Hope springs anew but old habits sink floundering Raptors

11 mins read

There are two ways to look at the Raptors’ heartbreaker in Oklahoma City on Sunday.

Don’t let the weight of losing eight games in nine games cloud the fact that there were plenty of positives to take away from the loss. Then again, the Raptors were ultimately betrayed by a few recurring problems.

But first, a recap of the game.

The Raptors opened with a very solid showing in the first half. Terrence Ross started for the second consecutive game and for once, Ross rewarded head coach Dwane Casey for showing faith and with a season-high 20 points. The Raptors made an effort to shift the defense around with pick-and-rolls, before making extra passes to the open man. Ross was oftentimes the beneficiary.

Needless to say, both the ball movement and Ross’s resurgence was a welcome sight. Toronto finished the first half with 61 points. Most importantly, the Raptors recorded assists on 18 of their 24 field goals on the quarter. To put that into perspective, the Raptors only average 20.8 assists per game.

Heading up the push for playmaking were Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan, who have faced unending derision over their unwillingness to move the ball. The two attacked the Thunder’s defense, using high ball screens to draw help on the inside. That led to open shots for their teammates.

Despite 61 points for Toronto, the Thunder still only trailed by three point at halftime. The culprit there was a recurring nemesi: a failure to contain dribble penetration. To be fair, the task before them was to control Russell Westbrook, so it wasn’t easy to say the least. But lesser mortals, like Dion Waiters and D.J. Augustin, were similarly effective in gaining access into the lane.

Toronto’s offense shriveled up in the third quarter. DeRozan’s five missed shots in the quarter didn’t help. In stark contrast to his unselfishness in the first half, DeRozan reverted to launching a number of contested jumpshots.

The problem was compounded by the Thunder’s wicked transition offense, headed up by Westbrook. Every miss was an opportunity to run and with Westbrook gobbling up rebounds (he finished with 11 as part of his league-leading seventh triple-double), the Thunder capitalized with easy points in the paint. OKC sussed out a seven-point edge after three quarters. 

In an effort to jumpstart the offense, Casey tried a smallball unit to start the fourth. A unit of Lowry, Greivis Vasquez, Lou Williams, James Johnson and Patrick Patterson opened the quater and played Casey’s patented scrambling style of defense. Surprisingly, the unit was actually shaky offensively, with a few possessions amounting to nothing more than Johnson driving against centers, but they did manage two key steals and managed to cut into the lead.

However, as can be expected when a 6-foot-9 forward plays center, the Raptors were weak on the glass. Casey eventually addressed that issue by putting Valanciunas and DeRozan in, but it didn’t help. The Thunder aggressively crashed the glass, and with the Raptors scrambling themselves out of position, extra possessions betrayed solid halfcourt defense.

Still, the Raptors were within striking distance. They only trailed by six with three minutes remaining. But that’s when Westbrook subbed back into the game. 


Westbrook repeatedly exploited Jonas Valanciunas’s biggest weakness, that being pick-and-roll defense. Westbrook would routinely set up shop on the block and to play sidelines pick-and-roll with Enes Kanter. With Valanciunas hesitating between challenging the ball handler, or covering the roll, That play yielded a number of open looks for the Thunder down the stretch.

DeRozan tried to spark the team with a quick eight-point barrage, which included a wicked dunk. But, with the Raptors unable to stop the Thunder from scoring, DeRozan’s late push amounted to little. Still, it was good to see DeRozan nearing his pre-injury form reflected in the effectiveness of his drives.


Positive takeaways 

Terrence Ross coming alive 

The Raptors need Ross. They badly need Ross.

Here’s why: If Ross can be a reliable wing, he gives the Raptors the ability to play at least three shooters on the floor at all times, while freeing up James Johnson to replace Tyler Hansbrough in the frontcourt rotation.

With Ross on the court, the Raptors were more inclined to run well-defined sets (see below), many of which are tailored specifically for Ross. He provides a reliable corner-3 option and having Ross squad on the strong side opens up more lanes to drive.

That’s probably the reasoning behind Casey’s switch back to the Raptors’ OG starting lineup. Ross’s outing was a bit of an outlier — he’s not going to score 20 points every game or hit 6-of-9 from deep — but getting him back to a passable level will be key, both for the Raptors’ offense and for their rotation. 

Better ball movement (early on) 

Another sign of the Raptors needing Ross: they recorded 18 assists in the first half.

As much as we want to simplify the equation and point the finger at Lowry and DeRozan for being selfish, the reality of Toronto’s failing offense reflects a more systematic failure on the part of many. Part of the blame falls on Casey for supporting their chucking, both in the media and with his minimalist sets. Part of the blame also falls on the limitations of the roster. It’s a culmination of the three factors that slowed the offense

That’s why the first half was promising, because they hit on all three. Lowry and DeRozan made a concerted effort to move the ball, their scheme and positioning of shooters was ideal and the shooters themselves (mostly Ross) made their open shots. They need more of that.

Negative takeaways

DeRozan going for “his” in the second half 

You can watch all of DeRozan’s 22 shot attempts for yourself. You’ll find that his third-quarter (and a few in the fourth) attempts stood out as particularly ill-advised. That coincided with a difference in assists (6 to 3) between halves.

It’s almost as if DeRozan came out with a concerted effort to get his, mostly through 1-on-1 action.

Look, DeRozan needs to get his for this team to succeed. That’s just how the team is constructed. But like everyone else, DeRozan plays best when he sticks within the system and when he attacks the basket. He went too far in the second half and it cost them.

This isn’t to pin the loss on DeRozan. He played well defensively and finished with a solid line of 24 points, nine assists and four rebounds on 50 percent shooting. But he needs to stay disciplined for all four quarters.

Kyle Lowry’s missing jumpshot 

There’s not much to say here. It’s disappointing that even after taking three games off, Lowry’s shot has still not returned.

Lowry finished with 14 points on 5-for-15 shooting. And before everyone jumps on his case for hogging the ball, he passed nine times more than his season average (66 vs. 57) and 10 of his attempts were considered uncontested by SportVU’s tracking data.

It’s probably the banged up finger on his left hand. He rolled over it again on Sunday and it has turned Lowry from a great above-the-break 3-point shooter, into a below-average shooter. But regardless, the Raptors badly need Lowry to return to form.

Valanciunas losing his match-up with Kanter 

This one was the hardest one to swallow and inspired a patented rant from our good buddy Matt Moore.

There’s no way to sugar coat it: Valanciunas lost his match-up with Kanter on every level. That’s disappointing, because the opposite has been true, historically. Kanter finished with 21 points and 12 rebounds to Valanciunas’s 10 and five.

As for the offense, Valanciunas flubbed a number of open passes which he ordinarily would have converted into easy buckets. With Kanter matching Valanciunas’s size and Serge Ibaka lurking on the weakside, Valanciunas’s post game wasn’t much better. It was hard to watch.

Defensively, Valanciunas had problems covering pick-and-roll (as discussed earlier) and also struggled on the defensive glass. To be fair, all the scrambling left Valanciunas on an island most times, but there’s no getting around the fact that Valanciunas only collected one defensive rebound. It wasn’t a case of him being out of position, either. SportVU has him down for 19 rebounding chances and he converted just five. That’s not good enough. The Raptors needed for him to deliver and he didn’t.

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