The NBA scheduling process has always been one that’s interesting to me. For the league office, balancing the arena logistics, minimizing travel time, setting the appropriate divisional and conference matchups, as well as providing a balanced combination of rest and difficulty are all obvious factors that would play into their process.
All that being said, nothing can ever be truly “fair” in all ways. And this year, due to the luck of the draw for the Raptors, a team that kicked off their season with a healthy stretch of home games, they embarked on a crazy difficult stretch starting on November 15th in Cleveland. That stretch featured 7 games in 11 nights, with the first 5 of those games played in just 7 nights. And all of this against the best of the best in the league, mixed in with a few road tilts against Western Conference teams (and really, when are those ever easy?)
Most people would agree that how a team performs under those crazy difficult circumstances, is about as a good a litmus test as you can have. Historically, or at least under this Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan era that seems to have spoiled us for the better part of the last 3 years, the Raptors have been somewhat blowout-proof (with some exceptions, of course). And that’s why, coming into this stretch, I was scared, but also hopeful and excited to see what the Raptors would make of it.
By the Numbers
The Raptors season so far can be broken down into a couple of early-season phases. The first phase was during the stretch of home games against teams like Detroit, Denver and Sacramento. During this time, fans expected wins, and the Raptors for the most part, were winning. The second phase was the past 7 games played in 11 nights; a stretch that wasn’t going to be easy by any means, but was going to be the ultimate test for the Raptors to see what they’re made of.
While we’ve seen consistent aspects so far this year for the Raptors, we certainly noticed some changes in the past 7 games as well, serving as silver linings or worrisome trends in some of those tough defeats and surprising wins.
The Raptors, aside from their overall field goal percentage as a team were a completely different team during the second (and tougher) phase thus far this season. And while it has been challenging for the Raptors to match their early season winning percentage during this past stretch, they’ve improved their scoring (largely in response to a defensive regression, allowing opponents to score in excess of 112 points per game). Granted 3 of those games were against offensive juggernauts in Cleveland, Golden State and the LA Clippers, who dropped 117, 121 and 115 on the Raptors respectively, but there was a sense of disappointment that was quite clear in Dwane Casey’s tone, and something just didn’t feel right on the defensive end.
Encouragingly however, the Raptors bounced back with a huge defensive effort against the Houston Rockets, forcing them into an unbelievable 26 turnovers. But the field goal percentage of opponents, and sometimes three point shooting defense, have been clear and consistent problems for the Raptors to handle. With DeMarre Carroll only recently finding his footing offensively and defensively, I’d expect some improvements to be made as he gets back into the swing. Further, things are likely to improve defensively when the Raptors bring Jared Sullinger into the mix, as well as incorporate a more polished Lucas Nogeuira into the defensive schemes
Trust the pass
The Raps have been able to mix more assists into their offense over the past 7 games, in part due to DeRozan’s slight offensive regression from his MJ-like status, which has opened opportunities for others. He’s done a fantastic job in recognizing when the shot is not falling, and when to involve others – particularly DeMarre Carroll, who’s been the beneficiary of DeRozan drive-and-dishes for open 3s. Yesterday alone DeRozan and Carroll hooked up 3 times in these kinds of plays. During the past 7 games, DeMar has averaged 5.1 assists, compared to 3.2 in the first 9. And that’s what I think we all want from DeMar – take the shot you know you can make, and if it’s not falling or you’re severely double-teamed, get others involved.
Hey, but as we saw last night, sometimes even double-teams don’t matter.
Three point shooting
The three-point shooting has been vastly improved in the past 7 games (surprising given 6 of the past 7 have been on the road), from around 29.0% in the first 9 games to over 42% these past 7. Most of that has been due to remarkable shooting improvement shown by Patrick Patterson and DeMarre Carroll, who are now shooting 37% and 42% from 3 this season, respectively. Given the early season brick-laying we saw from both, that’s not bad at all this time of year.
Patrick Patterson – 3 point shot chart (2016/2017 season to date)
DeMarre Carroll – 3 point shot chart (2016/2017 season to date)
Not to mention, Terrence Ross has continued to assert himself, not only shooting the 3-pointer with confidence, but getting deflections on the defensive end, running the floor, and even stroking the mid-range jumpers with efficiency. If the Raptors are going to have any chance against the real good teams in this league, it’s going to have be the bench that brings an added scoring punch. And guys like Terrence Ross and Patrick Patterson are the ones that you need to perform when it counts.
Hit me Bebe one more time
Bebe Nogeuira, while being a liability at times due to his propensity to foul (especially with the moving screen), his defense has been simply awesome. Serving the role as a Biyombo of sorts for the Raptors, Nogeuira has brought a defensive toughness stemming from his incredible length and agility defending against smaller guards driving to the hole. Bebe’s 4 swats against Milwaukee were amazing to watch, and gave the Raptors much-needed momentum as they changed ends offensively.
I’d like to see Dwane Casey go to Bebe earlier on nights where JV is not able to establish himself in the post early in games, shows fatigue, or if he’s in foul-trouble. Bebe, if he can stay disciplined setting screens, offers the Raptors a dynamic defensive punch off of the bench with rebounding, blocks and disruptive length inside. In just over 18 minutes a night, Nogeuira is shooting 71% from the field, for 4 points a game, is grabbing over 4 rebounds and getting just around 2 blocks a night. That’s not bad for the 18 minutes he averages on the court (and at a +5.9 pace). I expect him to get better, and like Biyombo, to feed off of the energy of the home crowd.
While the Raptors lost some tough games to Sacramento, the Clippers and against Cleveland and Golden State, I’ll take solace in the fact that one of the tougher stretches this season is now over. The Raptors now return home for a 6-game homestand, featuring the likes of the Sixers, Wolves and Lakers. Mixed in however are tough games against Atlanta, Cleveland and Memphis, all playoff teams that will want to send a statement to the Raptors.
The one I’m looking forward to the most is Atlanta. In an early-season battle to determine who’s more likely to be second best in the East, this game feels like it will mean a lot to both sides. The Hawks aren’t exactly super scary, but the fact that they beat Cleveland made them formidable in my eyes. With Schroder coming into his own, supported by veterans Kyle Korver, Dwight Howard, Paul Millsap and others, a regular season win doesn’t mean this team wouldn’t be a tough out in the playoffs.
There’s nothing easy about this upcoming stretch of 6 games, but if they’re playing in the friendly confines of the ACC where the Raptors were 32-9 last year, I’d say things are looking up.