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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.

 

 

 

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.

 

 

 

 

NBA Toronto Raptors GM Masai Ujiri

Raptors Sitting In The Catbird Seat For The Playoffs

By Frank McLean

The Toronto Raptors return home Monday night to the Air Canada Center sitting in the catbird seat to start their stretch of their last nine games before the playoffs with a four game home stand against the Orlando Magic and an old friend Terrance Ross.

The Raptors officially punched their ticket to NBA playoffs for a franchise record fourth straight season on the back of their 94-86 win over the Mavericks in Dallas Saturday night which also was their fifth straight win in a row.

Schedule wise the Raptors are sitting in a great spot. Eight of their last nine games are against teams with a record blow .500. On the final night of the season they play in Cleveland against the Cavaliers the only team with a record better than .500 and if the game means nothing to the defending champions you can bet your life it will be another night of rest for Lebron James, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love.

The Raptors have a great opportunity to improve their lot in the Eastern Conference standings with this soft schedule heading into the stretch drive.

They sit fourth at 44-29 3.5 games back of Cleveland and Boston who are tied for first and a game back of Washington who is sitting third.

The goal is to try and avoid a match-up with Cleveland until the third round which would be the conference championship. What helps is that they have the tie breaker with Washington so third place is realistic. They just have to keep winning.

Another benefit of winning five straight is that they have a seven game lead over the fifth place Atlanta Hawks and unless they really hit the skids over these final nine games they pretty well have home court advantage in the first round locked up. Home court was something three weeks ago that wasn’t a sure thing.

The Raptors are hot at the right time which is saying something since they have not had the heart and soul of their offense Kyle Lowry since the all-star break because of a wrist injury.

The three teams in front of them all have some sort of weakness.

First let’s look at the defending champion Cleveland Cavaliers who are struggling to play defence right now. They are just 5-5 in their last 10-games. They dominate at home with a 28-8 record, but struggle away from Quicken Loans Arena and are barely over .500 at 19-17.

The Boston Celtics did not make any moves at the trade deadline which made General Manager Danny Ainge the target of the wrath from Celtics Nation. They have had trouble rebounding all season, but they are riding a four game win streak because they have been carried on the back of guard Isaiah Thomas. Thomas scored 30-points Sunday in a win at home against Miami.

And last you have the Washington Wizards who will have barely seen the US capitol city they live in this month. They started off in Cleveland Saturday night their last 10-games of the regular season with their second five game road trip this month which finish’s with the last four games on the west coast against the Lakers, Clippers, Utah and Golden State in that order.

And when they are done with that road trip they only play two of their final five games at home.

As you can see, evidence points to the Raptors having a golden opportunity to move up in the standings and somewhere in their last nine games they hope to get Kyle Lowry back in the lineup.

The Raptors are sitting in the catbird seat. They have their destiny in their own hands and all they have to do is keep winning, something the schedule maker has made a doable task.

Somewhere quietly behind the scenes, Raptors president Masai Ujiri is smiling.

 

 

   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.

 

 

 

 

NBA Toronto Raptors Jakob Poeltl

Raptors Rookie Center Jakob Poeltl Doesn’t Make Mistakes

By Frank McLean

On a team with deep playoff aspirations, rookies and young players in general often get nailed to the bench because they just make too many mistakes, but Raptors rookie center Jakob Poeltl may be one of the exceptions as he has cracked head coach Dwane Casey’s rotation post All-Star break.

“He’s always in the right place, very few mistakes, he’s very physical, he’s not afraid, he loves contact,” Casey said. “All those things add up, this is a physical game and he meets all those criteria.”

Back on draft night in June the Toronto Raptors had two picks in the first round. Their own and the ninth pick overall which they got from the New York Knicks in a deal that sent Andrea Bargnani to Broadway. However, with the Raptors coming off a season where they made it to the Eastern Conference Finals for the first time in franchise history the thought was, what did they need with a draft pick? The need was for a veteran power forward to put them over the top.

With that ninth pick they found a seven foot center out of the University of Utah named Jakob Poeltl. Poeltl became an answer to a trivia question that night as he became the first Austrian born player in the history of the NBA.
The thought was Poeltl would be on the QEW highway shuttle between the Air Canada Centre and Mississauga playing most of his time with Jerry Stackhouse`s Raptors 905.

But with Jared Sullinger going down in the first preseason game with a foot injury Poeltl was able to get some minutes at the start of the season at power forward, but he eventually his lost his minutes to the Raptors other first round pick Pascal Siakam and found a spot on the bench.

Poeltl didn`t let it discourage him. He kept learning. It didn`t matter if he was on the bench, working extra reps in practice, or playing for the 905ers. He kept trying to get better.

It paid off this month with Poeltl taking Lucas Nogueira’s spot in the rotation and making a big contribution to team that is missing a big chunk of their offence without Kyle Lowry’s 23 points and seven assists a game.

Since the All-Star break, Poeltl has played in 11 games averaging 11 minutes, 2.9 points, 3.3 rebounds and 0.5 blocks and coach Dwane Casey has no issues bringing the rookie into the game.

“For me, just every time you put him in, he does something positive,” Casey was saying the other day at practice. “There’s that trust, not only with myself but with his teammates. He’s doing positive things. He plays with physicality. The only thing, and it’s not his fault, is cheap fouls, he gets a lot of cheap calls.”

Of course rookies in the NBA don`t get any love from the officials as the NBA is run like a feudal system where you have to earn your way up the respect ladder with the refs.

When you talk to Poeltl, playing the physical style of game that is demanded of professional basketball was the hardest thing to get adjusted to.

“Not now, not anymore, because I feel like I’m used to it already,” Poeltl said. “I’m still not the most physical player, but at least I’ve got adjusted to the new level of physicality in the NBA. But that was definitely a challenge to start the season, getting used to playing against bigger bodies and stronger guys.”

Poeltl has natural basketball instincts. His parents were athletes but roundball wasn`t their game, volleyball was.

“I don’t know,” Poeltl said. “I mean, I guess both my parents were athletes, I was always in love with sports in general, I was like playing around, playing basketball as a little kid. But it’s really just instincts. I don’t know where it’s coming from, I just feel comfortable out there and I feel like I know where I’m supposed to go.”

Regardless of where his natural instincts came from, the Raptors are just happy to have drafted him last June. His play of late has been a big help allowing the team to have a trusted back-up when Jonas Valanciunas needs a break.

Rookies don`t generally make an impact on a veteran playoff team, but this Austrian trailblazer has been the exception this month.

 

  

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.

  Featured image courtesy of Larry Millson

 

 

 

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

Not Rocky, Serge Ibaka Should Keep His Day Job

It wasn’t quite the ‘The Malice at the Palace,’ but the altercation between Toronto Raptors Serge Ibaka and Chicago Bulls Robin Lopez will be talked about for weeks to come. Although, just maybe, as fighters, Serge and Robin should hang onto their day jobs.

On Tuesday night the Raptors were looking to break an 11 game losing streak against the Bulls and until the 3rd quarter it looked like they were going to make it 12 in a row.

Jimmy Butler hit a three-pointer with just under four minutes left in the third quarter and Ibaka collected the ball. This is when things got heated between the two. Ibaka apparently hit Lopez with an elbow beneath the basket which Lopez was not a fan of and slammed the ball out of Ibaka’s hands. The ol’ one -two punch ensued which resulted in both players being ejected. After the players separated Raptors assistant coach Jamaal Magloire and Bulls forward Nikola Mirotic ‘got into it’ resulting in technicals for both teams.

The NBA announced on Wednesday that both Lopez and Ibaka would get one game suspensions without pay for throwing punches at one another. Magloire was fined a cool $15,000 for pushing Mirotic.

“What happened is we were playing physical basketball and he got frustrated,” said Ibaka postgame. “That thing happened where you just start pushing each other, like always happens when there’s contact, and then he throws a punch. You know, like a man, I had to defend myself. I’m not just going to be out there and watch a man like him punch me and just walk away. I had to defend myself. So that’s what happened.”

As for Lopez’ take, “Things got heated, we exchanged a few words and it kind of went from there. I’m not too surprised that it escalated. It happens sometimes.”

The exchange of punches itself looked more like a fight out of the WWE where they try and make it look like they hit the other wrestler but completely miss. The fight did cause an uproar in the Air Canada Centre. Anyone that could stand in the stadium was standing and were chanting, ‘Let’s Go Raptors.’

“If something like that doesn’t get your energy going and your competitive spirit going than I don’t know what will,” Fred VanVleet said after the game.

Cory Joseph echoed a similar feeling, “It gave us energy. Obviously we didn’t want Serge to fight, but it gave us that spark we needed.”

The fight not only got fans involved, but the team as well. Prior to the fight the Raptors were trailing the entire game, then late into the fourth quarter they went on a 15-0 run and took the game to OT where Toronto sealed the win 122-120.

“It got us going,” DeMar DeRozan said post game. “The crowd got into it, our fans love things like that, especially with it being a hockey city.”

In the locker room the players were talking about the fight just as much as the fans. When Ibaka was giving his postgame scrum Lucas Nogiera yelled, ‘What’s up Mike Tyson.’ A few moments later when DeMar DeRozan was giving his postgame interview you can hear Jonas Valanciunas yelling, ‘Way to fight Serge!’

If anybody was wondering who Robin’s brother and fellow NBA player Brook Lopez was rooting for, it may surprise you, “Maybe we’ll get a grudge match, who knows? I’m pulling for Ibaka, though.”

However, these players should stick to their day jobs. They would make horrible boxers.

“I don’t think that Serge Ibaka has a malicious bone in his body. He’s a competitor, so is Lopez,” Raptors head coach Dwane Casey said. “I don’t think either one of them will go down as ‘Rocky’ or anything like that.”

Fans in a hockey city may be surprised that a “fight” worthy of two minutes for roughing on the ice will result in Ibaka sitting out on Thursday night when the Raptors play the Heat in Miami as he serves a one game suspension. Lopez serves his “fighting” suspension when the Bulls host the Detroit Pistons at United Center.

 

 

Lindsay DunnLindsay Dunn has been a TV sports and entertainment reporter for the past decade. She is currently based in Toronto and covers the local scene including the Toronto Raptors and Raptors 905. Follow her on Twitter @LindsayDunnTV

 

 

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 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 team

Team Meeting Turns On The Raptors Defense In Detriot

By Lindsay Dunn

What a difference a day makes. After giving up a 123 points in a loss to the Thunder at home, the Raptors rolled into Detroit and held the Pistons to just 75 points for the 12 point win. Now that’s how it was envisioned Toronto would play after acquiring PJ Tucker and Serge Ibaka at the trade deadline. Stifling defense that held the Pistons to just 9 fourth quarter points.

The Toronto Raptors have been terrible in back-to-back sets this season as they headed into Detroit for the back-half of their most recent set after getting embarrassed by the Thunder the night before. An 8-8 record in the front half of back-to-backs had been followed by 6-9 the next night as Toronto has been blitzed for over 120 points in these sets seven times this season. After Thursday’s game head coach Dwane Casey felt the need to apologize and the players had a team meeting to hash out their feelings.

“I want to apologize to our fans to everybody tonight about the way we played tonight,” uttered coach Casey after the loss to the Thunder on Thursday night.

The final score flattered Toronto as at one point the Raptors were down by as much as 32 points.

“We had a chat,” a politically correct DeMar DeRozan said postgame. “It’s a simple as that. We expressed to one another our thoughts and that is that.”

Coach Casey wasn’t as reserved with his words. “That exhibition of basketball was unacceptable. The effort, the competitive spirit wasn’t there. That team came out and played like it was a championship game. We played like it was a mid season game and again it is not acceptable.”

The Raptors shot poorly as a team, but it was allowing Mr. Triple-Double Russell Westbrook freewheel his way to his 34th of the season with 24 points, 10 rebounds and 16 assists that really hurt.

One of the few highlights of the game involved a Raptor, but wasn’t a highlight many Raptors fans would like to watch again. Westbrook made a half-court pass that went through Cory Joseph’s legs and connected with Victor Oladipo who put it in the basketball with a layup. “I just saw him and Taj running,” Westbrook told Pro Bball Report. “ I saw them running all night and I passed the ball and it got through some traffic.”

A hard-nosed defensive specialist, Tucker has quickly become a vocal leader on the Raptors and he didn’t hold back his feelings after the game.

‘We can’t have efforts like this,” Tucker said. “It’s not about making shots it’s about us having competitive spirit and playing all these games like playoff games.”

“A lot of people talked,” Tucker said about the players only meeting. “It was a good conversation. Enough talking though. We have 14 games left it’s time to put it to action. It’s time for guys to go out and show that we care and that we care about each other and we want to do something special here. We have the team to do it.”

The Raptors offense was missing-in-action to start the game in Detroit, but the Toronto’s much maligned of late starting unit wasn’t about to let this game get away. The Pistons were held to just one field goal for almost six minutes to start the game and only 13 points in the first quarter.

Tucker has been preaching defense since his arrival in Toronto and he’s been in the ear of Raptors All-Star DeMar DeRozan. It must be working too. DeRozan may have played his best defensive game (ever?) in the win over Detroit.

“I talk too much,” Tucker had explained soon after coming to Toronto. “Defense is half talking. Serge (Ibaka) talks, DeMarre (Carroll) 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.”

DeRozan was looking pretty intense on defense in Detroit and it’s doubtful if Tucker really cares if it was comfortable. All Tucker cares about is the win.

 

 

Lindsay DunnLindsay Dunn has been a TV sports and entertainment reporter for the past decade. She is currently based in Toronto and covers the local scene including the Toronto Raptors and Raptors 905. Follow her on Twitter @LindsayDunnTV

 

 

 

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 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 Norman Powell & Delon Wright

The Raptors Will Be Relying More On Norman Powell

By Frank McLean

When Terrence Ross was traded to the Orlando Magic last week for Serge Ibaka one member of the Raptors stood to gain a lot more playing time and that’s second year guard Norman Powell.

Powell, whose rights were acquired by the Raptors on draft night in 2016 from the Milwaukee Bucks for Greivis Vasquez, has shown some spurts of brilliance in his year and a half with the Raptors. He has been a fan favorite and his two way play on the floor and hard work in practice is something head coach Dwane Casey loves and he will tell you that when asked.

He was factor in last year’s playoffs in the first two rounds against Indiana and Miami, but as a rookie he was not as successful against a Cleveland Cavaliers team that was headed for their first ever championship.

This season during DeMar DeRozan absence due to his ankle injury he started and since DeRozan came back he has been a big cog in the fourth quarter providing impact off the bench like a fourth line player in hockey.


He’s only been averaging seven points and two rebounds a game, but in the last two games before the All-Star break with Terrance Ross gone he got to see a lot of time and he produced.

In 18-minutes against the Chicago Bulls he put up 13-points and the next night against the Charlotte Hornets he played 28-minutes and scored 17-points.

Raptors head coach Dwane Casey admits that way Powell has been used it hasn’t made things easy for him.

“As a coaching staff, we put him in a tough situation. He starts one game and has a rhythm. He comes off the bench in the fourth quarter when we need him and it’s a different rhythm. That’s hard to do and it’s tough on him, but as I mentioned to the players, this is the NBA. You have a chance to do your job. If it’s two minutes, five minutes, the whole game, go in and do your job. And don’t forget what got you here. The dirty work, the grimy work. So whether it’s Norm or whoever is in that role has to remember that I got here by being a grinder, a tough defender at my position, and offensively do what comes naturally.”

Powell says it would be easy knowing what the rotation is going to be on a given night, but as the old saying goes, it is what it is.

“I think it would be easier knowing the rotations, knowing when you are going to go in, knowing when your name is going to be called, but it’s still the same thing for me. I have to go in there and produce and help on both sides of the ball, defense first. Take some of the workload off Kyle (Lowry) and DeMar (DeRozan) when asked and just try to be productive in my minutes. That’s presented to me and I’m just looking forward to it. It’s a new opportunity that I’m ready for.” 

Powell is happy for the opportunity to get more playing time, but he was close to Ross and this was a lesson that professional basketball is a business and sometimes you lose friends.

“I mean it’s crazy waking up and seeing not just your teammate, but a close friend of yours gone. Being here my first year and a half, I just wish him the best and thank him for everything we talked about and helping me along the way. All the best to him in his new situation. There’s an opportunity for him down in Orlando but, you know, he’s going to be missed.”

Powell’s opportunity almost vanished at the last second on trade deadline day when the team acquired the versatile defensive specialist P.J. Tucker, but before a game could be played, Kyle Lowry showed up with a sore wrist. A wrist injury that has now been determined will keep Lowry out of the lineup for a month or more. Minutes that supposedly had vanished were back on the table for the Raptors second year guards Delon Wright and Powell.

In the first three games after the All-Star break Powell has averaged 15.3 minutes, 4.7 points and 4.3 rebounds. It’s not the same role as he would have enjoyed if the team hadn’t of acquired Tucker, but it’s a role he likely gets to keep – for a while at least. Wright is averaging 13.7 minutes as the two young guards have been splitting the time the now starting Cory Joseph was playing off the bench.

Powell knows this is his opportunity to make a name for himself in the NBA and if the last five games are any indication, he’s not going to waste it.

 

 

   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.

 

 

 

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.

 

 

 

 

NBA Toronto Raptors Terrence Ross

Raptors Give Terrence Ross A Fresh Start With The Magic

By Frank McLean

When the Toronto Raptors sent Terrence Ross and a first round draft pick to the Orlando Magic for big power forward Serge Ibaka, they gave their promising young wing a chance at a fresh start. An opportunity to realize his obvious potential without an All-Star standing in his way.

During my days covering the Toronto Blue Jays, the hall of fame general manager Pat Gillick would always tell us that you always have to give up something good to get something good back whenever you make a trade.

Ross in his five years in Toronto was definition of being a hot and cold player. A player Raptors head coach Dwane Casey put a lot of time and effort into developing and showed a lot of faith in despite the inconsistent results.

He is a 38-percent three point shooter lifetime and when he is good he is real good. Like the night a few years back when he scored 51-points against the Los Angeles Clippers tying the franchise record for points in a single game with Vince Carter.

Then there are nights when you watch him and he struggles. Nights when he couldn’t put a jump shot into Lake Ontario from the shore.

Struggling to become a consistent NBA player has been something that didn’t change during his five years in Toronto.

One of the reasons he wasn’t traded sooner by the Raptors was the fear that if he was moved the light might finally come on and the potential that was always there would come to fruition and Ross would become the All-Star he was projected to be.

“As you watch our team play, it’s no secret that sometimes we struggle to make shots, and I think his ability to do just that intrigues us,” Magic general manager Rob Hennigan said last week when acquiring Ross. “His age, his contract are all things that we feel are positives and strengths for us. As Terrence gets situated here, I think his ability to stretch the floor, his ability to score will help our team. I think it’ll help our team at both ends of the floor.”

Ross knows that the skill sets he brings to the table will  help the Magic.

“My shooting, my athleticism and defense. I think I can try to help with that when it comes to the wing position,” Ross told the Orlando Sentinel in an interview last week. “I’m really just looking forward to playing with the guys, getting to know the team, getting to know the city, and just playing hard for them.”

“I had a great time in Toronto. I spent five good years there and grew a lot. The city accepted me and I have a lot of memories. But I’m ready to take the next step in my career, and I’m looking forward to the opportunity to play for Frank Vogel and play for the Magic and play for the city. I’m just excited about all this.”

Ross made his Magic debut Thursday night at home against the Portland Trail-Blazers where the Magic blew an 11-point fourth quarter lead in an eventual 112-103 loss.

It looked like Ross put the proverbial dagger in the Trail-Blazers when he hit a three pointer with 9:07 left in the fourth to give the Magic a 91-80 lead and then they imploded.

As Magic coach Frank Vogel told me in a conversation we had during the Magic’s recent visit to Toronto “we have to learn how to win” and that showed Thursday night.

Ross started and played 33 minutes, going 4-17 from the field for 13 points and 5 rebounds, so maybe Ross isn’t the one player the Magic need to put them over the top and make them a consistent playoff contender, but he is a start.

Then on Saturday night against the Hawks Ross played 35 minutes and shot 10-15 from the field for a game-high 24 points as the Magic won 105-86 as if to emphasize his potential.

Ross’ long term spot in the rotation hasn’t been decided yet. He may continue to start or he could come off the bench like he did with the Raptors, but one thing is sure Ross is getting a second chance with the Magic and he is going to make the most of it.

 

 

   

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.