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NBA Toronto Raptors Cory Joseph and PJ Tucker

Do You Believe In Cory Joseph Yet?

Do the Raptors and their fans believe in Cory Joseph yet? Has a 13-5 record with Joseph as the starting point guard changed any minds? And what does this kid have to do to get the respect his numbers suggest he should in Toronto?

NBA Toronto Raptors Kyle Lowry vs Cory Joseph

Joseph doesn’t have the stage presence of the Raptors All-Star Kyle Lowry. He isn’t expected to hit dagger threes in the fourth quarter to pull out wins when everyone else is bricking shots, but you can’t argue with what he has accomplished since Lowry had wrist surgery.

The Raptors have turned things around after a rough four weeks (5-11) heading into the All-Star break and are winning games again. Give credit for the improved defense to Serge Ibaka and P.J. Tucker, but those two forwards aren’t running the offense. Credit DeMar DeRozan for continuing to fill the basket, but give Joseph his props for running the offense. There has been no collapse in Toronto without Lowry and that has surprised a lot of people.

“Just getting better, getting more comfortable,” Joseph responded to Pro Bball Report. “Go out there, getting more comfortable with the minutes, the rotations and all that. Getting more confident and continuing to grow.

“I pride myself on playing defense and it’s definitely getting easier. We added two defenders.”

Cory Joseph may never completely be rid of the undercurrent that the Toronto Raptors only signed him because he’s Canadian. A justifiable public relations acquisition. The local kid who made it in the NBA, but has never been considered as a starter except as an injury replacement.

Joseph isn’t expected to be better than Lowry, but after the past month, no one should be panicking if Lowry misses a few games either. He’s earned the right to be considered more than just a backup. Maybe a lot more. Believe it.

 

 

Stephen_Brotherston_insideStephen Brotherston covers the Toronto Raptors and visiting NBA teams at the Air Canada Centre and is a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.

 

 

 

Top 4 teams in the NBA Eastern Conference 3-28-2017

So Who’s The Best In The NBA East Now?

It’s finally happened, the Cleveland Cavaliers have surrendered first place in the Eastern Conference with their 10th loss in 18 games since the All-Star break. The idle Boston Celtics assuming the half game lead on the back of an 11-6 run over the same period.

However, it isn’t safe to just assume the Boston Celtics are now the best team. The Washington Wizards and Toronto Raptors have their own claims to make and the defending NBA Champion Cavaliers aren’t about to give props to anyone else reports ESPN senior writer Ramona Shelburne,

“That’s fine,” Cavaliers star LeBron James said when informed Boston had passed Cleveland in the standings with the 103-74 loss. “It matters more that we play better basketball than where we’re at. If that results in the 1, 2 or 3 seed, we need to play better basketball. That’s all it comes down to. I’m not worried about anything.”

Boston may temporarily hold down first place, but there are other measures that can indicate which team is currently the “best.” (NBA.com team stats)

NBA Eastern Conference net rating

The Raptors can lay claim to the best defensive rating and best net rating of the top four teams in the East, however, what is equally interesting is the Cavaliers terrible defensive rating. Only the Nets and Knicks are worse defensively than Cleveland this season.

The ESPN Basketball Power Index (BPI), a measure of team strength developed by the ESPN Analytics team, confirms the Raptors position at number one in the East. (Noting four teams in the West rank ahead of Toronto.)

However, the Raptors best argument for the strength of their team might come from focusing on just the games since the All-Star break. Notably, this period matches the concerns about the once heavily favored Cavaliers.

In the end, LeBron James and the Cavs have one stat they can hold over the three other teams challenging them in the East. In head-to-head games this season, the Cavs hold winning records over each of them.

It is going to take a lot to shake the confidence most of the talking heads will have in the Cavaliers ability to bounce back and play better once the postseason kicks off. The excuses relating to injuries and chemistry won’t count for much then and a LeBron James led team always makes it to the NBA Finals? Except for maybe this tidbit from the Celtics ESPN home page.

According to the Elias Sports Bureau, the Celtics are in sole possession of the best record in the Eastern Conference this late into the season for the 1st time since the end of the 2007-08 season, when they won the title.

In the meantime, the Celtics are now favored to finish first in the East, but the Raptors can claim they are playing better, own the season series with the Cs and are the hotter team heading down the stretch. However, the best team won’t be known until the playoffs.

 
 

Stephen_Brotherston_insideStephen Brotherston covers the Toronto Raptors and visiting NBA teams at the Air Canada Centre and is a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.

 
 

NBA Toronto Raptors DeMar DeRozan

Raptors DeMar DeRozan Named 4-Time Player Of The Week

Press Release:

The National Basketball Association announced Monday that DeMar DeRozan has been selected as Eastern Conference Player of the Week for games played March 20-26. He earns the honor for a franchise record-setting fourth time this season – November 7-13, December 12-18, January 9-15 and March 20-26. Prior to this season, DeRozan had won the award once during his eight-year NBA career (December 7-13, 2015).

DeRozan topped all Eastern Conference players averaging 33.3 points, while leading the Raptors to a perfect 3-0 record. He shot .488 (39-for-80) from the field, .769 (20-for-26) at the free throw line and averaged 5.7 assists.

DeRozan began the week by scoring 42 points during the Raptors’ 122-120 overtime victory March 21 versus Chicago. He scored 27 points in the second half and overtime, helping the Raptors rally from a 16-point deficit. DeRozan then scored 40 points March 23 at Miami as part of Toronto’s NBA-leading and franchise-record 19th double-digit comeback win, 101-84. He finished the week with an 18-point performance March 25 at Dallas, helping Toronto secure a playoff berth in four straight seasons for the first time in franchise history.

DeRozan, a native of Compton, California, currently ranks fifth in the NBA averaging a career-high 27.1 points through 66 games this season. The three-time NBA All-Star was selected ninth overall by Toronto in the 2009 NBA Draft and became the franchise’s all-time leader in career points (11,223), field goals made (3,991), free throws made (3,009) and games played (587) earlier this season.

 

 

 

NBA Toronto Raptors Serge Ibaka and PJ Tucker

Raptors Now Have Best Defense In The East

In a season that seemed to be slipping away from the Toronto Raptors at the All-Star break, things changed in a hurry after President Masai Ujiri brought Serge Ibaka and P.J. Tucker on board.

Prior to the break Toronto had the NBA’s 16th defensive rating, 8th in the Eastern Conference, at 106 points allowed per 100 possessions. Their hold on 4th place was tenuous and the mood in the locker room was a desperate cry for help.

“Something got to give, something got to change,” Kyle Lowry said after a one-point loss to the Pistons. 

“Help is always beneficial,” DeMar DeRozan said. “I never looked at help as a negative thing. If help is an option, why not?”

Help arrived and despite All-Star Kyle Lowry being lost after wrist surgery to remove “loose bodies,” the Raptors season turned around and the success has been built on defense.

In games Post All-Star break the Raptors sport an NBA’s 2nd best defensive rating of 100.9 points allowed per 100 possessions, best in the East by 1.8 points better than Boston.

“The two guys our front office added, P.J. and Serge, are two excellent defenders,” head coach Dwane Casey said. “We are doing nothing different. Our coverages are the same. It’s different people and those two men bring the energy, the toughness.

“For the first time that I’ve been in Toronto that we have two guys in the huddle that are talking defense. Usually guys are talking, how can I get my shot, how can I get touches. Those two guys are coming in talking about defense and that’s what you got to have cause the game in the playoffs is going to slow down.”

Casey has always been known as a defensive-minded head coach, but he hasn’t always enjoyed a roster with multiple defensive-minded players. So far, giving the coach the types of players that fit his preferred style of play has worked out pretty well.

Help has arrived and the Raptors can now lay claim to the best defense in the East. How good will this team look when they get the East’s top three-point threat (3.3 made threes per game) Kyle Lowry back?

 

 

Stephen_Brotherston_insideStephen Brotherston covers the Toronto Raptors and visiting NBA teams at the Air Canada Centre and is a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.

 

 

 

 

Cleveland Cavaliers shooters 2016-17

Not So Tough Cavs Backing Into The Playoffs

It’s a little early to be gearing down and the Cleveland Cavaliers apparent lack of toughness is starting to wear on LeBron James as his team seems to be backing into the playoffs according to ESPN Staff Writer Dave McMenamin.

“We’ve got to be more, just do more. It ain’t about no group. You can’t preach toughness. You’ve got to have it,” James said after an embarrassing effort by the Cavs in Denver. “Um, one thing about it: I always bring toughness to the game. I know that. That’s for sure.”

There should be no doubt, this year’s version of the Cavs isn’t as tough as last year’s NBA Championship team. Even when things were going well before the All-Star break and they sported a 70.9 winning percentage, the Cavaliers were giving up 106 points per game and winning with offense (111.3 points). That’s not how a tough team plays and since the break, things have slid backwards considerably.

In their past 15 games, the Cavs are 7-8, are being outscored 109-107.2, getting beat on the boards 45.7-42.4, losing the turnover battle 12-9 and letting opponents shoot 46.9 percent from the field. No amount of time off for rest and injury woes can fully explain what’s been going on since the break.

“There’s no comparison, man,” Kyrie Irving said. “Last year compared to this year, you can’t even [compare]. It wouldn’t be fair.

“We’re trying to go into the playoffs as healthy as possible. Everybody is getting back. It’s been a very, very weird season for all of us. Injuries here and there. Things to figure out. New player trades and stuff like that.”

You got to give Irving that it’s been a weird season for the Cavs. With the NBA’s highest payroll and all that talent, things should be different, but maybe James is right, it’s about toughness. McMenamin lays out what has changed.

The difference in Cleveland’s 2016 championship team versus the team the Cavs will take into these playoffs is that the key bench pieces in Matthew Dellavedova, Timofey Mozgov and Dahntay Jones have been replaced by theoretical upgrades in Korver, Deron Williams and Derrick Williams.

The missing pieces from last season were tough players and their replacements were either old or discards or both when Cleveland acquired them. They were moves motivated by a desire to save money on the team’s pending horrendous luxury tax bill and if the ‘theoretical upgrades’ don’t pull through, it’s a gamble that could cost the Cavs first place in the East and possibly a chance to defend their title.

 

 

Stephen_Brotherston_insideStephen Brotherston covers the Toronto Raptors and visiting NBA teams at the Air Canada Centre and is a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.

 

 

 

 

NBA Toronto Raptors Serge Ibaka

Whiteside And Ibaka To Miss Raptors At Heat On Thursday

Both the Raptors and Heat managed to win their respective games on Tuesday night, but both teams are expecting key players won’t be available when they clash in Miami on Thursday says Barrie Jackson of the Miami Herald.

Whiteside’s availability this week very much in jeopardy after 13 stitches were required to close a gash between the middle and ring fingers of his right hand, an injury that happened when he sliced his hand against the backboard as he attempted to block a shot by Suns power forward Marquese Chriss with 2:08 left in Miami’s 112-97 win.

The last time Whiteside had a laceration on his right hand, almost exactly two years ago, he missed three games

Toronto figures to be without Serge Ibaka, who was ejected Tuesday after exchanging punches with Chicago’s Robin Lopez.

Serge Ibaka’s one game suspension has been confirmed.

 

 

Projecting The NBA East Playoff Seeding

Down to a dozen games to go and only three spots seem to have been settled when it comes to playoff seeding. Cavs, Celtics and Hawks appear to have locked in their current postseason rank and everyone else with a chance is still battling for position.

The Cavaliers only have a game and a half lead over the Celtics for first and ESPN projects they’ll finish two games ahead at the end of the regular season. Unless coach Lue goes a little overboard on this “rest” concept, only road games in San Antonio and Boston should really present a test to the team everyone has pegged as returning to defend their NBA title. Of course they’ll likely punt a few games unless Boston is really pushing them.

And Boston’s relatively easy schedule just might give them that opportunity to push the Cavs all the way to the end of the regular season. If it wasn’t for those recent unexpected losses to the Suns, Nuggets and 76ers, the ESPN prediction of a 7-4 run to the finish would look unreasonably conservative.

The Wizards will be doing well to finish out the last 12 games going 6-6. Losers of their last two games, they play 5th place Atlanta and last place Nets before heading out on a brutal five game road trip book-ended by Cleveland and Golden State.  They might need to win out in April to go 6-6. Fortunately it looks like the Hawks are too far back to pass them for 4th.

ESPN has Toronto passing the Wizards for 3rd place and if they win the games they are supposed to, the Raptors will be better than the projected 8-4 over their last 12 games and be ready to pounce on any unexpected major slippage by the Celtics for 2nd.

The real battle for playoff seeding begins at 6th and runs through 10th place. Someone isn’t going to make it who thinks they should.

The Pacers are trying to set some kind of bizarre record for alternating wins and losses (now at 14 games of a loss followed by a win) and if they can keep it up, they should grab one of the three remaining playoff spots. However, they have a tough remaining schedule, so the 5-7 ESPN prediction seems reasonable and could be bad news. A 41-41 record might not be enough for a playoff spot.

Milwaukee is hot and got hot at the right time, but Giannis Antetokoumpo turned an ankle and if he misses the usual two weeks, all bets are off on how the Bucks finish out the regular season. With Antetokoumpo, the ESPN prediction of going 6-7 seems ultra-conservative, without him, it might be generous.

The Pistons are in a tie with the Heat now and forecast to still be tied at the end of the regular season. Detroit needs to make hay from now to the end of March when they have seven winnable games because they aren’t making up any ground in April.

The Heat have won a home-and-home against the Cavs in March and then beat Toronto, but they face a tough schedule to the end of the regular season with Toronto twice more, Boston, Detroit, Washington twice and the Cavs again. They’ll have to perform without their third best scorer in Dion Waiters who might miss the rest of the regular season with an ankle injury.

The Bulls have the schedule to make up ground, but they haven’t been playing well and have lost Wade for the season.

The Hornets have a tough schedule ahead of them and just don’t seem to have anything left in the tank.

Playoff seeding 6th thru 8th is decidedly undecided.

 

 

Stephen_Brotherston_insideStephen Brotherston covers the Toronto Raptors and visiting NBA teams at the Air Canada Centre and is a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.

  Featured image courtesy of Larry Millson

 

 

NBA Toronto Raptors Pascal Siakam

Raptors Pascal Siakam Named D-League Performer Of The Week

Press Release: PASCAL SIAKAM NAMED NBA D-LEAGUE PERFORMER OF THE WEEK

The NBA Development League announced Monday that Toronto Raptors rookie forward Pascal Siakam has been selected Performer of the Week for games played March 13-19. He is the first Raptors 905 player to receive the honour this season.

Siakam, on assignment from the Raptors, helped guide the 905 to a 3-0 record for the week in which the team clinched the Central Division and Eastern Conference title for the 2017 NBA D-League Playoffs. He averaged 18.0 points (shooting 56.4 percent), 8.0 rebounds, 3.3 assists, 2.3 steal and 1.3 blocked shots.

Siakam began the week scoring a season-high 20 points in a 116-87 victory over the Austin Spurs at Air Canada Centre. He included nine rebounds, four assists, three steals and two blocks in the effort. Siakam scored 18 points while recording seven rebounds, three steals and two blocks Saturday afternoon versus the Long Island Nets. He closed the week with a 16-point, eight-rebound effort the following night against the Nets.

The Cameroon native has played in four games this season with Raptors 905, averaging 17.3 points (on 50.9 percent shooting), 9.0 rebounds, 2.8 assists, 2.3 steals and 1.0 block. In 52 games (38 starts) with Toronto, Siakam is averaging 4.3 points and 3.3 rebounds.

Raptors 905 guard Brady Heslip was also considered for the honour this week.

 

 

 

NBA Toronto Raptors PJ Tucker

Raptors Are Winning With Crushing Defense

The Raptors silver lining in the cloud of not having Kyle Lowry available after the All-Star break has been a forced buy-in to playing better defense and the numbers speak for themselves. When Toronto plays the crushing defense they are capable of, they win easily, but in a high scoring game without their second leading scorer and floor general, stealing a victory by out-scoring their opponent is hard to do.

In their seven wins post All-Star break, the Raptors are holding teams to just 91.4 points and are 5-0 when holding teams under a 100. When they give up over 100 points, Toronto is 2 wins and five losses.

“We got to make our stand on the defensive end,” said Norman Powell. “We can’t play an offensive game. Offensive games are not going to win us basketball (games.) You got to be able to get stops. You can’t just go back and forth scoring the ball. We got to get stops.”

Earlier in the season going back and forth scoring worked for the Raptors. If it wasn’t DeMar DeRozan, 12th in the NBA in 4th quarter scoring with 6.3 points, it was Lowry, 3rd best in 4th quarter scoring with 7.8 points. But with Lowry unavailable, getting bailed out by a big offensive comeback just got a lot harder to accomplish.

“That’s how we got to play,” said P.J. Tucker after holding the Pistons to just 75 points in Detroit. “Today was the definition of Toronto basketball, how we got to play. We didn’t win with our offense.”

After an embarrassing 123-102 loss to the Thunder in Toronto the night before, the Raptors rolled into Detroit on a mission, holding the Pistons to just one field goal in the first six minutes of the game and one field goal over the final nine minutes of the fourth quarter.

The Raptors know what they are playing for, an opportunity to move up in the standings if they can pull their defensive game together without having to wait for Lowry’s return.

The second place Celtics and third place Wizards have gone just 6-4 over their past 10 games and it isn’t about to get easier for them. Isaiah Thomas is expected to miss a couple of games (or more) with a right knee bone bruise. The Wizards are just a week away from a brutal five game road trip that could go 0-5.

The Celtics and the Wizards face-off on Monday and Washington hosts the 5th place Hawks on Wednesday providing the 4th place Raptors additional opportunities to make up ground.

“We are all looking at (the standings),” Powell said. ” We are all talking about it. We talk about how close the playoff seeding race is right now. This is the best part of the season, fighting for playoff position. Especially in the East, it is really close.”

The Raptors hope to get Lowry back at the end of the month, but they can’t afford to wait if moving out of the less desirable 4th place in the standings is going to happen and their only reliable way of getting wins for the moment is with the crushing defense they proved they could do against the Pistons (87-75), Mavericks (100-78) and Pelicans (94-87) recently.

 

Stephen_Brotherston_insideStephen Brotherston covers the Toronto Raptors and visiting NBA teams at the Air Canada Centre and is a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.

  Featured image courtesy of Larry Millson

 

 

 

NBA Toronto Raptors 50 wins 2015-16 season

Toronto Raptors Are Going For 50 Wins Again

The San Antonio Spurs have won 50 or more games in every season this century and they’ve already done it again this year, but the Toronto Raptors have only hit this milestone once in franchise history, so going for 50 wins again this year is a bit of a bigger deal for We The North.

After a hot 22-8 start to this season, the Raptors lost their mojo and were a slumping 10-16 the day before the All-Star break. DeMar DeRozan made what could only be called a cry for help as his team was sliding from second best in the East to a place that wouldn’t even have a home court advantage in the first round of the playoffs. Coming off an Eastern Conference Finals appearance last year, the current situation was demoralizing.

President Masai Ujiri had rolled the dice at the start of this season by keeping all of his players on rookie deals from the past two drafts and adding three new rookies to the roster. The team was young and inexperienced if anyone in the anticipated rotation got hurt and then, of course, their free agent acquisition Jared Sullinger broke his foot in preseason. It wasn’t going to take much to force head coach Dwane Casey to start playing a lot more youth than is usually found in a 50 win rotation.

Led by DeRozan and Kyle Lowry this team could score, but starting a rookie at power forward for most of the season and relying on youth to fill in for the inevitable injuries meant this team was giving up a lot of points.

Ujiri responded at the trade deadline by making the significant veteran additions of power forward/ center Serge Ibaka and forward P.J. Tucker. Both players significantly upgraded the Raptors defense and Ibaka provides an offensive presence at the four spot this team hasn’t seen since Chris Bosh left town for Miami.

These moves were all about giving the Raptors a chance to get back to the East Finals and a shot at getting past the heavily favored Cavaliers. There was plenty of time before the postseason to integrate them with Lowry and DeRozan or so it seemed.

At the time, Ujiri couldn’t have known Lowry was about to go under the knife to relieve pain and swelling in his wrist. Fortunately, the new additions were ready to become integral in saving the Raptors chances at 50 wins in the regular season. If Ujiri had stood pat at the trade deadline, the Raptors might have been fighting to stay above .500 without Lowry.

Thru 57 games before the All-Star break Toronto was outscoring teams 108.5-104.3, but they were allowing opponents to shoot 45.4 percent from the field and 36.1 percent from three. A solid defensive team last year, this group was finding ways to lose close games and were 4-7 in games decided by three points or less.

Things changed in a hurry after the break. A 10-point win over the surging Atlantic Division leading Boston Celtics where the Raptors held their high scoring opponent (averaging 107.8 points a game) under 100 points.

In the first seven games since Ibaka and Tucker arrived in Toronto, the 5-2 Raptors have held opponents to 99 points on 43.1 percent shooting and 33 percent from three-point range. Both players have been superior at guarding the perimeter and making their presence felt in the paint, something Casey has been in an either or situation prior to their availability.

A split in the home-and-home versus the Wizards and a loss on the second half of a back-to-back on the road to Milwaukee are the only blemishes for the upgraded roster and that’s without the services of their All-Star point guard.

The current ESPN Eastern Conference Prediction has the Raptors finishing at 50-32.

50 wins will require Toronto take at least 12 of the remaining 18 games and if this team is as good as they hope they are, that’s a mark they should be planning on beating.

Their remaining opponents, 9 home and 9 away, include:

@ Hawks (5th place, 35-29)
@ Heat x2, Heat (9th place, 31-34)
Mavericks, @ Mavericks (10th place, 27-36)
Thunder (7th place, 35-29)
@Pistons x2 (7th place, 31-33)
Pacers x2, @Pacers (6th place, 33-31)
Bulls (8th place, 31-33)
Magic (13th place, 24-41)
Hornets (11th place, 28-36)
76ers (14th place, 23-40)
@Knicks (12th place, 26-39)
@Cavaliers (1st place, 42-20)

It isn’t going to be easy. At least 12 of the remaining games are going to be against teams with playoff positioning on the line, but these are exactly the types of games a team hoping for a deep playoff push needs.

Getting to 50 wins for the Raptors is more than a symbolic gesture. 50 wins or more without their All-Star point guard for the stretch drive would indicate this team is ready to make some noise in the postseason with him.

 

 

Stephen_Brotherston_insideStephen Brotherston covers the Toronto Raptors and visiting NBA teams at the Air Canada Centre and is a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.

 

 

 

NBA Toronto Raptors Norman Powell

Can Raptors Norman Powell Become A Fourth Quarter Star?

The Toronto Raptors second year guard Norman Powell is slowly gaining notoriety as a fourth quarter player. Someone head coach Dwane Casey can count on at critical points in the game to get a stop or more surprisingly, get a bucket and that’s something from a guy who earned his minutes as a rookie with physical play at the defensive end of the court.

Surprisingly Powell seems reluctant just go with the idea that he plays better in the fourth quarter. He takes pride in playing hard from the moment head coach Dwane Casey puts him in the game, but this isn’t about playing hard, games are won and lost in the fourth quarter and coaches need players that can step it up in crunch time.

“I’ve talked about it,” Powell told Pro Bball Report. “It’s figuring out how to go in there and play all out hard basketball. It’s nothing about me taking my time to get ready or anything like that. I go out there and play hard, but being effective, being just a little bit more active, a little bit more smart in how I impact the game rather than just going out there and playing hard.

“I don’t feel that I am pushing at all. I take the same shots I take in the fourth as I do anytime I am on the court, it’s just whether or not they are going in. I’m not pushing myself or pressing as a lot of people think. I go in there and warmup or practice or workout the same way that I do in the game. Some nights in the first quarter or second quarter the shots are falling and everything’s good. I got the whole game going. Some nights it takes one, two, three shots and you get an easy one and it starts clicking all over again. It’s just about finding easy plays.”

It’s not just a causal observation, Powell seems to consistently find those “easy plays” in the fourth quarter and for some reason, they get easier to find after the All-Star break.

The under-sized second round pick peaked Casey’s interest early on. It isn’t often a rookie can bump and grab veteran players without picking up quick fouls and an unhelpful reputation with the referees, but Powell had the knack for physical defense without fouling and he got minutes while the Raptors first round pick Delon Wright was toiling away with the NBA D-League 905.

Now Casey never believed Powell could shoot and the rookie did little to dispel that in the first half of his initial season, so Powell was playing solely because he would play bump and grind defense, but sometimes things can change.

Injuries created opportunity and the rookie was ready to take advantage. After averaging just 6.5 minutes and 1.3 points on 27.5 percent shooting before the All-Star game in his rookie season, Powell became an impact player on offense after the break averaging 22.8 minutes and 9.6 points on 46.6 percent shooting.

An unexpected three-point shot appeared as well and the rookie Casey didn’t think had a jump shot started nailing 45.5 percent of his long balls, but maybe there were clues about his ability to shoot before this. While his offense was almost non-existent to start, when Casey played Powell in the fourth quarter, the rookie was hitting 33.3 percent of his threes when he wasn’t hitting much of anything else. Hints of a Mr. Fourth Quarter even from the start.

While Casey remained reluctant to believe in Powell’s shooting, the former Raptors 905 head coach Jesse Mermuys had no such reservations. He’d seen what Powell could do in the summer after the draft and he believed.

“I saw (Powell could shoot) in the summertime,” Mermuys told Pro Bball Report last year. “One, he made a ton of shots in Summer League. He was knocking it down. Into our workouts after Summer League in L.A. and in the Clippers facility workouts, he was making a ton of shots and that was my message coming back out of the summer. I said look, for a guy that can’t shoot, this guy is making a lot of shots. It’s getting to the point where this isn’t, it can’t be just he’s hot. He’s shooting the ball really well. So, I felt really confident about his shooting ability coming out of the summer.”

Powell started out shooting this season like he did after the All-Star break last year, but his minutes were wildly inconsistent and he is currently averaging just 33.9 percent from three. Powell found himself behind Cory Joseph, Terrence Ross and DeMarre Carroll in the rotation, however, Casey kept looking for excuses to find him minutes, especially in the fourth quarter.

However, his fourth quarter offensive output also started to level off until it wasn’t really any different from the any other time in the game, but things were about to change. A Ross trade and an injury to Kyle Lowry has handed a consistent role to both of the Raptors second year guards after the All-Star break and it’s like someone flipped a switch on Powell’s fourth quarter offense.

Since the break, Powell has been averaging 10.7 points on 42.9 percent shooting, but it’s been in the fourth quarter where he has really shone scoring 7 points on 48 percent shooting and hitting on 42.9 percent of his threes. There much be something about consistent minutes, the stretch drive to the playoffs, and the pressure of the fourth quarter that brings out the best in Powell.

“It means a lot,” Powell said. “In our development, playing together, learning the game, learning how to be big time players in big time moments when you are playing meaningful minutes and it’s going to help us.”

It’s a big help to the Raptors when a second round draft pick can step in during his rookie and sophomore seasons and make a positive impact, especially in the fourth quarter.

After the All-Star break last year Powell averaged an impressive 4.2 fourth quarter points as a rookie. This year, thru six games, his post All-Star break fourth quarter scoring is running at 7 points. That’s higher than top 10 fourth quarter scorer DeMar DeRozan (6.6) is averaging this season. If he can keep this up, Powell is a fourth quarter star.

 

 

Stephen_Brotherston_insideStephen Brotherston covers the Toronto Raptors and visiting NBA teams at the Air Canada Centre and is a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.

  Featured image courtesy of Larry Millson

 

 

 

NBA Toronto Raptors Delon Wright

Raptors Delon Wright Earning Praise On Defense

With the Toronto Raptors struggling to a 15-16 record in 2017, the only thing head coach Dwane Casey could have wanted from his sophomore third string point guard Delon Wright was getting him back sooner. Injured in Summer League Wright has only played in eight games this season, but he’s already been earning praise for what he’s been able to do on defense.

“He’s good,” DeMarre Carroll told Pro Bball Report. “He’s very long. He plays the passing lanes really well. He’s one of our better defenders. He’s young and still trying to understand, but at the same time, you can see how he’s going to be growing into his role.

“It’s something you come in with naturally, a knack for the ball. He doesn’t come in and try to force stuff, he plays his defense and tries to compose the team and that’s what we ask from him and he’s doing a great job at it.”

Currently running a second unit for coach Casey out of necessity with All-Star Kyle Lowry sidelined for at least a month and backup Cory Joseph pushed into the starting lineup, Wright has made an impact. The Raptors are an improved 5-3 with him on the court and Wright has a Net Rating of +6 points per 100 possessions largely due to a solid defensive rating 97.8.

The defensive-minded Carroll judges his own performance by the plus/minus stat and he appreciates a player who steps in midseason and starts off +44 points in their first eight games.

“I feel prepared,” Wright responded to Pro Bball Report. “Now it’s just getting more comfortable with the role that I am playing now knowing it will be a little more extended than it would have been with Kyle being out.”

Thrown into the fire with a second unit that’s still trying to figure things out, the Raptors have been above water with Wright on the court in six of his eight games. Only Wright’s inconsistent offensive production forcing Casey to look for other options when he needs additional scoring.

“I just got to find my rhythm,” Wright said. “I haven’t been shooting as well as I could have. They want me to be aggressive and if (the opposition) keeps going under to shoot it. They don’t care how many times I miss. I think that’s important that they have confidence in me to shoot it. The ones that I have missed have been bad, so it’s comforting to know they want me to shoot.”

The offense should come. Last season in the D-League and with the Raptors in April, Wright was an effective scorer and solid three-point threat. He should find his offensive rhythm again as he puts more games under his belt.

As difficult as losing an All-Star like Lowry is for the Raptors, it does provide an opportunity for a player like Wright to show what he can do in meaningful games and develop his skills against solid competition. It likely costs the Raptors a few wins now, but it could really pay off later.

“I find it better to play in some meaningful games and try to help the team keep moving forward,” Wright said. “The team needs us, all the young guys to step up to help the veterans and I think that’s it’s important for us to get better this way.”

It’s important for Wright to get better. President Masai Ujiri put his faith in the team’s own young players rather than picking up a veteran point guard off of the NBA’s waiver wire scrap heap and he’s been rewarded. It’s hard to argue the Raptors would be better off with a rental than playing the guy already in their own organization.

 

Stephen_Brotherston_insideStephen Brotherston covers the Toronto Raptors and visiting NBA teams at the Air Canada Centre and is a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.

 

 

 

 

NBA Toronto Raptors Serge Ibaka

The Raptors Are Making Serge Ibaka Very Happy

The Toronto Raptors haven’t seen a power forward like Serge Ibaka since Chris Bosh was playing for Toronto and they are doing everything they can to make the pending free agent very happy.

“I am so thankful with the Raptors because I am playing a couple of minutes at the five (and) at the four,” Ibaka told Adrian Wojnarowski on The Vertical Podcast with Woj when the Raptors played in Washington recently. “I like that. It is bringing back my mentality, my aggressiveness, my team defense to protect the paint.”

Ibaka has hit the ground running with his new team. Scoring, rebounding, nailing three-pointers, guarding the perimeter, protecting the paint and playing 35 minutes per game. There has been an understanding between Toronto and their newest star player from the instant the deal with Orlando was done. This NBA Finalist and three-time Western Conference Finalist’s job is to take the Raptors to the next level. No one needed to tell him that.

“Masai (Ujiri) is a professional, I am a professional,” Ibaka explained. “As soon as I heard they did that deal on the table, they got me, I already knew what I had to do. I already knew why they needed me. There wasn’t really a lot to talk about because you already know what time it is right now. It’s not the beginning of the season. It’s after the All-Star break.”

A 4-1 start with their trade deadline additions while missing All-Star point guard Kyle Lowry says it all. Raptors president Masai Ujiri knew what his team needed and went out and got it. In Ibaka’s opinion, Ujiri did everything necessary to put the Raptors into the same position he was while playing with the Thunder. An NBA Finals contending team.

“If everybody is healthy, yes,” Ibaka responded to Wojnarowski’s query about the Raptors potential. “The team we have right now, yes. We got Tucker. He’s a tough defender. He’s helping us with toughness. When Kyle comes back, with the guys we have, I believes yes.”

Ibaka feels that his reputation as a defender has taken a hit since he was a three-time first team NBA All-Defensive player with the Thunder earlier in his career. The game has changed since he started playing, the players on the Thunder changed and the role he was asked to play changed. However, Ibaka believes, with plenty of justification, that if his role was more like what he did when he led the NBA in blocks, his reputation as a defender would be renewed.

“The game has changed now,” Ibaka said. “The game is fast now. You have centers who shoot threes now.

“People outside don’t understand.

“The hard part is people outside in the media when they are saying Serge Ibaka, why is he always shooting threes? He never developed his post game and he (plays) out(side) now. He’s not blocking shots. All those things, blah, blah, blah.

“My role (in OKC) started to change and of course I could not say no because it was better for the team for me to be outside shooting threes. Before I used to run down to the paint for the first rebound and (then) coach asked me to run to the three-point line to open (the floor) for Kevin (Durant) and Russell (Westbrook) to attack the basket.”

It’s not what Ibaka wanted to do. He still likes the dirty work inside, but he did what was best for the team at the time.

In Toronto, head coach Dwane Casey is making sure Ibaka is getting plenty of opportunity to play inside, however, there is a cost to a couple of the guys who used to have that role.

Since Ibaka’s arrival, the Raptors starting center Jonas Valanciunas has seen his minutes drop from his season average of 26.2 to just 18.6 and backup center Lucas Nogueira, averaging 20.7 minutes this year, has played in just two seconds over the past three games. Keeping Ibaka happy has meant sacrifices for other Raptors’ players.

However, similarly to what happened in Oklahoma City, coach Casey is doing what’s best for the team and the role suites Ibaka perfectly. Air Congo is patrolling the perimeter like a modern 4/5, hitting threes and guarding everyone from stretch fives to point guards. Then he’s guarding the paint like a center, grabbing boards and blocking shots reminiscent of his days playing in OKC.

It turns out that keeping Ibaka happy is helping the Raptors win.

 

Stephen_Brotherston_insideStephen Brotherston covers the Toronto Raptors and visiting NBA teams at the Air Canada Centre and is a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.

  Featured image courtesy of Larry Millson

 

 

 

NBA Cleveland Cavaliers J.R. Smith

Injuries Could Play Havoc With The NBA Playoffs

So the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Golden State Warriors are a sure thing to meet in the NBA Finals? You sure? It seems like no one thinks either team is headed for an early exit – yet, but both teams could be in for a tougher time in the first two rounds of the playoffs than anyone anticipated and if their sidelined All-Stars aren’t back to 100 percent by the Conference Finals, all bets should be off on a three-peat in the NBA Finals.

But it’s not just the top two teams in each conference with issues. Injuries have hit a number of other teams this year hoping to make some noise in the postseason and if they aren’t aren’t back by now, optimistic assessments about how soon and how good key players will be aside, teams are worried – not that there’s much they can do about it now.

Golden State Warriors – Kevin Durant

An MCL sprain and bone bruise in his left knee that’ll be reassessed at the end of March. No worries, he’ll be back for the playoffs, right? Maybe, but in the meantime the Dubs are 0-2 without him and the Spurs are just 3 games back.

How good would a Warriors – Thunder matchup look in the first round if the Dubs can’t hold onto first in the West and KD is still watching from the sidelines mid-April – which is very possible. Russell Westbrook would only be slightly better motivated to triple-double his way into the second round vs GSW.

Cleveland Cavaliers – JR Smith, Kevin Love

The Cavs showed their true feelings about whether Smith and his broken thumb could be counted on for the postseason by quickly trading for Kyle Korver and the move has worked. Smith or no Smith, the Cavs got that covered.

They also showed their true feelings about Kevin Love’s “minor” knee surgery – is there a stranger term than “minor surgery”? They cut a young prospect to sign a waived 32-year-old Andrew Bogut who averaged 3.0 points in 26 appearances for the Lottery-bound Mavericks.

Sure Love could be back in the 4-6 week time horizon that would make him available for the playoffs and the Cavs are hoping that happens, but there are no guarantees and it’s unlikely he’ll return right away as the same 20 point 11 rebound power forward he was before the injury.

Bogut doesn’t replace Love and it’s a certainty the Cavs will not be as good without their starting power forward or trying to play Love as he goes through the inevitable soreness and conditioning issues that come with knee surgery no matter how “minor.”

Toronto Raptors – Kyle Lowry

Lowry had wrist surgery to remove “loose bodies” that were causing swelling and pain and is expected back in time for the postseason, however, a month or more without the East’s leading three-point maker and the Raptors are going to have to adapt fast to hold onto home court advantage for the playoffs.

The team made big additions defensively with Serge Ibaka and P.J. Tucker prior to the trade deadline and now have both Patrick Patterson and Delon Wright back from injury, so they added depth just in time to compensate, but without their All-Star point guard, the Raptors aren’t the same threat they were earlier in the season. They are hoping for a very speedy and full recovery or this could be a return to the quick postseason exits of a couple of years ago.

Denver Nuggets – Kenneth Faried

After missing most of February with a severely sprained ankle, now the veteran forward has been out with back spasms and could miss another week? It doesn’t sound serious other than the 8th place Nuggets have been relying on the short-handed Trail Blazers to play worse than .500 ball to stay ahead of them.

Other notables include: Miami Heat Justus Winslow (shoulder), Minnesota Timberwolves Zach LaVine (torn ACL), Milwaukee Bucks Jabari Parker (torn ACL), New York Knicks Joakim Noah (knee surgery), Orlando Magic Jodie Meeks (thumb surgery), Philadelphia 76ers Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid among others, Portland Trail Blazers Festus Ezeli (knee), Even Turner (broken hand), Ed Davis (torn labrum), Sacramento Kings Rudy Gay (ruptured Achilles).

It’s hard to win without players your team was counting upon at the start of the season and it gets even harder in the playoffs. A last second return mid-April shouldn’t fill one with confidence either.

A Cavs vs Dubs rematch in the NBA Finals? Possible, but injuries aren’t making what seemed like a sure-thing in October nearly as likely.

 

Stephen_Brotherston_insideStephen Brotherston covers the Toronto Raptors and visiting NBA teams at the Air Canada Centre and is a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.

 

NBA Toronto Raptors Jared Sullinger

Is It Worth Signing Waived NBA Players?

The NBA trade deadline has past and all the rage is who can scoop up the rejects from the NBA scrap heap of waived players in time to be playoff eligible, but is it worth the real cost? ESPN’s Chris Forsberg quotes Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge to illustrate why maybe teams should be thinking twice.

“Listen, when I was here and we had those runs [with Boston’s Big Three of Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen], I’m in the general manager’s office, and I had my coaches coming in and going, ‘We need this’ or ‘We heard [about] this guy, this veteran guy.’ So we went and did these buyouts every year to try to help our team, and rarely did those work,” Ainge said this week during an appearance on Boston sports radio 98.5 the Sports Hub’s “Toucher and Rich” program.

“It sounds good on paper. Everybody said, ‘They just added so-and-so to the team.’ When, in fact, those players may take away minutes from a younger player that is better, change the chemistry and the roles of the players inside your organization.”

Ainge is specifically thinking about the impact about signing a “free agent” at this point in the season and the perceived obligation to give that player minutes over his own developing young talent that has found a useful role on his roster. A rental player for a few months taking minutes away from James Young, Jordan Mickey or Jaylen Brown just might not be in the team’s best interests.

“We have such a good chemistry with this team. We’ve had everybody contributing to winning,” Ainge said. “We’ve had James Young playing the most fourth-quarter minutes [of his career] in the last four games we won on the road. We’ve had Jordan Mickey start in a win, and we’ve had Jaylen Brown go 9-1 as a starter. There’s so many good things and so many good vibes with these guys. Sometimes you bring in a player, and the players react like, ‘Man, that’s not fair. That kid’s been working hard. That kid’s earned his chance to play.’ I think it goes both ways. Names on paper and past performances don’t always make for, like, a perfect fit with the team that they’re coming to, especially if they don’t fit our style.”

Wise words from an experienced NBA team builder. Picking up another team’s castoff isn’t always going to be in your team’s best interests or even help in the short term.

Look for teams with injury problems desperate for a stop gap solution to potentially get the most out of signing a waived player, unless of course they have their own young talent that could really benefit from the suddenly available minutes. Do you really want to cut a player to acquire someone you won’t need after this season? If that was true, why did you sign him in the first place?

Let’s see if Ainge can resist trying to fix his team’s 27th ranked rebounding with his team’s former best at grabbing boards Jared Sullinger who was recently waived by the Suns while it’s looking like the Cavs will throw anybody overboard to stay in first place.

 
 

Stephen_Brotherston_insideStephen Brotherston covers the Toronto Raptors and visiting NBA teams at the Air Canada Centre and is a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.

 
 

NBA Toronto Raptors PJ Tucker and Serge Ibaka

Raptors PJ Tucker Is A Talking Bowling Ball With Arms

The perception of the Toronto Raptors changed when president Masai Ujiri traded Rudy Gay to the Kings a little over three years ago. They went from soft to tough overnight and at the time, one of reasons was 6’6 center Chuck Hayes. Described as a bowling ball with arms by some and a tree stump by Patrick Patterson, Hayes was non-stop action on defense and the Raptors missed him after he was gone. Newcomer PJ Tucker brings back a lot of that physical presence and activity.

In just his second game with the Raptors, this season’s “bowling ball with arms” lived up to the description when he accidentally knocked out Trail Blazers center Jusuf Nurkic’s teeth.

Like Hayes, the 6’5 Tucker was undersized as a big man coming out of college, but fortunately for the Raptors, Tucker figured out how to play multiple positions and still patrol the paint like a big man when needed.

“Tucker is one of the more versatile defenders in the league,” Celtics head coach Brad Stevens volunteered. “When you think about guarding guys two thru five, the way that people play in the league right now. There is not a five that you can’t see him potentially guarding. You watch him play on film, he guarding everybody from DeRozan here to some of the bigger centers. He’s a tough guy.”

“He’s a tough guy man,” Serge Ibaka confirmed. “He’s one of those guys you need on your team.”

With the loss of Bismack Biyombo to free agency last summer and a preseason injury to his de facto replacement Jared Sullinger, the Raptors lost some of their toughness and a lot of their on the court communication on defense. It’s showed, this year’s version of the team has relied more on being able to outscore teams than get defensive stops, but the additions of Serge Ibaka and Tucker have changed all that.

Almost 32-years-old, Tucker is the “senior” player on the Raptors and he wasted no time putting his veteran stamp on his new team. Tucker is a talker and a leader, not just bowling ball causing havoc on defense.

“I don’t believe in adjustment periods,” Tucker said. “I think good players learn how to play with each other. They talk through it. They make adjustments during the game. Professional. Playing basketball, adjustment, I think that’s a cop out. You learn how to play together. You make adjustments and you play.

“I talk too much. Defense is half talking. Serge talks, DeMarre talks, DeMar doesn’t talk as much, but I got him talking a little bit. I think the more (DeMar) starts talking on defense too, we’ll be even better. Once he gets comfortable with it.

“We have our own timeouts and in timeouts we are over there talking, knowing what we are going to do in situations before coach even got there.”

It’s been a whirlwind of change in Toronto as the offensive powerhouse that was the Raptors earlier in the season is starting to look like a defensive juggernaut with the additions of Ibaka and the talking bowling ball with arms, P.J. Tucker.

 

Stephen_Brotherston_insideStephen Brotherston covers the Toronto Raptors and visiting NBA teams at the Air Canada Centre and is a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.

  Featured image courtesy of Larry Millson

 

 

NBA Toronto Raptors Serge Ibaka

It’s Just Another Day For The Raptors Serge Ibaka

By Frank McLean and Stephen Brotherston

It’s now two games in for the Raptors Serge Ibaka and from all appearances, each time out it’s been just another day at the office for the best power forward Toronto has started since Chris Bosh played for the team.

In the two wins Ibaka is averaging 16.5 points, 8.5 rebounds, 1.5 steals, a block and 1.5 threes as he’s shot 55.6 percent from the field and been a beast on defense whether it’s out on the perimeter or in the post. In short, Ibaka has been better than advertised.

“I’m just focused,” Ibaka responded to Pro Bball Report. “Like I said in the beginning, it was tough a little bit. We didn’t really have a lot of time to practice together and I am still learning the plays. The one thing I know you cannot learn is playing hard, so that’s what we did.”

That Ibaka plays hard has been obvious from the start and it’s been hard play that has enabled Toronto to win without their All-Star point guard Kyle Lowry.

“We have the potential to do a lot of good things this year,” Ibaka said. “We need a couple more practices together to learn and then when Kyle comes back it’s going to be very good.”

The schedule maker did give the Raptors an extra day before they resumed playing after the All-Star break, so Ibaka did get a crash course on how the Raptors go about their business, but after a half a season on a new team in Orlando, the long time Oklahoma City power forward has gone through a lot in a relatively short period of time.

“A little change, but really a big change, I’m going to learn,’’ Ibaka said earlier this week. “The good thing is that I’ve had people help me, making me focus on playing basketball because they’re making things easier.’’

“We threw a lot at the young man, but he comprehended a lot,’’ head coach Dwane Casey explained. “Defensively he added a buzz to the team, his communication, speed and reaction and understanding where to be.

“His teammates were all helping him, talking to him. Patrick Patterson was helping and talking to him, coaching him when he (Patterson) was playing against him. It’s like home work, but it’s different when you get here on the court, timing, having to understand it, speed and quickness, reading situations. But again, he was a quick learner. We tried to put him in comfortable situations. I went back and studied film when he was in Oklahoma City, Orlando to get a feel for where he likes the basketball, the things he did defensively and what we can incorporate.”

Casey went on to add that being a veteran helps when you get moved in the middle of the season.

“The most important thing is that there’s nothing he hasn’t seen. He’s not going to get tricked too many times. You may get him once and that’s the thing about a veteran because you’re not going to get him multiple times.

“It gave us homework and (to) prepare to understand where to put him, what he likes to do. It’s not like we’re going in one day before for a game. Again, it’s going to take time for him to get acclimated, but he is ahead of the curve because of his basketball experience and IQ.”

It’s his talent, experience and versatility that improves the Raptors roster from the one that Casey put on the floor before the All-Star break. A natural power forward, Ibaka can also play center and be a big defender when the opposition goes with a smaller line-up.

“He’s an excellent defender,’’ said Casey. “I remember the days of going at him from down in Dallas (when he was an assistant to Rick Carlisle on the Mavs). The game has changed from a shot blocking perspective, but it’s still there. He can still protect the rim.”

Is Serge Ibaka the final piece to get the Raptors to the NBA Finals?

He is playoff tested and has NBA Finals experience. Plus he has stepped into a huge role at starting power forward and instantly elevated the play of everyone around him.

He has been just what the doctor ordered to put the Raptors back on the right track.

 

Stephen_Brotherston_insideStephen Brotherston covers the Toronto Raptors and visiting NBA teams at the Air Canada Centre and is a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.

 

 

   DeMar DeRozan & Frank McLeanVeteran journalist Frank McLean has covered nearly every Raptors game in Toronto since their inaugural season at the Skydome back in 1995-96. He has seen it all. The good, the bad and the really bad and he is one of the very few journalists in Toronto that has kept coming back for more.

 

 

 

 

Raptors Jonas Valanciunas Is Working On A 3-Point Shot

When the Toronto Raptors drafted Jonas Valanciunas fifth overall in 2011 then assistant general manager Maurizio Gherardini described him as, “Tyson Chandler with good feet.” He may as well painted him as a traditional big man, but in Valanciunas’ phone call to the media in Toronto, he described his game as being like the Raptors recently departed jump shooting power forward Chris Bosh. In addition to being a big young center with potential to thrive inside, Valanciunas could shoot, but his play outside of the paint is something that has often been overlooked early in his NBA career.

However, since his arrival in Toronto, the NBA game has been undergoing what can only be described as dramatic change. Traditional centers that are mired in the paint have been disappearing and replaced by guys who can stretch the floor, make plays for others and/or leap high for an alley-oop and run like a deer.

Plays based on pound, pound, pound and backing down your defender in the paint with sheer power are getting less common. It’s become obvious as this season has moved along that Valanciunas has been hunting down 15 foot jump shots in games and practicing his three-pointers in warm-ups.

“That’s what the game is going to,” Raptors head coach Dwane Casey said. “The days of boom, boom, boom, pound it, pound it, pound it – you can do it two or three times, but as the game goes on they are going to send bodies, send traps off cutters, traps baseline and it’s clogged up and you’re not going to get anything done, so it’s a great shot for him, elbow free throw line and maybe a step or two higher where he can see everything, make passes, make plays because the floor is open now.

“In his career he is going to move out further and further with that shot and he’s got a good rhythm out there. He’s one of our best free throw shooters.”

NBA Toronto Raptors Jonas Valanciunas

In the New Year, there was Valanciunas before each game standing above the arc and tossing three-pointers and in the new NBA, this hasn’t looked out of place. Yes, it’s one thing to shoot jump shots in a gym by yourself before the crowd shows up and no one is defending you, but the process has to start somewhere.

“That’s the next evolution of centers,” Casey said. “Guys migrate out there. Lucas (Nogueira) is migrating out there and JV is migrating out there and I think that’s going to be the new wave. Ibaka is knocking down shots (from three-point range), so that’s the new thing in the NBA now.”

“We’re practicing,” Valanciunas told Pro Bball Report about his three-point shooting in the pregame warm-up. “Practicing to add this to my game. This is something new. Probably coach Nurse can talk about this more. Just slowly getting that developed, slowly getting that in my game.

“It’s not usual. Most of the time I’m not there to shoot it, my job is to go inside, but I find myself liking that shot, (so) why not?”

While Valanciunas has yet to attempt a three-point shot this season and has only lofted two in 338 regular season games, he is taking more jump shots than ever before. Two years ago, he took 88.5 percent of his shots within 10 feet of the rim. Last year that dipped to 85.5 percent, but this season it’s down to 75.9 percent. The number of shot attempts from the foul line area is actually getting noticeable during games.

“These days all the bigs are doing that,” Valanciunas explained. “The more weapons you have, the more I can do on offense. It’s harder to defend, so trying to add that in my game and have myself shooting those 15-footers.”

The number of attempts aren’t overwhelming yet and on occasion he is still turning down open shots even after making the same shot only moments before, so deliberating adding a jump shot to his regular offense is something that will take time to get comfortable with.

“Slowly getting there, slowly developing myself into that 15 foot shooter,” Valanciunas said. “Still I have a lot of work to go. A lot of practice, a lot of work to put in and that’s probably summertime work to add something new in your game.

“(Fortunately) we still got time in pregame warmups, after the practice. It’s been my work since a couple of months ago.”

Valanciunas is going to keep working on his jump shot and extending his range. As Casey pointed out, “That’s the next evolution of centers” and there are more than a few that have already evolved.

“I am not on the three-point line, not yet, but it is definitely harder to defend a shooting big than a non-shooting big, so I guess all the league is going to the shooting bigs,” Valanciunas said. “I still think that we need power inside and muscle inside, what I am trying to do (currently).”

This is an evolution not a revolution as far as Valanciunas is concerned. He wants to add an effective jump shot and extend his range, but he doesn’t see a day when being effective in the paint isn’t important.

“I hope I am never going to get allergic to the paint,” Valanciunas said. “That’s my bread. That’s where I get my everything. I still believe the game needs the big guys inside to rebound and do good things in the paint, but shooting is something that (adds to) a big man.

“Maybe in the last year of my career you are going to see me take more threes than twos.”
 

 

Stephen_Brotherston_insideStephen Brotherston covers the Toronto Raptors and visiting NBA teams at the Air Canada Centre and is a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.

 

 

 

NBA Toronto Raptors Serge Ibaka

Tucker And Ibaka Make Toronto A Deep And Nasty Team

Trade deadline deals for Serge Ibaka and P.J. Tucker have made the Raptors a deep nasty team and pushed the resurgence of the stand pat Boston Celtics back another season. At least that seems to be the conclusion of Basketball Insiders Cody Taylor, ESPN’s Zach Lowe and Adrian Wojnarowski on The Vertical Podcast Trade Deadline Special.

Basketball Insiders – Adding Tucker figures to be a move designed to shore up its perimeter defense. He’s now likely their best defender against LeBron James should the Raptors match up again with the Cleveland Cavaliers in the postseason. By making this move now, the Raptors were perhaps the biggest winners of the trade deadline.

ESPN – Toronto swooped in for both Serge Ibaka and P.J. Tucker, forming a deep, nasty, versatile team that should end up better than Boston even if the Raptors can’t catch up in the standings. It feels like a missed opportunity for Boston to have some fun this season.

The Vertical – Toronto is the team that has made the upgrades. They have struggled here in the latter part before the All-Star break. They have some ground to make up, but just defensively, their ability now against Cleveland in the postseason, Boston in the postseason, they have really helped themselves more than any other team. Certainly in the Eastern Conference.

Raptors president Masai Ujiri pulled the trigger at the trade deadline big-time this season and made the biggest improvements to his roster of anyone in the East. A team that went 22-8 to start the season and then fell apart under the weight of relatively minor injuries to Patrick Patterson, DeMar DeRozan and DeMarre Carroll just got a big boost to their rotation.

“I love this about these two guys added to the group we have, it helps us with toughness,” Ujiri said.

Gone from the rotation is Terrence Ross, quite possibly in the midst of his best season ever, but still maddingly inconsistent and too often failing to live up to his talent. Also gone is the team’s big 2016 free agent addition Jared Sullinger who was still trying to regain his form after missing most of this season with a broken foot, so he won’t be missed on the court.

Inbound is the proven veteran Ibaka, known for his defense and rim protection (90 blocks this season). He should instantly step in as the Raptors starting power forward and second best three-point shooter as well as someone that can score in the paint. Ibaka was leading the Magic with 846 points this season which would put him third on the Raptors, right about where he is expected to be as a scoring option in Toronto and in a role he was very familiar with in OKC.

The upgrade Ibaka brings can’t be overstated. Out of necessity, rookie Pascal Siakam has started 38 games at power forward for Toronto this year averaging 4.8 points and lots of mistakes on defense. He looks like a player with high potential, but he’s got a lot to learn.

The Raptors were thin on the wing to start this season and after trading Ross and prior to acquiring Tucker, they were potentially one injury away from disaster. Tucker likely comes off the bench and his style of play should earn him a super-sub role much like the one Patterson has earned with his tough defense and acceptable three-point shooting. Tucker isn’t a great three-point threat, but he’s good enough to keep defenses honest and good enough on defense to make a difference at the end of games.

“I love his toughness,” Ujiri said about Tucker. “He can defend. He can defend multiple positions. He can shoot the corner three and toughness, we needed to become a tougher team and I think this helps us.”

Also, the injury woes appear to be over for now at least.

Patterson is expected to play in the first game back after the All-Star break and it seemed like the team was holding him out a few extra games just to be sure he’d be ready for the stretch drive to the playoffs. He’ll return to a bench role where he’s been a super-sub in Casey’s rotation.

Carroll was still playing on a sore knee to start the season, but by early January the knee felt good and he was starting to put up some really nice numbers. Then a kick to the head by Pascal Siakam set him back, but he’s since re-found his shooting touch and his confidence and similar to the seven games stretch before the knock on the head, he has averaged 12.5 points, 6.3 rebounds and 1.3 steals while shooting 46.4 percent from three over his last half-dozen games.

A turned ankle cost DeRozan a couple of weeks and the Raptors scoring seemed to be sitting out with him, but now he’s back and he’s fine.

Casey has been wanting to tighten up the Raptors rotation and with his new additions, it should come together relatively quickly.

Starting:

Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan, DeMarre Carroll, Serge Ibaka, Jonas Valanciunas

Subs:

Cory Joseph, Norman Powell, P.J. Tucker, Patrick Patterson, Lucas Nogueira

Bench:

Fred VanVleet*, Delon Wright, Bruno Caboclo, Pascal Siakam*, Jakob Poeltl*
(* rookies)

Potential closing lineup:

Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan, Tucker/Carroll, Patterson, Ibaka

With a full line-up at his disposal, this is the deepest, most talented and toughest roster Ujiri has ever handed head coach Dwane Casey. However, Ujiri has a word of caution.

“Everything always looks pretty on paper,” Ujiri said. “Now we have to go out and play.”

Ujiri has bought into the concept that this team is close and in a very competitive East, the opportunity to knock off the favorite, but short-handed, Cavaliers is there. He felt the Raptors owed it to their fans, coaches and players to give it their best shot right now.

“The way the East is situated, there’s Cleveland at the top and then there’s 5,6,7 teams that could catch steam at any time and momentum and then whoever does it at the right time, then maybe you find yourselves there,” Ujiri said. “We want to give ourselves the best shot to be there.”

Ujiri has a knack for knowing what to do and then getting it done without sacrificing the things he believes in. Things like keeping and developing his own young players, but still giving his team a chance to win. With the acquisition of Tucker and Ibaka, Ujiri has made the Raptors tougher, deeper and potentially a little nastier just in time to see if this is a group that can go deep into the playoffs and worth becoming a luxury tax team this summer.

 

 

Stephen_Brotherston_insideStephen Brotherston covers the Toronto Raptors and visiting NBA teams at the Air Canada Centre and is a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.

 

 

NBA Toronto Raptors P.J. Tucker

P.J. Tucker Adds Defensive Toughness To The Raptors

With some unexpected last minute flair, Toronto Raptors president Masai Ujiri added defensive toughness and filled the gap on the wing by trading Jared Sullinger and two second round draft picks for the Suns small forward P.J. Tucker.

Ujiri had made a massive upgrade at power forward by acquiring Serge Ibaka from the Magic just days earlier, but to get the deal done, he traded Terrence Ross, the team’s backup small forward. The soon-to-be 32-year-old Tucker is a tougher, more experienced and more consistent defender than Ross albeit not quite as an effective three-point threat.

Suns teammate Jared Dudley has been singing the praises of Tucker’s defense this season as has Suns coach Earl Watson.

Watson, “It’s all on intensity, passion, toughness and a lot of heart. He (Tucker) plays with that every time he touches the court. He’s one of our best players. To me, he’s the most underrated defender in our league, especially on isolations. I think our isolation defense kind of speaks for itself because of him.”

While Tucker averages 7 points, 6 rebounds, 1.5 steals, 28.5 minutes and shoots 33.8 percent from three for the Suns this year, against the Raptors he’s scoring 12.5 points and grabbing 7 boards in two unexpected wins as the Suns held the high scoring Raptors to an average of 97 points.

Being good at isolation defense has been key to stopping the Raptors and it becomes even more important in the postseason.

Tucker was originally drafted from the University of Texas at Austin 35th overall in 2006 by the Raptors and played in 17 games for Toronto before being waived in March 2007. After playing five seasons overseas, he was signed as a free agent in 2012 by the Suns. He is in the final year of a three-year $16.5 million contract that pays him $5.3 million this season. He had been primarily used as a starter, but has come off the bench since December 31st.

On another note, the Boston Celtics have stood pat as the Raptors added talent at the trade deadline.

 

 

Stephen_Brotherston_insideStephen Brotherston covers the Toronto Raptors and visiting NBA teams at the Air Canada Centre and is a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.