But this Raptors team is playing wise beyond its years together. Russell Westbrook looked for a while like he was going to win this game all by himself — and he almost did. Had the Raptors panicked as Westbrook hit jumper after jumper and the lead grew to as much as 12 points, he might very well have. But panic isn’t something this Raptors team does either. And it was that calm, that sticking to defensive principals that got them the win and that has them off to such a stellar start this season. “I don’t know how many games we’re going to win but I know that we’re going to scrap, we’re going to compete, play hard, get after people,” head coach Dwane Casey said after the win. “Tonight our shots weren’t falling and we attacked the rim, got to the free throw line, make the officials make a decision, force the defence to react … It was a grind-it-out type game and that shows mental toughness can (help you) win when everything is not clicking.”
The Raptors clawed themselves back to a one-point lead at the half after finishing the second quarter on a 17-8 run. Still struggling in the half court offensively with just 31 per cent shooting at the half it was added intensity on defence that carried Toronto into the locker room, forcing 14 Oklahoma City turnovers. There were moments when it seemed a meltdown was imminent. A pair of questionable fourth-quarter technical fouls on Bismack Biyombo and Kyle Lowry gave the Thunder free points and stemmed the Raptors’ momentum. Toronto gave up 42 points in the third quarter but the defence for the bulk of the game was steady giving up just 16 in the second and 17 in the fourth. No coincidence those were the two quarters where Cory Joseph got the bulk of his 26 minutes. The X-factor defensively, Joseph, the team’s unsung free agent signing, played the entire fourth quarter and guarded Westbrook during that time, holding him to just 1-of-8 shooting. He also finished the evening a game-high plus-22.
Cory Joseph closed out the game with the starters, playing all 12 fourth quarter minutes and finishing a +22 in 26 minutes. Joseph was also on the floor during the second quarter push that saw Toronto return from a 10-point deficit at the end of the first quarter to take a one-point halftime lead. Joseph finished with nine points on 4-for-7 field goals and added four rebounds, three assists and three steals.
No one particularly played well, but DeAll DeStar had 28 points on 18 shots, and got to the free throw line 15 times. I will plead to other teams to keep sending him to the free throw line, I really appreciate it. Jonas Valanciunas came up big in the final frame, disturbing shots in the paint and creating havoc with his verticality — he ended with 17 points on 9 shots and 11 rebounds.
In the second half, however, those lanes tightened up. Raptors coach Dwane Casey admitted he still has nightmares about Durant’s 51-point explosion in Toronto from two seasons ago, and he was about to catch another case of night terrors from Westbrook’s 16-point third quarter Wednesday. Casey may sleep easier this time around knowing his team was able to remain unbeaten by holding the Thunder to 36 points in the paint — 15 below OKC’s league-leading season average. “We try to make sure we keep it out of there,” Casey said of the paint protection from the Raptors. Toronto entered the game allowing the second-fewest points in the paint in the NBA. “That’s easier said than done, especially with a guy like Russell Westbrook, who’s probably one of the strongest, fastest guys in the league.” DeMarre Carroll, Toronto’s big free-agent acquisition and best defensive player said: “We kept switching on him. That’s basically why they brought me and Cory (Joseph) here. To be defenders and try, when it gets close like that at the end.”
There were limited passes and inconsistent defense and rebounding during that stretch. The Thunder were up 2 late in the game, but 2 free throws from Valanciunas and a close bank shot from Derozen quickly put the Raptors up 2. A jump ball between Valanciunas and Ibaka with OKC down 3 in the closing minute of the game gave us as slight hope of some typical Thunder madness. That dream was quickly killed with DeRozen recovering the tip. The Raptors capitalized on the Thunder missing on some failed late game heroism from Russell Westbrook. To be fair to Russ missed some shots at the rim he normally makes and carried the team most of the way. He had 16 assists (one shy of his career high of 17) and handled a bulk of the scoring load in the 2nd half. Durant scored 27 points on an efficient 10-18 from the field, but lacked an aggression you would expect. He still seems to be feeling his way through games while Russ gripping them with all his might. Ball movement and making the extra pass were preached in the preseason, but were gone come the fourth quarter for OKC yet again. Late game execution has been very Scott Brooksian so far in the Billy Donovan era. When you have 2 of the best 1-on-1 players in the league this is bound to happen, but you still hope for more than what we saw tonight.
The Raptors went to a small lineup down the stretch, and Donovan stayed big. That made it tough for the Thunder to guard Toronto, but it should have made it tough on the Raptors to guard the Thunder. Didn’t happen. The Raptors gave away size and bulk by putting DeMar DeRozan on Serge Ibaka. Same as Sunday night when Houston put James Harden on Serge, the Thunder didn’t make anyone pay for such umbrage. Eventually, Donovan went small, too, but it didn’t matter. The offense was off the rails.
“We can’t come into a game and just hand the other team the ball,” said Kevin Durant, who scored a team-high 27 points for OKC. “That’s basically what we’re doing, and putting them on the free throw line. So, it’s basically we’re down 20 points before we even start playing. “It’s tough to win that way. We had this game in the bag. We had the last two games in the bag.” Westbrook took over for stretches in the second half, scoring 20 of his 22 points after halftime. He was hammered on a drive at 7:19 in the fourth quarter, then two possessions later got into a mini-skirmish with Raptors center Bismack Biyombo. The result was an offensive foul on Biyombo and a technical, Westbrook still holding his neck and grimacing. The play was a sign of the physicality the Raptors brought in the second half.
The Oklahoman: Is your role with the Raptors similar to what you were doing with the Thunder? Kalamian: “Very similar. The lead assistant on the team. What I really try to do is help coach (Dwane) Casey manage the game and think about practices, try to stay a step ahead and help him with things that may be coming up. That was my role here with the Thunder for two years as coach (Scott) Brooks’ lead assistant. It’s basically the same job, although we are learning each other still as a team because we have six new players on the team and new coaches; we’re still in the learning process of that.”
While the Raptors outscored OKC, they did not accomplish this efficiently. Field goal percentage was 41.8%, while 3-point was 35.7%. We only had 12 assists which is 4 less than Russell Westbrook had in total (16). The brightest spot of our offence, in my opinion, would have to be the free throws. The team kept attacking the basket and did not rely too heavily upon the 3 ball which is a major improvement from last year and a big reason as to why Toronto won this game. Due to amount guys driving to the basket, the Raps were able to land in the bonus and get additional free throws. Of course, DeMar Derozan accounted for a good chunk of the free throws as he went 14-15 from the charity stripe. The offensive boards were also a key part in the Raps getting the W. Although, the team was unable to capitalize on a few Thunder turnovers, the offensive boards were priceless. DeMarre Carroll made a crucial offensive rebound with roughly 17 seconds left in the game.
“We had a hard time defensively trying to stay big when they actually ended up going small and moved Carroll to the 4-spot,” Thunder head coach Billy Donovan explained. “When they played small, we had a hard time. That’s when the fouling started.” After getting down by 10 points in the first quarter, the game turned for Toronto when backup point guard Cory Joseph entered the game. Despite only scoring 2 points and recording 2 dimes in the quarter, Joseph was a +12 and helped lead the Raptors to a 1-point lead going into the half. His impact would be just as big with his team down by 8-points heading into the fourth quarter and Casey would use him in a two-point guard lineup with Lowry for the entire final frame.
In the aftermath of a 102-91 loss to Toronto, Carlisle was asked why his team, which had been in front or right with the Raptors all evening, wilted in the final 61/2 minutes, when the Raptors closed out the game on a 20-5 run. “They made it more their type of game, physical, grinding and a lot of physical contact,” Carlisle said. He could have been reading from Casey’s pre-game work notes. “They turned it into a boxing match and we needed it to be a basketball game,” Carlisle said. “We need to be a little tougher on both ends, we need to get more stops, obviously, and then have to get the ball in the hole.”
“He sets a tone for the team with his defensive mentality,” TSN basketball analyst Leo Rautins said Wednesday on Mike Richards in the Morning. “He’s not just a guy who defends, he’s a guy that loves to defend, he takes it personally. When you have a guy like that, it’s contagious.” “You have a guy that is not a liability offensively. Often times you get a defender and he can’t shoot and can’t do other things that you need him to do. With Carroll, you have a guy that can knock down the three and plays exceptionally well without the basketball.” His early numbers paint the same picture. Carroll is averaging 13 points per game and shooting 37 per cent from beyond the arc, while also grabbing 5.3 boards a game.
Through the first four games of 2015-16, the Raptors have fielded the league’s fifth-best defence, allowing a stingy 93.3 points per 100 possessions. They’re holding opponents to 38.7 percent shooting from the field and they’ve cleaned up their interior D, allowing just 34.5 points-in-the-paint per game compared to last season’s 43.7. Even better, that improvement hasn’t cost them on the offensive end. Sure, they’re scoring 103.2 points per 100 possessions to last year’s 108.1, but that number’s still good for eighth in the league and the attack is considerably more balanced.
“I just have to go out there and show the critics what it is,” he said. “You have to go out there and produce like I did last year in (the D-League with) Reno and hopefully I have the chance to play here.” When you’re seven-foot-four, even your opponents look up at you on the court. The visual of Bhullar standing with reporters is unforgettable, like a skyscraper jutting up into the clouds around blocks of low-lying buildings. His height is frequently inferred in questions when it doesn’t need to be and to his credit, Bhullar never seems agitated with the subtle ‘hey-look-at-you’ treatment he’s likely experienced his entire life. If he’s as patient with the on-court challenges as the off-court ones, he could have a chance. At 362 pounds, Bhullar said his focus for the past year has been getting into better shape. His time with the Kings, even his time spent with Team Canada at the Pan Am Games (he opted not to go to Mexico for the Olympic qualifier because of family issues, he said) were crucial teachable moments. “Guys are slimmer and a lot more toned and muscular,” he said. “I’m trying to get there.”
The exploding salary cap make both of these deals appear insignificant in the grand scheme of things. I would still take Lamb. The thing with Ross is, there’s a greater than 50 percent chance when you watch a Raptor game that you forget he’s actually on the court. It’s unfortunate because he’s an athletic slashing type guy with lockdown defensive ability and a jumper that can be lights out if it ever saw consistency. We’re also nearing the point of seeing what Ross will be. Not necessarily the case yet with Lamb who was buried on the Thunder depth chart. He will be more valuable in Charlotte where he is positioned to see the significant minutes that will allow everyone to actually measure his impact and ability justly. By extending him, Charlotte is betting he can live up to or surpass the value of his deal with opportunity. If not, there is little harm done to the Hornets cap.
Photo Credit: AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki
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