Cory Joseph might be new to the Raptors, having signed with the team in the summer, but he has already stepped into a leadership role.
That makes sense, while he isn’t the scream-and-yell type, Joseph is a leader, an extension of the coach on the floor as a point guard. He shows it when he captains Canada and he has shown it running one of the best reserve units in the NBA this season.
But he does it pretty quietly.
“I speak when needed, I guess,” Joseph said earlier Thursday.
“If I see something, I’ll definitely state my opinion, but … I’m not a loud or talkative guy, I like to go out there and handle my business but I speak when I have an opinion.”
It was a game that lacked any real pace or feel, thanks mostly to a first-half that saw the Raptors turn the ball over nine times, part of a 15-turnover night. The Raptors’ four-point halftime lead inched up to seven after three quarters. The Hawks’ balanced attack — they had six players in double figures, led by Al Horford’s 20 points — wasn’t able to threaten the Raptors in the fourth quarter; Atlanta only scored 21 in the final frame.
DeMar DeRozan led the Raptors with 30 points, easing the burden on his point guard, Kyle Lowry, who checked out of the second quarter to get some stretching done with the training staff. The ice pack that he’s been wearing around his lower back in the pre-game looked to be super-sized on Thursday, but Lowry was back for the remainder of the night and played 37:57, finishing with 19 points and seven assists.
“Tonight was our solid defence,” Casey said. “It was a grind-it-out game, a 48-minute game. (Atlanta is) a very good team across the board. You cut out one guy and somebody else raises up. With Horford shooting the three-ball it really, really puts the pressure on the defence.
“I just thought our guys competed and really did a good job in their coverages, especially down the stretch.”
On Thursday night, the secondary offence came from more traditional sources. Terrence Ross and Patrick Patterson have been the Raptors’ most reliable bench scorers all season and delivered again with 12 points each. Jonas Valancuinas extended his streak of scoring in double figures to a career-best 16 games with 10 points on just five shots.
The Raptors will always live and die offensively with their “hub” of DeRozan and Lowry, and Thursday night was no different.
But as the season winds down and the playoffs heat up, finding other ways and other players to score will help the team and their mission. It’s a work in progress, but there are signs of it.
“Tonight was our solid defence,” Casey said. “It was a grind-it-out game, a 48-minute game. They are a very good team across the board. You cut out one guy and somebody else rises up. With (Al) Horford shooting the three-ball now, it really really puts the pressure on the defence. The speed of (Dennis) Schroder and the speed of (Jeff) Teague really puts you in a bind. I just thought our guys competed and really did a good job in their coverages, especially down the stretch.”
As one would expect, the parade to the basket was led by DeMar DeRozan, who finished with 30 points, most of them coming from within five feet of the basket.
The Raptors shot 46% from the field, the first game in the past nine that a team has shot that well against Atlanta’s defence.
Unlike the previous meeting between these two teams, there was no need for a huge 17-point comeback by the Raptors. They were never down by more than six and that occurred back in the first quarter.
The Raptors, however, never really pulled away until the final minutes when they got the lead up to 12, but it was a game that seemed to be under control for most of the night.
TAKING A DEFENSIVE STAND
Toronto led by seven to start the fourth quarter, extended the lead to double digits with four minutes to go and then used a pair of defensive plays to protect the win. With the lead at eight, Bismack Biyombo had an emphatic swat of a Paul Millsap attempt and held his pose afterward, giving an extended finger wag for impact. On Toronto’s next defensive possession, it was Lowry to step up, and step in, taking a charge from Dennis Schroder. After a few weeks of subpar defence, it was a big step in the right direction for the Raptors to close out a game on the defensive end of the floor.
Like clockwork, DeMar DeRozan knifed his way to 30 points on 11-of-20 shooting and nine trips to the free throw line. It was effortless out there for him, the familiar sight of his drive-and-get-fouled game frustrating the Hawks over and over again. The Raptors bench likewise appeared to pressure the weak Hawks’ reserves into submission — only Dennis Schroder continued to attack with any real menace. (His war of attrition with Cory Joseph was something to watch.) For his part, Lowry finished with 19 points and seven assists, while the twin X-factors of Ross and Patterson combined for 24 points on 10-of-21 shooting. And, most importantly, the Raptors’ defense played better more often than not.
The Hawks tried to hound the Raptors’ starting backcourt of Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan. Kent Bazemore and Thabo Sefolosha were assigned to DeRozan. Jeff Teague and Dennis Schroder were assigned to Lowry. The Hawks provided a lot of help defense on the two Raptors All-Stars guards. The pair combined for 28 of the Raptors’ 52 first-half points and 49 of their 104 points.
“He’s improved,” Bazemore said. “He’s gotten so much better from last year to this year. Even from the first time we saw them early in the season, he’s gotten so much better with the ball, the offense is going with him, he’s getting in the paint, using his size to finish up around the rim. He was a tough guard for us tonight. He shot 11 for 20, which is outstanding.”
All told, there was nothing embarrassing this performance from a Hawks perspective. Atlanta was victimized by DeMar DeRozan, who finished with 30 points on 20 shot attempts, but the defense was not woeful for much of the night. Offensively, the shots simply didn’t fall at an acceptable clip (43% FG, 30% 3-PT) when trying to pull an “upset” on the road against a quality team, and the team lacked a standout individual performance to put things over the top.
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“How they closed out the first half, they got their energy. The fans here are incredible so they feed off of them a ton. Once that happened, it’s kind of hard to stop a team like that. They have two All-Stars in the backcourt. They were running the show today. You have to give credit where credit is due. They did a good job of finding their guys and their guys did a good job knocking down shots. They also found a way to stay aggressive and finding ways to put the ball in the basket as well.” – Hardaway on difference in second half
Solid effort overall on the defensive end for the Raptors. They held a very good ball club in the hawks to under 45% shooting while holding their opponent under the century mark. Work still needs to be done however as the team committed a lot of petty fouls allowing Atlanta to get in the bonus early and monumentally decrease the pace of play.
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“(Powell) played like an old man,” Casey said. “He was physical. He was gritty. He was grimy. His attention to detail, he didn’t fall asleep. Korver had one three in the first half and that wasn’t on Norm, that was in transition. I was really proud of the way he competed. Again, he’s growing as a player each every time he’s out there on the floor.”
The Raptors didn’t dominate this game, though they did enough to deserve the victory. Team defense was stout, and six of nine rotation players scored in double figures. Atlanta’s lack of size hurt them, as the Raptors ended with a massive 15-rebound advantage, which is partly why they scored 50 paint points to the Hawks’ 34.
As it turns out, though, playing a team that excels at moving the ball was exactly what Toronto needed to kick start a defence that had been lagging of late.
In a game with 11 lead changes, the Raptors didn’t let Atlanta get into a rhythm, as the Hawks’ biggest scoring run was a 7-0 stretch early in the first quarter. Otherwise the teams settled into a consistent back-and-forth, which suits Toronto’s strengths.
“We played solid defence. It was a grind it out game, a 48 minute game. They’re a very good team across the board,” said Casey. “Now with Horford shooting the three ball it really puts pressure on the defence. The speed of Schroder and the speed of Teague really puts you in a bind. I thought our guys competed did a good job in our coverages, especially down the stretch.”
“That’s a good team down there,” added Lowry. “The way they move the ball, the way their team is set up and the way their offense is run. You have to read and react and try to dictate before they can dictate. It was a good effort for us and a good win.”
Atlanta head coach Mike Budenholzer remains close with Carroll and knows exactly what he’ll bring when he does return, not that he is looking forward to seeing the improvement for the Raptors.
“I’m a big DeMarre fan, but after that I’m hoping he doesn’t have a big impact on Toronto,” Budenholzer said pre-game. “He plays with such energy and takes so much pride in his defence. Every team needs guys like that. He has an ability to make shots, obviously, and has turned into a great two-way player. I’m sure they will welcome him back.”
That goes without question.
The real question is how long will it take to get back in game rhythm with the other Raptors starters.
Over the last week Carroll has ramped up his on-court work after practices, participating in some light shooting, conditioning and one-on-one drills with coaches and some of his teammates.
With five weeks left in the regular season, the Raptors will continue to be cautious with their starting small forward. After sitting out for so long, unable to do much cardio during that time, Carroll will likely need a few practices under his belt before being reinserted into the lineup.
Barring a setback, a late-March return date is most likely. The Raptors are still hoping to get him in 10-13 games before the playoffs.
I don’t, however, think for a second that this is going to be any extraordinary draft year for a Raptors team that’s already got four young kids that management likes getting groomed at the end of the bench and in the D-League.
I fully expect one of two things to happen in June:
Masai is sure to probe the trade market by dangling one, or both, of his draft picks. He had rudimentary talks with a couple of teams about moving one around the trade deadline even if nothing came to fruition and those conversations will be revisited again during the final runup to the draft.
And do not discount the possibility of a draft-and-stash move getting pulled off; I know the team’s had guys all over Europe for a lot of the summer and if they’ve spotted some intriguing kid who can’t come for a year or two or three for whatever reason, they are in position to make a pick for far down the road.
When DeRozan has been on the court this season the Toronto Raptors give up 107.9 points per 100 possessions, according to Basketball-Reference. That number would be the second-worst defensive efficiency in the NBA, just ahead of the Los Angles Lakers. When he is on the bench, the team gives up 98.9 points per 100 possessions.
That number would be the second-best figure in the NBA behind the San Antonio Spurs. That’s a nine-point swing between when he is on the court and when he sits. While some of that drop off can be explained by playing with other poor defensive starters like Scola and Valanciunas, Lowry has improved the defense by 0.5 points per 100 possessions when on the court.
So it isn’t just a matter of the weaknesses of the starting lineup dragging his numbers down.
If you look at the DRPM for DeRozan, he ranks 84th out of the 95 shooting guards ranked by that metric. That is an abysmal figure for a player with his length and athleticism that has shown he can be a plus defender in the past. Last season DeRozan was ranked 29th in DRPM, which isn’t great, but it’s certainly much better than the figures he’s posting this season.
The regression hasn’t necessarily been all the Raptors’ fault; they have been subject to some hot shooting from their opponents recently. Damian Lillard scored 50 points in a rabid 4th quarter comeback that has pushed many teams this season, and James Harden and co. shot the lights out in the 4th quarter as well to grab a win earlier this week. Other than these two instances of hot shooting, there are only a few defensively destructive outings. The first game after the break, the Chicago Bulls put up 116 points on a hungover Raptors defense, and the Detroit Pistons put up 115 points on a Kyle Lowry-less lineup away from home. If you take out these bouts of hot shooting and odd nights out of the equation the defense returns to letting a respectable 95.8 points per game.
ESPN NBA Analyst Tim Legler shares his thoughts on the Raptors and says he believes that they have the chemistry and depth to contend in the East, and challenge the Cavaliers.
The winds of change blew through the Raptors lineup again this week. Or maybe Johnson is still struggling with plantar faciitis? No, let’s go with the winds; those mystical, mysterious winds of change.
Johnson played in only one of three games this past week and it was that piece of junk loss to the Houston Rockets. In total, he topped 27 minutes, put eight points (and two 3s!), plus four assists, two blocks, a steal and, gulp, three turnovers. Still, as mentioned, the Raptors gave the game away. There were matchup reasons to not play Johnson in the Raps’ game against Portland — coach Dwane Casey wanted Norman Powell to bug C.J. McCollum. I have to assume the Nets game, in which both Johnson and Luis Scola sat, was about rest.
Johnson is set to start in tonight’s Atlanta game (presumably). And so the winds of change blow on.
Despite the problems set from the insufficient lineup, the Raptors had regularly overcome the problem leading up to the All-Star break and Casey had continued to roll with the lineup even after the break.
However, the problem has grown bigger for the Raptors since returning from the All-Star break and the lineup now has a minus-9.3 net rating per 100 possessions in the 92 minutes it has been used since the All-Star break.
It hasn’t had much of an effect on the team’s record since returning from the break, but why is the lineup performing worse now than it was before?
The reason has been the team’s defense.
Leading to the All-Star break, the Raptors’ defense ranked ninth in defensive rating (101.5 points per 100 possessions) in the NBA. That has since fallen as the team’s defensive rating has plummeted to 25th in the NBA (110.4 points per 100 possessions) in the games played since returning from the break.
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