Following the Raptors come from behind victory against the Boston Celtics on Tuesday night. It became really easy for the sports fans and the media in Toronto to put the recent drama surrounding the team behind them.
After all, this was the basketball squad we were used to seeing. A gritty team that guts out come from behind wins on the basis of flashy performances from its two star players DeMar DeRozan (putting up a season high 41 points and a career high 13 boards) and Kyle Lowry (with an impressive of 24 points, 9 dimes, 4 rebounds, 2 steals and a block).
But that certainly wasn’t the case the weekend before when the Raptors dropped back-to-back games after blowing fourth quarter leads. Dropping a decision to the Bulls on Saturday and a home court loss to the Rockets on Sunday.
These losses came with DeRozan carrying the scoring load (36 points in both) and although Lowry had a poor night offensive against the Rockets (he was stellar against the Bulls), he still chipped in where he could.
The fact is that when the Raptors get into DeRozan and Lowry show, there are times when that combo gets outmatched. It happened against the Bulls when Jimmy Butler put on a superhuman performance and again on Sunday with James Harden and Trevor Ariza shooting out the lights.
There were concerns for the Raptors in those two losses that go beyond the play of their top stars and there have been cracks in the foundation of the team for a while that have really been on display as of late.
For one, Toronto’s supporting cast has been very inconsistent this season .
Jonas Valanciunas, who really should be developing into the team’s reliable third option, isn’t. He’s often finding himself in foul trouble which reduces his minutes. Has difficulty getting his scoring touch down or is simply outclassed by opposing bigs.
For the past two seasons, we’ve waited for JV to make the next step in his game and he’s really struggled to put it together. While he has improved in significant ways due to working with Jack Sikma, he still isn’t the dominating presence that the Raptors need him to be game in and game out and it shows in the results of team games.
In the two losses, the Lithuanian centre only averaged 7 and 5 rebounds respectively. He ran into foul trouble against the Rockets and only managed to last 23 minutes on the floor. In the win, however, the big man pulled down 23 boards. Looked like a force in the paint and was no match for the Celtics big men.
Now it’s a really hard thing to explain in the sense that I wouldn’t expect a centre to dominate with Al Horford, Kelly Olynyk or Amir Johnson against him but struggle against a sophomore Montrezl Harrel or an ageing Nene.
But that’s the mystery of Jonas.
DeMarre Carroll has looked to recapture the brilliance he showed in his career making run with the Atlanta Hawks that got him his big money deal with the Raptors in the 2015 off-season, but after missing most of his first season with the team last year and obviously still dealing with the the lingering effects this season, it’s hard to know if that guy will ever be seen in Toronto.
Carroll’s run with the Raptors has really been tragic in a lot of ways. When he signed, he really had the chance to the most complete player on the team. He was the driving force on a Hawks team that had finished first in the East. An offensive threat and the best defensive player on the team by far.
The Raptors signing him was supposed to give them that third piece of the puzzle with Lowry and DeRozan and provide them with the skilled wing that they have needed for so long with the bonus of Carroll also being a top defender in the league.
Unfortunately none of that has come to pass due to injury and that has really impacted the Raptors this season.
At 30 years old, it’s also not likely that Carroll will recapture that top form he enjoyed in Atlanta.
Terrence Ross continues to be enigma. It’s hard to believe that he’s the same guy who seemed to thrive working so hard on defense.
Instead he’s a defensive black hole and although he shows flashes of offensive brilliance, will also do Shaqtin’ A Fool level things like injure himself when attempting a 360 jam.
In many ways Ross is the poster boy for the problems with the Raptors this season. He’s got all the potential for all of the offensive flash and none of the defensive discipline.
The Raptors were one of the top defensive teams in the league.
Last season they held opponents to a 98.2 points per game which was good enough for 3rd in the entire NBA.
This season they’re allowing 104.4 points per game. They’ve seen their defensive rating slip to 21st in the association as a result.
On the flip side, the offense has never been better with the team boasting the 3rd highest offensive rating in the NBA.
Given that the Raptors coach, Dwane Casey, is the same man who designed the defensive schemes that lead the Dallas Mavericks to the 2011 NBA Championship, this is puzzling to say the least, but Casey can only work with the talent he has and many of the Raptors players don’t seem committed to defense this season whether as the result of nagging injuries (Carroll) or just apparent general disinterest (Ross).
Even Kyle Lowry, who has played pretty strong defense for the Raptors during his tenure in Toronto, has taken a step back on the other end this year. His defensive win share is almost as low as it was in his more troubled times in Memphis and Houston. He’s looked outmatched at times including when he was torched by Jimmy Butler on last weekend.
There are a lot of potential explanations for this drop in defensive play, but Lowry is also turning 31 years old and plays a very physical style. It’s possible that he’s showing signs of his inevitable decline and that’s been ignored in pretty much every narrative on the Raptors this season much to the team’s detriment.
Especially in a contract year.
The Raptors offensive numbers are a bit misleading. Although it’s firing on all cylinders right now, the Raptors offense relies heavily on two things: ISO-plays and forced fouls. Largely, out of necessity due to the make up of the team.
However, this often leads to situations where the Raptors rely on rather dubious calls to get them to the line and swing the result of games.
This tactic was well on display Tuesday night against the Celtics when Kyle Lowry literally jumped into Marcus Smart to get a foul call that ultimately swung momentum against the Celtics and helped the Raptors get a key win against a conference and divisional rival.
DeMar DeRozan is also a master at this tactic.
The problem is that these types of calls don’t often go the Raps way in the playoffs when officials are less likely to call…well…let’s be honest….cheap fouls.
This is why every year in the playoffs, Toronto fans cry conspiracy. They’re conditioned to seeing their team get by on bullshit foul calls.
The Toronto fanbase and media is also the source of other problems around the team.
They want the Raptors to get over that hump in the East. To get revenge on the Cavs and get to the NBA Finals.
These are the cries of Toronto sports fans fuelled by the media despite the fact that the team is rapidly regressing on defense and plays a brand of offense that can quickly backfire on them come playoff time.
But instead of acknowledging the shortcomings of the team, they ignore them and instead have decided that the easiest way to solve all of the Raptors problems is with a trade.
When the rumours of Paul Millsap being on the trading block surfaced, Toronto sports fans and the media were all over it.
Don’t get me wrong Paul Millsap is a great basketball player and has been having a great season for the Hawks this year and has been their best player on both sides of the ball. Any team that’s able to get Paul Millsap is getting a veteran who is still able to meaningfully contribute and is currently having one of the best seasons of his career.
They’re also getting a veteran that’s 32 years old and is a free agent this off-season.
Now the price for a player like Millsap, even though there is no guarantee, that he is coming back to the team that trades for him is going to be high.
The Hawks were able to extra a first round pick, Mike Dunleavy and Mo Williams from the Cavs for what may only amount to a few months of Kyle Korver’s services.
As good as Korver is, and he’s one of the best shooters in NBA history, he is having nowhere near the season that Millsap is. The price would most likely involve either a first round pick or one of the Raptors rookies, Jared Sullinger’s expiring deal and probably Terence Ross.
Ultimately, Atlanta confirmed that they are not moving Millsap.
Despite this the Toronto fans and media were willing to make this trade.
They decided that Paul Millsap and Paul Millsap alone was enough to stop the Raptors defensive slide and magically put them over the top in the East and make them good enough to beat a Cleveland team that just added Kyle Korver to a roster that includes three all-stars and probably future hall of famers as well.
They decided that it worth mortgaging the future of the team to trade for a 32 year old that might not come back anyway.
Because Toronto sports fans are idiots.
I mean that in the nicest possible way.
Most fans in Toronto are hockey fans. Most of the sports media covers hockey and honestly they don’t understand that hockey isn’t basketball.
You constantly see hockey teams go all in at the deadline trading away picks and prospects in the hopes that some veteran star will be what they need to win the Stanley Cup.
I don’t understand the logic when it happens in hockey, but it definitely makes zero sense in the NBA. Especially in the Toronto Raptors situation.
The fact of the matter is that you could add Paul Millsap to the Raptors and they would still never beat the Cleveland Cavaliers in a playoff series as long as LeBron James is breathing.
In fact, you can take any of the players that fans have been clamouring for the Raptors to trade for, or all of them, put them all on the team and they still lose to the Cavs.
Raptors fans don’t want to accept that. So they fantasize about the trade that will finally put them over the top and through all logic out the window. Very much in the tradition of the Toronto Maple Leafs more than anything else.
As I said most Toronto sports fans are idiots.
The reality of the situation is that the Raptors may have gotten as far they are going to with the core they have now.
Don’t panic though.
That isn’t a bad thing, because the current Raptors core isn’t all they have going for them.
The braintrust running the team, lead by Masai Ujiri, is as smart as most Toronto sports fans are idiots. Ujiri has never and will never be building for the short term.
Don’t forget this a man who was ready to blow it all up and start over before he caught lightning in a bottle when he managed to trade Rudy Gay for an entire second unit. Had that trade not worked out Kyle Lowry would be a New York Knick right now and the Raptors might have tanked bad enough to get Andrew Wiggins.
But it did work out. The Raptors became a play-off team and moved up the ranks of the Eastern Conference.
They hit a wall called the Cleveland Cavaliers and now the East is catching up to them.
Let’s face it the first team to win the East that isn’t LeBron’s Cavs will probably be the Milwaukee Bucks not the Toronto Raptors.
But Ujiri has been smart enough to keep collecting young talent pieces to move the team forward rather than stay stagnant chasing Cleveland.
Witness the excellent play of rookie Pascal Siakam who has found himself in the starting power forward role. The promising first over all pick, Jakob Poetl. The flashes of brilliance of Norman Powell off the bench.
These are the guys who will play key roles for the team going forward.
I mean who knows if Bruno Caboclo will ever work out? But beyond him, Ujiri has managed to get some promising young talent to propel the team forward no matter what happens.
If this is truly the ceiling for the Lowry-DeRozan version of the team, it isn’t the ceiling for the Toronto Raptors.
And really it could only take Jared Sullinger’s return to make things seem a whole lot better than they do right now. After all, he was brought into make up for the team losing their biggest defensive threat in Bismack Biyombo to free agency and has played not one single minute for the Raptors this season.
His return could help steady the ship a bit or it won’t.
Either way the Raptors will be fine.
Making shortsighted trades and mortgaging the future is not the way to go especially since it’s looking more and more likely that this core will not be the one to get it done.
A fare more interesting story to watch going forward will be whether or not the Raptors give Kyle Lowry a max contract this off-season.
Toronto sports fans will be screaming for them to do it, but remember they’re idiots.
Lowry is 31 and slowing down on the back end. Anything is possible.
Regardless of what happens, the best is yet to come for Toronto basketball.