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Raptors Are The Toughest Team In The NBA But It’s Not Enough

The Toronto Raptors have taken on the personality of head coach Dwane Casey and All-Star point guard Kyle Lowry to become one of if not the toughest team in the NBA, but unfortunately that’s not enough in a Conference where LeBron James has been to the NBA Finals every year for over half a decade.

NBA TV Canada host of The Hangout and Courtsurfing Akil Augustine discusses the state of the Raptors with Pro Bball Report editor Stephen Brotherston and what it might take for the team from “The North” to take that next big step and get to play for a Championship.

 

Podcast with Akil Augustine

 

“The Toronto Raptors are the toughest team in the NBA and the most cohesive team in the NBA,” Augustine told Pro Bball Report. “Unfortunately they are not the most talented team in the NBA, but I feel they are the team that gets the most return for the players they have on the court.

“I see them as not necessarily overachievers anymore, but true achievers in that second spot that they hold. I believe they can hold for a season, they held it last year and I believe they truly defined themselves as better than the remainder of the Eastern Conference, but not as good as the “one” team running the Eastern Conference which is the LeBron James led Cleveland Cavaliers.”

It took less than 30 games into the 2016-17 season to confirm the Raptors hadn’t slipped from last season’s franchise record setting 55-win pace and the teams fighting for playoff positions behind them hadn’t made up any ground on Toronto. However, even if Toronto wins 55 to 60 games this season, that isn’t going to be enough to get them out of the Eastern Conference.

“Until they either go all in and gamble on bringing a third figure into the locker room, then I believe that’s where they are stuck and they have a huge decision to make,” Augustine continued. “Are you going to go all-in on not only a third player, but also on Kyle (Lowry’s) contract and I can’t see a franchise that’s seen the amount of success we’ve had in the last few years with him at point guard turn their back on him.”

The Raptors need a player that can help them get by the Cavs, but it needs to be the right player. This team doesn’t lack for scoring, they have two All-Star guards and anyone they bring in has to mesh with them or it simply isn’t going to work.

“I think they need the talent of a third dominant player, but to bring in a third ball stopper, a guy who needs touches … is difficult and that’s the conundrum,” Augustine explains. “If it’s going to be a third guy, it’s got to be the perfect guy because this locker room is so finely tuned.”

The reality facing the Raptors is there just may not be that perfect player to add that can get them past LeBron James and company.

“At this point with LeBron James being LeBron James, he’s a generational player and you look back to the decades of the nineties when certain people didn’t get championships. The Charles Barkley’s of the world. Karl Malone left the league without a championship and it was because there was a generational player in Michael Jordan.”

Be sure to check out the entire podcast for some great insight on this challenging situation for the Raptors.

 

NBA Toronto Raptors Akil Augustine Keep up with everything Akil Augustine is up to by following him on Twitter @AkilAugustine

 

 

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 James Johnson

James Johnson Helps Keep The Raptors Afloat

The Toronto Raptors combo forward James Johnson has his supporters in Toronto and, if anything, they would like to see him have a bigger role. However, that was never in the cards. Johnson started the season as the fifth big man in a four-man rotation and his value as veteran forward who could play at the 3, 4 or 5 wasn’t going to be fully utilized unless their were injuries.

James Johnson looks left

Fortunately for head coach Dwane Casey, Johnson has stayed ready and the injuries to starters forward DeMarre Carroll and to a lesser extent center Jonas Valanciunas and wing Terrence Ross haven’t ruined the Raptors season. Johnson has played an important role in keeping his team’s prospects afloat while these key players were on the shelf.

James Johnson interview,

 

“I have a lot of people to thank for it,” Johnson explained. “It’s not just me. It’s just putting in a little bit of work and that’s all it really is. Staying ready so you don’t have to get ready.

“(I am) more blessed than happy. You don’t wish for no one’s downfall, but at the same time you got to stay ready and show that you stay ready and that you can do what you need to do to help the team win. At the same time everybody has a role on the team and this just happens to be mine.”

Johnson has shown a lot of promise since he was drafted 16th overall by Chicago in 2009. Unfortunately, that promise has been overshadowed by inconsistency or what might be better described as overconfidence and it’s caused him to bounce around the NBA. It hasn’t always been easy for him to accept the role his various head coaches have assigned, but when he has, he built up a lot of support. No one questions what he can do for a team.

“(Johnson) was fundamentally sound, “Casey said after a recent Raptors victory. “He didn’t do too many crazy things. I thought he was solid. He did a decent job defensively. Offensively he took what the game gave him. He didn’t force anything.”

Unfortunately in the past James has often followed up these solid performances with stinkers and if he could find some consistency, his role would expand.

“That’s a good analogy,” Casey said. “There’s a lot of players in the league though, a lot of players in the league that are trying to find their way. James (Johnson), just the focus, the attention to detail every possession, not taking possessions off – you could say that about a lot of guys. Put any name in front of that, a lot of young players in this league and that’s James. He had a solid game and now the challenge is to continue to do that for all the minutes he’s on the floor.”

Johnson has been an important reserve during this recent run of Raptors injuries. He has started 3 games and scored in double-digits in two of his last three appearances. Toronto would have been hard pressed to have gone 7-3 over their last 10 games without him, however, don’t look for his role to change. He’s still that really important guy to have around if and when you need him because of circumstance.

 

 

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.

 

 

 

Jonas Valanciunas looking down

Raptors Jonas Valanciunas Has Been Holding Back In Preseason

So where has that Eurobasket All-Star Jonas Valanciunas been in preseason? The Raptors center led a rebuilding Team Lithuania, ranked fourth in Europe behind Serbia, France and Spain, to a Silver medal and a guaranteed spot in Rio at the 2016 Olympics this summer, but that’s not the player we’ve seen thru the first five preseason games with Toronto.

Jonas Valanciunas interview:

 

 

“That was a goal you know,” Valanciunas told Pro Bball Report. “We were going with the hope to get a ticket to Rio, to the Olympic Games. That’s great stuff for us. We have a young team.”

Valanciunas was the undisputed leader for Lithuania on offense and one of the top offensive players in a tournament that included Pau Gasol, Tony Parker, Nicolas Batum and numerous other players from the NBA.

“I was doing my thing,” Valanciunas said. “I was going hard in the low post. Coach liked it. Coach was showing the trust, so that was great. If I can be a good threat under the basket, I’m happy.”

However, we are still waiting to see that Eurobasket dominance in Toronto. So far Valanciunas has averaged less than 20 minutes per game in preseason and contributed just 9.4 points and 6.8 rebounds per contest. He hasn’t been the dominant force the Raptors need their new $64 million man to be – at least not yet. But there is an explanation.

“It’s not really different (in the NBA), it is different, but basketball is basketball,” Valanciunas explained. “You have to take the ball and put it in the basket. It’s that simple.

“I am still a little bit tired from (Eurobasket), but I am not trying to show everything (in preseason). I am not trying to do 100 percent everything. I am slowly trying to bring my game to the NBA from Europe (FIBA rules), so everything is going in the right direction. I am going to be 100 percent ready for October 28th.”

Through the first five preseason games Raptors head coach Dwane Casey has been carefully doling out the minutes to his starters. As he has explained several times now, the first part of the preseason is to give the young guys a chance to play. It won’t be until the final two games before the regular season that he will start using something closer to a regular rotation and consistently use combinations of players he intends to use during the regular season.

Valanciunas has been holding back so far in preseason and he has also been held back. These early games provide little more than a chance to shake off some rust and get a little bit of conditioning in under something similar to game conditions against largely inferior competition and/or other veteran players doing exactly the same thing.

 

 

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

 

 

 

 

Powell & Wright webRaptors Rookies And Sophomores Chances Fading Fast

“(Powell) is making a lot of mistakes like all rookies, but that’s what preseason is for – to give those guys minutes – Bruno (Caboclo) minutes, Norm (Powell) minutes, Delon (Wright) minutes, all those guys minutes,” explained head coach Dwane Casey. “(They) probably won’t be in the rotation when it becomes real, but this was a great time for those guys to get the experience, to get a taste of the NBA.”

 

 

 

 

Tolzman & Akil

The Hangout’s Akil Augustine Breaks Down Raptors Signings

From NBA TV Canada’s The Hangout, host Akil Augustine breaks down the Toronto Raptors free agent signings from this summer. From Bismack Biyombo at 12:03pm immediately after the July Moratorium ended, to the Hawks DeMarre Carroll, Canadian Cory Joseph and finally the veteran Luis Scola.

 

 

The highlights were:

Bismack Biyombo

bismack biyomboJPG“It’s shoring up exactly what the Toronto Raptors said would be their main agenda item which was defense. So now you got a guy who you can pair when you don’t have Jonas on the floor, a guy you can just throw down there. No need for touches and just protect that rim which is what the Toronto Raptors were missing.”

DeMarre Carroll

Carroll & Ujiri with ball closeup“He shoots the three and he’s a big defender. In the playoffs, the Wizards and the Nets used Paul Pierce in that stretch four position and we didn’t have someone who could match up, especially when James (Johnson) didn’t know the offense from that spot. One of the things I learned in my research about him from talking to people around the league at summer league was he is an amazing locker room guy.”

“Dwane Casey can now start problem solving other issues.”

Cory Joseph

Cory Joseph sitting“Everyone knew Masai really wanted to get a Canadian on this roster.”

“I think it is going to pay dividends for Toronto because again, another guy who plays defense.”

Luis Scola

Luis Scola with media“I love Luis Scola. I love his game. I’ve loved his game since I first saw him come into this league.”

“I know they are not focused on offense, but Luis Scola is a scorer. He is a scoring big and he’s a guy you can put on the floor and give you buckets.”

“He’s not a guard chucking shots.”

“He is like one of those Kevin Love type bigs. He doesn’t jump – great positional defense, great positional rebounding. He boxes out on every possession and he has great ball control.”

The Burning Question

“Any two ways I look at it, the Toronto Raptors had a great off season. I just want to see what they do during the season.”

Better than last season? “Yes, whole-heartedly.”

“I am going to say on paper they are better. It is going to be up to them and they are going to have to break a franchise record in wins again in order to prove me right.”

 

 

Akil Augustine suitFrom Intern and Internet vlogger all the way to Host & Producer, Akil Augustine has brought his original take on basketball news, on and off the court to the masses with “The Hangout” on NBA TV Canada.

 

 

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.

 

 

 

bismack biyomboJPG

Biyombo Was The First Free Agent Raptors GM Ujiri Called (audio)

It might come as a surprise, but Toronto Raptors President and General Manager was on the phone with free agent Bismack Biyombo just 3 minutes after the July Moratorium ended. Biyombo might not be the high profile player one would associate with the opening moments of free agency, but Ujiri and Biyombo go way back and the Raptors were looking for the things Biyombo could bring.

 
Bismack Biyombo audio 7-30-2015

 

“It’s quite a funny story,” Biyombo said. “I have known Masai for a while and when the free agency was coming my agent gave me a call right before 12 and let me know the teams that would be calling me and right after 12, it was like 12:03, I got a phone call from Masai, so I was asking myself, is he going to talk to me about the summer camps and stuff or is it just going to be about basketball? But, I was curious. He talked to me about my family, how my family was doing more than we talked about basketball and obviously Masai has been a guy that has done a lot for Africa and us as young African players, we always look up to him as our mentor. The influence was already there. I was just excited about working with him and looking for an opportunity to play for Coach Casey and obviously the team is a great team and I am excited to be part of it.”

In the typically quiet Toronto Raptors move, Ujiri’s interest in Biyombo didn’t leak until July 4th as the DeMarre Carroll commitment took center stage, but apparently the Raptors GM can do more than one thing at a time.

Biyombo was to be a restricted free agent, but Charlotte pulled their qualifying offer as they were working on bigger deals. However, Ujiri loves those long athletic big men that can run the floor, rebound and block shots. At just 22-years-old, Biyombo is still developing, but he has shown top-10 type skills on the glass and protecting the rim.

“He is a growing player too,” Ujiri said. “He is trying to find a niche in the NBA. He is still trying to figure it out in many ways. What his role and what his specialty can be in the NBA. The way we see it going with what he does well now I think his offensive rebounding is elite, blocking shots he’s elite, defensive rebounding is going to get better and as a defensive player, he is really a solid defender. We needed more physicality with our team, a screen-setter, a roller, somebody that will always challenge and put a body on guys and that’s what Biyombo does. I think he has one of the longest wingspans in the NBA, so he can create havoc especially rebounding and he gets in there. I think he is going to provide us good energy and a physical presence.”

Part of what has attracted Ujiri to this young big man from the Congo is his love of the game and work ethic. Biyombo is currently working with Ujiri in South Africa promoting basketball with other NBA players. It’s a big deal that takes a lot of time, but it hasn’t slowed down Biyombo’s training for next season. Ujiri credits the tough road Biyombo had to take to get this far for his dedication – or maybe, should that be the other way around?

“(Biyombo) went a different route,” Ujiri said. “He played a little bit (in Africa) and then he found a way to get to Europe which I think helped him quite a bit. Bismack had a harder route in developing, but he also had the good opportunity of playing in Europe which led him to playing in the Hoops Summit. The feel for the game with African players it comes with time, it develops. You only need to have the interest in playing the game. You want guys that love the game. Bismack absolutely loves the game. NBA players are exceptional. They are here for camp and they come in here and they are all working out at 7 o’clock, 6:30 in the morning and trying to sneak in a couple of workouts and he is one of those guys, a basketball junkie. So, I think he is going to get better and better.”

Biyombo goes one better than showing up for 6:30 am workouts. He starts 5 am.

“I am trying to work on things that will help me and my team win ball games which is my post move and my jump shot and free throws – they have to go higher,” Biyombo explained. “I had a chance to work with Hakeem Olajuwon the past few days here in South Africa, but even during my vacation I have my personal trainer that flies around with me to help me work on my game. So, I always find time to work on my game and sometimes I’ll work out at 5 o’clock in the morning before the day starts. I am excited about a new chapter and I am excited about an opportunity to actually play the game and I look forward to it. There is a lot of me that I still have to show and there is a lot business that I haven’t done yet, so I am looking forward to the challenge.”

Biyombo has a burning desire to prove he’s a better player than he has been given credit for so far in his career. That came through crystal clear in the Pro Bball Report exclusive interview at the end of the season.

Looking at the raw talent, the willingness to work hard and follow instruction, it isn’t hard to see a young player taking a major step forward during his fifth season in the NBA. Ujiri wasn’t just calling Biyombo at 12:03 because he’s a nice guy, Ujiri believes he has a young prospect who is going to look like the steal of free agency by the time that modest two-year deal is up.

 

 

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.

 

 

 

Valanciunas and Casey

Valanciunas Is Rebounding But Raptors Coach Casey Wants More

The Toronto Raptors young center Jonas Valanciunas leads his team in rebounding at 9 per game and has averaged 12.7 points on 57.1 percentage shooting and 12 boards over his last six games (Raptors 5-1 over that stretch), but Head Coach Dwane Casey wants more. Valanciunas has shown in spurts just how dominate he can be on the boards and once Casey knows what a player can be he holds them to that standard going forward.

On Wednesday against the Nets Valanciunas had 6 first quarter rebounds and put up a 16 point 10 rebound double-double, but Casey didn’t see the effort he knows Valanciunas is capable of so the young big man had to watch the veteran Amir Johnson get his minutes at center in the fourth quarter.

“The main thing Jonas has got to do is rebound – two hand rebounds, snap it off, go get it and he did a much better job in the third quarter for us and he has to do that,” Casey said. “All our bigs have to do that cause we can work our behinds off for 22 -23 seconds and (motions forward) uh – go get the rebound and it’s too late. What we got to do is come quick off the mark, go get the rebound and clean up and we have a possession and that’s what we didn’t do in the first half.”

The Raptors actually out-rebounded the Nets 22-21 in the first half and were out-rebounded by the Nets 22-20 in the second half, but this isn’t about statistics. The Raptors worked harder on the boards after the break and that was reflected in the score – particularly after Valanciunas came out of the game after the third quarter. Toronto outscored the Nets 29-16 and out-rebounded them 13-11 in the fourth quarter.

Casey holds Valanciunas to a high standard because he sees what his teammates have seen this season, a bigger, stronger young center that can get the job done in the paint.

Amir Johnson on Jonas Valanciunas’ rebounding:

 

“He’s a lot stronger this year that’s for sure,” Amir Johnson said. “It’s hard for guys to box out a 7-footer, especially when you are in the paint. He has been able to hold his ground and grab boards for us which we need him to. He’s our big man in the paint and he’s been getting the job done for us and that’s all you can ask from a starting center. He’s been doing well.”

The Raptors have been painfully average at times this year on the boards. They grab 49.9 percent of the available rebounds and rank 16th in rebounding differential at -0.2 boards per game. It shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that rebounding is a point of emphasis in Coach Casey’s practices.

“The first thing is box out your man and that’s what we stress because if you don’t box out the ball could be right there and drop into your hands,” Johnson said. “First you got to box out your man and then you got to locate the ball and it’s a hard job. Some people just look at the shot when the shot goes up and don’t know where their man is – what we work on is to make sure you get a hit on your man and (then) go for the boards and we stress that in practice. I think everybody understands we have to do that and where our (rebounding) ranking is on the team, we know where we are and we got to get better so we are working on that. JV is the guy that has been the focal point of our rebounding and he’s been working on it and he’s been getting better at it.”

Valanciunas is the focal point of the Raptors rebounding because Casey sees his potential and the young center only convinces his coach further when he out-rebounds the Pacers Roy Hibbert head-to-head 14-2 like he did a few games ago. However, Casey knows every situation is different and the Raptors go after the boards as a team even if Valanciunas is the guy he expects to lead them in this department.

“It has to be (a team effort),” Johnson said. “Even when you do have a one-on-one box out the guards still have to come in and sandwich a guy, maybe a bigger and stronger guy, to help the rebounder because guys are taking long shots and balls are coming off the rim long and you don’t know where the ball might go. It is just one of those things you just have to prepare and be ready and know your job when the ball goes up.

“We need (Valanciunas) to (rebound). I don’t want to jinx him, we need him to keep it up – the more rebounds, the more it helps us as a team. It moves us up in the rankings of defensive rebounding and we’ll be alright.”

For Valanciunas and the Raptors, rebounding really comes down to just one thing and it can be hard to do on a night-to-night basis, especially for a young player.

“It takes work to everything,” Johnson said. “People don’t like to hear it sometimes, but it is work, it takes work to do anything.”

Expectations for the 22-year-old Valanciunas are high and Casey is going to continue pushing him to get better and sometimes make him watch when he’d rather be on the court. It’s hard to argue with the tough love approach. Valanciunas has gotten a lot better than when he first arrived in Toronto. He leads his team on the boards and still hasn’t come close to reaching his potential.

 

 

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.

 

 

Jonas Valanciunas leaping warmup by Paul Saini FYLMMCan A Traditional NBA Center Like Jonas Valanciunas Survive?

“One play you can make a mistake, but you know what to do next play,” Valanciunas said. “I am trying to learn from my mistakes and do better next time. You can’t think about your mistakes (during the game). Now (post game) is the time to think about your mistakes, fix things and do better tomorrow.”

 

 

Jonas Valanciunas 2 by Paul Saini  (Fylmm.com)Raptors Jonas Valanciunas Happy And Comfortable With Role

“My job personally is not just scoring,” Valanciunas said. “I am not a big scorer – more of a helper for DeMar (DeRozan) and Kyle (Lowry) to get them wide-open, set a screen, rebound the ball, that’s my job. Everybody on the team has their own role.”

 

 

NBA Toronto Raptors James Johnson

Toronto Raptors Winning With Defense Again

The NBA Eastern Conference leading Toronto Raptors are off to the best start in franchise history by a wide margin at 19-6, however, Head Coach Dwane Casey has had plenty to complain about until recently. A defense-first coach, Casey wasn’t enjoying his team’s 9 game streak of giving up over 100 points per outing and their 5-4 record over that stretch reflected the change. The Raptors may have been missing the chemistry and offense an injured DeMar DeRozan would have provided, but that wasn’t a good excuse for slacking at the defensive end of the court.

“We got to stop playing to our competition and play Raptors basketball,” James Johnson told Pro Bball Report. “We the North and we got to start acting like it.”

After a nice two day break to get in some much needed practice time last week, Toronto got back to the style Coach Casey wants to play. Over the next three games the Raptors opponents averaged just 86.7 points on 42.2 percent shooting from the field. Coach Casey’s defense was back.

“(Defense) that’s what we do,” Johnson said. “Once we come to that conclusion then everything else becomes a breeze.”

On Friday the Raptors held the Pacers to 94 points on 41.3 percent shooting from the field in the win and dominated one of the league’s best rebounding teams 52-39.

Sunday in New York the Raptors held the Knicks to 37.2 shooting for the game in an ugly turnover and foul ridden affair that was tied after four quarters. Then in overtime Toronto clamped down on the game’s leading scorer Carmelo Anthony (34 points, but 0-3 in OT) and the Knicks to hold them to 1-8 shooting from the field and pull out the 95-90 win.

On the back-to-back Monday against Orlando it took a tired Toronto team until the second half to stifle the Magic. The Raptors held their opponent to 30 points and 37.1 percent shooting in the second half as Toronto ran away with this game 95-82 after trailing by 8 points at the break.

In the 9 games prior to this the Raptors were scoring buckets free and easy averaging over 110 points per game, but they were giving up over 108 points and that hasn’t been Raptors basketball under Coach Casey.

“We just have to know that (buckets) aren’t always going to come that easy,” Johnson said. “There are going to be nights when our shooters are not going to be scoring like that and we are going to need others to step up at the other end of the floor.

“(Defense) is definitely what we need to do. That is our goal. We have a goal and a standard and we need to accomplish them.”

As Casey said after the game on Monday, “We found our defensive mojo” and the Raptors have been winning games they way they have been coached to once again.

James Johnson audio:

 

 

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.

 

photo credit: Paul Saini Fylmm.com

 

GSW Curry and ThompsonNBA Dominance Rankings 12-14-14

The top team in the NBA these days by a wide margin is the Golden State Warriors and it isn’t even close – not by any subjective measure. 5. Raptors 18-6 Toronto has hit a bump in the road with DeMar DeRozan sidelined for the past 2 weeks and not expected back before Christmas.

 

 

Greivis Vasquez shooting by Paul Saini (Fylmm

Raptors Greivis Vasquez Getting In The Grimy Areas

The Toronto Raptors big point guard Greivis Vasquez doesn’t have a reputation for playing defense, however, he is known for not being afraid of any challenge and Head Coach Dwane Casey has turned to him for defense in the past. Lately Vasquez has been noticed in the tough grimy areas under the basket going for rebounds and blocking shots because that’s what the Raptors have needed him to do.

 

 

 

“I am trying to focus more on the defensive end more than worrying about scoring and all that stuff since I’ve been starting,” Vasquez said. “I think we have got to put defense first. I am putting a lot of emphasis on that and things have been going well ever since I start, we have a positive record which is good for our team and it makes me feel motivated to play better defense.”

Vasquez got the start at shooting guard after DeMar DeRozan was injured and it is a very different role than what he has been asked to fill for most of his time in Toronto. Usually Vasquez leads the second unit off the bench or helps takes some of the ball handling pressure off of Kyle Lowry, but this role requires him to replace some of the rebounding and defense that DeRozan is usually responsible for.

The transition to this new role hasn’t gone without its ups and downs, but over the past 4 games Vasquez has swatted his first 4 blocks of the season and in the game against Denver, Vasquez pulled down 5 rebounds including a couple by playing big in front of the 7’ Timofey Mozgov.

“(Rebounding) is one thing we put emphasis on,” Vasquez said. “Sandwich and helping the bigs rebound. I am trying to get 5 rebounds a game.”

Vasquez only blocked 4 shots all of last season and his career average for boards is 2.6, but Casey is justified in pushing Vasquez to provide more defense under the rim. The Venezuelan measured a legit 6’ 6.5” tall in shoes at the NBA Draft Combine which is bigger than some small forwards. He can do more defensively when he focuses on it.

“(My size) helps me a lot because I can play defense against guys bigger and small guys too,” Vasquez said. “It gives me a different dynamic and the things I do have to get better at. It is a great opportunity for me to show a different side. It is still early, it is a long season and a lot is going on. I feel like the great times are coming, it is just the beginning.”

Vasquez came off the bench the last couple of games as he has been hit hard by the flu bug and he looked noticeably unsteady in the first quarter of Friday’s game against the Pacers. However, he dug down deep and found his form in the second half and even came up with another block despite the rather sullen look and suspect color in his face.

The flu bug should be mostly out of Vasquez’s system by Sunday’s game against the Knicks and the old bounce in his step should be back. However, as much as most people will be looking for the Raptors backup point guard to provide his typical 9-10 points and 4-5 assists per game, the thing to watch for is his defense.

Blocking shots and grabbing boards is a different and unexpected dynamic to Vasquez’s game and if he can keep it up, the great times he is expecting could be even better than the great times the Raptors have already been enjoying. Maybe this just the beginning as Vasquez has said – this we have to see.

 

 

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.

 

 photo credit: Paul Saini Fylmm.com

 

Jonas Valanciunas leaping warmup by Paul Saini FYLMMCan A Traditional NBA Center Like Jonas Valanciunas Survive?

“For me personally it is way better to play against a typical center, a big guy who is in the paint wrestling because I do the same thing, for me (that) is much easier,” Valanciunas said. “It’s tough. It’s tough. I am not used to going (out to) the three-point line and cover stretch big guys who can really shoot the ball. I just don’t like that. I am not fast enough.”

 

 

Greivis Vasquez laughingHow The Raptors Are Winning The Fourth Quarter Every Night

“We have a deep team,” Greivis Vasquez explained. “We have guys that can do it on any given night. It’s a team effort. We are doing a good job at being focused and just waiting for an opportunity and we are taking advantage of that as a unit, as a team.”

 

 

Caboclo in scrum

Raptors Bruno Caboclo Must Learn English Before Basketball

The Toronto Raptors knew they were getting a very raw basketball talent in Brazilian Bruno Caboclo. The teenager had only just barely started playing professionally in Brazil when they first spotted him and had virtually no exposure outside of his own Country. English was going to be as big a barrier for Caboclo initially as learning basketball skills and maybe bigger.

The young forward still gets a little nervous around the media when he has to speak English, but he is well ahead of where he was in July and this friendly kid will try hard when given a chance.

 

 

 

“My teachers come to my home and I have two hours per day, (but) only when I don’t have a game,” Caboclo said. “If I don’t have a game, I have an English class.”

These classes can be very informal as the emphasis is on getting a practical working vocabulary and allowing Caboclo to become comfortable with everyday type situations and conversations in English.

“It helps me a lot,” Caboclo said. “(My teacher) helps me a lot. Sometimes I am tired and we go shopping and I talk English. If I am walking on the street, I practice English and she says call me and I will walk with you. Two days ago, I went to the CN Tower. It is nice there. I like that.”

The real purpose of these English lessons is to help Caboclo communicate with his coaches and he has previously mentioned that reading English is a lot easier than speaking it. Caboclo says he is learning the basketball side pretty quickly.

“It is not hard,” Caboclo said. “I am learning quick, but to get very good, you need practice, practice, but I am learning quick.”

However, he still isn’t on the Black squad (starters) or White squad (backups) and is practicing on his own after the team has gone through their preparations.

“I shoot a lot and come (to the practice gym) two times per day and work a lot,” Caboclo said. “I don’t practice/I don’t work with the group. I only watch and I work after practice.”

Caboclo’s time will come – he hopes.

“(Coach) says keep going hard, your time (will) come.”

The Raptors have a relatively soft schedule coming with six games in a row against some truly terrible teams. Just maybe Head Coach Dwane Casey can find a few minutes for Caboclo in a blowout before Christmas?

 

 

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.

 

 

 

Garnett Hibbert Vucevic DrummondRaptors Next Six Games Are Like An Early Christmas Present

The current combined record of the Raptors next 6 opponents is 35 wins and 101 loses. That should translate into 6 wins in a row for Toronto. Merry Christmas.

 

 

Caboclo follows thruRaptors Bruno Caboclo: Put Me In Coach

“I want an opportunity to improve my game,” Caboclo told Pro Bball Report. “I’ve worked a lot to get one chance, but I know it’s hard. We have 13 players, but I keep working.”

 

 

Jonas Valanciunas leaping warmup by Paul Saini FYLMMCan A Traditional NBA Center Like Jonas Valanciunas Survive?

“For me personally it is way better to play against a typical center, a big guy who is in the paint wrestling because I do the same thing, for me (that) is much easier,” Valanciunas said. “It’s tough. It’s tough. I am not used to going (out to) the three-point line and cover stretch big guys who can really shoot the ball. I just don’t like that. I am not fast enough.”

 

 

Jonas Valanciunas leaping warmup by Paul Saini FYLMM

Can A Traditional NBA Center Like Jonas Valanciunas Survive?

The Toronto Raptors are investing heavily in the development of their young traditional center Jonas Valanciunas, but in today’s NBA where stretch fours and fives abound and big men are found hanging around on the three-point line can a player that could be considered “paint-bound” thrive or even survive nowadays?

It is hard not to notice when Raptors Head Coach Dwane Casey turns to the 6’9 veteran Amir Johnson over Valanciunas in numerous situations – even when Valanciunas is having one of his better games statistically and there have been lots of calls from the Toronto fan base for Casey to give his starting center more burn. However, the Raptors, more than ever before, are in it to win games this year and young players make more mistakes than veterans.

 

 

“One play you can make a mistake, but you know what to do next play,” Valanciunas said. “I am trying to learn from my mistakes and do better next time. You can’t think about your mistakes (during the game). Now (post game) is the time to think about your mistakes, fix things and do better tomorrow.”

“The more experience you have, the better you can control things, be more calm, realize what you need to do better and not take things in a bad way.”

While Valanciunas has the size on offense and the potential to dominate in the paint over the often smaller centers he is up against, that isn’t his primary role. Valanciunas’ focus is on the defensive end of the court and it is usually his current shortcomings on defense that see him subbed out by Casey in critical moments.

“My job is to stay active and see the ball, be a defensive player, cover the paint and cover the rim, that’s my job” Valanciunas said. “I have to do that every night.”

However, in today’s NBA, the opposing center often doesn’t play a style that Valanciunas is adept at defending. As a traditional center, Valanciunas wants to wrestle, bump and grind in the paint and many NBA teams just don’t have anyone to battle with and sometimes a veteran can still just plain take advantage of Valanciunas’ inexperience.

“For me personally it is way better to play against a typical center, a big guy who is in the paint wrestling because I do the same thing, for me (that) is much easier,” Valanciunas said. “It’s tough. It’s tough. I am not used to going (out to) the three-point line and cover stretch big guys who can really shoot the ball. I just don’t like that. I am not fast enough.”

In fast paced games and against centers that like to hang out around the three-point line, a young traditional center like Valanciunas is going to struggle defensively at times. He is still learning his craft and can’t always punish his long range shooting opponent enough with his own offense to stay on the court as long as some would like to see.

However, there are plenty of solid examples that support the Raptors continued emphasis on Valanciunas development. Roy Hibbert is a traditional center that has anchored the Pacers very stingy defense while providing limited offense and questionable defense on stretch big men. The Warriors turnaround on defense started with the acquisition of Andrew Bogut’s big defensive presence in the paint. Even the Spurs turn to the inside presence of Tiago Splitter (when he’s healthy) despite having more than enough talent to win without him. Outside of the HEAT in recent years with LeBron James hiding a wealth of roster deficiencies, most good teams have an effective (mostly) traditional center.

It is easy to forget Valanciunas is still just 22-years-old. There are games where he puts up impressive double-doubles and provides superior rim protection. It is also easy to second guess a coach who has veteran options that are less likely to make mistakes at the end of games than a young player. The Raptors young center still has a lot to learn and isn’t going to be effective every night against every opposing lineup.

As Valanciunas continues to work on his mistakes defensively and improve his skills on at the offensive end of the court, he will eventually earn his coach’s trust and there are signs he’ll earn that trust soon enough. He finished last season strong and had a stellar start to his postseason experience. Already this season, Valanciunas has put up some impressive double-double efforts mixed in with a few forgettable evenings.

The traditional center isn’t dead yet in the NBA and Valanciunas should do a lot more than just survive in the league. The Raptors are being patient with their expectations. It is only a matter of time before Valanciunas evolves into the player envisioned when he was drafted.

 

 

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.

 

 photo credit: Paul Saini Fylmm.com

 

Jonas Valanciunas 2 by Paul Saini  (Fylmm.com)Raptors Jonas Valanciunas Happy And Comfortable With Role

“My job personally is not just scoring. I am not a big scorer – more of a helper for DeMar (DeRozan) and Kyle (Lowry) to get them wide-open, set a screen, rebound the ball, that’s my job. Everybody on the team has their own role.”

 

 

Valanciunas 2014

Raptors Jonas Valanciunas – Fear The Beard North

“(My) hair doesn’t look good, so I grow a beard,” Valanciunas explained. “Long hair doesn’t look good for me. (My wife is) not accepting, but I fought for it and I got it – finally I got it. (We) had a lot of conversations about that stuff.”

 

 

 

Stiemsma Media Day

Raptors Greg Stiemsma On Toronto, Cooking And Grandmas

First impressions of the Toronto Raptors Greg Stiemsma are of an easy-going down-to-earth kind of guy. He likes to walk to work, be out there in the community doing everyday types of activities and thanks to his Grandmas, this big man likes to cook.

Stiemsma didn’t know too much about the city where the team he signed with over the summer plays, but he has been enjoying his time in Toronto and he’s looking forward to winter.

 

 
 
“It’s a great city,” Stiemsma said. “It’s a lot bigger than I thought when I first came. It’s been a lot of fun. (I’ve) been doing a little bit of exploring. I walk to the gym, I don’t live too far away. People have been great, the fans and stuff. A lot of people have been recognizing me, telling me good luck on game days and all that, so it’s a fun atmosphere to be around. It is not always like that in every city.

“I am actually looking forward to the cold a little bit so I can walk out in that as crazy as that sounds, but it is definitely nice to be out in a welcoming atmosphere. You can tell the city is excited about the season and the hot start has helped build that a little bit. So far my experience has been great.”

To put Stiemsma’s viewpoint on winter in perspective, he was born in Wisconsin and went to the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He is no stranger to weather that can get a lot colder than anything Torontonians usually face.

The big guy likes to cook. He likes to go to the grocery store and he loves to go to Canadian Tire when he’s got an hour to kill.

“I like to cook,” Stiemsma said. “So, I’m actually at the grocery store quite a bit. Otherwise I go check out movies, I’m at the mall, check out Canadian Tire – it’s the best store. It’s like – I grew up around Fleet’s Farm (a similar store in Wisconsin) – we used to call it ‘The Man’s Mall’ – it’s got everything in it. If you need to kill an hour or two, you just walk around in there and you can always find something to buy.

Stiemsma’s grandmas apparently have had a big influence on what he likes to do. He probably doesn’t know it, but Stiemsma sounds like the typical young man who grew up in Southern Ontario.

“I am kind of on this pasta kick lately where I make my own sauce from scratch,” Stiemsma said. “I got myself a pasta roller a couple of years ago so I’ll even roll out the fresh dough once in a while and make that. It’s a labor of love, kind of a nice way to unwind – a little freedom to relax in the kitchen.

“Both my grandmas used to let me or make me cut up some of the vegetables and even still my one Grandma has passed, but my Grandma who is still around is 83-84 years old and a firecracker still works a few days a week at a nursing home and I think since I’ve been 16-year-old when I got my license to drive there, I don’t know if I’ve ever been there when her oven or stove isn’t at least warm from either pulling something out of the oven or putting something in or something is out and cooling down somewhere. My whole family can really cook, all my aunts and uncles. Cooking has definitely been a big part of growing up and part of my family.”

Easy going, enjoys the cold, likes Canadian Tire and a big-time grandmas’ boy, it’s no wonder Stiemsma has fit comfortably into life in Toronto. Hopefully he doesn’t get too disappointed by Toronto’s version of winter.

 

 

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.

 

 

 

Raptors Media DayStiemsma Rocks The Thunder In Raptors Debut

Greg Stiemsma knew he was winning a limited role when the Raptors selected him to fill the 15th spot on the roster ahead of Jordan Hamilton and Will Cherry just days before the start of the regular season, however, it was an important role. Stiemsma is a physical center that isn’t worried about collecting a few fouls in order to impact a game.

 

 

Lou Williams phone interview close up

Raptors Lou Williams Impresses Coach Casey With Defense

There has been a steady if not dramatic improvement in Lou Williams’ level of play since he arrived in Toronto. Known for his instant offense off the bench over his nine seasons in the NBA, Williams has been surprisingly effective on defense and he is earning Raptors Head Coach Dwane Casey’s respect as a result.

“Most of all I’m impressed with Lou (Williams) defense,” Casey said. “He has a reputation of being a scorer, but now he’s doing a much better job defensively for us which allows him to stay in and guard guys like Waiters and Irving and people like that.”

Over the past four games, Williams has averaged 21 points, shot 50 percent from three-point range and pulled in a total of 8 steals. He has been effective on defense against a range of players and seems to have a knack for being in the right place at the right time at both ends of the court.

 

 

 

“I always play with energy,” Williams said. “When you are playing out there, you are just trying to make positive plays and we have some very good schemes here and we are supposed to be in certain spots on the court. Certain plays – we do scout these guys – and I was just able to make plays.”

The Raptors schemes seem to be tailor made to Williams’ style of play. Last year it was Greivis Vasquez coming in to play beside Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan with defenses being forced to use single coverage or even hedge off of Vasquez to stop the Raptors two top scorers. However, Vasquez is a pass-first point guard and defenses made him become a scorer. Williams is a scorer and he is thriving in that role with most of the attention on Toronto’s other two guards.

Williams’ success putting the ball in the basket isn’t exactly a surprise. What wasn’t expected is just how fast Williams has adapted to Casey’s defensive schemes. No one expected Williams to provide a defensive presence, but the guard is consistently in the right place at the right time to come away with the ball on defense without taking big risks. He’s been solid on defense.

Against the Cavaliers, Williams netted a career-high 36 points, played a season-high 29 minutes and he picked off three steals. Casey had to leave him in the game against Cleveland and as Williams gets even more comfortable in Toronto, it’s only going to get harder to take him off the court.

 

 

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.

 

 

TOR DeRozan Lowry WilliamsSweet Lou Williams Leads Raptors Demolition Of The Cavaliers

There was nothing the Cleveland Cavaliers could do to stop sweet Lou Williams from revving up the hundreds of Toronto Raptors fans that had invaded Quicken Loans Arena on Saturday night to watch their NBA Eastern Conference leading Raptors totally and utterly dominate LeBron James and company.

 

 

TOR_Williams_LouRaptors Net A Needed Veteran Scorer With Lou Williams

“(My role is) to just come off the bench and bring a ton of energy and score the basketball,” Williams said. “(Provide) leadership, experience, in Philadelphia we had some pretty good runs. We were two possessions away from being in the Eastern Conference Finals when we had barely even made the playoffs, so I’ve been on teams that have started from the bottom and created some great opportunities for themselves and I think that is what I bring to the table.”

 

 

TOR_Hayes_Chuck

How Chuck Hayes Keeps Saving The Raptors

Off to an amazing start in the Eastern Conference, it is easy to forget the Toronto Raptors are relying on some very young talent that opposing veterans are going to be able to dominate on any given night and just like last season, Head Coach Dwane Casey doesn’t hesitate to turn to his veterans to bail his team out. One of those veterans is 31-year-old Chuck Hayes and the defensive stalwart has saved a couple of games for Toronto already this season.

Hayes has the respect of the coaching staff and his teammates because he is always prepared. He does his homework before every game and he’s been in the league long enough to know the tendencies of other big men.

 

 

“You do your homework man,” Hayes said. “You do your homework early. You prepare yourself and you just stay ready. Throughout the course of the game, I could see the rhythm that Marc (Gasol) and Zach (Randolph) are in. I can see where they are getting their sweet shots. At this time in their careers, they get to their money shots. They don’t try anything they haven’t worked on before. You notice it, you picture it and you try to take it away.”

Hayes is the example a team wants their young players to emulate. He isn’t just sitting on the bench waiting for his number to be called. Hayes is watching and preparing so he can have an impact once he gets in. He has a strategy in place before he steps on the court.

“Marc hit me with a great move on a fade-away about 12 feet out, so my next thought process was I want him to shoot that same exact shot but further out and he ended up making it,” Hayes said. “That’s when you tip your hat and make it harder – completely take the shot away.”

Against both the Celtics and the Grizzlies, Hayes eventually took his man completely off his game, but he knows the direction the team is headed and helping the young players like Jonas Valanciunas learn the nuances of the game is a big part of his value to the team.

“It takes time,” Hayes said. “My third year in the league I wasn’t – I played defense, but I wasn’t a stopper like that. JV (Valanciunas) will learn. He will learn from this game and next time we play against then, he’ll see what works best for him.”

Hayes picked up on the mentorship aspect of his role last season and it hasn’t changed. The big extra for the Raptors is Hayes can mentor by showing the young guys how it’s done.

“That’s my job, to be a mentor to these guys, to be a veteran to the young players,” Hayes told Pro Bball Report earlier. “This is a great locker room. It reminds me a lot of my Houston days, being with a great bunch of guys, workers, everybody’s ego is left at the door.”

The Raptors have been fortunate to have Hayes sitting on the bench when an opposing big man has gotten them into trouble. They’d likely have two more loses at this point if he wasn’t there and Casey will continue to turn to him when the young guys Hayes is helping to mentor can’t get the job done.

 

 

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.

 

 

Chuck Hayes by Paul Saini cropped (Fylmm.com)Ujiri’s Dilemma: Raptors Veterans Are Winners

Coach Casey’s defense has become a reality again and at least some of this falls on the shoulders of Chuck Hayes.

 

 

 

Greivis Vasquez styling

How The Raptors Are Winning The Fourth Quarter Every Night

The Toronto Raptors took “We The Fourth” to another level on Wednesday at home against the first place overall Memphis Grizzlies as they came from behind with a 27-17 fourth quarter to win 96-92 in the dying seconds of the game.

The two expansion franchises that are both celebrating their 20th season in the NBA lead the league, the 10-2 Grizzlies in the West and the Raptors at 9-2 in the East. However, how they are winning games couldn’t be more different. The Grizzlies have a big three in Mike Conley, Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol. They will beat you up in the post and dominate teams on the boards. The Raptors just seem to find ways to win.

Through three-quarters the Grizzlies dominated Toronto on the glass, up 40-24 on the boards and leading 75-69. Then with 10 minutes left, Head Coach Dwane Casey turns to the veteran center Chuck Hayes to slow down Gasol and the game changes in the Raptors favor.

With Hayes on the court, the Raptors out-rebound the Grizzlies 10-6 and Terrence Ross wakes from his malaise to score 14 points as Toronto pulls out the (no longer) surprising fourth quarter comeback.

This was the second time this season the Raptors spot-duty backup center has come in and saved a game. Earlier in Boston, the Raptors had no answer for Jared Sullinger until Hayes came in to turn the tables in a hard fought battle.

Casey has freely used his team’s depth in the fourth quarter to create matchup problems and take away what has been working for his opposition. Over the first 11 games, 6 different players have led the team in scoring in the fourth quarter and James Johnson, like Hayes, has been a game changer on defense during crunch time. This has been a total team effort.

 

 

“We have a deep team,” Greivis Vasquez explained. “We have guys that can do it on any given night. It’s a team effort. We are doing a good job at being focused and just waiting for an opportunity and we are taking advantage of that as a unit, as a team. T Ross came through tonight. He was struggling at first and then in the last quarter basically he took over. Lou (Williams), he scored for us too. Chuck (Hayes) came out – he hasn’t played in like 5 games – and did his job. So, it’s totally a team effort.”

The Raptors have been led in fourth quarter scoring by Jonas Valanciunas, Ross (3x), Kyle Lowry (2x), DeMar DeRozan (2x), Lou Williams (1.5x) and Patrick Patterson (1.5x). It quite literally feels like a different player has been stepping up in crunch time each and every night.

The voices from the Raptors locker room last season still ring true. There are no egos on this team. The players are here to win games and are ready when Casey calls their number, but perhaps more importantly, they are willing to sit, watch and cheer when someone else’s number is called. They are playing for something bigger than themselves and it shows.

“We are playing for something big,” Vasquez said. “We understand that as a team. Guys are doing well as a unit and I’ll take this, 9 and 2, with another chance to win on Friday. It is important for us. We have to keep chipping away, keep playing.”

In a wide-open Eastern Conference, the Raptors have set their sights high and in what seems to be a rarity for professional teams in Toronto, this group of players has the type of goal fans wished every team aspired to.

“You play to win a championship and that’s what we are doing,” Vasquez said. “I am not saying we are going to win it, but just like when you are in college, the goal is to be in the NBA. You don’t set your goals to go overseas. We have big goals over here. We just have to keep chipping away, playing hard and doing our job. It’s a team effort. We are proving that every night.”

There is a long season still ahead and a challenging 10 game stretch for the Raptors once this home stand wraps up on Friday, but this team has taken chipping away to a new level and earned the motto #WeTheFourth. It’s good to enter a season with big goals. It’s even better when a total team effort has your team 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.

 

 

 

TOR Lowry and DeRozanNBA East Leading Raptors Live Up To #WeTheFourth

The Raptors fourth quarter scoring has come with a purpose. We The Fourth is a motto Toronto has been earning.

 

 

Caboclo shooting

Raptors Bruno Caboclo: Put Me In Coach

It isn’t easy being a rookie in Toronto these days. Two years ago a player like Bruno Caboclo would be in the rotation and possibly starting as player development was front and center for the Raptors. However, since unexpectedly winning the Atlantic Division last season, the aspirations and goals of the players, coaches and organization have created little patience for rookie mistakes.

Caboclo was slighted on draft day as being two years away from being two years away, however, through NBA Summer League and NBA preseason games, the Raptors rookie didn’t look significantly different than any number of his fellow first round draft picks who are currently getting regular season minutes. It isn’t easy watching from the sidelines for any young player.

 


“I want an opportunity to improve my game,” Caboclo told Pro Bball Report. “I’ve worked a lot to get one chance, but I know it’s hard. We have 13 players, but I keep working.”

Head Coach Dwane Casey has put a lot of the emphasis in practice on his rotation players and that means Caboclo has spent a lot of time on the outside looking in. He says most of his time is concentrated on working out with the coaches individually.

“I practice alone because the team doesn’t practice together,” Caboclo said. “I work with the coaches (to) dribble, shoot (and things) like this.”

The 19-year-old needs the individual help. He has the attributes of an NBA player, but he didn’t play a lot on the “big club” with Pinheiros Sky in Brazil, so he has a lot to work on. He understands this as well and fellow Brazilian Lucas Nogueira is there to help him, but he still wants to play and a lot of other people would like to see him get a few minutes as well.

“Me too,” Caboclo said.

Caboclo is like the promising young colt that wants to run with the horses. Everyone wants to see what he can do, but his trainers are trying their best to hold him back until he’s ready. At some point Caboclo will be dressed for a game that gets out of hand and even seeing the rookie get some minutes in garbage time would be fun.

 

 

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.

 

 

 

TOR Amir Johnson head shot webRaptors Amir Johnson Has Bruno Caboclo’s Back

“(We have) a very athletic and good young guy which is Bruno (Caboclo),” Johnson said. “The kid works hard. (He has) a 7’7 wingspan which is unbelievable. I think he’ll be a good fit for us and we can teach him a lot of stuff. The first thing we can teach him is English.”

 

 

TOR Amir Johnson head shot web

Can the Raptors Become An Unstoppable Force?

The Toronto Raptors are off to the best start in franchise history and but for some minor slippage, they could be undefeated at this point – not that anyone had reasonable expectations of being undefeated at this point in the season before it began. 15 missed free throws in Miami and one bad quarter against the Bulls is all that has prevented Toronto from perfection.

The Raptors have won big and won ugly and their bench has saved more than one game already this season. Third string center Chuck Hayes saved Toronto from the seemingly unstoppable Jared Sullinger in Boston. Lou Williams has already put up some key second half numbers in short minutes. But, it has been the Raptors backup forwards Patrick Patterson, Tyler Hansbrough and James Johnson that have been coming through on a routine basis for Toronto at this point.

 

 

 

“We have a great bench that come in and bring another level of energy,” Amir Johnson told Pro Bball Report after a recent game. “They won the game for us, Pat (Patterson), Tyler (Hansbrough), James Johnson finished the fourth quarter out and had a hell of a game. That is what makes us so effective.”

Confidence is high in Toronto after last season as the team pulled out game after game in a franchise record setting season. The current feeling of being (almost) unstoppable comes from a continuing string of very strong fourth quarters this year. There has been some rough starts and suspect effort in parts of most of the team’s games, but the players believe they are never out of it.

“Once we all get on the same page, I think we’ll be unstoppable,” Johnson said. “Right now we got guys that are lifting other guys and that is definitely helping us out. There are going to be days where our second unit comes in gives us a lift and finishes the game for us.”

That feeling of being unstoppable wasn’t anywhere to be found in Toronto until very recently. The Raptors were considered soft and easy pickings on most nights until after the effects of the Rudy Gay trade had sunk in around the Association. That trade brought effective depth to the Raptors lineup and Johnson is already having trouble remembering the bad old days before the four players from Sacramento arrived when poor starts usually ended in a loss.

“It would, it would (end in a win),” Johnson insisted. “Last year we usually ended up in close games with a (win). There are going to be some games where our first group doesn’t have it and some games where our second unit has it and we put it altogether, we’ll be unstoppable.”

Who can blame Johnson for a short memory? No one in Toronto really wants to remember their five year stint in the lottery. It’s a lot more pleasant to think this team could be unstoppable once everyone gets on the same page and compared to their not so distant past, they are.

 

 

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.

 

 

 

Amir getting ready to work

The Raptors Amir Johnson Loves Being A Dad

“For me, pretty much everything I do is for her now,” Johnson said. “I can’t look for myself now. I have a kid now and I just have to be the father-type and set examples. Every day my perspective just changes once you have a kid and I got that as soon as she was born.”

 

 

TOR Caboclo and Amir JohnsonRaptors Amir Johnson Has Bruno Caboclo’s Back

“Ten years in, I should be (a veteran),” Johnson said. “I definitely have a lot of say-so, especially for the younger guys – a lot of experience to tell them right from wrong. Definitely, I feel like a vet, at the same time I still feel young and energized.”

 

 

Jonas Valanciunas 2 by Paul Saini  (Fylmm.com)Raptors Jonas Valanciunas Happy And Comfortable With Role

“We had a lot of changes in this room. I am happy right now,” Valanciunas said. “I am happy with where we are. Everybody is doing a good job. It is a different locker room, different faces, but I am happy with where we are now and I hope we are going to keep doing the same thing.”

 

 

 

Jonas Valanciunas practice shot by Paul Saini (Fylmm

Raptors Jonas Valanciunas Happy And Comfortable With Role

Almost since Jonas Valanciunas arrived in Toronto, there has been overt questioning about how he’s been used, his playing time and there have even been suggestions (from less than reliable sources) that the big Lithuanian isn’t happy with the Raptors. However, when given the opportunity, Valanciunas has never complained. To the contrary, Valanciunas insists he is happy and comfortable with his role and his team.

Valanciunas has always come across as a happy, outgoing and somewhat mischievous individual in casual conversation – something that has only become more evident as his English has improved. He likes to have fun, keep things light and joke around with his teammates, coaches, team staff and the media at every opportunity.

 

 

 

Since his rookie season there has been a lot of changes to the Raptors roster and it is a very different locker room from the one that won 34 games two seasons ago. In this case, change has been very, very good.

“We had a lot of changes in this room. I am happy right now,” Valanciunas said. “I am happy with where we are. Everybody is doing a good job. It is a different locker room, different faces, but I am happy with where we are now and I hope we are going to keep doing the same thing.”

While the team is still relatively young, they now have 11 players over 25-years old and 10 players with at least 4 years experience. The only players in Head Coach Dwane Casey’s rotation with less than 4 years in the league are Valanciunas and Terrence Ross and they grew up a lot in last year’s franchise record setting season and seven game playoff series with the Nets.

“We build that experience right now, by last season, this season,” Valanciunas said. “Last season was really good for us because for a lot of guys it was the first time in the playoffs. Especially for me, that was good experience and now I feel much more comfortable.”

That comfort level or chemistry started showing in last season’s never-say-die attitude and has been a big part of the Raptors 7-2 start to the 2014-2015 season. The Raptors starting unit has been scoring a lot of points and the new additions are starting to blend in, but he insists they are all just trying to play their game and Valanciunas’ role might not be what everyone else is expecting.

“We are just playing our game,” Valanciunas said. “We are not trying to outscore somebody, we still have defense and are trying to stop guys, trying to set good screens.

“My job personally is not just scoring. I am not a big scorer – more of a helper for DeMar (DeRozan) and Kyle (Lowry) to get them wide-open, set a screen, rebound the ball, that’s my job. Everybody on the team has their own role.”

Acceptance of roles was a huge part of the Raptors success last season and it will drive any success the team enjoys this year. Valanciunas is happy and comfortable in his role on a winning team that is getting better and that shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone.

 

 

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.

 

 

photo credit Paul Saini, Fylmm.com

 

 

James Johnson - cropped

Raptors James Johnson Is Proud of His Passing

It is easy to see the positive impact James Johnson has been having on the Raptors. Greivis Vasquez called him spicy and crazy and made a comparison to the Grizzlies Tony Allen, all complements Johnson was happy to embrace.

Johnson was acquired for his defense and rebounding, but he has always had a flair for offense and not a just little overconfidence in his ability to score, so it was somewhat surprising to hear the pride in his voice about his passing. Especially when one realizes he’s been finishing his own shots at above 50 percent from the field.

 

 

“I think the big play for me today was either the throw ahead to Patrick Patterson or when I dropped it to Greivis or when I dropped to Patterson for the three-pointers,” Johnson said. “It changed the momentum of the game.”

Those were all big plays and Johnson gave up his own potential run at the rim to drop a pass to Patterson for the uncontested three-pointer that capped an 11-0 run and tied the game at 83 early in the fourth quarter.

What is surprising is Johnson had his own huge scoring play late in the game with a big time slam that put the Raptors up 97-95 and that wasn’t the play Johnson wanted to reminisce over.

As has been noted before, this isn’t the same Johnson the Raptors saw two years ago. This Johnson knows and accepts his role and he has been excelling because of 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.

 

 

 

James Johnson closeupWhy Raptors James Johnson Isn’t The Same Guy This Year

“I am definitely not (the same guy),” Johnson said. “Going down to the D-League, developing different skills and developing my confidence and my all-around game really helped me out and knowing that you can’t take this league for granted because you can be out of it at any minute.”

 

 

TOR_Johnson_JamesCan Raptors James Johnson Accept His Role In Toronto?

“Memphis gave me some time to reflect on who I really was,” Johnson said. “I feel real comfortable at the three spot. We have good fours here. We have Patrick Patterson. We have Tyler Hansbrough. Wherever I can fill the void between (those) two and help out I will.”

 

 

 

TOR James Johnson and Williams

Raptors Teach Magic Fourth Quarter Lessons in 104-100 Win

Call it a trap game, but the Toronto Raptors clawed their way back in the fourth quarter to provide some valuable lessons to a rebuilding Orlando Magic team and secure their seventh win of the young season 104-100. Trailing 83-72 after three-quarters, the Raptors second unit used an 11-0 run to start the fourth quarter and get Toronto back into this game, but the Magic refused to go quietly and the game wasn’t decided until Tobias Harris missed a jump shot in the dying seconds.

“Where we want to go as a team, we can’t be playing like that,” Head Coach Dwane Casey said. “Orlando outplayed us for three-quarters. I liked the resolve of our team and the second unit came in and did what they were supposed to do and really competed. That’s all we ask our guys to do. We can’t be annoyed when teams come in and give us their best shot, we have to bounce and fight back in those situations and I thought our second unit did that.”

DeMar DeRozan had a rough night, shooting 4-15 from the field and scoring 16 points. Kyle Lowry did his best to hold the starting unit together as he scored 19 points on 16 shots and collected 6 rebounds and 7 dimes. Terrence Ross had a nice shooting night, hitting 4 three-pointers and scoring 17 points.

However, the accolades in this game belong to the second unit. Lou Williams was huge, scoring 14 points in 15.6 minutes. Patrick Patterson played big minutes because of his defense and was 3-3 from deep and 4-5 from the field for 12 points. James Johnson was all over the place, dishing to open teammates, playing defense, grabbing 10 boards and slamming home a go ahead dunk with less than 3 minutes left in the game.

 

 

“I think you give their second unit a lot of credit for climbing back into the game,” Vaughn said. “Whether it was Lou Williams and Patterson, their ability to ignite and have some energy and climb back into the basketball game.”

The Magic had big games from a number of players. Evan Fournier led all scorers with 24 points on an efficient 9-18 from the field. Harris was huge with 23 points and 13 rebounds and nearly took over the game in the third quarter. Channing Frye was hot in the opening quarter to help stake the Magic to an early 8 point lead and finished with 19 points in just under 43 minutes. Nikola Vucevic played over 41 minutes and had 18 points, 8 rebounds, 6 assists, 3 blocks and 2 steals.

“I think overall when we talk about getting better every day and learn to play with each other, this was a test for us,” Vaughn said. “We faced this team 10 days ago. Were we more prepared, were we a better team, were we smarter than the first time we played them? So, a good challenge for us tonight.”

The Magic were better prepared and were the better team for most of the night, but Vaughn had to play his starters big minutes and the Raptors were eventually able to use their bench to create mismatches the Magic couldn’t handle. Vaughn had no trouble putting a game they were not expected to win into perspective.

“I think we keep things in perspective,” Vaughn said. “What got us in a position to win a basketball game? (We had) 5 turnovers in the first half, sharing the basketball, sticking to the game plan, those things gave us a chance to be in the ball game.

“It was tough after this one. They don’t want to hear a thing Coach has to say. You take a tough loss like this, hopefully tomorrow you are able to understand what this game gave us – the opportunity to be in a close game and try to win it and now the ultimate professional test of trying to do it tomorrow night.”

This season is all about player development for the Magic and Vaughn couldn’t have set up a better teaching session than the game against the Raptors. Toronto, on the other hand, dressed rookie Bruno Caboclo because Landry Fields wasn’t feeling well and the rookie never got close to seeing the court. This year is all about winning games for the Raptors. Moral victories and player development is oh so two seasons ago for Toronto.

 

 

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.

 

 

 

TOR Casey and LowryRaptors Taking Advantage Of The Schedule For A Fast Start

The NBA leading Toronto Raptors haven’t looked this good at the beginning of a season in over 20 years – that is to say, ever and they have been taking advantage of a schedule designed to give them every opportunity to enjoy a fast start.

 

 

 

DeMar DeRozan 1

The Evolution Of The Raptors DeMar DeRozan

The Raptors DeMar DeRozan was drafted into the NBA in 2009 by Toronto as a high-flying slasher. A player with the potential to play above the rim and produce highlight reel dunks. While he was recognized for his skill with invites to the NBA Slam Dunk competition in 2010 and 2011, that didn’t mean he was recognized as a star or even a future star in the NBA. His game would have to evolve a long ways before that would happen.

Playing on bad teams early in his career meant more often than not DeRozan wasn’t going to be rewarded with free throws when opponents aggressively defended him at the rim. As a rookie especially, the young wing was knocked down without a call more often than not. The strange thing was it didn’t seem to discourage him. DeRozan took his beatings as a sign that he needed to work harder.

 

 

“Since I’ve been in the league I’ve been the type of guy that gets to the free throw line,” DeRozan said. “I take pride in getting to the free throw line and being top 10 in attempts. It’s just my style of play. It makes the game come easier if you get to the free throw line.”

DeRozan only got to the free throw line 2.5 times per game as a rookie and he had the bruises to prove he was trying to get there more often.

The next three seasons were better, but consistent at about 5 free throw attempts per game. DeRozan needed to work on his handle, outside shooting and earning the required respect of the league and its referees. It might not be fair, but it’s harder to earn that respect on bad teams, fortunately DeRozan developed a reputation as a player that worked hard and kept coming. He really wanted to be a top 10 free throw shooter in the NBA and he was learning more every season.

“You just learn how to play the game,” DeRozan said. “Picking and choosing your spots how to get to the basket and being aggressive, staying aggressive all of the time.”

It wasn’t until Toronto traded Rudy Gay in early December last season that the lights came on and DeRozan got his chance to become that top 10 free throw shooter. Up until the Gay trade, DeRozan was only getting to the line 5.8 times per game in 2013-14, but with Gay gone and the Raptors in dire need of someone to step up, DeRozan turned it up several notches overnight.
 
In the first game Gay didn’t play in for Toronto, DeRozan got to the free throw line 11 times against the Lakers on the road and he averaged 8.6 free throw attempts for the rest of the season finishing with a top 10 average of 8 attempts per game.

There should be little doubt that the reason DeRozan earned his first All-Star nod was because he was getting to the line like an All-Star. It didn’t hurt that his team was unexpectedly winning as well, but opponents notice when a player is suddenly killing them from the charity stripe. DeRozan had arrived.

So far this year, seeing DeRozan at the line has become an even more frequent occurrence. Through his first six games, DeRozan is averaging 9.7 free throw attempts per game, good for the third best rate in the Association.

Through hard work, effort and increasing confidence in his abilities, DeRozan has evolved since he arrived in Toronto as the skinny wing opponents loved to knock on his butt and his efforts have been rewarded. Everyone on the top 10 list for free throw attempts was an All-Star last year and the Raptors wing doesn’t appear likely to give up his spot any time soon.

 

 

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 interview by Paul Saini (Fylmm.com) croppedRaptors DeMar DeRozan Says World Cup Helped Him

“It felt great,” DeRozan said. “Especially to play at this level with these great players that you can learn so much from and just to take this same energy and the same experience back. It can’t do nothing but help you.”

 

 

DeRozan and ThompsonRaptors Slasher DeRozan Vs. Warriors Shooter Thompson

How these two players earn their living couldn’t be more different. However, DeRozan’s real advantage over Thompson comes not from scoring, but rather the “swiss-army-knife” package of skills that he has been developing.