Here’s 10 takeaways from the Raptors’ 110-107 loss to the Pistons.
One – Bitter: First things first, congratulations to Dwane Casey on his second NBA championship. Truly, this has to be an amazing feeling for Casey, who has orchestrated three fourth-quarter comebacks against his former club. And for it to happen in the regular season truly vindicates his expertise in this area. Casey will play it off just enough to come across as charming, before taking one more stab at the team who fired him for getting swept in three out of the last four years. Well, now who’s getting swept? (Probably the Pistons if they see the Sixers in the playoffs. That’s an awful match-up.)
Two – But seriously: All jokes aside, Casey is a deserving Coach of the Year and he’s showing it again with the Pistons. Put aside the X’s and O’s and just look at how his team competes. Blake Griffin has completely bought into Casey’s program and is having the best year of his career. The same can be said for Andre Drummond, who just nailed another pair of clutch free throws. Even Reggie Jackson is having a moment, while Casey has coaxed just enough out of Ish Smith, Thon Maker and Zaza Pachulia to make it work. Most of coaching in the regular season is motivation and execution, and Casey’s teams always check both boxes. I tip my dad hat to Casey for a job well done, and I hope he gives the Sixers hell in the 3-6 battle. (But seriously, Joel Embiid sons Drummond more than Jonas Valanciunas and James Johnson combined.)
Three – Return: Fred VanVleet is finally back after missing four weeks with a left thumb injury, and not a moment too soon because even I’m out on Jeremy Lin (more on him below). VanVleet was initially slated to play on a minutes restriction, but as always, VanVleet proved irresistible and wormed his way into the starting lineup by halftime. He was money from deep, worked well with the starters, and did his best Kyle Lowry impersonation with 17 points in 31 minutes.
Four – Rotation: Lin still got some burn off the bench in the second half, but it’s clear that Nick Nurse has lost confidence in him. Lin just isn’t effective unless he’s working a pick-and-roll into a midrange shot or a contested layup, and in this current funk, Lin is a drag on the team regardless of the teammates around him. He did give effort defensively, but that hardly matters when you’re the point guard. Lin will hold the fort against the Knicks tomorrow, but Kyle Lowry and VanVleet will cover the non-garbage time minutes at point guard once they’re both healthy.
Five – Chemistry: Lin’s other recourse for minutes was at backup shooting guard, but (a) you have to actually make shots, and (b) Norman Powell is a better fit. It took some reps, but Powell and Marc Gasol have a nice understanding of how to attack the defense, and they’re starting to create efficient shots for the second unit. Gasol sets a wide screen to Powell can get a head of steam into the lane, and Gasol also trusts Powell to hit the open shots when he swings it. Add VanVleet to the mix and that might actually give the bench enough playmaking to function as its own separate entity.
Six – Unwatchable: However, until Lowry and Serge Ibaka return to the lineup, the bench in its current iteration will continue to stink up the joint. Nurse ran with an all-bench unit to start the second quarter, and the Pistons promptly took a double-digit lead after the Raptors mustered just 1-6 shooting with two turnovers. (That one make, by the way, was a beat-the-buzzer panic three by Eric Moreland.) I would ordinarily knock Nurse for this mistake, but the Raptors are on a back-to-back, so I can see the logic in trying to buy some spare minutes for his starters.
Seven – Needs improvement: I’m not going to knock Moreland since he’s literally on a 10-day deal, but he was a mess defensively. Zaza Pachulia, a man with the Rock of Gibraltar for a head and two horse hoofs for hands, somehow scored 11 points in 13 minutes off the bench. Moreland was consistently out of position (again, understandable since he’s just here for a cup of coffee) and the Pistons feasted at the rim. He also got the nasty end of the Drummond-Johnson dunk.
Eight – Thorn: Let’s take a moment to appreciate Ish Smith, who has to be first-team All-Raptor Killer at this point. LeBron James is the captain/GM/coach/agent, but Smith is basically Kyrie Irving when it comes to the Raptors. Nobody has the quickness to contain Smith and he just constantly creates chaos by getting into the lane and putting the Raptors out of position. Smith turned this game around in the second half when the Raptors were just about to run away with it.
Nine – Another issue: Outside of Smith, the other issue with a potential match-up with the Pistons is how Blake Griffin can take Pascal Siakam out of the game. Siakam can get a few buckets back, but Griffin scores on him whenever he wants and often gets him in foul trouble. The Raptors came out with a plan to trap and double Griffin, but he just picked them apart with his passing. OG Anunoby has actually fared better against Griffin than Siakam has, but it’s hard to get Anunoby to match Griffin’s minutes without benching Siakam to some degree.
Ten – Last call: This is my last post at Raptors Republic for the foreseeable future. I’ll announce the next move tomorrow, but in the meantime, I wanted to use this space to thank everyone at RR for the opportunities this place has given me. Zarar and Sam are the best parents you could ever ask for, every aspiring sports writer should be trying to emulate Blake, and RR is a shining example of how to build a strong business. You have to give people chances, and that’s what this place did for me. My first piece for this site was a 3,000-word clusterfuck on the Drummond-Valanciunas debate (Masai Ujiri was much more eloquent on Open Gym) and five years later, I turned those reps into a dream job. I owe everything to this site and I will love it forever. I was circumventing the Great Chinese Firewall in in grimy internet cafes to read roll calls back in 2008, so nothing will ever stop me from coming back to this place. Thank you.