When you lose a playoff series, you become defined by that failure in the short-term. Nets forward Joe Johnson was the best player in the series, averaging 21.9 points on 52 per cent shooting, putting DeMar DeRozan, Terrence Ross and Greivis Vasquez — really anybody who Casey put on him — on his hip, getting to the paint for a deadly series of floaters. It was that performance, undoubtedly, that caused Ujiri to obtain James Johnson, who has the size and quickness to stay in front of the Nets swingman. James Johnson knows that is why he is here, but he does not know much of Joe Johnson’s exploits against the Raptors. “I was too busy on who we had to play,” said Johnson, whose Memphis Grizzlies lost in seven games to Oklahoma City.
“They have lost pieces but they’ve added pieces as well,” Raps coach Dwane Casey said. “It seems like forever ago playing this team, but they are playing the same way — rugged, physical defensively and Deron Williams is still the head of the snake.” But unlike a year ago, the Nets are no longer a team the Raptors have to raise their level to match. Those roles have switched. Now the Nets have to come up to the Raptors level. The reversal of roles has come for a few reasons. “New coach, new style of play, different systems,” Casey said of the obstacles the Nets are facing this year that they weren’t at playoff time last season. “It takes time. That’s one thing all of us don’t really have a lot of is patience and time. We are all guilty of it. I’m guilty of it. Fans are guilty of it. It just takes time for things to work out.
“Yea, I think [we’re a better team],” said Patterson, one of six players to score in double figures Wednesday and a member of the Raptors’ celebrated second unit. “We have guys who can contribute even more off the bench. Having Lou [Williams] and James [Johnson] makes us even better. Guys have stepped their game up, guys have improved in every area. We’ve improved as a team. Both teams are definitely different than when we faced each other last time.” The Nets have yet to find any consistency, falling to 10-14 on the season, 1-9 in games against winning opponents. On the opposite end of the spectrum, the Raptors have reached 20 wins ahead of their Christmas break for the first time in the franchise’s 20-year history. “Everything we’ve done as a growing team and you see we have a lot of areas where we can improve,” said Casey.
These are two franchises that have gone in different directions since that seventh game. The Nets were built for a ‘now’ that never materialized and now they are one of the biggest messes in the NBA. Brooklyn forked over nearly $200 million in salaries and luxury taxes last season to make it to the second round, owe the Boston Celtics its first-round picks in 2016 and 2018 and will have to swap with the Celtics in 2017 if Boston has a better record. Neat trick. This season, the Nets will swap draft picks with the Atlanta Hawks and even on nights like Wednesday when 38-year-old Kevin Garnett is out of the lineup, they’re still old and creaky. That light up ahead isn’t the end of the tunnel, it’s the burning fires of franchise hell. The Raptors, meanwhile, have made hay in the Eastern Conference and are 12-1 against teams with records under .500, standing alone in first place for a franchise-record 45 days. Wednesday, the Raptors finally caught up to the Nets with 3:18 remaining in the second quarter, when Amir Johnson nailed two free throws to tie the score at 44. Lowry’s bank shot with under five seconds left put them ahead at the half, 53-52, before their depth buried the Nets in the third quarter.
“I think it has helped us now to have been through some adversity, we don’t give in to it, we keep fighting,” said coach Dwane Casey. “I think that’s what a playoff experience does for young players – teaches you how to play with that kind of physicality, how to play in tough situations with a lot on the line and you learn to play every possession like it’s a playoff Game 7 possession and you know how it feels. You have less of those during the regular season after that experience.” Wednesday’s rematch didn’t have the anxiety-filled, arena-shaking atmosphere of the playoffs. Still, it had a touch of something. Darren Williams still zigged through the key; Joe Johnson still perplexed while dumping in 17 points; and the towering Mason Plumlee was more of a nuisance than he had been last spring, rambling for 23 points and eight boards. The fans revived that familiar ‘Brooklyn Sucks’ chant.
“Tim has been a great boss and a great mentor, but I’ve been in the city for 28 years,” said Drake, who held court before the game. “All respect to Tim, but with or without Tim the focus has always been about Toronto and the Raptors, not about who’s here. It’s a blessing for Tim to give me the opportunity, prior to that I had to work my career up to be able to get there, for someone to notice me enough to give me the opportunity, but I really do commend Tim for being brave enough to give me a shot … my goal is to stay with the Raptors as long as they’ll have me.” Could Drake see himself trying to gain an ownership stake at some point in the future? He didn’t say no, but it doesn’t sound like a strategy at the moment, even if he did have the cash for the smallest sliver of MLSE, which is likely approaching the $3-billion mark in market value. “I feed off the energy with the team,” said Drake, who looked none the worse for wear after his alleged scuffle with Diddy a few days ago. “These guys are my friends and this city is my city, so I’m not really looking to monetize or capitalize my involvement. I’m just here strictly for support and to be more unified.” In the meantime Drake sounds content to engineer the franchise’s rebranding effort in advance of next season when the Raptors finally host the All-Star Game.
“I hate to be redundant, but I just care so much about the city and the people in it and night after night, it’s amazing to see all these seats sold out,” he added. “Sports is a huge part of my life, and it’s just great to see people from all walks of live, Toronto itself is such a mosaic of different people from different cultures and different walks of life and you look around the building and you see all these people just coming together for a great squad, a great game.”
As they often have, the Nets got off to a brilliant start, shooting 59 percent as a team and committing just one turnover to take a 30-22 lead heading into the second quarter. But, as they have so many other times this season, they faded as the game moved along. Their shooting went cold (they shot a combined 37.2 percent overall and 26.3 percent from 3-point range over the final three quarters) and they had 12 turnovers in the second half. “We just started throwing the ball to them instead of us, or throwing the ball out of bounds,” Nets coach Lionel Hollins said. “I can’t speak for why it happened. “Some of it could have been because of their defense, but most of it was just bad decision making.” The Nets falling back to earth, along with excellent games from Lowry (20 points, 12 assists) and Jonas Valanciunas (16 points, 10 rebounds) allowed Toronto to climb back into the game and eventually pull away in the second half. A 19-8 run to open the fourth quarter gave Toronto a 95-81 lead with a little more than four minutes left and ensured Drake and the rest of the home fans went home happy.
Drake later took a dig at the Nets, saying he was looking forward to the Eastern Conference-leading Raptors playing some teams “above .500.” During the game, Drake spent a few minutes on the ESPN broadcast, during which he poked fun at Joe Johnson’s haircut. “He’s got my haircut,” Drake said. “He’s too old for that haircut.” Later, while narrating a Terrence Ross breakaway layup, Drake added, “Joe bites, because he’s got the wrong haircut.”
Brooklyn was missing three starters, including big men Kevin Garnett (rest) and Brook Lopez (back). Mason Plumlee continued to make the most of his opportunities with Lopez out, finishing with 23 points and eight rebounds in 37 minutes. But the Nets collapsed in the fourth quarter, getting a combined two points from Williams and Joe Johnson (17 points). Williams finished with 11 points and five turnovers, missing 10 of his 15 shots. Toronto led by three entering the fourth quarter, then started the period on a 23-8 run to break the game open. Drake was happy.
The fourth quarter felt personal. The Raptors were exorcising some demons as they poured on the points. The lead grew. This Nets team is different: new coach, different personal, and a style of play slightly off from the wacky “big” small ball days of Jason Kidd. Their bench eased them out of the game and no amount of time machine power was going to allow Joe Johnson – with zero points in the fourth – to get them back in it. “It’s very unusual you can grow as a team and get some wins,” said Casey afterwards. So that’s the Raptors, still growing, still rising. But also, still winning. That’s here.
The night in a bundle: The Nets were down 15 when Joe Johnson was fouled from the three-point line. He missed all three free throws, giving the Toronto crowd even more reasons to bicker at the Nets. Following the squandered three points, Kyle Lowry scored on two consecutive baskets, increasing the lead to 19 with three minutes left. Game over. The Nets finished the night 10-for-22 (45.5%) from the free throw line. They saw success early in the night, scoring 30 points on 59% shooting in the first quarter. They led by eight, but like we’ve seen all season, their inability to play a complete 48 minute game has led to most – if not all – of their losses this season. And once again, it’s the tale of the second half for the Nets. They were outscored 52-37 in the second half, finishing the night 43% from the field and 33% from three. Perhaps, fatigue was a factor late in the game, but at this point — the excuses are only a broken record.
With Pierce in Washington, the Raptors well ahead of the Nets in the Atlantic Division, the Raptors celebrating “Drake Night” again, and the Nets lacking the weirdness and consistent perimeter shooting that catapulted them to the first-round victory last season. Throw all that in a pot, and they didn’t stand a chance against the Raptors running on all cylinders, not after they played above their heads in the first half and fell apart in the second. Their execution and effort down the stretch of the fourth quarter was atrocious on both ends of the floor, as they hoisted contested shot after fading look as the Raptors poured on the open looks. This gets into a weird pseudo-psychological breakdown I’m not willing to say definitively, because I’m not in anyone’s head but my own. But this isn’t the first time the Nets have fallen apart in the fourth quarter, and they didn’t seem to play like they cared whether or not they came back.
In the year he’s been formally associated with the Toronto Raptors, no public figure has become so synonymous with a sports club. Anywhere. He is more than a booster and a face of the franchise. He’s the face of the city. He’s got a better claim on the title of chief magistrate than the mayor.
The first half defence against Brooklyn was subpar as the Raptors allowed the Nets to set the pace. Joe Johnson and Deron Williams were controlling the perimeter and getting clean looks for themselves and their teammates at will. Brooklyn finished the first quarter with 30 points. By the end of the first half, the Nets had already attempted 17 three-pointers. Luckily the Raptors started focusing their efforts starting in the second quarter where they flipped the script on Brooklyn. Jonas Valanciunas was doing a great job of going straight up and holding his ground, however Plumlee was just too active for big JV to keep his efforts for a full 48 minutes. The Raptors ultimately held the Nets to 43.2% shooting and forced them to commit 15 turnovers. #WeTheFourth was in full effect for the Raptors as they forced Brooklyn to commit 5 early fourth quarter turnovers which helped them seal the game.
As has so often been the case this year, the Raptors bench outscored the Nets bench 41-20 and they came through big time for Coach Casey in the final period by scoring 23 of the Raptors 29 fourth quarter points led by Lou Williams and Patterson with 8 points each. Even more impressive was how Toronto shut down the Nets big guns over the last 12 minutes. Leading scorer Plumlee (23 points) was held to 3 made free throws. Joe Johnson (17 points) went 0-2 from the field for 0 points and Deron Williams (11 points) was held to 1-2 shooting for 2 points as the Nets only scored 16 points in the quarter. Coach Casey praised his players for what they accomplished but continues to say he is surprised by the Raptors 20-6 record. “Everything we have done is still as a growing team and you can see we have a lot of areas where we can improve on,” Casey said. “It is very unusual that you can grow as a team and get some wins. That’s something our guys accomplished. My hat’s off to them, but they know, everybody knows in that room there are a lot of areas we can get better in.”
NOGUEIRA: I like this. So tonight you’re dressing, right? Because you’re such a talented guy, everybody has a lot of expectations about you so imagine if the team has a chance to win by 20 or 15 or 30 [points], imagine the fans start screaming, ‘Bruno Bruno’, how’s your reaction? You think you’ll be ready to play tonight? CABOCLO: Yea, but if this happens I’ll cry. I’ll cry. NOGUERIA: Why will you cry? A lot of emotions? CABOCLO: Yea, so emotional. Living here alone is not easy.
Drake has been busy working with the Raptors on the rebrand that will be unveiled before the Raptors host all-star weekend during 2015-16. “I think people are going to be floored with what we have in store for next season … It’s gone really well. We have some exciting things in the works. It’s going to be a full rebrand,” he said. Drake lauded outgoing Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment president/CEO Tim Leiweke, but said he’d be sticking around long-term, though not with any ownership stake in the franchise. “I’ve been in this city for 28 years, so, all respect to Tim, but with or without Tim, my focus has always been about Toronto and about the Raptors. It hasn’t been about who is here … My goal is to stay with the Raptors as long as they’ll have me,” he said, before adding, “I’m not looking to really monetize or capitalize on my involvement, I’m just really here strictly for the support.”
We’re down to the final two contenders in our year-end poll on the most influential figure in Canadian sports. Masai Ujiri, Toronto Raptors GM, takes on Gilmore Junio, a speed skater known for his sacrifice during the Sochi Olympics.
“Valanciunas has been sporadically excellent this season, but the team’s braintrust still doesn’t believe he’s the sort of centre you can ride through a playoff series. A team like Chicago would design all their tactics to go through a Valanciunas-sized hole in the Raptors mid-section,” via Globe and Mail. There are speculations that the Raptors are willing to prepare a package consists of Valanciunas and draft picks in exchange for Gasol, who could bolt out of Memphis after this season. The 29-year old Gasol is expected to draw a max contract worth as large as $20 million per season, and several analysts are pessimistic about the Grizzlies’ chance in keeping the big man because of their various commitments, particularly with Zach Randolph and Mike Conley, and their reputation as a low-spending small market franchise.
Kyle Lowry with the clean sweep
As Kevin Arnovitz told us a couple of weeks back, the Raptors seem to have collectively bought into the idea of focusing on the areas in which they excel, and otherwise staying out of one another’s way. According to NBA.com’s SportVu data, just three teams average fewer passes per game than Toronto. Yet unselfishness can take on forms other than passing; when you recognize your teammates’ strengths, you can avoid cluttering up their sweet spots, or you can set a good screen to free them up. The Raptors do these things as well as anybody, and that’s reflected in their play type metrics compiled by Synergy Sports Technologies. Toronto ranks in the top 10 in assist rate on a number of different play types, but its overall percentage number is held down by the fact the Raptors run a lot of assist-unfriendly plays. An example: Toronto leads the league in assist rate on pick-and-rolls finished by the roll man, however, it ranks just 22nd in the frequency of those plays. The Raptors rank dead last in catch-and-shoot jumpers, but first in shots off the dribble and fourth on isolation plays. According to SportVu, this play selection has resulted in the third-fewest assist opportunities per game. However, the Raptors have turned those chances into assists 53.9 percent of the time, ranking fourth. When they pass, they do it well.
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