So, wtf happened? They didn’t play with intensity to start the second half and couldn’t turn on the switch until it was too late. I want to blame them for doing this, but the first two quarters were so easy for them that it’s somewhat understandable. Most of the run was the Raptors running stagnant sets on offense that led to bad shots and turnovers which sparked the Knicks’ transition game.
“That sh– was a blur,” point guard Kyle Lowry said of the third quarter. “It was a blur to me. We had seven turnovers, missed some good looks. They started out aggressive, made shots. That pretty much won the game for them. You have to tip your hat sometimes. For a team to get going like that, they did an unbelievable job. For us, we had seven turnovers. I missed a couple of shots, DeMar (DeRozan) missed shots, Serge (Ibaka) missed some shots, JV (Jonas Valanciunas) missed a layup. It happens man.”
Lowry played down the loss. Dwane Casey did not afford himself the same luxury.
“We did that to ourselves,” the head coach said. “I give the Knicks all the credit, they are playing well, especially here at home, but we talked about that. We have to match their energy and we did not do it except with that stretch with the second unit. The first unit did not match their energy defensively or offensively. We didn’t play with any force, any pace, any toughness to warrant anything.”
On three different occasions in that fourth quarter, the Raptors got the lead down to six points, but each time the Knicks pulled away.
In Episode 232 of Locked on Raptors, Sean Woodley and Sahal Abdi (Raptors Republic) recap a wonderfully bizarre Raptors/Knicks game in which MSG was rocking, the Knicks went on a 28-0 third quarter run, Kyle Lowry and Pascal Siakam shone, Serge Ibaka coasted except when he didn’t, and DeMar DeRozan had two wildly different halves.
It’s hard to understate just how atrociously the Raptors played during the third quarter of this game. They had little cohesion on offence, they bricked shot after shot after shot (Toronto went 1-of-16 from the field in the quarter), and they turned the ball over repeatedly, more than once throwing errant passes to vacant spots on the floor.
Meanwhile, at the other end, New York got absolutely anything it wanted on offence, scoring from mid range, from beyond the arc, and in the paint. The Raptors provided very little resistance throughout, and looked like a group simply waiting for the quarter to end.
The Knicks ended up going on a 32-3 run in the third (including 28 consecutive New York points), forcing Casey to frantically shuffle his rotations in search of any solution to stop the bleeding. But he couldn’t find it, and by the time the dust settled, the Raptors finished the quarter down 20 after coming into it with an 11-point lead.
Not after the Knicks held off the inevitable Raptors comeback in the fourth quarter, a surge that was eerily reminiscent of what the Cavaliers had done here nine days earlier and elicited a sound among the 19,812 people that approximated nausea.
And not after vanquishing the Raptors, who had outclassed them in Toronto last Friday, who had won eight in a row over the Knicks dating to early in the 2015-16 season, who may not be the Celtics, but are in that rung just below them in the Eastern Conference. The Knicks have won plenty of confidence builders this year.
This was for something else. This was to prove they belong, that they really can play with anybody. They hinted at that against Cleveland, but couldn’t close the deal that night. They closed this time.
“We challenged the guys at halftime,” Knicks coach Jeff Hornacek said. “We played hard in the first half, but that’s a great team with a lot of energy and they really got after us. But we told them to put the pressure on and make nothing east and they responded in that third quarter. They were great.”
Hardaway especially, who poured in a career-high 38 points and added seven assists and has become in every way the team’s unquestioned emotional core. It was Hardaway (12) and Courtney Lee (11) who combined for 23 points and fueled the brunt of that 28-0 third-quarter explosion, one that came with Kristaps Porzingis contributing only a couple of free throws on offense.
“This is such an unselfish team,” Hardaway said.
No, you didn’t read that incorrectly — it was a 28-0 run. Toronto started the quarter shooting 0-for-a helluva lot, and at one point it looked like the starting group was losing composure, jacking up ill-advised shots, taking unnecessary risks on defense and offense, and really allowing New York (the team and the city) to get in their heads.
After shooting 49 percent from the field and 43 percent from 3 in the first half, the Raptors would hit 1-of-16 shots in the third, good for 6 percent from the field. Again, this was a quarter to forget, as the Raptors finished the frame down twenty, good for a 31 point swing on the score board. They were outscored 41-10. Incredible.
Tim Hardaway absolutely torched Toronto, as he finished with 38 points (OG Amber alert) on 13-of-27 overall, 4-of-9 from distance, while managing to make 8-of-10 free throws. Oh, he also added six boards and seven assists. This was the Hardaway show through and through. Toronto had no answers for him as they focused the second half on stuffing the post.
In the 4th, Toronto thankfully began playing with a tenacity and energy completely missing in the third quarter. Multiple times, thanks to defensive stops and rebounding the ball, they were able to chip the lead down to 6, only to miss a crucial shot, followed by another, to let the Knicks once again take control.
It wasn’t until the final frame that Ibaka, who played one of his most forgettable games as a Raptor tonight, made three jumpers in a row to give Toronto some hope. Kyle Lowry, who appeared to be the only Raptor playing with urgency throughout the game, also hit some cold-blooded shots to scare the Knicks, who watched a 20 point lead evaporate in under five minutes in the fourth quarter.
There was a lot of talk about the need for DeRozan to add the three-point shot to his arsenal this summer. It’s his play-making that’s always seemed a little more important. Threes are great, of course, and DeRozan is putting them up this season with greater regularity than ever before, but the Raptors will rarely want DeRozan in the corner, and his reluctance to pass has often proven to be the team’s stylistic bottleneck.
That appears to be changing. For several playoff series now, DeRozan’s dealt with heavy trapping and blitzing, with opponents selling out to get the ball out of his hands. His success has been uneven, and it’s clear he made dealing with those scenarios a focus of his off-season work. With greater responsibility, DeRozan is getting a greater sense of how defences respond to him, and he’s using the attention he draws to manipulate that defence rather than just respond to it. Through 16 games, he’s averaging a career-high 22.9 per cent assist rate, good for 4.6 per game.
“I know I can score, I know I can do this, but I want to make everybody around me even more comfortable,” DeRozan said. “That’s been kinda my mindset and it makes it a lot more fun, especially for me. I tell guys all the time, I don’t care if I pass you the ball 20 times in a row and you miss 20 shots in a row, I’m gonna pass it 21st-second-third time, every time down, you know? And just to give that confidence, that go a long way. I really don’t pay attention to the assists, they just come. That’s just the confidence I got in my teammates.”
His teammates are shooting 33.9 per cent on threes he sets up and 55.3 per cent on twos. The former is still a smallish sample size that could improve with more time alongside C.J. Miles or better shooting from Lowry. The latter is the best on the team (yes, even better than Lowry’s 53.5 per cent). Serge Ibaka and Jonas Valanciunas have been the primary beneficiaries, combining for a 24-of-40 mark inside the arc following a DeRozan pass. His turnover rate is up in conjunction with the heavier passing emphasis, but he remains one of the game’s more sure-handed high-volume players.
It’s his improving ability to make plays for those around him that jumps out, and bodes well as DeRozan gets into the heart of his prime, where players with true staying power evolve and find ways to continue to thrive even as their athletic ability ebbs ever-so-slightly.
“As far as passing the basketball, making plays, [the] quasi-point guard mentality, he’s done an excellent job and that’s what we need him to do,” said Raptors head coach Dwane Casey, who has coached DeRozan for seven seasons and can easily recall a player who panicked when facing double teams in the post, or was clunky and pre-programmed when teams tried to trap him coming out of pick-and-rolls.
That’s not the case now, as DeRozan trails only Steph Curry and Bradley Beal among players who generate a scoring opportunity as the primary ball-handler in a pick-and-roll, per NBA.com. His assist rate– he’s assisting on 23.9 per cent of his teammate’s field goals this season after averaging 14.7 per cent for his career to this point— is at all-time high too.
“He’s setting other people up, he’s taking what the game’s giving him,” says Casey. “ And with a dynamic scorer like him, if you have that other facet of the game going, where you’re making plays, seeing other people, it makes you more effective.”
In the course of the Raptors mission to modernize their offense and make it less predictable and more even-handed, DeRozan was approached about taking on added responsibilities as a playmaker. Not only did he say he was open to it, he’s followed through with his actions.
“I think it’s just me being a critic of myself, understanding how I can be better and make everybody around me better,” he said after practice at the BioSteel Centre before the Raptors headed out on three-game Eastern Conference road trip beginning Wednesday night in New York against the Knicks and including a stop in Indianapolis Friday and Atlanta on Saturday. “That’s always been my approach, especially coming into this season. I know I can score, I know I can do this, but I want to make everybody around me even more comfortable. That’s been kinda my mindset and it makes it a lot more fun, especially for me.”
The Raptors are 17.7 points per possession better with Siakam in the starting lineup than Valanciunas. They clamp down defensively, allowing just 98 points per 100 possessions. It’s a small sample size, but one that certainly passes the eye test. Siakam provides defensive versatility that Valanciunas, or any of the other big men on the roster, simply cannot. On the defensive end, he is Lucas Nogueira’s upside paired with Jakob Poeltl’s consistency.
Last season, Siakam’s motor powered his offence. When Kyle Lowry’s eyes shoot up the floor after corralling a defensive rebound, it is Siakam’s stride he is looking for. In the halfcourt, though, he was a major liability. This season, however, he’s added just enough to his game that defences can’t ignore him. His corner three-pointer remains iffy, but he’s whipped out a spin move as of late — it’s wobbly and occasionally anxiety-inducing, but it’s improving.
“I love the way he’s playing now,” said Casey. “He’s so much more improved from last year as far as handling the basketball, making decisions, reading situations, and not just out there just using all that motor. He’s really thinking the games. He’s playing hard.”
His game is, on both ends, growing. I’d like to see how it progresses buoyed by the cushion of playing with the starters, with less (read: absolutely no) attention paid to his offence.
The risk of this move — and it is no small one — is disrupting the current chemistry of the bench unit. Toronto’s second unit lineup (with Delon Wright) is outscoring opponents by 12.6 points per possession. They manage this by being utterly destructive on the defensive end, allowing a game-curdling 88 points per 100 possessions, and running off misses in transition. Siakam, of course, figures heavily in both categories. Valanciunas decidedly does not.
“I tell guys all the time: I don’t care if I pass you the ball 20 times in a row and you miss 20 shots in a row, I’m gonna pass it a twenty-first, -second, -third time, every time down, you know?” DeRozan said. “And just to give that confidence, that goes a long way. I really don’t pay attention to the assists, they just come. That’s just the confidence I’ve got in my teammates.”
Confidence matters here, for sure. And maybe a team-wide lack of it contributed to the Raptors averaging a meagre 23 three-pointers a game, ninth-fewest in the league. This year, with the ball moving and the green light always flashing, they’re jacking up about 31 a game, fifth-most in the league. If they can figure out a way to make a few more — they’re among the bottom 10 teams in three-point accuracy — they could get dangerous. As it is, in the midst of a four-game win streak that has run their record to 11-5, they’ve made do impressively enough.
“We’re getting so many open looks,” Casey said. “We’ve got to get in a rhythm to knock them down.”
DeRozan is among those taking more three-pointers — not that anyone is going to confuse him with a Splash Brother. He’s averaging nearly three attempts a game, a career-high pace.
Still, it wouldn’t be a leap to suggest that the increased threat that DeRozan might take a three — coupled with the increased threat that he might actually do damage with a timely pass — is making it easier for him to do what he does best. Yes, the mid-range game remains his pet tendency. He has launched nearly a third of his field-goal attempts from between 10 and 16 feet, according to Basketball-Reference.com, on pace for career-high volume from this familiar pocket. And if that could be considered counter to the cause — because surely shooting more mid-range jumpers wasn’t part of this season’s grand plan — DeRozan is providing a saving grace. He’s shooting 50 per cent from the field from between 10 and 16 feet — a career-high pace in yet another category. That number suggests he’s getting easier shots, or maybe taking better ones.
— Sam Holako (@rapsfan) November 23, 2017
5. Delon Wright, Toronto Raptors ($1,645,200)
Now in his third professional season and still operating on his rookie-scale contract after the Toronto Raptors chose to pick up his team option for both this season and 2018-19, Delon Wright has developed into everything the Canadian franchise could’ve wanted from its backup point guard. Well, he “had” developed into that player prior to dislocating his right shoulder—the same troublesome body part that has kept him out of action in the past.
But assuming Wright returns to his early-season form when he re-enters the lineup, he’ll continue to serve as a tremendous value off the Toronto bench.
His three-point stroke isn’t there, as he was shooting only 28.6 percent from downtown prior to his injury. But his growing work as a facilitator, physical defense against both 1- and 2-guards, solid work on the glass and scoring acumen around the basket still made him quite valuable. Last year, the Raptors posted a 4.71 net rating with Wright playing and Kyle Lowry on the pine, per PBPStats.com; this season, that number has swelled to 7.18.
— Sam Holako (@rapsfan) November 23, 2017
In the last week, Anunoby has been tasked with guarding Harden, Anthony Davis, Jrue Holiday, and Al Horford for different stretches, a remarkably diverse mix that speaks to head coach Dwane Casey’s emerging trust in the rookie. Getting key crunch-time assignments against the opponent’s hottest or most dominant scoring threat is a role generally saved for more experienced, proven defenders, and yet Anunoby has already vaulted toward the top of that pecking order. It says a lot, too, that Anunoby was asked to play the final nine minutes of the close-out, blowing past his earlier season-high in minutes by more than 30 per cent.
Anunoby has now played 28 minutes with the starters over three games. That group has outscored opponents by 23.7 points per-100 possessions, the best mark of any five-man unit the Raptors have deployed for more than 12 minutes this season. The Raptors have defended well when he’s on the floor – his 97.8 defensive rating is second only to Fred VanVleet among regulars, he owns the best net rating (plus-16.3) and early, small-sample advanced metrics like Box Plus-Minus or Real Plus-Minus grade him favourably in the small window he’s played.
On paper, playing Anunoby with the starters makes some sense. He might be the team’s best perimeter defender at a number of positions, something the starting lineup has desperately needed for some time and something Powell or C.J. Miles can only offer against certain player types. He’s a low-usage option who doesn’t require the ball – his usage rate is at a modest 14.8 per cent through 13 games – but he reads the floor well enough to cut into space effectively or make a pass to keep the ball moving along the perimeter. He’s been eager to attack closeouts, shows a willingness and ability to create for others on the move, and has even knocked down 14 of his 34 three-point attempts, good for 41.2 per cent overall and 42.9 per cent in the corners.
He may introduce some spacing concerns, with opponents likely more willing to let Anunoby beat them than Miles beyond the arc or Powell attacking from the corner. Anunoby has proven solid in his role on offence, but there’s a bit of an offence-defence trade-off looming.
Anunoby, on the other hand, profiles as exactly the type of defender who can take on those larger wings. Standing about 6-foot-8 with a 7-foot-2 wingspan and weighing 232 pounds at the 2017 NBA Draft Combine, Anunoby has the physical tools to be a high-level wing stopper. The mental side is lagging behind a little bit, but that’s to be expected from a rookie just a handful of games into his career. He got his crack at Harden, as almost every Raptor did in Tuesday’s game against Houston, and there were certainly some mixed results. Multiple times in the first half, Anunoby failed to execute the Weak scheme and let Harden get to the middle of the floor with his left hand, where he’s at his best. Things improved in the second half and those sorts of inconsistencies will be ironed out as he continues to mature on the floor.
Offensively, Anunoby is and almost certainly will always be extremely limited. He looks incredibly awkward with the ball in his hands, especially if he has to dribble with his left hand. There’s very little chance he ever develops into a secondary creator unless there’s a complete transformation in his future. Still, he can be a useful offensive player as he is; he can knock down the corner 3 and drive past an overzealous closeout to finish at the rim, which should be all the Raptors will need him to do on that end of the floor. He showed off both skills against the Rockets, hitting six of his eight shots en route to 16 points and a game-best +22.
— Sam Holako (@rapsfan) November 23, 2017
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