 TO, -2 +/-

Consistently improves somehow every single game. Crashed the glass all night and grabbed three offensive boards. Also took smart shots and knocked down most of them. His movement on offense to set up more shots is getting nice. IM SO EXCITED ABOUT HIM FOREVER.

D. Wright19 MIN, 8 PTS, 1 REB, 0 AST, 1 STL, 3-5 FG, 0-2 3FG, 2-4 FT, 0 BLK, 1 TO, 2 +/-

Would have liked to see him move the ball a bit more but his length on defense was clutch when he hit the floor and he knocked down every shot within three.

F. VanVleet18 MIN, 2 PTS, 3 REB, 2 AST, 0 STL, 1-4 FG, 0-1 3FG, 0-0 FT, 0 BLK, 1 TO, -9 +/-

The Closer was NOT on his game tonight, and that’s fine. I wanted him to shine with CoJo opposite him but it just wasn’t his night.

J. Poeltl16 MIN, 4 PTS, 3 REB, 0 AST, 0 STL, 1-1 FG, 0-0 3FG, 2-2 FT, 1 BLK, 3 TO, -4 +/-

Continue to protect the rim with a ferocity best reserved for actual Raptors (Ibaka take note?). His 16 minutes were a little low for me but with the way JV was playing he wasn’t as necessary as normal.

Dwane Casey

Continues to do a lot with a little. With Lowry struggling and Ibaka playing like a wet blanket Casey made the adjustments to get his team into a mindset to take this over in the 4th. At some point the coach of the year chatter has to start ramping up to “Casey is the favourite” scenario right?!

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Pre-game news & notes: Powell in boot, Sabonis out, Anunoby back but Miller starts

Apologies for breaking up your first day of March Madness, but the Toronto Raptors have a game against the Indiana Pacers tonight. Why yes, it is kind of silly that the NBA overloads it’s schedule during March Madness, and it does stink that the Raptors play three games over opening weekend. That’s life, and nobody is going to take pity on a team that’s won nine in a row – two off of a franchise record – and 16 of their last 17 to sit atop the Eastern Conference with a 4.5-game cushion.

The Pacers certainly aren’t, not as they’re looking to lock up favorable seeding in the East themselves. They’ve won three in a row, six of seven, and 14 of 19 to vault into third in the conference, nudging into the top 10 on both ends of the floor in the process. They haven’t done so in a flashy manner, instead building methodically from within and getting a lot of incremental improvement from the roster and the system itself. And Victor Oladipo has reached another stratosphere. The Pacers aren’t elite anywhere, really, they’re just very solid up and down the rotation and the stat sheet. If there’s a weakness, it’s that they don’t go to the line much and have been susceptible to the type of traps the Raptors are familiar with, the king that force non-Oladipo players to make plays. They also don’t send opponents to the line, though, and they generally come out ahead in the turnover battle.

This should prove an interesting game on multiple front. It’s two hot teams and two great stories who have split the season series so far. Indiana’s offensive balance might make the Raptors inclined to tweak their pick-and-roll scheme a bit to prevent Oladipo from attacking, but they may also just choose to see how OG Anunoby handles that heavy responsibility in his first game back. The Pacers, remember, won the meeting between the sides in which Oladipo had “just” a solid night, losing the one in which he went off. That’s not to suggest causation, only to say that the Pacers don’t necessarily go the way Oladipo goes in all instances. The Raptors might be comfortable remaining who they are and letting him look for his if it means eliminating everything else.

The game tips off at 7 on Sportsnet One and TSN 1050. You can check out the full game preview here.

Raptors updates
Good news came down at shootaround, as OG Anunoby will return from a seven-game absence. Unfortunately, Norman Powell will not only lose his spot as a starter, he’ll take Anunoby’s place on the injured list. Powell suffered an ankle sprain on Wednesday and was in a walking boot at shootaround. He’s technically listed as doubtful. That’s a hard doubt. Powell had a window to make his case for a larger role once Anunoby returned, and while he showed flashes, it was as uneven as his performance has been all year. The Raptors will need Powell again at some point, and he’s a better player than he’s shown for chunks of time this year. Maybe he gets another chance once healthy. In any case, Anunoby’s return is good news, and the performance of the starters should trend back upwards now that he’s back in the fold.

That is, assuming he starts. The Raptors haven’t said either way yet, but it seems a safe bet given he hadn’t come off the bench since entering the starting lineup and his replacement is out. C.J. Miles or Malcolm Miller could theoretically start, too, though it would seem a good time to return to the 10-man rotation they were using before Anunoby went down, with Miller and Nigel Hayes as additional depth. As noted in the pre-game, this is the first of five games in seven nights, so keep an eye on workloads the next week.

UPDATE: Malcolm Miller is starting, which is interesting to say the least. Whether this is a case of the Raptors wanting another look at Miller or not wanting to task Anunoby with a full load of Oladipo – or a sign Anunoby is on a minutes restriction as he eases back in – it means the rotation will almost certainly include 11 players. Miller with the starters has produced a slightly positive net rating in their short time together, and Miller is the type of versatile defender who might be able to keep Oladipo in front of him. It’s a big test, though, ahead of a tough 15th-man decision for the Raptors. As for Anunoby, easing him in makes plenty of sense, even if he’s 100 percent – he’s been out a few weeks, and there’s only so much conditioning you can do outside of games.

PG: Kyle Lowry, Fred VanVleet, Delon Wright
SG: DeMar DeRozan
SF: Malcolm Miller, C.J. Miles, OG Anunoby
PF: Serge Ibaka, Pascal Siakam, Nigel Hayes
C: Jonas Valanciunas, Jakob Poeltl, Lucas Nogueira
OUT: None
TBD: Norman Powell
905: Malachi Richardson, Lorenzo Brown, Alfonzo McKinnie

Pacers updates
Indiana will be without one of the keys to some of their best lineup iterations, as Domantas Sabonis is out with an ankle sprain. That means Al Jefferson figures to see minutes backing up Myles Turner. With all due respect to Jefferson, a long-time favorite, that’s a positive for the Raptors. Sabonis has been excellent this year, and a handful of Indiana’s best looks have involved Sabonis in place of turner. Making matters worse, Trevor Booker is a game-time call with an ankle sprain of his own, which could leave the Pacers exceptionally thin in the frontcourt. T.J. Leaf and Ike Anigbogu are around, if unproven, and this would seem like a game they’ll spend the bulk of small.

The starters are still a lineup to watch out for. Swapping Cory Joseph in for Darren Collison has turned that group from okay to deadly. Joseph and Miles squaring off against their respective former teams should be a lot of fun, and The Plus-Minus Wave God Fred VanVleet going against The Plus-Minus Fade God Cory Joseph might set a record for heart-eyes emojis tweeted in one game.

UPDATE: Booker is available, per the Pacers. It wouldn’t be surprising to see him get some time as a small-ball center with Sabonis sidelined and the Pacers much deeper on the wings than down low.

PG: Cory Joseph, Darren Collison, Joseph Young
SG: Victor Oladipo, Lance Stephenson
SF: Bojan Bogdanovic, Glenn Robinson
PF: Thaddeus Young, Trevor Booker, T.J. Leaf
C: Myles Turner, Al Jefferson, Ike Anigbogu
OUT: Domantas Sabonis
TBD: None
Fort Wayne: Edmond Sumner, Ben Moore, Alex Poythress


The line
The Raptors are 4-point favorites with a 211.5 over-under. The line has held most of the day, though the over-under came down two points.

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VIDEO: Raptors ‘The Office’ parody

Okay, if this isn’t the new opening to every episode of Open Gym, something is wrong.

Reddit user U/905UserNotFound put together a tremendous mashup of the Toronto Raptors laid over the opening credits from The Office. It is tremendous. Apparently, Reddit has taken it down a couple of times, but our pal Chris Walder has captured it on Twitter for posterity. It is very good.

Great work by 905UserNotFound, who has also been responsible for a lot of funny Raptors photoshops/videos over the last couple of seasons.

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Kennedy Meeks’ favorite time of year

It’s just past 11 in the morning on a March Tuesday in Mississauga. Snow is in the forecast, because of course, school kids are filing in to consume the Hershey arena with the loudest of high pitched screams, and Raptors 905 head coach Jerry Stackhouse is sipping away at his large Starbucks coffee with the hopes of getting set for a noon start time.

Perhaps he should have had a sip of whatever Kennedy Meeks has around this time of year. There’s no better time for the 905’s starting center, still basking in the glory of his NCAA national championship title a year ago.

“We the champions till we not the champions,” he says before the game.

Meeks had a special senior year during the 2016-17 season, averaging 12.5 points, 9.5 rebounds, 1.2 blocks and a steal in just over 24 minutes over the span of 40 games, but saved his best for North Carolina’s title run. Over those six games during March Madness, Meeks bumped those numbers to 12.2 points, 11.5 rebounds, 2.2 blocks and 1.5 steals while shooting 64.2 percent from the field.

He was absolutely dominant in their Final Four win over Oregon, scoring 25 points on just 13 shots, grabbing 14 rebounds and swatting away three shots. It’s the type of performance you dream of on the national stage, but he wasn’t done just yet.

With the championship game hanging in the balance, Gonzaga’s Nigel Williams-Goss tried to attack Meeks off the bounce with his team trailing by three and under 20 seconds remaining. In theory, the plan was sound. Attacking a guy six-foot-nine, 290 pounds (at the time) off the bounce was probably a good idea. Williams-Goss already had 15 for the game, mostly off drives to the rim and Meeks was down to his last foul.

This was the Charlotte, N.C. native’s moment, though. He hung tough, stayed with Williams-Goss the whole way and rejected the shot which led to a fast-break down the other end where Justin Jackson sealed the victory. Now, Meeks has an everlasting memory.

“When you see the commercials, when you see people tag you on Instagram, it’s always a good feeling to know what you left at your college,” Meeks shares. “Glad to be a Tar Heel, glad to be a national champion.”

As humble as the 23-year-old sounds here, the pride with which he speaks seeps through. Now, he spends his free time in the locker room reminding his 905 teammates of just how special that run was. Rookie point guard out of Butler, Kethan Savage, has had to endure his fair share and knows he can’t do anything about it.

“I can’t say too much,” Savage says with a hint of helplessness. “He lets you know for sure, a lot of trash talk.”

Malachi Richardson played for Syracuse before being drafted by the Sacramento Kings and went head-to-head with Meeks in the Final Four of the 2016 edition. He had a respectable outing with 14 points and five boards, but Meeks came away with the last laugh with 15 points, eight rebounds and a 17-point victory.

“I remind him all the time,” Meeks says. “He talks about how good he played that game. I told him it doesn’t matter because I played well, and my team won.”

Stackhouse, a former Tar Heel himself and one who’s known to run his mouth, said he’s been pretty quiet about his former college winning the national title.

“I don’t have to say anything,” Stackhouse says with a big smile before the game. “Kennedy speaks enough for all of us. He’s excited, last couple of times, coming into the ACC tournament, he’s always saying, ‘Them boys look good!’. That’s Kennedy being Kennedy. He’s tied into that just as much as he’s tied into what we’re doing here.”

That he is. Meeks commitment to winning has stood out since joining the Toronto Raptors in Summer League. He’s shed 20 pounds since going undrafted and has been an integral part of the solution in making up for the absence of possible 2018 EuroLeague MVP Edy Tavares. The 905 have gone stretches without a traditional playmaker as well, and Meeks has expanded his game to make plays for others out of both the high and low post.

With the 905 hunting down the Westchester Knicks for top spot in the division to afford themselves a bye in the first round of the playoffs, Meeks shows his intent for another big March by bringing the intensity against the Greensboro Swarm right from the tip.

He scores the 905’s first bucket of the game, swats away L.G. Gill’s layup inside which leads to an Aaron Best transition three, and then settles into the role of distributor, because that’s what the coach wants.

“He’s a threat down in the block, but we ask him to be a facilitator for us,” Stackhouse says. “Make sure he’s looking at his cutters, looking at the weakside options as well, and then if nothing’s there he has the green light to go to work.”

After the team’s hot start, the Swarm come back in a big way and even take the lead in the second quarter. As the 905’s shooting goes cold, Meeks hits the offensive glass, gets put-back after put-back, and holds the fort till Davion Berry and Fuquan Edwin heat up in the fourth quarter.

When it’s all said and done, Meeks has 23 points and 15 rebounds to his name, 10 on the offensive glass.

“Meek was Meek tonight,” Stackhouse says after the game. “Unbelievable on the offensive board, we struggled to score a little bit and he gave us those second-chance opportunities, that was good for us.”

For Meeks, it’s all about the greater good.

“I just want to be there for my team,” he said after the win. “Didn’t play the last game, was a presence early and then just did my job. I’m always a willing passer when I get the ball in the pocket and my teammates were open.”

The box score only shows two assists, but that’s no reflection on how he gets guys moving, searching for space. He could care less about what his individual numbers say, though, it’s always been about the team for him. The 905 are chasing back-to-back titles themselves, and if Meeks can’t help his college team repeat, he’s happy to help his first professional team do so. For him, it feels all the same anyway.

“I think that we’re a close team, one of the closest in the league in my opinion,” he says. “We do such a great job with each other off the court that it transitions to the court. We hang out all the time. Our camaraderie is at an all-time high.”

They’ll travel to the west coast on Thursday for a crucial four-game road trip before one final game at home. There will be plenty more chilling out with teammates, but for as long as North Carolina is in the tournament, there’ll be plenty of trash talking, too.

They won’t care, though, because just like with his college team, for as long as the 905 have something to play for, they know they’ll get everything and more from their man in the middle.

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OG Anunoby to return Thursday; Norman Powell in walking boot

OG Anunoby will make his return to the Toronto Raptors lineup against the Indiana Pacers on Thursday, Eric Smith of Sportsnet passes along from shootaround.

There’s no word on if Anunoby will return to the starting lineup, but it stands to reason he will. He hasn’t come off the bench since running with the starting role earlier in the season, Victor Oladipo is a matchup that requires an Anunoby-like defender, and Norman Powell, who was starting in Anunoby’s place, is listed as doubtful. In fact, Powell is in a walking boot, per Mike Ganter of the Toronto Sun, so it’s probably safe to rule him out.

Anunoby has been sidelined since suffering a right ankle sprain and bone bruise on Feb. 28. He was in a boot for a few days but quickly progressed to non-impact cardio activities, though the Raptors have sparingly practiced at home of late, so updates were scarce. In all, Anunoby missed seven games – all Raptors wins – and while that skewed toward the longer end for an ankle sprain, it probably wasn’t the worst thing to get a rookie who’d played in all 60 games to that point a little mid-season breather. Here, he’ll return with 15 games to get back up to speed and rediscover a rhythm heading into the postseason.

While the Raptors went undefeated with Anunoby out, his presence was still felt. Don’t take a 7-0 run as a sign Anunoby is not important. In reality, his absence provided further evidence that even when cold offensively, he’s a driver of the starting lineup’s success – they own a plus-12.6 net rating in 655 minutes with Anunoby as their fifth, a minus-4.5 in 259 minutes with Powell as their fifth, and a minus-0.2 in 37 minutes with Malcolm Miller in that spot, per (these numbers differ slightly from, with the same takeaway). They’ve also been really good with Fred VanVleet, but who hasn’t been? In 60 games prior to the injury, Anunoby was averaging 5.9 points and 2.4 rebounds while shooting 45.3 percent from the floor and 35.3 percent on threes with the third-best net rating among rotation regulars at plus-11.5.

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Bench Behemoth: Raptors Reserves Ready for Playoffs

It’s difficult to level many criticisms at the Toronto Raptors by this point in the season—they’re the first place team in the East, they’ve won 16 of their last 17 games, they’ve got the league’s third-best offense and fourth-best defense, they’ve implemented a new offensive style to perfection, and they’re deeper than the Mariana Trench.

And yet, disbelievers will look at this last fact and disparage it by soberly noting that, in the playoffs, rotations are shortened and stars play more, hence lessening the impact a bench can have on a game and effectively muzzling the Raptors’ arguably greatest strength.

Last Friday, then, was a fantastic opportunity for Dwane Casey and his club. The league-leading Houston Rockets came into their house, red-hot on their 17-game win streak, playing at a level higher than perhaps any the Raptors had faced all season.

The build up felt like a playoff game. The atmosphere inside the Air Canada Centre felt like a playoff game. And, most importantly, the actual intensity of the contest itself felt like a playoff game.

So it was great to see a number of things the Raptors have developed over the season continue to be effective against a titanic opponent (e.g. the offense, which despite the pressure of Houston’s defense continued to thrive by moving the ball, setting screens, and not falling into static possessions). Sure, Casey had a game plan ready specifically for the Rockets (which was abundantly successful, by the way), but he was also granted the chance to let some things stand, like the rotation, and see how they fared in such a tense environment.

When it came to the much-lauded bench unit, Casey didn’t hesitate to put their feet to the flame, plopping them into the game in their normal minutes (with 905 call-up Malcolm Miller filling in for the injured Delon Wright) and evaluating their performance against an opponent that always had at least one of two Hall of Famers on the floor.

As it turns out, that performance was nothing short of exceptional.

Against a second unit anchored by Chris Paul, the full Toronto bench (that being the lineup of Fred VanVleet, C.J. Miles, Miller, Pascal Siakam, and Jakob Poeltl) played a totality of about nine minutes. During that span, they outscored Houston 22–20, more than holding their own on both the offensive and defensive side of the basketball.

The Raptors Bench Mob is exceptional at moving the ball, screening for one another, and cutting at auspicious moments. They work in tandem, like a well-oiled machine, seeking one another with a refined chemistry. If one option isn’t there, they kick the ball around and slice into the paint until they find the next one, with nearly every player an adequate-or-better playmaker.

Here, VanVleet comes off a Poeltl screen at the elbow, kicking the ball out to Siakam on the perimeter. Siakam then sends the rock down to Poeltl, who has a mismatch in the post with Eric Gordon guarding him. All the while, Miller has been moving off-ball, first working his way from the weak-side corner up towards the arcs before turning just as Poeltl catches the ball and cutting down the middle of the key. Poeltl sees him immediately and feeds him a pretty overhead pass that results in an easy layup.

Pushing the pace is also a key element of Raptors basketball this season (they play at the league’s 14th-fastest rate, as opposed to 24th-fastest in 2016–17), and the bench often does it even better than the starting group. As soon as Toronto gets a rebound, they’re off and running, with whoever’s running point looking to make long passes up the sides of the court to a streaking wing or big man (Siakam is excellent at this). Sometimes, if there’s no one open and there’s space left up the center of the floor, the point guard himself will attack in transition while the defense is still back-pedalling.

In this example, the Rockets have actually just scored, and are back on defense. VanVleet comes up the floor, however, and sees the space he desires. Already headed downhill, he hits Paul with a wicked crossover and burst of speed, and he’s at the rim.

Unfortunately, playing in transition isn’t always possible, and when it’s not, the bench needs to score via the opportunities it creates for itself in the half-court. As aforementioned, the bench is quite good at generating these looks, but they aren’t always great at making them, which isn’t a surprise, since the Raptors as a whole are only 22nd in three-point percentage despite taking the third-most attempts in the league. Sometimes, they just need someone to hit a shot, which is where guys like Miles come in.

Seeing nothing much developing, VanVleet barrels his way into the paint and looks to his left, where Miles is sliding farther towards the corner, his man not far behind. VanVleet hits him anyway, and with the sliver of daylight he has, Miles drills the triple right in Trevor Ariza’s face.

On defense, the Bench Mob followed Casey’s game plan nearly as well as the starters. The plan was simple—stay home on shooters, keep a wing high when guarding the pick-and-roll and hope they can fight through screens, and make sure there’s a big man waiting under the basket to contest shots at the rim. Whenever Harden was on the floor, Toronto purposefully left the midrange wide-open, knowing full-well that Houston is last in the NBA in two-point shots, and it paid off, with the Rockets refusing to deviate from the method that’s resulted in their first-place offense.

The few twos, then, came from Paul, whose bread and butter is the elbow jumper. Since the full bench played all of their minutes with him on the floor, the big (Poeltl) knew to come out from directly beneath the hoop and up closer to the top of the key in order to contest each one of CP3’s attempts, as shown here. 

Even more impressive than just coming up to contest a shot, was Poeltl flaunting his mobility and versatility, staying with Paul on more than one occasion while the latter tried to shake him. CP3 is used to torching bigs after getting switched onto them, but the lateral quickness of the Raptors’ reserve bigs is part of what makes that group so special.

The beating heart of the Bench Mob is VanVleet, and it’s often his grittiness and hustle that result in the most important swings. In a high-pressure game, he exerted his own pressure against Paul, getting in his grill and never allowing him to get comfortable on the perimeter. On one particular play, he picked up the nine-time All-Star full-court and forced him into an ugly turnover that was converted into a lightning-quick Siakam layup.

No, this wasn’t a playoff game. But it was the closest the Raptors are going to get in the regular season, and when shoved under a white-hot spotlight for the world to probe and judge, the Raptors bench group responded, playing the way they’ve played all season and shocking their opponents with speed, energy, and a collectively high basketball IQ.

Yes, rotations generally do shorten in the playoffs. And even in this matchup against the Rockets, Casey had Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan play more minutes (they still only played 33 and 36, respectively) with the bench to give them an extra scoring punch. But teams must also play to their personnel, and rarely do second units perform to the degree Toronto’s has—a degree that withstood the most lethal haymakers the league’s best offense could throw.

So why not enter the playoffs with the rotation as is? Why not throw out the all bench group against opposing teams who have a star on the floor?

The answer used to be: Because it won’t work.

And now? Now it’s just another criticism the Toronto Raptors have washed away.

What else you got?

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Gameday: Raptors @ Pacers, March 15

Two of the best stories in the NBA this season are set to square off for a third time on Thursday as the Toronto Raptors visit the Indiana Pacers. The season series is tied at one apiece and both sides have come a long way since the earlier November meetings – the Raptors’ loss to Indiana came at a near low-point and they’re 39-10 since, while the Pacers’ loss to Toronto prefaced a 28-17 stretch (the turnaround point came a little later).

Both sides feature Coach of the Year and Most Improved Player candidates, and both come in boasting strong two-way play – the Raptors are the league’s lone team in the top five on offense and defense, and Indiana is one of three others in the top 10 on both ends. Indiana’s played so well, in fact, that while the Raptors are looking to lock up home court throughout the Eastern Conference bracket (they now hold a 4.5-game lead with a magic number of 11 for the top seed), the Pacers have a legitimate shot at home court in the first round themselves, currently sitting third in the conference.

It should be a fun one and a really nice test for two hot teams hoping to draw out their peak into mid-April.

The game tips off at 7 on Sportsnet One and TSN 1050.

To help set the stage, we reached out to Ben Gibson of 8 Points, 9 Seconds, who was kind enough to help us out.

Blake Murphy: So, I’m a little annoyed. I looked at the standings a while back, remembered how good Pacers writers were for doing collaborative content in the playoffs two years back, and thought hey, the Pacers would be a nice first-round matchup. Well, the Raptors don’t lost anymore and the Pacers win too much to fall into the eighth seed, so that’s out the window. What’s gone into Indiana’s 15-6 run over the last two months?

Ben Gibson: The team finally started to come together beyond “Watch Victor Oladipo go to work.” Before the All-Star break, we saw a few games where Indiana looked hopeless with Oladipo in street clothes. While he obviously is a huge part of the team’s success, they’ve shown the ability to win when he struggles.  He is still finding ways to score, but his shooting has declined. But as we saw in Indiana’s recent win against the 76ers, Indiana doesn’t need him to put the team on his back every night.

The reason Indiana is still winning is a mix of Bojan Bogdanovic and Myles Turner finding their strides. Since the end of January, Bojan is averaging 17.9 points a game on 50.8% shooting, and 46.6 from deep. That allowed flexibility in the offense while other players went through ups and downs. On top of that, Turner’s gotten more physical and is averaging 13.7 and 7.7 rebounds over the last 19 games. The rebounds are the bigger story as he started putting up double-doubles with some consistency. Indiana’s been one of the worst teams as far as rebounding and getting points off of them, but if Myles keeps this up they can get to average. Your old friend Cory Joseph is trending up too, but his contributions on defense are the reason why more than his hot shooting or 11 points a game.

Blake Murphy: Indiana may have the league’s toughest schedule from here, including two meetings with the Raptors and five games out west. Is the goal for the Pacers from here to secure home court? The third-seed? Is there any concern the schedule (and maybe some over-performance relative to point differential) sets in over the final 15?

Ben Gibson: The schedule is a big concern, but not the end of the world. Part of it depends on when they catch teams. Are the Warriors going to rest down the stretch? There is a chance they get lucky and some of these games out west, in particular, are easier than expected.

That said, the Pacers should aim for keeping in the top four. That’s no easy task with four of the remaining 13 games coming against Eastern playoff teams. The game today is pretty much a loss now as Trevor Booker and Domantas Sabonis are questionable and out for the game, leaving Indiana thin in the frontcourt. But homecourt advantage is key to a playoff run for Indiana. I honestly believe they have a chance to beat anyone in the East when healthy, but the odds are against you already if you are playing the series on the road more than home.

Indiana’s got to keep hot — Myles Turner especially — but we’ve seen how they grind out wins in close games. They have a top 10 defense and offense as of late, so no team should take them lightly.

Blake Murphy: What’s better: Cory Joseph’s fades, or Fred VanVleet’s waves?

Ben Gibson: I’m in love with the CoJo.

Blake Murphy: In seriousness, how has Joseph been for the Pacers? This all has the look of a major win-win. The Raptors are getting tremendous point guard play from VanVleet and Delon Wright, C.J. Miles has been a huge piece of very effective bench units, and Joseph has taken the Pacers’ starters to another level. High-five?

Ben Gibson: High fives all around! We miss C.J. Miles dearly, but Bogdanovic is filling his role well on offense. Defensively is where Miles holds an advantage over Bojan, but the scoring from the Croation is more than enough.

But back to Joseph. Most of the year he proved himself to be the defensive specialist among the guards. That we expected. But what’s impressed in the absence of Darren Collison was how he makes the starting unit better. As far as net rating goes, Indiana is better with him as a starter over Collison. Even if they return DC to the starting role, I won’t be surprised to see them trot CoJo back out when defense is needed. There are limits with him as he isn’t the creator Collison is, but he has shown that he is invaluable to Indiana’s backcourt.

Blake Murphy: Raptors fans have started to ask “why not one of our many improved players” for the MIP award. DeMar DeRozan, VanVleet, Pascal Siakam, and even some others would have legitimate cases. The conversation starts with Victor Oladipo, though. Does he take home the Most Improved Player award?

Ben Gibson: He has to. That’s no offense to any of the Raptors. The big difference to me is a player like DeRozan turned a corner vs Oladipo went from OK to All-Star. A guy like DeMar improved on his game for sure and eliminate a number of criticisms about his game. Oladipo went from a role player in OKC a season ago to one of the best players in the NBA. It’s about the size of the leap to me. It’s a compliment to DD to say his jump wasn’t as great because his jump didn’t need to be as big.

Oladipo almost single-handily justified the trade — anything from Domantas Sabonis does an added bonis… err, bonus. This team wouldn’t be in third place if it weren’t for Oladipo’s growth as a player. The Raptors are still in first or second even if DeRozan stays the same. That’s why Oladipo is the MIP.

Raptors updates
Adding to the OG Anunoby woes was the news Wednesday that Norman Powell has suffered a sprained ankle and is doubtful for this game, with further evaluation forthcoming. Anunoby is still listed as doubtful, too, so the Raptors could be looking at a rotation that doesn’t involve either for the first time all year. That would seem to open a spot for Malcolm Miller to draw another start – and a difficult Victor Oladipo assignment – but the Raptors could also try to get an extended look at C.J. Miles with the starters or even start an extra point guard, tasking Fred VanVleet or Delon Wright with handling Oladipo.

Interestingly, Oladipo only scored 21 in the Pacers’ defeat of the Raptors and went off for 36 in the Pacers’ loss. Anunoby started both of those games with Powell seeing significant time (and posting a strong plus-minus) off the bench. It will be interesting to see how Toronto approaches him in their third meeting.

One other thing to watch out for here is that this is the first game of a back-to-back and the first game of a five-in-seven stretch. The three-game road-trip has been pretty light in terms of travel, but there’s a big toll coming with Toronto going Indiana-Toronto-off-Toronto-off-Orlando-Cleveland. They’ve done a good enough job of managing minutes all year that it’s maybe not a large concern. They’ll probably be keeping a close eye on minutes and fatigue though, with games at home against Dallas or in Orlando standing as potential rest days if anyone is showing signs of wear. The Raptors have one more really tightly compressed five-in-seven stretch in early April, too, though it may be less worrisome if the East is already wrapped up.

PG: Kyle Lowry, Fred VanVleet, Delon Wright
SG: DeMar DeRozan
SF: Malcolm Miller, C.J. Miles
PF: Serge Ibaka, Pascal Siakam, Nigel Hayes
C: Jonas Valanciunas, Jakob Poeltl, Lucas Nogueira
OUT: None
TBD: OG Anunoby, Norman Powell
905: Malachi Richardson, Lorenzo Brown, Alfonzo McKinnie

Pacers updates
The Pacers are just as banged up as the Raptors, though their problems come in the frontcourt rather than on the wing. Domantas Sabonis, who has essentially been manning the backup center position, is out with an ankle sprain, and buyout market acquisition Trevor Booker is questionable with an ankle sprain. The Pacers don’t have a great deal of frontcourt depth, and both of those players sitting could mean more time for Al Jefferson, still a nice offensive weapon but a favorable matchup for Toronto, or T.J. Leaf, who still hasn’t shown much. Alex Poythress could be recalled from Fort Wayne for depth, too.

Indiana is probably comfortable they can compete even down two backups. Some of their primary lineups have been so good and leaned on so heavily – they have three different groups that have played 300 minutes or more together (there are only 25 such lineups in the league) – that they can go a couple of different ways and still be successful. The projected starters have been a revelation, with a plus-13.2 net rating in 305 minutes, and the starters with Darren Collison in place of Cory Joseph were a slight positive before the change, too. Sabonis is a big part of some of Indiana’s best hybrid lineups and is a big loss, to be clear. They’re just probably confident in their top seven or so without him, too. Things get dicier if Booker can’t soak up some of those minutes in support.

PG: Cory Joseph, Darren Collison, Joseph Young
SG: Victor Oladipo, Lance Stephenson
SF: Bojan Bogdanovic, Glenn Robinson
PF: Thaddeus Young, (Trevor Booker), T.J. Leaf
C: Myles Turner, Al Jefferson, Ike Anigbogu
OUT: Domantas Sabonis
TBD: Trevor Booker
Fort Wayne: Edmond Sumner, Ben Moore, Alex Poythress

The line
The Raptors are 4-point favorites with a 213.5 over-under.

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Report: Nigel Hayes getting 2nd 10-day with Raptors

Nigel Hayes is getting a second 10-day contract with the Toronto Raptors, Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN reports.

Signed to an initial deal last week, Hayes’ first 10-day was set to expire after Thursday’s game against Indiana. WIth a five-game-in-seven night strtech coming up, the Raptors could certainly use the additional depth – OG Anunoby has still not returned and is without a firm timetable, and Norman Powell suffered a sprained ankle that will likely keep him out at least a game.

There hasn’t been a ton of opportunity for Hayes to impress so far, but he’s used it well, hitting a pair of threes in five minutes of garbage time on Sunday. The arrow-shooting may not have gone over well with everyone, but it was a nice splash of personality and a fun moment opposite the team that chose not to call him up all year. He also saw a minute of action at the end of Tuesday’s game. Before either of those stints, Hayes made a nice impression with Raptors 905, a very weird experience I wrote about here.

For more on Hayes as a player and a prospect, check out my breakdown from his initial signing. By my count, he’ll have until Sunday, March 25 to make a further impression and convince the Raptors to keep him on for the remainder of the season.

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Raptors Playbook: Snap Series

Raptors Playbook: Snap Series

Over at the Raptors Playbook YouTube channel (@RaptorsPlaybook on Twitter), I am breaking down the X’s & O’s of the Toronto Raptors. This week, we’ll focus on their Snap Series – a pass and chase action that precedes a constant progression of actions. Watch the video embedded below alongside the summary written, and remember to follow and subscribe to never miss out on a video.

Option 1: Wide Pindown

The play starts with a pass-and-chase action between the lead ball handler and the trailing big. This forces the ball handler to go away from the big’s eventual pindown screen, allowing for enough of a gap between the 3 defenders.

The big will set a wide pindown screen for an off-ball perimeter player, a role largely filled by DeMar DeRozan, Kyle Lowry, and C.J. Miles.

If the defender goes under the pindown screen, the Raptor player can flare away from the screen, using the big as a shield before taking a catch-and-shoot jumper.

When the threat of a jump shot forces the defense to trail over the top of the screen, the Raptors will use their momentum to carry them into the paint. At this point, a myriad of floaters, euro-steps, and kick out passes can be used to execute on the created advantage.

Tough and well-prepared perimeter defenders will often try to “top lock” the pindown screen, disabling the Raptors from using it. However, they can use this overeagerness against the defense and cut under them.

An oft-forgotten about wrinkle the Raptors use is allowing the trailing big to not pass the ball away, instead directly engaging the eventual screen-user in a DHO themselves.

Option 2: DHO

While the wide pindown action is an essential part of this series, the Raptors have systematically adapted this year to not allow their offense to crumble once the initial option has been snuffed out by the opposition. When the Raptors are unable to create meaningful separation on the pindown, the off-ball player will exit to the weak side of the floor while the ball handler enters the ball to the big near the elbow. At this point, the big and the previous ball handler can engage in a dribble hand-off (DHO) action and negotiate screen usage until the defense crumbles.

While two players on the strong side of the floor use this DHO action, the weak side players can shift and exchange positions to alter the help responsibilities.

Option 3: Weak Side Step-Up Ball Screen 

Continuing the trend of continuity and progressing until a meaningful advantage has naturally been created through movement, the step-up ball screen option flows seamlessly out of the potential DHO.

The perimeter player that is in the weak side corner that did not previously use the pindown screen will shoot up to the top of the arc to receive a pass from the opposite-side big. On the catch, that player will be met with a flat, step-up ball screen. This action is the epitome of shifting a defense horizontally in order to contort the opposition in uncomfortable ways before penetrating the defensive shell vertically and putting pressure on the rim.

Again, while this action happens, the weak side players will exchange positions to complicate help-side coverages by shifting around the Low and High I. In some situations, the weak side big will even set a Flare screen for the guard to create an open corner three.

Counter: Weak Side Stagger 

This action is similar to the weak side step-up ball screen in that it has the big on the elbow in a playmaking role while weak side action occurs.

However, rather than using a ball screen, this option uses the guard that initially was unsuccessful in utilizing the pindown utilize a staggered screen.

Counter: Flip Ball Screen

While all the previously described actions stem out of the wide pindown that occurs at the beginning of the play, this option happens instead of that.

After the ball handler pass-and-chases above the break with the trailing big, they engage in a simple high ball screen with the opposite big that was situated in the slot.

For defenses that are prepared and set to defend the primary sequence, this is a nice change of pace action.

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Matching Up

Last year, at the trade deadline, the Raptors made a big move to address one of the central issues facing the squad, acquiring Serge Ibaka in exchange for Terrence Ross and a first round pick. The idea appeared to be that while Ibaka would start beside Jonas Valanciunas at power forward, the team would use him as their crunch time center, with his shooting and rim protection being vital to improving their execution in these late game situations. It appeared to work, too, with the Raptors surging down the stretch of the season, despite an injury to Kyle Lowry, with an elite defense.

Neither Lucas Nogueira or Jakob Poeltl seemed quite ready for a bigger role in the rotation at that point, and with the Raptors running an offense centered around players creating their own shots, Ibaka’s ability to space the floor and his willingness to call his own number was an asset. The numbers were never quite as certain as the eye test as to how much of the defensive improvement was due to Serge though, with PJ Tucker having a much clearer case.

This season, coming in, it seemed that again the Serge-at-center was going to be a staple, getting frequent minutes early in the season in late-game situations, with the theory behind it being that his added shooting on the floor and mobility at the center spot would help the team at both ends, keeping them able to handle switches to slow down the opposing attack while opening up lanes for DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry to go to work. On the surface, the numbers are pretty good, too, with a +12.8 net rating in 203 minutes. When you dig a little deeper though, you find a few unsurprising problems with those numbers.

First of all, the 113.2 offensive rating that has been posted in those minutes has been held up by some anomalous numbers by certain role players, including Pascal Siakam(72.3% true shooting with Ibaka at center, vs. 54.1% true shooting on the season), OG Anunoby(68.8% true shooting with Ibaka at center, vs. 57.2% on the season) and Delon Wright(85.7% true shooting with Ibaka at center, vs. 58.1%). It’s entirely possible that running Serge in the middle enables some offensive wrinkles that lets the role players get off higher quality shots, but those percentages all seem due for some regression.

At the same time the Raptors assist rate drops massively in this groupings, with just 49.1% of buckets coming assisted. This resembles more the Raptors of years past than this year’s groups, with a lot of emphasis on individual players finding ways to score. The simple culprit here would be that the Raptors have become an extremely effective screening team this season, led by Jonas Valanciunas and Jakob Poeltl, both of whom excel in the pick and roll game, and Ibaka doesn’t have that same aptitude. For Valanciunas, he’s been able to find his shot from long distance, where he’s shooting 43.7% this season, and use that to either score in the pick and pop game when the defense focuses on removing the attack in the paint, or to pull enough defensive attention away to let the ball-handlers find mismatches going to the basket, while also scoring on the roll when it’s been available. At the same time, among high-minutes players this season, Poeltl ranks among the league leaders at 5.6 screen assists per 36 minutes, and his ability to read the defense and use his frame to create space for his teammates has helped open up the offense for the Raptors bench, despite his lack of an outside shot.

The screen game is too important to these Raptors this year, whether it’s off-ball screens to allow C.J. Miles or Kyle Lowry the room to get off a three-point shot in the context of the offense, or giving DeMar DeRozan the space to attack a seam and create either for himself or a teammate, and the Raptors are unquestionably better at this when they have one of their centers on the floor.

Jonas hasn’t yet established himself enough as a three-point threat that it’s a consistent, recognized weapon, at least not on the same level as Ibaka, and if we were simply talking about the ability to hit an open jumper, Ibaka is the better player. But more often than not, an open shot from anywhere on the court is a result, and doesn’t simply offer itself up. You have to run offensive actions to get the defense in motion in order to create that opportunity, and both Valanciunas and Poeltl have proven themselves more adept than Ibaka, when playing that center position, at assisting the Raptors offense in getting those opportunities. This isn’t to say that Ibaka shouldn’t be on the floor in crunch time situations, simply that he should be complimenting one of these players to benefit from their ability to draw in defensive attention and create open shots, rather than replacing them.

The question then comes to the defensive end of the floor, where Ibaka brings more mobility than Jonas does, with the added benefit of his athletic shot-blocking ability. It’s true this season, as well, that Serge has shown signs of still having that defensive presence, with some impressive highlight reel blocks at times. However, against opponents who would rather bang in the post, he doesn’t have the frame to handle those bigger centers, and the answer will always be Valanciunas for this team, who has shown the ability to hang with any of the league’s bigger centers defensively while getting his own at the offensive end, and has improved his own defense in the pick and roll enough to be serviceable, despite the fact that he’ll still never be the most mobile of big men.

The other matchups, when the opponent opts to go smaller and space the floor with their own center and attempt to create an advantage with shooting and mobility, the question becomes whether Ibaka provides a better matchup than Poeltl, and it’s hard to come out on the side of Ibaka here as well. Simply put, Jak has demonstrated that he can handle switches onto some of the best point guards in the league.

Again, this isn’t to say that Ibaka shouldn’t be playing in these situations, or that he in some way harms the team when he’s out there, it’s simply that the center position is one of strength for the Raptors, and they don’t need to look to go smaller to match up, instead having the ability to create their own mismatches using their personnel. This allows Ibaka to play at his more natural position of power forward and be the beneficiary of the space created at both ends of the floor by Valanciunas and Poeltl, both in getting open shots through their ability to affect defenses and in terms of them not forcing him to guard the bigger players and having more room to be an effective, mobile defender. Barring foul trouble or injury though, needing Ibaka to be a center should no longer be necessary for the Raptors, which should be to the benefit of both him and the team.

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Raptors weather Russell’s early storm, win 50th of the season

Raptors 116, Nets 102 | Box Score | Quick Reaction | Reaction Podcast

The Toronto Raptors knew what the Brooklyn Nets were capable of. The last time the two team’s met was one of the last times the Raptors could be accused of taking an opponent lightly for a full game, and they paid for it – they won in overtime but lost Kyle Lowry and lost the second game of a back-to-back in part due to fatigue. The Raptors have become the league’s kings of beating up on lesser teams, and armed with that success and the memory of their last visit to Barclays, they should have been prepared.

There was no way to prepare for what D’Angelo Russell did in the first quarter, and it had the Raptors playing catch up the bulk of the game. They’d get there, ultimately storming back in the third quarter and pulling away in the fourth to win their 50th game of the season, 116-102. It wasn’t the Raptors’ best game of the year. It seemed fitting to win their 50th so early – on March 13, before they’ve lost 20 – in a fashion emblematic of their growth, able to calmly take care of their business without ever getting rattled or losing the plot. That’s not easy when a mediocre shooter rains hellfire early.

The Nets opted to start very small without Jarrett Allen, eschewing the chance to start Jahlil Okafor to match size in favor of speed and an even higher-variance long-range approach than they usually employ. It worked well early, though how much of that would be repeatable was a major question. Russell hit his first four threes, all within the first four minutes of the game, and DeMarre Carroll added one to create a 17-6 lead early. There were trade-off opportunities available for the Raptors the other way – the Nets were openly inviting easier twos in this lineup, but only Kyle Lowry seemed interested in attacking early on. DeMar DeRozan did try once and took a scary fall and Norman Powell delivered an awkward bank-shot, but it was mostly early jumpers.

Out of a quick timeout, the Raptors found the plot a bit more. That include touches inside for Jonas Valanciunas against nobody close to his size and drives against no rim protection. The Nets just kept hitting, though, with Russell moving to  6-of-6 after he was also fouled on a three. Then he hit another, giving him an obscene 24 points on just seven shots in under seven minutes for a player shooting 30.8 percent on five attempts per-game. Russell would finally miss a bit of a heat-check with Valanciunas on him, which was curiously cause to pull him from the game (I’m all for set rotations, but when a guy is this hot? And you have nothing to tank for?). The 24 points was the most by a Raptor opponent in a quarter since LeBron James in 2007-08. It was remarkable, a number of the threes coming off the dribble and against reasonable defense. Tip your hat, and all that.

The mercy from Russell proved momentarily important, allowing the Raptors to catch their breath. The offense had done well enough to keep within a healthy range, and while Russell soon re-entered, Atkinson had potentially iced his own shooter and the DeRozan-and-bench group was far less willing to concede open threes (particularly the Fred VanVleet-Jakob Poeltl combination in the two-man game). They did, however, allow Russell to get free for a back-cut, which had the visitors down 40-32 after a quarter. Considering the Nets hit more threes in the quarter (nine) than any Raptors opponent in a quarter ever, and that the Raptors hit just one (even if they shot 72 percent inside the arc), an eight-point deficit was almost a positive, in some twisted way.

The all-bench unit would seem a good answer for the Nets’ style on paper, able to match speed and scramble outside. Defensive rebounding initially proved a problem, and not even the usual Pascal Siakam-Poeltl connection on offense could close the gap against second-chance threes. At least not until Delon Wright hit consecutive threes and the defense dialed in first – a driving Siakam dump-off to Poeltl exploited Brooklyn’s need to send help at drivers, and VanVleet erased the last of the lead with a drive against a lightly protected rim.

It looked as if the Raptors had it figured out, only for the bulk of the starters to re-enter and get beat, first by a driving Carroll and then for another offensive rebound that lead to a three. A timeout did little, and an 11-0 Nets run put the Raptors into their biggest hold of the game. By the end of the half, the Raptors were down 67-57, and it’s not a reach to call it one of their worst defensive halves of the season. The first quarter had plenty to do with hot shooting. There was no such crutch in the second, sloppiness and inattention being much bigger culprits than the Nets shooting above their heads. Toronto’s 4-of-15 mark from outside wasn’t exactly helping and they probably could have been attacking inside even more (Valanciunas had his highest usage in a half this year, scoring 15 points on 12 possessions), but the real issues here were almost entirely on the defensive end.

The Raptors looked to establish Valanciunas again early out of the break. Unfortunately, the Nets went back to the well, too, with threes and Russell in the pick-and-roll and offensive rebounds and all of the other earlier frustrations leading Dwane Casey to go to his bench very early. That decision proved to be the right one, with VanVleet helping change the game from there. The message seemed to be received by the other starters, and Valanciunas did his best to tilt his part of the matchup with a smooth short-roll jumper, a floater. good transition seals, and a few good contests as defenders sent drivers his way without conceding the line. Valanciunas was really great in the quarter considering the matchup, and he’d eventually hit the bench with 24 points and 10 rebounds through three quarters. The Raptors did a great job using him against a smaller team without just dumping it inside and making him susceptible to double-teams, instead involving him in a variety of ways the defense couldn’t sit on.

Or maybe it’s just that VanVleet net rating effect – the Raptors railed off a 15-0 run over two-and-a-half minutes with him joining the starters, and the Nets were scrambling to a timeout with their lead extinguished entirely (VanVleet somehow ended up with a plus-31, 20 points higher than anyone else, one of the 10 highest plus-minuses by a Raptor this year). Lowry hit his first thee of the game to put the team ahead, and the Nets counter-punched. The all-bench group had a frantic close to the half, both sides making a number of turnovers and the Raptors surviving on the strength of their defense enough to take a two-point lead into the fourth.

The bench kept things in hand at the top of the fourth, even with a terrific Siakam dunk being waved off (Wright’s follow-up dunk was far less emphatic). The offense couldn’t get much going for stretches until C.J. Miles finally found the mark and hit consecutive threes, then got fouled on a three to give the Raptors their largest lead of the night at five points. Poeltl came up with a big block at the other end, and Miles hit what was probably a bit of a heat-check three, giving him 12 points in 130 seconds and the Raptors a brief modicum of control.

If there was a concern, it was the Raptors being in the penalty early, exacerbated quickly by Poeltl picking up his fifth. That meant Valanciunas down the stretch, and he immediately showed the Nets couldn’t handle him, drawing a foul barreling for an offensive rebound. A Rondae Hollis-Jefferson offensive foul posting Lowry up but Toronto in the bonus for the clutch portion of the game, too, leveling the field. Casey opted to close with VanVleet and the starters, the same group that was so good in the third, and it wasn’t “clutch” time for long. DeRozan hit a big three to continue trimming the 3-point gap, Carroll missed from outside, and DeRozan scored trailing hard in transition, promptly putting the Raptors ahead 10. A thunderous Valanciunas dunk capped a 9-0 run after that, effectively ending the game and opening a window both for the bench to empty and for a handful of teammates to interrupt his post-game interview.

The second half was really good work, and it highlights a few things the Raptors really have going for them other than just the casualness with which they turn these games around. The defense was excellent in the second half, giving up just 71.4 points per-100 possessions after a horrendous first half. Casey coached a heck of a game, mixing and matching to find groups that worked, leveraging the matchup advantages, and . The starters played well for long stretches with someone other than OG Anunoby as their fifth and pulled away late. VanVleet remains the plus-minus god. And Valanciunas continued to prove that, if used intelligently and engaged defensively, there are fewer and fewer matchups he can’t be on the floor for.

It was a somewhat unlucky and scattered first quarter, a sloppy and imprecise second, and the type of second half that somehow makes a 50-17 record seem like it should have been expected all along.

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Raptors-Nets Reaction Podcast – Fred VanGOAT

Host William Lou recaps the Toronto Raptors’ win over the Brooklyn Nets


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Quick Reaction: Raptors 116, Nets 102

Toronto 116 Final
Box Score
102 Brooklyn

S. Ibaka27 MIN, 9 PTS, 9 REB, 1 AST, 1 STL, 2-6 FG, 0-1 3FG, 5-5 FT, 1 BLK, 0 TO, 7 +/-

Great job of using his 6’11” frame to find success around the rim. When he settles for jumpers, it limits so much of his offensive attack, so seeing him attack with regularity and aggressiveness is really encouraging.

N. Powell12 MIN, 5 PTS, 2 REB, 1 AST, 0 STL, 2-4 FG, 1-2 3FG, 0-0 FT, 0 BLK, 0 TO, -8 +/-

Powell showed some confidence early with a quick five points. The streaky swingman didn’t do much else after that brief first quarter, in part because the Raptors elected to run three-guard lineups.

J. Valanciunas27 MIN, 26 PTS, 14 REB, 1 AST, 0 STL, 12-20 FG, 0-1 3FG, 2-5 FT, 1 BLK, 1 TO, 5 +/-

Was the only Raptor to reach double-digit field goal attempts by the end of the first half. To no one’s surprise, Valanciunas got inside with ease against a weak Nets interior to finish the first half with a team-best 15 points. He continued his assault around the rim throughout the second half.

A quick side note: JV’s defence against drivers has improved night-and-day since the start of the season.

K. Lowry32 MIN, 11 PTS, 3 REB, 11 AST, 1 STL, 4-13 FG, 1-8 3FG, 2-2 FT, 0 BLK, 0 TO, 6 +/-

Went scoreless from distance in the first half, but found other ways to contribute. Lowry made key dimes during the Raptors third-quarter run to help swing the momentum of this game.

D. DeRozan33 MIN, 15 PTS, 7 REB, 2 AST, 1 STL, 6-12 FG, 1-2 3FG, 2-2 FT, 0 BLK, 4 TO, 2 +/-

Had a hard time getting into a groove offensively until late in the fourth and had some turnover issues tonight. While it was far from his best game of the season, DeRozan scored a bit late to help put the game out of reach.

F. VanVleet28 MIN, 15 PTS, 1 REB, 4 AST, 2 STL, 5-10 FG, 3-6 3FG, 2-2 FT, 0 BLK, 1 TO, 31 +/-

Provided terrific defensive pressure and moved the ball exceptionally as the second unit’s main distributor tonight. VanVleet checked in with around eight minutes left in the third and instantly provided a spark by setting up a Valanciunas jumper. He hit some timely 3-pointers, too. In the plus-minus god we trust.

J. Poeltl20 MIN, 8 PTS, 6 REB, 1 AST, 1 STL, 4-7 FG, 0-0 3FG, 0-1 FT, 3 BLK, 1 TO, 7 +/-

He’s always in the right place at the right time, as per usual, so it’s no surprise the second-year rejects the number of shots he does. His ability to create second-chance opportunities adds another intimidating layer to the Raptors terrific bench unit as well. Poeltl was the benefactor of some beautiful feeds from Siakam in the second quarter that got him easy looks around the cup. Watching that duo go to work in the paint is so much fun.

P. Siakam19 MIN, 5 PTS, 5 REB, 2 AST, 0 STL, 2-5 FG, 0-0 3FG, 1-1 FT, 0 BLK, 1 TO, 7 +/-

What an energizer to have on the second unit. Siakam beat Brooklyn’s defence down the floor for an easy bucket early on, then did a tremendous job working the two-man game with Jakob Poeltl. A few flashy dimes to Poeltl in the second quarter stood out in particular.

C. Miles19 MIN, 12 PTS, 3 REB, 0 AST, 0 STL, 3-7 FG, 3-6 3FG, 3-3 FT, 0 BLK, 0 TO, 6 +/-

Didn’t knock a shot down through the first three quarters, but in typical Miles fashion, delivered in the fourth quarter with some timely makes from distance. The timeliness of his buckets helped Miles’ grade rapidly improved as we got deeper into the fourth.

D. Wright17 MIN, 10 PTS, 3 REB, 4 AST, 1 STL, 4-6 FG, 2-4 3FG, 0-0 FT, 0 BLK, 3 TO, 7 +/-

Hit two 3-pointers to keep the score close during the bench mob’s usual stint early in the second quarter. Wright slowed down a bit in the second half, in part because of a lack of playing time. Solid showing all-around.

M. Miller5 MIN, 0 PTS, 0 REB, 0 AST, 0 STL, 0-1 FG, 0-1 3FG, 0-0 FT, 0 BLK, 0 TO, -4 +/-

Was nice to see Miller get some playing time once again. When you’re winning the way Toronto is, you can afford to give guys like Miller more run in the rotation. So far, he’s shown some promise in limited minutes.

Dwane Casey

Went to the bench at the right time and correctly stuck with them until about five minutes left in the fourth quarter.
Also called a great timeout with 4:15 remaining to get his team composed and throw the Nets offence out of sync. Toronto proceeded to close out the game on a 13-2 run following the stoppage. Casey also made the smart decision to utilize three-guard lineups featuring Kyle Lowry, Fred VanVleet, and DeMar DeRozan.

Things We Saw

  1. Make it nine wins in a row, 16 in the past 17 contests, and three-straight 50 win seasons for the Toronto Raptors. This prolonged run of dominance has to be up there as one of the franchise’s greatest stretches in its 23-year history. The scary part of all this for Raptors’ opponents going forward is how the team seems to only be improving as the playoffs near. Toronto’s record against sub-.500 teams improved to 29-5 with the win. 60 wins is a realistic possibility, especially since six of the team’s final 15 games are against sub-.500 teams.
  2. D’Angelo Russell got off to a wicked start, nailing seven 3-pointers in the first to finish the quarter with 24 points. Russell’s Kobe-like effort was part of a 40-point first quarter for Brooklyn, yet Toronto only trailed by eight points heading into the second. You knew it was only a matter of time before the bench mob reinvigorated the Raps by wreaking their usual havoc.
  3. The Raps tied a franchise-best mark with a seventh consecutive win on the road. Let the good times roll.
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Pre-game news & notes: Anunoby sits and Powell starts, Allen out for Nets

The Toronto Raptors look for their ninth consecutive win as they visit the Brooklyn Nets on Tuesday. If there’s any worry of a “trap game” or whatever still after the Raptors have gone 29-2 against sub-.500 teams, the last meeting with Brooklyn should surely serve them a reminder. They won that game in overtime but lost Kyle Lowry and fatigued themselves for a back-to-back the next night, which they lost. This Toronto team is probably past the constant reminders of taking each opponent seriously, but with the finish line in sight, it wouldn’t be unheard of for feet to come off the gas, so that will surely be Dwane Casey’s consistent refrain.

A win would mean something notable for the Raptors, as it would be their 50th of the year. It’s March 13. It would put them four games up in the Eastern Conference, and require them only to go 10-5 down the stretch to finish with 60 wins for the first time, or 7-8 to set a new franchise record for wins. These markers don’t “matter” held up against what the Raptors want to do in the playoffs, of course. They do matter in the bigger picture of turning the organization into one with a reputation as a consistent winner, though, and to that end, the Raptors are having a heck of a season. There’s little reason to think it will slow down here.

The game tips off at 7:30 on TSN 1/4 and TSN 1050. You can check out the full game preview here.

Raptors updates
I’m not sure if there’s just a light media presence in New York for the game or nobody tweeted out an update or everything is behind or something, but we’re past the point of Dwane Casey’s usual media availability and don’t know the status of OG Anunoby or his fill-in if he’s out. Anunoby was listed as doubtful and Norman Powell has been starting fairly regularly, and honestly, you’ve probably all read enough of my analysis on that, Malcolm Miller, and so on by now. So we’ll leave it until there’s an actual update. Apologies. In any case, here’s hoping the team gets another look at Nigel Hayes, whether in the rotation or with extended garbage time, as his 10-day expires after Thursday’s game.

Check back before tip-off for confirmation of starters.

UPDATE: Powell is starting. There still hasn’t been official word on Anunoby, so I’m not sure if this is a Wright-on-Sunday situation or if he remains out.

UPDATE II: I’ve confirmed Anunoby is, in fact, out.

PG: Kyle Lowry, Fred VanVleet, Delon Wright
SG: DeMar DeRozan
SF: Norman Powell, C.J. Miles, Malcolm Miller
PF: Serge Ibaka, Pascal Siakam, Nigel Hayes
C: Jonas Valanciunas, Jakob Poeltl, Lucas Nogueira
OUT: OG Anunoby
TBD: None
905: Malachi Richardson, Lorenzo Brown, Alfonzo McKinnie

Nets updates
Brooklyn will be without Jarrett Allen here, which could lead to some pretty interesting lineups. Allen has a sore left foot and, after missing six games with a foot injury earlier in the year, it’s easy to see why the Nets are playing it cautious. What’s not clear, though, is who starts. The “right” move is probably to start small, either with Quincy Acy at center or a wild two-guard, three-forward look that would give them a ton of switchability and speed.

The far more intriguing option, though, would be starting Jahlil Okafor. Okafor has played 291 minutes for the Nets this year and owns a net rating that would make Andrea Bargnani blush. Okafor’s minus-26.6 net rating is the worst in the league for anyone who has played at least 100 minutes. The Nets essentially got him for free – paid to take him, really – and aren’t heavily invested. But Okafor is still young, has some talent in the post, and the Nets might be well-served getting a 25-minute look at him against a high-end center in Jonas Valanciunas. Am I trying to wish this into existence? Maybe. Allen’s minutes will be split all over, anyway, it will just be more interesting if Okafor gets the starting nod.

UPDATE: Sadly, Dante Cunningham is starting in Allen’s place. That’s a great matchup for Valanciunas inside, but probably the right call for Brooklyn overall.

PG: Spencer Dinwiddie, Isaiah Whitehead
SG: D’Angelo Russell, Caris LeVert, Nik Stauskas
SF: Allen Crabbe, Joe Harris
PF: DeMarre Carroll, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Quincy Acy
C: Dante Cunningham, Jahlil Okafor, Timofey Mozgov
OUT: Jarrett Allen, Jeremy Lin
TBD: None
Long Island: Milton Doyle, James Webb III


  • Raptors 905 won on Tuesday afternoon and now head out west for a four-game trip that will set up their playoff bracket (their magic number is down to one). Lorenzo Brown, Alfonzo McKinnie, and Malachi Richardson figure to be on the trip, barring an injury  at the NBA level between now and departure.
  • Over at The Athletic, I wrote about Nigel Hayes’ weird experience drawing a G League assignment while on a 10-day deal and switching sides in a rivalry in the process.
  • Over at Vice, Alex Wong spoke to Fred VanVleet about his clothing line.
  • More good VanVleet content in the form of a Q&A with James Herbert.
  • Sportsnet announced Monday that Friday’s game between the Raptors and Rockets was the highest-rated regular season game in the network’s history.

  • Our man CanBallRay put together a list of all of the Canadians on NCAA postseason rosters. It’s the second year in a row 22 players are set to participate in the men’s NCAA Tournament, per Canada Basketball.

  • I thought this cover of Metro this morning was really cool. The outpouring of support for DeMar DeRozan from the fanbase has been really heart-warming. Check out this R/TorontoRaptors page for one way to show your support.

The line
The Raptors are 9-point favorites, down slightly from Raptors -9.5. The over-under is at 219.

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Raptors 905 bottle up Swarm, inch closer to playoff berth

Photo credit: Trung Ho /

Raptors 905 110, Greensboro Swarm 92 | Box Score
Assignees: Malachi Richardson, Alfonzo McKinnie (905), None (Swarm)
Two-ways: Lorenzo Brown (905), Marcus Paige (Swarm)

As Raptors 905 wind down another successful regular season, a few goals have come to the forefront. There is the obvious one: Catching Westchester for the top seed in the conference and, perhaps, the best record in the league. Another, sometimes forgotten one given the consistent roster tumult at the G League level, is figuring out how the team will be best deployed come playoff time, when the margin for error in one- and three-game playoff series is razor thin. The 905 have been good almost no matter who they play and in what rotation pattern, at least since their 4-9 start. The final two weeks may be for tweaking and experimenting, though, the rotation becoming more and more meritocratic with each passing game.

In that spirit, the 905 switched up the starting lineup for this one, rewarding Fuquan Edwin for some great 3-and-D play of late with a starting nod opposite NBA vet Damien Wilkins. Edwin was quiet on offense, but the 905 responded well to his presence, as 904 lineups have for most of the season (Edwin has the second-best defensive rating on the team). The team quickly opened up a 7-0 lead, then an 11-3 lead on some great two-way play from Kennedy Meeks and a pair of big transition dunks from Alfonzo McKinnie. Edwin got on the board, too, attacking a corner closeout for a finish at the rim, and the 905 had established some control on the pace and flow of the game in just a few minutes of action.

The Swarm tried to counter-push, and the rare Lorenzo Brown step-back 3-point wedgie let them get back within a possession. Malachi Richardson responded with a three off the bench, though, and McKinnie continued his strong start with a three from above-the-break to maintain a safe distance a while longer. The Swarm got caught with just four players on the court after that (a noon weekday start got extremely G League at times), a favor they didn’t need to do the 905 given the size advantage for the home side, who had three offensive rebounds in the quarter. Some great defense late forced a fourth Swarm turnover, and even without converting at the other end, the 905 had opened up a seven-point cushion through 12 minutes.

Moving Edwin to the starters came at a cost, though – the usual all-bench lineup that’s been nearly as successful for the 905 of late as the parent club’s – struggled without him, surrendering a 12-0 run before Shevon Thompson ended the drought and three starters re-entered to try to settle things. It didn’t help initially, with a red-hot McKinnie picking up a third foul and Greensboro pulling ahead by six. The 905 slowed things down from there, feeding Meeks inside and attacking seams on swings around the perimeter, but the Swarm, who shoot just 33.7 percent from long-range on the season, kept hitting from outside. The 905 downsized with three guards and Edwin around Meeks to try to account, and the additional energy and ability to press worked well – despite the Swarm hitting nine threes, the 905 took the lead back just before the break on an Edwin and-one.

The focus out of halftime was to limit Greensboro’s 3-point shooting, particularly that of John Dawson, who hit four in the first half. It was Wilkins that posed a problem instead, scoring seven points in a hurry to prevent a 905 pull-away (the 905 not converting on multiple offensive rebounds played a factor, too). The sides settled into a pretty regular back-and-forth for most of the third, neither side really gaining much momentum until Marcus Paige and Cat Barber strung possessions together to go ahead three. McKinnie responded on a feed from Richardson, who made some nice reads all game, and some terrific ball movement allowed the 905 to get back ahead by six entering the fourth.

The Swarm remained plucky, enough so that Jerry Stackhouse tried to keep a starter on the floor as the bench continued to sputter a bit. It wasn’t a bad look, just a different one that required a new comfort level, and Roger Moute a Bidias was the odd-man out in the second half here. Davion Berry provided an element of the shooting Edwin provides, and while Best and Kaza Keane came up on the wrong end of some whistles that had Stackhouse voicing his displeasure, they made up for it by converging on loose balls and hitting the floor all over the place. A tough Berry take put the 905 back ahead seven with seven minutes to go, sending Greensboro regrouping ahead of a stretch run that would see more 905 starters filter back in. Stackhouse rode the bench a bit longer, rewarded by a drawn charge from Richardson and another loose ball tipped by Keane and recovered by Berry for a (ridiculous) three.

Berry made it 10 in the quarter and earned the close-out nod as a result, sliding in place of Best as the other starters returned. Edwin promptly drilled a three, and it appeared the Swarm were ready to break, down double-digits with time dwindling. Making things more dire for the visitors, they challenged a 3-point foul call on Edwin and lost, leaving them with just a single timeout for the final five minutes. It wouldn’t matter at all – a minute later the 905 were up 18, the Swarm burned their last timeout, and Meeks just kept swallowing up every 905 miss to keep them well ahead. The benches emptied from there, the 905 ultimately holding Greensboro to 101 points per-100 possessions despite their hot start from outside. The second-half goal of slowing down the three was effective, the 905 dramatically won the rebounding battle, and 29 assists kept Greensboro scrambled defensively most of the afternoon.

The 905 magic number is now down to one, and for all intents and purposes, they have clinched – they hold the tiebreaker over either the seventh or eight seed (each of whom would have to win our while the 905 lose out), but there are some convoluted multi-team tiebreakers still in play. One more win and the 905 are in, and they’ve also closed the gap back to one game as they chase Westchester for the top spot in the division and conference, as well as the first-round bye that would come with it. Things get tough from here, with four games in seven days out west beginning Friday, a stretch that will set up their playoff bracket for better or worse.


  • Assignment notes
    • Alfonzo McKinnie had a really hot start, and while he quieted down offensively, it was a strong night overall. A pair of threes, a pair of steals, six rebounds, 12 points, and a plus-11 in 26 minutes. Strong defensive showing for him, too, outside of the first-half foul trouble.
    • Malachi Richardson didn’t have a big night in the box score, but I came away impressed with the growth he’s showing in the non-shooting aspects of his game. He made a number of nice feeds in this one, dishing four assists as he continues to grow more comfortable in the system. He still shot 2-of-9 and 1-of-4 on threes, and that’s how he’s going to be measured. It’s still encouraging to see him doing other things well and getting after it on defense. The big step for the player development system this summer will be growing the confidence in his jumper.
  • Other 905 player notes
    • Lorenzo Brown had one of his worst shooting nights at 4-of-17, but it’s telling that he still had a game-best plus-25 mark. He dished nine assists and shifted seamlessly to more of a playmaking role unless the shot clock necessitated he look for his own shot. He’s been solid in his two games back after nearly a month off. I’d expect him to get it going full-gear on the road trip.
    • Davion Berry continues to be a huge factor for a strong bench, leading the way with 12 points and a plus-8 here…Kaza Keane and Aaron Best are borderline unfair with the effort level they show on defense…Kennedy Meeks grabbed 10 (!) offensive rebounds on his way to a 23-15-2-2-2 line. He only used 16 possessions. Giving up meat is agreeing with him…Fuquan Edwin was terrific in the starting lineup, scoring 22 points with five rebounds and a plus-17 mark in 29 minutes.
  • Swarm notes: John Dawson had a huge first half and the 905 did a great job slowing him in the second. He finished with a team-high 17, one of seven Swarm players in double-figures…Marcus Paige had 12 points and six assists but was 1-of-7 on thees and had a team-worst minus-16.
  • The 905 now head out west for four games before closing the season at home on March 24. A friendly reminder that promo code “REPUBLIC905” will get you a discount at this link all season long.
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The Raptors Have Found ‘It’

Paul Pierce, long may the universe love and keep him, still does not believe in the Raptors playoff chances. It’s not exactly a shocking revelation coming from the guy who effectively cursed Toronto in the 2014-2015 NBA playoffs, when he stated that they just didn’t have “it”. The “it” in that case did prove to be lacking, namely in defence, because Pierce and the Wizards swept the Raptors in a particularly crumpling series.

Look, I like Paul Pierce. He’s a bit of a grouch and a sometimes ill-informed trash talker and in this case not really wrong. He hasn’t seen any indication from the Raptors in their last few playoff attempts that they have that hidden reservoir to dig into to take themselves farther than they would in the regular season. Neither have we, their fans. It’s been frustrating as hell to watch a team you know to be scrappy, resourceful, and when all else fails champions in pulling it off, suddenly shrink away in the playoffs. It is at least part of what’s made the Raptors so easy for pundits like Pierce to ignore during the regular season, even the current record breaking one. Playoffs are the sum of the season, technically speaking, but they are a different animal entirely and one that’s proven difficult at best and soul crushing at worst for the Raptors to wrest with. Which is why it’s going to be incredibly fun to prove Paul Pierce wrong this time.

Not sure if you’ve been watching, but Toronto has finally got itself another gear to shift into—it’s the bench. Much like a bottle of Dr. Bronner’s soap, this bench can do everything. Depth, speed, buckets (currently averaging 50 points per game since the all-star break), incredible smiles, grit, and perhaps the most important thing in the playoffs, composure. For their lack of cumulative years in the league—save for Miles—the Raptors bench unit is rarely flustered. Yes, there have been times when Wright or Siakam get snagged up, slightly out of step with their speed and length, or when Poeltl, notably in the ramped up foul calls he was getting against Houston, seems to be getting in his own way. But they are all easily grounded, vying to snap back into the game rather than let a moment’s frustration fester into anything more. They have a determined work ethic that’s come from each of their less than breezy roads to the pros to thank for this, plus playing with seasoned mentors who’ve taken their share of knocks and learned the hard way, but their resilience on the court comes mainly from each other.

“We just like each other,” Pascal Siakam said after the Raptors recent win against the Rockets, a sentiment that’s been noticed and echoed across the league, from the bench unit’s antics to their performance on the floor.

The bench had Summer League to shape them into the unit they came into the start of this season playing as. It was just two weeks but they benefited immensely from that test run together, they went into the regular season running and haven’t stopped. More than that, their gameplay is innovating every time they hit the floor. There’s no deficit felt when the bench subs in for the starters and more often than not rather than just providing a breather for them, the bench brings so much energy to the court that when they do yield the floor it’s still humming. As the fastest human on the planet, Fred VanVleet has noted, “When we’re really rolling, there’s no drop-off when we sub.”

“Their bench has been killing everybody, starters, bench, everybody,” Boston coach Brad Stevens admitted a little over a month ago. A fact that is likely starting to worry him more going into this last stretch of the season, with the Celtics trailing by three and out Kyrie Irving, Marcus Smart and Daniel Theis.

The cyclical style of gameplay the Raptors are using is wholly unique to them right now, and goes even farther when the regular rotations are mixed up and elements of the bench unit gets subbed in for starters, or vice versa. The fluidity and ease in which the whole team plays together will make it that much harder than in year’s past for any opposing defence to get the hang of Toronto’s plays. Improvisation comes from comfort and the Raptors are flush with it. Defensively, too, the team is drawing support from each other, with better overall communication and prove ‘em style moves like the scare VanVleet gave Chris Paul, sticking to the Houston guard like a haunting that finally had Paul flipping the ball out of desperation, anything to get Fred off of him.

But you can’t account for chemistry, or the way that in the Raptors bench’s case players from seemingly so disparate of backgrounds are going to end up getting along. If the added energy and ingenuity the bench gives during minutes is a 5th gear for the team to shift into, their deeply felt camaraderie and its encompassing effects are going to be the 6th. Playoff games are head games, and like Paul Pierce pointed out, every possession counts. To hesitate, to question a teammate, to get jammed up, each and all could be a misstep that leads to a game loss. And the first crack in a team’s confidence can be damaging enough to shake a seemingly solid foundation to rubble. The harmony of this Raptors team gives them an added edge, or that long elusive “it”, because between each and every one of them they can diffuse a potentially game sabotaging moment of stress. Even Ibaka, who can get from zero to one hundred real, exceptionally, quick, has been becalmed by the bench, regularly spotted dancing his foul troubles away on the sidelines.

The fact is the Raptors have a surplus of players they can put up against anything another team throws at them. It’s a luxury they haven’t had before, certainly not in the exhaustive realm of the playoffs. Add to this the ever-improving DeRozan, the growth and dependability of Valančiūnas, a Lowry that looks like he’s willing to come out strong in big games, plus the overall nonstop zeal of the bench, and the stage is set for the Raptors to evolve, handily, past any version of themselves still skulking in the collective memory of playoffs past.


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To Rest or Not to Rest? It May Not Matter If Raptors Stay Hot

As you read these words, the Toronto Raptors are tearing through the National Basketball Association with relative ease. Toronto is an astounding 15-1 in their last 16 games. That includes signature wins versus the red-hot Blazers and the Boston Celtics. To highlight the Raptors’ superiority, both of those victories were 25 and 20 point-wins, respectively. Total blowouts. Then came the absolutely scintillating Houston Rockets — the same Rockets who had their 17-game winning streak snapped at the hands of Kyle Lowry and the NBA’s top bench unit.

In these set of games, Toronto has averaged a point differential of 14.8 (let’s round it up to 15). Stop for a moment and realize just how dominant that number is. In the last 16 games — or roughly 1/5th of the entire regular season — Toronto has beaten teams by an average of 15 points. Fif-teen.

That one glaring loss in the last 16 games? A thrilling 122-119 overtime loss to the Milwaukee Bucks. Remember when Valanciunas was foule-… I mean, tied the game in the final moments with a ‘heavily-contested’ dunk. I’ll leave it at that. It’s not like it hasn’t been three weeks since that game and I should be totally over it.

With all that being said, let’s face it: Raptors fans have been spoiled lately.

The number 16 happens to be a massively important one in Toronto. Not necessarily due to the Raptors’ accomplishments in the last 16 games, but rather what the final 16 of the regular season entail. Dwane Casey and his team have squarely entered the drivers seat of the Eastern Conference as their star guards have taken turns toying with NBA teams, all while the self-named “Bench Mob” has wreaked havoc on opposing reserve units.

In terms of crucial games, one could argue Toronto has three remaining. The Cleveland Cavaliers and the Boston Celtics twice. The remaining 13 contests are littered with middle-to-lower tier Eastern and Western Conference playoff teams (Pacers twice, Heat, Pistons, Nuggets, Clippers, etc.) as well as their fair share of conference minnows (Nets twice, Mavericks, Magic etc.). An overall strength of schedule of .493 (ranked 14th in the NBA).

The prevailing question lingers: Should Dwane Casey and his staff opt to (strategically) rest the core players (Lowry, DeRozan, Ibaka, Valanciunas) throughout the final run of the season?

This doesn’t fundamentally require Casey to sit all core players on certain nights, or even in more dramatic (and asinine) fashion — begin resting them until the playoffs begin. This would mean a carefully thought-out, game-specific strategy where for example, you would see Lowry and Ibaka rest one game, DeRozan another, and Valanciunas another. This would seemingly mean more minutes on the court for the bench players, but also gives opportunity to the so-far, so-good 13th and 14th roster spots occupied by Malcolm Miller and newly-acquired sharpshooter Nigel Hayes. In limited playing time, Miller has proved his worth at the back-end of the Raptors rotation, offering ‘3 & D’ ability while Hayes — who was recently plucked off the New York Knicks G-League affiliate, Westchester Knicks — shot a blistering 44% from 3PT range on 5.8 attempts per game in his dominating G-league stint. For those who went channel-surfing after Toronto took a 20-some point lead on the Knicks late in the 4th quarter, Nigel Hayes subbed in, and immediately hit two corner-threes — one being directly in front of the Knicks bench, all to whom he had some choice words and antics (at the 0:15 second mark, for those interested).

As much as resting players may make sense for Toronto, especially considering their league-best roster depth, many believe (and rightfully so) the Raptors can start their best five while effectively resting them at the same time. Lowry and DeRozan are naturally mid-high 30 minute players, but again — in the last 16 games, they’ve averaged only 29 and 31 minutes respectively. Saving those 6-10 minutes for both players during this last chunk of the season has been as important as ever. Raptor players aren’t used to this. Raptor fans aren’t used to this.

We’re all used to seeing the star-studded backcourt look lethargic and exhausted by seasons’ end.

The Toronto Raptors seem to be writing a different story this time around.

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Talking Raptors Podcast – S5 E16 – Thank you to the Academy

Raptor fans, its a great time to be us. Soak it all in, its well deserved. On this episode of Talking Raptors, Nick and Barry get together and put their thoughts about this incredible team on wax. The guys sit down and get right to the nitty gritty of the Raptor world.

They discuss:

  • DeMar DeRozan Player of the week.
  • Nigel Hayes superstar in the making.
  • Twitter Polls.
  • Twitter Questions.
  • Matt Devlin’s Twitter shenanigans.
  • Talking Raptors Comedy Show.

All this and they guys also take a quick look around the basketball world and give their takes on the more interesting stories.

As always thank you for listening and we really hope you enjoy!

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Gameday: Raptors @ Nets, March 12

The long list of firsts and bests and new franchise records the Toronto Raptors have set this year seems to grow by the day. That will be even more true as the Raptors approach the finish line, doing so with 49 wins already under their belt and a commanding 3.5-game lead atop the Eastern Conference.

They have already clinched a playoff spot. On Tuesday, they can reach 50 wins with 15 games still to go. They have a legitimate shot at 60 wins, so much so that they may reach it while still getting key players rest down the stretch, although they do have a half-dozen or so stiff tests on the ledger. In the process, the Raptors have rarely left anything to doubt. They’re blowing teams out regularly, even when they don’t play strong 48-minute games. They’re 29-2 against teams under .500 and haven’t lost to one since Boxing Day.

Not that they’ve needed such reminders to win against lesser opponents, but video study for Tuesday’s game against the Brooklyn Nets was probably all of the reminder the Raptors needed to take care of business in appropriate fashion at Barclays. In the last meeting between the teams, the Nets forced overtime, and while the Raptors ultimately won, they lost Kyle Lowry to injury and put themselves at a disadvantage for a loss at home to the Miami Heat the next night. There’s no back-to-back here. Still, as the Raptors look to match the second-longest winning streak in team history at nine games, they’ll know the Nets are too high-effort a team to turn a sleepy performance against, lest the victory potentially be Pyrrhic.

The game tips off at 7:30 on TSN 1/4 and TSN 1050.

To help set the stage, I reached out to Anthony Puccio of Nets Daily, and he was kind enough to help us out.

Blake Murphy: So much talk around the NBA of late has centered on the seven-to-nine teams barrelling to the bottom of the standings for ping-pong balls in what’s become a mess of a tanking race. The Nets are in the mix there, but without their own pick. What has the experience been like this year, with the team initially playing a little better and some positive growth being shown but no “reward” or whatever for the process at the end? Is the internal growth enough on its own?

Anthony Puccio: It’s all about improvement and development for the young core, while trying to build a culture around them. Guys like D’Angelo Russell, Caris LeVert, Jarrett Allen, and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson have all gotten better under Kenny Atkinson. That’s what this season was about: Establishing a young core.

That said, you can’t sugarcoat the crappiness of the situation. You’re currently 3rd-to-last in the East and you don’t have your own pick. Sean Marks and Atkinson refuse to look in the past, but it’s kind of impossible not to.

Blake Murphy: The team is 3-17 over their last 20 after being much more competitive early on. What stopped working, or started working less?

Anthony Puccio: Injuries haven’t helped. Glue guys like Caris LeVert and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson were out for a good amount of those games, but this hasn’t been the main issue. It seems like teams know exactly what the Nets want to do after playing them once or twice before. Teams know you can’t take them lightly because they’re going to play you hard and they’re going to live and die by the three. They’ve become extremely predictable and they don’t have the personnel to suddenly switch their style of play. Call it Einstein’s Insanity, if you will.

Blake Murphy: Does Spencer Dinwiddie still have a good case for Most Improved Player? I worry that the initial buzz wearing off and some serious regression in his shooting may cause people to lose sight of the leap he took this year.

Anthony Puccio: I certainly think he does. His story is great and people fail to realize he’s only 24-years-old with room to grow. This is the first time in his career where he’s had to play an 82-game schedule. Fatigue is setting in and teams are adjusting the way they play him. But yeah, I think he should at least be in the conversation.

Blake Murphy: The Jahlil Okafor experiment is rolling along. He has a ludicrous minus-25.9 net rating. What have you seen from Okafor in his 300 minutes? Are you willing to take a longer look next year?

Anthony Puccio: I’d like to see what Okafor looks like after a full summer with Kenny Atkinson and the coaching staff. They’ve turned some marginal players into legitimate role players over the past two seasons. If they can get him cheap, it’d be hard to see them passing up on a no. 3 overall pick who’s only 22-years-old.

As for what I’ve seen this season? Potential in the post. But he has not been a good fit for the style of play Atkinson wants to run. He’ll need to improve his 3-point shot and learn to run the floor in the fast-paced offense. Rebounding and defense is a work in progress too.

Blake Murphy: What’s been your favorite part of the Nets season so far?

Anthony Puccio: It’s been tough but I really do enjoy this team. They’re a great group of young individuals who seem to be buying into what Brooklyn is all about. It’s been fun watching players like Jarrett Allen, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and Caris LeVert flourish in bigger roles. Otherwise, it’s been a pretty unfortunate season.

Raptors updates
There were no updates out of Raptors’ practice in New York on Monday, so we may not know the status of OG Anunoby until closer to game time (he’s listed as doubtful again). If he doesn’t go, Norman Powell or Malcolm Miller figure to start again, with the regular rotation doing what they can to make sure Nigel Hayes gets playing time again. Your 17th man could never. As a minor update, since Anunoby was hurt on Feb. 28, Miller has a plus-11.2 net rating in 62 minutes to plus-3.5 in 120 minutes for Powell. Powell’s minutes have been tougher, to be clear, but they’ve been enough to get his net rating back in the positive for the season. Remarkably, the Raptors have outscored opponents with every single player who’s been on the roster save for Malachi Richardson, who only got five minutes of ill-fated garbage time.

Oh, and if you were curious: DeMar DeRozan hasn’t missed a game and still only ranks 14th in minutes, Kyle Lowry is down in 43rd, and Serge Ibaka barely cracks the top 100. They’ll probably get an odd night off still with four back-to-backs left and a five-in-seven stretch. Even if they don’t, the Raptors have really done well keeping these minutes down.

PG: Kyle Lowry, Fred VanVleet, Delon Wrighr
SG: DeMar DeRozan
SF: Norman Powell, C.J. Miles, Malcolm Miller
PF: Serge Ibaka, Pascal Siakam, Nigel Hayes
C: Jonas Valanciunas, Jakob Poeltl, Lucas Nogueira
OUT: OG Anunoby
TBD: None
905: Malachi Richardson, Lorenzo Brown, Alfonzo McKinnie

Nets updates
The Nets have been in a bad way on the injury front most of the season but are in pretty good shape here. Jeremy Lin remains sidelined, but D’Angelo Russell has returned since the last time these teams played, as has DeMarre Carroll. Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and Caris LeVert, who have dealt with injuries at times, are also healthy here, giving Kenny Atkinson one of his deepest rotations of the year. The only question mark is Jarrett Allen, the intriguing rookie who is questionable due to a sore left foot. Considering he missed games with foot problems earlier in the year and the Nets have little reason to push him, the Raptors may be the first team to get a look at Jahlil Okafor – and his whopping negative net rating – as a starter.

All told, the Nets figure to only have one lineup available that’s played 100 minutes together, the projected starters (if Allen plays), who have played to a plus-2 net rating. There’s also a surprising Allen-and-bench group that’s outscored opponents by 9.1 points per-100 possessions in 73 minutes. Most of what the Nets will trot out is new and unfamiliar, but this is all to say that they’re not exactly a pushover, as the Raptors surely remember from January.

PG: Spencer Dinwiddie, Isaiah Whitehead
SG: D’Angelo Russell, Caris LeVert, Nik Stauskas
SF: Allen Crabbe, Joe Harris, Dante Cunningham
PF: DeMarre Carroll, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Quincy Acy
C: (Jarrett Allen), Jahlil Okafor, Timofey Mozgov
OUT: Jeremy Lin
TBD: Jarrett Allen
Long Island: Milton Doyle, James Webb III

The line
The Raptors are 9.5-point favorites with a 219 over-under. Toronto is 19-14 against the spread on the road and 6-2 against the spread during their current winning streak.

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DeMar DeRozan named Eastern Conference Player of the Week

This is getting almost comical. For the fifth time this season, DeMar DeRozan has been named Eastern Conference Player of the Week.

I’m away from computer, so here’s the Toronto Raptors’ release:

The National Basketball Association announced Monday that DeMar DeRozan has been selected as Eastern Conference Player of the Week for games played Mar. 5-11. This marks the 10th time DeRozan has earned the honour during his nine seasons in Toronto and the fifth time this season. He was also named East Player of the Week for games played Nov. 13-18, Dec. 18-24, Jan. 1-7 and Feb. 26-Mar. 5.
DeRozan averaged a team-high 24.8 points along with 4.3 assists and 4.5 rebounds as the Raptors won an NBA-best four games last week. He also shot .453 (34-for-75) from the field and .833 (25-for-30) at the free throw line.
Highlighting DeRozan’s week was a 42-point performance during Toronto’s 121-119 overtime victory Mar. 7 at Detroit. He made a coast-to-coast dunk at the end of regulation and assisted on Fred VanVleet’s game-winning basket in overtime. DeRozan then scored 23 points, including the go-ahead basket Mar. 9 vs. Houston, snapping the Rockets’ 17-game winning streak.
DeRozan, a native of Compton, California, is currently13th in the NBA averaging 23.7 points through 66 games. The four-time NBA All-Star was selected ninth overall by Toronto in the 2009 NBA Draft and is the franchise’s all-time leader in career points (13,022), field goals made (4,620), free throws (3,470) made and games played (661).

This guy. What a terrific season.

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Raptors Have Only One Thing Left To Prove

All that’s left is Game 1.

This was a season that was supposed to be so overloaded with things that the Raptors had to prove that it would capsized the ship, sending the franchise into a rebuilding mode. Instead of destroying the season, however, the Raptors thrived by proving day after day that they had control of their season. They had to prove that they could completely re-wire their offence to deprioritize their two best players. They did that and put DeMar DeRozan into the MVP conversation. They had to prove that losing three key bench players (Patrick Patterson, P.J. Tucker, and Cory Joseph) wouldn’t destroy their bench. This season they have the best bench in the NBA. They had to find a way to make Jonas Valanciunas useful after spending months trying to trade him. He’s now having a career season after subtlety remaking his body and approach. They had to avoid their post-Christmas and/or post-All-Star swoon to prove that they could sustain during the dog days of the season. They’re 25-7 since January 1.

Then there is the stuff that no one asked them to do, like turn Pascal Siakam into a quasi-point forward. Or turn Jakob Poeltl into a fearsome shot blocker. Or make OG Anunoby a seamless fit into a veteran starting lineup. Or make Dwane Casey a head coach at the All-Star game.

They are 15-2 since February 1, they’re already one win away from 50 wins with more than a month to go in the season, and on Friday they completed the season sweep of the NBA-best Houston Rockets. They’re sitting at first in the East and, 3.5 games up on Boston, look likely to stay there the rest of the way.

All that’s left is Game 1.

It’s the last thing that they have to prove. Their regular season has been such a staggering — borderline unimaginable — success that it almost seems absurd to think that the ghosts of Playoffs past are still lurking in the corridors of the Air Canada Centre, but they’re there. This generation of Toronto Raptors have no legacy quite as strong as their great regular seasons followed by unwatchable postseasons. It’s why some were even calling for the Raptors to shake it up this summer. It’s why some were hoping that the Raptors would get outbid for Kyle Lowry’s services. It’s why some expected Dwane Casey to lose his job. The Playoff woes were so inexplicable that regardless of how well the team had grown over the years, it felt like their postseason struggles were simply unavoidable.

So, that begs the question: are they? When Kyrie Irving threw an off-the-backboard alley-oop to LeBron James in the opening moments of Game 1 of their second-round series against Toronto last year, it felt like a not-so-subtle statement that Cleveland knew how mentally fragile the Raptors had become in the Playoffs. It felt like the Cavs’ superstars knew that there was nothing wrong with Toronto’s skills and everything wrong with their mental state heading into April and May. Show them how unafraid you were of them and they’d play like no one should be afraid of them, anyway.

It’s also a problem that compounds itself. Every time they play vulnerable in the Playoffs, they have to deal with another season of doubters shrugging at every regular season achievement because they’ve never shown that they can make it work in springtime. That sort of doubt makes it that much harder to start the Playoffs with clear heads and confidence. Which makes them come out of the gates weak. Which makes amplifies the doubts further. Lather, rinse, repeat.

That’s why all that’s left to prove is Game 1. They have to show that they can come out on that first weekend and win (and, ideally, win convincingly). Whether it’s against Milwaukee, Miami, or even Philadelphia, they need to assert their dominance as the number one seed and legit contender —if not favourite — for the East crown. They have to play like they are taking their opponent seriously while also demonstrating that they’re just an appetizer for the real opponents still to come. They have to play with the same ruthless versatility that has powered them all season long. That’s the only thing that they have left to prove. After that, the chips will fall where they may.

The Raptors have destroyed all of the other doubts about them. They are as on-the-radar as they’ve been since Vince Carter dominated their existence. Despite Matt Devlin’s increasingly-irritating dogwhistling about Toronto’s presence in the American media (they are now constantly in the conversation, in everything from The Jump to so a prestigious SI Lee Jenkins piece to a prolonged aside on the latest Lowe Post bemoaning the the fact that Raptors fans still think they are being ignored), the only question anyone has about them is whether or not this is the year that they turn their regular season success into a new demeanor in the Playoffs. That’s it. That’s the only thing keeping most from jumping on the Raptors bandwagon, and it’s valid. After four straight years of head-scratching fumbling, you can allow for some doubt on the part of pundits looking for more than regular season dominance.

People bemoaned Paul Pierce’s skepticism in the wake of Toronto’s stellar win against Houston on Friday, but of all people, doesn’t Pierce have more reason to be skeptical than anyone? He practically wrote the book on undermining this club’s confidence, announcing that he was looking right through them before beating them in consecutive seasons. LeBron James picked up that playbook and ran it himself once Pierce moved out of Toronto’s way, offering precious little postseason respect to a  team that, frankly, hadn’t earned any to begin with. Fans can get prickly over the lack of confidence people have in the Raptors’ postseason chances, but until the Raptors have a chance to silence their doubters next month, fans have to live with the skepticism that this team has earned over the last four years.

So please, enjoy the next month. The Raptors have nothing to prove over the last 16 games (although a franchise-first 60-win season would be a sight to behold). They are going to bask in what is easily the greatest regular season in team history. However, allow the doubters their doubts. They Raptors do still have to prove it in Game 1. They have to prove that they can show up to the Playoffs ready to play. This group has never done that. Now, there are a lot of things that they’ve done this season that they’ve never done before, so fans have a reason to be bullish.

All that’s left is Game 1.

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Powell remains a wrinkle in Casey’s pristine season

It was a dreamy first-half by even the highest standards.

Kyle Lowry and the entire Toronto Raptors squad came out like gang busters, throwing one haymaker after the other at the mighty Houston Rockets.

Yet, after a crowd of 20,131 went into a frenzy after a DeMar DeRozan three-pointer extended the lead to 19 and forced Houston to call a timeout, head coach Dwane Casey made his way towards Norman Powell on the court. He was fairly animated, patting him on the back several times, before heading back to the huddle.

“He was doing something he wasn’t supposed to do defensively,” Casey said after the game. “I was correcting him.”

One wouldn’t have thought that based on what had just transpired.

The Raptors were winning handily, Powell had just missed several wide-open looks from beyond the arc, and so one would have thought the conversation may have revolved around encouragement to keep shooting. Going back over the sequences that led to the discussion during the timeout, one piece of evidence tells all.

With 3:38 to go in the second quarter, Kyle Lowry finds a cutting Powell in the right corner for a look at a three. The former UCLA guard misses the shot but does well to follow it and collect the offensive rebound. He then calmly drains the open 10-footer before starting to trail back on defense. To most of us who would be ball-watching in this scenario, it’s hard to see what Powell does wrong.

Pay close attention to the bench, though, and you’ll see that as soon as Powell makes the shot, both Casey and assistant coach Rex Kalamian motion towards Powell to press full court and not allow James Harden any kind of breathing room. Powell fails to do that, causing Casey to flail his arms in frustration.

This is the level of attention to detail Toronto’s coaching staff is bringing to the table, where every “I” is dotted, and every ‘T’ is crossed. The score is irrelevant. This is what championship teams do.

Dwane Casey’s credentials for the Coach of the Year award appear superior to that of anyone else’s at this stage of the season. Barring what would be a surprising collapse, the Raptors will earn the top seed in the Eastern Conference. He has strived for professionalism from Day 1 and Toronto is now 29-2 against teams under .500.

The only two losses came on Nov. 22 against the New York Knicks when they surrendered a 28-0 run in the third quarter and then a day after Christmas in a listless performance against the Dallas Mavericks.

When Toronto made the trip to New York for Sunday’s game, they had every excuse in the world.

That the early start time and opportunity to rest on the laurels of their thrilling win over Houston didn’t matter is a testament to how far this team has progressed over the course of the season.

As DeRozan steadily makes his case for the runner-up to Harden in the MVP race, Jonas Valanciunas continues to prove that he’s found a new lease on life in the NBA, and the bench bullies teams on the regular, Powell remains Casey’s final project.

The two have shared a unique bond over the years, with Powell possibly even being the difference between Casey still being the coach of this team and not when he rescued the Raptors in Game 5 of their first-round matchup against the Indiana Pacers and then again versus the Milwaukee Bucks last year. During that time, Powell has put in time with the Raptors 905, has backed up DeMarre Carroll, and Casey has been unafraid to show him a bit of tough love when starting Malcolm Miller over him as well.

So, when Casey made his way over to Powell during that timeout, perhaps it was a reminder to his soldier that defense is his primary objective. A subtle way of keeping Powell from thinking about his shot and his offensive struggles, even.

As Lee Jenkins pointed out so eloquently in his feature on the Raptors’ winningest head coach, Casey is adamant about ironing out every wrinkle he sees. He has talked about those guys waiting in the alley with the big bats and preparing for that, and he will know that when the time comes he will need as many of his own weapons at his disposal.

Powell’s teammates know it, too. C.J. Miles, who has become a leader for this team’s bench unit with his veteran presence, has seen it all before.

“It could happen to anybody,” Miles said. “You could get into a little rut or a spot where you feel like you’ve got to make this drastic change but sometimes it’s just a little bit of rhythm, a little bit of timing that needs to come.”

Miles has been through his own struggles this season. He shot a pedestrian 35.3 percent from beyond the arc in December and January, but has caught fire ever since. Through 15 games in February and March, the former Pacers sharpshooter has fired away at a 42.2 percent clip on 6.8 attempts per game.

“Continue to do what you do, which is work on the off-days and play within yourself on the game days,” Miles said when asked about the process of staying patient. “Don’t go try to make some extra stuff happen, just let it come and take the shots you take and make the plays you make. It always falls back into place.”

This is perhaps where Powell’s struggles have been most evident, forcing the issue on drives this season and trying to finish over the trees in the paint when better passing options exist. Losing his starting job through injury and a rookie on the prowl can’t have been easy, but Miles stresses that teammates have done their best to maintain positivity.

“I think guys have done a good job of keeping him upbeat. I would tell him all the time that we’re going to need him when he was first falling in and out of the rotation, but it’s hard. It’s easy for me to say it to him because I’m not in it, but, I always stressed that we were going to need him. He’s too talented, too important to this team. What he does is exactly what we’ll need in a series to beat some team.”

That remains the underlying belief. That there is too much on offer for it to not matter when the stakes are highest, in an environment where his game and demeanor is arguably best suited. He gave everyone a taste against the Detroit Pistons this past Wednesday with 17 points that included knocking down three of his five attempts from long range, but a taste was all it was.

Powell was right back in his funk with nine total points over two games against the Rockets and Knicks, shooting just 1-for-9 from three. This remains Casey’s final wrinkle down the stretch — no blemish on the resume to be sure — but one that will be gnawing at him till he straightens it out.

As hard as it may be to believe Powell can snap out of his season-long struggles, it’s getting harder and harder to doubt Casey. After all, he’s ironed everything else out this season.

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Raptors beat Knicks in a Laugher

There are no trap games, not for this iteration of the Raptors. Coming off an emotional high after beating the Houston Rockets in a candidate for game of the year, a pessimistic fan might expect the Raptors to lay an egg against the Knicks. Luke Kornet would even slam home the Knicks’ first basket, supporting that (later-proved false) theory. Instead, the Raptors would dominate wire-to-wire against the Knicks, scoring 132 despite Lowry and DeRozan only combining for 25 points.

Norman Powell started well for the Raptors, scoring an early basket on a quick cut down the middle and finishing with a floater over a Knicks big. It’s important for Powell to develop those off-ball skills, especially during a down season for his jumper; he can’t maximize his talents as a fifth option who needs the ball in his hands to be effective. He played a solid, if unexceptional game, which is exactly the progress the Raptors want from him.

However, the Raptors starters proved ineffective early. DeMar DeRozan missed a jumper while trying to bait Hardaway into a foul on a free-throw line jumper. Kyle Lowry missed a 3 and turned the ball over looking for Jonas Valanciunas. Meanwhile Kornet launched 6 early field goal attempts, even connecting on a 3 to draw Valanciunas out of the paint.

Lowry connected with his center later, pump-faking a pass to Powell behind the arc (drawing a Knicks defender out of the paint), and then finding Valanciunas for an easy layup. Despite the occasional highlight for the Raptors, it was free throws that kept them in the game early. Valanciunas scored on 6 first quarter freebies (he would finish with a monstrous 9/10 from the line on the game in only 22 minutes).

Valanciunas continued his early-quarter domination when Kyle O’Quinn replaced Kornet as the Knicks’ pivot. The big Lithuanian dominated on cuts, dives, and post ups, bringing his scoring total to 10 before he left the game with 4:00 remaining in the frame. Despite that, the Raptors were unable to gain any separation in the first quarter, even with their typically strong end-of-quarter DeRozan+bench rotation. C.J. Miles was able to break the monotony by banking home a deeeep 3 to end the quarter, giving the Raps a 32-27 lead.

Then the bench mob hit the floor. Poeltl displayed his budding on-court chemistry with Siakam, dishing an underhand scoop pass for a layup, which was followed by a Fred VanVleet 3 in semi-transition. Siakam finished a layup after cutting in the lane, and he then returned the favour to Poeltl, who finished with a push shot. The lead had bloomed to 9, and every Raptors’ basket in the frame was assisted; the bench mob is so fun and effective, it’s ridiculous.

Lowry returned to the game to offer some vaunted triple point guard minutes, and Delon Wright responded with a fancy spinning, scooping layup. It was Wright’s first game back after a toe injury, and his pivoting, juking, and slashing seemed just fine. When he penetrates deep into the paint, the bench offence can score in the half-court against anyone. When he lacks that first burst in changing direction, their half-court offence bogs down. Yesterday was a prime example of the former (and him shooting 2/2 from 3 in the game didn’t hurt, either).

Tim Hardaway jr. was just about the only thing keeping New York in the game. He hit triples, finished and-1 in transition, and was able to keep a stagnant offence on the scoreboard. He finished with 25 in the game.

Near the end of the second quarter, the Raptors offered some comedy by missed 6 shots (including several missed layups just from Ibaka) in one possession. Lots of rebounding, not much shot-making. It was a ho-hum minute. Malcolm Miller hit a 3 on the next possession to break the drought. Even though the Raptors were up 7, it felt like they were hardly playing. Lowry and Ibaka picked up a pair of technical, perhaps trying to lift their team’s energy levels. Ibaka responded, blocking a Frankie Smokes layup into the crowd on the next defensive possession. Malcolm Miller needed no boost, hitting another, buzzer-beating, 3 to end the half.

Ibaka opened the second half with a made 3 – does he always play better after jawing at and/or shoving opponents? If so, I’m glad 70% of the NBA players seemingly despise him. Powell hit his first 3 of the game – an encouraging sight after a few misses and even more passed-on looks – in transition on an open corner look. It’s good to see him continue shooting. Valanciunas followed up that highlight with a fake handoff, spinning to his right and cramming over every Knick and the Empire State building as well.

Hardaway continued scoring at will. Valanciunas gave him a hard foul in transition; he made his free throws. He hit his jumpers, made his layups, and kept the game from being a blowout (but not for long). But the Raptors were winning without their stars! Lowry’s first 3 came halfway through the third on a deep triple. Hardaway responded with a pull-up long bomb of his own. Lowry finished and-1 over (more like through) Beasley on the next play, and the game was officially a barn burner! Lowry hit a corner triple only a moment later, making it 9 in a row for the diminutive guard.

The starters played deep into the third quarter, with a Valanciunas post-up over O’Quinn pushing the lead to 89-75 with 4 minutes remaining. The Raptors slowly grew their lead, making Emmanuel Mudiay beat them (he rarely did) on offence, and letting their role players score the majority of their own points. The offence was fluid and pass-happy. DeRozan finished the game shooting 4/16, and it didn’t matter! Another Siakam-Poeltl connection pushed the lead to 16 to end the quarter; those two dudes look for each other, and it shows.

The fourth quarter was entirely garbage time, though it was potentially the most fun time of the game (for Raps fans). The bench mob played to start the quarter, which is unfair and just a method to run the score up, even though the lineup is all-bench. The bench finished with 69 points. Siakam dished 6 assists, many of which came via advanced, ‘see ahead of the play’ vision. His playmaking has improved dramatically, which gives the Raptors an important weapon alongside their deadly backcourt.

In the final frame, Wright continued his patient, probing handles in the half-court. VanVleet continued his hot shooting from deep (the Raps finished 45.7% from range). Siakam finished in transition. Basically, the Raps just continued Raps-ing. But what made the 4th quarter so fun? Nigel Hayes – a recent call-up and 10-day contract signee for the Raps – got some time! He has been one of the leaders of the Westchester Knicks this season, who rival the 905 for supremacy in the East. That Hayes played against the New York Knicks is poetic, and boy did he play well.

Hayes finished with 6 points on two attempted shots (both made 3s) and even a few words directed at the Knicks bench after hitting a 3 directly in front of his would-be teammates. I’m glad he’s a Raptor and not a Knick. Hayes played within a lineup of Wright-Powell-Miller-Hayes-Nogueira, and they finished with a net rating of +18.0 in 5 minutes. Hayes was mobbed by his Raptors teammates, who cheered on his success like he was one of their own children.

The garbage Knicks couldn’t find time for a player the caliber of Hayes – who was dominating for their G-League affiliate all season – only for him to succeed for the Raptors against those same trash Knicks? That just about tells the story of the game (and season, and general competence of the two franchises) right there.

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Raptors Weekly Podcast – It’s for real

Host William Lou is joined by Andrew Thompson to discuss yet another successful week in Raptors basketball.


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Raptors-Knicks Reaction Podcast – Uncharted waters

Host William Lou recaps the Toronto Raptors’ win over the New York Knicks.


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Quick Reaction: Raptors 132, Knicks 106

Toronto 132 Final
Box Score
106 New York

S. Ibaka24 MIN, 14 PTS, 7 REB, 0 AST, 0 STL, 5-14 FG, 2-5 3FG, 2-2 FT, 1 BLK, 2 TO, 4 +/-

Had some good energy initially, then a much rougher stretch followed. It took getting into Tim Hardaway’s face and earning a technical to get him going again – he responded with a chase-down block and a really nice third quarter, then retired to the Snapchat DMs.

N. Powell21 MIN, 7 PTS, 1 REB, 1 AST, 0 STL, 3-7 FG, 1-4 3FG, 0-0 FT, 0 BLK, 2 TO, 4 +/-

Looked a lot more confident again here, smoothly hitting a transition corner three and scoring on a couple of attacks. He didn’t shoot it well overall, but he continues to trend in the right direction. He’s back to where Casey’s probably going to keep getting him minutes when Anunoby is back. By the way, Eric Smith mentioned on the broadcast that Anunoby has found watching Powell’s pick-and-roll defense to be really helpful from a learning perspective while sidelined.

J. Valanciunas22 MIN, 17 PTS, 9 REB, 2 AST, 0 STL, 4-6 FG, 0-0 3FG, 9-10 FT, 0 BLK, 1 TO, 1 +/-

Was the most aggressive Raptor early on, putting up 10 points in the first quarter and living at the line. He was a bully most of the night, not just on the block but driving. Had a pair of assists and had another pass that doesn’t show up, a great twisting kick-out on the dive that led to a clean corner three attempt on the swing.

K. Lowry28 MIN, 16 PTS, 4 REB, 7 AST, 2 STL, 3-8 FG, 2-7 3FG, 8-8 FT, 0 BLK, 1 TO, 8 +/-

Hadn’t hit a field goal until the third quarter, then had a moment where he took over. Other than that spurt, it was a “quieter” night, and he had 16 points on 13 used possessions, dished seven assists, and contributed just about everywhere else. There’s a version of Lowry somewhere below KLOE that amounts to “casual Lowry very-goodness,” and this was that. I still don’t know why he and Hardaway got matching techs.

D. DeRozan28 MIN, 9 PTS, 4 REB, 5 AST, 0 STL, 4-16 FG, 0-3 3FG, 1-2 FT, 0 BLK, 1 TO, 15 +/-

Didn’t quite have hit offensively. He was missing jumpers and failing to bait fouls early, but the attacking lanes were there. He didn’t use them a ton, and while 4-of-16 is unsightly, he did well to shift into more of a facilitating role as the situation called. The ball movement in the DeRozan-and-bench groups was pristine, and DeRozan’s pushing in transition was a big part of it.

J. Poeltl21 MIN, 10 PTS, 8 REB, 3 AST, 0 STL, 5-8 FG, 0-0 3FG, 0-0 FT, 0 BLK, 1 TO, 23 +/-

Eventually, people are going to stop trying Poeltl around the rim. Until then, he’ll continue holding opponents to a lower percentage inside. He didn’t even have a block here and his impact was felt. His mind-meld on offense with Siakam is so much fun. He dished three assists here, and the passing of all the bigs together is really important.

D. Wright19 MIN, 12 PTS, 2 REB, 3 AST, 0 STL, 5-7 FG, 2-2 3FG, 0-0 FT, 0 BLK, 0 TO, 11 +/-

So, I guess the toe is fine. That spin move with the lefty finish was the closest I’ve ever come to feeling true love. He didn’t miss a damn step, and the 3-point percentage continues to hover around league average, which is huge.

P. Siakam18 MIN, 9 PTS, 7 REB, 6 AST, 1 STL, 4-8 FG, 0-0 3FG, 1-2 FT, 1 BLK, 0 TO, 20 +/-

This guy is now not only pushing off misses and creating for himself, he’s firing terrific no-look passes to shooters, dumping off to trailers, and kicking it out when he gets his usual outlets. He blocked Michael Beasley, too, which I think makes him Supercool Skills now. This was his third 6+ assist game of the year.

C. Miles18 MIN, 13 PTS, 4 REB, 1 AST, 0 STL, 5-8 FG, 3-6 3FG, 0-0 FT, 1 BLK, 0 TO, 19 +/-

Started his night with a ludicrous bank-shot heave at the end of the first and kept rolling from there, putting up 13 points and a +19 in 18 minutes. The second-unit offense when he’s firing can be a lot of fun, especially so when it’s a star-led group with three or four bench pieces. Was one worrisome moment where he planted funny on his right foot and appeared to roll his ankle.

F. VanVleet16 MIN, 11 PTS, 2 REB, 1 AST, 0 STL, 4-5 FG, 2-3 3FG, 1-1 FT, 0 BLK, 1 TO, 17 +/-

The plus-minus god had a +17 in 16 minutes. He came in, hit a couple threes, made a tough finish, and annoyed the Knicks because the Knicks are so used to nobody actually trying against them. Bet on yourself.

M. Miller12 MIN, 8 PTS, 3 REB, 0 AST, 0 STL, 3-4 FG, 2-3 3FG, 0-0 FT, 0 BLK, 1 TO, 4 +/-

Still got minutes at the end of the second and delivered, drilling a three to end a drought and then hitting a snap-release three in a hurry at the end of the quarter. Added a garbage-time dunk for good measure. He’s shown a lot the last few weeks.

N. Hayes5 MIN, 6 PTS, 0 REB, 0 AST, 0 STL, 2-2 FG, 2-2 3FG, 0-0 FT, 0 BLK, 1 TO, 2 +/-

Made his Raptors debut, immediately hit two threes, and gave the Knicks a bit of a knowing celebration. Could be us but you playing, and all. Casey gave him a quick talk about that, but not before the bench could mob him a bit for his fun couple of minutes. Nice to see him get in a game and carry that G League shooting over.

L. Nogueira5 MIN, 0 PTS, 1 REB, 1 AST, 0 STL, 0-0 FG, 0-0 3FG, 0-0 FT, 0 BLK, 0 TO, 2 +/-

Old friend. Bebe hasn’t been a great garbage-time performer in general, playing way better when his minutes matter. He was fine here, though, even making sure to get his usual assist to remind you of his passing chops.

Dwane Casey

Kept the rotation 11-deep to keep Miller involved even with Wright back and Powell starting, kept the stars limited to 28 minutes, and dusted off some older sets the Knicks looked woefully unprepared for. This was the biggest possible trap game imaginable – coming off the Rockets win, after a night in New York, with an early tip after the time-change – and his team had all the focus they needed. The ball movement was sexy.

Things We Saw

  1. The first quarter was a bit of a slog, the Raptors not defending particularly well and the Knicks making some shots that were probably going to cease. Kyle O’Quinn is great, but he’s not going to beat a team by himself all game. Even still, the Raptors were ahead five. You won’t be shocked to learn that the bench changed the energy, ripping off a 9-0 run in the second. That shifted the tone enough to where it went from ugly to a pretty entertaining back-and-forth. Things went mostly as you’d expect all night, the Raptors slowly rolling out of reach because they’re significantly better and eventually ending up with the second-highest regulation point total in franchise history.
  2. The Knicks went small late in the first half and cut the lead back down, but the Raptors made them pay on the glass. Future 10-time Gerald Henderson Award winner Luke Kornet did a nice job protecting the rim, he just couldn’t also corral the second chances. The Raptors kept missing tip-ins, leading Matt Devlin to yell, “Is there a lid on the basket?!” It did not stay on the basket long.
  3. My non-basketball-watching roommate was not feeling the Knicks’ City uniforms. The Madison Square Garden aesthetic is otherwise undefeated.
  4. The Raptors have now won eight in a row, the third-longest winning streak in franchise history. They’ve also won 15 of their last 16 and have a three-game lead atop the Eastern Conference (until Boston plays Indiana later). They haven’t lost to a bad team since Boxing Day. They had 32 assists, the 12th time this year they’ve had 30-plus, which is the second most in a season in franchise history. There’s a lot to enjoy right now. Have a wonderful Sunday.
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Pre-game news & notes: Anunoby out, Powell starts, Kanter and Thomas sit, Wright available after all

I…do not have much to say. I just did the game preview like three hours ago. I’ve gotta remember not to assign myself the previews when it’s such an early tip…you guys don’t need my perspective twice in a morning. At least, not for a game between the Toronto Raptors and the New York Knicks. One is 14-1 in the last 15, the other is 1-14, and if both sides play to form, this should be rote. That’s not a certainty, but there’s not really enough to fill two pre-game posts with a game that amounts to “if you play how you have the last two months, you’ll probably win by 15.” The Raptors haven’t lost to a bad team since Boxing Day.

The game tips off at 1 on Sportsnet One and TSN 1050. You can check out the full game preview here.

Raptors updates
Toronto will once again be without OG Anunoby and Delon Wright, per Dwane Casey via Eric Smith of Sportsnet. They were both listed as doubtful, and on an afternoon with no shootaround against a lesser opponent, it doesn’t make much sense to rush them here. That they both traveled and weren’t ruled out until now is at least encouraging about their progress. Seeing them back at some point on this three-game trip wouldn’t be surprising. In the meantime, Malcolm Miller and Nigel Hayes are with the team for depth. It hasn’t been announced if Norman Powell will continue to start or someone else will get a shot, though he’ll either be a factor in the Anunoby role or the Wright role. It would be kind of funny to get Hayes some heavy run against the team that had him in Summer League, training camp, and the G League this year, similar to when the Cavaliers unleashed Edy Tavares on the Raptors late last year.

Check back before tip-off for starters.

UPDATE: Powell starts again. Expect Miller in the 10th-man role, and possibly an expanded rotation to get Hayes a taste if things go to form.

UPDATE II: Wright was out warming up before the anthems. Not sure if he’s just testing it or what, but he’s on my screen.

UPDATE III: Josh Lewenberg passes on that Wright is available, after all. He tested his toe out before the game and is active. Whether or not he’s used is another question, but it’s a positive that he’s available, even if he was ruled out initially.

PG: Kyle Lowry, Fred VanVleet, Delon Wrighr
SG: DeMar DeRozan
SF: Norman Powell, C.J. Miles, Malcolm Miller
PF: Serge Ibaka, Pascal Siakam, Nigel Hayes
C: Jonas Valanciunas, Jakob Poeltl, Lucas Nogueira
OUT: OG Anunoby
TBD: None
905: Malachi Richardson, Lorenzo Brown, Alfonzo McKinnie

Knicks updates
The Knicks are still without Kristaps Porzingis, Ron Baker, and Joakim Noah, and so Isaiah Hicks and the most obvious Raptor-killer of all time, Luke Kornet, are up from Westchester. Kornet made his NBA debut against the Raptors on Feb. 8, scoring 11 points in 22 minutes. He’s scored five points in 38 minutes since. He’s also hung 64 points on Raptors 905 in four meetings this year, hitting 10 threes. Nobody has ever been so pre-destined for the Gerald Henderson award.

The only other Knicks note is that Courtney Lee is coming off the bench in his return from a brief absence for a family matter, allowing Frank Ntilikina and Emmanuel Mudiay to both stay in the starting lineup. Trey Burke and Enes Kanter are both playing despite minor issues. Lance Thomas has a thumb injury and is a game-time call, per Ian Begley of ESPN.

UPDATE: Thomas is out, per several Knicks beat reporters.

UPDATE II: Enes Kanter is a late scratch due to back spasms, per the Knicks. So that’s two of their more useful regulars down. Kornet feasts.

PG: Emmanuel Mudiay, Trey Burke, Jarrett Jack
SG: Frank Ntilikina, Courtney Lee, Damyean Dotson
SF: Tim Hardaway, Troy Williams
PF: Michael Beasley, Isaiah Hicks
C: Luke Kornet, Kyle O’Quinn
OUT: Enes Kanter, Kristaps Porzingis, Ron Baker, Joakim Noah, Lance Thomas
TBD: None
Westchester: None


  • Raptors 905 won yesterday. Barely. With a team-record five players assigned, they fell behind a woeful Canton team by double-digits, needing a fourth-quarter comeback to win. Nigel Hayes and Malcolm Miller flew to New York afterward to join the Raptors while Alfonzo McKinnie, Lorenzo Brown, and Malachi Richardson stayed behind with the 905 for Tuesday’s game.
  • Some of the Raptors were roasting Serge Ibaka for his Snapchat/IG story usage the other night and honestly, it’s about damn time.
  • The Last Two Minute Report from Raptors-Rockets only shows one small miss, a travel on Eric Gordon (0:10).
  • Shouts to Ryerson on pulling off the Carleton upset.

The line
The Raptors are 9.5-point favorites with a 217 over-under. The Raptors are 37-28 against the spread this season, including an 18-14 mark against the spread on the road.

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Gameday: Raptors @ Knicks, March 11

The Houston Rockets have won zero consecutive games. The Toronto Raptors, meanwhile, are winners of seven straight, tying the third-longest winning streak in franchise history. This is happening with alarming regularity – they were on a seven-game winning streak right before this one, too, and have a pair of six-gamers on their record. They’re an overtime loss to Milwaukee from 15 in a row. The Raptors have not, however, had a run of success longer than this one. There is a window to extend here, and while their focus is on bigger things than regular-season winning streaks, there is the No. 1 seed to worry about, something they have a 2.5-game grasp on (Boston hosts Indiana today).

Standing in the Raptors way are the New York Knicks. And a 1 pm tip time in New York following the clocks moving ahead. And possibly some let-down after such a huge win on Friday. The Raptors haven’t failed to meet the call often this year, but I’d imagine several people will be in the comments or my mentions this morning warning of a trap game. They’re all trap games when you’re a top-three team in the league. The Knicks are legitimately a mess, losers of six in a row and 14 of 15 and a bottom-10 team on both ends of the floor. Even with a bit of early let-down, the Raptors should be able to handle business as they do.

The game tips off at 1 on Sportsnet One and TSN 1050.

To help set the stage, I reached out to Joseph Flynn of Posting and Toasting, and he was kind enough to help us out.

Blake Murphy: The Knicks got bad a little too late to join the tank brigade in earnest. Maybe they can make a late push, but failing lottery luck, how will the remainder of the season be evaluated for New York?

Joseph Flynn: The coaching staff is finally getting around to playing the younger guys (though not in the right lineups), so hopefully those youngsters will show us something these next few weeks.

Blake Murphy: Since Kristaps Porzingis went down (sigh), the Knicks are 1-11. Not that they were particularly good before, but does this kind of highlight just how important Porzingis is to the franchise and just how much he was lifting their play? Why has it been so difficult without him?

Joseph Flynn: One thing that Kristaps’ injury has shown is just how valuable he is on defense. With him the Knicks were mediocre; since he’s been gone, they’ve been an unrelenting train wreck.

Blake Murphy: How has the Emmanuel Mudiay experiment been going so far? A worthwhile flier, I’m sure. Any signs of intrigue?

Joseph Flynn: Emmanuel Mudiay has been quite bad for the Knicks. Frank Ntilikina has been better, but the coach doesn’t like starting him at point guard for whatever reason. It’s probably for the better, as the Knicks’ bench is a more cohesive unit than the starters these days.

Blake Murphy: Michael Beasley: Greatest Knick ever, or only one of the greatest?

Joseph Flynn: Last week Beasley set an NBA record for “laziest performance in a game after calling out your teammates.”

Blake Murphy: Frank Ntilikina’s offense has been slow to come around, grading as well behind his defense. Is he at least showing progress there? Does he project as only a one-way impact for the foreseeable future?

Joseph Flynn: One consistent thing about the Knicks over the years is that their coaches are terrible and they don’t develop young players. I’d like to see Frank get stronger this summer and start fresh next season with some better coaching. Knowing the Knicks, however, they’ll probably fire Jeff Hornacek and replace him with the most mediocre retread option available.

Raptors updates
With so few practices of late, there’s not a lot of clarity on the two injured Raptors. Toronto couldn’t practice Thursday due to the back-to-back and opted not to Saturday to catch an early flight to New York, and so there’s been no opportunity for firm updates on Delon Wright and OG Anunoby. Both are listed as doubtful on the injury report, though. Wright sprained the big toe on his right foot Tuesday, tried to play Wednesday and couldn’t, then sat Friday. Anunoby, meanwhile, has missed five consecutive games with a sprained right ankle and bone bruise.

Who starts for Anunoby is still a daily question, with Norman Powell or Malcolm Miller figuring to slot in. Powell started the last two games, with Wednesday standing as his best all-around performance in some time, while Miller has consistently provided solid minutes given the circumstances. Since Feb. 28, the game Anunoby got injured midway through, Miller has a net rating of plus-8.3 in 50 minutes while Powell’s is plus-2.6 in 98 minutes. Nigel Hayes is also with the Raptors for depth at the forward spots, having re-joined the team later Saturday after his Raptors 905 debut. Wright’s absence is a little easier to account for – whichever of Powell or Miller doesn’t start will slide into Wright’s role with the second unit.

PG: Kyle Lowry, Fred VanVleet
SG: DeMar DeRozan
SF: Norman Powell, C.J. Miles, Malcolm Miller
PF: Serge Ibaka, Pascal Siakam, Nigel Hayes
C: Jonas Valanciunas, Jakob Poeltl, Lucas Nogueira
OUT: None
TBD: OG Anunoby, Delon Wright
905: Malachi Richardson, Lorenzo Brown, Alfonzo McKinnie

Knicks updates
The Knicks are the Knicks, and they enter play here dealing with only a few minor questions. One is whether Courtney Lee, expected back with the team, rejoins the starting lineup or if Frank Ntilikina continues to get the start alongside Emmanuel Mudiay. Lee makes more sense opposite DeMar DeRozan in a vacuum, but the Knicks should be focused on developing now, and of their moderately intriguing young pieces, three are point guards. It makes sense to play them together heavily and see what works.

Whatever they go with, the starting lineup without Jarrett Jack (moved to the bench) and Kristaps Porzingis (torn ACL) won’t have much experience together – the Knicks’ most commonly used lineup available here has played 89 minutes together, and unless they’re going to start Jack, that will be a small-minutes look. The projected starters listed below, as listed on the Knicks’ game notes, are a minus-11 in 38 minutes as a group. There are few “good” Knicks lineups with Porzingis out. It’s a little depressing.

PG: Emmanuel Mudiay, Trey Burke, Jarrett Jack
SG: Frank Ntilikina, Courtney Lee, Damyean Dotson
SF: Tim Hardaway, Troy Williams
PF: Lance Thomas, Michael Beasley, Isaiah Hicks
C: Enes Kanter, Kyle O’Quinn, Luke Kornet
OUT: Kristaps Porzingis, Ron Baker, Joakim Noah
TBD: None
Westchester: None

The line
The Raptors are 9.5-point favorites with a 218 over-under.

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Brown’s 30, bench lead Raptors 905 to comeback over Canton

Photo credit: Trung Ho /

Raptors 905 106, Canton Charge 97 | Box Score
Assignees: Nigel Hayes, Malachi Richardson, Alfonzo McKinnie (905), None (Charge)
Two-ways: Lorenzo Brown, Malcolm Miller (905), None (Charge)

A grand don’t come for free.

On paper, it was supposed to be an easier afternoon for Raptors 905 at Hershey Centre. With three NBA assignees and both of their two-ways in tow, they’d be up against a Canton Charge team with not only a worse record but no NBA-level support. One of the G League’s best at full strength against a thinned-out team already eliminated from the playoff race looked a certain way. This, as they say, is why they play the games – the 905 stumbled most of the night, falling behind 14 before eventually turning it around for a 106-97 victory that was more up in the air than it maybe should have been.

The 905 looked anything but the part of juggernaut to open the game. Their start was downright lethargic, which couldn’t be owed to unfamiliarity alone, especially after a week of practices to iron out some wrinkles. Instead, the 905 just couldn’t find anyone to hit a shot, Aarin Best standing as the only starter to hit half of his shot over the opening 12 minutes. Lorenzo Brown eased into his first game in nearly a month, shooting 1-of-5, Alfonzo McKinnie got a pair of iffy whistles driving (one foul, one travel), Kennedy Meeks’ usual touches weren’t dropping outside of a game-opening turnaround, and the transition game produced little off of four Charge turnovers.

It was perhaps defensively where the concern was greater, though. While it’s true that Canton shot an unsustainable 5-of-11 on threes, the 905 also gifted them opportunities with a handful of turnovers and second chances on the boards. Even as Canton shot 3-of-11 inside the arc, then, they were able to open up a lead. Jerry Stackhouse turned to an all-bench unit in response – one that hilariously had two NBA players in it – and even against the reserves for a thinned-out Charge team, the 905 couldn’t gather momentum. Not even the debut of Nigel Hayes, which opened with a corner three from the exact spot he hit a game-winner against the 905 earlier in the year, proved a spark.

They found themselves down six after a quarter, and Stackhouse reached even deeper into his bench. Kaza Keane rewarded that effort with a three off of a post-dish from Hayes, though he couldn’t connect on the same look a few possessions later. That was more or less the story, the 905 unable to string scores together even as they blitzed the offensive glass and turned up the pressure in the backcourt to force turnovers. Canton’s shot-making remained a bit above their head, but the 905 eventually began to break through, Keane feeding Shevon Thompson for a big transition dunk and Best following it with an and-one before the rest of the starters returned.

Canton just kept hitting shots, though. They’d finish the half 8-of-15 on threes despite Marcus Thornton being the only plus-shooter on the roster in this game, while the 905 were a respectable, if shakier 7-of-20. That small difference and a much larger one inside the arc loomed large at the half, the 905 stuck six despite a better effort in the second quarter and a late push from Brown. It was a preposterously inexplicable half from an offensive execution standpoint, and whether it was shooting variance or an uncharacteristic complacency with a talent edge, the defense wasn’t to standard, either.

That it took the 905 four minutes to score in the third quarter, and that it took a third-chance opportunity for Meeks to get one to drop, was a bad sign. It had allowed the Charge to go up 13, giving the 905 a steep hole to climb out of. The Meeks bucket at least seemed to reintroduce a modicum of confidence, as Malcolm Miller and Brown followed with scores of their own and Hayes wrapped up a drive to force a jump-ball turnover. Canton still had double-digit control, though, and JaCorey Williams seemed to have little intention of conceding it. Thornton had his back with a trio of massive triples, too, keeping the 905 at arm’s length – in this case, an arm is eight points long – heading into the fourth.

Stackhouse rolled with his all-bench group at the top of the fourth again (with Keane in place of Malachi Richardson) – synergy between NBA and G League teams! – and they did well to close the gap further. Hayes scored on a hook shot, Fuquan Edwin and Davion Berry hit threes, and Thompson was everywhere on a defensive possession to force a shot-clock turnover. A Keane three brought the 905 back within a point with nine minutes to go, an Edwin three a few plays later tied it, and then Edwin put them ahead with a big steal that ultimately led to his fourth three of the afternoon.

“Those guys, our bench was really good for us. The energy that they brought,” Stackhouse said before highlighting Keane’s play in particular.

The job of the bench done, and then some, a few starters filtered back in and continued the run, pulling out ahead by seven on a somewhat rare Thompson mid-range jumper. Canton answered a couple of times, but the 905 responded each time, still holding that seven-point lead into the final three minutes. The Charge had a small window opened when Brown got whistled for a, uh, charge, only for Grant Jerrett to miss an open three and Brown to bounce back with a three. One more three was in order, and so Brown found Berry in the corner for the dagger, going ahead 13 with under a minute to go. The execution for the entire fourth was exactly what was expected initially, and while it took the 905 three quarters – and some lineups a little light on their NBA pieces – a 34-17 quarter is a really nice response.

The win moves the 905 within a game of the Westchester Knicks for best record in the Eastern Conference, an important perch since it comes with a bye attached to it. They have six games left, two home affairs sandwiched around a four-game west-coast trip. The margin for error is low at this point, and so an encouraging comeback here also stands as a paramount one.

“These games are important,” Stackhouse said. “For us, we’ve gotta go out on the road and take care of our business. That’s not something we’re afraid of. If we go out and play our game, we can go win anywhere, we’ve shown we can do that. But it’s not like it’s a favorable schedule for us. I think having this week of practice and trying to tighten some things up, we should be ready to go out and give ourselves a chance to close the season with possibly the best record in the league.”


  • Assignment notes
    • Nigel Hayes basically did what you’d expect in his first game with a new team with one practice under his belt. He came off the bench, was part of a couple key runs, knocked down an open corner three, and was unselfish when the ball came his way. He shot 1-of-5 on threes but still had seven points on seven possessions, dishing three assists for good measure. He was a plus-12 in 24 minutes. Solid debut, given the circumstances.
      • Hayes was hopping on a flight to re-join the Raptors in New York after this.
    • Alfonzo McKinnie had a quiet night, scoring four points in 19 minutes and sitting out the fourth entirely. He was a team-worst minus-10, and while that doesn’t tell the story, he wasn’t his usual impactful self on the glass or his aggressive self on offense. It was weirdly team-wide for all the NBA guys but Brown, though.
    • Malachi Richardson struggled again here and was the odd man out in the rotation in the second half. It’s true that the 905 had a lot of useful bodies here, but an assignment player getting just seven scoreless minutes obviously looks a certain way. He was coming off of his best game as a member of the 905. These bumps are to be expected, especially on a team this deep where minutes are distributed by merit.
  • Other 905 player notes
    • Malcolm Miller shot the ball poorly and may have been a bit tired after playing a notable role Friday night, but he was terrific down the stretch defensively and really moved the ball with his shot not falling. He finished with five points and three assists.
      • Miller was hopping on a flight to re-join the Raptors in New York after this.
    • Lorenzo Brown returned from nearly a month off due to a left ankle sprain and looked like he hadn’t missed a minute, scoring 30 points on 26 possessions, grabbing seven rebounds, and dishing five assists. The 905 offense did really well to hold their own in his absence; he raises the floor so significantly on that end, though, that it means the 905 can win on a pretty cold shooting night where nobody was getting to the line. Stackhouse said it “wasn’t a great 30.” It was a necessary 30.
    • I’d highlight every individual but it’s easier to just dap the entire bench here. Kaza Keane, Fuquan Edwin, Shevon Thompson, and Davion Berry were all varying degrees of great and more or less won this game as a group. Awesome show of depth heading into a stretch where they’ll really need these guys.
  • Charge notes: I’m not sure they’re NBA players, but Marcus Thornton, JaCorey Williams, and Grant Jerrett all came through big here for Canton. Jerrett didn’t shoot well but had four assists from the center spot, Thornton was lights out from outside, and Williams is earning a reputation as a 905 killer.
  • The 905 are home again Tuesday before embarking on a four-game west-coast trip, then closing the season out at home on March 24. A friendly reminder that promo code “REPUBLIC905” will get you a discount at this link all season long.
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Raptors snap Rockets’ 17-game streak in Game of the Year candidate

Raptors 108, Rockets 105 | Box Score | Quick Reaction | Reaction Podcast | Bonus must-read from Will

The term “playoff atmosphere” can sometimes have too low a bar to clear. Over an 82-game season, the occasional raucous, highly contested, or well-executed game can feel more important, and there are nights that better replicate a desperate competitive environment than others. Sometimes, it’s an overstatement. Sometimes, though, it’s a game like Friday.

The buzz was palpable from well before tip, the fourth Welcome Toronto night and the first official Drake Night of the year – plus a genuine sense of anticipation in the city in the day or two leading up to the game – had the Air Canada Centre full early and loud just as soon. The visiting Houston Rockets came in winners of 17 straight, owners of the league’s best record, and looking to avenge a loss on their own court to these Toronto Raptors earlier in the year. Both sides were down a starter, the Raptors a key reserve, and two teams playing their third game in four nights saw the line come down something close to even.

The Raptors were slight underdogs, and for all of the change in momentum and reputation and organizational equity the franchise has built up over the last half decade, damned if Toronto crowds don’t still play the part of plucky David like few others.

“The crowd was great. They picked us up,” Dwane Casey said. “We need them a little bit more when the referees give us…I don’t want to get fined. But they were great tonight. We needed them. They really carried us. It was a hot building and we needed it…The crowd, the moment, the team you’re playing, if you can’t get excited about tonight, you need another profession.”

“The game was lit man, I hope you enjoyed it,” James Harden added.

And my goodness, did the Raptors ever match the crowd’s energy and come with a sense of the moment. To call the first quarter the team’s best of the season may be an understatement, and it’s almost unspeakable how many positives came from the opening 12 minutes. Kyle Lowry was full KLOE, scoring 13 with three assists in a hurry. DeMar DeRozan was engaged defensively and hitting pull-up threes. Jonas Valanciunas did his best to punish Houston’s switch-heavy approach, at least when P.J. Tucker wasn’t being an absolute mad man to scramble to fix the switch and make life tough for him. (Tucker pre-switching all over the court was something to see. Dude is a savant.) And Fred VanVleet came in and lost Nene in his waves for a fun highlight. The Raptors shot 62 percent for the quarter and only committed a pair of turnovers.

What’s more, their defensive approach to Houston’s isolation-heavy attack was great. They switched where they needed to but mostly stayed in one-on-one defense, keeping defenders tight to shooters and trusting their guards and bigs. Jakob Poeltl was terrific around the rim and on a number of switches onto Chris Paul, Norman Powell did as good a job as you can hope on Harden, and the Rockets were stuck with an 0-of-5 mark from long-range that was far more notable for the attempt volume than the cold shooting. By the end of 12 minutes, the Raptors were up 32-16, enough to get Drake predicting the streak was over on the house mic.

The second would be a big test. The Raptors trust their all-bench group immensely. Here, they’d be playing against three Rockets starters and without Delon Wright. Seven-Time All-Star Joe Johnson loomed, too. The bench, as they have so often, responded, getting a huge burst from Malcolm Miller, who went on a personal 7-2 run with a tremendous stretch that included a three, a drive, and a cut. That group extended the lead by a point over five minutes, a big victory and a positive harbinger for potential playoff rotations.

The Rockets are the Rockets and had not won 17 in a row for no reason. In theory, they were due a counterpunch, and it appeared it may be coming when Trevor Ariza became an attacker and seams appeared to be opening up. The Raptors stayed dialed in, though, with Lowry’s shooting remaining pristine, DeRozan hitting bank shots, and Powell cleaning up his own miss and then sprinting back around a screen to allow Valanciunas to stay at home and break up a Harden lob to Capela (Valanciunas had such a great defensive half. A DeRozan three followed, and the ACC seemed ready to burst on the precipice of a 20-point lead. Frustration seemed to be setting in for the Rockets – Paul got away with some unnecessary displays of that frustration – and it’s easy to see why: They managed just nine 3-point attempts and scored just 43 points, their second-lowest first-half total of the year (on a 93.5 offensive rating). They were also down 15 at the break.

“Game plan. Game plan. That was our game plan, to keep them inside the three,” Lowry said. “We know they’re going to shoot them. They’re going to get them up. We held them inside the three. We can’t take everything away from them. We tried to take away one of their strengths.”

That inevitable push-back came with force at the top of the third, owing in part to some extra aggression against what Toronto’s defense allows and also some drifting focus from a few of the Raptors. Lowry’s outside shot and a technical free throw Paul gifted them was all the offensive juice the Raptors had initially, and the Rockets managed a 10-3 run to get right back into the game. Lowry steered them right back out of it, an excellent performance continuing with a defense of P.J. Tucker on a post-up that lead to a Rockets turnover. Serge Ibaka chipped in on offense, too, and Lowry’s example set the tone for a team-wide defensive pick-up. Harden did his best to end that, though, hitting consecutive off-dribble threes with Powell’s hand in his face to raise the tension level precipitously.

That once again meant a strong test for the bench, who subbed in almost entirely as a unit to play with DeRozan for the last few minutes of the quarter. DeRozan scored promptly and VanVleet made a terrific play for a steal, but the Rockets’ rotation doesn’t relent, and Eric Gordon took a turn carrying the offensive load to pull close again. A DeRozan three and a Poeltl put-back provided a bit of additional separation and kept the lead at eight entering the fourth, still a tight margin given the quality of the opponent.

Casey went all-bench again at the top of the fourth, a justifiable risk given that the team needs to eventually learn how they’ll respond in situations just like this. It looked shaky at first, but they bounced right back with. C.J. Miles provided a three, VanVleet picked up Paul full-court to help slow Houston down and pressure them into turnovers, and the defensive energy was incredible, helping them win their stint by a point again, this time over four minutes before Lowry checked back in.

Toronto then went small for the first time opposite a Houston lineup that had Tucker at center, going four-out around Poeltl with Miles as the de facto power forward. It didn’t work out, though it was a reasonable enough move. They stuck small, too, with a closing lineup that included VanVleet in Ibaka’s normal place and Valanciunas opposite Capela. There’s no real word for the stretch run than awesome, with two really good teams and some legitimate All-Stars trading big scores and big stops. DeRozan drove, Gordon hit a floater. Lowry hit a three, Harden answered. Houston got a stop, Toronto got a stop. There was even a DeRozan-Harden possessions that date back literally to when they were 11 or 12, by their estimation.

Where the Rockets made the difference up was at the free-throw line, getting the Raptors into the penalty while committing zero fouls themselves. It also helped that Harden hit a ludicrous step-back at the end of a possession where VanVleet was draped all over him. DeRozan answered with a baseline turnaround and the Raptors got a big stop, but Valanciunas was stripped attacking out of the corner (he curiously spent a lot of time just chilling in the corner down the stretch). The Rockets had a chance to tie, and Valanciunas and DeRozan came up with a huge stop, Valanciunas tipping a pass and DeRozan corralling it. DeRozan and Valanciunas converging for a key defensive play, given where they’ve come from, might be the lasting memory of this one, two players long-maligned for their defense borderline saving the game on that end.

“He told on himself. I tell him all the time, he’s a better defender than he’s shown,” Casey said.

After another Raptors miss – a late Miles heave – the defense came up huge again, forcing a late Rockets three and scrambling like mad for the defensive rebound. DeRozan came up with a pair of huge free throws to go back ahead four, and Gordon responded with a quick three from the middle of Lake Ontario to pull within one. There was a weird call on the Raptors’ next inbound, with Valanciunas getting free throws that the Raptors thought should have went to DeRozan. Valanciunas hit them both, setting up a final play for Houston, down three with 5.4 seconds to play. Siakam was the lone big defending against a five-out attack, and the Raptors smothered Houston from the inbound, eschewing the chance to foula nd forcing Harden into an errant desperation shot from the logo.

“We knew they were gonna start making shots, especially when you got a player like Harden that’s gonna turn it up, especially in the fourth quarter, to get his team back in the game,” DeRozan said. “We just had to stay patient, execute, understand what we had to do to pull out the victory.”

With that stop – the last in a series of big ones in the closing minutes – the Raptors snapped the longest winning streak in the NBA, winning a seventh in a row themselves and sending yet another message that everything they’ve done this year can be replicated against elite competition. Lowry scored 30 points on 19 possessions, and he and VanVleet held Paul in check. Harden got his 40 pretty efficiently, with some impossible shots mixed in, but letting him do so allowed the Raptors to stay home on Rockets shooters and hold Houston below their season-average offensive rating. They won the rebounding battle slightly, survived turnover trouble, knocked down shots, and learned plenty about themselves, in personnel and in system.

“Guys stuck with the game plan. They stuck with game plan, they trusted each other, they trusted what we were doing and stuck with it,” Casey said. “Our big thing tonight was mental toughness. This team is going to score. They are a great scoring team and are one of the best I have seen in my many years in the NBA. You take away one thing and they figure out another thing. They keep moving out further and further. That shot Eric Gordon hit was almost at half-court it seemed like. So my hat is off to our guys. I thought they did everything we asked them to do. Took care of business, met their runs, didn’t get frustrated and stuck together and finished it up.”

The Raptors did what they’re supposed to after, downplaying the importance of any one game but allowing themselves some pride in their performance – until midnight, as Casey warned, before the focus turns to New York. They’ll try not to have a let-down. This was just a step on the way to where they want to go, after all. It was an important one, though, and if this is the type of performance they’re capable of with regularity, they just might be able to get there.

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Raptors-Rockets Reaction Podcast – Rockets regression

William Lou is joined by Harsh Dave to recap the Toronto Raptors’ win over the Houston Rockets.


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Quick Reaction: Rockets 105, Raptors 108

Houston 105 Final
Box Score
108 Toronto

S. Ibaka24 MIN, 11 PTS, 7 REB, 0 AST, 0 STL, 5-10 FG, 1-5 3FG, 0-0 FT, 0 BLK, 2 TO, 3 +/-

Not a huge game from Serge, but he was solid, which is what he needed to be. Worked hard on the glass, and hit enough shots to keep the offense going. Didn’t feel like he forced his game.

N. Powell31 MIN, 2 PTS, 3 REB, 3 AST, 0 STL, 1-6 FG, 0-5 3FG, 0-0 FT, 0 BLK, 1 TO, -7 +/-

It’s hard to fault him too much for this one, aside from that the Raptors could’ve used him hitting a few more shots at points during the game. Harden is a brutal matchup for a lot of guys in the NBA, and he roasted Norm, but this probably shouldn’t be Norm’s spot in the playoffs, it should be OG’s who wasn’t available tonight.

J. Valanciunas28 MIN, 14 PTS, 9 REB, 3 AST, 1 STL, 5-8 FG, 0-0 3FG, 4-4 FT, 1 BLK, 3 TO, 7 +/-

What a great game from Jonas. The stats might not jump out at you, but he worked so hard defensively and controlled the rebounds, while hitting his shots. Came through with some incredibly clutch defensive possessions late to help seal the game, and hit a pair of free throws in the closing seconds to keep the lead at three going to the final shot for Houston.

K. Lowry33 MIN, 30 PTS, 4 REB, 6 AST, 1 STL, 10-14 FG, 7-9 3FG, 3-4 FT, 0 BLK, 2 TO, -3 +/-

KLOE lives. Came out firing in this one, and just kept going as the game went on. Took a charge, hit shot after shot to establish and then keep the lead, and was as great as the team needed to beat one of the best teams in the league. His best game of the year.

D. DeRozan37 MIN, 23 PTS, 8 REB, 1 AST, 1 STL, 8-19 FG, 3-7 3FG, 4-6 FT, 0 BLK, 3 TO, 6 +/-

DeMar’s offense was good tonight, he held up his end of the bargain at that end of the floor as always, even if he wasn’t as spectacular as he was against Detroit, but it’s his defense I want to talk about. He worked every possession, all night, and came up with some of the biggest defensive possessions of the night. This is what the Raptors needs from him to be on that next level, more than the spectacular offense, and it’s what he brought to this game.

F. VanVleet23 MIN, 11 PTS, 2 REB, 4 AST, 1 STL, 5-13 FG, 1-4 3FG, 0-0 FT, 1 BLK, 2 TO, 0 +/-

Fred didn’t have his usual backcourt partner, once again, and at times you could feel the absence of Delon Wright, but what a game from him. Made Chris Paul work for absolutely everything he got when Fred was out there, controlled the offense and helped hold the Raptors lead.

J. Poeltl19 MIN, 2 PTS, 4 REB, 2 AST, 2 STL, 1-2 FG, 0-0 3FG, 0-0 FT, 1 BLK, 0 TO, 0 +/-

He’s a defensive savant. You can’t ask more from a big man in terms of guarding Chris Paul and James Harden than what Jak gave, even when those guys scored against him, and he shut down a few one-on-one possessions against some of the best isolation guards in the league tonight.

C. Miles18 MIN, 6 PTS, 1 REB, 0 AST, 1 STL, 2-7 FG, 2-7 3FG, 0-0 FT, 0 BLK, 0 TO, 6 +/-

If you evaluate CJ by his scoring, it was a bad night, but the ones he did hit were big and definitely helped in this one.

P. Siakam16 MIN, 2 PTS, 5 REB, 1 AST, 0 STL, 1-3 FG, 0-0 3FG, 0-0 FT, 0 BLK, 1 TO, 3 +/-

Not used to seeing the score sheet this empty for Pascal, but he did make an impact by working hard on defense, and his presence on the boards was important for the bench.

M. Miller10 MIN, 7 PTS, 0 REB, 0 AST, 0 STL, 3-3 FG, 1-1 3FG, 0-0 FT, 0 BLK, 2 TO, 0 +/-

Grading on a curve a little here, and Miller doesn’t play if Delon and OG aren’t hurt, but when your 13th man can come in to play important minutes during a game against one of the best teams in the league and hit all his shots, that’s definitely not a bad thing. He showed poise in a tough spot.

Dwane Casey

Casey had his team ready to play, and kept them there. The Rockets tried to make runs throughout this game, but every time it felt like the Raptors were there to punch back, and keep the game just out of reach. Has been getting what he needs from his team all year, and certainly deserves to be in the conversation for the Coach of the Year award this season.

Things We Saw

  1. James Harden is incredible. He almost pulled this game back for Houston during the second half, and was absolutely unstoppable. Have to wonder if OG could’ve made a difference there, but the Raptors managed to get the win despite Harden’s huge game.
  2. Why wasn’t this game on national television? It feels like the networks really missed out on a chance to get some good ratings in this one, because this was one of the games of the year, and a lot of people just didn’t see it.
  3. The Raptors defense was incredible, despite Houston’s 110.6 offensive rating on the night. Houston hit some shots that were really tough and they are one of those teams that will do that, but they certainly didn’t score many tonight that were easy.
  4. What a game, once again. Might’ve been the game of the year, and if this was a Finals preview, it’ll be a fun series.
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Pre-game news & notes: Wright, Anunoby, and Anderson all out for NBA Finals preview

The Toronto Raptors are hosting the Houston Rockets on Friday night in a battle of two of the hottest teams in the NBA and two of the league’s best stories this season. And on Drake Night, it’s also a matchup of two teams highlighted by their adherence to the “new” NBA, the Rockets pushing the logical extreme of a modern shot spectrum and the Raptors’ ascendence from good regular season team to legitimate contender highlighted by the democratization and optimization of their own attack.

While the Rockets have won 17 in a row, the Raptors are one their fourth six-game winning streak of the season (there have been fewer than 20 such streaks in team history). Since Daryl Morey accused the Raptors of falling prey to regression, the Raptors are 36-10, the Rockets 37-9. Both rank in the top 10 on both ends of the floor, in the top three by most advanced metrics, and atop their respective conferences.

If you can’t get excited to play the top team from the other conference, we’re in the wrong business if you don’t get a little extra excited,” Dwane Casey said at shootaround. “It won’t make or break your season. Facing supreme competition is what you train for in the summer time. Against one of the top teams. You want to measure yourself against the best.”

Given how well both sides are playing, it’s little surprise that shootaround was a meeting of a mutual admiration society. That was particularly true for DeMar DeRozan and James Harden, who have been playing against each other since before they reached high school. Here’s a quick collection of the positive vibes being thrown out Friday.

DeRozan on Harden as MVP: “He earned it. The things he’s been doing all year’s incredible. I think he’s a lock for it, he deserves it. I knew him when he didn’t have a lick of hair on his face. It just came about, man. We’ve grown. We talk about it a lot, to where we never thought we’d be in a position that we are today. To be able to have that type of conversation with a guy that you grew up with, that you went through every stage with, it’s definitely crazy to see.”

 Harden on DeRozan: That’s like my brother. He’s at an all-time level, too. He has his team at the no. 1 seed in the East. He’s doing extremely great things as well. Especially with the level he’s playing at now, that means a lot to me. His leadership. His ability to use his talents to be able to pass and get open shots for his teammates. I think that’s one of the reasons they’re so good. The way he put everything together. Last game he made an extra pass in the corner to seal the win. A couple years ago, you probably wouldn’t have seen that from him. The way he’s elevated his game, it’s pretty great to see, pretty great to watch.”

Chris Paul on the Raptors: “They always look like a (threat). I’m good friends with Kyle and I know how much a competitor he is and I know how talented DeMar is, they have a great group of guys, VanVleet is nice, and that bench and all of that stuff, they have a really good team.”

Mike D’Antoni on the Raptors: “Well the biggest challenge is they’re a really good team, obviously, they’ve been playing great. Dwayne does an unbelievable job with them, and they’re one of the best teams that we’ll face anywhere, anytime, especially at home, and it’ll be a good challenge for us…Maybe just the location or whatever, but in basketball circles everyone knows who’s good, and Toronto’s good.”

Here’s guessing all of the friendly talk ends when the ball’s rolled out and one team is looking to win their 18th in a row while the other tries to eat, sleep, conquer the streak.

The game tips off at 7:30 on Sportsnet and TSN 1050. You can check out the full game preview here.

Raptors updates
The Raptors will be without OG Anunoby and Delon Wright here, respectively their best defenders for James Harden and Chris Paul. That’s a tough way to start out any match up, especially considering the job Anunoby did on Harden in Toronto’s win on the road earlier in the year. As has been the case all season as minor issues come up – the recent mini-run of injuries highlights how healthy the Raptors have been – the Raptors’ tremendous depth, a strength when fully stocked, comes to the forefront here.

“It sucks, not to make any excuses, sucks that we’re not healthy,” DeRozan said. “Not having OG the last few games, somebody stepped on D-Wright’s big toe so there’s a few things going on but with that, everybody else on the bench seems to step up in moments like that.”

Norman Powell is drawing the start here once again, which is not only a new look against Harden but represents a bit of a new look in the second unit. Powell had played fairly well with a Wright-less second unit earlier in the year, and that role will now fall to Malcolm Miller or Lorenzo Brown. Brown has been out for nearly a month with an ankle sprain and I didn’t see him shooting pre-game, so it would look as if Miller and perhaps both of Alfonzo McKinnie and Nigel Hayes will be active here. The Raptors aren’t hurting for size, at the very least.

UPDATE: Miller, McKinnie, and Hayes are all active, no Brown.

PG: Kyle Lowry, Fred VanVleet
SG: DeMar DeRozan
SF: Norman Powell, C.J. Miles, Malcolm Miller, Alfonzo McKinnie
PF: Serge Ibaka, Pascal Siakam, Nigel Hayes
C: Jonas Valanciunas, Jakob Poeltl, Lucas Nogueira
OUT: OG Anunoby, Delon Wright
TBD: Lorenzo Brown
905: Malachi Richardson, Lorenzo Brown

Rockets updates
Houston is down a starter, too, missing Ryan Anderson due to a hip injury. As noted in the preview, the Rockets have dealt with plenty of tumult this year – only P.J. Tucker has missed fewer than six games (zero, in his case) and their most commonly used lineups haven’t played nearly as much as some other fivesomes. Still, their 10 most frequent lineups have all outscored opponents, and they run 11 deep or so here – Clint Capela is a go after being listed as probable and Joe Johnson is expected to play.

They’ve thrived with or without Anderson, playing even better without him, which is terrifying. There are no fewer 3-point threats, no fewer players to stay at home on, and no sense the Raptors can be any less at their best defensively with him on the shelf.

You think that they’re not a fast team, but they do it with the pass, they zing it up the floor. They lull you to sleep,” Casey said. “Harden lulls you to sleep like he’s not doing anything, and then there’s a layup or a three. You’ve got to be on high alert. After you shoot the ball is when your defence starts. Guarding the three-point line and the rim is what you want to do…If you cheat off Ariza in the corner, it’s a corner three. If you cheat off of P.J. in the corner, it’s a corner three. There are some things you can do, we’re going to try to do that, that could help. But it’s a sit down and guard your guy night.”

It’s going to be a whole lot of a whole lot of different players taking cracks at Paul and Harden while other defenders do their best to stay tethered to the rim or a shooter.

UPDATE: Joe Johnson is active.

PG: Chris Paul
SG: James Harden, Eric Gordon
SF: Trevor Ariza, Gerald Green, Joe Johnson
PF: P.J. Tucker, Luc Mbah a Moute
C: Clint Capela, Nene, Tarik Black
OUT: Ryan Anderson, Brandan Wright
TBD: None
Rio Grande Valley: Markel Brown, R.J. Hunter, Chinanu Onuaku, Zhou Qi


  • Raptors 905 get back in action tomorrow following a week off. They’ll be at Hershey Centre for a 2 p.m. tip-off that should include Alfonzo McKinnie, Malachi Richardson, Lorenzo Brown (if healthy), possibly Malcolm Miller (depending on how this one goes), and maybe even the 905 debut for Nigel Hayes. (Yes, you can do that with a player on a 10-day contract. And yes, they could send all five down; you can have your two two-ways plus up to three assignment players. It could be a loaded game.)
    • Tomorrow is the team’s second annual Filipino Heritage Game, in partnership with Rise Tribe. The team has a slick looking new jersey for the occasion.
  • R.J. Barrett was named the 2018 Naismith High School Boys’ Player of the Year on Friday. He is the first Canadian to win the award since Andrew Wiggins in 2013.
  • The Last Two Minute Report from Raptors-Pistons shows the following:
    • Missed illegal screen on Blake Griffin (1:08)
    • Missed shooting foul on Ish Smith while guarding DeMar DeRozan (0:30)
    • Missed travel on Griffin (0:03)
    • Missed foul on Griffin on Jonas Valanciunas (1:41 OT)
    • Missed shooting foul on Griffin while guarding DeRozan (0:31 OT)
  • While that’s brutal, here’s Dwane Casey on the Raptors’ growing reputation as a team that complains to the officials a lot: “Yes, we’ve talked about it. Competition is one thing. We talked about it that night specifically about how we want to get away from officials, because the game before…and then Serge.. so I guess they’re not listening. You can look around the league, and it’s rampant, it’s not just us. Officiating in the NBA is so fast, they miss calls, they make good calls, some we think they missed they get them right. It’s one of the toughest jobs in the world. As a team, we’ve got to make sure we’re disciplined. I catch myself. As coaches we have to say ‘next play.’ Because officials will get most right but they’re gonna miss some. I haven’t seen one change a call yet.”
  • There was also this funny moment from shootaround:

  • Here are the free shirts for Drake Night, courtesy of my Instagram:

The line
The Raptors opened as 2-point underdogs and the line has since moved to Rockets -2.5. With neither team at a rest advantage – both are on their third game in four nights and travelled for this one – and down one key starter, this would indicate Houston is roughly six points better in a neutral setting. The over-under is at 221.

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Open Gym Ep. 21

The latest episode focuses on Serge Ibaka’s charitable work. Good guy, that Ibaka.

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The Spice is Right

Our esteemed champion and leader of this free website, Blake Murphy, was on CBC’s Metro Morning this week to discuss the Raptors progression from slept-on to long-deservingly league-lauded. The big questions got asked—what does this mean for the playoffs? Do the Raptors have a better chance now, compared to post-seasons prior? Is there a secret weapon?—and while an arbiter of many a precise take, Blake’s no seer. He was right when he equated the team’s success to hard work, perseverance, depth of skill across the roster and adaptive coaching, but he missed one big thing. The Toronto Raptors do have a secret weapon. The greater thing at work with this team, that’s been at work with this team all season and is continually evolving from game to game, is chemistry.

Team chemistry on the Raptors is what makes them so fun to watch. Other times it’s what can make it so difficult. Chemistry, in this sense, is an added element and very much alive, unpredictable and changing because it boils down to what’s going on with each and every player, how they’re performing, and how that performance is gelling when they hit the floor and—probably more importantly—off of it. In practice, travel together, communication and support of one another, the Raptors are shoring up or making changes to their chemistry daily.

Toronto is rarely capable of pulling off a neat win. Some teams can do it, blow by an opponent and be up twenty points with nothing to worry about. It’s never this breezy for the Raptors, there is always the chance that something could shift and they’ll find themselves down the same number of points, just as fast. But the wins are big and usually larger in bravado, in the sense that each player is taking it personally. The team will be struggling throughout the first half, playing flat, and then like the sun’s suddenly come up and burnt off the fog, someone will pull a huge play out of their back pocket. Case in point DeRozan, devouring the distance from one end of the court to the other and delivering a catastrophic dunk on the Pistons this past Wednesday to prematurely end the life of one Anthony Tolliver. Other times it’s reversed, as in the sudden, at this point something that should be trademarked to the Raptors, third quarter slump. The team who went into the locker room charged up and in control at the half with a commanding lead gets body-snatched and substituted for one instead just coming out of hypersleep. They seem sluggish, confused, nothing is connecting, and the points tick up so that a commanding lead is swallowed with such mute dread it can feel a bit like watching a huge snake eating you from the legs up. Times slows as you watch what seems like it was preventable, but all that solidity you felt very recently is disappearing before your very eyes. Then all of a sudden someone, say Lowry, connects a fast pass to Wright, who swings it out to VanVleet, who lobs it to Miles in the wings with an open three or else flips it to DeMar, who drives, who dunks, and suddenly there’s a marked spark in the air—something is charging—and with two minutes left on the clock the Raptors come back to life. The kind of full team chemistry Toronto shares is rare and skittish and moody and honestly magic, and it is further strengthened by the individual ties that bind it.

The most obvious example comes through in the relationship between DeRozan and Lowry, both on and off the court. Best friends who almost weren’t, who hardly knew each other during their first years in the franchise together, a fact that makes the relationship seem all that more precious because it really almost wasn’t. Lowry was considered a liability when he got to Toronto, and there’s no way to chart the evolution of his game and his attitude as a player without seeing the influence of DeRozan’s relentless work ethic spreading all through it. DeRozan admits he’ll never stop working on his game, but it was largely one-dimensional at one point and similarly, it’s hard to imagine the grit and tenacity of Lowry, some of his intensity, not catching on DeMar’s game and being that conduit for improvement.

Watching them off the court, Kyle always goading DeMar or creeping up behind him during the post-games or the way they riff in the locker room can make you catch your breath just as much as it does watching them on it. Their understanding of each other as teammates is intuitive, a rare and special thing in a league where so many players can get shuffled around in their prime years to watch how their game has evolved in support of the other, their individual development intertwined. When DeRozan began working on his three-point game Lowry started to set him up for shots instead of opting to take them himself. When Lowry seemed to have a harder time getting the hang of increased ball movement in the first part of this season, there was a sense that DeRozan was there to help him get the hang of being a better distributor. Though they’ve both taken an offensive step back this season to equally weight ball time across the team, it’s their confidence and intuition that works like a force field around everyone else, particularly the bench, when they’re put in the mix with them. When DeRozan drove in overtime against the Pistons this week and, without hesitation, kicked it out to VanVleet who made the huge winning shot, the entire sequence was infused with so much confidence and trust, was such a selfless play, that it was impossible not to see the whole team swell with it. Lowry and DeRozan’s relationship, in essence, has set the groundwork for the whole franchise’s chemistry.

Not solely because, but certainly due to the great influence of this relationship there’s a message that gets repeated throughout the Raptors organization—family first. Reciprocity and support is in the culture of the team and goes from the top down. Where it might have once been considered a bonus if players on a professional sports team liked one another, and were involved in each other’s lives, it is what is genuinely happening here.

The beauty of the Raptors bench is based in the same synergism. All that talent and unbridled energy, thanks to the channeling powers of chemistry, have a place to be put to work. C.J. Miles was the initial positive-force pastoralist for the bench, leading them early on in the season to be the dynamic and reliable closers we know them to be. His reliability and deep basketball IQ polished off some of the rougher edged players while he seemed to symbiotically hit his stride a little faster with the excitement and experimentation of that lineup around him. Jakob Poeltl and Pascal Siakam, for a lot of reasons ranging from their confident style of play to their Google Home commercials, are another link in the overall chain of the team that are hard not to watch, mostly because they always seem to be having so much fun. And while they were slow to come to a place where they were getting one another, watching Serge Ibaka and JV on the court is showing some glimmers of potential, perhaps not as potent as dearly departed Bismack Biyombo, or Amir Johnson and JV were, but there are tremors of something new starting.

A lot of examination and discussion goes into stats, into elements like defensive versatility and offensive prowess. All of these things are important when considering the possible trajectory of a team. How far a team can go often comes down to what it can pull out in the clutch and living in this are the individual strengths and talents of each player. Teams can be carried by a handful of players, other times it’s an individual the whole franchise is built around. The rest of the lineup, all the plays, like struts and supports surrounding a principal piece. But teams like that aren’t built to last, if anything, they’re built to win titles. One and done. Like a comet, they’re a bit breathtaking to watch and then they’re finished. We should thank our lucky All-Stars the Raptors aren’t built like that.

The careful, very slow and almost painstaking way Toronto has been put together—if you want to keep using analogies—is more prophetic than pandemonium. It’s impossible to watch and not get the sense that each player was considered carefully for what they could contribute on the court, but also how they might fit into the larger dynamic of the team’s chemistry. Like working out a recipe, you need to perfect all the ingredients, and sometimes it can come down to the most individual measures of spice. The Raptors secret weapon is that they’ve not only perfected the recipe for enduring team chemistry, but that they’ve pioneered a new one, wholly their own.


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The Packed House: Feelin’ the Pulse of Raptorland

As far as compelling storylines go, it’s safe to say times like these have been few and far between. Even when thinking back to the days of Mighty Mouse lighting the torch, Vince opening the door, or the what-if legacy Chris Bosh left behind, there really hasn’t been a time when there’s been this many to write about. Not to mention how the vast majority of options represent an overwhelmingly positive situation. And considering the fact that numerous fans, pundits and writers far and wide were predicting an uneventful year back in October, the season’s plot development has become that much more powerful.

So, let’s see here, where do I even begin… I mean, how much time do you have? I say we start with the short list and see where it takes us. Besides, the game of the year (potentially) is just hours away as we speak.

Option A: Mob City

I could make everyone’s favourite group of young guns the focal point. One that now includes (in half the minutes, mind you) Jakob Poeltl ranking second to Anthony Davis in blocks per game since the All-Star break. Actually, they deserve a better description: How about a crew of bench players that have made the rest of the NBA envious by essentially transforming the Raps into a slump-proof squad. In other words, even though most of the Raps’ depth would probably need to google the answer to an early ’90s trivia question, their strength in numbers makes the odds of all their inexperience showing up on the same night extremely slim. If it hasn’t been Delon Wright creating havoc in passing lanes, Fred Van Vleet’s motor and shooting ability have been there to pick up the slack. Whenever Pascal Siakam’s overzealous energy level is too much for the moment, Poeltl’s fundamentals and poise have had his back. Which, and perhaps most importantly, has created a nightly cushion to help minimize the effect of any starter having an off night. Case in point:

Let’s not fail to connect the Dwane Casey dots, though.

Option B: The Casey Files

With the youngsters set up to play a vital role no matter what beforehand, one might feel the need to argue that Casey’s All-Star level of success has just been along for the ride. A byproduct by default, if you will. However, something tells me there’s no longer a 50/50 split when it comes to his job security. His balancing act between managing minutes, sticking to his defensive guns, and embracing a new offensive mindset should have already nipped his former scapegoat status in the bud. Furthermore, Jerry Stackhouse’s 905 resume continues to impress, so keeping him in the fold should be a priority. But are we still losing sleep over him potentially getting poached?

Which reminds me, all of this Casey talk only lends itself to a man who just put on a display in Detroit.

Or, if you prefer, the two-handed posterizing of Anthony Tolliver at the end of regulation followed by the clutch assist on Van Vleet’s game-winning three in OT. 

Option C: Discussing DeMar

In many ways, DeRozan’s story is similar to Casey’s. You know, the one about how despite his game growing year by year and piece by piece, a high percentage of the peanut gallery refused to let up on his shortcomings. Well, until the year he legitimately entered the MVP conversation, that is. And that’s not just recency bias talking. Look, I get it, we can still poke holes in his late-game shot selection, moments of disinterest on defense, and his recent infatuation with the refs. But to still be evolving nearly a decade into one’s career is worthy of being the headliner all its own.

Let’s not take this year’s edition for granted, either, especially when his story off the court gives you every reason not to. With that said, does anyone think the Raps would be where they are if DeMar didn’t prove himself behind the arc while upping the ante on getting others involved?

Now, if you’ve stayed with me this long, you might have come to same conclusion. 

Option D: The Common Denominator. AKA: It’s us.

To be honest, my initial concept for this column was to write the final round of my previous Delon Wright vs. Bobby Portis debates. What can I say, I’m looking for closure. But it didn’t take long to notice a Raptors-Rockets matchup lurking in the background. A fight that represents two teams seemingly on the cusp of stepping out of their respective Cleveland and Golden State shadows. The kicker, though, is seeing that thought morph into an expectation by each fan base. Well, and Charles Barkley.

Now, I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: We all invest too much time, money and emotions in this team for anyone to come along and dictate how you should experience your fandom. Hell, there’s plenty to be said about just enjoying the ride. Letting hope guide your head isn’t always a bad thing, particularly if that hope is realistic. I’ll just try not to get arrested if the Raps do indeed make that Finals’ jump.

The only thing I can recommend is to keep names like Norman Powell and Kyle Lowry in mind whenever you need a bit of perspective. Yes, Norm’s performance in Detroit suggests a wake-up call is well within his sights, but he’s also a reminder of just how far an expectation can fall. Lowry on the other hand, points to just how far this franchise has come. Getting lost in the attention shuffle has come with benefits. With less of a need to be the catalyst, we’ve gotten an across the board contributor with a better chance of staying healthy (knock on wood).

He may have lost the Alpha Dog role to DeMar, but that just speaks to the beauty of this season. Cause regardless of what happens to the rotation in the playoffs, a team concept is in full effect more than ever before, both on the court and in the seats. “Kyle Lowry Over Everything” was never directed at his own team anyway.

Hey Friday night, let’s get it.

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Gameday: Rockets @ Raptors, March 9

Today feels like a playoff day. I don’t mean in the sense that the Toronto Raptors hosting the Houston Rockets has high stakes, or that it will define the season, or anything like that. But I went to bed thinking about Raptors-Rockets and I woke up thinking about Raptors-Rockets, and I very much want it to be 7:30 already. An earlier meeting between the teams stands as one of the most fun games of the season so far, and Friday’s rematch, with the Raptors a more realized version of their ideal selves and the Rockets on a 17-game winning streak, has the potential to be even better.

Houston presents one heck of a challenge for the Raptors, and a good opportunity to sharpen themselves against one of the best teams in the league. Toronto has won six in a row themselves, but a few of those wins have come in an imprecise fashion with a high margin for error that they won’t have here. This game pits the league’s No. 1 offense against its No. 3 defense and, conversely, its No. 4 offense against its No. 10 defense. The Raptors do better than almost any other team limiting the three, which will be a major factor against the league’s most three-happy team.

The Raptors’ focus leading up to the game will surely be on the defensive end. Offensively, the Raptors’ process has improved to where they don’t need to ratchet up the threes to compete in a game like this, they just need to hit them. That’s been a struggle of late, but they’re at least still creating good looks. Defensively, everything starts with the likely MVP, James Harden. With no OG Anunoby in the lineup, Dwane Casey figures to throw a number of looks Harden’s way, and Norman Powell, Malcolm Miller, Pascal Siakam, C.J. Miles, and even Nigel Hayes may see time on him. The Rockets isolate more than anyone (and more than double the amount Toronto does), and one-on-one defense to prevent breakdowns will be paramount.

Through all of the matchup challenges, this one stands as a fairly even battle. The Rockets have the edge in terms of most team-wide, season-long metrics, but it’s narrow. The Raptors are at home. Both teams are down key rotation pieces, and it’s the third game in four nights for both. It’s all stacked pretty evenly, setting up what should be a heck of a game. And with the OVO court to make it all pop, no less.

The game tips off at 7:30 on Sportsnet and TSN 1050.

To help set the stage, we reached out to Michael Pina of Vice Sports, who was kind enough to help us out.

Blake Murphy: The Rockets have won 17 games in a row. Even if we assume they’re an 80-percent true-talent team, the odds of such a stretch reaching 18 are 1.8 percent. I say this not as a knock on their run or a prediction Friday, but as a reminder that Daryl Morey snarkily pointed to “regression” when the Raptors fell to 11-7. The Raptors are 36-10 since, the Rockets 37-9. I have just hyped myself into a frenzy that this is going to be such an incredible game. Anyway, what’s been the defining characteristic of this enormous winning streak for Houston?

Michael Pina: The Rockets are incredible and I’m not sure if there’s enough room here to go through all the statistical ways they back it up, particularly over the last six weeks. TL;DR: Since the streak started they have this season’s best player (alongside one of the three best point guards ever) leading the best offense and fourth-best defense in the league. One of the most overlooked developments over that span is that the Rockets are just so clearly built to not only get out and shove the ball down the throat of a retreating defense, but since January 28th only three teams have a lower pace. They’re dominating in environments that reflect what they’ll see in the playoffs, and it’s very scary.

“What’s your favorite five-man lineup on the Rockets?” is my new favorite question to ask random people at parties. (If they reply without walking away, even with the wrong answer, we instantly become best friends. It’s nice). Houston lost Trevor Ariza and Ryan Anderson (two starters, fyi) for a lengthy stretch and were arguably better with Luc Richard Mbah a Moute and/or P.J. Tucker in the starting lineup. They’ve won games in Miami, Milwaukee, Utah, and Sacramento on the second night of a back-to-back during this win streak. It’s hilarious how deep they are.

Blake Murphy: The last time these sides played, the Raptors won 129-113 in Houston, which still stands as one of the team’s marquee victories on the year. The Rockets, though, were down Chris Paul. How has Paul fit in since returning? What elements does he add that the Raptors will have to account for in the rematch?

Michael Pina: Chris Paul conducts this offense with a flaming chainsaw. He sets everybody up, takes advantage of insanely wide driving/passing lanes, and—as one of the best isolation scorers in the league right now—routinely punishes big men who switch out onto him with a pull-up set shot that never misses. He’s wild efficient when James Harden is on the floor and vintage Chris Paul when Harden takes a seat. (Let that sink in.) Either way, when he’s on the court Houston is outscoring opponents by over 10 points per 100 possessions. Madness.

Blake Murphy: Houston’s offense is a damn analytics fever dream. It might be the best of all time when the season’s done. They rank first in offensive rating, first in free-throw rate, first in 3-point rate (and 11th in 3-point percentage), and they don’t turn the ball over much or, you know, miss shots. They’re one of the highest isolation teams of the modern NBA, too, which seems counter-intuitive until you remember the talent they have. They appear to be the logical extreme of what an efficient shot spectrum can look like. On nights the offense hasn’t been there – rare, as they’ve had an O-Rating below the league average just 11 times all year – what have defenses been able to do to them? Do you load up on James Harden and hope he shoots 11-of-30? Do you let him get 50 and stop everyone else? Do you cry? I feel like there’s a lot of crying involved.


Michael Pina: Shed a tear for the defensive coordinator who has to design a game plan to stop these dudes. They’re so quick to shoot open threes, and almost always have at least four Grade A spot shooters who can’t be ignored on the floor at any given time. My plan, if I were a coach, would basically be to let them shoot. It doesn’t sound smart (it probably isn’t) but if I lose to the Rockets it won’t be after watching Harden, Paul, and Eric Gordon prance into the paint for layups and kick-outs. I know Clint Capela can’t create his own shot, so I’m throwing a wing on him and switching every high pick-and-roll run with him and Harden or Paul. Lobs aren’t an option. Keeping those ball-handlers in front of me as best as I can is much easier said than done and there’s a good chance I’d still lose by 15, but that’s the strategy…I think.

Blake Murphy: I’m going to assume that Harden is at the top of your MVP ballot right now. He’s been incredible, and some of the counterarguments that pop up just seem to come from a place of boredom. Why is Harden the MVP, and where does DeMar DeRozan rank on your ballot?

Michael Pina: For me, Harden was the MVP in 2015 and 2017. He’s been so consistently great—this is his fourth straight season leading the league in free throws—and right now he’s better than ever before. He leads the NBA in points, usage rate, PER, and Win Shares. Only Russell Westbrook has a higher assist percentage and Harden’s True Shooting sits in the top 15. Probably the most impressive thing about his campaign is it stands out above so many other overqualified candidates. LeBron James, Steph Curry, Kevin Durant, Anthony Davis, and Giannis Antetokounmpo have all been great, and then we have the likes of Joel Embiid, Jimmy Butler, Westbrook, Kyrie Irving, and DeMar DeRozan (whose end-to-end two-hander over Anthony Tolliver on Wednesday night encapsulated everything I love about the NBA in half a second) exhibiting undeniable value to their respective teams.

Blake Murphy: “The Raptors-Rockets finals are going to be so much fun” is a DM you sent me earlier and a popular half-joking sentiment on NBA Twitter. With each day, it seems less and less jokey. The Rockets are a real threat, and the Raptors are the best team in the East right now. Where would you put the odds of that series actually occurring, if you had to put a number on it?

Michael Pina: It’s so hard to bet against LeBron and the defending champions. Both Cleveland and Golden State are hard to judge during the regular season, a time of the year neither really takes all that seriously. That said, Houston and Toronto have been the best teams in each conference for most of the season. If they carry home-court advantage with them into the playoffs, and don’t blink in moments that matter, it’s semi-conceivable we see both advance to the Finals. But if I had to put odds on it, I’m not going over 15 percent.

Raptors updates
The injury report did not contain the updates that the Raptors were hoping for on Friday morning. Back home following a back-to-back and a day off to recover, the Raptors are still going to be attacking the Rockets while shorthanded. OG Anunoby is still listed as out with his right ankle sprain and Delon Wright is doubtful due to a sprained toe. Going against Houston is tough regardless. Doing it without two key rotation pieces – and two of the team’s better defenders – is a taller task still.

Norman Powell would seem the logical guess to start and draw the James Harden assignment. You could make other cases. C.J. Miles starting would leave nobody to guard Harden but also leave nowhere for Harden to relax on defense, and it’s the Raptors’ best bet to match threes. Starting Malcolm Miller would be a big ask of the rookie but provides some length, switchability, and shooting while also allowing Powell to slide into Wright’s bench role as the second guard, a fivesome that had some success when Wright was hurt earlier in the year. If Powell starts – which seems likely – Miller probably slides into that bench slot as he did in the fourth on Wednesday, and the bench just plays big and switchy. It’s possible Lorenzo Brown draws in for an extra point guard, though he’s been out since Feb. 12 with a sprained ankle (he was targeting a return tomorrow with Raptors 905).

Whatever the case, Dwane Casey is probably going to have short leashes all around as he mixes and matches for groups that can slow Houston without gumming up the offense. It’s a challenging game, but it genuinely feels like a positive challenge for this team as they prepare for playoff-style intensity and the type of chess matches they’ll face there. It’s also winnable, even down two pieces.

PG: Kyle Lowry, Fred VanVleet, (Delon Wright), (Lorenzo Brown)
SG: DeMar DeRozan
SF: Norman Powell, C.J. Miles, Malcolm Miller, Alfonzo McKinnie
PF: Serge Ibaka, Pascal Siakam, Nigel Hayes
C: Jonas Valanciunas, Jakob Poeltl, Lucas Nogueira
OUT: OG Anunoby
TBD: Delon Wright, Lorenzo Brown
905: Malachi Richardson

Rockets updates
Houston is similarly thinned out, though perhaps not in as dramatic a way. Ryan Anderson is out with hip soreness, and while he’s a lethal shooter who seems custom-built to give the Raptors problems, he has the lowest net rating (plus-5.9, an obscene mark for a team’s lowest) of Houston’s top nine players. P.J. Tucker has been starting in his place the last 12 games, and the Rockets are 15-1 when he starts overall. Joe Johnson and Clint Capela are both on the injury report but listed as probable. Brandan Wright is also out, and both of the team’s two-way players plus two others are in the G League, so they’re down to 11 even if Johnson and Capela can go.

That’s probably not too big a concern to Mike D’Antoni, not with the Rockets rolling even on back-t0-backs where they’ve had just nine players available during this stretch. Houston has gotten by playing no one lineup for more than 214 minutes this year. That seems odd, but Tucker is the only player not to miss at least six games for the team this year (he’s played in all 64), and some of those absences not coinciding has meant not a lot of time as a full squad. And still, they’ve kept rolling – each of their 10 most commonly used lineups have a positive net rating, six of them in the double-figures. Their projected starters here are actually on the “lower” end, with a plus-8.5 mark in 132 minutes.

PG: Chris Paul
SG: James Harden, Eric Gordon
SF: Trevor Ariza, Gerald Green, Joe Johnson
PF: P.J. Tucker, Luc Mbah a Moute
C: Clint Capela, Nene, Tarik Black
OUT: Ryan Anderson, Brandan Wright
TBD: Joe Johnson, Clint Capela
Rio Grande Valley: Markel Brown, R.J. Hunter, Chinanu Onuaku, Zhou Qi

The line
The Raptors are 2-point underdogs with a 220 over-under.

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The Unwinnable Race

*Please note this story is entirely fictional, and is the fruit of the author’s imagination.

“Alright, he should be on his way now,” Pascal Siakam said to his Austrian brother, Jakob Poeltl, pressing ‘send’ on his smartphone. “He won’t have a choice after this.” Yak nodded agreeably.

“We almost ready, or what? I got a ‘team’ video group chat I gotta be at in a bit,” a man, dressed impeccably, large sunglasses covering his eyes, complained.

“You trying to back out or something, Johnny?” Another interjected, a massive hole in the middle of his jean jacket exposing well defined pectorals. John snorted in response.

“You sure you wanna do this? I mean, these guys are fast.” Yak offered quietly.

“I’m good,” Pascal responded confidently. “I wanna make sure he’s got no more reasons to doubt. He will admit his mistake.”

The Californian mid-morning sun had begun to warm the open-air track facility in Los Angeles, when local-born All-Star DeMar DeRozan walked through its gates. “John, Russ! What’s good, boys?” he embraced each in turn, before coming over to his two young teammates.

Pascal’s face was a mask of stark determination, far from his general demeanour. He regarded DeMar coldly as he made for the starting blocks, encouraging his two competitors to do the same.

“You not taking your glasses off?” he asked John, who simply snorted. Separated by a single lane between each of them, Pascal, John and Russ took their positions ahead of the hundred-meter sprint. In the distance, Siakam spotted DeMar telling Yak something before the two burst out laughing. ‘He won’t be laughing after this, that’s for sure.’

“Alright, ya’ll gonna go at 3.” DeMar shouted from a distance. “One, two, three!”

Pascal leaped off the blocks, his technique superb, slowly straightening out his posture over the first forty meters, one stride at a time. The cool air brushed against his face, making his eyes water ever so slightly.

Halfway through, he inched his gaze to the right to check on the other two sprinters. He saw only Russ, running at apparently the same speed as himself. Finding his second wind, Pascal pushed harder. Every muscle in his body was engaged, and there was only one possible end result. As he lowered his upper body into the red ribbon he and Yak set up earlier, he knew he had gotten there first.

“Skills gets the W!” Siakam exclaimed, seeing the angry look on Russ’ face a few feet away. Back near the starting blocks, John Wall lay on the ground, clutching his left knee. As the entire group rushed to help Wall up, Skills stared at DeRozan expectantly. “So?”

“So what?” DeMar replied nonchalantly.

“I won! I beat the fastest players in the league, so then that makes me the fastest, right?!”

DeRozan seemed unimpressed. “Man, Russ ain’t that fast. He like you, runs real hard all the time. You ran harder, that’s good. Now Johnny here, he’s fast, but he’s just back from knee surgery, so that ain’t fair. Honestly, what you even doing sprinting out here, John?”

“Your guy said he’s faster than me, I wasn’t gonna take that.” Wall replied, grimacing.

“We gotta get you to the hospital,” DeMar and Russ helped their fellow All-Star out of the training grounds.

Pascal was far from pleased, his brows furrowed. He received only a shrug from Yak. “This isn’t over,” he muttered.

The following day, Yak and Skills were back at the track facility, the latter pacing anxiously around the long-jump pit. “They’ll show up, don’t worry,” the Austrian reassured his friend.

First through the gates arrived DeRozan, sheer annoyance plastered upon his face. “Listen, I got places to be,” the four-time All-Star said. “I gotta be teaching some grade 1 kids math with Kyle in less than an hour.”

“We’ll be done real quick, just as soon as—there he is!” Pascal pointed to the newcomer excitedly.

“Damn! Usain Bolt!” DeMar’s voice took on a boyish pitch as he opened his arms wide to embrace the world’s fastest man. “Man, how you know Usain?!”

“My agent had to pull some strings, I owe some people courtside tickets, but it’s all good. You ready?” Skills questioned.

“Let’s do this.” The Jamaican phenom was not dressed to race, wearing skin-fitting blue jeans and a bright orange tee. As they settled onto the starting blocks, Bolt was visibly struggling to get into the proper position. Pascal, clothed in a sleeveless top, athletic shorts, and the Nike Kobe “Compton” kicks, had no such trouble.

As the countdown began, seeds of doubt unsettled Siakam. ‘Did I go too far? This is Usain goddamned Bolt!’ Before he could explore the feeling any further, they were off. Yet again, every fiber of his body worked to its maximum capacity, nothing but victory on his mind. Halfway through, he snuck a look to his side, only to catch a grinning wink from his competitor as he gained ground on him rapidly. Had Usain, in his arrogance, given him a head start? It mattered not. Pascal pushed on all the way to the win by a razor-thin margin, to an elated scream from Jakob.

“Nice run!” Bolt congratulated the panting Siakam, showing no sign of being out of breath himself.

Sauntering over to DeMar, jumping into a hip-bump with Yak on the way, Pascal’s arms reached outward. “How about now?”

DeRozan shook his head. “You serious? This guy over here didn’t break a sweat, and has just ripped a hole in his jeans getting off the blocks. On the other hand, you sweating like you’re straight out of a sauna. You ran hard, own it.” He said calmly, as Pascal clenched his fists and gritted his teeth. “Usain, you got some time? I gotta introduce you to my boy Kyle,” DeMar said enthusiastically, putting his arm around Bolt’s shoulder, as the two made their way out.

Pascal looked over at Jakob, his body tight with anger. Yak could only shrug.

It was their final day in L.A. when Pascal implemented the plan for his final attempt to convince his club’s star that he was in fact, fast. He shook his head unhappily watching DeRozan ply his slow, methodical style of play at the All-Star game. ‘What does this guy even know about being fast?!’ Still, he refused to rest until he was properly recognized.

It was late morning, a couple hours before they would all begin to file out to the airport and their separate sunny destinations. Pascal and Yak were standing atop a raised and extended wooden ledge at the Los Angeles Zoo, overlooking a specially designed race course separated by a 10-foot-tall barrier.

Two white lines marked the ends of each race track, 50 meters apart. Pascal saw his opponent in a cage at the other end of the track – a trained cheetah flown in from Tampa.

“Umm, I think you may have gone too far this time, bro.” Jakob said uncertainly.

Pascal would have none of it. “I’ve seen someone do this before – we’re gonna race to one end, then turn and sprint back the way we came for a full hundred.”

DeMar joined them then, though he did not appear his usual self. He seemed distracted. When he spied the animal and realized what was about to take place, it was all he could do not to burst into laughter. “Well, what you waiting for? Watch that it doesn’t jump that little fence.” DeRozan snickered.

Pascal nodded defiantly and made his way down to the track. He arrived at the starting line, straight across from the elevated platform and his two teammates. DeMar was saying something to Yak, who was grinning guiltily. Shaking it off, he awaited the zookeeper’s signal. After two deep breaths, it came.

Siakam exploded into the sprint, knowing full well the cheetah was gaining pace twice as fast as him. But he couldn’t see the cat through the barrier, so he focused solely on himself. He broke hard as he reached the 50-meter line on the sandy surface, understanding that a successful sharp turn is the key to any chance of winning. He heard the cheetah sliding violently in the adjacent track, as it struggled with the pivot. Pascal shifted into top gear seamlessly, and dashed all the way to the other end.

Breathing heavily and clutching his knees after he crossed the finish line, Skills had no idea who got there first. He glanced over at the platform, where Yak’s mouth was agape. More importantly, even DeMar was wide-eyed, though he quickly changed his expression to one of indifference. Did he actually win?

Pascal climbed the wooden steps eagerly. “I won? I won, right?!” he exclaimed, as Jakob nodded enthusiastically.

“That was… incredible.” The Austrian said in a monotonous tone. But Pascal’s hopeful gaze had shifted onto DeRozan.

DeMar looked around innocently. “You looking at me? I don’t know what you want me to say. This poor cheetah looked jet lagged as hell, you saw how slow it turned? And you design the track to help you out like that. Still, you ran hard, I respect that. It’s been a good few days, rook. I see ya’ll in TO soon.” He bumped fists with the two youngsters, though Pascal was none too pleased.

“I ain’t a rook no more…” Pascal muttered to the grinning Austrian when it was just the two of them again. “What you smiling about, anyway?”

“Nothing, I’m not, it’s nothing.”

“Yak, if you don’t tell me right now, I ain’t never playing Fortnite with you again.” he was in no mood for jokes, and that really seemed to get Jakob’s attention, his face petrified.

“I mean, I’m sure you know already,” Poeltl said hesitantly. “He knows you’re fast. ‘Super-fast,’ were his words. He’s just trying to keep you motivated, dedicated to getting better, faster. Plus, he thinks it’s pretty funny.”

Pascal thought it over, his demeanour relaxing in the process. “I wish you told me sooner. I could’ve spent this week putting up threes instead of flying cheetahs in from across the country. Still, I guess I can’t get too mad, considering Kyle’s been pulling that same thing on him with SI the last two years.”

“Exactly,” Jakob chuckled. “He even got them to rank Crowder ahead of him!” they both giggled. “But, umm,” Jakob began again with genuine concern in his voice as they were making their way out of the zoo, “you weren’t serious about Fortnite, right?”

“Nah, of course not.”

If you enjoyed this one, here are the other episodes in the Alternate Basketball Histories series: P.J. Tucker’s originsOG Anunoby’s origins, Jonas Valanciunas’ trials in IndianaNorman Powell’s instrumental contemplationthe dark secret behind Freddy’s rise, and DeMar DeRozan’s mysterious experience in L.A.

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A closer look at DeRozan’s near-historic clutch night

It really was not that long ago that DeMar DeRozan was scoring 52 points against the Milwaukee Bucks, setting a new Toronto Raptors franchise record for scoring and thrusting himself into the conversation for best single-game outing as a Raptor. He has turned in plenty of candidates worthy of that conversation, and how you want to evaluate individual games – the box score line, the Game Score, the overall feel, or whatever – it’s hard to go wrong with a number of outings from DeRozan, Vince Carter, Chris Bosh, or Kyle Lowry. Or hey, Terrence Ross or Donyell Marshall.

There’s something about DeRozan and games that go to overtime. On Wednesday, DeRozan submitted what may be his best night yet, a 42-point dismantling of the Detroit Pistons down the stretch of a game the Raptors would eventually win in overtime. No, it wasn’t 52. It wasn’t even that strong an entire game so much as a dominant close to it – DeRozan had 11 points and exactly zero assists at halftime, the Raptors stuck in a 14-point hole. All that did, though, was set the stage for DeRozan to have the single highest impact of any Raptor ever on the team’s chances to win.

By win probability added, anyway. The site Inpredictable measures team and individual performance by win probability added, which measures player contributions by how they impacted the team’s percentage chance of winning. To simplify, it looks at each play and game-score situation, determining what a team’s likelihood of winning before and after each play was, and they assign that value to the players who made those plays (made shots, missed shots, turnovers, and free throws; it only assigns value to players finishing possessions). Naturally, it weighs clutch performance heavily, as the swings in probability are highest with the game on the line – the higher the leverage of the situation, the higher the impact on the chances of winning. It’s obviously an imperfect measure given what it excludes, but it provides a fun look at “whose shot-making swung a game’s outcome the most?”

Through that lens, DeRozan’s night was nearly historic. When the WPA report first game down, it looked as if DeRozan had posted the best single-game WPA in the entire database, which covers the entire NBA, playoffs and regular season, back to 2000 (thanks to @PositiveResidual for pointing this out initially). The scores are adjusted later, and DeRozan’s score came down a bit. This morning, DeRozan only has the 21st-best single-game WPA since 2000, a time that includes some 27,000 individual games. That’s in something like the 99.9th percentile.

All told, DeRozan added 114.9 percent to Toronto’s chances of winning.

That’s, uhh, more than 100 percent, and it tops his previous franchise-best mark of 109.4 percent (Feb. 27, 2017, against the Knicks, when you could see literal souls leaving bodies at Madison Square Garden). Those are the only two instances of Raptors topping the 100-percent marker, though it’s been done to them four times (Marcus Smart in April 2015, Kevin Durant in March 2014, Vince Carter in January 2006 as a Net, and Marcin Gortat in February 2014.

DeRozan, by the way, ranks 12th in the NBA this year in total WPA on the season and third in clutch WPA – he’s now up to 134 points on 55.9-percent true-shooting in 119 clutch minutes on the year, turning the ball over just seven times. He still owns a minus-8 net rating because the Raptors have been mediocre there overall (18-13 but a minus-8 net rating). Some of that is the early season trouble hanging over, some of it is selection bias since the Raptors do a great job making close-ish games into non-clutch games, and some of it remains a concern. If nothing else, DeRozan’s shot-making is almost identical to in non-clutch spots, in terms of true-shooting percentage, and his volume has been ludicrous.

Of DeRozan’s 1.149 win probability added, 0.9 of that came in the clutch (Inpredictable defines that differently than As I mentioned, he wasn’t particularly great as the Raptors fell behind early. At halftime, the Pistons held a 59-45 lead and an 86.3-percent chance to win the game. When DeRozan hit free throws late in the third quarter, the Raptors were up 85-78 and held a 74-percent chance of winning, a 60-percent swing. It was closer to 50-50 at the end of the third, with DeRozan having scored 13 and dished four assists in the quarter while Lowry scored 10 with five dimes.

With 7:24 left in the fourth, DeRozan checked back in, the Raptors up 92-90 and with a 58.5-percent chance of winning. The game was a coin-toss, essentially. And that’s when things started to get fairly wild.

Over the final 12:24 of the game, DeRozan would score 18 more points on 7-of-10 shooting with two huge assists.

5:11, +6.0% – Hits a 17-footer

4:43, -4.1% – Misses a three

3:46, +5.8% – Takes a Siakam pass for a reverse layup

3:12, +6.8% – Hits an 8-footer

2:54, -11.5% – Fouls James Ennis on a three (no penalty to DeRozan in WPA)

1:19, +11.3% – Hits an 18-foot pull-up

0:56, +12.2% – Fouled by Reggie Bullock, hits both free throws

0:29, -14.5% – Misses 14-footer

0:18, +18.8% – Hits a 19-footer from C.J. Miles

0:05, +55.1% – Ends Anthony Tolliver with a driving transition dunk, aided by a great backcourt screen from Lowry and complete disinterest from Blake Griffin; gets and-one

4:36, -5.9% – Misses a 10-footer

2:01, +10.9% – Finds Siakam for a layup (no credit to DeRozan in WPA)

1:37, +22.9% – Hits an 18-footer and draws the foul on Bullock for an and-one

0:29, -14.7% – Misses a 12-foot turnaround

0:06 – +5.5% – Grabs a defensive rebound (no credit to DeRozan in WPA)

0:01 – +32.1% – Assist on a Fred VanVleet 20-footer (no credit to DeRozan in WPA)

(Note on the parts that aren’t credited: Inpredictable also has a “kitchen sink” WPA that adds box score stats to WPA, except fouls. DeRozan added another 61% with his assists, though if we were assigning shared credit in such a way, some of his shooting WPA marks may come down.)

It’s a pretty impressive second half and overtime, and it ranks as one of the more clutch performances in recent league history when situation is taken into account. It might be even higher if WPA could account for the leverage of the Raptors clinching a playoff spot in the game, too. It’s a less incredible night by something like Game Score – it’s only DeRozan’s fourth-best game through that lens, 37th in team history – but context is important. The Raptors slept through a half, lost a key starter and a key reserve, and Lowry and DeRozan took over as stars do, the latter delivering one of the most clutch shot-making performances you can deliver and mostly making the right, team-first plays in the closing minutes. It’s the latest sign of growth in a season full of them.

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Raptors Clinch Playoff Berth, Defeat Pistons 121–119 in Overtime

The Toronto Raptors are the first team in the NBA this season to clinch a playoff berth. They did it on March 7th.

Let that sink in for a moment.

Feels good, right? Okay.

The team—now on pace for 60 wins—wound up in a wild game that saw regulation expire and an extra period take place. If anything, last night gave the Raptors a lot more clutch basketball experience and was a resoundingly fun ride that saw Norman Powell play well, Serge Ibaka get ejected, a heroic DeMar DeRozan, and more.

Let’s get into it.

The game began slowly for Toronto, the starters again coming out of the gates like they weren’t interested in trying hard against a lower class team—this time in the form of the free-falling Detroit Pistons. The ball movement was spotty and nobody on the team could seem to hit shots—except for Norm, who hit a three early on and never looked back—while the defense suffered largely because of Ibaka’s lethargic (that might be an understatement—he looked like he was wearing cement boots out there instead of sneakers) play.

The bench managed to give the club a boost to close the quarter, which ended with the Raptors leading despite shooting just 40.7 per cent and going 3–12 from beyond the arc. The good news, at least, was they managed to hold the Pistons to an equally abysmal 37.5 per cent shooting.

Unfortunately, the wheels came off in the second quarter, with Detroit pummelling Toronto with a 16–2 run that starred Dwight Buycks playing lockdown defense on Fred VanVleet, and Ish Smith running amuck all over the floor. The breaking point came when Ibaka wouldn’t stop chirping an official, and subsequently got himself ejected from the game.

Enter Lucas Nogueria, who played the rest of Serge’s second quarter minutes and made a nice impact defensively, doing his thing around the rim. Powell hit another triple and the Raps made a tiny push that ended when Smith hit a gut-wrenching three of his own to close the half, putting the Pistons up 59–45.

Detroit outscored Toronto 36–18 in the second and raised their shooting percentage to 52.4 per cent, including 63.6 per cent on threes. The Raptors were held to a mere four fast break points and while DeRozan scored 11, he notably didn’t have any assists—a sign that never bodes well for the team as a whole.

Prior to the third quarter, it was announced that Delon Wright would not return. He played the first half with the sprained toe he received in Tuesday’s game against Atlanta, but didn’t feel well enough to continue.

Thankfully, Kyle Lowry chose the second half to step up as he went full KLOE, driving aggressively into the paint and kicking the ball out for dime upon dime. Twice in the quarter he was fouled while making a three-pointer—he converted the four-point play once. He also had a sweet and-one reverse layup that was Old School Lowry, and he pushed the pace back to where the Raptors wanted it, pitching the ball ahead off of misses to Pascal Siakam running the floor.

Feeding off of Lowry, the ball movement improved to its regular state, shots began to fall, and the Raptors erased their awful second quarter by dropping 40 points in the third to take a one-point lead heading into the final 12 minutes.

Without Wright and Ibaka, both Malcolm Miller—whom I’m really starting to enjoy; the kid knows how to cut!—and Powell got more minutes to begin the fourth, allowing Siakam to catch a breather before re-entering. The two were solid, though by the time Dwane Casey unleashed his closing lineup—Jonas Valanciunas, DeRozan, Lowry, Siakam, and VanVleet—the game remained close.

With 22.2 seconds left, the game was tied 109–109. Casey took the team’s last timeout after an offensive rebound, thinking incorrectly that the ball had touched rim. Since it hadn’t, there were only six seconds left on the shot clock. The ball was then inbounded to DeRozan, who was left to isolate about 17 feet from the basket.

He turned, fired, made it.

On the other end, Blake Griffin nailed an and-one and made the free throw.

Then, this happened.

“It was a big play,” said Lowry of the dunk afterward, “and for him to do that in that situation was just MVP-ish.”

A couple more DeRozan free throws, another Blake banker on the block, some horrendous inbound attempts with 0.3 on the clock, and the game headed into overtime.

The extra period was characterized early on by silly mistakes—a VanVleet travel here, a Valanciunas double-dribble there—until DeRozan decided to take over indefinitely. He made a key pass to Siakam for an easy two, then made an and-one midrange jumper. Finally, off of a key missed three by Reggie Bullock, DeRozan snatched the rebound and blazed downcourt, drawing all of the Pistons defenders and kicking the ball out to VanVleet in the corner.

And Freddy “I Was Born Activated” VanVleet rose, cool as a cucumber, let it fly, and snapped the mesh to put the game away for good.

The best part about that sequence was that prior to that shot, VanVleet was 1–9 from the field. DeRozan didn’t care. He saw that his teammate was open and trusted that he would make the shot when it mattered most. And he did.

“As soon as I saw his guy step in and Freddy step back, it was just that trust I got in my teammate,” said DeRozan post-game. “I knew he was gonna make it.”

This is what the change to the offensive system was all about: Finding the best available shot at all times, even if it’s not coming from your best players. The unselfishness by DeRozan is admirable, and it’s pretty safe to say that, by this point, this Raptors team is all in on one another.

Team Over Everything.

DeRozan finished with 42 points, four rebounds, and six assists on 57.1 per cent shooting to lead the club and did this:

Lowry had a big night also, racking up 15 points, seven boards, and 15 dimes.

Next up, the Raptors—now on a six-game win streak—will face off against the Houston Rockets—who are on a 17-game win streak, the longest this season—on Friday at home, where they are a league-best 27–5. This will be a great chance to test their mettle, even if they don’t have OG Anunoby or Wright to aid them.

For now, however, they can relax and enjoy their successful back-to-back, and their playoff berth, and set their sights on that elusive 60-win mark. 

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Raptors-Pistons Reaction Podcast – DeMar is that dude

William Lou recaps the Toronto Raptors’ thrilling win over the Detroit Pistons.


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Raptors clinch 5th consecutive playoff berth

The Toronto Raptors have clinched a playoff spot. They are the first team to do so this season. There are 18 (!) games left, and more than a month of regular season.

With an overtime victory over the Detroit Pistons on Wednesday, the Raptors are now 18.5 games up on the ninth-seeded Pistons with only 35 games left to play between the two teams. Detroit – or Charlotte, or anyone else below the playoff cutoff – couldn’t catch Toronto even by winning out as the Raptors lost out. This is by far the earliest the Raptors have ever clinched a playoff spot, with their earliest clinch prior coming on March 23 in 2015-16.

This marks the fifth consecutive year that the Raptors have made the playoffs, a new high-water mark for the franchise. It will also be the longest active playoff streak in the Eastern Conference once the Atlanta Hawks are officially eliminated (it could potentially be the fourth-longest in the NBA after San Antonio, Golden State, and Houston if the Los Angeles Clippers miss the playoffs).

The Raptors have a chance to earn the top seed in the Eastern Conference for the first time, as they’re now 2.5 games up on the Boston Celtics. Doing so would land the Raptors their fifth Atlantic Division title and give them home-court advantage through to the NBA Finals, should they make it. And, of course, the Raptors are now just 10 wins from setting a new franchise record – the best regular season in team history is 2015-16’s 56-26 mark, and not only can the Raptors top that with a finish of 10-8 or better, they only need to go 13-5 from here for the first 60-win season in team history.

So, yeah…pretty good half-decade or so, and it’s all been building toward this, the most successful Raptors regular season ever.

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Quick Reaction: Raptors 122, Pistons 119

Toronto 121 Final
Box Score
119 Detroit

S. Ibaka12 MIN, 4 PTS, 2 REB, 0 AST, 0 STL, 2-8 FG, 0-4 3FG, 0-0 FT, 0 BLK, 0 TO, -6 +/-

Ibaka had some odd shot selection and let Blake Griffin get the best of him in the 1st half. Then, he was ejected for presumably saying a little too much to the game referee. Whatever, he needed the rest anyway. Dude looked lethargic out there.

N. Powell28 MIN, 17 PTS, 4 REB, 0 AST, 0 STL, 7-12 FG, 3-5 3FG, 0-0 FT, 1 BLK, 1 TO, 12 +/-

Powell started off the game with a bang. He shot well, looked energized and often seemed to make the correct play. This was an immensely encouraging performance from a player who’s struggled for the majority of the year.

J. Valanciunas31 MIN, 14 PTS, 11 REB, 2 AST, 1 STL, 6-13 FG, 1-4 3FG, 1-1 FT, 4 BLK, 3 TO, -1 +/-

Jonas was engaged (as per usual versus Andre Drummond) in the 1st quarter, but missed some very makeable shots and had some mental miscues in the 2nd. This probably led to him not seeing much of the floor during Toronto’s 3rd quarter barrage. Still a good effort on JV’s end.

K. Lowry41 MIN, 15 PTS, 7 REB, 14 AST, 3 STL, 4-8 FG, 3-7 3FG, 4-5 FT, 0 BLK, 1 TO, 13 +/-

Everything happened except the ball going in the basket early for Lowry. He couldn’t buy a bucket until the 2nd quarter, but was rebounding and distributing well all game long. He led the comeback in the third and displayed very commendable body of work on the road.

D. DeRozan43 MIN, 42 PTS, 4 REB, 6 AST, 0 STL, 16-28 FG, 2-6 3FG, 8-8 FT, 0 BLK, 0 TO, 9 +/-

Save for JV and Powell, DeRozan was the only one who had a real scoring impact for Toronto in the 1st half. He kept that going in the second half on route to one of his season-best efforts. Also, OH MY GOODNESS THAT DEROZAN DUNK. We have a new mayor of Detroit. Leave the Wikipedia edit to me.

P. Siakam28 MIN, 8 PTS, 6 REB, 4 AST, 1 STL, 3-5 FG, 1-2 3FG, 1-1 FT, 1 BLK, 0 TO, 4 +/-

Siakam didn’t have a good start to this game. His energy was there, but like Poeltl — he was overmatched on both ends. It was until the Raps’ late 3rd quarter run where Siakam turned all the way up, starting with his aggressive on-ball defense.

F. VanVleet25 MIN, 6 PTS, 6 REB, 2 AST, 1 STL, 2-10 FG, 0-4 3FG, 2-2 FT, 1 BLK, 3 TO, -14 +/-

Steady Freddy was a little too steady tonight. Then again, there was overtime. If it weren’t for DeRozan’s crazy dunk to end the 4th, FVV would’ve had the play of the game. He sealed it with a massive three to close out the win. Bumped him up a full grade for that shot.

C. Miles22 MIN, 8 PTS, 3 REB, 1 AST, 1 STL, 2-8 FG, 2-7 3FG, 2-2 FT, 0 BLK, 2 TO, 2 +/-

CJ didn’t hit many shots, but he hit the ones that the Raptors badly needed. One thing I admire about CJ is his confidence in his long-range shooting. Some shots have you thinking the dude lost his mind, until he shreds the mesh and jogs back on defense all nonchalant.

J. Poeltl18 MIN, 4 PTS, 2 REB, 1 AST, 1 STL, 2-5 FG, 0-0 3FG, 0-0 FT, 0 BLK, 1 TO, 2 +/-

Poeltl looked good, until he had to deal with Drummond and Griffin inside when Moreland and Tolliver eventually subbed out. Not his best game. Good thing for Jak is that he’s been as consistent a Raptor as there is. He’ll be back.

D. Wright7 MIN, 0 PTS, 3 REB, 0 AST, 0 STL, 0-1 FG, 0-0 3FG, 0-0 FT, 0 BLK, 0 TO, -13 +/-

Delon had a forgettable game in this one. He didn’t play much and wasn’t overly impactful — doing most of his short work on the defensive end. That won’t translate to the box score. Still, it would’ve been nice to see a little more from both him and FVV tonight (of course, minus FVV’s last shot).

L. Nogueira4 MIN, 1 PTS, 0 REB, 0 AST, 0 STL, 0-0 FG, 0-0 3FG, 1-2 FT, 1 BLK, 0 TO, 1 +/-

Lucas didn’t play enough to have an impact. The Ibaka ejection gave him some quick minutes, but Casey rode the JV/Poeltl/Siakam trio for the remainder of the game.

Dwane Casey

Lack of execution on set plays as well as a lack of urgency by the Raptors early on gives Casey an ugly grade. The Pistons have been a mediocre team (6-9 before this game) since acquiring Griffin. The Raptors should’ve dealt with them accordingly, especially considering their own recent dominant play.

Things We Saw

  1. A tale of two quarters. The Raptors played horrendously in the 2nd, and made a late, galvanising comeback in the 3rd frame. Lowry, Siakam and Miles led the charge while DeRozan slowly chipped at the Pistons all night long. Overall, it was a wildly sloppy, but entertaining game.
  2. First the Hawks, now this? Toronto needs to stop playing down to their competition. That was an old Toronto thing. This year they’ve been blowing out teams left and right regardless of team record. The Raptors struggled with the Hawks in the first half of their previous game, and did the same with Detroit in this one. They better hope this isn’t a trend as they’re well within the final stretch run of the season.
  3. I’m sorry but this has to be said. I really thought Kyle Lowry complained to the referees a lot. Goodness gracious is Blake Griffin 100 times worse. At one point, it really seemed like dude complained after every possession for maybe the entire 2nd quarter. Kendall Jenner, please collect your mans.


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Delon Wright leaves game with toe sprain again

Delon Wright is shutting it down early for a second night in a row due to a sprained big toe on his right foot.

The Raptors point guard checked out late in the fourth on Tuesday and was limping a bit after the game but gave it a go Wednesday. He played in the first half but won’t return for the second, the team announced at halftime.

This leaves Toronto a little thin, as Serge Ibaka was  ejected in the second quarter. Fred VanVleet is the only point guard on the bench now – Lorenzo Brown is not with the team – and Norman Powell is starting at small forward. This should mean minutes for just about everyone, including Malcolm Miller and/or Nigel Hayes in the second half.

There likely won’t be an update on Wright until Friday, as the team is off tomorrow following the back-to-back.

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Serge Ibaka ejected in 2nd quarter vs. Pistons

Serge Ibaka went and got himself thrown out of Wednesday’s game against the Detroit Pistons, which is certainly one way to manage your own workload on a back-to-back.

Midway through a frustrating second quarter, Ibaka was whistled for a foul on a Blake Griffin floater in the lane. He gave the referee a “come on,” then got hit with a technical foul as he walked toward the bench. He eventually earned an ejection for continuing to express his displeasure on his way to the bench.

Ibaka was struggling for the first half and frustration may have just boiled over here. He shot 2-of-8 and 0-of-4 on threes for four points with two rebounds and a minus-6 mark in 12 minutes. The Raptors were down 16 when he got tossed, with C.J. Miles replacing him alongside the rest of the starters (and then eventually Lucas Nogueira).

Miles drew the last start when Ibaka was sideline but it was Pascal Siakam getting the nod here. The Raptors may call on the debuting Nigel Hayes or the versatile Malcolm Miller for minutes. They could get weird and play two centers, too.

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Pre-game news & notes: Raptors and Pistons both down starting SFs; Powell starts

This seems ridiculous here on March 7, but the Toronto Raptors can clinch a playoff spot with a victory over the Detroit Pistons on Wednesday.

The Raptors are once again winners of five in a row, and while they’re playing on the second night of a back-to-back, none of their players hit the 30-minute mark on Tuesday. It’s possible the Raptors look past Detroit here and stumble as a result. They do have the Houston Rockets coming in on Friday, and they haven’t exactly been coming out a house afire against lesser teams. Still, they’ve gotten it done almost every time – they haven’t lost to a bad team since Boxing Day, and they continue to look the part of a true contender on the stats page. The focus remains on the how, and nothing will change on that front, even as they push for 60 wins.

The Pistons, meanwhile, are fighting for their playoff lives and perhaps the job of their head coach. They have not responded well to that pressure, losing nine of 11 since a 4-0 post-Blake Griffin acquisition bump. Lose here, and the Pistons are more or less only mathematically still alive, hope extinguished ahead of Reggie Jackson’s return and a six-game west coast road trip. They should be desperate. They’re also down their best defender here, more than evening out the continued absence of OG Anunoby. It will be interesting to see if they play with that desperation that’s been curiously absent the last few weeks.

The game tips off at 8 on TSN 4/5 and TSN 1050. You can check out the full game preview here.

Raptors updates
OG Anunoby didn’t even travel with the Raptors for this 24-hour trip, getting any questions as to his availability out of the way early. As noted earlier, he was using the stationary bike and rowing machine at practice on Monday, and he wasn’t using a walking boot on Tuesday. He told Raptors Republic he’s feeling better and it’s coming along, but not with enough detail to accurately judge a return timeline. Obviously, Friday would be great.

In the interim, the small forward minutes will continue to be shared by Malcolm Miller, Norman Powell, and a red-hot C.J. Miles. In the last four games (only one half of which Anunoby played), the minutes with the starters have broken down as follows: Powell – 30 (-3), Miller – 29 (+5), Anunoby – 8 (+2), Miles – 3 (-2). This seemed like an opportunity to sneak Miles some more minutes with the starters, but those have often come with a second bench player subbing in as well, so the sample on that fivesome is still small for the season (spoiler: they will score like crazy and struggle to defend). Nigel Hayes and Alfonzo McKinnie could factor in at some point, too, and both are with the team in Detroit.

Also with the team is Delon Wright, who sprained his toe in the fourth quarter on Tuesday but said after the game he was feeling better. Limited run for him would give Powell an opportunity to get going in a bench fivesome he had some success with earlier in the year, playing between Fred VanVleet and Miles. Lorenzo Brown is not with the team, as he’s working his way back from an ankle sprain with eyes on a Saturday return for Raptors 905.

UPDATE: Norman Powell starts. This is a good thing. He played pretty well Tuesday and this is a nice window to get him some rhythm and comfort. There’s been no word on Delon Wright (other than him working out pre-game), so assume he’s good to go.

UPDATE II: It looks as if Hayes, not McKinnie, is the 13th man here.

PG: Kyle Lowry, Fred VanVleet, Delon Wright
SG: DeMar DeRozan
SF: Norman Powell, C.J. Miles, Malcolm Miller, (Alfonzo McKinnie)
PF: Serge Ibaka, Pascal Siakam, Nigel Hayes
C: Jonas Valanciunas, Jakob Poeltl, Lucas Nogueira
OUT: OG Anunoby
TBD: None
905: Malachi Richardson, Lorenzo Brown

Pistons updates
Detroit could be very thin on the wing here, as Stanley Johnson is a game-time call due to a back injury. He missed practice on Tuesday, and beat reporters seemed skeptical he’d be able to go. Luke Kennard, meanwhile, has been battling illness but is expected to play, though it’s unclear whether he, James Ennis, or Langston Galloway would figure to start if Johnson can’t go. Johnson is the best defender of the group by an order of magnitude, while Kennard offers shooting and off-ball distraction, Ennis is the best all-around piece, and Galloway would offer some extra playmaking.

If Johnson plays, the Pistons have a solid starting lineup to trot out. Even though the team has struggled, the projected starters have a plus-4.0 net rating in 218 minutes, and they’ve been very good on the defensive end. If Johnson sits, the most commonly used group they’ll have available sees Ennis in Johnon’s place, a look that has a minus-18.8 net rating in 99 minutes, proving incapable of scoring or defending. This is not surprising – since the Griffin trade, the Pistons allow 101.6 points per-100 possessions with Johnson on the floor and a whopping 117 when he’s off.

UPDATE: Stanley Johnson is out, per Rod Beard. Kennard draws the start and Reggie Hearn is up from the G League for depth.

PG: Ish Smith, Jameer Nelson, Dwight Buycks
SG: Luke Kennard, Langston Galloway, Reggie Hearn
SF: Reggie Bullock, James Ennis
PF: Blake Griffin, Anthony Tolliver, Henry Ellenson
C: Andre Drummond, Eric Moreland
OUT: Reggie Jackson, Jon Leuer, Stanley Johnson
TBD: None
Grand Rapids: Kay Felder


  • Raptors 905 have a week at home between games to get Lorenzo Brown back to health, Malachi Richardson up to speed, and put the finishing touches on their gameplan for the stretch run, where they’ll try to catch Nigel Hayes’ Westchester Knicks for the top seed and a bye through the first round. Both Brown and Richardson remain on assignment while Malcolm Miller and Alfonzo McKinnie are with the Raptors. The 905 play Saturday at home.
  • Over at The Athletic, I wrote about Norman Powell’s struggle to keep a grip on a role with the Raptors this year and how he’s trying to fight through.
  • Also over at The Athletic, I explained some of the details that apply to Fred VanVleet’s restricted free agency this summer, because I kept getting asked.
  • Shout out to The Starters, who are celebrating their 2,000th (!) episode today. Just the best dudes.
  • Masai Ujiri made his annual bus trip to Detroit with Raptors fans today. It’s a Coors Light promotion of some sort and no, I don’t know how you can get in for next year. Apologies.

  • Congratulations to Jack Armstrong on his Canadian Screen Award for Best Sports Analyst!
  • A cool visual here from friend of the site Ian Levy showing the change in Raptors’ offensive philosophy:

  • I posted this at the end of last night’s recap, too, but I’m not apologizing for the double-post because it’s really important. Here’s DeMar DeRozan on the response he’s gotten since he began speaking out about mental health:

The line
The Raptors are 5.5-point favorites despite being on the road with a rest disadvantage. The over-under is at 212.5.

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Key Raptors to Watch as Playoffs Approach

This is a guest post from Oren Weisfeld.

Through three quarters of the 2017-18 season, the Toronto Raptors sit atop the Eastern Conference with an impressive 45-17 record. The team is firing on all cylinders and playing great basketball with contributors throughout the roster. With all due respect to this year’s Raptors team we’ve seen something like this before: The impressive regular season that ends just shy of the No. 1 seed and leads to an exit early in the playoffs.

This year, though, is supposed to be different. Not only are the Raptors openly targeting that No. 1 seed in the East, which would give them a much needed home-court advantage throughout the playoffs (they have the best home record in the league at 26-5), they also find themselves in a wide-open Eastern Conference against the weakest competition in years. Perhaps most importantly, the Raptors have learned from their past failures and instead of over-relying on their all-star backcourt they have built one of the deepest teams in the league through the draft, internal development, and trades. If the Raptors really want this year to be different, if they want that No. 1 seed and if they want to make their first NBA Finals in franchise history, they are going to have to be more than just Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan. The team’s success largely hinges on the play of their all-stars, of course, but as veteran broadcaster Jack Armstrong said on the Talking Raptors podcast, “the sum has to be better than the parts” if the Raptors want to go all the way.

In other words, secondary players are going to have to step up and play significant roles if the Raptors want to be a real threat down the stretch and into the playoffs. Preparing for that has been the goal all year, but the success of their efforts won’t truly be known until April. Chief among those needing to step up: Veteran C.J. Miles, sophomore Pascal Siakam, and big man Serge Ibaka.

C.J. Miles

When the Raptors stood pat at the NBA Trade deadline one thing became clear: C.J. Miles is their three-point specialist. The Raptors could still add a three-point shooter from a pretty empty buyout market, but Miles is their guy until that happens. In fact, Miles is one of the only consistent volume three-point shooters on the entire Raptors team, which makes him crucial to the team’s success.

This season Miles is shooting 38.6 percent from three and while averaging 10.3 points in 18.4 minutes per game. All of that is to say Miles is pretty much in line with his career averages. But a team that shoots 32.6 three-point attempts per game, fourth most in the NBA, needs to consistently get their three-point specialist good looks if they want to improve their lousy three-point percentage, which is just 21st in the league at 35.6 percent. This season, as Blake Murphy pointed out here, Miles has actually had a more difficult shot mix than last season in Indiana. Playing mostly with a young, inexperienced second unit has caused that, because although the Raptors bench mob moves the ball well has a number of playmakers, what it doesn’t have are the type of all-stars that will take the defensive attention away from a veteran shooter like Miles. Miles is shooting 39.1 percent on open threes (no defender within 4-6 feet) and 43.4 percent on wide open threes (6+ feet). His numbers drop off drastically on more contested threes (0-4 feet), where he is shooting just 32.1 percent on 1.8 attempts per game

Getting Miles more minutes with the starters down the stretch should diminish the attention he receives from defenses, allowing him to get more open looks, which he has had no problem knocking down this season. If the Raptors can get him more open looks, and Miles remains consistent, perhaps even catching fire for longer stretches every once in a while, he will become a key player in the Raptors crunch-time offense. If not, better defenders like Norman Powell, OG Anunoby, and Siakam might eat up his minutes.

Pascal Siakam

Unlike Powell or Anunoby, Siakam has been more than a just good defender who can switch and defend multiple positions. On top of his length and athleticism, defensive aptitude, and high-energy, this season Siakam has come into his own on the offensive side of things, finally allowing Dwane Casey to give him minutes defending the other team’s best player without sacrificing much offensively.

Siakam is currently tied for sixth on the team in minutes, playing 20.5 per game, and his minutes have steadily gone up as Anunoby shooting slump extended and the bench mob keeps dominating games. Although he does not yet have a three-point shot, Siakam has developed the ability to score in other ways while thriving as a facilitator on the second unit, averaging an efficient 7.0 points on 50 percent shooting to go along with 4.4 rebounds, 1.9 assists (with a 20.2 percent assist ratio, fourth best on the team), 0.9 steals, and 0.5 blocks per game.

“He’s done a heck of a job working on his ball-handling, decision-making and understanding of taking up the gap when teams don’t close out to him all the way,” said Raptors coach Dwane Casey.

“I call him our Draymond Green,” said DeRozan. “The way he brings up the ball, gets us into things and gets us open shots. He’s got a little ISO game, too.”

At the young age of 23, Siakam already has an incredibly well-rounded game and his role on this Raptors squad is only going to get bigger down the stretch. Defenders are going to play several feet off him come playoffs, knowing his jump-shot isn’t developed yet, but if he can defend the likes of Giannis Antetokounmpo and LeBron James while continuing to make plays offensively, Siakam is going to become irreplaceable come playoffs.

Serge Ibaka

Aside from Lowry and DeRozan, the most important Raptors player going forward is Serge Ibaka. Currently averaging 13.0 points on 58.5 true shooting percentage, 6.1 rebounds, and 1.4 blocks in 27.6 minutes per game, Ibaka is having as solid a year as one could ask for. But as the playoffs approach and lineups get smaller, Ibaka is going to be asked to do much more for the Raptors: He is likely going to be asked to play center.

Don’t get me wrong, Jonas Valanciunas has been very good this year, especially on the defensive end, but his skill set potentially becomes less useful in the playoffs if teams go small and run big guys like him off the floor. Just imagine Milwaukee going to a small-ball lineup with Antetokounmpo at the five. Valanciunas can’t keep up with that, which means Ibaka will likely become the Raptors’ small-ball five (Siakam could see minutes at the four in these situations). How well Ibaka can handle those minutes — meaning how well he can defend big centers and grab rebounds while still performing offensively — will be crucial to the Raptors playoffs success.

There is precedent for this. Last playoffs, the Raptors tried out two very different starting lineups: One with Valanciunas at the five and the other with Ibaka at the five and Powell subbing in for Valanciunas. In the 43 minutes the Valanciunas lineup played, the Raptors were outscored by 25.8 points per 100 possessions. Meanwhile, the Ibaka/Powell unit outscored teams by 20.3 points per 100 possessions in the 43 minutes they played together. Part of that had to do with Powell being a revelation, sure, but Ibaka is much faster than Valanciunas and has the ability to defend multiple positions while spacing the floor. He is the ideal center against some of the small-ball units the Bucks, Celtics and Cavs will throw out there.

So far this season, only two of the Raptors twenty most played 5-man lineups featured Ibaka at center, combining for just 70:56 minutes. His team outscored opponents by 27.8 points per 100 possessions in that time. Look for the Raptors to give him more minutes at the five down the stretch and especially in the playoffs, where the team’s success could hinge on how well Ibaka is able to handle those minutes. The Raptors didn’t pay him $64 million dollars over three years to just space the floor and swat away layup attempts. Ibaka’s time to quarterback a defense is coming.

All stats current as of March 5th, 2018. All stats from unless otherwise stated.

This is a guest post from Oren Weisfeld.

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Has Miles Solved his Early-Season Issues?

If the Toronto Raptors coaching staff was having trouble finding minutes for C.J. Miles in the early part of the season, then they are now having trouble finding minutes in which he can rest. Miles has been a massive benefit in his last 15 games, drilling 43.9% of his 3s on a stoopid volume of 6.8 attempted 3s per game. His 13.3 attempted 3s per-36 minutes leads the entire NBA rotation player in that stretch. If the ball hits his hands, he’s shooting it immediately.

Miles will shoot contested shots, several feet behind the arc, only fractions of a second after the ball hits his hands. This is not a good shot for practically any other player in the league:

And yet he hits it. He’s been doing that a lot recently. Let’s go through some stats during the last 15 games just to prove that Miles has been helping the Raptors.

O-Rat Net-Rat TS% Usg% Avg sec per Touch Points per Touch
Stat 125.4 31.5 66.9 22.5 1.49 0.549
Rank on Team (among rotation players) 1st 1st 2nd 2nd 2nd last 1st

So what do all these disparate stats mean, taken together? Miles rarely touches the ball, but when he touches it, he shoots it immediately. It usually goes in. The Raptors win when this happens.

This seems too simple, so we should question if anything is different that has caused him to be such a boon in the last 15 games. First let’s look at his shot distribution in the last 15 games as opposed to the entire season. First and foremost, 81.9% of his shots attempted have been 3s. That’s… staggering (and would put him 2nd in the league in 3-point rate behind only Wayne Ellington, 84% of whose shots are 3s). On the season, Miles’ 3-point rate is only (!) 77%.

Furthermore, in the last 15 games Miles has taken 63 above-the-break 3s as compared to 18 corner 3s. On the season it’s 247 above-the-break 3s compared to 69 corner 3s, per Cleaning the Glass. That’s a similar ratio of above-the-break to corner 3s (~3.5:1), and it’s been relatively consistent (although not to quite this extreme) for his entire career. These are the kinds of shots he likes, even if no one else in the NBA does. Fair.

So his shots are coming from the same places in the last 15 games, though more of his attempted shots are 3s. How about defenders? Have they been contesting his shots as thoroughly in the last 15 games?

% of 3s Wide Open % of 3s Open % of 3s Tightly Contested % of 3s Very Tightly Contested
Last 15 Games 27.4 45.2 26.0 1.4
Full Season 30.1 40.4 27.4 2.0

Hm, ok, basically the same. His shots are coming from practically the same places (although he is attempting more 3s), and defenders are defending them practically the same way. Perhaps the difference is simpler.

Wide Open Open Tightly Contested Very Tightly Contested
3P% Last 15 Games 55.0 33.3 52.6 0
3P% Full Season 43.4 39.1 35.6 28.6

So Miles is making far more of his contested 3s, which are a large portion of his shots. That adds up to a difference of ~0.2 extra points per game, considering the percentage of his 3s that are tightly contested. (The percentage difference between wide open and open 3s practically cancel each other out). The difference is perhaps not as significant as originally believed.

It’s worth mentioning here that Raptors plays create the same shots for Miles as they always have. This is his normal shot in the flow of the offence:

He runs off screens, catches the ball above-the-break, and fires before you can say C.J. Kilometers (well, way before that…). When the Raptors get fancy, they’ll run a double drag continuity series (thanks for teaching me that mouthful, Coop) to spring him:

The result is similar: an above-the-break 3 (although it is slightly more open). When Miles does get his chances from the corner, it generally comes outside the flow of the offence, in that the play is not designed specifically for him to receive the ball in the corner. He either drifts to the corner smartly on a drive:

Or just kind of stands in the corner and hopes a teammate makes the right pass:

The point is that these have been exactly his shots during the entire season! The plays have not changed to get him open corner 3s. This irked me early in the year when I wrote a piece criticizing Miles:

“[Miles] is playing in defense-first, up-tempo, weirdo groups in which the offence initiates through Fred VanVleet or Delon Wright as ballhandlers in the pick and rolls. Those offences – while fun and good, of course – have had trouble forcing multiple defensive rotations to create open jumpers for their shooters. There’s simply not enough shot creation in those all-bench lineups…. Basically, the youth have been throwing hand grenades at Miles all season, who has done well to put the pins in a high rate of such catastrophes, making 35.3% of such attempted 3s. Even when Miles gets his shots in the flow of the offence, he is attempting difficult shots.”

All of this remains quite true. He is still taking deep, above-the-break, relatively contested 3s more often than not. Those are the shots designed for him; he’s just been making them more often. So what has actually changed? Yes, he’s taking more 3s, and yes, he’s making them slightly more often. But as explained above, the increases are slight enough that they wouldn’t alone be responsible for the dominance he has shown in the past 15 games. His 3-point percentage increase from 38.8% (full season) to 43.9% (last 15 games) accounts for a difference just over 1 point per game, given his 3s attempted.

Could it be that he is taking more 3s? Playing more minutes? No (his increased 3-point rate is really that he is just taking fewer 2s) and no (same minutes per game). The answer appears not to lie on the offensive end. I also wrote earlier in the year that Miles’ defence was a problem. That was true then, but has it been true recently? Tune in next feature (of mine) to find out the true reason why Miles has ascended to the throne of deity-player during his last several games.

All stats taken from except where otherwise mentioned.

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Gameday: Raptors @ Pistons, March 7

The Toronto Raptors improved to 27-2 against sub-.500 teams with their win against the Atlanta Hawks on Tuesday night. Despite what the scoreline may suggest through three quarters, they were able to do so without playing any high-leverage minutes.

They’ll be looking to extend that success in Detroit on Wednesday night when they face a Pistons team fresh off a loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers on Monday.

Fred VanVleet may be in for the lion’s share of the backup minutes against the Pistons depending on how stubbed Delon Wright’s toe is, and so we might be in for a big performance from him. The last time these two teams played, Jurassic Spark provided 64 of the team’s 123 points, but managed it without any bench player scoring more than Pascal Siakam’s 11.

Detroit are staring down the barrel four games behind in the loss column for the eighth and final playoff spot and still have a six-game West coast road swing beginning March 13 to come. This really is a slow death march.

The only real intrigue that comes with this game is courtesy of the fact that all six wins for the Pistons with Griffin have come against teams on the second night of a back-to-back. They are 6-9 overall since the Griffin trade.

The game tips off at 8:00 p.m. ET on TSN 4 & 5 and if you’re looking to listen in, TSN Radio 1050’s got you covered.

Duncan Smith of The Athletic and BBallBreakdown was kind enough to answer some questions to help set the stage:

Vivek Jacob: It’s been dark days since Blake Griffin faced his former team. After an eye-opening 4-0 start to his Pistons career, Detroit has gone 2-9 with the fourth-worst offensive rating during that period at 100.8 (per They also have the worst true shooting at 51.2 percent. Is this just a case of a team missing their starting point guard and in need of a training camp?

Duncan Smith: Both of those are certainly factors. This roster fits together poorly and is a far cry from the DHO (dribble hand-off)/movement gameplan that they began the season with, utilizing Andre Drummond, Avery Bradley, Reggie Jackson and Tobias Harris. The roster is injury ravaged and has largely been turned over via trade, so getting their offensive cornerstone back in Jackson and some time to acclimate in a structured format like training camp can only help.

Vivek Jacob: Blake Griffin’s free-throw rate is significantly down (29.1 percent vs. 42.1 percent career) and he’s now only attempting 20.9 percent of his shots within three feet of the basket compared to a career-rate of 37 percent (33.7 percent with the Clippers this season). He’s obviously made an effort to change with the times and is shooting five 3-pointers a game now, but is point-perimeter-Blake the best Blake? Have injuries taken their toll to the point where power-Blake is in the rear-view?

Duncan Smith: Blake Griffin does not excel from behind the arc relative to the volume he puts forth. He’s shooting 29.5 percent from three as a Piston and 32.8 percent on the season, including his play with the Clippers. Unfortunately, younger and more explosive Blake is his best version, and that’s not coming back. He deserves a lot of credit for modernizing his game, but it remains something of a work in progress.

Vivek Jacob: James L. Edwards III recently wrote for The Athletic about the dilemma the Pistons face in having Stan Van Gundy in a dual role as both head coach and team president. It seems just a matter of time before he’s stripped of his role as president, but do you see him playing out the final year of his deal? It appears highly unlikely that the Pistons can sneak into that 8th spot at this point in time. Do you think he’s worth being patient with to at least see what he can do with a Griffin-Drummond frontcourt over a full season?

Duncan Smith: A report from The Sporting News indicated that Stan Van Gundy is coaching for his job, at least one of the two. After four seasons, we’ve reached a point where this is the team he built, with the players he has selected, executing his gameplan. If the coach/executive was not Stan Van Gundy, which the kind of equity his career brings to the table, it’s very unlikely we would even be debating whether his job is worth saving. Maybe he has a master plan he can enact with the healthy trio of Jackson, Griffin and Drummond with a training camp, but there’s reason to wonder for the first time in the Van Gundy era if perhaps he’s not the man for the job.

Vivek Jacob: Drummond and Jonas Valanciunas appear to be developing a bit of a friendly rivalry. Both were seen as big, plodding centers who were steadily declining in value in today’s NBA. Both have created value for themselves by making reads and creating out of the high post, although the Detroit center has been asked to do so more often and has been plenty effective at it. While Valanciunas has added the three-point shot to his game, Drummond has been markedly improved at the free-throw line. What’s the next phase of Drummond’s development?

Duncan Smith: Drummond’s development this season has been astounding, but there needs to be more. His rim protection is improved but inconsistent, and his finishing around the rim can be suspect. He’s largely a different player this season than last, and the future should be bright for Drummond in Detroit.

Vivek Jacob: If Detroit are to pull off the upset in Toronto, what needs to happen?

Duncan Smith: The Pistons will be helped out significantly by the fact that the Raptors will be playing the second game of a back-to-back. In fact, the only teams the Pistons have beaten since the Griffin trade have been on the back end of those games. That said, the Raptors are a different beast than the road-weary squads the Pistons have been picking off. If the home team is to win, fatigue needs to play a significant factor.

Raptors updates

The Raptors should remain status quo from the game the previous night against the Hawks, unless Delon Wright’s stubbed toe is more serious than anyone let on.

Nigel Hayes could land himself an opportunity, I suppose, and Alfonzo McKinnie would be the most likely candidate to sit out if that were to happen.

Malcolm Miller has fared well in a starting role just by virtue of coloring inside the lines and executing the tasks assigned to his role: play strong defense, help space the floor, and play-make if and when necessary.

PG: Kyle Lowry, Fred VanVleet
SG: DeMar DeRozan, Norman Powell
SF: Malcolm Miller, C.J. Miles, Alfonzo McKinnie
PF: Serge Ibaka, Pascal Siakam
C: Jonas Valanciunas, Jakob Poeltl, Lucas Nogueira
OUT: OG Anunoby
TBD: Delon Wright, Nigel Hayes
905: Malachi Richardson, Lorenzo Brown

Pistons updates

I wasn’t a fan of the Blake Griffin-Andre Drummond fit, but I didn’t see things going south this quickly for them either. Gone are the days when Griffin thought they might be able to make a run in the Eastern Conference playoffs, and instead they now seemed destined for the lottery.

With the improved play of both Reggie Bullock and James Ennis III, Luke Kennard has fallen out of the rotation and has seen his minutes in the single digits in three of the past four games. On a team desperate for scoring and outside shooting, though, it would seem they could still find a way to fit him in, especially with Reggie Jackson still out.

On the Jackson front, it appears his ankle still has some steps to take to be healthy enough to play, at least according to Stan Van Gundy.

“He’s okay, but there’s nothing imminent with him,” said Van Gundy. “He’s doing his rehab and he did a little bit of 1-on-1 against one of the video guys today, but that’s as far along as he is.”

Get set for a decent dose of Dwight Buycks, who, based on last couple of games, has moved ahead of Jameer Nelson in the rotation. That being said, Nelson’s frame may be better equipped to cope with the likes of Lowry and VanVleet, so SVG could turn that way if he wanted to.

PG: Ish Smith, Dwight Buycks, Jameer Nelson
SG: Reggie Bullock, Luke Kennard, Langston Galloway
SF: James Ennis III, Stanley Johnson
PF: Blake Griffin, Anthony Tolliver, Henry Ellenson
C: Andre Drummond, Eric Moreland
OUT: Reggie Jackson, Jon Leuer
TBD: None
Grand Rapids: Reggie Hearn, Kay Felder

The line

The Raptors are 5.5-point favorites with a 213 over/under. The odds makers have much respect for the Pistons’ record against teams on the second night of a back-to-back.

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Raptors’ bench takes over in 4th, complete sweep of Hawks

Raptors 106, Hawks 90 | Box Score | Quick Reaction | Reaction Podcast

If there’s anyone growing tired of superlatives about the Toronto Raptors bench, they are yet to speak up.

The Second Unit Saints were at it once again on Tuesday, helping finish a season series sweep of the Atlanta Hawks with an emphatic fourth-quarter pull-away that helped erase a lethargic-yet-even first three quarters. On a night where the decision making from at least one starter was curious and everyone outside of C.J. Miles struggled at times with their shot, the Raptors once again did their work on the defensive end, leveraging your own youth to match the speed and exuberance of an eventually overmatched Hawks outfit.

“If you don’t play, hustle is going to beat talent,” head coach Dwane Casey iterated, upset with the effort outside of the fourth. “Hard work and physicality is going to beat talent every time if you don’t come out with your high beams on. It shouldn’t take us three quarters to figure that out, but it did. I liked the way we responded in the fourth quarter.

That the Raptors started out sluggish and it was no cause for concern whatsoever highlights how far the team has come in terms of cleaning up against lesser teams. They still haven’t lost at home to a team below .500 this year, and so an early 11-4 deficit highlighted by open Atlanta threes and uncovered cuts into the paint barely moved the tension meter at the Air Canada Centre. An early timeout settled things seamlessly, and a nice two-way boost from Malcolm Miller – he had a terrific defensive possession, hit a three, then grabbed an offensive rebound – helped paper over some lethargy from the holdover starters and some frigid early shooting from Serge Ibaka.

Things went more to form from there outside of Miles Plumlee still trying to make Miles Plumlee happen. DeMar DeRozan got going with a pair of takes at the center after getting blocked, getting to the line once and delivering a beautiful floater the next time down to send the Hawks scrambling to a timeout. Atlanta seemed completely incapable of defending the middle without overloading it, which let the Raptors go to work with pin-downs, one freeing C.J. Miles for a three. The Hawks managed a counter-push thanks for the Raptors turning the ball over nearly as much as they were and having no answer for Plumlee – no, seriously – but an early turn to the all-bench look put an end to that and had the Raptors safely within one after a quarter despite five or six bad minutes to start.

“We talk about ball movement and taking more threes and having 30 assists, but when the shots don’t go in, that’s what it looks like,” Fred VanVleet said. “You have to find other ways to win and I thought we did a good job of working the game, grinding the game and eventually it broke for us there in the fourth quarter. Just keep growing and building and get ready for this last stretch.”

The second started a little spicier, with VanVleet and Pascal Siakam connecting for an alley-oop on a broken play and the bench defense forcing a pair of late-clock turnovers. The offense sputtered as it sometimes does in these spots, and so the customary winning stretch for the mob came primarily from the defensive end. When a starter finally returned after a lengthy break, the bench had played to a plus-five over seven minutes. That’s not as dramatic as usual. It helps, though, and it was necessary since the starters promptly began digging themselves back into a small hole, surrendering a 10-2 Atlanta run.

Norman Powell once again got the nod in Miller’s spot to end the half and was used as lightly as you’d expect initially. The Hawks were aggressive denying some of Toronto’s motion-based off-ball action, leaving DeRozan to create through traffic. Powell eventually got going with a great defensive effort contesting from behind and then a corner three that took forever to rattle in. He heat-checked a bit with a tough missed layup afterward, then made up for it with an offensive rebound that set up a DeRozan three to put the Raptors back ahead. They squandered the short-lived lead with technical fouls on Kyle Lowry and DeRozan, instead entering the break frustrated, shooting 35.4 percent, and down a point.

“We can’t get in the mindset of ‘OK, tonight they are going to let us come out and do our thing.’ No,” Casey said. “There is nobody in this league who is going to come out and allow you play your game the way you want especially when you are on the top of the heap. We have to adapt to that playing personality. ”

They redirected that energy in the third, opening on a 7-0 run that took 57 seconds, included a great pass from Jonas Valanciunas out of the post to a cutting Lowry, and led to the elusive under-a-minute timeout from Mike Budenholzer. Budenholzer flexed some nice play design out of the breather; less credit is given when Dennis Schroder hits threes. The stars really lost the plot here for a bit offensively, letting Atlanta hang around as they argued with officials and, in Lowry’s case, picked up an unnecessary frustration flagrant foul. Lowry got an early hook with four fouls and a really shaky performance, which also had the benefit of keeping his minutes low on the first night of a back-to-back, though not for the right reasons.

Everyone remaining pretty cold from all over the floor didn’t exactly help, either, and the Raptors wound up going five minutes without a field goal, subsisting entirely on free throws and aided by a pair of Valanciunas blocks at the other end. DeRozan finally broke through with a basket instead of a foul to cap his own personal 7-0 run and Valanciunas continued getting to the free-throw line, and yet the Raptors still couldn’t gain any separation. The rest of the bench filtered in later than usual – early enough for Siakam to induce swoons with a switch and contain of quick-twitch point guard Isaiah Taylor – and didn’t find their footing, an 8-of-31 mark from outside keeping the Raptors behind one entering the fourth.

That quarter started no prettier, with the two sides trading steals and missed transition opportunities off of them. Or, if you prefer, that quarter started much prettier for fans of smart defensive basketball and frenetic up-and-down play. And whatever we’re going to call Siakam’s tough pseudo-hook shot from beyond the elbow, a shot Wright followed up with a tough three-and-foul and a tip-in on a Jakob Poeltl miss to give the Raptors a modicum of control for the stretch run. The bench saw their leash extended for that strong push, and Poeltl continued erasing just about everything Atlanta tried near the rim. One emphatic block of Mike Muscala lead to a Miles three the other way, and when VanVleet came up with a steal at half-court and found Wright inside, the Raptors had their first double-digit lead of the game with four minutes to go.

“It’s big. The athleticism, the speed that Jak has, and you know, he’s got great timing,” DeRozan said. “So it’s not surprising that he’s our leading shot-blocker on the team. It’s fun to see him out there. You would think Serge would be the best shot-blocker, but it’s Jak.”

Somewhat surprisingly, the stars checked back in to close it out, in one case possibly owing to Wright spraining a toe. It didn’t change the plot of the fourth, as it was all Poeltl even with Lowry and DeRozan – Lowry fed him for a dunk, he came up with a clean steal on the baseline, and he finished the play at the other end to effectively end the game. DeRozan did the honors of satiating a “Pizza” chant, clearing enough breathing room for Alfonzo McKinnie and Lucas Nogueira to receive an 82-second cameo.

It was somewhat of an odd night overall, with the Raptors offense actually hanging a pretty decent number on the Hawks despite a 38.6-percent mark from the floor and a 10-of-36 mark from outside. The Raptors, DeRozan in particular, lived at the line all night and hauled in 17 offensive rebounds. The Hawks shot nearly as poorly, saw far fewer opportunities at the line, and turned the ball over at a fervent rate. This pretty closely mirrored the Orlando game in spirit, the Raptors doing enough for three quarters to where they could pull away when they needed to.

In this case, it was a solid DeRozan night with big contributions from Miles and Poeltl getting it done. The next it could be Lowry and Siakam, or Ibaka and VanVleet. This is what the Raptors have tended to do against lesser teams, and while Casey continues to warn about the precedent they set – “If we play that way tomorrow night it’s going to be a TKO in the second quarter,” he suggested – the Raptors continue to get by just fine in those games. Stiffer tests are coming soon.

This is unrelated to the game but I felt these DeRozan post-game comments are worth sharing and didn’t know where else to put them.

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Raptors-Hawks Reaction Podcast – Praise the bench

William Lou recaps the Toronto Raptors’ win over the Atlanta Hawks.


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Quick Reaction: Hawks 90, Raptors 106

Atlanta 90 Final
Box Score
106 Toronto

M. Miller15 MIN, 5 PTS, 2 REB, 0 AST, 1 STL, 1-3 FG, 1-3 3FG, 2-2 FT, 0 BLK, 0 TO, -4 +/-

Well, as promised Miller got the start and looked…overmatched. Maybe it was the size of the moment but he struggled on defence despite being an above average defender on the wing. 14 minutes was still 9 more than Powell played….if that means anything

S. Ibaka25 MIN, 10 PTS, 6 REB, 1 AST, 0 STL, 2-10 FG, 2-7 3FG, 4-4 FT, 0 BLK, 0 TO, 0 +/-

Yiiiiiikes. Ibaka was an abysmal 2-10 from the field tonight and looked lazy on defence. He continues to search for his own shot in isolation and might be single-handedly the worst ball-stopper on the court for the Raptors. Please.Fix.This.

J. Valanciunas26 MIN, 15 PTS, 7 REB, 2 AST, 0 STL, 4-11 FG, 0-2 3FG, 7-8 FT, 2 BLK, 2 TO, -4 +/-

No double-double tonight which was upsetting considering the way he’s been playing as of late. Another Raptors that finished as a minus defender on the night. He was aggressive in the paint and took eight shots from the line missing just one. Liked his attitude tonight in a game that very few Raptors seemed interested in.

K. Lowry23 MIN, 4 PTS, 2 REB, 7 AST, 1 STL, 2-6 FG, 0-4 3FG, 0-0 FT, 0 BLK, 0 TO, 5 +/-

Lowry flat-out looked asleep for the majority of this game. Six points?!?! Chalk this up as a disinterested all-star just trying to make it to the playoffs but man, let’s focus on that number one seed a bit more.

D. DeRozan28 MIN, 25 PTS, 3 REB, 4 AST, 1 STL, 6-12 FG, 1-2 3FG, 12-14 FT, 0 BLK, 4 TO, 18 +/-

Thank you DeMar. Effective as always from the field and an absolute beast from the free throw line. The best part of this performance? He only played 28 minutes despite the Raps needing him to turn it on in the 4th.

F. VanVleet29 MIN, 4 PTS, 3 REB, 7 AST, 3 STL, 1-7 FG, 1-4 3FG, 1-2 FT, 2 BLK, 0 TO, 8 +/-

Another off game fro FVV, and it’s getting a tad concerning. His shot hasn’t been falling as of late and as one of the best three point shooters for the Raps all season it’s not ideal. He’ll bounce back and still played solid defence tonight.

C. Miles27 MIN, 14 PTS, 7 REB, 1 AST, 0 STL, 5-11 FG, 4-9 3FG, 0-1 FT, 0 BLK, 1 TO, 22 +/-

One of the only Raptors who could find a bucket tonight and ate up all the minutes that Powell and Miller couldn’t handle. A lot of that had to do with how well he was shooting from deep but he also played surprisingly strong D. +22!!!!!

J. Poeltl21 MIN, 6 PTS, 9 REB, 1 AST, 2 STL, 3-8 FG, 0-0 3FG, 0-0 FT, 3 BLK, 1 TO, 21 +/-

The boards belong to Yak. That is all.

D. Wright18 MIN, 10 PTS, 3 REB, 1 AST, 3 STL, 5-10 FG, 0-2 3FG, 0-0 FT, 1 BLK, 2 TO, 0 +/-

Please please please don’t be injured, at least for long.

P. Siakam18 MIN, 8 PTS, 2 REB, 1 AST, 0 STL, 4-7 FG, 0-1 3FG, 0-0 FT, 0 BLK, 1 TO, 10 +/-

Siakam’s energy bla bla bla, but honestly this guys motor is incredible. He almost made 50 percent from the field and finished a +10. He was at least running compared to almost the rest of the team.

N. Powell7 MIN, 5 PTS, 1 REB, 0 AST, 1 STL, 1-3 FG, 1-2 3FG, 2-2 FT, 0 BLK, 1 TO, 6 +/-

*cover eyes emoji*

Dwane Casey

He started Miller and it didn’t work. Sticking to CJ was a good call and bringing in the big guns to make sure they won the game was unfortunate but necessary.

Things We Saw

  1. I hate the Hawks jerseys so much.
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Delon Wright leaves game with sprained toe

Delon Wright left the fourth quarter of the Toronto Raptors’ win against the Atlanta Hawks with a sprained big toe on his right foot, the team announced.

This happened too late to have any real impact on the game, but it’s obviously a concern moving forward. The Raptors play again Wednesday in Detroit and have a compressed schedule the next few weeks, including a big visit from the Houston Rockets on Friday. Making matters worse is that Lorenzo Brown has been out since Feb. 12 with an ankle sprain, and it’s unclear if he’s ready to return since Raptors 905 are in the midst of a week without a game.

Wright scored 10 points with three rebounds and one assist in 18 minutes in this game, coming up with a number of defensive plays in the pull-away stretch. Fred VanVleet has been ahead of him in the point guard rotation and playing more minutes of late, and so the Raptors may be able to get away with Norman Powell sliding into Wright’s role if he misses time, as Powell did earlier in the year when Wright sat with a shoulder injury.

More if we get an update after the game, but in all likelihood your next update will come before tip-off Wednesday (there’s no shootaround tomorrow).

UPDATE: Brown told me post-game that he expects to be fine to play Saturday but unless something changes late, he’s not traveling to Detroit. Wright downplayed the severity of the toe injury after the game.

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Pre-game news & notes: Anunoby sits again, Miller starts, Hayes signed but inactive

The Toronto Raptors announced Tuesday that they have signed Nigel Hayes to a 10-day contract. The news was first reported by Adrian Wojnarowski on Monday, and I gave Hayes the full breakdown treatment here. Head coach Dwane Casey made it seem unlikely at shootaround that Hayes would play here since he hasn’t had a chance to learn the offense yet, and so he may draw inactive as he gets his bearings about him. If nothing else, it’s nice to be able to break form and start the pre-game news and notes with actual news instead of just an intro.

If Hayes does play, he’d be up against the Atlanta Hawks, one of eight teams fighting to the death in a heated tanking battle at the bottom of the NBA. It could be a good opportunity for low-leverage run, in other words, as the Raptors have bludgeoned the Hawks on three occasions (by 13, 15, and 34). The Hawks have somewhat unexpectedly won two of their last three and played two quality teams tough, so there’s nothing given here – as much as organizations may be tanking, players and coaches don’t really do that once the game starts, and the Hawks are made up of players playing for their next job or a spot in the long-term pecking order.

For the Raptors, there are stakes, too. Wins Tuesday and Wednesday clinch a playoff spot, there is a No. 1 seed to continue fighting for, and there’s a sense they’d like to keep their foot on the gas over the final 20 games so that they enter the postseason with some momentum. That may not be realistic game in and game out, but they’ll put their best foot forward more often than not as they look to reach yet another franchise-first plateau.

“Hell, yeah. Why not?” DeMar DeRozan said Monday when asked if the Raptors want to win 60 games, something that will take a 15-5 finish. “Yeah. For sure. It’s never been done here. Not many people get the opportunity to win 60-plus games. We came close a couple years ago. That’s big. On top of that, you’ve got to prove why you’re a 60-win team. As long as you continue to do what we need to do, hopefully we can get there.”

The game tips off at 7 on Sportsnet One and Sportsnet 590. You can check out the full game preview here.

Raptors updates
Hayes won’t be active here, Dwane Casey revealed before the game. While he was at shootaround and doing pre-game work with Malcolm Miller and Alfonzo McKinnie, there are still work visa things being ironed out. The fact that Hayes only had one session and one day to get acclimated probably would have played a factor, anyway, and he’ll have to get up to speed without the benefit of practice until at least Saturday (when he could be with Raptors 905 for a game before the Raptors fly to New York).

Miller is once again drawing the start here, and McKinnie will be active as the 13th man. Casey said the position remains fluid but that they want to get an extended look at Miller. He also said Norman Powell will probably continue to factor in late in second quarters, which is something but is hardly an ideal spot to get going in. We’ve discussed the small forward carousel to exhaustion at this point.

PG: Kyle Lowry, Fred VanVleet, Delon Wright
SG: DeMar DeRozan, Norman Powell
SF: Malcolm Miller, C.J. Miles, Alfonzo McKinnie
PF: Serge Ibaka, Pascal Siakam
C: Jonas Valanciunas, Jakob Poeltl, Lucas Nogueira
OUT: OG Anunoby, Nigel Hayes
TBD: None
905: Malachi Richardson, Lorenzo Brown

Hawks updates
Atlanta comes in really banged up, down five players and with both of their two-ways and a 10-day contract on the roster to help provide some depth. As outlined in more detail in the preview, the Hawks have no lineups available to them that have played even 100 minutes together, only one that’s even played 50, and Mike Budenholzer could go in a number of directions once he gets past his starting five. If nothing else, the backup bigs appear clear, Tyler Dorsey has shown some intriguing flashes in expanded run of late, and Isaiah Taylor is a reasonably interesting point guard prospect with Malcolm Delaney on the shelf.

Really, though, this is a team that would have to win on energy, effort, and maybe high-variance shooting as constructed. Dennis Schroder is a tough pick-and-roll challenge, John Collins and Taurean Prince are legitimate pieces, and Dewayne Dedmon and Kent Bazemore are known contributors, just not the second- or third-best players on good teams. They’ll force a ton of turnovers if the Raptors aren’t careful, and they’ll be game to run if they can.

PG: Dennis Schroder, Isaiah Taylor, Josh Magette
SG: Kent Bazemore, Tyler Dorsey, Jaylen Morris
SF: Taurean Prince, Andrew White
PF: John Collins, Mike Muscala
C: Dewayne Dedmon, Miles Plumlee
OUT: Antonius Cleveland, Okaro White, Malcolm Delaney, DeAndre’ Bembry, Tyler Cavanaugh
TBD: None
Erie: None


  • Raptors 905 have a week at home between games to get Lorenzo Brown back to health, Malachi Richardson up to speed, and put the finishing touches on their gameplan for the stretch run, where they’ll try to catch Hayes’ Westchester Knicks for the top seed and a bye through the first round. Both Brown and Richardson remain on assignment while Malcolm Miller and Alfonzo McKinnie are with the Raptors.
  • Over at The Athletic, I wrote about Norman Powell’s struggle to keep a grip on a role with the Raptors this year and how he’s trying to fight through.
  • Lee Jenkins wrote about Dwane Casey over at Sports Illustrated, and if you need anything more than “Lee Jenkins wrote about the Raptors” to sell you on clicking a story, we consume media very differently.
  • Kevin Love wrote about his battle with mental health for The Players’ Tribune, citing DeMar DeRozan speaking out about depression as his impetus for saying something himself. I can’t say enough how much it means that DeRozan is championing openness about mental health, both personally and to a large community of people that often don’t seek help or speak up because of the stigma, or the feeling of helplessness, or the isolation of mental health battles, all of which more and more role models – and any individuals – being advocates can help.
  • For Vice, Holly MacKenzie spoke to players past and present about Jose Calderon, everyone’s favorite teammate.

The line
The Raptors are 12.5-point favorites with a 216.5 over-under. The line was initially Raptors -14 and the over-under started at 215.5, hit 218, and settled back down.

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The Austrian Hammer

When Masai Ujiri took over running the Raptors front office in the summer, it was clear what the priority was. Andrea Bargnani had worn out his welcome in the city, and it felt like the point of no return had been hit with his development. The problem was, with him struggling both to stay on the floor, with several injuries in his last two seasons with the Raptors, as well as struggling to bring much to the table when he was out there, he still had two seasons and an onerous amount of money remaining on his rookie extension, and with him already having turned 27, it was going to be difficult to convince another front office that he could still develop into the player the Raptors had hoped for when they selected him first overall, all those years before. The speculation among Raptors fans and bloggers is that the might use their amnesty on him to move on, or try to find a way to negotiate a buyout. It was no longer about retaining value, but about finding a way for the organization to move on and start fresh. This would end up being the moment, though, of one of Ujiri’s more brilliant moves directing the future of the franchise, as he found a deal to not only move Bargnani, but also to return several rotation players and a future unprotected first round pick.

Three years later, though, the pundits said the 2016 draft was supposed to be an 8-player draft. If you were drafting in that top 8, you were supposed to be getting a player that had a high chance of being a future star, and if you were outside that group it got a lot dicier and that Knicks pick that was brought back from Bargnani was sitting in 9th position. The statistical models, however, had a ninth player listed as potentially elite, an Austrian center who was the former college teammate of Delon Wright, who the Raptors had grabbed a season earlier late in the first round, and had shown some signs of promise late in the season despite missing most of the year due to injury. Most of those projection models saw Poeltl as a surer thing than the players listed ahead of him, a low risk draft pick who had little chance to bust, and a great chance to end up as at least a starting quality center. For Raptors fans though, the Knicks pick had been something they’d been looking forward to since the moment Bargnani was traded, and with the Knicks having been perpetually mediocre, it seemed like that pick would bring back a star to be the centerpiece of the Raptors future, and Jakob didn’t feel like that guy.

His rookie season came and went as well, with the entire rookie class feeling underwhelming as Ben Simmons sat out, and Malcolm Brogdon, a second round pick, taking home rookie of the year with an unspectacular campaign in which he started for the Bucks and performed adequately, helping the team to make the playoffs with his steady hand at the point despite his own numbers not jumping off the page. Poeltl struggled to find a role with the Raptors, appearing in more than half of the games and starting four due to injuries, but with his sky-high foul rate and the team’s depth at the forward positions, ended up out of the rotation come the playoffs, with the team opting to run Serge Ibaka at center in smaller lineups for the majority of the minutes that Jonas Valanciunas didn’t play.

Coming into his second season, however, the Raptors veteran bench was largely gone, and they needed to find a new group of players to fill the reserve roles. For several years the Raptors had been making the playoffs in spite of their starting lineup, with lineups consisting of Kyle Lowry and backups often dominating their minutes to help make up for where the team was lacking. The problem with that strategy was that it kept Lowry among the league leaders in minutes, and seemed to result in him either injured or exhausted heading into the postseason every year, which was hard to ignore as a contributing factor to the team’s struggles in each year’s playoffs. With that in mind, the Raptors didn’t just need to find a way to replace the steady hands of Patrick Patterson, Cory Joseph and PJ Tucker, they needed to evolve that second unit to help take some pressure off Lowry if they were going to find a way to take that next step as a team, and truly challenge for a deep playoff run.

The rest, as they say, is now history. Rookie OG Anunoby has emerged as the missing link among the Raptors starters, finally turning that group into a positive with his defensive intensity and un-assuming but capable offensive game, and at the same time, the young core of Poeltl, along with fellow members of the 2016 draft class Pascal Siakam and Fred Van Vleet, who was picked up by Ujiri after going undrafted, became the core of the new Raptors bench.

Among all three-man groups in the NBA this season that have played at least 500 minutes together, the +21.1 net rating for that trio ranks first in the Association, and each player is responsible in part for that. Van Vleet has looked like a true successor to Kyle Lowry, bringing that same swagger and intensity to the game despite his diminutive frame, and working hard at both ends of the floor, keeping the offense humming for a Raptors second unit that should on the surface struggle to find shots at times. Siakam excels at running the floor as a big man, scoring frequent transition buckets off the tough defense of that second unit, while also having great hands and passing instincts, helping him to be a large positive despite long stretches this season when his own jump shot has failed him. As for Poeltl, he has emerged this season as an elite defensive center for the Raptors, using his mobility to chase quicker big men and guards around the perimeter when necessary, as well as his length and knack for being in the right place to make up for not having elite athleticism to become a dominant rim protector.

Poeltl ranks in the 82nd percentile defending post-ups this season, despite the fact that he seems too thin, and not strong enough yet, to guard those possessions, and as the season has gone on it feels like the referees have begun to catch up to his game as well, with him in the second half of the year beginning to sometimes get the benefit of those tougher 50/50 calls, allowing him to remain on the floor longer. Among players who have played at least 1000 minutes this season, only Kristaps Porzingis, Rudy Gobert and Myles Turner block a higher percentage of the opponent’s shots when they are on the floor.

At the same time, while Jakob’s offensive game is unspectacular, often times making his contributions through setting solid screens and then reading the ball handler to position himself either to receive a pass and then make a play, either driving to the basket or kicking it out to an open shooter, or finding his way to the offensive boards, where he again ranks among the best in the league. In an era where the NBA is trending towards asking every guy to have a serviceable jump shot, it can be difficult sometimes for the big men who don’t have that to remain useful, and Jak uses his ability to read the defense and predict the coverage on the roll to help open up the offense for other players, contributing in ways that are harder to track on a box score, but nonetheless help keep the team’s offense humming. He also has excellent hands around the basket, and seems to find a way to catch every pass thrown his way and finish in traffic, even of late showing the aggression and ability to throw down some thunderous dunks when given the room to do so. He’s also built some chemistry with Pascal Siakam, with the two managing interior defenders to create buckets for each other, and of late has shown synergy with DeMar DeRozan in transitional lineups, learning to read how DeRozan plays the screens and position himself for the dump-off pass or using his frame to create space for DeMar to score.

It’s that aspect of his game that’s so hard to track in any statistic that also makes Poeltl so special, he reads the game extremely well and seems to see things developing before they do at both ends of the floor, allowing him to be in the right position to make tough plays look easy and frequently help his team get out of trouble. Sometimes it’s hard to catch these things on the first watch of a game, and only on the second or third viewing can you really completely appreciate all the things he brings to the table for the Raptors, while the huge dunks and big blocks make for easy highlight reels. Even the things he doesn’t do as well, where he’s not a dominant defensive rebounding big man, especially compared to Valanciunas, he finds ways to mitigate through always finding a body to box out and allowing his teammates to grab boards that look uncontested because of his work under the rim. The team’s rebounding doesn’t take a hit with Jak on the floor, and that’s at least in part due to his ability to box out.

Historical comparisons can be difficult for young big men, especially with the league getting faster and leaning towards more outside shooting, but the combination of his prowess for blocking shots and also his touch at the basket at his age is rare. The general rule of thumb when creating arbitrary breakpoints to narrow down a list of players for comparisons is that you should always round to the nearest multiple of 5, so if you take Jak’s 5.9% block percentage down to 5% and 65.6% effective field goal rate down to 65% and create a list of players to have had a season, aged 23 or younger, where they had at least those numbers in the three point era of basketball, you end up with a short list of Rudy Gobert, Clint Capela, DeAndre Jordan(who did it twice), Lucas Nogueira, who did it last year for the Raptors, and Poeltl. This list should serve as a remind that Bebe, the Raptors third string center this year, is also a very talented player who can probably thrive in the right situation, but also shows some indication of how rare of a talent Jakob has shown himself to be. In terms of his contemporaries, he’s a year younger than Joel Embiid, and while he doesn’t have the offensive talents of the Sixers phenom, his defensive numbers are on par, with a similar block rate and opponents shooting similar percentages at the rim when guarded by each player. He doesn’t play the minutes that Embiid does though, and doesn’t start, so he doesn’t usually face an opponents best look, but the talent is clearly there.

There’s definitely still work to do for the former Ute though. He still needs to bring his foul rate down, and work on his core strength without sacrificing speed. He struggles against players who are strong enough to push him around, especially on the boards, and can get himself in trouble in certain matchups. It also goes without saying that if he was to develop a jump shot it would be helpful for the Austrian big man, as it would open up yet another threat in his pick and roll game. At the same time, his feel for the game is already there, and that’s one of the hardest things to develop in guys who don’t have it coming into the league.

It’s hard to say where the Raptors are headed once DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry slow down and stop playing at an All-Star level. Despite all the young talent on the team, and there is a lot of it that Masai has been able to put in place, it’s unclear yet whether any of those young players have the star potential to replace those two as the leader of the team going forward. At this point, it would be hard to project Poeltl as ever getting there, his talent lies more in the little things that befit a complimentary player rather than the centerpiece of a team, but he is only 22 years old and has barely played a full seasons worth of NBA minutes, so it’s certainly not impossible there is another leap there for him to take to become a star. The guy who he was traded for though, Andrea Bargnani, had all of those qualities you would look for in a young player that projects to be a star, and none of Jak’s feel for the game, and was never able to figure it out. The guy who makes his teammates better at the expense of his own statistics is worthy of recognition, Poeltl has been doing that all year, and the results speak for themselves with the Raptors headed for their best season in franchise history, buoyed by their bench. It turns out that the 2016 draft might not have been an 8-player draft, because the guy who went 9th is pretty good.

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Norman Powell an unfortunate victim of Toronto’s culture change

Culture. No word has rung through the Air Canada Centre, BioSteel Centre, blogger takes, or Twitter timelines more than that one when describing all that has changed with the Toronto Raptors this season.

There is evidence as concrete as DeMar DeRozan’s improved playmaking, or as deft as Fred VanVleet’s finishing around the rim.

This past Sunday, the Raptors’ first ever two-way contract signing added to the impressive list of changes Toronto have made to their culture. Not everyone saw it that way, though. Debate was plentiful over whether two-way signing Malcolm Miller deserved to get a look ahead of a struggling — but recently extended — Norman Powell.

The memory of Powell soaring toward the rim has been just that for some time now, and while his theoretical ceiling can validate the pursuit of it over the course of this final stretch, there is an unmistakable air of hesitance to his play now. As the one and only Harsh Dave noted on Twitter, every open three that comes his way seems to be released with both the metaphorical and literal weight of the world on his shoulders.

Powell is shooting 28.5 percent from three on the year, aided in no part by an abysmal 6-of-33 from the left corner (He’s 8-for-12 from the right corner). If you throw in his numbers from both his UCLA and Raptors 905 days, he’s at 32.2 percent for his post-secondary career on 777 attempts. It takes 750 attempts for a three-point shot to normalize per Nylon Calculus, and while I understand college threes aren’t equal, the eye test points to — barring some type of adjustment — this being the expected return on a Powell three.

With a mediocre outside shot and sub-league-average ability to finish at the rim, Powell struggles to offer anything in between either. In some ways, this is like a standout rookie’s sophomore campaign. The book’s out on the 24-year-old and he needs to learn something new. He’s more the $1.5-million guy on the final year of his deal than the four-year $42-million guy he was hoping to be a year in advance.

Does he deserve a longer leash to be the latter? He has every right to feel that way.

It was only a season ago when DeMarre Carroll’s minutes held the Raptors back, and he was just as bad from beyond the arc. His defense had fallen off and drives to the rim were a heck of a cathartic experience, but Dwane Casey stuck by his man till the bitter end.

All for squeezing out every ounce of value he could from a depreciating asset?

Norman Powell was clearly the better starter at the small-forward position last year when he filled in for Carroll when he sat out one half of back-to-backs. He averaged 13.9 points while shooting 39.5 percent on 4.8 three-point attempts over nine games as a starter. He played another nine games as a starting guard when DeMar DeRozan missed time and left an even better impression, averaging 17.3 points per game on 40 percent shooting from deep and 51.2 percent from the field.

Carroll’s contract and an overzealous effort to fit him in while he repeatedly hurried back hurt the team last season and the positive is that the franchise has learned from that mistake. It’s unfortunate that Powell has come up on the short end of the stick on both occasions, but what the Raptors are doing in seeking out decisions that best serve the whole must be admired.

Make no mistake, the team certainly hasn’t abandoned their 2015 second-round pick, nor have they lost hope.

“What he has to do is go in a game and make it impossible for me to take him out,” Casey told the media after practice on Monday. “Don’t play even. Run the floor, 50-50 balls, make tough plays, and I’m not measuring on made shots or missed shots, it’s the other things, playing smart defensively, executing. We’re going to need Norm Powell. There’s no question about it because his game fits more of a playoff style.”

Casey went on to explain that it’s just been a tough situation on both sides of the equation as OG Anunoby has fit like a glove within the starting unit and the bench has been relentless. Potentially hindering the success of either of those units would place the needs of the individual first. As former GM of the Raptors Jeff Weltman pointed out when speaking with Sportsnet, the Raptors are now in a post-ego phase.

I really look at the Raptors today as having entered a post-ego phase of their development — which is a goal that many teams have. What I mean by that is you have to go through the growing pains of young players who want to make all-star games, and who have contract extensions coming up, and all of those things that are obstacles to bringing a team together.

Once you bring that group together with the same voices then everybody begins to understand that they will now be judged on winning. It’s the only thing. It’s not a matter of ‘Whose toes am I stepping on? Whose turf am I invading?’ It’s about winning as a group. The players have matured and everybody understands why they’re there.

There’s no credit except for team credit. That’s a great place to be.

That’s why Miller, who earned the respect of the ballclub with his stellar play for the 905 was given playing time against Washington and the starting job against Charlotte. That’s why it’s worth exploring what a Nigel Hayes whose three-point shot has fallen at a 45.4 percent clip on high volume for the Westchester Knicks is worth taking a look at.

Miller will be playoff ineligible due to his two-way deal and what happens with Hayes remains to be seen. Powell may appear dead in the water right now, but the culture that’s buried him is the same one that will be the first to embrace him when he finds himself.

In a month or so, the Raptors will be going down the dark alley Casey has been referencing and run into some pretty big dudes with baseball bats. In that type of hard-nosed, physical environment where only the strong survive, Powell’s proven he’s not one to back down.

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Gameday: Hawks @ Raptors, March 6

Is is March 6, there are 20 games left on the schedule, and the Toronto Raptors have played so well that their magic number is already dwindling close to zero. With wins Tuesday and Wednesday, the Raptors would secure not only another six-game winning streak – giving them five of the 18-longest winning streaks in franchise history this season and setting up a Streak vs. Streak battle against the Houston Rockets on Friday – they’d secure their fifth consecutive playoff appearance, something they’ve never done before.

The Raptors have bigger goals than clinching early, of course. They’ll be measured by playoff success, and to that end, the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference would be helpful. There’s also the allure of round numbers, with DeMar DeRozan admitting Monday that the Raptors would like to win 60 games, something they’ll need to finish 15-5 to do. With five back-to-backs, two games each against Cleveland and Boston, and visits from Houston and Oklahoma City, that could be tough, but it’s not at all unrealistic.

It will, however, require continuing to take care of lesser teams like the visiting Atlanta Hawks on Tuesday. The Hawks visit in the middle of a heated tanking battle that has the league’s eight worst teams all within three games of each other in the standings, and their roster reflects a team focused on the future. Still, they’ve won two of three, playing the Golden State Warriors tight in a loss and beating the playoff-bound Indiana Pacers. These are guys playing for future roles or future contracts, with a high-energy style that forces a lot of opponent mistakes. They’re also a bottom-10 offense and defense that struggles to rebound on the defensive end and turns the ball over ad nauseam so, you know, it’s still pretty winnable, and the Raptors are double-digit favorites as a result.

The game tips off at 7 on Sportsnet One and Sportsnet 590.

To help set the stage, I reached out to Brad Rowland of Peachtree Hoops, who was kind enough to help us out.

Blake Murphy: Right as I open this email to send this, you’ve tweeted out the 538 projections of the lottery standings as of Sunday. Needless to say, it feels like that’s where the mind of most Hawks fans is right now. And it looks good, like the Hawks will be within an accidental win or two of the best odds at the No. 1 pick. Is this the primary focus from here? Have the Hawks been fairly blatant in their chase of that end?

Brad Rowland: I think most fans are certainly more engaged in the race for ping-pong balls than anything else at this point. The Hawks had a “bad win” on Sunday against the Suns in that regard and, in general, Atlanta hasn’t done enough in terms of blatant tanking to satisfy the zealots. Still, we saw the Hawks rest Kent Bazemore in a home game on Sunday and that could be the start of more to come.

Blake Murphy: There has to be more to focus on than just losses, right? What other elements are you looking at in the final 20 games? Is it all John Collins and Taurean Prince development? What’s up, Tyler Dorsey?

Brad Rowland: Yeah, there has to be some focus on player development and, given that it is the Hawks, that is always a focus. Collins and Prince are the two best on-roster chips for the organization and, frankly, Collins has exceeded any rational expectation. I’m lower on Prince than I once was and that has a lot to do with waning effort and some poor defense this year, so it would be nice to see more from him down the stretch. Dorsey’s had some flashes but, in general, the Hawks have a ton of young guys that they are monitoring with only a small few that appear to have real upside.

Blake Murphy: Why in the world did the Hawks sign Antonius Cleveland? I like Cleveland in general and know the Hawks had to meet the roster minimum, but there are about 30 good G Leaguers worth a look who are not injured. This was…bizarre.

Brad Rowland: It was certainly weird. The Hawks have now signed him to a second 10-day contract and my assumption all along was that they were signing him as a piece to keep through the summer and into camp next year. It’s looking to be moving in that direction, even if the optics are very weird and I’ve received approximately 674 questions about why the Hawks signed an injured player to a 10-day.

Blake Murphy: Were you surprised the Hawks couldn’t get anything for Marco Belinelli and Ersan Ilyasova, instead just buying them out? (Thanks for helping Philly load up, by the way.) I know you’d grown to be not much of a Belinelli fan, but they might be the two best pieces that moved on the buyout market.

Brad Rowland: There is some buzz out there (and that I’ve heard as well) that the Hawks had at least one deal in place for Ilyasova that he vetoed with his implicit no-trade clause. As a result, I don’t think it was a matter of not being able to get anything for Ersan, but rather a hiccup from the deal they signed him to. With Belinelli, I was mildly surprised but it does seem like the Hawks could have traded him, they just didn’t have any desire to take back money beyond this year. Schlenk has been pretty open about that and there were murmurs about Jerryd Bayless (and a few other vets) that Atlanta seemingly just wouldn’t want to take on. Belinelli was bad in Atlanta but, from an optics standpoint, it wasn’t ideal to be forced to buy him out.

Blake Murphy: Atlanta is back! I don’t have a question, I’m just very happy and need more DG and Lakeith in my life.

Brad Rowland: Atlanta is so, so good. I’m hopelessly biased as a resident of the city for 25+ years but the show is spectacular. That’s all I’ve got.

Raptors updates
Toronto is once again getting well ahead of things by ruling OG Anunoby out early in the game notes. That takes away any shootaround or pre-game questions about his status and my hunt for the presence of a walking boot on other players’ social media accounts. Anunoby was using the stationary bike and rowing machine at practice yesterday. Dwane Casey has said they don’t expect him to miss significant time. Just in case, the team called up Alfonzo McKinnie for practice on Monday and signed Nigel Hayes to a 10-day deal. Two of those two and Malcolm Miller will be active, and the starting small forward spot could go to any of them, or to C.J. Miles, or back to Norman Powell. Hayes won’t officially be signed until today, and it might be a bit much to have him enter the fold immediately, so he could get a day on the inactive list to get his bearings. At the same time, the Hawks represent a potential opportunity to get him low-stakes run.

Whoever Casey starts, the importance will be downplayed. The team is trying to get a look at a number of players in extended opportunities so that they can better judge their progress and their potential usefulness for the playoffs. Powell would still stand as the favorite to hold down that “emergency” role long-term, and at some point he should get another crack because the upside to getting him going is so high. That might be here, or it might be Wednesday, or it might be Friday against James Harden. Heck, two of these guys could start Tuesday if the Raptors want to begin focusing on end-of-season rest on back-to-backs against bad opponents.

PG: Kyle Lowry, Delon Wright, Fred VanVleet
SG: DeMar DeRozan, Norman Powell
SF: Malcolm Miller, C.J. Miles, Alfonzo McKinnie
PF: Serge Ibaka, Pascal Siakam
C: Jonas Valanciunas, Jakob Poeltl, Lucas Nogueira
OUT: OG Anunoby
TBD: Nigel Hayes
905: Malachi Richardson, Lorenzo Brown

Hawks updates
Atlanta comes in pretty banged up and looking a lot different around the periphery than in earlier meetings between the sides. Obviously, Marco Belinelli and Ersan Ilyaosva being gone takes away two of their more polished, veteran offensive pieces, and they’ve basically been replaced with in-house or G League options. And even those are limited – Antonius Cleveland stays getting 10-days despite an ankle injury, Okaro White is still recovering from a foot fracture, and Tyler Cavanaugh has a sprained right ankle. Those are minor losses, sure, but added up, they leave the Hawks a little thin. And it gets worse for this one. Malcolm Delaney and DeAndre’ Bembry are out Tuesday, too, the former dealing with an ankle issue and the latter an abdominal injury.

The Hawks have called up Josh Magette and Andrew White for help, and Jaylen Morris remains with the team on a 10-day deal. Minutes could go any number of ways once Mike Budenholzer gets past his starters, who have played a whopping 90 minutes together on the year with a surprising plus-9.6 net rating. That’s a very low “most commonly used fivesome,” and it’s the team’s only lineup that’s played more than 41 minutes together that will be available to them here. Expect an extended look at Tyler Dorsey, as well as all the Plum that fits to Lee.

PG: Dennis Schroder, Isaiah Taylor, Josh Magette
SG: Kent Bazemore, Tyler Dorsey, Jaylen Morris
SF: Taurean Prince, Andrew White
PF: John Collins, Mike Muscala
C: Dewayne Dedmon, Miles Plumlee
OUT: Antonius Cleveland, Okaro White, Malcolm Delaney, DeAndre’ Bembry, Tyler Cavanaugh
TBD: None
Erie: None

The line
The Raptors are 12.5-point favorites with a 218 over-under. The line initially opened at Raptors -14 with a 215.5 over-under but moved quickly, apparently standing as too wide a gap for the market. For reference, the Warriors are 14.5-point favorites at home against the Nets.

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DeMar DeRozan named Eastern Conference Player of the Week

DeMar DeRozan has been named Eastern Conference Player of the Week for the week ending March 4, the NBA announced Monday.

This marks the fourth time already this year that DeRozan has earned the honor, giving him a franchise-best nine POTW awards all-time. DeRozan has downplayed the significance of them, and it speaks to the level he’s ascended to that they’re happening with regularity and in such casual fashion. He was also named Player of the Month for January.

The Raptors went 4-0 this week, with DeRozan averaging 20.8 points on 58.6-percent true-shooting in 33.3 minutes. He also added three rebounds, 5.8 assists, and 1.8 steals, playing to a plus-39 overall.

On the season, DeRozan is averaging 23.7 points, 3.9 rebounds, 1.2 steals, and a career-high 5.2 assists in just 34 minutes, the fewest he’s played since 2009-10. He’s scoring with a career-best 56 true-shooting percentage, has a career-best 25.1-percent assist rate, is posting the best Win Share rate, Box Plus-Minus, and Real Plus-Minus of his career, and the Raptors have outscored opponents by a robust seven points per-100 possessions when he’s on the floor. He’ll receive down-ballot MVP votes in April.

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Raptors signing Nigel Hayes to 10-day contract

The Toronto Raptors are signing Nigel Hayes to a 10-day contract, according to a report from Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN.

It’s a nice addition with OG Anunoby on the shelf with a right ankle sprain and bone bruise, an injury that isn’t expected to keep him out long but is allowing the Raptors to take a look at their wing options. Norman Powell drew the initial start and was followed by two-way player Malcolm Miller, with head coach Dwane Casey suggesting after Sunday’s game that the situation will remain fluid. Alfonzo McKinnie was back from Raptors 905 to practice with the Raptors on Monday and could factor in as well. (Anunoby, by the way, was using the stationary bike at practice.)

Hayes adds to the mix here, and he more closely replicates Anunoby from a physical perspective. Hayes stands 6-foot-7 with a 7-foot-2 wingspan and weighs 245 pounds, so while he’s not quite the defensive prospect Anunoby is, he brings a good deal of size and isn’t afraid to use his body on either end of the floor. The Raptors took a look at Hayes in the pre-draft process and were intrigued, but the New York Knicks worked to bring him in for Las Vegas Summer League and the NBA preseason, ultimately receiving a partial guarantee and becoming an affiliate player in the Knicks’ G League program.

In the time since, Hayes has done nothing but improve his NBA prospects. There may not be a G Leaguer playing better right now, with Hayes’ numbers jumping off the page enough to earn him a 10-day look with the Los Angeles Lakers earlier in the year, too (he scored three points with two assists in 11 minutes with them). In 38 G League games, Hayes is averaging 16.1 points, 6.7 rebounds, 2.1 assists, and 1.4 steals while shooting 45.4 percent on 5.5 3-point attempts per-game. He’s been solid defensively, too, helping lead the first-place Westchester Knicks at both ends of the floor. He’s doesn’t possess elite quickness guarding the perimeter or in isolation, but he’s a magnet for steals given his heady play and strong anticipation and he can push well and set up teammates off of misses in the transition game.


It’s the 3-point shooting that really stands out, though, as it seemed the biggest impediment to Hayes’ potential over four years at Wisconsin, where he shot 33.2 percent on 304 career attempts over four seasons. Shooting inconsistency was one of the bigger knocks on him entering the draft, even though he’d flashed the necessary range to profile as a stretch-four eventually, the role some teams saw him playing due to his size. He’s not quite the kind of rebounder where a team would want to play him there full-time yet unless it’s in smaller bench groups, but the addition of an effective, high-volume 3-point shot makes him a lot more lineup-versatile due to the skills at play.

If it’s legitimate over a large sample – and he’s taken 200 catch-and-shoot threes now this year – it opens up a lot of potential for Hayes to find a role in the NBA, where he’s easier to find a spot for on offense while leveraging his positional size and switchability on defense instead of him being hit with the outmoded “tweener” label. He’s more of a face-up four from a pure talent perspective (the Knicks had him move away from the heavy dose of post-up possessions he received in college), the three just opens up more paths for him.

While the Raptors have other options to fill in for Anunoby, Hayes could get a look, too. Powell is a fairly known commodity when on – the team just needs to find a way to get him there – as a long, agile defender who does well chasing players around screens but has been inconsistent offensively, especially with the three this year. Miller is likewise a strong perimeter defender capable of guarding multiple spots, one who has hit in the high-30s from long-range consistently over three pro seasons, he’s just unproven at the NBA level as of yet. McKinnie is hyper-athletic and has combo-forward size, and he’s the best rebounding option of the potential fill-ins. Malachi Richardson isn’t quite there yet, behind Miller and McKinnie on the 905 taxi squad depth chart.

In Hayes, the Raptors get a look at someone who boasts both size and shooting and fits their culture of ostensibly good people with strong work ethics and high basketball IQ. Maybe he winds up just being 13th-man depth who gets some practice run, but it’s also possible he’ll see time with four games over the next six days and six over the life of his 10-day deal (it’s likely the Raptors wait until tomorrow to officially sign him to maximize his window). Even if the team sees him as more of a power forward than a wing, that’s a thin position on the depth chart, especially if Serge Ibaka is going to get the odd night off down the stretch.

There is an interesting sub-plot here in that Raptors 905 are currently chasing the Knicks for first in their division, which would earn them a bye through the one-and-done first round. The Knicks also just lost Xavier Rathan-Mayes to the Memphis Grizzlies. While a funny quirk, that was not a part of the Raptors’ thinking here. Hayes just happens to be the best wing/forward in the G League right now. As the 905 experienced last year, success over an entire G League season puts you at risk of losing players for the G League playoffs.

If nothing else, they’ll get a more intimate look at one of the best performers in the G League this year and a player they had interest in this summer as an undrafted free agent. The cost is minimal on a 10-day deal, with the Raptors projecting to have a bit of wiggle room under the luxury tax since their trade deadline swap of Bruno Caboclo for Richardson. They’d likely be safe signing someone outright for the rest of the season, barring unlikely bonuses converting, though they’ll probably want to give Hayes, Miller, and maybe Lorenzo Brown some opportunities down the stretch before deciding on one for the 15th roster spot for the postseason.

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Clutch Reps and Baby Steps

Nothing worth having comes easy.

Think about it: The greater the struggle, the more satisfactory the reward. There is an honour in perseverance, resulting in a well-earned certainty etched upon the faces of those scarred from their labours.

This is true for the vast majority of great NBA teams (unless you’re the Golden State Warriors of the past couple seasons). At some point, they hit bumps in the road. There appears before them something that they must overcome, and when they manage to do it, as destiny sees fit, they become the absolute best version of themselves.

For the Toronto Raptors, those bumps in the road are more like moguls, and they manifest themselves in the form of clutch basketball. All season long, the last five minutes of tight games have found the Raptors floundering and flailing, looking discombobulated and hesitant as they’ve reverted to isolation possessions, run messy plays, and forced themselves into unnecessarily difficult positions.

But with reps come results, and this Raptors group is nothing if not resilient. The last couple games (against Washington and then Charlotte) both boiled down to the last few minutes, and wouldn’t you know it, the Raptors came out on top. Neither clutch performance was absolutely perfect (although closing against Washington was much better), but in both there were good things to take away, things Dwane Casey can use as the basis of a blueprint for future close games.

One such thing is using DeMar DeRozan as the primary ball-handler. In a piece earlier this season, I mentioned that you’d ideally love DeRozan to become adept at moving off-ball, and that running plays for him would subsequently become easier and could be made more complex. However, with DeRozan’s vastly improved passing this season, allowing him to the run the show when he’s locked in is proving to be another good option.

Here, he brings the ball up the floor and patiently waits for the Kyle Lowry screen to come to him. Chris McCullough jumps out at him for a second, but quickly retreats, leaving Kelly Oubre to switch onto him. But by that time, DeRozan has already noticed the wide-open lane down the center of the key and bursts towards the hoop. As soon as Marcin Gortat slides over to help, DeRozan dumps off the ball to a well-positioned Jakob Poeltl along the baseline, who follows up with a one-handed jam.

Simple and gorgeously executed. Clutch time doesn’t need to be difficult when one of your All-Stars is making reads like that.

DeRozan hasn’t missed a game this season, and he’s played the most clutch minutes out of anyone on the roster. In games where they’ve lost in crunch time, DeRozan has a total of just two made assists—but in games where they’ve won, he has a total of seven made assists, by far the most on the team. This may not seem like much, but when you consider that DeRozan is typically either taking shots himself or passing the ball to keep it moving, it becomes more important. The Raptors are better when he’s able to channel the controlled version of himself, the guy who is cool under pressure, the guy who attacks in order to find the best option, not simply to score.

This doesn’t mean he shouldn’t look to score at all, however. When DeRozan is in his dishing mindset, the threat of that ability will sometimes allow him good looks—looks that he would be foolish not to take.

On this play, for example, both Poeltl and Fred VanVleet come up to screen for DeRozan, who gets the switch onto the slower-footed Markieff Morris. Morris fails to take away DeRozan’s right hand, and the latter bolts by him. Poeltl is standing just under the hoop, but this time he helps clear space beneath the basket, knowing that with DeRozan already past Morris, there will be no resistance for the All-Star to score. Of course, that’s just what happens.

While DeRozan has demonstrated his vital importance to the club during these late moments, it’s not all about him, either. The ball movement in general was better when the Raptors won their last two matchups, with the team (for the most part) keeping the ball humming and not stopping the flow to allow the defense time to choke whatever options were there moments earlier.

Like a Katy Perry song, C.J. Miles can be hot or cold, but in the game against Washington, he was en fuego. Throw in the fact that he’s a good off-ball player and he displayed how deadly he can be, dropping 6–9 from deep on the Wiz. But Miles isn’t a guy who can get his own shot very easily, and defenses know enough to crowd him on the perimeter, which is why his effectiveness is increased exponentially when Toronto is slinging the ball around to create open looks for him.

Here, VanVleet brings the ball up the floor and sees Miles on the weak side with no one (seriously, Wizards?) paying any attention to him. VanVleet receives a Poeltl screen and smartly never takes a second to pause, barreling down the middle of the key as both Gortat and Morris are forced to close in on him. Morris realizes only just then (and too late) that Miles has slipped quietly to the corner, and by the time VanVleet’s dime touches Miles’ hands, it’s money.

In another example that requires more work, VanVleet hands the ball off to DeRozan, who rotates to the top of the arc. He fires the ball to VanVleet, who immediately sends it back. Lowry then comes through, receiving the ball from DeRozan. By this point, not much has developed, and the shot clock is at seven seconds. Lowry puts his head down and charges forward, kicking the ball back out to VanVleet, who has come up from the corner to find himself open. However, he sees an opponent closing quickly, so he drives forward as Lowry backs out to beyond the three-point line—another gorgeous pass from VanVleet, who’s in the thick of things in the paint, and Lowry is set up for a great look off a catch-and-shoot three, which he is fantastic at making. It doesn’t fall, but those are exactly the shots Casey wants.

And then there are times, like in the Charlotte game, where your best players just make tough shots.

Those sorts of shots shouldn’t necessarily be a part of the blueprint, but like them or not, they’re going to happen sometimes, and the Raptors are going to be in positions where big plays need to be made by their All-Stars. It’s just how the game goes.

The defense has also been impressive during the last two showings, with only a moment or two of letup. Toronto has a clutch time defensive rating of 78.9 in this span, swallowing opponents with their versatility and effort. The bigs have been fundamental in this respect, whether it’s Jonas Valanciunas dominating the glass against the Hornets or Poeltl flying around in the half-court against the Wizards.

Here’s a play from the latter, in which Morris finds Tomas Satoransky left wide-open in the corner by Lowry. The Raptors guard is late to close out on him, and Satoransky drives along the baseline, forcing Poeltl to come out to help. Satoransky makes the right play, passing the ball to Gortat, who’s now by himself in the center of the key. But Poeltl recovers with supreme speed, turning and pinning the ball on the glass from behind the opposing big man.

It also should be noted that over these two games the closing lineups have been fluid, and credit needs to be given to Casey. He’s made the right moves each time, creating the best matchup he can from his deep roster. Leaving Valanciunas out against the Hornets, for example, when they were going with Cody Zeller and Frank Kaminsky, was a great choice, because those two are slow-footed, lumbering bigs, whom Valanciunas can easily get the best of.

Or how about leaving Miles, who had the hot hand, on the floor to close against the Wizards? Another smart choice.

The Raptors obviously haven’t resolved everything about their crunch time issues. There are still lots of flaws in how they approach individual possessions, how they occasionally forget about little details (such as the time remaining on the shot clock), how the perimeter players communicate on switches, etc. But if you’re going to run, you have to learn to walk first, and Toronto is finally dusting off its knees and getting to its feet to take those initial, glorious steps.

It’s been a struggle. There’s no doubt about that. But as progress continues and the playoffs loom ever closer, each of these instances push the Raptors towards the reward they ultimately seek: Clutch dominance.

And certainly, that’s a reward worth having.

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Valanciunas’ Miraculous Defensive Improvements

For a player to improve his greatest weakness is a miracle for the team that employs him. This is the stuff of basketball fandom wet dreams; analysts all the world over slobber about players who could simply add a jumper. Case number 1: Ben Simmons. Jonas Valanciunas has always been a solid shooter, but his greatest weakness in years past has been on the defensive end. He has seemingly accomplished a miracle in 2017-18 by making his pick and roll defence playable. Teams can no longer exploit his defence every time he’s on the floor and play him out of the game. More consistent minutes allows Valanciunas to steadfastly dominate through his always-elite offensive skills: screen setting, rolling to the rim, and offensive rebounding.

So how has he improved? One important change has occurred from the top-down, in that the coaching staff seems to have finally acknowledged Valanciunas’ struggles in the pick and roll and made the scheme much milder. No longer does Valanciunas hedge high on the pick and roll; in years past he was so ineffective at corralling guards 30 feet from the rim that this strategy effectively took him out of the play entirely, allowing guards to dart around him and force defence-destroying rotations. Instead Valanciunas sinks into the paint, discouraging a lob to the roller while also staying ready to defend a drive or contest a midrange pull-up. This has been working: this year he’s in the 83rd percentile league-wide at defending the pick and roll from the big position, after ranking in the 19th percentile in 2015-16 and the 44th percentile in 2016-17.

The improvement is staggering. More than a tactical shift, Valanciunas himself seems to have become faster on his feet, more aware of the game around him, and more engaged throughout multiple defensive efforts. He has been able to consistently force misses from the league’s best jitterbugs. Here he stonewalls Kyrie Irving, staying with a fake without rising out of his defensive stance, and closing off the rim to block the shot:

He’s had great success against Bradley Beal, especially by sinking low and staying lower to the ground, always ready to spring forward and contest a midrange jumper when Beal is committed to the foolhardy plan:

He’s also blocked Kemba Walker by offering the same vigilance, awareness, and effort:

Even if he isn’t contesting a shot out of the pick and roll, Valanciunas still affects the play. He is now quick enough at moving his feet that he can stop the ball for enough time that his teammates can recover and contest the pick and roll handler’s shot:

As said above, this strategy also allows Valanciunas to prevent any pass to the roller. When active and in a proper defensive stance, Valanciunas is nigh impossible to throw the ball over:

Of course, there are downsides to the new defensive pick and roll gameplan. By playing Valanciunas so low, the Raptors frequently give open pull-up 3s to the league’s best shooters; this is because often, the best pull-up shooters double as the league’s best pick and roll handlers. Here’s an example of a shot the Raptors likely don’t want to give up, but they have little choice as a result of their gameplan. Valanciunas plays beneath a double screen on the wing, and Kyrie Irving’s defender, Kyle Lowry, is screened out of the play by a crazy-illegal Al Horford reverse bum-rush. The result is a shot that will usually result in points.

To contest these shots, the Raptors ask a huge amount from their guards. Players who are defending through the ball screen have to go over, turn the corner as tightly as possible, and return to contest the shot without fouling. That is hard, but thankfully the Raptors employ two of the league’s best at that in Delon Wright and Norman Powell. O.G. Anunoby ain’t no slouch, either.

Here’s Powell playing unorthodoxly (but well) in contesting pull-up 3s without any help from Valanciunas. On both plays, Powell spins under the screen (weird, but strangely effective) and jumps from underneath Beal to bother the shot.

The Raptors can live with those shots. Contested, pull-up 3s, even from the best shooters in the world like Bradley Beal, will not beat the Raptors. At least, not over a 7-game series. This realization has been an important for defences throughout the NBA. In fact, Dylan Murphy recently detailed for The Athletic how the Thunder have beaten the Warriors by dialing back the aggressive trapping defence that was used for the past few years to corral Steph Curry from behind the arc. The goal is to contest 3s without selling the defensive farm.

The basic concept is that yes, 3 points is more than 2, but easy 2 point shots like dunks and layups (which are created ad finitum when both pick and roll defenders trap Curry, and he finds Draymond Green on the short roll) will win any game. The Raptors have been following this defensive blueprint all season: play relatively conservative on-ball defence, switch frequently and smartly off-ball to blow up complex actions before they can begin, and contest the hell out of everything. Here’s another Murphy basketball savant, this time our own Blake, detailing for The Athletic how the Raptors’ defence is a world-beater.

And the numbers with Jonas Valanciunas on the court are working in the Raptors’ favour. Despite the more conservative on-ball scheme (but somewhat aggressive, switchy off-ball defence), the Raptors are allowing far fewer 3s per game (relative to league average) than they did in years past, when Valanciunas played higher on the pick and roll. The Raps allow the 2nd fewest 3-point shots attempted per game this year, while they were 22nd last year, 16th in 2015-16, and 13th in 2014-15, per Cleaning the Glass. The Raptors allow only 26.9% of their opponents’ shots to be 3s. With Valanciunas on the floor, that statistic sinks to 26.5%; he is an important part of their defensive strengths.

By keeping their on-ball defensive principles more conservative, the Raptors have fewer breakdowns, which means they need to help less often from the wings. With fewer defensive rotations required, Raptors defenders stick closer to shooters and funnel penetration towards the big Lithuanian in the middle. And he’s been terrific at defending the rim. Players shoot 6.7% worse from 6 feet or less with Valanciunas defending them, according to tracking stats from SAP. Valanciunas has become an honest-to-god defensive plus while he’s on the court! Because he is no longer exploitable, his defensive abilities (which have always existed) are shining. He’s an incredible defensive rebounder, a solid rim-protector, and a great post defender.

Of course, Poeltl remains better than Valanciunas at defending the pick and roll, but Valanciunas doesn’t need to be the best at every aspect of defence. He only needs to be good enough at every detail that he can’t be played off the floor by an offence focussing on his weaknesses. He’s the only elite defensive rebounder on the team, which has been proven time and again when the Raptors are killed on the offensive glass when Valanciunas sits. Defensive rebounding is a hugely underrated (by fans) defensive skill.

I wanted to work through this piece based almost solely on video instead of statistics, but it’s worth mentioning defensive rating, which is the best (but still flawed) available single defensive metric. Since January 1st, 2018, Valanciunas has a defensive rating (102.8) better than any other starter on the team. Only the bench squad offers better defensive numbers. Valanciunas’ 102.8 defensive rating in 2018 would be fourth-best in the league as a team’s season number, ranking just behind the Raptor’s stellar 102.6.

Valanciunas isn’t the best defender on the team. Over the whole season, he still has the team’s worst defensive rating among rotation players. But now, an elite defence can be built around Valanciunas on the floor. This has resulted both because of his physical and mental improvements in combination with the team’s defensive strategy no longer asking him to do the impossible. Valanciunas has gone from trade bait to playable in any defensive matchup in only a few months. That is nothing short of a miracle.

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Raptors complete season series sweep of Hornets

The Charlotte Hornets are a pesky bunch. Especially so for the Toronto Raptors, who coming into last night, had lost 42 games all-time to the Charlotte franchise (including the Bobcats), to just 34 wins. And that’s not just one of those historical stats that are completely irrelevant – the struggle has been real. Just take last season, when the Raptors were steamrolled in Charlotte by a whopping 35 points on Martin Luther King Day. Or at home in March 2017, when Kemba Walker and Marco Belinelli went off in the final minutes to seal a disappointing loss for the Raps. Heck, our guy Will Lou even created an award named after the famed Gerald Henderson, who got that nickname playing for…you guessed it, Charlotte.

So, when the prospect of a season series sweep of the Hornets was made possible coming into last night’s contest (the last sweep coming in the 2006-07 season), it was a sign that things really have changed for this Raptor team. Not only has the style and culture changed around this team this season, but limiting those disappointing losses has been a big change this year. Winning games in the NBA can’t be taken for granted, and no matter how you slice it – in the regular season standings – wins against the Hornets or other non-playoff teams count exactly the same as wins against Cleveland, Boston, or anybody else. So, with the Celtics losing last night in  Houston against James Harden and the Rockets, taking care of business against the Hornets was still important in keeping the Raptors’ grip on the number 1 seed in the Eastern Conference.

The starting small forward spot has been a bit of a roller coaster for Dwane Casey all year, and in light of the ankle injury to OG Anunoby, the well documented struggles of Norman Powell, and CJ Miles’ firm role on the bench, the Raptors opted to go with Malcolm Miller at the 3 spot last night – the undrafted product of the Raptors905, who spent a year playing in Germany, and signed the first two-way deal in franchise history enroute to making his way onto the roster. With a solid amount of length, and a competent 3-point stroke, Miller has been an intriguing 25-year old project – and with the perfect storm of circumstances, he got his first career start in the NBA. And while Miller was 0 for 2 in his performance last night, with no real box-score impact, he certainly didn’t look phased by the moment and was a +5 on the night.

As for the rest of the starting lineup, the Raptors got a huge boost from their front court, especially Jonas Valanciunas. To go along with his 13 boards, JV had his 6th game of the year with multiple 3-pointers made (2/3 on the night), as he continues to hoist ‘em up with confidence when left open. Shooting over 47% from 3 (on 53 attempts) means that this thing doesn’t look like it’s a gimmick anymore. Sure, I don’t expect him to be hitting these off the dribble or with a hand in the face any time soon – but combined with Ibaka (who hit 3 of his own on the night), the ability of the Raptors front court to shoot from deep adds a whole new element of spacing to this offense. Come April and May, that could be the type of ingredient it takes to unlock this offense in the playoffs. We’ve seen the spacing tighten up and the shooting of Kyle and DeMar grind to a halt in those moments, so having as many weapons as possible in Dwane Casey’s offensive schemes is going to be critical.

The shooting of our other 3-point specialists however, was not great to say the least. The Raptors shot a combined 12/41 from deep, thanks a ton of missed wide open looks (I counted at least 5 attempts which rolled around the rim, before promptly popping out). From CJ (who was 2/9), to Norm (0/2), to even Fred VanVleet (who was 1/4), it just wasn’t Toronto’s night shooting the basketball from deep. Bringing those percentages closer to 40% will be critical if the Raptors hope to translate their goal of shooting more 3’s into making more 3’s (despite shooting the 5th most 3’s in the league, the Raptors still rank 20th in accuracy). But hey, it’s great to know that the culture truly has changed – and if Casey really is serious about the permanent green-light philosophy for the Raptors’ marksmen, then it means continuing to believe and shoot those open opportunities throughout the night, despite how hot or cold our shooters are.

While it hasn’t exactly been an issue for the Raptors this year, another one of the uglier parts of last night was the turnovers. The Raptors, who average just over 13 turnovers a game, had 15 last night, 5 of which came in the final period. It led to 20 points for the Hornets, giving them the requisite energy to get them back in the game in the fourth quarter. It was one of the uglier quarters of the season for Toronto, on account of sloppy offensive execution, some suspect shot selection and a lack of movement overall. And if it wasn’t for a couple of bail-out 3’s by Kyle and DeMar in the last 5 minutes, this thing could’ve easily gotten out of hand.

But, despite what Dwane Casey might tell the media after games like this, a win is a win. And with yet another W last night (the 11th in their past 12 games), Toronto is now 2 games up on the Celtics (3 games ahead in the loss column) with 20 games remaining in the regular season. That’s critical for the Raptors, who play Boston twice more this season, and are gunning for the first seed in the East for the vital advantages it can provide in the post-season. All playoff teams aren’t created equally, and for Toronto – seeding is important. It means home court advantange throughout the Eastern Conference playoffs, and for a team that’s 26-5 at home, that’s pretty important.

With that, the Raptors will look ahead to Atlanta on Tuesday. The Hawks are obviously terrible, so we’d expect a win there, but stranger things have happened in this league. And with the Rockets coming into town on Friday for what will be an intense matchup to say the least, taking care of business against the lowly Hawks (and the Pistons on Wednesday) will be critical in their continuing effort to build up a comfortable cushion atop the Eastern Conference. Tip-off on Tuesday is 7 pm.

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Raptors Weekly – Credit where it’s due

Host William Lou is joined by Seerat Sohi to discuss all things Raptors.


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Raptors-Hornets Reaction Podcast – Hornets are annoying AF

William Lou recaps the Toronto Raptors’ win over the Charlotte Hornets.


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Quick Reaction: Hornets 98, Raptors 103

Charlotte 98 Final
Box Score
103 Toronto

M. Miller14 MIN, 0 PTS, 1 REB, 0 AST, 0 STL, 0-2 FG, 0-2 3FG, 0-0 FT, 0 BLK, 0 TO, 5 +/-

FIRST START ALERT! There should be much bigger bravado for first starts. I’m talking balloon drops, confetti canons, air horns, that big flag that comes out during the 4th quarter that says BIG TIME NOISE but says BIG TIME START instead. Miller looked a bit all over the place with his screens and at times didn’t seem to know where to go on the offence, looking a bit sloppy with some bad shots and missed connections, but if he’s going to be in this rotation for a minute there’s nowhere to go but up.

S. Ibaka30 MIN, 17 PTS, 8 REB, 0 AST, 1 STL, 6-9 FG, 3-5 3FG, 2-3 FT, 3 BLK, 0 TO, 6 +/-

You could say he really SERGED out of the gate tonight, and if you’re too embarrassed to say that don’t worry, I just did for you. Ibaka looked strong in his defence early on and it set a decisive tone for the game.

J. Valanciunas30 MIN, 18 PTS, 13 REB, 0 AST, 1 STL, 8-15 FG, 2-3 3FG, 0-0 FT, 2 BLK, 4 TO, 9 +/-

He and Ibaka were connecting well in the paint. It’s easy for one or the other to overshadow at times but their synchronicity felt locked in. Our biggest of big men was in attack mode and didn’t slouch against Howard—who, however you feel about him, is a strong dude—cranked a couple rare threes, and was there to tidy up at the glass. All in all it was the version of JV you want every game and without jinxing it, is coming out consistently more often than not these days.

D. DeRozan36 MIN, 19 PTS, 4 REB, 8 AST, 1 STL, 7-17 FG, 2-7 3FG, 3-5 FT, 0 BLK, 2 TO, 14 +/-

At this point the subtleties in DeMar’s game have gone on to create new spaces for his team to thrive in. There’s so much more room now, when he’s on the floor. He continues to perform as a quiet phenomenon.

K. Lowry35 MIN, 14 PTS, 10 REB, 5 AST, 0 STL, 5-13 FG, 2-8 3FG, 2-2 FT, 0 BLK, 3 TO, 6 +/-

Rather than state the obvious I’ll just say there was a gentle moment a little over halfway through the 3rd when Lowry took a hard tumble and JV picked him up and tenderly curled him into himself and that’s the kind of care we need to take with Kyle going into this last run of the regular season. He’s a tough guy but he’s irreplaceable to this franchise so let’s all be tender to him and this team, okay?

F. VanVleet24 MIN, 12 PTS, 3 REB, 3 AST, 0 STL, 3-8 FG, 1-4 3FG, 5-6 FT, 0 BLK, 4 TO, -4 +/-

I loathe writing anything less than glowing against angel here on earth, wonderful Fred, but he had a bit of a quiet night and missed some crucial connections, leading to some unnecessary turnovers. Things started to unravel toward the last minutes of the final quarter and Fred didn’t seem as tuned in as we’re used to. I’m sorry, Fred, this hurts me more than you.

C. Miles19 MIN, 12 PTS, 2 REB, 1 AST, 0 STL, 4-12 FG, 2-9 3FG, 2-2 FT, 0 BLK, 1 TO, 1 +/-

Hi, dad! Miles was dropping long shots like dirty diapers into the trash or else dunking like the ball was a diaper held too long in the hand. Ok that’s it for dad analogies (dad-ogies?). Miles played fast, punchy, and smiling.

P. Siakam18 MIN, 7 PTS, 2 REB, 0 AST, 1 STL, 2-3 FG, 0-1 3FG, 3-3 FT, 1 BLK, 0 TO, -6 +/-

Spicy guy! First half Skills was goin’ for it with the energy and flair we’ve all come to expect but should never take for granted (*cough* Powell) and though the Hornets aren’t a high stakes game, per se, this is the kind of high-flying, barely contained kinetics that throw opposing teams for a loop and make the job of guarding him a Good Will Hunting (it’s Oscar night) style of equation that can be solved by few, if any.

J. Poeltl14 MIN, 0 PTS, 3 REB, 0 AST, 0 STL, 0-0 FG, 0-0 3FG, 0-0 FT, 3 BLK, 1 TO, -4 +/-

The hammer came down and proved to cause some frustration for Charlotte, on both ends of the floor. The trend of this game was that the bench was a lot more subdued than usual and Jakob fell in line with that.

D. Wright13 MIN, 4 PTS, 1 REB, 4 AST, 0 STL, 0-1 FG, 0-0 3FG, 4-6 FT, 0 BLK, 0 TO, -8 +/-

Aside from the cartoon slide that had him going down hard and keep going, Wright mostly channeled his energy into speedy drives and sticking with his guys.

L. Nogueira5 MIN, 0 PTS, 1 REB, 1 AST, 1 STL, 0-0 FG, 0-0 3FG, 0-0 FT, 0 BLK, 0 TO, 3 +/-

He was there, he didn’t have much impact, he sat the rest of the game. I think that sums it up.

Dwane Casey

The game shouldn’t have been as close as it was but I’m not sure it boils down to Casey’s coaching. He returned to starters plus VanVleet to close it out because it seemed like he was eager to shut this thing down, as much as I was, because Cody Zeller annoys us both and we wanted to tune into Hollywood’s biggest night.

Things We Saw

  1. Quiet bench. They weren’t as impactful out of the gate as we’re used to seeing, and got a bit strung out at times making for some sloppy passes and too many turnovers for this calibre of game. Then again it’s a nice problem to have that you notice your bench playing “just average” vs. magical instruments of raw basketball voltage.
  2. Turnovers—too many!
  3. Offensive rebounds became a problem for the Raptors from halfway through the third onward, turning a breezy game into a sticky one. Energy went flat. Lowry and DeRozan did their best to dig in and get it done but it was a little too shaky, and way too close, for comfort.
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Pre-game news & notes: Anunoby sits for final meeting with Hornets; Miller starts

The Toronto Raptors have torn off winning streaks so casually this season that it almost doesn’t register that they could win a fourth in a row on Sunday when the Charlotte Hornets visit. Part of that is the Raptors just not being all that interested in regular season results, focusing instead on the qualitative factors that lead to wins, as well as the amount of rest they can get their stars to keep them fresh for the postseason. Another is that at 44-17, a sixth four-game winning streak (which this would be) seems somewhat rote.

That’s not the case for the Charlotte Hornets, for whom a winning streak of any kinda right now could shift their focus over the last quarter of a season. Charlotte isn’t bad enough to get into a loaded tanking competition, and so if they can make some headway toward an unlikely playoff push, they’ll likely embrace it. Time is running out, and they figure to be hungry in looking to take their first game off the Raptors in this, their fourth meeting. They’re a slightly above-average team on both ends of the floor with some pronounced strengths and some real matchup challenges.

The game tips off at 6 on TSN and Sportsnet 590. You can check out the full game preview here.

Raptors updates
The absence of OG Anunoby – his second game down due to a sprained right ankle – shifts some tough defensive responsibility around here. Anunoby saw instances helping on Kemba Walker in previous matchups, and the Hornets have a number of talented wings that can stretch the floor or get physical inside. Dwane Casey was non-committal on a starter in Anunoby’s place, but it sounds as if he might try something different than Norman Powell.

“That position’s probably gonna be fluid,” Casey said. “We’re gonna keep looking at different people. It’s a situation where we’ve gotta get a lot of people ready, and it’s an opportunity to do that.”

I went into more detail on the options here and here. I think the upside with Powell figuring it out is high and that there’s a bit of a necessity to get him going, but getting an extended look at C.J. Miles with the starters – a potentially lethal offensive unit – or a longer look at Malcolm Miller – a player I really like – are both reasonable goals to work toward in Anunoby’s absence. That absence, by the way, is not expected to be a long one based on Casey’s comments.

UPDATE: Miller starts. Fun!

PG: Kyle Lowry, Delon Wright, Fred VanVleet
SG: DeMar DeRozan, Norman Powell
SF: Malcolm Miller, C.J. Miles
PF: Serge Ibaka, Pascal Siakam
C: Jonas Valanciunas, Jakob Poeltl, Lucas Nogueira
OUT: OG Anunoby
TBD: None
905: Malachi Richardson, Alfonzo McKinnie, Lorenzo Brown

Hornets updates
Charlotte has settled on a pretty set 10-man rotation at this point, though Cody Zeller’s questionable status may require a second consecutive game of significant Willy Hernangomez run. Of the regular rotation, it’s not the starters to watch out for so much as Steve Clifford’s first substitution – the Hornets starters own a respectable plus-3.8 net rating in 802 minutes (one of the few fivesomes to play more than the Raptors’ normal starters), but it’s the starters with Jeremy Lamb checking in for Nicolas Batum that have really done damage, to the tune of a plus-12.9 net rating in 169 minutes. A lot of that came during Batum’s early absence – Lamb started 14 games – but Lamb’s often a mid-quarter sub to get that group some time.

Outside of those two groups, the Hornets are light on high-usage looks that have had success. Dwayne Bacon joining Lamb with the starters has been one, but Bacon’s not in the rotation of late, falling behind Treveon Graham. They leaned on an all-bench unit pretty regularly before the trade deadline, but even that isn’t telling because Johnny O’Bryant is gone and Zeller has only played 77 minutes with them (plus-6.4). Really, all this shows is that the Hornets have had to deal with a lot of disruption despite employing the league’s second most commonly used starting lineup. It’s been another tough year for a team that’s better than they’ve performed.

UPDATE: Dwayne Bacon is out with an illness and Zeller is available if needed.

PG: Kemba Walker, Michael Carter-Williams, Julyan Stone
SG: Nicolas Batum, Jeremy Lamb, Malik Monk
SF: Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Treveon Graham
PF: Marvin Williams, Frank Kaminsky
C: Dwight Howard, Cody Zeller, Willy Hernangomez
OUT: Dwayne Bacon
TBD: Cody Zeller
Greensboro: Marcus Paige, Mangok Mathiang


The line
The Raptors have held as 8.5-point favorites most of the day, with an over-under at 218.

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Gameday: Hornets @ Raptors, March 4

The Toronto Raptors have the chance to gain some separation atop the Eastern Conference on Sunday. The Boston Celtics lost on Saturday, and that puts them three back of Toronto in the loss column. A win Sunday, and the Raptors will be a full two games ahead, providing a bit of a cushion ahead of some schedule compression the next three weeks and some difficult opponents on the horizon. They’ve won 10 of their last 11 as it is, playing some quality two-way ball.

Standing in their way are the Charlotte Hornets, who are in an awkward purgatory of not being bad enough to tank and probably not being good enough to elbow back into the playoff picture this late. They’re more dangerous than their record indicates, ranking as slightly above-average on both ends of the floor. They’re talented, well-coached, and value possessions highly, turning the ball over less than any other team and ranking first in defensive rebounding. They’re also the rare outfit that gets to the line plenty while sparsely sending their opponent there, taking nearly eight more free throws per-game than the other side (that damn pro-MJ NBA conspiracy).

The Raptors have had Charlotte’s number this year, already beating them three times by a total of 51 points. They’ve come a long way since that old stretch of ineffectiveness against them, winning nine of the last 12 meetings overall. Some of that Hornets anxiety still remains, though, and several Hornets seem a good bet to play up against Toronto on a given night. These are usually really fun matchups.

The game tips off at 6 on TSN and Sportsnet 590.

To help set the stage, we reached out to Josh Priemski of At The Hive, who was kind enough to help us out.

Blake Murphy: The battle for the bottom of the standings appears to be simply too competitive for the Hornets to get involved. At the same time, their playoff hopes are probably dashed by now, back five games with an extra team to jump, even if you believe they’re better than 28-35 (which I do). If both of those ends are unlikely, what’s the focus for this team from here? Spoiler? Unlikely last-ditch playoff push?

Josh Priemski: The Hornets are better than they look in the standings, I agree. A horrid start to the season sans Nicolas Batum held them back initially, but it then took Nic a while to figure out how he fits with a team built around Dwight Howard. Then, there was head coach Steve Clifford missing a couple of dozen games with migraines. Things have since settled–the team’s healthy and has developed a bit of chemistry–and it looks–and I must stress, *looks*–like they’re finally putting things together.

Prior to Wednesday’s loss to the Boston Celtics, the Hornets were on a five-game winning streak and looked like a legitimate playoff team. Unfortunately, it’s so late in the season and the bottom of the Eastern Conference is competitive enough that it might be too late for the Hornets to sneak in. During the All-Star break, Clifford remarked that the next 10 games would dictate how the Hornets approach the rest of the season, i.e. whether to continue playing vets and trying to win or switch it up with the youngsters and get the team’s stars some rest.

Needless to say, the Hornets aren’t sure of what to expect, either. They seem to be winging it and will adjust accordingly.

Blake Murphy: Looking longer-term, it seems changes are coming. Rich Cho has been informed he won’t be retained after the year, the team explored trading Kemba Walker, and the entire ship seems directionless. What would your ideal offseason look like?

Josh Priemski: I think the Hornets need to rid themselves of one or more of their big contracts–Batum, Howard, Marvin Williams, etc.–by any means necessary. They’re aware of this, too. The rumors surrounding Kemba were the result of (former) general manager Rich Cho shopping around the league, seeing what it would take to move one of those albatrosses. Apparently it would take Kemba. Hopefully it doesn’t require Kemba in the offseason.

The trouble’s that the Hornets have next to no cap room to work with this summer and not much more the following year, either. Jordan was comfortable enough spending to win this season and unfortunately for him it hasn’t worked out and now the team’s hands are tied with regard to the types of changes they can make.

The team’s young enough with some solid pieces that a total rebuild is wholly unnecessary, though, so if it’s a matter of waiting for contracts to expire the Hornets should be okay a few years down the line.

Blake Murphy: Steve Clifford is a very good coach who warrants another opportunity, if he wants it next year. IF the Hornets were to make a change behind the bench, what would your interest level be in Jerry Stackhouse, a UNC product who’s done a really nice job with Raptors 905 the last two years?

Josh Priemski: First and foremost, I think Clifford is retained. He’s an outstanding coach, an unbelievably hard worker, and one of the greatest people you’ll meet in the league. He’s developed a bit of a symbiosis with Kemba much in the same way Gregg Popovich did with Tim Duncan so I can’t imagine Jordan and co. risk sabotaging their All-Star’s happiness when it’s clear the problem with this team is not coaching. Those aforementioned migraines, by the way, were the result of Clifford staying awake for days at a time, working. Dude’s legit and he cares.

If the Hornets were to go another way, however, I think the first person they’d look at is assistant head coach Stephen Silas. Silas coached the Hornets in Clifford’s absence and was a target for some head coaching gigs last summer. As fans, we were sincerely concerned we were going to lose him because much like Clifford, he’s smart, works hard, and is creepily cordial.

I suppose Jerry Stackhouse would be an option. The Hornets do like connections to the Carolinas, but frankly I believe Stackhouse would be one of many potential candidates should the Hornets part with Clifford. Honestly, I’m much more interested in who replaces Rich Cho.

Blake Murphy: It’s unclear as of this writing if Michael Kidd-Gilchrist will be able to play due to a hamstring injury. If he does, what can people expect if they’ve maybe tuned out of his development? There’s obviously no 3-point shot yet, but every time I watch him, my long-held faith in him figuring it out around injuries feels moderately rewarded.

Josh Priemski: The biggest change to MKG’s game this year is his jumper. Inside of the arc, he’s extremely efficient with it. It’s not just spotting up, either. He’s comfortable dribbling left or right, fading away, popping floaters…it’s remarkable how much his jumper has improved. I suspect he’s a good 3-point shooter from the corners now too but he or Cliff has decided it’s best he work inside the arc for now.

Outside of the jumper, he’s still a long, relentless defender with a knack for grabbing boards and facilitating fast breaks. He’s blossomed into the consummate glue guy and he’s still young enough to add even more to his game, like that 3-point shot you mentioned. For what it’s worth, he still leads the team in plus-minus in roughly a third of their games. Dude makes a huge impact outside of the stat sheet.

Blake Murphy: Willy Hernangomez has barely played since coming over. What…was the point, then?

Josh Priemski: None of us know. I guess Cho or Jordan or whomever made that trade saw something in Willy that made them comfortable enough to give up a pick for him. Johnny O’Bryant had no future here (and, probably, in the league in general) so losing him was of negligible importance. The trouble is that the Hornets’ frontcourt is fairly deep, and Willy’s skill set and athletic ability are such that you can’t justify playing him anywhere other than center. Well, Dwight and Cody command all 48 minutes there, with Frank Kaminsky chipping in when the Hornets need more shooting.

I like Willy. I think he’s talented. My best guess is that the Hornets expect to move one of Howard or Zeller this summer to open up the frontcourt. Alternatively, maybe he’s just a trade chip. General managers still like his upside so I could see his inclusion in a trade being the thing that gets a deal done. But yeah, no clue why they got him. He’s fun to watch, I guess?

Raptors updates
The Raptors didn’t practice on Saturday and the early-ish tip Sunday meant no shootaround. That would normally leave us in the dark, but the Raptors got ahead of things early and listed OG Anunoby as out on the injury report, saving us from the “doubtful” tag up until game-time. They probably won’t announce their starting small forward until closer to 6, though, and it’s a very interesting dilemma.

Norman Powell started Friday and also started the two halves Anunoby missed earlier. The Raptors would surely like to get him going again. But he’s continued to struggle in a tiny offensive role and has only been okay on the defensive end, and somewhat inconsistent at that. The request being made of him here is difficult – come in after weeks of sitting, play a different role than you’re used to, know you’ll probably lose the spot back in a few games – and while it’s simply far too difficult to find regular minutes for 11 players and get Powell going that way, it’s not difficult to understand why he’s struggled to get a rhythm.

The results have been extreme enough that Dwane Casey might look elsewhere here. Powell is the only player on the team with a negative net rating in more than five minutes of action, the starters with Powell have a negative-7.5 net rating in 192 minutes (that’s improved since early in the year but was minus-46.7 on Friday), and there are other options available. C.J. Miles is an obvious one, and the Raptors would probably like to see him more with the starters, anyway. Delon Wright is an interesting idea against some non-Charlotte teams. Either of those options would also give Powell a chance to get rolling with the bench unit. And there’s Malcolm Miller, who ate into some of Powell’s minutes on Friday, looked good doing it, and was a plus-6 in seven minutes. The Miller drum is one I’ve been banging since July, and with ankle surgery well behind him, he’s looked ready for an audition – he’s hitting 38.1 percent of a large volume of threes with Raptors 905 and has been the best perimeter defender on the G League’s No. 2 defense. Still, a vote of no-confidence in Powell could be hard to come back from for the team.

PG: Kyle Lowry, Delon Wright, Fred VanVleet
SG: DeMar DeRozan
SF: Norman Powell, C.J. Miles, Malcolm Miller
PF: Serge Ibaka, Pascal Siakam
C: Jonas Valanciunas, Jakob Poeltl, Lucas Nogueira
OUT: OG Anunoby
TBD: None
905: Malachi Richardson, Alfonzo McKinnie, Lorenzo Brown

Hornets updates
Cody Zeller has been dealing with a sore left knee and is questionable here. His absence Friday opened up the first real window of playing time for willy Hernangomez, who scored six points and had seven rebounds in 16 minutes backing up the center position. The Hornets also played about seven minutes with Frank Kaminsky at the the five, a look that’s given Toronto trouble in the past – Kaminsky is averaging 12.6 points in 25.8 minutes over 10 career games against the Raptors, hitting 36.2 percent of his threes for a 57.7 true-shooting percentage, well above his career averages of 9.9 (in 23.4 minutes), 34-percent from outside, and 51.3-percent true-shooting. There’s also the Dwight Howard issue inside, and despite improved defense from the Raptors’ centers overall, Howard has had his way, shooting 64.5 percent in the three meetings and scoring 54 points with 32 rebounds and seven assists in just 85 minutes.

Elsewhere, the Hornets should be pretty familiar by now. Kemba Walker is incredibly dangerous, especially if he’s allowed to heat up. He, too, seems to rise for games against Toronto. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Nic Batum make for a nice defensive wing pairing, Marvin Williams injects some spacing and switchability, and Treveon Graham has impressed enough as a role player to completely usurp rookie Malik Monk in the rotation. This is just a much better team than their record suggests.

PG: Kemba Walker, Michael Carter-Williams, Julyan Stone
SG: Nicolas Batum, Jeremy Lamb, Malik Monk
SF: Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Treveon Graham, Dwayne Bacon
PF: Marvin Williams, Frank Kaminsky
C: Dwight Howard, (Cody Zeller), Willy Hernangomez
OUT: None
TBD: Cody Zeller
Greensboro: Marcus Paige, Mangok Mathiang

The line
The Raptors are 8.5-point favorites with a 218.5 over-under.

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905 Crush Herd to Sweep Season Series

Photo credit: Trung Ho /

Raptors 905 105 , Wisconsin Herd 83 Box Score
Assignees: Alfonzo McKinnie, Malachi Richardson (905), D.J. Wilson, (Herd)
Two-ways:  Marshall Plumlee (Herd)

The first Herd points of the game came on a Brandon Jennings 1-0 break in which he passed off to a teammate, who was fouled for free throws. Despite the mockable first moment for the Herd, the 905 struggled in their own right to begin the game, as they were unable to find open looks or notch any points on the scoreboard for the first few minutes. This was the high point in the game for the Herd.

In fact, Kaza Keane – usually a non-threat in terms of his own scoring – notched the first two points for the 905. Freshly returned from Team Canada’s FIBA roster, Keane was a welcome addition to the 905 club, especially as the team has been lacking a single point guard for the last several games. On the other end, D.J. Wilson was active early for the Herd, blocking shots, and driving early for easy layups.

Malachi Richardson struggled early, with two consecutive travels to begin the game. He twice pump-faked, juked one way, and then shot off in the other direction, only to hear a whistle condemning his moves to rule-breaking uselessness. Before the 905 knew it, the score was 12-2 early for the Herd.

Turnovers galore on both ends allowed the 905 to creep their way back into the game, and they were able to take a 1-point lead going into the second quarter. Really though: there were a lot of turnovers – 4 total travels in the first 8 minutes. In all the chaos, Kennedy Meeks thrived, compiling a near double-double in only the first quarter. The two teams combined for a mere 28 total points in the first quarter, including a Negus Webster-Chan buzzer beating 3 to end the 1st frame.

Webster-Chan opened the 2nd quarter the same way, with a made 3 in transition to stretch the lead to 5. The 905 defence locked in from there, holding the Herd to only a pair of points in the first several minutes of the 2nd quarter. Rotations were crips, forcing Herd attackers to face a pair of defenders at any moment with a thicket of arms defending any potential pass.

As an aside, Meeks’ post passing was as impressive as I’ve ever seen. He saw several actions in advance, passing the ball from the post to a teammate who frequently hadn’t even cut himself open. His high-level vision created multiple good looks for the 905, who were able to push their lead to double digits before halftime struck.

Just when it seemed like the 905 would run away with the game, sloppy play on both ends allowed the Herd back into the game. Meeks proved unable to hang with a few drives from guards – usually a strong point of his defensive game – and 905 players missed some open jumpers. The Herd led 36-29 with only a few minutes left in the half, especially thanks to some timely shooting from James Blackmon Jr.

Red-hot Malachi Richardson shooting in the third quarter put the 905 ahead early, but Xavier Munford put his Herd ahead only a possession later. Munford proved nearly unstable for the Herd through the first few quarters of the game. While the Herd moved away from their hot hand, the 905 were able to stifle any Wisconsin attack. Their impregnable defence led several fast-break scores, and the 905 again pulled into the lead midway through the 3rd quarter. Davion Berry’s 3-point shooting especially was a killer for the 905. Again, the 905 were able to score an exciting, late basket to end the quarter: this time, with a Kaza Keane drive ending in an and-1 to put the 905 up 14 to head into the 4th (a Munford buzzer-beating 3 would cut the lead to 11).

The 4th quarter was all 905, as they stretched a 10-point lead to 20+. The real difference in the game was that Brandon Jennings – frequently the entire Herd offence – finished 0/10 in the game with 0 points. It’s hard for a basketball team to win when its most important and impactful offensive player doesn’t score a single point. Meanwhile, the returning Keane led the 905 to finish 46/43/85 from the field. Richardson led the team with 20 points, but 6 905 players finished in double digits. The all-around effort allowed the 905 to stomp the Herd for the second time in the past week.


  • Assignment notes
    • Alfonzo McKinnie had a difficult game. He did finish with 16 points, but he also compiled 6 turnovers and was multiple times blocked at the rim. He projects as an efficient scorer, and this game is just an anomaly. He’ll bounce back.
    • Malachi Richardson was solid. I can’t specifically remember any of his points, but he finished with a team-high 20 points. That’s what’ll happen when you shoot 4/8 from the 3-point arc. Just a strong performance, especially after a sketchy start.
  • Other 905 player notes: 
    • Welcome back, Kaza Keane and Aaron Best! They may not have offered massive games against the Herd, but the 905 finally have some rotation players back, you know, in the rotation. Keane is a terrific passer, and his presence allows Davion Berry to move off the ball, where he is most comfortable. Berry finished with 3 made 3s, 5 assists, and a game high (and ridiculous) +35 in the game. Damn the 905 rotation is incredible when it’s intact (and Lorenzo Brown isn’t even recovered yet from his ankle injury.
  • Injury notes
    • Lorenzo Brown remains out with an injured ankle. Get well soon.
  • Herd notes:
    • So, yeah, 0/10 for Brandon Jennings. Ouch. That’s a tough game to win for the Herd with Jennings shooting like that.
    • On the other hand, Xavier Munford finished with 27 points. He looked comfortable leading the offence, and his shooting provided a desperately needed spark for the Herd in the face of an impenetrable 905 defence.
    • D.J. Wilson is a solid Bucks player, with the length and athleticism to play center in the NBA. He finished with 22 points (2 made 3s) and several highlight plays. He should end up a solid player at the higher level.
  • The 905 return home on Saturday the 10th against the Canton Charge. A friendly reminder that promo code “REPUBLIC905” will get you a discount at this link all season long.
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Miles catches fire, Raptors close out strong against Wizards

Raptors 102, Wizards 95 | Box Score | Quick Reaction | Reaction Podcast

Down OG Anunoby for the first time all season and visiting a team that had beaten them twice without John Wall already, the Toronto Raptors were in for a good test against the Washington Wizards on Friday. The game required Dwane Casey to stretch his rotations in new and unexpected ways and to trust new players and new units. It also required a strong closing stretch, some locked-in defense late, and a torrid shooting night from the team’s specialist. All told, there was a lot of positive to take from a 102-95 victory, something that seemed fairly unlikely at the outset.

There were warning signs everywhere early on, particularly in the middle. Jonas Valanciunas picked up a pair of quick fouls to continue the trend of him having trouble with Marcin Gortate, and he had to take a seat just two minutes into the game. Jakob Poeltl stopped a Gortat post-up immediately upon checking in, but the Wizards hit the offensive glass and seemed to be coming up with every loose ball. Bradley Beal was also just as much a problem out of the gate as he was in their earlier matchups, breaking free for a pair of open threes to put the Raptors down 13-4 and send them to an early timeout. That breather did little, and the Wizards extended their lead to 14 with free jump shots before DeMar DeRozan broke through and scored at the rim and Serge Ibaka drew a foul. It wasn’t until the bench began filtering in that things settled down some.

That started with a Fred VanVleet drive-and-kick to Pascal Siakam, who attacked a short close-out and dumped it off to Poeltl for a basket, the exact type of play that wasn’t there in the opening minutes. The Raptors also empowered Siakam to switch onto Beal off the ball, helping produce a deflection, and he followed by stopping Morris on a post-up and then beating everyone down the floor (albeit he missed the transition bucket). Valanciunas’ earlier foul trouble meant Lucas Nogueira got a first-quarter look, which also meant a new DeRozan-and-bench wrinkle that wasn’t exactly seamless. A few defensive miscommunications and continued shaky shooting – including another Siakam miss at the rim undercutting some high-energy minutes and an 0-of-7 mark on threes in the quarter – precluded the Raptors from drawing any closer than eight at the end of the quarter.

VanVleet got the Raptors on the board from outside to start the second, set up by Delon Wright on what looked to be a new set (or option off of it, anyway), and Siakam followed with a strong drive for an and-one. Free-throws for Nogueira and a three for C.J. Miles came on the tail of those plays, and the Raptors were right back within a point out of nowhere, the new all-bench unit responsible for a 10-3 run. The strong run continued and interestingly saw Malcolm Miller get a nod where Powell could be expected to return, and Miller promptly gave the Raptors their first lead with a corner three. Casey even gave looks to a Valanciunas-led bench group and a Lowry-Valanciunas-bench group briefly, the absence of OG Anunoby and the early foul trouble throwing just about everything for a loop and giving a glimpse of some potentially useful options.

The starters (with Miller) kept up the bench’s energy turnaround well as they filtered back in, with Lowry hitting a tough shot off-window and Valanciunas sealing for a post-up and then attacking after a pump-fake. The Raptors still didn’t clean up their Beal coverage entirely, and he made them pay with a couple of nice mid-range buckets, though the effort and execution levels were up at both ends, which goes a long way. An Ibaka put-back after getting blocked on a three was emblematic of that shift, and the Wizards showed some frustration in response to their tough second quarter. Toronto lost the plot just a bit in the closing minutes – a missed two-for-one opportunity seemed to be cause for disagreement – and the Raptors probably felt pretty good getting to halftime up four despite missing a handful of free throws and shooting poorly from outside.

DeRozan took control of the offense to start the second half, then conceded it to Lowry and Valanciunas for consecutive threes, the early burst putting Washington on their heels some. The pull-away was slow to come, as Powell passed up an open three, Ibaka missed a few mid-range jumpers, and Beal’s supporting staff took advantage of the attention he was drawing. The Wizards cut a 10-point lead back down to two with a 9-1 run midway through the quarter, and Casey once again tweaked the rotation some, keeping Valanciunas out opposite Gortat even as the bench began filtering in. Those changes couldn’t slow Washington’s counter-push, with Otto Porter taking the lead back with an and-one. A more familiar DeRozan-and-bench unit closed out the quarter, and Miles came through with a pair of huge threes just to maintain a lead heading into the fourth.

It was Miles keeping them afloat again early on, still standing as the only Raptor who could hit from deep. He’d eventually miss, too, the number of squandered open looks for the team as a whole hanging over a tight game like a specter, lined by the missed free throws. Adding Lowry to the bench unit should have theoretically helped, but Tomas Satoransky was doing a nice job on him most of the night and then Lowry got caught trying to bait a foul on a Ian Mahinmi switch. Miles came through again with a deep three – at that point he had five while the rest of the team was 4-of-22 – and DeRozan’s return lent further help, as he quickly set up Poeltl to go back ahead three with five minutes to go.

This all meant a tight close out again, a good opportunity for the Raptors to show some growth in that regard against a quality opponent. It was encouraging to start. Miles missed from outside and Lowry picked up an unnecessary technical (on the heels of an earlier one for Wright), sure, but around those moments was another great DeRozan feed to Poeltl, a decent DeRozan miss, a good Miles attack, and a Miles three from the corner. As it turns out, late-game offense is a lot easier to come by when Miles is just launching napalm from everywhere. It made for a 14-4 run with nary an objectionable shot attempt, wrestling control back for the final minutes.

Lowry went awry a bit momentarily, getting blocked on a mid-range jumper and then picking up a foul the other way. The Raptors kept their composure, chewing up a lot of clock, picking up a steal, and then trusting DeRozan to hit a jumper back the other way. DeRozan then came up with a big defensive rebound and followed up blowing by the Wizards for a reverse to extend the lead to eight in the final minute. Poeltl’s impact down the stretch didn’t show on the box score here, and a smaller hybrid group with the stars, VanVleet, Miles, and Poeltl really had a nice flow in this instance. They would concede an offensive rebound that resulted in a Porter three, otherwise turning in a really strong defensive close with very smart, composed offense, save for a few missed free throws.

This was exactly the kind of response you hope to see from the Raptors after a bad first quarter. On a night they couldn’t seem to hit from outside (other than Miles) or connect at the line, they dialed up the defense, holding a top-10 offense to a respectable (considering the start) 107.7 offensive rating overall and an incredible 84 in the fourth quarter. Poeltl’s defense was instrumental, they worked well around a size disadvantage to help the offense breathe and keep a red-hot Miles on the floor, and they beat a team admittedly down a star but still playing quite well on the road. They did so while shooting poorly overall, while struggling a bit on the glass, and while getting little from a pair of starters. In other words, they did so not at their best, and they did it on national TV, potentially killing some old jokes moving forward.

It wasn’t perfect, and there’s still room for improvement from here. It was something close to exactly the way people have been clamoring for the Raptors to win games on nights their imperfect, and that’s not nothing.

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Raptors-Wizards Reaction Podcast – A satisfying victory

William Lou recaps the Toronto Raptors’ entertaining win over the Washington Wizards.


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Quick Reaction: Raptors 102, Wizards 95

Toronto 102 Final
Box Score
95 Washington

S. Ibaka19 MIN, 7 PTS, 4 REB, 1 AST, 0 STL, 2-7 FG, 0-2 3FG, 3-6 FT, 0 BLK, 0 TO, -13 +/-

Ibaka had a quiet game tonight. When his shot isn’t falling and he’s not driving, Ibaka becomes a liability. There’s not much to say here, since the bench bigs played so well. Hopefully the extra rest was good for those legs!

N. Powell17 MIN, 0 PTS, 1 REB, 1 AST, 0 STL, 0-2 FG, 0-1 3FG, 0-0 FT, 0 BLK, 0 TO, -16 +/-

Woof. It’s getting real bad, guys. But that doesn’t mean Norm shouldn’t get any minutes at all. He’s on the team, he’s healthy. That guy we saw against Milwaukee last postseason is in there, somewhere. He may continue to lose minutes, and rightly so, to guys like Miller, but saying he should simply no longer play is silly. This is the time to try and get him kickstarted.

J. Valanciunas19 MIN, 12 PTS, 4 REB, 0 AST, 0 STL, 5-6 FG, 1-1 3FG, 1-4 FT, 0 BLK, 2 TO, -11 +/-

Valanciunas had an okay game. He was taken out early due to two quick fouls; Gortat handled him in the first half. Only in the second half did JV start to look like himself, but for the most part Poeltl was a better option tonight, and Casey stuck with that.

D. DeRozan34 MIN, 23 PTS, 4 REB, 4 AST, 3 STL, 9-17 FG, 0-3 3FG, 5-7 FT, 0 BLK, 0 TO, -2 +/-

DeRozan started off slowly, but by the time he got to the fourth quarter, he was firing on all cylinders. He was the biggest reason the Raptors were able to close out this game, forcing his way into the lane repeatedly and either scoring, or (more importantly) dumping the ball off to bigs or cutters for easy baskets. He also made a huge pull up jumper. Tonight was just one of those great DeRozan nights, and his decision-making continues to impress.

K. Lowry33 MIN, 10 PTS, 7 REB, 5 AST, 1 STL, 4-10 FG, 1-5 3FG, 1-2 FT, 0 BLK, 1 TO, -2 +/-

There were bright spots in Lowry’s game tonight, including a couple sweet passes and another patented charge. But once again, Lowry played poorly defensively for most of the game, and especially so in the clutch. He also made the worst play in crunch time, shooting an iso three that got blocked.

F. VanVleet29 MIN, 12 PTS, 4 REB, 3 AST, 1 STL, 2-9 FG, 1-6 3FG, 7-8 FT, 1 BLK, 2 TO, 20 +/-

Freddy was steady; VanVleet played solid defense and made some gritty, tough plays (including several huge rebounds in traffic). His three-point shot wasn’t falling tonight, but he still found a way to make a positive contribution.

P. Siakam24 MIN, 5 PTS, 3 REB, 1 AST, 2 STL, 2-9 FG, 0-2 3FG, 1-1 FT, 0 BLK, 0 TO, 13 +/-

It’ll sound like a broken record, but Siakam was a burst of energy, whipping around the floor like a human tornado, playing great defense, crashing the offensive glass, and hustling for loose balls. He had a tough time shooting the ball from anywhere outside the paint, per usual, but otherwise continued to be one of the most important bench players.

J. Poeltl22 MIN, 6 PTS, 3 REB, 0 AST, 0 STL, 3-3 FG, 0-0 3FG, 0-1 FT, 3 BLK, 1 TO, 4 +/-

Poeltl had to come in early for Valanciunas, and once again displayed his dominance as a mobile big. He didn’t score or rebound a ton, but he stuck with his man all night and made things tough at the rim. He was also in the perfect spots late in the game to receive DeRozan’s passes. The box score doesn’t do his game justice.

C. Miles20 MIN, 20 PTS, 1 REB, 1 AST, 1 STL, 7-10 FG, 6-9 3FG, 0-0 FT, 1 BLK, 0 TO, 18 +/-

Shooters shoot, baby!

D. Wright10 MIN, 0 PTS, 1 REB, 3 AST, 1 STL, 0-3 FG, 0-3 3FG, 0-0 FT, 0 BLK, 0 TO, 4 +/-

Wright was fairly quiet offensively tonight, and he struggled to make his open three-pointers. However, he did make an impact defensively, most notably taking Porter out of the game when he was killing the Raptors in the fourth.

M. Miller7 MIN, 3 PTS, 0 REB, 0 AST, 0 STL, 1-1 FG, 1-1 3FG, 0-0 FT, 0 BLK, 0 TO, 6 +/-

Miller checked in early in the second, taking the minutes that were originally meant for Powell. He took advantage of the opportunity and played solid defense while also dropping a three in six minutes. There’s a good chance we could be seeing more of him, depending on how long OG is out.

L. Nogueira7 MIN, 4 PTS, 2 REB, 0 AST, 0 STL, 1-1 FG, 0-0 3FG, 2-3 FT, 0 BLK, 1 TO, 14 +/-

Bebe saw time tonight, checking in to play with the bench during Poeltl’s (who had to sub in early for Valanciunas) normal minutes. He was quite good, playing his typical, strong interior defense and making a few buckets out of the pick and roll on the other end. It’s a luxury having him as a third-string center.

Dwane Casey

Casey was searching early in the game to find some way to get his guys going. This included taking out Powell for Miller, which proved to be a good move. He also stuck with some bench guys like Miles late (who was red-hot), and Poeltl, who made a key block. Casey really has improved as a coach; tonight was a good example.

Things We Saw

  1. Holy crap, you guys. They did it—they won a game in crunch time! And they did it the right way, too (excluding the Lowry blocked three and that late foul on Morris beyond the arc), with DeRozan leading the way. DeMar made all the right decisions, driving to the rim at the correct times and dropping off passes at every other opportunity. The ball needs to keep moving—there are better shots than those Lowry or DeRozan can make for themselves in the half-court. The defense was strong, too, and it was a great choice by Casey to leave Poeltl in instead of Valanciunas—his mobility really helped save some baskets where perimeter players let opponents slash inside. All in all, Toronto should be looking at this as a step forward.
  2. I touched on this, but depending on how long Anunoby is out, the Raptors might look at giving Miller more chances to play than he’s ever had. With Norm continuing to play poorly, Casey will likely keep swapping Miller in for him whenever he’s not performing at a high enough level. I would be surprised if Casey stops playing Norm completely (and I don’t think he should), but he shouldn’t hesitate going to Miller again. Who needs a buyout player, anyway? This is another strong endorsement of the 905 and the work the organization is doing to develop their young guys.
  3. Make. Your. Free. Throws.
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Pre-game news & notes: Anunoby misses 1st game, Powell starts

REVENGE. The Toronto Raptors have an opportunity to even the season series with the Washington Wizards on Friday, and while they won’t be able to erase two John Wall-less losses, they can at least work toward getting Bradley Beal out of their nightmares with a strong showing here. The odd, sometimes-fiery recent history between the two teams usually makes for a pretty fun game, with a good battle at the center positions, some broad roster similarities (at least when healthy), and a pair of high-octane shooting guards liable to go for 30-plus against each other.

What’s more, this one airs on ESPN, so it’s a nice chance for the Raptors’ vaunted bench unit to get some exposure. Few teams were better than the Raptors in February – or have been on the season, really – and the Wizards have been far hotter than a team down an All-Star could be expected to be. The Wizards are in a tight battle for home court and seeding in the East, while the Raptors have a chance to gain a modicum of separation atop the conference with Boston in Houston on Saturday. It’s just one game and all, but both sides figure to be pretty geeked up for it. There are far worse ways to spend a Friday night.

The game tips off at 8 on Sportsnet One and Sportsnet 590. You can check out the full game preview here.

Raptors updates
OG Anunoby missed shootaround and was spotted (by me, a detective) on some of the players’ social media in a walking boot early in the morning. The boot was later confirmed, though his status remained “doubtful” rather than “out.” He’s not playing here, the first time all year the Raptors will be without him. That’s pretty remarkable for a rookie who wasn’t necessarily expected to be in the rotation right out of the gate this year as he recovered from a torn ACL. The team has been set with him starting for the last 48 games, he owns the second-best net rating of any regular, and his absence will be felt, even if his offense has cooled.

With Anunoby down, there are a few options in his place:

  • Norman Powell. Powell was originally the starter and was jumped by Anunoby when he suffered his own minor injury early. He’s also started each of the two halves Anunoby has missed this year, suggesting he’s the likely call here. For most of the year, Powell has struggled, especially on the offensive end. His defense has been up and down but relatively solid when given an opportunity of late, and the terrible performance of the starters with him in the unit early in the year has turned around in 2018 (a small, 50-minute sample). On paper, he’s the best suited option to guard Bradley Beal. Starting him also maintains continuity for the second unit, not disrupting those rotations or five-man groups at all. The drawback is that Powell is unlikely to play the type of role that could get him going offensively as a starter – his usage rate is criminally low with Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan both on the floor and he posted a rare 11-trillion stat-line on Wednesday.
  • C.J. Miles. My initial pick for the starting position when Anunoby wasn’t believed to be a part of the equation, some more minutes with Miles playing alongside the starters – the team’s most lethal offensive look, in theory – would be welcomed. The drawback here is two-fold. First, while Miles’ defense has improved over the last month or so, he hasn’t defended up to his standard on the year as a whole, and Beal or Otto Porter would both be tough covers. Second, and perhaps more to Dwane Casey’s thinking, Miles with the starters would disrupt a second unit that is the NBA’s best fivesome at a certain minutes cut-off and by far it’s best fivesome in February. One saving grace here is that the second unit with Powell in Miles’ role has performed pretty well, and Powell can get more touches that way.
  • Delon Wright. This is probably a bit too extreme a change given that Wright doesn’t check off any one box emphatically, but he is somewhat of an in-between for Powell and Miles. He’s long enough to play the two for a matchup like Beal and is one of the team’s better perimeter defenders, and while he doesn’t shoot like Miles, he’s shooting well and is the best ball-handler and creator of the options. Wright-and-starters is an interesting look I’d like to see a bit more of in general as a potential closing group.
  • Malcolm Miller. It’s not going to happen because it would be a large vote of no-confidence in Powell, but Miller can shoot the three and defend the perimeter. At least, he’s done those things very well across two G League seasons and a German season. A non-garbage look at how that translates to the NBA would be welcome at some point. It’s probably not coming here.

This is a lot of words about a situation that may resolve itself by Sunday or Tuesday as the adamantium that flows through Anunoby repairs his sprained ankle.

UPDATE: Anunoby is, in fact, out. Powell starts.

PG: Kyle Lowry, Delon Wright, Fred VanVleet
SG: DeMar DeRozan
SF: Norman Powell, C.J. Miles, Malcolm Miller
PF: Serge Ibaka, Pascal Siakam
C: Jonas Valanciunas, Jakob Poeltl, Lucas Nogueira
OUT: OG Anunoby
TBD: None
905: Malachi Richardson, Alfonzo McKinnie, Lorenzo Brown

Wizards updates
There’s not much to report on the Washington side outside of the notes I provided in the pre-game. And since this post is already far too long for a notes dump, I’ll just direct you there. It’s the fourth meeting, so you probably have a good idea of how this will look – and who the Gerald Henderson candidates are – anyway.

PG: Tomas Satoransky, Tim Frazier, Ramon Sessions
SG: Bradley Beal, Jodie Meeks
SF: Otto Porter, Kelly Oubre
PF: Markieff Morris, Mike Scott, Chris McCullough
C: Marcin Gortat, Ian Mahinmi, Jason Smith
OUT: John Wall
TBD: None
G-League (no affiliate): Devin Robinson


  • Raptors 905 next play Saturday in Wisconsin. Malcolm Miller is with the Raptors while Alfonzo McKinnie and Malachi Richardson are with the 905. Lorenzo Brown is still sidelined for Raptors 905 due to an ankle sprain.
  • Over at The Athletic, I wrote about the Raptors’ improved defense and what’s gone into making them a top-three unit this year.
  • A very good piece from Eric Koreen on Fred VanVleet betting on himself over at The Athletic.
  • Still at The Athletic, Eric and I went over some rotation tweaks and philosophical questions the Raptors need to explore over the last 20 games or so.
  • For what I believe is the first time this year, the Raptors are now favored to win the Atlantic Division. At Bodog, they’re at 2:3 odds, while the Celtics are 6:5. That respect hasn’t held at the conference level, as the Raptors are 15:4 to win the East (5:7 for Cleveland, 3:1 for Boston). The Raptors are 16:1 to win the championship, the fifth-best odds.
  • 538 tallied up the number of blown calls in the last two minutes of games within three points today. I scaled those by the amount of time teams actually spent in those situations for a better gauge. The Raptors come out on the tougher end, ranking sixth in unfortunate calls against per-possession in the sample. A few things worth noting before crying bias:
    • This doesn’t include the number of blown calls that went in favor of a team, only blown calls against. So, it’s not a “net” effect, just one side.
    • There is, uhh, no pattern of logical bias here. Yes, Cleveland has come out favorably. The Warriors and Celtics have not. The Magic have had fewer total blown calls than anyone. Unless the league is doing a tremendous job masking things, this is just a lot of descriptive noise.
    • The sample they used is the sample they used. I’d love to take the time/do the work to pull a more meaningful sample of data, but that’s not something I have the time or scraping chops for, unless I wanted to do it by very tedious means. You’re welcome to go through the team’s L2M history
    • I can’t recall where, but someone did an end-of-season tally for these in previous years, and the Raptors came out on the favorable end of the stick in 2015-16 and about netural for 2016-17.

  • Shouts to Kia Nurse for being named Defensive Player of the Year. She’s tracking quite well to end up as one of the best female basketball players in Canadian history.
  • Will and I are appearing at a Hoop Talks double-feature on March 28 and March 29.

The line
The Raptors are 4-point favorites, up from an opening line of Raptors -3. The over-under is at 217.

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Raptors Road Diary: Part 3 of a month-long conversation with Steve from PUP

Steve Sladkowski (@sladkow) is the guitarist for the Toronto-based punk band PUP. They are awesome, and Steve is among the best guitarists in the world. He’s also among the biggest Toronto Raptors fans, to the extent that PUP’s touring schedule finds Steve watching Raptors games at all hours of the night, in whatever venue will have him (or give him Wifi). With PUP on the road for an entire month – a pivotal month in the Raptors’ chase for the Eastern Conference’s No. 1 seed – Steve has decided to kind-of journal his trip and his attempts to keep up with the Raptors from Europe.

To facilitate, we’re exchanging emails with him throughout his travels and publishing them here, unedited except in the case of the F word or egregious typos, which the 3am timestamp on some of these emails have opened the window for. You can check out Part 1 of the email exchange here and Part 2 here.

Steve Sladkowski (Feb. 21, 11:33 a.m.)

Hello from France!

We’re off and running on the headline portion of the tour. Last night in Paris was very very fun and now we’re headed south to Lyon and then on to Spain.

Does it make me a bad fan if I say I missed all of All-Star Weekend? It was a bit of an emotionally and physically exhausting week, hah. Skills on Saturday in Hamburg didn’t start until way late at night and Sunday was Zack’s birthday. I feel for all of my friends over here who love hoops but man I am impressed by their dedication to watching games. It is a STRUGGLE.

All that to say, I of course saw Twitter’s reaction to Fergie’s national anthem. I have to say… anytime an artist takes a shot at experimenting with something like a national anthem, the risk for failure is so high that it’s almost not worth it. National anthems are meant to be sung pretty straight up and I don’t know why anyone tries to do otherwise. I mean, how many times can you think of people doing an experimental version of an anthem and actually pulling it off? It’s a select few to be sure.

Other than that, Donovan Mitchell cemented himself as the Rookie of the Year in my books. The few highlights I saw… wowee! And as for the 3PT contest, I’ve seen some of NBA Twitter talk about this — maybe on the Lowe Post too — but why don’t they try it as a catch-and-shoot competition?

I saw a Bleacher Report headline saying that the Raptors won’t pursue Vince. Alas, the dream…. is over….Ready for basketball to begin again and to bear down for the home stretch. No sleep ‘til April, baby!

Blake Murphy

“The headline portion of the tour.” This is the PUP equivalent of “The Raptors now enter their top-of-the-Eastern Conference portion of the schedule.” No disrespect to The Menzingers, who don’t deserve this, but they’re playing the part of the Celtics for this comparison. Cold, I realize.

I do not think you’re a bad fan for missing All-Star stuff, no. I know a lot of writers who just unplug form it, too. It’s not particularly relevant, and if you need a break or have other stuff going on, it’s the right part of the schedule to drop. That said, I’m a sucker for ANY dunk contest and usually enjoy the All-Star Game, and you happened to miss a really fun game in this case. (Also a game Lowry, DeRozan, and Casey all got moments to shine in, which was cool.) As for the anthem, I feel for her and thought the memeing was a bit much for what it was. I didn’t NOT laugh, but, ykno. (My guess for the 3-point suggestion: It puts too much of the competition in the hands of the passer. But it’s worth experimenting.)

I told you not to get too excited about Vince! It always kind of seemed to me like it was a big experiment, putting feelers out to see what the reaction would be and prime the fanbase for the eventual reunion. Consider me unenthused with a potential Arron Afflalo addition, but short of Ersan Ilyaosva, I’m not sure anyone is going to hit the market who would actually threaten to play for the Raptors.

I’m definitely ready for more ball again. So much so that tonight I’m covering an NBL game to do a story on the St. John’s Edge and then doubling home later to recap the 905’s return from the break. I have a problem, Steve. Anything in particular you’re looking for from the Raptors out of the gate? Milwaukee is always a good test, and without Jason Kidd’s rampant inflexibility, they might pose a new challenge to the New Offense TM.

Steve Sladkowski (Feb. 24, 7:48 p.m.)

Yo! Sorry for the radio silence — the allure of Spain and our whirlwind first visit to this amazing country has been very demanding — we’ve landed on our last show day of the tour in La Laguna-Tenerife in the Spanish Canary Islands. Dude, I think this is the most beautiful place I’ve ever physically been in.

You know what? I like last night’s loss. I wasn’t able to actually watch the game — we went onstage in Madrid at 12:30 AM (an hour before tip), got out of the venue and back to the hotel by 3 AM, and were up at 6:15 AM to catch the flight to Tenerife — so I only got the highlights. But I think it’s good to face a little adversity. Milwaukee are clearly starting to figure things out and by all accounts the Raps probably didn’t deserve to win that game anyway, right? I think that the word is finally out on this basketball team and teams are going to be coming for them. I welcome that challenge because I think the Raps are up to it & it’ll be a good series of tests to get them playoff ready.

How are you? Was there anything about last night’s loss that really bothered you? I am still all about that JV dunk to tie the game. And sorry you’re still hearing about the refereeing from the Twitterverse.

Off to see CD Tenerife, currently 13th in La Liga’s Segunda División, tomorrow night. Believe it or not, for all the times we’ve been over here and with the seemingly-never-ending football seasons over here, it’ll be my first time seeing any European sides. Very excited!

Blake Murphy

Man, Tenerife sounds incredible. When I went to Spain last year, I was trying to decide between there and Seville and opted for the latter because of my deep affinity for Bostjan Nachbar. I’ve also always wanted to do Gran Canaria, strictly because I knew what it was because Carl English played there. All of this is to say…I do not blame you for radio silence. You have an incredibly cool gig that’s taking you to amazing places, and I’m glad you’re enjoying it to the fullest. Shouts to Sergio Rodriguez.

Some of the Raptors agree with you on last night in terms of facing adversity early. They really haven’t faced much of it, and it’s probably worth hoping they get a little more so they either avoid getting a Game 1 punch in the mouth or at least know how to respond. Of course, it would also be great if they faced in-game adversity and showed some growth with the late-game offense, but I’ll take the small “process” improvements the last few clutch scenarios, even if the results haven’t followed yet. The Bucks are…dangerous, man. I know the Raptors are still 6-3 against them between last playoffs and this season, and it says a lot that the Raptors played pretty poorly, Milwaukee shot well, and the Bucks STILL needed overtime, but if these defensive changes are legitimate and not just the dead-coach-bounce, and if Jabari looks good come playoffs…this would be a very interesting rematch as the 1-4 in the second round.

Not much else stuck with me from that one. The refereeing is what it is. Valanciunas was absolutely fouled on one dunk and maybe on the other, but what can you do? Buzzer-beater foul calls are rare. Plus, it’s hard to call a foul on John Henson when his soul had already left his body. I’m alright otherwise. Got almost no downtime during the “break,” so I’m pretty worn out and need to find some ways to rest myself down the stretch so I don’t burn out in the playoffs. No word from Dwane Casey if he plans to give me nights off though.

That’s awesome about catching a football match. Enjoy! And let me know what that environment is like. (Semi-related: The ACC was nuts on Friday. I have a theory that poor officiating is closely related to crowd involvement, at least in Toronto.)

Steve Sladkowski (Feb. 27, 12:47 a.m.)

There’s something about the Bucks that still feels incomplete whereas the Raptors are a totally different team than last year. That’s straight eye-test of course — but they struggled against New Orleans last(?) night and I just don’t know if I’m there with them yet — but who knows. I don’t want to encourage Giannis.

Unfortunately we were rained out for any La Liga soccer on Sunday as there were torrential downpours all day. I spent most of the day in a four-star hotel — booked for us by our lovely new Canary Island-based tourmates & wicked hardcore band This Drama — reading and napping. I can’t tell you how badly my body needed it. As proof, I basically never napped and I took three naps while we were in Tenerife. The touring… it gets you.

We’re back in Madrid now and are packed to fly back to Toronto in the morning; I love being on tour, and I am so grateful for how much I’ve learned about myself & the growth that came from it, but f*** me I’m ready to go home. I miss Brooke, I miss the dog, I miss smoking weed regularly (not gonna catch me slippin’ with the various EU country fascist cops), and I miss my bed.

However I’m happy to say that this tour is ending much as it began: sitting in a hotel room with some whiskey, watching the first-place Toronto Raptors and The New Offense TM get ready to take care of business against the Detroit Griffins.

See you at home, my dude!!!

Blake Murphy

And the tour ended opposite how it began, with a ludicrous victory fueled by the bench, with good games from the starters, and nary a negative to complain about. Nice progress from the Utah game, if we’re looking for a story arc, though the Raptors continually pasting even decent teams remains a “problem” in terms of figuring out how to close games. I’ve tweeted as such, but the Raptors should really sign me to a 10-day and put me in whenever they get up 20 so they can play in more clutch scenarios. Malcolm Miller is too good for that role. Heck, BRUNO had a plus-79 net rating or something like that in that role. (And shouts to Bruno getting run with the Kings last night).

Are you back now? Hope you and Brooke and Jane and narcotics all got some nice time together. Perhaps it makes sense to wrap this all up with your thoughts on your first game back home (Orlando on Wednesday, such a certain bludgeoning that I have Phoebe Bridgers tickets and intend to juggle both without much concern). We haven’t learned a ton about the Raptors – they’re still very good! – but I’m glad you’ve learned so much about yourself the last month. (Now play a goddam Toronto show.)

When’s your next game with tickets? Sunday?

There are no words in the English language I could scream to drown you out.

A post shared by Blake Murphy (@eblakemurphy) on

Steve Sladkowski (March 1, 3:45 p.m.)

Sunday is my next game with tickets indeed! I’ll be there with Exclaim! Eminence James Keast and it’ll be my second time seeing Charlotte this year. I joined a gym a few days ago and had my first workout today… maybe they sign both of us to a 10 day and I can really drag my ass up and down the court to help the opposing team get back into the game…

I am indeed home now, as you know, since we hungout last night on the couch at the back of the Velvet Underground and watched the fourth quarter of the Orlando game together before that incredible Phoebe Bridgers show. The game was obviously a little bit closer than it needed to be but it was nice to see a little bit of We The Fourth action to put the game away. God damn, that show was too good eh? Very interested to see where Ms. Bridgers career goes from this juncture. I doubt we’ll be seeing her in a room that small anytime soon. As far as PUP in Toronto… let us write some new music, will ya?

I hear what you’re saying about getting some more high-pressure situations to prep the team for the playoffs but, man, perhaps we’re selling the Raptors a bit short? Like maybe they are really so good that Casey won’t have to shorten the bench as much as one usually does in the playoffs. Is that crazy? It’s funny because I was listening to the Ringer NBA show today & a few of the hosts were talking about the Rockets in a way that we seem to be talking about the Raptors: the culture change is real, the team seems different, and, even though there are previous examples of playoff collapse, this year feels different. Now obviously the team would do well to have some adversity regardless of whether or not it feels different than years previous (it does); however as you said last night, there are still four games remaining against Boston and Cleveland, plus some good tests against the aforementioned Rockets and OKC. I think it’ll be good for the Raptors to perhaps be a little more focused on those games? Teams are going to keep coming at them, which can’t be as easy as they’re making it look, so they’ll be getting tested every night and I’m looking forward to them just continuing to handle business by committee.

The New Offense TM: Handling Business by Committee.

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3 burning questions about the Raptors’ stretch run

To the fourth quarter we go… of the 2017-18 regular season. Every game does genuinely matter, whether it’s for home court advantage, sneaking into the postseason, or racking up more ping pong balls. There are 20-ish games remaining, the Toronto Raptors are first in the Eastern Conference, but the Boston Celtics are hot on their trail after seemingly having taken the all-star break to regenerate their lost offensive cells.

Beyond that, the battle through the lower half of the conference means the Raptors could face any of the Heat, Pacers, Sixers, Bucks, or even the Wizards depending on how things shake out over the course of this final month-and-a-half.

With all that in mind, I thought it’d be a good time to consider three burning questions as we head into this final stretch.

Will the Raptors finish No.1 in the East?

Toronto: 43-17 (25-5 at home, 18-12 on the road). Back-to-backs remaining (B2B): 4.

The top seed will likely play a huge role in determining how legitimate a shot they have at reaching the NBA Finals, as guaranteed home court through the East playoffs would add a bit of swagger to their step.

Can they earn it?

The Raptors play half of their final 22 games against teams over .500 (18-15 record), beginning Friday night in Washington. They have an even home and away split as well. Their standard of play over the first 60 games should maintain itself, but all eyes will be on the three-game stretch between the end of March and the beginning of April when a visit to Cleveland is sandwiched between two meetings with the Celtics.

Back-to-backs have had relatively little impact on the Raptors because bench.

Boston: 44-19 (23-11 at home, 21-8 on the road). B2B: 3.

Boston have won four straight since the all-star break and have 19 games remaining overall. 12 of their remaining games are against team above .500 (20-14).

They have a stretch between Mar. 16 and Apr. 4 where they play eight of 10 games on the road, and the two home games are against the Oklahoma City Thunder and your Raptors. If there is a time for Toronto to cement their place at the top, this is it.

Based on the evidence, I’ll say yes, the Raptors will finish with the top seed in the conference for the first time in their history.

Will the Cavaliers hold on to the three-seed?

Cleveland: 36-25 (21-10 at home, 15-15 on the road). B2B: 2.

So, assuming the Raptors finish with the top seed, what then becomes a concern is when they would have to deal with Superman aka Black Panther aka LeBron James.

I’ll be the first to admit that when the Cleveland Cavaliers made their moves, I thought there was a real possibility they could catch the Celtics — amidst their struggles — for the No. 2 seed. Considering the Cavs have actually lost ground since the all-star break, consider that dream dead.

Look at the standings now, and the Wizards are just a half-game behind as they’ve extended their success without John Wall. Bradley Beal is playing like a superstar, Otto Porter has stepped up in Wall’s absence, and the bench hasn’t disintegrated in their minutes unlike years past.

The Cavs have just about an even split of games remaining home and away, but it’s really hard to get a read on them right now. They stormed out of the gate with their new faces and throttled the Celtics and Thunder, but their defensive struggles have forced their way through the cracks.

One of the underrated factors in their final stretch is that King James is making a concerted effort to play all 82 games this season, having played all 60 thus far. That he is doing so in his 15th season is ridiculous. Seriously, we do not appreciate his greatness enough.

Because of the limited time they have to get it together with new faces, I do expect them to ignore the rest factor and do their best to get acclimated to each other till the very end of the season. That should be enough to hold on to what they have.

Washington: 36-26 (18-12 at home, 18-14 on the road). B2B: 4.

The Wizards have 20 games remaining, with 11 at home and nine on the road. 14 of their games are against teams over .500 (against whom they’re a respectable 17-16), including a stretch of 10 straight beginning Friday against the Raptors. They are a team that has historically played to the level of their competition, so they should be an intriguing team to keep an eye on to see whether they sink or swim over their brutal final quarter of the season.

One thing that could throw a spanner in the works is the return of Wall. He’s expected back in late March or early April, around when they have games against the Spurs, Rockets, and Cavaliers, and those aren’t really the ideal games in which you want to work someone into the lineup.

Philadelphia: 33-27 (19-10 at home, 14-17 on the road). B2B: 4.

The 76ers are poised for a run here. Not only are just eight of their final 22 games come against teams over .500, 10 of the opponents they face have won less than 40 percent of their games. They could very easily get to the 46-47 win range from here.

The only thing that could pose a problem is the number of back-to-backs, but Embiid’s participation in such scenarios of late does bolster their chances of sneaking home court advantage for the first round. As we saw earlier, the Wizards — for as well as they’ve played without Wall — face a tough task maintaining their standing down the stretch.

I think they get past the Wizards for the fourth spot so we’re looking at a potential Raptors-Wizards/Sixers second round.

Who will the Raptors lose to in Game 1 of the first round?

This is the million-dollar question. If there was ever a way to turn anyone that’s still a doubter into a believer when the playoffs begin, it’s to win their first game of the postseason for the first time in franchise history. Who would they have to pull that off against?

Miami: 32-30 (16-13 at home, 16-17 on the road). B2B: 2.

I don’t have too much faith in the Heat. Yes, they’ve given the Raptors fits this season and have a boatload of wings to throw at DeMar DeRozan. Then there’s Goran Dragic. I just can’t see them beating the Raptors four times in a series. Heck, I’d be shocked if they won three. If the Raptors really want to make a statement, dust them in five or less.

The current holders of the eighth seed should fancy their chances of at least holding on to the final playoff spot, with 12 of their final 20 games at home. However, they haven’t been great at home this season and have never really got going.

They signed Dwyane Wade to give the team a boost after they lost five straight, but it seemed to just paper over the cracks. They are 3-4 with him, and needed a 15-point fourth quarter from Wade County to rally past the Bucks.

Half of their games are against teams over .500 (15-19), but I’ve got Mar. 25 circled for when they visit Indiana. The Heat currently hold the tie-breaker lead at 2-1, and that will be the final meeting between the two teams. Read Indiana below for why this will likely matter.

Milwaukee: 33-28 (19-12 at home, 14-16 on the road). B2B: 2.

The honeymoon period for Joe Prunty’s Bucks is certainly over. After a 9-2 stretch which had the rest of the league quaking in their boots, they’ve come back down to earth and lost four of their last five games.

12 of their 21 games are against teams over .500 and they’re a dismal 13-21 on the season against the upper echelon. That’s why I don’t have them competing for the third seed, and left in a dog fight for home court.

Indiana: 34-27 (21-11 at home, 13-16 on the road). B2B: 2.

SIXTEEN of their final 21 games are against teams over .500, with five of those teams having won at over a 70 percent clip this season. They’ve been great at Bankers Life Fieldhouse but have only nine games remaining there. I’m not sure how they don’t slip. At this point, they’re 12-16 against teams at .500 or better.

Victor Oladipo has really struggled with his three-point stroke in 2018, shooting just 30.8 percent from three in January, and a criminal 23.4 percent on 5.9 attempts in February. They’re coming off a couple of bad losses in Dallas and Atlanta, and if there’s a team to potentially slide for the Heat to catch, they’re the ones I’d watch out for.

In case you’re wondering…

Detroit: 29-32 (20-13 at home, 9-19 on the road). B2B: 3.

The Pistons play 13 of their 21 remaining games on the road, where, as you can see above, they’re abysmal. All four of the wins they got out of the gate after Blake Griffin made his debut came against teams that were playing on the second night of a back-to-back. Reggie Jackson is due back in mid-March, and considering how complicated a fit is between Griffin, Andre Drummond, and Jackson, they need a training camp more than anything.

There’s no time for that right now, so I’d be surprised if they disturbed the lower playoff seeds.

Charlotte: 28-34 (18-15 at home, 10-19 on the road). B2B: 2.

The Hornets are just as bad on the road and they play 12 of their 20 remaining games away from the Spectrum Center. They play Cleveland, Washington and Philadelphia at the end of March/early April and that should seal their fate.

Four back in the loss column for the final playoff spot is just going to be too much to overcome.

Final prediction:

  1. Toronto
  2. Boston
  3. Cleveland
  4. Philadelphia
  5. Milwaukee
  6. Washington
  7. Miami
  8. Indiana

So, that leaves the Raptors with the afternoon NBA TV series against the Pacers, either The Process or The Greek Freak in the second round, before King James or whoever you think makes it out of the bottom half.

What are your thoughts? Let us know in the comments below and feel free to @ me when I’m inevitably wrong about all of this.

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Open Gym Ep. 20

The latest episode focuses on important community work the team took part in during All-Star weekend.

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The Bench and the Playoffs

With the success the Raptors have found this year, and April rapidly approaching, pundits around the league have begun to discuss what this year’s Raptors will do in the playoffs, and common threads tend to tie together those pieces. There are discussions about the past playoff struggles of Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan, and the hope that the reduced minutes this season has brought for both players will help to rectify those issues. The other thing that’s often asked, though, is whether a team that has such a dominant bench won’t see some fallback in the postseason, because that bench will end up facing less opposing bench units and more star players.

To some extent, how much a team can increase the minutes of their starters depends on the team. There definitely is some accuracy in the argument, as over the past three seasons, the Cleveland Cavaliers and Golden State Warriors have both seen the minutes of their starters playing an extra 2-4 minutes per game, but many of those extra minutes come in the form of hybrid or transitional lineups, staggering the minutes of various players to try to buy rest for other guys as the game progresses. In fact, in each of those three playoff runs for the Cavaliers, they’ve had at least 9 players averaging 10+ minutes per game. So benches play a role, even for the most top-heavy of teams, and there is littles precedent for a bench as good as the Raptors.

In fact, looking through the data available on, I was only able to find one previous example of a team with two entirely distinct lineups that each played 100+ minutes during the course of a season with a net rating higher than +10. The 2012-13 Los Angeles Clippers had their starting lineup, which only played in 21 games that season, with a net rating of +11.8, and their bench lineup consisting of five players who weren’t part of that starting group, played in 35 games with a net rating of +11. Those Clippers did struggle in the playoffs, losing in the first round to a tough Memphis Grizzlies team, but their bench wasn’t the root of those playoff struggles. That same bench group played 31 minutes in the playoffs and had a +29.8 net rating, so they remained solid despite facing stiffer competition.

Maybe the fact that those Clippers struggled because of their starters brings back some concerns about the past performances of the Raptors own starters, but this is a different group than years past in Toronto. The Raptors with this current core have never entered the playoffs with a starting lineup that was a net positive, let alone one that’s as good as this year’s group. That, combined with the extra rest they’re getting on a nightly basis thanks to the performance of the bench, should yield better results.

Every team that doesn’t live up to expectations in the postseason goes into the summer saying the right things, talking about addressing the problems at hand and becoming a better group the next year to make sure that they never face those disappointments again. Last summer, the Raptors were no different, with Masai Ujiri and Dwane Casey promising to address the offensive struggles and adapt to becoming a more modern team. Those promises didn’t fall flat, with DeMar DeRozan readily embracing a new, more pass-friendly offense, and the development program of the Raptors 905 paying off by delivering a group of ready to contribute young players for the bench.

As the season has progressed, opposing teams have also become more and more aware of the threat posed by the Raptors bench, and they’ve started keeping their star players in to start the second and fourth quarters to try to mitigate those minutes. Not many teams have had success, but it might yield benefits for Toronto, as these rotations have started to more closely mirror what they’ll see in the playoffs, and the bench gets to gain experience playing against tougher groups. Given the month the Raptors just had in February, the results so far have been promising for the Raptors.

It’s still entirely possible that the postseason won’t bring resounding success. The Eastern Conference is tougher than it’s been in a good few years, with young, hungry teams in Milwaukee and Philadelphia looking to make a splash, but this is the best team the Raptors have ever brought to the table by a significant margin, and it stands to reason that the bench will remain one of the catalysts for them in the playoffs. At the very least, despite the concerns raised by some, I wouldn’t expect them to suddenly become a weakness when the first round arrives.

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Gameday: Raptors @ Wizards, March 2

The Toronto Raptors and Washington Wizards have a sort of strange recent history together. From the Michael Ruffin game to the upside-down whiteboard, to a Raptors’ run of eight consecutive regular season wins sandwiched around a Wizards playoff sweep, it’s hard to know what to expect from these two sides. This year alone, the Wizards have beaten the Raptors twice without John Wall, games that stand out as rare missteps in a season that hasn’t had many bad ones for the Raptors.

The two sides will close out the season series in Washington on Friday, with the Raptors looking to even things up at 2-2. For a Wizards team still down Wall and fighting for home court in the first round of the playoffs, every win carries a pretty heavy weight – they’re only half a game back of Cleveland for the third seed in the Eastern Conference but also only two up on Philadelphia, down in the sixth spot, so there’s little room for a slide. Things are more straight-forward for the Raptors, who lead Boston by half a game atop the conference and would like to stay there, though they’re at no risk of falling any further than second.

It’s an interesting clash of teams playing to new offensive identities. The Raptors have varied their approach with more threes and far more assists, and the Wizards without Wall have been one of the most assist-happy teams in the NBA. Washington also does well to crash the offensive glass and force turnovers on defense, looking for an edge in the number of shooting possessions over the course of a game. The Raptors, meanwhile, are among the league’s best overall at both ends of the floor but are a bit susceptible on their own glass. Both teams foul opponents a lot, too, so this late start may eat up most of your Friday if the game gets gummed up and physical.

The game tips off at 8 on Sportsnet One and Sportsnet 590.

To help set the stage, we reached out to Conor Dirks of Truth About It, who was kind enough to help us out.

Blake Murphy: The Wizards stood still at the deadline. Did this surprise you at all, given some of the depth concerns?

Conor Dirks: It surprised me in just one sense. There was a moment when it seemed like a Gortat trade was a necessity, given the rancor he stirred up with cryptic Twitter fingers following a few Wall-less “team” wins. When Wall showed up one night doing the rounds on national television promoting Kumho Tires (I know…) on every major sports network and openly bitching about his perception of Gortat’s comments, it felt for a day or two like something had to give prior to the deadline. The reports of Washington shopping Gortat flooded in. But there’s just one problem: Washington has very little depth behind Gortat. Mahinmi is a disaster, and there’s simply no one else on the roster that can give the team 25 minutes of classic center play. Without getting a center in return, there wasn’t much room for a deal. Washington is hemmed in by their own lack of desirable assets too. A lot of teams, like the Raptors, keep a stable of young players. The Wizards have Kelly Oubre Jr., and then they have their big three (Wall, Beal, Porter). That’s about it.

Blake Murphy: What depth concerns! This team is humming without John Wall, winning 10 of their last 14 overall. I’ve long been a fan of Tim Frazier, and I know Tomas Satoransky hive was alive and well at one point prior to Wall’s injury. Where is your comfort level with the point guard depth chart right now?

Conor Dirks: I feel great about Washington’s point guard depth, especially after Wall’s return. The Wizards recently signed Ramon Sessions to a 10-day, but I’d have advocated against signing another point guard to replace Wall. The Wizards have far bigger needs at wing. After Beal, it’s Jodie Meeks, a 3-point specialist who has been anything but special this year. After Porter, it’s Oubre, but Oubre also backs up Markieff Morris, and Beal. It’s unlikely that Sessions will see much of the court, given that Satoransky has been fantastic, and Frazier has been mostly adequate. For the long term, Frazier is a good third string point guard. A Satoransky extension should be a priority for Washington in the offseason. He’s on a great deal right now (around $3 million per year), but it expires after next season.

Blake Murphy: There’s been a huge shift in team assist percentage with Wall out, despite the fact that Wall is a good playmaker in general, particularly in terms of creating corner threes for teammates. What gives with the shift to a more democratic approach here? This is the Raptors’ season narrative, get your own.

Conor Dirks: Ha! Well, this is a sensitive subject among Washington fans. How can a guy who often sits among the league’s top assist-getters be discouraging ball movement? Two ways, at least. First, Wall needs to move off of the ball. He developed a really bad habit of sitting plays out when the action featured Beal. Wizards possessions simply weren’t as dynamic as they’ve been lately, even if they were often more exciting on an individual basis. Wall has a tendency to look for passes that set his teammates up for a shot, rather than passes that progress the offense one step along a multi-step path. Which leads me to the second way in which the Wizards became more democratic: the most consistent teams in the league (the Warriors, the Spurs, the Raptors, and others) approach possessions in a fundamentally different way than the Wizards typically did this season. While the best teams churn through passes and cuts until the defense can’t keep up, the Wizards relied too much on Wall and Beal creating shots through sheer force of will or individual talent. Some games, that worked. But it wasn’t consistent.

Blake Murphy: I’m burying the Bradley Beal stuff here because I’ve seen enough of him already this year. 27-6-6 and 38-5-4 in the two Wizards wins against Toronto, both without Wall. It seems silly to ask, but the Raptors fanbase at one time had a bit of a Lowry/DeRozan debate in terms of A1 importance (despite the obvious symbiosis). Is any of that brewing with Wall/Beal?

Conor Dirks: I think that Beal will keep deferring to Wall when they’re both healthy, even despite Beal’s All-Star season (and it’s been a really, really great one). But the debate is legitimate. I still believe that Wall is Washington’s A1, but it’s closer than it was a season ago. The good news is that despite some strange reports a few years ago and real differences in personality, the two players really enjoy each other and play well off of each other. The burden has been heavy on the two of them over the years, as Washington’s management failed over and over again to produce a viable bench. Now that the burden has been alleviated a little bit with Satoransky and Oubre’s emergence, I expect the bond between Wall and Beal will remain strong, much like it has with Lowry and DeRozan.

Blake Murphy: Kelly Oubre still wavy?

Conor Dirks: You tell me.

Raptors updates
The Raptors may have to tweak their starting lineup for the first time since Jan. 13 here. That’s a really long stretch of the starting five being uninterrupted, and on the season in general, the team’s good health has helped that unit forge a nice chemistry. They’ve started together 42 times, playing 655 minutes, a total that not only ranks near the top of the league but is closing in one the most heavily used lineup in the time we have lineup data available for (lineup data goes back to 2007-08; the 2013-14 lineup of Lowry-DeRozan-Ross-Johnson-Valanciunas played 717 minutes together). The reason there could be a change here is that OG Anunoby is listed as doubtful after spraining his right ankle for the second time this season on Wednesday. The Raptors almost always list players as questionable if their status is up in the air, so the doubtful tag is noticeable here.

Norman Powell would probably draw the start if Anunoby can’t go. He’s started in the two halves Anunoby’s missed so far this year, including the second half on Wednesday. There’s a case to be made, especially if Anunoby is going to miss significant time, that C.J. Miles or even Delon Wright start in that spot, instead, but opposite Bradley Beal and the Wizards, Powell makes the most sense defensively (this didn’t work well once earlier this year, but in broad skillset, Powell fits). Plus, the team needs to try to get Powell going at some point, and he might be running low on chances. His usage has been criminally low with the starters. At the very least, his defense has been fine there, and the Powell-with-starters group has a positive net rating in 50 minutes together in 2018.

PG: Kyle Lowry, Delon Wright, Fred VanVleet
SG: DeMar DeRozan
SF: Norman Powell, C.J. Miles, Malcolm Miller
PF: Serge Ibaka, Pascal Siakam
C: Jonas Valanciunas, Jakob Poeltl, Lucas Nogueira
OUT: None
TBD: OG Anunoby
905: Malachi Richardson, Alfonzo McKinnie, Lorenzo Brown

Wizards updates
Washington is hanging in just fine without Wall right now. For the season, the team is still better off with him than without – a plus-4.3 net rating with him on the court and minus-0.4 without – but playing to nearly even without one of your All-Stars is still pretty good. A large part of that has been the success of the starting lineup as a group – they’ve now played 259 minutes together and have a plus-12 net rating, a really good mark for a high-usage group that parallels Toronto’s starters (though the Raptors have a much larger sample). That was not the case when Tim Frazier was starting over Tomas Satoranksy (minus-4.4 in 199 minutes), and Frazier’s slid back into a backup role effectively.

The Wizards are still think. Only about eight of these players are playing like they deserve rotation slots, and so naturally Jodie Meeks has hurt the Raptors in the past. One Washington win was all Bradley Beal and the other saw eight Wizards score in double-figures, including Meeks and Ian Mahinmi, who have drawn ire from Wizards fans for their inconsistent play (Meeks is shooting 31.5 percent on threes). Beal is where the defensive gameplan will place its heaviest emphasis, though, and if they can do a reasonable job containing him, the Raptors will be in decent shape.

PG: Tomas Satoransky, Tim Frazier, Ramon Sessions
SG: Bradley Beal, Jodie Meeks
SF: Otto Porter, Kelly Oubre
PF: Markieff Morris, Mike Scott, Chris McCullough
C: Marcin Gortat, Ian Mahinmi, Jason Smith
OUT: John Wall
TBD: None
G-League (no affiliate): Devin Robinson

The line
The Raptors are 3-point favorites on the road here, with a 216.5 over-under.

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Playmaking from the Wings

Lorenzo Brown defines the offence for the Raptors 905. He is a terrific scorer and passer in the pick and roll, isolation, and transition. He leads the team in scoring and assists. But what happens when he sits? The 905’s bench offence is run by a combination of solidity and passing from Kaza Keane combined with scoring from Davion Berry. Keane has an assist percentage of 36.5 on the season, and Berry attempts more shots than any other 905er off the bench. That’s been the players who handle the ball for the 905, and they’ve been consistent as the 905 have become one of the most dangerous teams in the G-League.

That consistency has been shattered in recent games. Lorenzo Brown is out with an ankle injury that has kept him out of all but 5 minutes in the last 5 games. Kaza Keane and starting shooting guard, Aaron Best, are away with Team Canada. The 905 are left with Kethan Savage – naturally a wing, or at most a combo-guard – as the starting point guard, and the team has given Davion Berry some chances at creating for others as well.

Coach Jerry Stackhouse knows that his team is at a disadvantage, but he isn’t sweating it: “We really don’t have a true point guard right now, but I thought those guys have done a good job.”

Stack pointed out that Berry is at his best scoring off the ball, but he doesn’t think the team has enough secondary initiators to allow Berry to shift off the ball: “We don’t really have, with Malachi or Malcolm or Alfonzo, a secondary ball handler where we could let them handle or facilitate the offence. It’s just not part of their game right now.”

Unfortunately for Stack, he has had no choice but to give those guys some run at facilitating the offence. Being without a single true point guard has given the 905 a unique opportunity. They boast several high-level wings who can create for themselves almost at will in the G-League. Alfonzo McKinnie (assignment), Malachi Richardson, and Malcolm Miller (two way) are both NBA players who dominate in the G-League, and both have defaulted into increased playmaking duties with Lorenzo on the shelf and Keane and Best representing their country.

Miller is a little rosier on his playmaking ability than his coach (which is almost always true of players): “Savage is gonna take a couple pick and rolls, but you know the rest of us have to step up too. You know Alfonzo came off a couple pick and rolls [against Wisconsin], and he’s been making good plays out there. It is a part of our game that we can utilize.”

Miller’s ability to create for others has been mixed in the few games without Brown. Against the Maine Red Claws, during the game in which Brown was injured, Miller completed an incredible wraparound pass that showcased a dream scenario for his development as a playmaker. He drove immediately after receiving a pass, and he beat his defender easily due to his shooting ability and decisiveness. Drawing the helping big, Miller threw an on-target pass behind his defenders’ backs to Shevon Thompson for the easy dunk. This is high-level stuff, and it’s good to see Miller complete a play like this.

His ability to complete those passes consistently has been shaky. Against the Wisconsin Herd, Miller threw multiple passes that were tipped by opponents on their way to shooters.

Here he pump-faked (and probably traveled) before driving baseline. When a Plumlee (of course one plays for Wisconsin) met him at the rim, Miller turned and looked for an open passing lane. The jump pass almost resulted in a turnover, and Miller wasn’t ready to pass the ball until after he decided he couldn’t finish at the rim.

Here Miller ran a delayed pick and roll (more like a slip and roll? Is that a thing?) with Kennedy Meeks. Miller successfully drew both defenders, but he couldn’t slip the ball through the cracks into the defence to find the rolling Meeks. The ball was tipped multiple times on its way to its target. This play ended up counting as an assist, but it could just as easily have been a turnover.

Because of Miller’s incredible shooting ability, he can make plays for others without even touching the ball. Here, he passes the ball to Alfonzo McKinnie on the wing and immediately follows the ball to seemingly set a screen. He even signals to set a screen with his raised fist. But then he sprints behind McKinnie’s defender, slipping out to fade behind the 3-point arc. This draws his own defender as well as McKinnie’s for a fraction of a moment, which provides McKinnie with an open lane to drive middle.

This is an off-beat way to leverage someone’s playmaking; Steph Curry frequently creates open drives for his Warrior teammates with these fake ball screens (Lowry does the same for Toronto). Miller does that here, and this is an easy way to create open shots without putting a wing as the handler in the pick and roll.

Another easy way to get buckets is in transition. The 905 wings are heads up players, always aware of their surroundings. Miller, McKinnie, and Richardson combined for 9 assists in just the first quarter against the Herd, and several of those came in transition. Here McKinnie gets a defensive rebound and immediately gathers to hit ahead to Meeks, who leaked out ahead of the defenders.

McKinnie denies that with Brown out, he’s focussing more on creating for others: “I wouldn’t say [I am working more on my facilitating] just because [Lorenzo’s] out. I mean, every day we work on driving, kicking it, swinging it to the open man. That’s just something we emphasize every day in practice.”

Whether he gets more chances in games or not, Alfonzo McKinnie did have some great passes out of his drives against the Herd, though they didn’t always result in baskets. Here he rejected a Meeks screen and drove baseline, drawing the helper from the far corner. McKinnie threw an on-target weak hand spray to Malcolm Miller in the corner, although it didn’t result in a made basket. Regardless, being able to make this pass consistently is an important development for McKinnie’s game as an NBA prospect.

On this baseline drive, McKinnie receives the ball after a few swings; the defence is rotating to take away his shot. He instead puts the ball on the floor and finds Meeks for an easy (missed) layup after drawing the help.

Passing out of these drives is one skill on which McKinnie is working hardest to improve his game for the Raptors: “Slot-line drives, and being able to finish, and when I do slot-line drive and get to the basket, if there’s a guy coming at me, [I need to be] make that extra pass. That’s the most important thing on the offensive end.”

Richardson can make the same dump-off pass on his baseline drives:

Miller, McKinnie, and Richardson have playmaking chops, but their increased responsibilities are just part of a larger gameplan. They may only have an increased 2-3 possessions per game each creating out of the pick and roll, but development, as always, is part of a process.

Stackhouse was happy with how his wings executed the offensive gameplan without Lorenzo Brown: “We’re driving the ball and looking for opportunities for others. Once we spray the ball, and drive, kick it, and swing it, then it opens things up for you later on in the game, and I think that’s how we have to try to approach it, and those guys, that was an emphasis for us coming into this game. Making sure that we get into the paint, kick it, then as the game goes on, they’ll start staying at home on our shooters and then you’ll have an opportunity to finish.”

Giving their wings more reps at initiating the offence gives the 905 a more dangerous look when the team is finally back to full strength. Lorenzo Brown can run an offence by himself, but with Miller and McKinnie especially developing their secondary facilitation skills, the 905 offence can only improve.

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Raptors-Magic Reaction Podcast – Yak & Skillz

William Lou recaps the Toronto Raptors’ win over the Orlando Magic.


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Raptors turn it on very late, still beat Magic by 13

Raptors 117, Magic 104 | Box Score | Quick Reaction | Reaction Podcast

The Toronto Raptors beat the Orlando Magic 117-104 on Wednesday. It was…not as great as that sounds, another example of an effort somewhere south of the Raptors’ best still being good enough quite often. Anyone who did a quick check of the box score late may have disagreed, because the final score and lines wrap things up fairly neatly. The Raptors shot reasonably well, had over 30 assists again, got quality lines from the stars, and got a big boost from three of the Second Unit Saints. They won by 13, and their stars played reasonable minutes. Big-picture, it was fine. Watching start-to-finish was far less pleasurable, with the Raptors dragging their feet for most of the night. They’re good enough to do that, though it is sometimes irritating.

The first quarter contained some very pretty offensive basketball. Those looking for a defensive showdown should be warned against watching those 12 minutes, which saw the Raptors score 1.74 points per-possession and still only take a five-point lead out of the frame. Everyone was involved early, with seven different Raptors scoring at least five points, the team dishing 11 assists on 16 field goals, and the 3-point shooting of Kyle Lowry and C.J. Miles being supplemented by threes from OG Anunoby and Jonas Valanciunas. Valanciunas ran into early foul trouble, which would have been concerning against Nikola Vucevic had Jakob Poeltl not come in and helped kick-start an 8-0 run. He’d later make a pair of tough finishes on the dive and kick a Fred VanVleet dump-off out to Miles for a pretty three. Pretty Miles threes were par for the course, as another on an inbound play maintained the two-for-one opportunity and got him an open look.

The defense just wasn’t there in support. Evan Fournier was free for threes as much as Miles, Shelvin Mack somewhat inexplicably got into the teeth of the defense, and a few apparent miscommunications (or over-eager switches) saw Aaron Gordon attacking a lot of mismatches early on. The difference between the sides, of course, is that the Raptors have the talent to more reliably expect their shot-making to stay at that kind of a level. All due respect to Mario Hezonja, who’s been red-hot of late, but the Magic bench is not the Raptors bench. They did turn in a good second quarter, though, besting the vaunted all-bench Raptors group by five over five minutes despite some strong Delon Wright play. Toronto’s offense was just a little too imprecise, while the defense wasn’t quite making the Magic feel them the way it normally would.

It was a little odd, seeing the bench on a bad team win a lengthy stretch, especially when Bismack Biyombo extended it with a game-tying dunk out of a Raptors’ timeout. Dwane Casey maintained a loose leash, once again staggering the return of starters to get a peak at the three-point guard lineup, and VanVleet and Poeltl each responded by drawing contact inside, the latter finishing up a really strong half with a great contest before making way for Valanciunas again. Serge Ibaka became the 10th Raptor to score immediately upon returning, though the return of the starting unit was short-lived due to an injury to Anunoby. Norman Powell got a look as a result, DeMar DeRozan picked up a frustration technical shortly after, and Ibaka brought a momentary spark with a block at the rim that was a part of four consecutive stops to end the half.

That was about the best sustained defensive stretch the team had early, to damn with faint praise. So while the Raptors’ never really slowed down on offense – they shot 63 percent overall, 62 percent on threes, and had 20 assists to seven turnovers – a complete inability to slow Orlando led to a 69-63 halftime score. That’s an unacceptable defensive performance even with the shot-making variance caveat, a 128.8 defensive rating against a below-average offense.

The third quarter saw some regression both ways, or “adjustments” if you prefer to be kind. Some of that was imprecision, like Lowry missing free throws or DeRozan and Ibaka missing a connection for a turnover. It took over two minutes for the Raptors to get on the board, allowing Orlando to pull off a 9-2 run and take their first lead since midway through the first. That pretty dispiriting stretch saw no change to the lineup out of a timeout, but the Raptors at least ran a pet out-of-timeout play to free Lowry for a three, setting up more of the same offense-only back-and-forth. It devolved for stretches – centers missing threes! – though not in the favor of either side until the Raptors’ bench mercifully showed up. VanVleet ripped a ball from Fournier late in the shot clock, fed Siakam in transition, and he dumped it off to DeRozan, that single play momentarily reminding the Raptors they were running out of time for their usual pull-away.

An 8-0 run could have given the Raptors control entering the fourth, had the Raptors not gone off the rails in the final minute, with Lowry essentially handing the Magic a lifeline in the form of two bad turnovers to cause a 6-0 counter-run. That this hasn’t happened all that made it feel a little unfamiliar, especially since it’s been so long since it happened against a bad team. The Raptors used to have a bit of a rep for letting lesser teams hang around, but this was out of character. Blame the guy with clunky sandals in the sight line of the Raptors’ shooters, I guess.

In any case, the Raptors eventually figured it out. Orlando hung around until about five minutes into the fourth, when it was still a one-point game and the bench finally found the gear that neither unit had stumbled onto yet. VanVleet drilled a three, Miles came up with an offensive rebound for a dunk, a VanVleet steal made it’s way to Poeltl and then Wright for a dunk, and the stars had a lead when they returned. Those were the only starters Casey opted to go back to, closing with VanVleet, Lowry, DeRozan, and the backup bigs, and that group promptly put to rest any concerns. In fact, an alley-oop from Lowry to Siakam in the closing seconds momentarily put the Raptors ahead by 14, which would have made them the most dominant team in the history of NBA Februaries. Sadly, Hezonja added a free-throw to leave the Raptors a fraction of a point in margin behind the 1989-90 Phoenix Suns.

This was anything but a good representation of how good the Raptors have been during that stretch, even with a 117-104 final. On the one hand, they sleep-walked (slept-walked?) through three quarters and still beat a team by double-digits, which certainly says something about how good they are and how easy it is for them to casually shift into gear for the few minutes it takes to put away lesser teams. On the other, the Magic – the Magic! – hung around for 40 minutes and scored 108.1 points per-100 possessions. It’s a very weird thing to say, but it almost seems like the Raptors might need a run of challenges to sharpen them up after a month of bludgeoning teams and two or three months of a softer schedule where they’ve only occasionally had to play complete games. Again, it’s great that their margin for error is so large. They’re really good. It’s just probably also true that upcoming games with Washington, Houston, Indiana and the like will be helpful and instructive.

And hey, on the bright side, the Raptors had an offensive rating of 200 and a defensive rating of 0 in their eight seconds of “clutch time” in this one.

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Nets bring league-best defence in 4th to beat 905

Photo credit: Christian Bonin /

Raptors 905 105 vs. Long Island Nets 109 | Box score
Assignees: Alfonzo McKinnie, Malachi Richardson (905). Isaiah Whitehead (Nets).
Two-ways: None (905). James Webb III (Nets).

The Raptors 905 fell to their division rival, the Long Island Nets, 109-105 on Wednesday at the Hershey Centre, dropping to 25-17 on the season and gaining some separation from the now 23-17 Nets.

With under 40 seconds remaining, Jerry Stackhouse elected not to call a timeout trailing by two and possession of the ball. They put the ball in Davion Berry’s hands, and he was able to beat his man off the dribble and get to the rim, but as had been the case all fourth quarter, the Nets rim protection proved too tough to beat.

The 905 tried playing the foul game thereafter, but it was all for nought.

“We had enough opportunities,” an irate Stackhouse said after the game. “We had enough chances to make sound basketball plays and we didn’t. That gave them easy opportunities and that resulted in the loss. This is a tough one for us to swallow. This could have easily been a game that we needed to have for tie-breaking purposes and everything so this could be really detrimental if we don’t find a way to tighten this thing up really quick.”

The two teams came into this game as the two highest ranked teams in defensive rating, and they saved the best of it for last. With the 905 carrying an 85-83 lead into the fourth quarter, both teams ramped up the intensity and couldn’t find a way past each other. They combined for just 13 points in the first six minutes of the quarter, before the floodgates were opened by Alfonzo McKinnie.

First, Fuquan Edwin found him off penetration for an open three, before Kaza Keane and McKinnie combined to repeat the trick on their next possession. It was Edwin’s turn to shine after that, scoring a tough two inside and then stealing the inbounds. Though the 905 didn’t get a score there, he came back and hit a three-pointer a couple of possessions later after Long Island extended their lead to three.

While the numbers pointed to a tough, grind out game between the league’s two best defensive teams, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that these two teams were involved in another barn burner for three quarters, at least.

After a couple of games where neither team crossed the 100-point mark even once, the Nets and 905 showed the best of their offences in a 125-119 victory for Long Island three weeks ago. After being held to 8-of-30 shooting in the first two contests, there was little the 905 could do to limit Milton Doyle in that contest, who poured in 42 points which included a ridiculous 11-of-15 shooting from behind the three-point line.

“A guy like that, he’s going to get his shots, but you’ve just got to try and make it tough on him,” Stackhouse said before the game. “It was just his night. He was coming off a slump, had six points in the game prior to us. We helped him a little bit by being in the wrong spots. Looking back at that game, we were a step slow everywhere.”

With Lorenzo Brown out for his fifth straight game with an ankle sprain and Malcolm Miller traveling with the parent club to Orlando, head coach Jerry Stackhouse decided to mix things up with the starting lineup.

“We’ll try to utilize our bigs a little more with Malcolm out,” Stackhouse said before the game. “Try to play two bigs together and see how that works out.”

Among the reasons this can work for the 905 is that Thompson is adept at defending the perimeter, and both are capable of helping the team execute from the high post in their halfcourt sets. It also helps that the Nets are among the league’s worst rebounding teams.

Aaron Best and Kaza Keane also returned to the starting five to help ramp up the defensive presence, and the changes proved to be a stroke of genius early. The 905 went on a 9-0 run after the teams exchanged a pair of buckets, sparked by a seemingly life-ending slam by Shevon Thompson over Kamari Murphy.

Four turnovers in the next three minutes after the reserves checked in erased that good work, though, and a hot Isaiah Whitehead who was coming off a 52-point effort against the Greensboro Swarm. The game was fairly even for the remainder of the half, although one might argue the 905 deserved more than two for this sweet alley-oop.

Knotted at 58 to start the second half, the Nets got out to a quick 6-0 start as the 905 struggled to execute in the halfcourt. They got a bit of their big-to-big action going thereafter, with Thompson and Meeks hooking each other up on a couple of high-low feeds. Davion Berry was the master thereafter, orchestrating the offense and getting to the basket at will.

The 905 came away with a huge play to end the third quarter after the Nets scored with two seconds remaining. The Long Island coach urged his team to press full court, and with all five players in the 905 half, Fuquan Edwin leaked ahead of the pack. Berry threw a perfect pass the full length of the court which led to an uncontested layup at the buzzer and a two-point lead heading into the final frame.


  • Assignment notes
    • Alfonzo McKinnie did a nice job on the glass but was fairly anonymous on offense outside of his two big threes. He shot 5-of-15 from the floor outside of those two makes and struggled to finish in the paint. Credit the Nets defense for that, as they made it a good job of staying vertical and showing bodies around the rim.
    • With the 905 having just one game remaining on Saturday before an entire week off, it wouldn’t surprise me to see Lorenzo Brown get Mar. 3 off and have his rest maximized and get himself energized for the final stretch of the season.
  • 905 notes
    • Another solid performance by Davion Berry, who took on the majority of the ball handling duties with Kethan Savage not in use in this one. He had 10 at the half and was relentless in attacking the rim as he finished with 16 points, six assists and four rebounds for the game.
    • Fuquan Edwin also quietly put in some good minutes, scoring 15 points to go along with five assists.
    • Former Mississauga mayor Hazel McCallion was in attendance for this one, and was presented with a jersey during the second timeout of the second quarter.

  • While the 905 did exceedingly well to ensure Milton Doyle didn’t have another big night, James Webb III more than picked up the slack. He had 15 at the half and finished with 26 for the game.
  • The 905 now travel to Wisconsin to take on Brandon Jennings and the Herd on Saturday after which they’ll have an entire week off. A friendly reminder that promo code “REPUBLIC905” will get you a discount for home games at this link all season long.
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Quick Reaction: Raptors 117, Magic 104

Toronto 117 Final
Box Score
104 Orlando

S. Ibaka23 MIN, 7 PTS, 2 REB, 0 AST, 1 STL, 3-7 FG, 1-2 3FG, 0-0 FT, 1 BLK, 2 TO, 6 +/-

To be honest, Serge was just mostly invisible in this one. He wasn’t involved in the offense during the first quarter when both teams couldn’t miss, and didn’t have much of a defensive impact either. The Raptors could’ve used him being a presence, but he wasn’t one.

O. Anunoby10 MIN, 7 PTS, 2 REB, 1 AST, 0 STL, 3-3 FG, 1-1 3FG, 0-1 FT, 0 BLK, 1 TO, 10 +/-

OG was having a really nice game, especially offensively, where he looked confident shooting the ball and had a great assist to Jak in the paint, before going down with what’s being called a sprained ankle in the second quarter and missing the rest of the night. Hopefully it’s nothing serious.

J. Valanciunas20 MIN, 10 PTS, 5 REB, 1 AST, 0 STL, 4-6 FG, 1-2 3FG, 1-2 FT, 1 BLK, 2 TO, 0 +/-

Hit a three, scored some easy buckets and put up efficient numbers, but struggled some defensively too, with Orlando’s offense mostly coming from the three-point line and not really leaving Jonas with a natural assignment.

K. Lowry33 MIN, 19 PTS, 7 REB, 10 AST, 0 STL, 7-12 FG, 4-8 3FG, 1-5 FT, 0 BLK, 2 TO, 15 +/-

Kyle came out firing and put up a great stat line in this one, but he also struggled a lot defensively, frequently dying on screens and losing his man, and single-handedly created a 6-0 Magic run to end the third quarter with a pair of ugly turnovers. Also, uncharacteristically bad free throw shooting night.

D. DeRozan34 MIN, 21 PTS, 3 REB, 4 AST, 1 STL, 6-13 FG, 0-3 3FG, 9-11 FT, 0 BLK, 1 TO, 11 +/-

DeMar had some very pretty baskets tonight and got to the free throw line, contributing a lot of efficient points. He also had a rough defensive night though, and needs to work harder to get around screens and not allow the opposing offense to force easy switches and create mismatches using him.

J. Poeltl28 MIN, 13 PTS, 8 REB, 4 AST, 3 STL, 5-7 FG, 0-0 3FG, 3-3 FT, 3 BLK, 1 TO, 13 +/-

Fantastic game from Jak. Came in early with Jonas in foul trouble, and helped the Raptors build an 8-point lead in the first quarter quickly. He was the best defensive player the Raptors had, controlling the paint while he was out there, and also showed off his passing skills and touch in the paint, scoring a pretty reverse layup in the first half and a huge dunk in the fourth quarter. Was a big part of the fourth quarter run that sealed the game.

F. VanVleet26 MIN, 12 PTS, 3 REB, 4 AST, 2 STL, 4-9 FG, 3-4 3FG, 1-2 FT, 0 BLK, 2 TO, 9 +/-

Fred had a rough second quarter, but made up for it in the fourth when he hit a couple big threes to help seal the game.

P. Siakam25 MIN, 14 PTS, 6 REB, 5 AST, 1 STL, 7-9 FG, 0-1 3FG, 0-0 FT, 1 BLK, 0 TO, 7 +/-

The frontcourt of the future for the Raptors has had an excellent February, and Jak and Skills led the way again tonight. Pascal showed off his complete game again, with some great passing, solid defense, and running the floor in transition.

C. Miles15 MIN, 8 PTS, 4 REB, 1 AST, 0 STL, 3-9 FG, 2-7 3FG, 0-0 FT, 0 BLK, 0 TO, -4 +/-

CJ hit some big shots during the second quarter to help keep the game close when Orlando couldn’t miss, but his defense late was a problem, and he gave up some rough fouls when he was caught out of position during the final frame.

D. Wright13 MIN, 6 PTS, 2 REB, 1 AST, 1 STL, 3-8 FG, 0-2 3FG, 0-0 FT, 0 BLK, 1 TO, 1 +/-

Delon’s presence wasn’t felt on the defensive end in this one, which is unusual to say for him. Didn’t have the most impressive night offensively either, but did make a couple important plays in the fourth quarter.

N. Powell11 MIN, 0 PTS, 0 REB, 0 AST, 0 STL, 0-0 FG, 0-0 3FG, 0-0 FT, 0 BLK, 0 TO, -3 +/-

Norm got minutes tonight with OG hurt, but the empty stat line is pretty representative of his play. He was a body on the floor, but wasn’t impactful at either end of the floor, and didn’t bring the defense that we know he can.

Dwane Casey

Would’ve been nice to see Casey find some defensive answers at some point in this game, but he came through enough at the end, and trusted his bench to get the job done.

Things We Saw

  1. Not quite the best February ever. The Raptors needed to win by 14 to secure that mark, and fell short by one point. Still, a remarkable month for a team that’s really putting it together. Despite the rough game in this one, they found enough good minutes to win, and sometimes that’s just as important for a good team, finding a way to win the tough games.
  2. Orlando is a surprisingly fun team for one that isn’t terribly good. They play with pace and have guys who can hit shots when they get hot, and everyone got hot in this game.
  3. Friday night is going to be the only playoff team the Raptors face in their next four games, when they visit Washington. With a two game lead in the loss column remaining after Boston won tonight as well, that’ll be an important test both as far as how the Raptors match up with another streaking Eastern Conference team, and as far as securing the first seed going into the playoffs.
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OG Anunoby leaves game with right ankle sprain

Still just a year removed from an ACL injury, breath will be baited whenever OG Anunoby is found limping in an NBA game.

That was the case late in the second quarter against the Orlando Magic on Wednesday, as Anunoby appeared to roll an ankle making a tough basket in transition. He missed a free throw and stayed in the game for a pair of possessions before checking out and heading to the locker room with Alex McKechnie.

Anunoby has been ruled out for the remainder of the game with a right ankle sprain. There’s no word on severity beyond that, and with the team on the road, there may not be an update until prior to Friday’s game. It is the same ankle he sprained earlier in the year.

Anunoby had 10 points on perfect shooting from the floor in 10 minutes before exiting. The Toronto Raptors’ rookie has appeared in all 60 of the teams games this season, missing only one half due to an ankle sprain. He’d looked a little bouncier since the All-Star break, which makes sense given he’d never played anywhere close to this many games in a season before. For the year, he’s averaging 5.9 points and 2.4 rebounds, hitting 34.9 percent of his threes and posting the second-best net rating of any Raptor regular.

Norman Powell checked in to replace him and would figure to absorb any minutes Anunoby has to abandon.

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Pre-game news & notes: Brown still hurt for 905; Gordon plays for Magic

14 points.

Beat the Orlando Magic by 14 points on Wednesday and the Toronto Raptors are owners of the biggest scoring differential in February in NBA history. Does that mean much? No, not at all. They lost two close games and hung on in one other, and those are the games and situations the team is focused on. And rightfully so. Still, blowing out just about everyone else they faced – inferior or equal – all month is a pretty cool footnote.

And the Raptors will be favored heavily here, though not quite by 14. Toronto is a top-five unit on both ends of the floor and comes in with no rest disadvantage or injuries, nor an upcoming back-to-back to worry about. They can just go out there and play, leaning heavily on their bench once again. The Magic have actually cobbled together a decent offense this year, but they’re a bottom-five defense and the second-worst defensive rebounding team in the league, even with former Raptors favorite Bismack Biyombo. Other than occasionally push the pace – which isn’t good or bad necessarily – there’s not one thing the Magic do better than league average on a consistent basis. They’ve also dropped six games in a row after a short-lived three-game winning streak.

Still, there are challenges. Everyone knows what Biyombo can do around the rim, Nikola Vucevic is a fun test for Jonas Valanciunas

The game tips off at 7 on TSN and TSN 1050. You can check out the full game preview here.

Raptors updates
Given the Raptors’ dominance in February, it feels like an appropriate time to check in on how the success of the team, and bench in particular, has helped rest the stars. A good place to start is that DeMar DeRozan is the only player on the team averaging even 30 minutes over the last 10 games. Despite missing zero games this year, DeRozan ranks just 19th in total minutes played. Kyle Lowry is down at 51st. Serge Ibaka? 104th. These ranks matter. Or not the ranks, rather, but what they show in terms of team-wide fatigue. The less the toll on these players to this point, the less likely it is they need significant rest down the stretch and the more likely it is they reach the postseason in good form. What’s more, with the No. 1 seed in the balance and five back-to-backs still on the ledger (including a five-game week).

Anyway, you know how this goes by now. It’s a 10-man rotation, they’ll look to find minutes for Norman Powell, and they’ll turn things to Lucas Nogueira and Malcolm Miller if all goes well.

PG: Kyle Lowry, Delon Wright, Fred VanVleet
SG: DeMar DeRozan, Norman Powell
SF: OG Anunoby, C.J. Miles, Malcolm Miller
PF: Serge Ibaka, Pascal Siakam
C: Jonas Valanciunas, Jakob Poeltl, Lucas Nogueira
OUT: None
TBD: None
905: Malachi Richardson, Alfonzo McKinnie, Lorenzo Brown

Magic updates
The Magic got some good news at shootaround, as Aaron Gordon was upgraded from questionable to in. Gordon’s been dealing with some hip soreness, and his absence would have left the Magic even more thin than they normally operate. Even if it hasn’t materialized dramatically in on/off impact – Gordon is sixth among Magic regulars with a minus-2.6 net rating and the team is minus-5.9 without him – he’s taken great strides in his fourth season in the league. His true-shooting percentage has nudged to a career-best on career-high usage, his three is falling at roughly a league-average clip on heavy volume, and a full-time move to power forward has agreed with him, as always seemed likely.

Also benefiting from a move to more time at the four has been Mario Hezonja, the No. 5 pick who is finally rewarding my unrelenting faith in him now that the Magic have let him his restricted free agency a year early. Hezonja is averaging 12.7 points in 25.7 minutes since Dec. 13, shooting 47.3/35.8/82.1 and actually providing some help on the glass and with steals. Over the last month, those numbers have edged even higher, and Hezonja is averaging 15.3 points while hitting 42.6 percent on nearly five threes per-game.

Orlando will still be without their brightest shining offensive star, though, as Terrence Ross remains sidelined. Jonathan Isaac is also out Marreese Speights is expected back after a short absence for personal reasons. The turnover and injuries on the Magic are such that they won’t have a single lineup available to them here that’s played even 100 minutes together yet, with the projected starters topping the list at 92 minutes (plus-0.5 net rating).

PG: D.J. Augustin, Shelvin Mack
SG: Jonathan Simmons, Rashad Vaughn, Arron Afflalo
SF: Evan Fournier, Wesley Iwundu
PF: Aaron Gordon, Mario Hezonja
C: Nikola Vucevic, Bismack Biyombo, Khem Birch, Marreese Speights
OUT: Terrence Ross, Jonathan Isaac
TBD: Marreese Speights
Lakeland: Jamel Artis


The line
The Raptors are 9.5-point favorites with a 220.5 over-under.

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Old Faithful: Why Kyle Lowry is Having a Better Season than You Think

There is a lingering criticism that buzzes around the head of Kyle Lowry, brought on by talking heads and the quick-to-judge section of NBA Twitter: He can’t lead a team in the playoffs. Heck, he can’t even play well in the playoffs.

He can’t. He can’t. He can’t.

Last regular season, Lowry was the belle of the ball. He put up great numbers (including career-highs in points and three-point shooting), and led the Toronto Raptors to a second-straight 50+ win season. He averaged the most minutes of his career (37.4) and pounded the ball in the isolation offense he played alongside DeMar DeRozan, with both of them achieving high levels of success.

Forget being the best player on his own team, there was even talk about Lowry being the best point guard in the Eastern Conference, a subject that just two seasons prior would have seemed asinine to bring up.

Then the playoffs came.

Lowry was beat up, playing with a sore wrist and a recovering sprained ankle. He didn’t perform to his usual standards in the first round series against Milwaukee (including laying a complete goose egg in Game 1), and by the time Toronto had lost the first two games to Cleveland in the second round, he was kept from playing in the final two that would end the Raptors’ season. 

Cut to present.

No one has talked about Lowry this season. Instead, the focus has been on DeRozan’s improvement, Dwane Casey’s deft coaching, and the bench’s absurd rise—and rightfully so. Lowry is also playing the fewest minutes of his career since 2012–13, and the narrative surrounding him is mostly limited to how he’s finally being saved for the playoffs. Adding to that is the fact that his counting stats are mostly down, with his points per game sticking out like a sore thumb (down nearly six points from last season).

But that’s surface-level stuff, and while everyone talks about this or that, Lowry is quietly playing great basketball—just about as great as when praise was being heaped upon him.

While he is shooting less overall this season (a product of not having the ball in his hands as much due to the different offense as well as the decrease in minutes), over half of the shots Lowry takes are three-pointers, nearly identical to the number he shot in 2016–17. Most of these threes (6.7) are taken above the break, where he shoots 37.8 per cent.

The current offense is designed to keep the ball humming, and likewise to keep players moving off-ball. It should come as no surprise, then, that Lowry’s pull-up triples have decreased this season to 3.5 attempts from 4.4 attempts last season. However, he’s still shooting an impressive 38.3 per cent on those shots, a lot of them coming on fast breaks.

As for the rest of his threes, he’s getting them within the flow of the offense, the off-ball movement and multi-player penetration allowing for easier looks off the catch. Lowry is taking 4.2 catch-and-shoot treys as opposed to 3.4 attempts last season, and shooting a great 40.4 per cent. Almost anytime he’s found off of a good pass, he drains the look.

One of the other counting stats that is down significantly this season are Lowry’s free throw attempts, currently sitting at 3.6 per game, his lowest mark since 2012–13. It’s easy to read into that and declare that Lowry hasn’t been aggressive, or that he can’t get to the hoop anymore. But, in reality, this too is mostly a product of the offense.

Lowry is actually taking 8.3 drives per game, second-most on the team to DeRozan. Last season he took 12.9 per game, but last season he didn’t have the current iterations of Fred VanVleet and Delon Wright, who are taking 8.2 and 7.1 drives respectively. This has led Lowry to play out of the point guard spot more than he ever has with Toronto, logging more time at the two. And, again, last season the ball was in his hands far more often (as well as for more minutes), with plays being expected to come out of him nearly every trip down the floor. So it may be surprising to learn that Lowry is shooting better in the restricted area (62 per cent) than he did last season (61.1 per cent), albeit on one less shot.

Not all of those drives are resulting in shots at the rim, however. With the passing the offense encourages, Lowry has morphed into a better and more willing dimer. He now spends most of his time searching for teammates once he slices into the defense, resulting in a 41.5 pass percentage off of drives (only VanVleet and OG Anunoby pass out of drives more), up from 36.5 per cent last season. He also maintains the highest assist percentage on the squad at 14.2 per cent, besting his previous season’s 12.4 per cent.

In transition, Lowry is somewhat shockingly only in the 59th percentile, creating 1.14 points per possession. But quite often it is Lowry who is making the long pass when the team gets out and runs (especially in the minutes he gets with the high-energy bench), rather than taking the shots himself.

He was actually a bit worse on the break last season, taking even less shots and ranking in the 57th percentile. This was due in part to the fact that last year’s team played at a slower speed—they were 24th in the league in pace as opposed to this version’s 12th. However, it’s the bench that really ratchets up that ranking, and the starters too often find themselves playing at a sluggish pace, allowing less opportunity for Lowry to get into the open court.

Still, there are nights where Lowry does push himself on the break, and will often catch opponents sleeping when he does so.

Of course, it would be foolish to proclaim that Lowry is having an entirely superior season to last year’s. Yes, his shooting has taken a hit in the midrange, anything that’s not right at the bucket or a three. Although, this doesn’t matter very much, because he’s taking so few of his shots in that range anyway, with most of those having been exchanged for passes or threes. And despite his overall decrease in shots, he’s still taking about just as many at the rim (17.7 per cent) as he did last year (19.4 per cent).

No, where Lowry seems to have legitimately dropped off is on the defensive end. This is not to say that he’s suddenly become a terrible defender (although he has been problematic more than once in crunch time this season), but more so to highlight that he was very good last year. As a general indicator, Lowry sits 11th amongst point guards in defensive real plus-minus, while he was fourth in 2016–17. There is a chance that this simply boils down to age, with Lowry set to turn 32 in March. The history of six-foot guards post-30 is not a great one, and so to view this as the only significant drop off in Lowry’s game is actually rather impressive.

So, yes, the narrative will continue to be about how Lowry is playing fewer minutes, and how he’s being saved for the playoffs. And yes, the criticisms about his previous playoff failings will continue to circulate the web and barbershops alike until something finally changes. But let’s not ignore what a healthy Lowry can do on a basketball court, what he is doing. Because he is, right now, if in a different way than ever before, answering the question of whether or not he’s still got it, and if he has the ability to make an enormous impact on the Raptors’ postseason run.

He can. He can. He can.

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Do Toronto’s Wins Paper Over Potential Playoff Woes?

Is it possible to win too much in the regular season? Sure, you play as well as you can to determine how good you are relative to other teams in the league, and if you are good enough to amass wins then you are rewarded to favourable playoff seeding and homecourt advantage, but…

As the Raptors have learned again and again in recent years, success in the regular season does not always directly translate into success in the postseason. The Raptors are routinely one of the best regular season teams in the league, and yet when they reach the Playoffs they look like they’ve never played basketball together. Rotations shorten, game plans tighten, and things that worked in January no longer work in May. DeMar DeRozan doesn’t get the same bounty of calls, swarming defences tend to devastate Toronto’s offensive efficiency, and the weight of the moment has often appeared to paralyze what should be a fairly confident group.

That was part of the impetus for this season’s stylistic makeover. More passing, more variety in the offence and defence, and the hope was it would translate to more Playoff success. We won’t know for a few more weeks whether or not these changes will make a difference in the postseason, but they have certainly had an impact on the regular season, as the Raptors routinely crush opposing teams (their plus-8.6 point differential is tied for second-best in the league) and currently sit atop the Eastern Conference with a 42-17 record.

Winning (or even dominating) in the regular season, though, wasn’t the goal this season. Yes, the ancillary benefits of that winning mentioned above will befall them if they can maintain their current pace, but it paradoxically may wind up being a detriment to their Playoff preparedness because of all of the warts winning papers over.

The hot topic of late has been their play in the clutch. The Raptors are only 14-13 in the clutch this season (defined as being within five points in the last five minutes of a game), and only 4-7 since January 9th. Their offence stagnates in these situations, they play tight, and the trust in the new system seems to disappear as Lowry and DeRozan attempt to play hero ball down the stretch. They need clutch reps to work through these issues. The problem is, the Raptors are very rarely in clutch situations at the end of games. That aforementioned point differential comes as a result of a lot of blowouts. So, the Raptors can perform particularly poorly in the clutch of a game, and work on it in practice, but it could be weeks before they have a chance to apply those learnings in-game. Practicing clutch execution is practically oxymoronic, considering you can’t even pretend to simulate emotional state of playing in a close game in the last five minutes, nor the rabid intensity of an opponent on the verge of a clutch win. Yes, you can repeat the plays that you want to run in those situations ad naseum, but that’s a terribly small part of the entire equation here. It’s like how you are supposed to practice free throws when you’re tired, to better simulate taking them in a game. The Raptors are winning too decisively too often to get to really hone their clutch performance, and — hilariously — that could wind up being a problem in close games in the Playoffs.

But this is about more than just the well-documented struggles in the clutch. The Raptors are winning so much, you can also ignore the fact that they are not a particularly great three-point shooting team. Their distance shooting is as erratic as any part of their offence. The Raptors are in the bottom-ten in the league in three-point shooting on wide open threes. They make only 37.9% of their wide-open looks. That means that even if they can execute their offence to perfection, getting a wide-open look from behind the arc (just about the ideal shot in modern basketball), they are in the bottom-third of the league in actually making those shots. For a team that desperately needs to open up space for Lowry and DeRozan to operate, that isn’t going to cut it (the Raptors are also 20th in general three-point percentage, so it’s not like I’m cherry picking one area of want).

As of late, this hasn’t mattered much. The team has been winning, and they’ve had enough ‘on’ games with their shooting that it can convince the average fan that they are actually a good three-point shooting team that has off nights, rather than the truth, which is that the are a mediocre three-point shooting team that has on nights. We’ve seen the floor constrict in the postseason, suffocating Toronto’s All-Stars, which is why the offence was redesigned in the first place. They create a lot more open three point opportunities now. However, if the Raptors can’t make enough shots in a seven-game series, their ability to overcome that liability in the regular season won’t ultimately amount to much.

Lastly is their lack of tenacity of the defensive boards. The Raptors are the seventh-worst team in allowing second-chance points in the league, which mostly puts them in a class alongside bottom-feeders like Phoenix, Orlando, Atlanta, and Brooklyn (although Golden State and Washington are third and first in that designation, so this isn’t just a Toronto problem). Again, when you are blowing out teams, this isn’t such a huge problem, but Toronto is still 13th-worst in this category even in wins, so it isn’t like they get their act together when they have to beat an opponent. They are mostly just able to neutralize it as a problem.

Possessions are vital in the postseason. Every. Play. Matters. Giving up second-chance points is morale-killing, and it can have a deleterious affect on the runs (both for and against) that power the ebb and flow of a basketball game. The Raptors are good at stopping initial attacks, but if a team gets the offensive rebound their chances of hitting their next shot rise dramatically as the defence scrambles to re-orient. We’ve seen how Toronto can struggle to score in the Playoffs, and so they cannot be sacrificing easy scores to the other team by not consistently keeping them off of the offensive glass.

None of this should be seen as too large an overreaction, though, as some sign that the Raptors are dead in the water despite a stellar regular season. However, given Toronto’s past, we have to be cognizant of the fact that the club has a very real history of taking stellar regular seasons and seeing them become quickly irrelevant in the Playoffs. They were able to ride off the excesses offered by a long regular season, only to see them get exposed when those excesses were depleted in postseason play. It’s not so much that winning blinds teams to their own flaws, but rather that winning makes it hard to gauge how big flaws are (or will be when in the Playoffs). Toronto has attempted to tailor themselves for success in the postseason by re-imagining their approach this year, but the reason people still aren’t fawning over their achievements this year is because of this recent past. Fans — and the team — will have to get used to the doubting until the players are able to exorcize their demons in April, May, and (if they’re lucky) June.

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Gameday: Raptors @ Magic, Feb. 28

Do you believe in… Magic? Do you further believe in the Magic being the Eastern Conference dumping ground for Raptors contracts much like Sacramento is in the West? Like a sleight of hand that results in the card you picked getting drawn or someone pulling a loonie out from behind your ear, Magic exists out there, you just have to know where to look. In the league’s case it’s Orlando.

This will be the first time the Raptors meet Orlando this season, which seems not possible but believe me, I Googled it twice. The Magic are technically not last in the Eastern Conference because the Atlanta Hawks have lost one more game than them, and either Frank Vogel is playing a magnificent, plotting long game or the momentum he left the Pacers with has failed to adjust to the Florida climate. Aaron Gordon has been out for long bouts this season, but I can’t reliably tell you that has affected the Magic’s performance, one way or the other. Terrence Ross has also been out, first with a tibial fracture and now a sprained right MCL. Don’t feel too badly for our longtime guy though, he’s looking set to return fairly soon and also had an excellent All-Star Break vacation.

This game could give some extra minutes to the Raptors bench and bench-in-waiting like Malcolm Miller, who will travel with the team to Florida, plus allot some floor time to testing out new rotations. It will also prove useful in gauging if there’s anything behind the recently floated notion that Anunoby’s hit a wall, or simply snagged in a slump. It’s a good opportunity to give the starters some rest, especially coming up to an end of the week game against Washington.

Look, theoretically this game doesn’t pose much of a threat to the Raptors so I’m not going to imagine some false scenario where it does. What I am going to imagine, is dragons. One in particular—Stuff. I contacted the Hovertrax riding best friend of Aaron Gordon to ask him a few questions about how he thought tonight’s game could play out.

Katie Heindl: Morning, Stuff. First off I wanted to wish you a belated happy birthday!

Stuff the Magic Dragon: Time is bequeathed to all of us under a veil made of gossamer, occasionally a gift but most always obscured until we lift the shroud once every year and allow ourselves to look.

Katie: Excellent. Did you miss being part of the Dunk Contest this year?

Stuff: I missed the candour of contained warfare and pushing the barriers on what we ask of technology. Plus I’m really competitive.

Katie: To be blunt, the Magic have had a bad year. What are your expectations for the rest of the season?

Stuff: I wouldn’t go as far as to say a sacrifice has to be made yet.

Katie: Wait, you mean that the players don’t have to make more of a sacrifice than they already are?

Stuff: Sure, yes.

Katie: You and Aaron Gordon seem to—

Stuff: Plus we do those in the spring.

Katie: You and Gordon seem to be particularly close, but some photos surfaced this past summer break of him spending time with another mascot. Are you concerned about your friendship as this season draws to a close?

Stuff: The mouse was always treacherous, but as a collaborator its primordial. It can’t even work a phone. No dexterity. It’s a work animal, nothing more.

Katie: Alriiight. Well Stuff, just for fun, what do you think of the Raptors?

Stuff: I’ve enjoyed the sacrifice of Terrence Ross and the larger Biyombo very much. Every game against Toronto is a new opportunity to watch with eyes yet to be sated with blood on who may soon join us here in the ancient swamp.

Katie: That’s true, we do love to trade with the Magic!

Stuff: Trade?

Raptors updates

The Raptors are winning by big margins over the last dozen or so games, averaging 117.33 points per game, in large part to a ferocious offence. Norman Powell looked good closing out Monday’s game against the Pistons, performance wise it felt like a nod to the Powell of lore (or last season). Even in a game like this, Powell’s far from starting, but he’ll likely get more time on the court to see whether what’s lukewarm in him right now heats up.

I’d like to see the bench tighten up in their offence but truth be told this might not be the game that gives that kind of opportunity. I’d also like to see VanVleet play 37 minutes but it’s occasionally good to be realistic.

PG: Kyle Lowry, Delon Wright, Fred VanVleet
SG: DeMar DeRozan, Norman Powell
SF: OG Anunoby, C.J. Miles
PF: Serge Ibaka, Pascal Siakam
C: Jonas Valanciunas, Jakob Poeltl, Lucas Nogueira
OUT: None
TBD: None

Magic updates

This is a bit of a Frankenstein’s monster of a roster. The Magic are on a six game losing streak and I am genuinely curious to see the way in which they come out tonight. This isn’t a rotationally challenged team in the sense that they are struggling to see what works, but more in the sense of struggling in general. It feels very mean to continue writing this so I’m going to stop.

PG: D.J. Augustin, Shelvin Mack
SG: Evan Fournier, Arron Afflalo
SF: Jonathon Simmons, Wesley Iwundu
PF: Aaron Gordon, Mario Hezonja
C: Nikola Vucevic, Bismack Biyombo
OUT: Jonathan Isaac, Terrence Ross
TBD: Marreese Speights

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Talking Raptors Podcast – S5 E15 – With Jack Armstrong

On a back to back special episode of Talking Raptors, Nick and Barry are lucky enough to sit down with Raptors broadcast veteran and favourite, Jack Armstrong.
Jack took time out of his busy schedule and was an open book in this free flowing discussion. The guys set up in a fancy hotel lobby and drank ice waters and discussed Toronto Raptors basketball.

They Chat:

– Arenas

– Raptors Perceptions

– Next Steps

– Playoff Success

– Jacks Clothing line – Check it out here 

– Canada Basketball

All this and a bunch more.  A huge thanks to Jack Armstrong for doing this.

We hope you enjoy and thank you for listening.

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DeRozan’s Defence: A Study in Eight Parts

Toronto recently lost in overtime to Milwaukee in part because the Bucks hit unlikely shots, in part because no fouls were called on Valanciunas’ dunks, and in part because they didn’t deserve to win. That’s settled, but the game can still be instructive.

I have heard and read countless times that DeMar DeRozan’s defence has improved this season. I’ve even written it myself once or twice. But what does that really mean? How has his defence improved, and in what specific areas? People usually cite defensive statistics: for example, Toronto’s defensive rating with DeRozan on the court was 107.0 last year and 104.8 this year. Those numbers could mean a huge number of things. First, the team defence has improved, so of course every player’s defensive rating has improved. Also, DeRozan plays alongside better defenders (cough, O.G. Anunoby, cough). It could mean DeRozan himself is defending better, but it could not. The only way to know is to actually look at how he has been defending.

So let’s use the clutch minutes of the Milwaukee game (last 5 minutes and overtime) as a microcosm for DeRozan’s defensive efforts. Another common trope of DeRozan’s defence is that he is a good defender when he tries hard; therefore, using his clutch minutes is important because he ought to be trying as hard as he can.

Against Milwaukee, DeRozan was directly involved in eight defensive possessions. In several others, he didn’t guard the ball or need to make a rotation, so those won’t be included here. Let’s start with his best and most impressive defensive clips and finish with his lowlights.

DeRozan’s best defensive possession came on one of the last plays of overtime, in which he was matched up with Giannis Antetokounmpo on a switch. Antetokounmpo posted up and received the ball just inside the arc. The Raptors zoned up the weak side to send Jonas Valanciunas into the paint to discourage a drive; DeRozan’s job was simply to stay in front of the Greek Freak, move his feet, and funnel him baseline towards the help. He performed admirably. Unfortunately for DeRozan, Giannis is a superstar and still made the shot, which proved to be the game-deciding play.

A similar play came with DeRozan matched up against Kris Middleton, the player whom DeRozan was defending for a majority of defensive possessions. DeRozan fought above a John Henson screen – an important team defensive concept – and forced Middleton baseline, with Henson’s defender, Jakob Poeltl, lurking to dissuade a drive or pass. DeRozan contested Middleton’s pull-up jumper perfectly, forcing a difficult shot without fouling. DeRozan forcing a Middleton miss from the midrange is particularly poetic.

DeRozan helps out on a drive, sliding over to reach at the ball when it’s exposed. He recovers when Giannis looks to pass to DeRozan’s original man and is able to kick the ball, causing a stoppage in play and a small victory for the defence. This is not world-beating stuff to be sure, but DeRozan is contributing by being aware, moving his feet, and knowing where to be. He is opportunistic without gambling himself out of position. Small victories.

We’re getting into the somewhat less-impressive category here. DeRozan denies a screen by threatening to go over. Routine. But still a net positive on defence.

This might be the limit of how good a defence can be with one of its’ members disengaged from the play. Eric Bledsoe throws an entry pass to Middleton on the wing, who is posting up the stouter-than-expected post defender, Fred VanVleet. Jakob Poeltl immediately shows as the helper in the paint, which scares Middleton off. Middleton finds Poeltl’s original man, John Henson, cutting through the lane. The ever-vigilant Pascal Siakam switches onto Henson and extinguishes what could have easily been a defensive breakdown. Poeltl and Kyle Lowry rush to disincentive a Henson dump-off to a cutting Giannis, and then Lowry scrambles to return to his man, Tony Snell. Henson has nowhere to go and throws it away because Siakam already took his lunch money. DeRozan? He just spun in a circle the whole time. Didn’t help (should have dug down on Henson), didn’t rotate (could have picked up Snell), didn’t move. The defence remained solid.

Here DeRozan drives and falls, but no foul is called. Impressively, he doesn’t argue (for long) with the refs and hustles back on defence! Big win. Then he falls for a really simple pass fake to Giannis and jumps out of position like a leaping waltz dancer. Henson receives the ball while cutting to the rim, and only a timely Serge Ibaka rotation and contest prevents the basket. We’re onto the poor defensive showings, now.

This play starts with a bang and finishes with a whimper. DeRozan again finds himself matched up with Giannis, and he contains the drive. Valanciunas’ help forces Giannis into a difficult jump pass, which finds Jason Terry in the corner. He swings the ball to Tony Snell, who knocks down the triple, uncontested. DeRozan? He was still in the paint, not having moved after stopping Giannis. There was no second effort, no rotation back out to a man, and no close-out on Snell. Rough.

This is the worst of them all. Bledsoe drives past VanVleet for a layup. Of course, some of the onus is on VanVleet for allowing his man to skip past him so footloose and fancy free. But it was DeRozan’s responsibility to sink into the paint on the drive, at least force a tougher finish for Bledsoe, and then recover back to his man in the corner if Bledsoe passed it out. DeRozan doesn’t move.

So taken in concert, what do all these plays offer? DeRozan is a solid on-ball defender. The Bucks intentionally sought to attack him on switches, getting Giannis the ball on the perimeter with DeRozan guarding him. That never resulted in an easy basket for Antetokounmpo. He twice stayed in front of Giannis, denying easy entrance into the paint, and forcing a tough shot and a tough pass. That is incredibly difficult to do, and much credit should go his way. He also followed the team’s defensive principles in on-ball screen defence multiple times.

Off the ball, DeRozan was iffier. He multiple times failed to recognize his rotation, even if it was only the first or second rotation of the defensive possession. These are not complicated defensive patterns. His failure to even leave the paint after containing a Giannis drive resulted in a wide-open 3, which I found particularly egregious. That he was easily pass-faked out of a play and once didn’t even make a token effort at helping on a drive compounded his mistakes. To be fair, DeRozan was able on one occasion to recognize a chance to interrupt a play and knew when to return to his man.

Taking those mistakes together, it’s easy to see that DeRozan’s awareness of off-ball defence remains his weakness. He isn’t immediately aware of his shifting responsibilities the way a good defender is, let alone ahead of time like a great defender. He also shows an occasional lack of effort, especially after offering positive contributions and containing an initial action. These were areas of concern in previous years and remain so in 2017-18.

DeRozan’s on-ball defence has improved! We didn’t see him consistently compile positive defensive possessions against elite isolation scorers like Antetokounmpo in previous years. The statistics tell the same story. DeRozan has improved from the 39.1st percentile in defending isolation chances in 2016-17 to the 47.7th percentile. He is now league-average, although he’s likely even better than that when the game is on the line. And as the entire Raptors season has shown, an elite defence can be built with one of the defenders being a poor off-ball defender but a good on-ball one.

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