The goose egg is broken and the Raptors notch a win on the roadtrip which guarantees that they’ll come back no worse than a net 4 games under .500.
This was regularly scheduled programming for the most part, and unlike the Bulls game where the Raptors gave up a mind-bending 49 points in the fourth quarter, the paper clips’ 3rd ranked offense felt silent in the fourth. Or more precisely, as Kyle Lowry and Greivis Vasquez mounted their assault on the Clippers and their loved ones, their response was not becalming.
We’re 30 games into the season and can confidently point out what works and what doesn’t, or more specifically, what puts the Raptors at risk of losing the game and what gives them cause to win it. For example, Greivis Vasquez (poorly) defending a screen-demon guard like JJ Redick – not good. The same Vasquez nailing pull-up threes in the fourth quarter and scoring 8 quick points – I’ll take it. Terrence Ross building a house of expensive bricks – feeling a little queasy. The same Terrence Ross making a conscious effort to drive the ball and setup easy scores – where you been all my life? Jonas Valanciunas missing chippies – a tad disgusting. Jonas Valanciunas scoring 22 points on 8-13 shooting against DeAndre Jordan – I could get used to that. Lou Williams throwing up shots that make your cringe – *puke*. Lou Williams nailing those exact same shots in the fourth – I’ll have more of that, waiter.
If the above happenings somehow “cancelled” themselves out, then we also had Amir Johnson’s shot-chart looking like this, Kyle Lowry being in God-mode, and the Raptors evening up the Clippers on the boards at 43 (Jordan had 20, but who cares). They also kept historical Raptors-killer Jamal Crawford in check (just 20 poorly shot points), and throwing Chris Paul enough different looks through Terrence Ross, James Johnson, and Kyle Lowry, that he went 3-12.
In a tight game in the fourth, the Raptors offense entered gunning-mode and Vasquez and Lowry managed to shock the Clippers out of it. There’s a tendency to view this type of offense, one where you essentially feed the hot hand, as out of context of any structure, iso-heavy, and more disconcertingly, unsustainable. Before we make that leap, though, consider that most good teams in the league aren’t called the San Antonio Spurs, and have an element of exactly this type of play in it. The types of Russell Westbrook, Stephen Curry, LeBron James, John Wall, and Damian Lillard, regularly have similar displays when it counts, and it’s often the difference between winning and losing.
[aside header=”Hard to Guard”]
“When one of the guys on their team got going offensively, they kept feeding him the ball. I thought they did a great job of that. They kept finding Kyle when he had it going. They did the same with Greivis and Lou. They keep moving the ball. They are a very hard team to guard.”
– Doc Rivers
So, yes, as concerned I am that we have to rely on Greivis Vasquez drilling a pull-up for three with 22 seconds on the clock when 4 of his teammates have yet to cross the half-court line, that sort of play appears to be the difference maker. The Raptors offense has now overtaken Dallas for #1 in the league, and a sample size of 30 games suggests that this is more standard operating procedure than a fluke.
Dwane Casey played a tight 9-man rotation to the Clippers’ 13 (granted, a few guys came in late) and still our second-unit outscored them 37-32, with Vasquez and Williams having a combined 15 in the fourth. I’ve been saying for some time that that’s been a major difference this season, and the bench continues to buoy the Raptors when they need help the most. The start of the fourth quarter is a perfect example where Vasquez, struggling up until then, banged in 8 points to create just enough distance in a tight game that guys could relax. The same is true for Lou Williams, and the ever-consistent Patrick Patterson who right now is the best substitute on the team.
Patterson’s defense against Blake Griffin was excellent. After Amir Johnson was conceding the jumper in face-up situations against Griffin, Patterson was switched on him and immediately clamped down, forcing him to put the ball on the floor. Griffin got his points, but the switch allowed the Raptors defense to become much more fluid. James Johnson and Patterson were able to switch on screens, and given their ability to cover ground on the perimeter, the close-outs they forced had the Clippers passing the ball perhaps on extra time they needed to, and it affected their offense.
In a tight game such as this – tied at halftime and a two-point game at the end of three – decision-making is key because if you string a couple bad passes together, a team that runs the break like the Clippers can quickly put you away as they did to Golden State two nights previous. You’re forced to have good offensive possessions and minimize waste, so you don’t let the weekend home crowd get even an inkling of momentum. I implore you to look past Terrence Ross’s 5-15 shooting because he had one of his better games of the year. His defense against Paul on switches was effective because he completely took away the drive and Paul’s poor shooting affected his confidence, encouraging him to pass the ball off instead of having a go at the rim.
Ross drove the ball numerous times in this game, often times not even getting the result he wanted (e.g., that drive where he altered his shot to throw up a wild one after seeing Jordan). The fact that he drove and gave the Clippers defense something else to think about, even if it resulted in a slight shade of a help defender, was key because the defense was now playing him for the drive and he became a lot less predictable.
[aside header=”Defense without Fouling”]
“We played defence without fouling. That’s the No. 1 thing. We dug in. I told them it can’t be a pretty game. We’re not going to win a pretty game. So we had to come in and get grimy, gritty, hit first and do it without fouling.”
– Dwane Casey
Defensively, Casey made a strong effort to provide help underneath, often sending James Johnson down to help on Chris Paul drives. An example of how Johnson has bought into the team concept is how committed he is to helping his teammates. It almost goes against his instinct to leave his own man open at the wing, but he covers for beaten guards so often and so effectively that without him, the foul count on our big men would rise considerably. On that note, Jonas Valanciunas – he’s having a pretty good run, eh?
Valanciunas in his last 10 games: 14.5 points, 10.4 rebounds, 29.5 minutes, 60.3 TS%, 19.9 REB%.
— Raptors Republic (@raptorsrepublic) December 28, 2014
We often see him go at Euro-centers quite hard and yesterday he was up against DeAndre Jordan, a guy who makes up for being a subpar defender by being imposing. Valanciunas did not back down and went right at Jordan, going at his body knowing that any bend of Jordan’s arm would result in a foul. By and large, he was clinical in post-up and two-man situations to the point where you can forgive the three chippies that he should’ve finished.
I could go on and write a couple more paragraphs about Kyle Lowry and his stellar play which kept us in the game through the first quarters but you already know what that looks like. The only difference tonight was that he did it against a very quiet Chris Paul. Lowry provided a real pump to the offense in the first half, draining a couple morale-boosting jumpers that make you silently pump your fist and raises everyone’s spirits. Vasquez may have gotten hot in the fourth, and Williams made up for his ridiculous early play later in the game. All that doesn’t surpass Lowry’s achievements during the first three quarters. Without that, Vasquez wouldn’t even have a stage for his heroics. Overall, Lowry was 9-17 for 25 points, 7 assists, and 3 steals.
This is a team playing without their second-best player and getting consistent results, now 10-4 without DeRozan (including five road wins), amounting to a .714 winning percentage. That is impressive by any standard. At this point, it’s not about whether this team is real, it’s about trying to figure out what do do at the deadline to ensure they have a legitimate shot at something in the playoffs.
My view is that the Raptors need some defense at backup center and insurance against Amir Johnson being sidelined. The problem is that any asset you’ll need to trade to get that player will affect team chemistry, unless you find a team that’s willing to take a flyer on Lucas Noguiera. Trading Tyler Hansbrough is an option except that he does do an adequate job defensively (or more accurately, rebounds well) so you have to get someone better than that. The best package I can think of without affecting the intangibles is Landry Fields’ expiring contract, Noguiera’s “potential”, and Steimsma as filler. I’m getting too far ahead of myself.
So, 50 wins? Let’s say it’s achievable:
These Raptors are the best Raptors — only have to go 27-25 the rest of the way to achieve their first 50-win season in franchise history.
— Tas Melas (@TasMelas) December 27, 2014
Photo Credit: Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE/Getty Images
Site Note: Given the late game against Denver, and how recording a podcast without talking about that would be kind of pointless, the Raptors Weekly Podcast will air late on Monday on iTunes, Soundcloud, YouTube and the usual channels, and will be on RR on Tuesday morning. So, kind of like trash day during the holidays, it’s a day late.