Morning Coffee

Morning Coffee – Wed, Mar 6

46-19; Fear the Beard

Raptors face intriguing questions following loss to Rockets – Sportsnet.ca

Continuity was the Raptors calling card the last few seasons. A year ago, they won a team-record 59 games and made their fifth straight playoff appearance with a 10-man rotation that missed 55 games – combined – over the course of the season.

As the Raptors head down the stretch, only four of those 10 players from a year ago were even on the roster and with Fred VanVleet (thumb) out, only three were available to play. As the Raptors opted for talent, pedigree and hoops IQ over familiarity, the hope is they can figure it all out on the fly.

Against the Rockets – who came within a game of the NBA Finals a year ago and look every inch a team that can get over the hump this season – the Raptors looked like they have a long way still to go.

The starters came out flat, the second-unit got man-handled and a single near-perfect quarter – the Raptors out-scored Houston 34-14 in the third to storm back from an 18-point half-time hole and briefly stake their claim to the game – was undone by a tentative fourth as the Rockets quickly reasserted themselves and left the Raptors reeling.

With the trade deadline a month in the rear view and the playoffs still a month ahead, the Raptors sound like a team coming out of training camp, trying to figure things out, with centres Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol flipping back and forth as starters and the ever-present Leonard load management questions adding an additional element of complication.

“Just the chemistry, lineup changes – one time Marc is in, one time Serge is in there, some guys are hurt, guys are in and out, still figuring it out, some guys still learning the plays,” said Raptors guard Danny Green. “So many different lineups, so many different faces, trying to gel together is a big part of the reason why but at the is point, no excuses. We still have to find ways to play better regardless of who is on the floor, we have to have to find ways to pick each other up.”

It’s hard to knock the Raptors’ hustle too much at this stage. They made the big move to acquire Leonard in the off-season and then doubled down at the trade deadline when they acquired Marc Gasol on Feb. 7. Jeremy Lin has picked up major minutes after being bought out by the Atlanta Hawks. Leonard has sat out 18 games. They’ve managed all that change well as their 46-19 record suggests.

Raptors show their best, but mainly their worst in loss to Rockets | Toronto Sun

The second unit, this time with Marc Gasol instead of Serge Ibaka — who got the start at centre — is a problem. It’s a problem for the time being.

STORY CONTINUES BELOW

Whether it remains a problem will depend on how soon Fred VanVleet returns from his thumb ligament injury.

“Obviously, Fred has been there,” Pascal Siakam said when asked how much he is being missed. “He knows what he’s doing. Leadership, just being able to control the game. That’s what we miss without him.”

Nurse tried offsetting things by putting Siakam in with that bench unit and it didn’t work. He tried Kyle Lowry earlier with a few bench guys and still the Rockets feasted.

With 17 games remaining getting that unit sorted out, or a rotation that keeps that group from giving games away has to be the priority.

Lowry, who has been good in stints with the bench, wanted no part of the question about what can be done with that second unit.

“I don’t know, man. I think it’s a coaches question,” Lowry said. “For us as players, we’ve just got to go out there and play harder and move the ball, share the ball better and get back on defence. That second unit, whoever that group is, they’ve got to continue to follow the gameplan and just play harder, honestly.”

That the bench was outscored 37-22 was just part of the story. They don’t seem to be any better at stopping anyone. The five Toronto non-starters were a combined minus-113 for the game with no one better than Patrick McCaw’s minus-15.

Rockets rock Raptors behind tough defense – The Dream Shake

James Harden spearheaded the offensive attack with 35 points, and though he struggled for a big part of the night and shot just 12-30 overall, he turned on the gas in the fourth quarter when it mattered most. The Beard scored 17 of his points in the final frame to help break open a close game and seal the deal on the sixth consecutive Houston win.

The Rockets almost let another one get away, however, after jumping out to a big 55-37 halftime lead. The first half featured perhaps the best defensive ball we’ve witnessed Houston play all year, and they had a balanced offensive attack with three players in double-digit scoring by halftime, but as been the case time and again throughout the season, they couldn’t hold the advantage.

The Rockets layed an egg after halftime, giving up 34 points in the third period and scoring just 14 themselves, and they actually went into the fourth period with 71-69 deficit. They cranked the intensity back up in the fourth, however, and Harden’s offensive burst closed the show.

In addition to The Beard, the Rockets got 18 points from Gerald Green on 4 three-pointers, 13 points from Austin Rivers, who played an extremely effective game, and 13 from Eric Gordon. They also got 5 points, 6 rebounds, 10 assists, and 2 steals from Chris Paul, who was efficiently running the offense and whipping passes about despite some ugly 1-10 shooting, and they got 9 points and 15 boards from Clint Capela.

Nene also looked good off the bench tonight, to the tune of 6 points, 5 boards and a +16 in 14 minutes.

The Raptors were led by Kawhi Leonard, who finished with 26 points, and they also got 17 points and 10 boards from Pascal Siakam, 14 points from Danny Green, and 10 points, 15 rebounds, and 5 blocked shots from Serge Ibaka, who was an absolute monster on the defensive end for Toronto.

The Rockets now move to 39-25 on the season, and with the losses tonight by the Portland Trail Blazers and the Oklahoma City Thunder are now tied with both of those teams for the number three seed in the Western Conference.

Houston is now off until Friday, when they’ll return to action at the Toyota Center against the Philadelphia 76ers. The Rockets just beat the Raptors and Celtics back-to-back, and they’ll look to down another of the east’s best as they round into shape for a playoff run.

Recap: Raptors fall behind, catch up, then lose to Houston, 107-95 – Raptors HQ

Still, that third quarter, man. The Raptors came out of the half down 55-37, after two sub-20-point quarters. There was absolutely no reason to assume things would turn around, not with Harden just warming up, and the Rockets bench beating up Toronto’s squad of subs. Except the Raptors’ defense picked up, and they actually hit shots, going on a 15-2 run in the five minutes before Houston’s first field goal of the quarter. For comparison’s sake: in the first half Toronto mustered 34 percent shooting from the field and 23 percent from three. In that third quarter? 59 and 38, respectively. The end result: suddenly, it was Houston’s turn for a meagre sub-20-point quarter.

The hero of those minutes was Pascal Siakam, who finished the night with a double-double of 17 points (15 in the third) and ten rebounds. Siakam also buzzed around on defense, helping to hold Harden to a 1-for-7 frame. At the same time, the Raptors were aided by Kawhi Leonard (contending with the fridge-like P.J. Tucker for most of the night), who muscled in 26 points while grabbing six boards. They also got a nice bounce-back half from Serge Ibaka, who started the game looking every one of his years, but finished with five blocks and a 10-15 double-double. For their parts: Danny Green hit some big threes for 14 points and Kyle Lowry whirred around the court, but finished with just 8-and-6 on 4-of-16 shooting.

If we could just talk about that third quarter there’d be no problem here. The Raptors were down 22, turned it around over those 12 minutes, and actually went into the fourth with a two-point lead. Gunning with the Rockets is no easy feat, not with with Harden juking his way to 35 points (on 12-of-30 shooting, but still), and not with the team shooting 15-of-34 from deep overall. And yet there was a moment when it felt like Toronto could get it done. Chris Paul was frustrated, Clint Capela was bottled up, Eric Gordon looked mortal — anything was possible. So then, what happened?

As has been the case throughout Toronto’s season, the bench is what happened. Despite changes in personnel, despite it being Marc Gasol’s turn to ride the pine, despite the addition of Jeremy Lin, despite even the hopeful recent signs from OG Anunoby and Norman Powell, the Raptors’ bench just did not have it tonight in the biggest of ways. Along with Patrick McCaw, Toronto’s five-man bench unit finished between -15 and -30 on the night and managed to help the Rockets’ blow up the game not once… but twice!

James Harden’s Dominance Propels Rockets Past Kawhi Leonard, Raptors | Bleacher Report

James Harden scored 19 of his 35 points in the final 7:08 as the Houston Rockets beat the Toronto Raptors 107-95 on Tuesday at Scotiabank Arena in Toronto.

Kawhi Leonard had 26 points for the 46-19 Raps, who have lost three of their last five games. Pascal Siakam (17 points, 10 rebounds) and Serge Ibaka (10 points, 15 boards) both finished with double-doubles. Ibaka also blocked five shots.

Clint Capela grabbed 15 rebounds for the 39-25 Rockets, who have won six straight. Gerald Green dropped 18 points off the bench.

Rockets pull away as Raptors’ bench falls to Earth | The Star [subscription]

Unable to even sustain what the starters had done in erasing a deficit as large as 22 points, the backups faltered in the first six minutes of the fourth quarter at the Scotiabank Arena on Tuesday in what turned into a 107-95 loss to the Houston Rockets.

A resurgent starting group, which was far from blameless in Toronto getting behind, had outscored the Rockets 34-14 in the third quarter to take a two-point lead into the fourth.

But with starters getting necessary rest, the Rockets went on a 25-9 run in the first seven minutes of the fourth to take back control of the game.

“We let ‘em shake free,” Raptors coach Nick Nurse said.

The backup backcourt of Jeremy Lin and Norm Powell struggled all night, going a combined 3-for-11 from the field while being ineffective defensively. OG Anunoby was only marginally better and Marc Gasol was unable to get things going with the subs as Toronto dropped its second game in a row.

James Harden led Houston with 35 points but needed to take 30 shots to get them.

Second unit struggles costs Raptors comeback bid – Video – TSN

The Raptors battled back from 22 points down against the Rockets, but Toronto’s second unit gave up an 11-2 run in the fourth which helped Houston pull away. The NBA on TSN panel discuss Toronto’s bench struggles and the amount of good looks the Raptors passed up.

Harden and Kawhi load up for NBA playoffs in very different ways | The Star [subscription]

That’s the right answer, of course. The regular season, with its TV rights and gate receipts, happens to be a big part of what makes the NBA a multibillion-dollar basketball business. And it’s that kind of expression of affection for the nightly pursuit that will endear Harden to observers who believe it’s honourable and significant that, say, Michael Jordan played all 82 regular-season games in four of his six championship-winning seasons, missing a combined six starts in the other two.

The sport’s economy is built on the idea, illusory or not, that every game matters — that everyone who buys a ticket or makes the league appointment viewing is owed a reasonable facsimile of the state of the art. The Raptors have their reasons for ignoring that foundational principle this season. And hey, given that they’re 13-5 without Leonard in the lineup — this while holding down the No. 2 seed in the East — it hasn’t been a particularly difficult sell. (Kawhi, mind you, ought to give Kyle Lowry and Pascal Siakam a percentage for keeping the heat off by deftly holding down the fort.)

Speaking before Monday’s practice, Houston coach Mike D’Antoni said the Rockets, sitting in fifth in the West, have considered the merits of giving Harden more rest, too.

“Yeah, but he won’t allow it,” said D’Antoni. “I don’t know all the scientific stuff behind it. We talk about it a lot. We try to keep the minutes down.”

They try. But Harden is leading the league in minutes per game. On account of the MVP’s insatiable appetite for hooping, the coach said he’s decided it’s best to get Harden rest on the days when a game is not scheduled. So the Rockets will forego practice or skip the traditional morning shootaround — as they planned to do Tuesday — to limit cumulative fatigue. In other words, minutes per game and games played isn’t the only way to measure the management of a player’s load.

“So you’re telling me that if I’d have practice and shootaround and I play him two less minutes (in a game), then it’s better?” D’Antoni said. “What if we don’t have practice and James plays two more minutes? So you’re trying to trade it off. And if he needs an extra day or he needs a day off, we’ll give him a day off. But he will not ask for it.”

D’Antoni, for his part, will not join the long-assembled chorus calling for a shorter schedule.

“The owners are not going to, ‘Oh yeah, let’s cut down 10 (games off the schedule).’ And the players are not going to have it, either. ‘We’ll just pay you less.’ No, that’s not happening,” D’Antoni said. “So get used to it. It’s going to be 82.”

Eighty-two practices before they lace ’em up for the actual games.

“He’s right to a certain extent. I understand why he’s saying (that),” D’Antoni said of Leonard’s assessment. “But we’re just trying every game to be better. And in the playoffs, you can’t do that. You’d better be better or you’re out.”

Concern-trolling the Eastern Conference contenders: Biggest hurdles for Bucks, 76ers, Celtics, Raptors and Pacers – CBSSports.com

Part of the reason Marc Gasol makes sense with the Raptors is that they have struggled to maintain an attack where the ball is moving as much as they want it to be and Leonard gets the opportunities he needs to create one-on-one. Gasol has made them a better passing team, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they are going to be as cohesive as they need to be. To win at the highest level, Toronto will need almost all of its important players to play well at the same time.

Danny Green isn’t always in the spotlight but he might be the Raptors’ rock | The Star [subscription]

Green has played more games than anyone other than Siakam and more minutes than anyone other than Siakam and Lowry. Green has started all 63 games he’s played in, he has averaged more minutes per game (28.4) than he had in all but one of his previous nine seasons (28.5 per game in 2014-15) and his three-point shooting going into Tuesday’s game with Houston (43.4 per cent from distance) has only once been higher (43.6 per cent in 2011-12).

He entered Tuesday with the third-best individual plus-minus in the NBA (plus-452) and he was eighth in the NBA in three-point percentage. Green has hit them in flurries, too, with six games of five or more three-pointers.

“He’s made a lot of big threes that have gotten us back in games or jump-started us or even won us games,” Nurse said. “He’s pretty good, pretty fun to coach.”

So will the Raptors try to cut back his minutes a little in the run-up to the playoffs, which begin in mid-April? The emergence lately of OG Anunoby as a defensive presence might allow that. While the second-year Anunoby is not nearly the shooting threat that Green is, his defensive versatility gives the Raptors a different look. He can’t check shooting guards nearly as well as Green can, but he can cover bigger forwards with his size, bulk and athleticism.

There doesn’t seem to be a plan to rest Green, or anyone for that matter, much in the final month of the regular season. There are sure to be some “load management” nights with two back-to-back sets remaining, and it’s conceivable that some veterans might not make the one-game trip to Minnesota for Game No. 82, but other than that?

“Maybe a little bit,” Nurse said. “I don’t see a lot of load management going on for us here down the stretch. We’ve had so many injuries that we’ve load managed ourselves right into perfect load management.

SIMMONS: Raptors’ Siakam no longer a secret around NBA | Toronto Sun

In his first 10 games of the season, Siakam scored 11.3 points a game. In the last 10 games, he’s averaging 21.4. If someone beats him out for Most Improved Player in the league, that’s probably an injustice. And Tuesday night’s game against Houston showed just how important Siakam can be for the Raptors.

He scored just two points in a rather dismal, sloppy, turnover-filled first half by the Raptors. In the second half, the Raptors took the lead 60-59 on a Siakam basket, the first lead they had since holding an 11-10 advantage in the first quarter. It still wasn’t enough to get the Raps a win.

The NBA may be surprised by Siakam’s emergence, but no one who saw him in summer league is. The last person surprised is Siakam himself.

“I always get that question,” he said, almost perturbed by having to explain his new-found celebrity. “I don’t think I’m surprised. This is what you work for. If I didn’t think (I could succeed) I wouldn’t be at this level.”

Thinking it is one thing. There’s a player on every NBA bench who believes he’s just an opportunity away from being a star. All they need is a chance — and they’ll make it big.

Most of the time, it doesn’t happen. Stars are stars for a reason. Bench players are bench players for a reason. Siakam is now closer to being a star than he’s been before and he’s just scratching the surface of his vast capabilities.

“I’ve always had confidence,” said Siakam. “Obviously, that’s growing. When you play and get a chance to compete and have the trust that I have from my teammates and coaches, the confidence is always there.”

The confidence also comes from Fred VanVleet, Siakam’s good friend. In the draft in which Siakam was taken late in the first round, VanVleet was passed over. That’s been a topic of conversation between the two over the years. What amazes Siakam is VanVleet’s utter confidence. If he misses a shot, he just keeps on shooting. He knows he’s that good. He’s tried to get Siakam to feel the same way — most of the time it’s working.

“I didn’t get to see him play much last year,” said Kawhi Leonard. “I didn’t know too much about him.”

Jeremy Lin and Norman Powell are faltering offensively off Raptors’ bench – The Athletic [subscription]

Lin and Powell have done little to inspire faith lately. Since Lin joined the team, the Raptors had scored just 92.1 points per 100 possessions when he has been on the floor, and the Raptors have been outscored by 15.4 points per 100 possessions. Powell’s individual numbers have been slightly better, but not much. In the 80 minutes they have played together, the Raptors were scoring a perfectly dreadful 84.8 points per 100 possessions, outscored by 26.5 points per 100 possessions during that stretch. For a point of reference, Memphis has the league’s worst offensive rating at 104.1, while the Cavaliers have the worst net rating at minus-10.1 points per 100 possessions.

They reached a nadir on Tuesday. Lin was a minus-22 in 11 minutes against the Rockets in a 107-95 loss, while Powell was a minus-16. Marc Gasol and OG Anunoby were both minus-30, but to say they were at the core of the issues would be a stretch. More to the point, at least they have had very good games recently — Gasol against Boston and Portland, and Anunoby in Detroit on Sunday.

The Lin-Powell reserve backcourt has been a problem repeatedly, which is a shame as Powell had been thriving in January and Lin was finally slated to be a big part of a legitimate contender. They certainly still have a chance to return to stability, but Fred VanVleet’s return, probably in two weeks or so, should likely push one out of the regular rotation.

Lin has missed all 17 of his 3-pointers as a Raptor, and that is not giving him any space to operate. Houston was extremely physical with him as the ball-handler in the pick-and-roll, and Lin was unable to adjust on the fly. Powell also took a few bumps on drives, and had trouble finishing despite that.

“They were physical with everybody, they were really riding us. … For me, at this point, yeah, I would have certainly liked to win the game and have those guys play a little bit better. But it’s really good to get used to this kind of stuff, ‘cause we all know that’s kinda what it looks like here in six weeks or (however far) away (the playoffs are).

“My only advice is play through it. Man up and play through it. Start knocking someone around at the other end if that’s the way the referees are calling it.”

Nurse might have to become more stringent in staggering the minutes of his stars — Mike D’Antoni had James Harden or Chris Paul on the floor for every minute on Tuesday — but it was not as if Nurse was throwing irresponsible lineups out to the slaughter for minutes at a time. In the second quarter, Lowry started with the bench, and the Rockets started the frame on a 19-4 run. In the fourth, Siakam was on with the reserves, and the Rockets started that quarter off with a 10-2 spurt.

Toronto Raptors should want Dwane Casey, Pistons in playoffs – Tip of the Tower

Really the only concern for Raptors fans should be Leonard’s health because he is getting more games off than anticipated (the team expected him to be able to play on back-to-back nights) but that doesn’t seem to be a big issue at the moment since he is still performing when he’s in the lineup.

The reason why the Raptors should want the Pistons in the playoffs is for the comments being made by Casey about his former team. After winning in overtime, he made it a point to take a shot at Toronto when discussing his desire to play the Raptors in the playoffs.

While Casey has every right to speak his mind and shouldn’t holding back on Toronto it is ironic to hear him say that Detroit knows what winning a championship is all about when he had his chances to do the same.

Sure he won coach of the year but in his seven years as coach, he only made it to the conference finals once and got swept by LeBron James two straight years in a row after that. If I’m Nick Nurse I would want to send a message to his former colleague that he is capable of taking this team to another level and what better way then to beat them in the first round.

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