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NBA Toronto Raptors Serge Ibaka

Can Raptors Serge Ibaka Finally Get An All-Star Nod?

The Raptors Serge Ibaka is the model for an ideal modern big man in today’s NBA. A 6’10 three-time All-Defensive First Team player that can effectively stretch the floor, guard the three-point line, score in the post and protect the rim with the best in the Association. So is this the year he can finally get recognized with an All-Star nod?

Over his career Ibaka has put up enough points to be the second/third scoring option on a good team and in the changing NBA game, he has a real chance to put up big numbers in the depleted Eastern Conference with the Toronto Raptors.

It helps a lot that most of last year’s Eastern Conference All-Star forwards aren’t going to be around.

Former Bulls All-Star Jimmy Butler is playing in Minnesota. Pacers superstar Paul George will be balling out with the Thunder. Paul Millsap has departed Atlanta and headed west to Denver. And the Knicks Carmelo Anthony is working really hard to get moved to Houston this season and has probably suffered enough damage to his image to make an 11th All-Star nod unlikely anyway.

Only three of the East’s All-Star forwards are expected back and only the West’s All-Star Gordon Hayward has come East, so there’s four or five open spots and Ibaka is a solid contender if not a lock for one of them.

Raptors president Masai Ujiri wanted Ibaka badly at the start of last season, but in a move that no one understood he was massively outbid by then Magic general manager Rob Hennigan’s career ending gamble to overload Orlando with defensive-minded power forward/centers and it might have cost Ibaka his first real chance to be an All-Star.

Ujiri was eventually able to get his man at his price at the NBA trade deadline and although he couldn’t have known it at the time, the acquisition helped keep Toronto a top three seed in the Eastern Conference despite the unanticipated loss of Kyle Lowry to injury for 20 games.

While Ibaka was an outstanding regular season addition to the Raptors on offense and defense and Ujiri was able to get him to re-up this summer for three more seasons, Ibaka wasn’t about to rest on his laurels or his guaranteed $65 million three-year deal.

“For the first time I am spending my summer working on my defensive game,” Ibaka responded to Pro Bball Report. “Of course working on offense too, in the summer working on my shot, my three-point shot and working on my post game, but I am focused working on my defense.

“It’s just the way the game is played now. I am working on guarding one, two, three, four, five. (That’s what) I am focused on this summer.”

For Ibaka to earn his first All-Star honors, Toronto has to get back to being a top 10 offensive and defensive club and based his 23 regular season games with the Raptors last season, he is just the player needed to make that happen.

It appears most of the people that follow the NBA have already forgotten that the Raptors were on a 56-win pace in the first half of last season with rookie Pascal Siakam in the starting lineup. The improvement next season with Ibaka starting instead of Siakam will be dramatic and dramatic is what gets a player into the All-Star Game.

Even with the high powered offense of Lowry and DeRozan plus veterans DeMarre Carroll and Jonas Valanciunas, the Raptors starting unit was a net minus 2.9 points with Siakam in the group. It wasn’t his fault, the rookie wasn’t supposed to start, but Ujiri had a team full of young players so when his free agent stop-gap Jared Sullinger broke a foot, Siakam was pressed into the rotation ready or not.

Ibaka is the leading active player in blocks per game per basketball-reference.com and last season he was second (39.1%) only to Channing Frye (40.9%) among the East’s power forwards and centers in three-point shooting percentage. He was sixth in three-pointers made in this group.

Ibaka got up the most three-point shots per game (4.5) of his career with the Raptors last season and that will be a focus with the team next year. He will also get to spend more time playing center in small ball lineups which should give him more opportunities to protect the rim.

This season head coach Dwane Casey will have the option to start the better three-point shooting C.J. Miles or the up-and-coming Norman Powell in the place of the disappointing Carroll as well as Ibaka instead of Siakam, so the expectations from his starting unit will be high. The expectations from Ibaka will be the highest of his career and the competition for that All-Star forward spot may never be this thin again.

  

 

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 Kyle Lowry DeMar DeRozan CJ Miles Serge Ibaka

Are We Underestimating The Toronto Raptors Again?

Coming off back-to-back 50-plus win seasons and in an Eastern Conference that’s bleeding talent West, is everyone underestimating the stand pat Toronto Raptors again?

The Raptors will head into the 2017-18 NBA season with their All-Star core of Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan intact, but with no outside huge free agent signings or trades bringing in new big time talent, this team has gotten a collective yawn for what they’ve done in July.

There’s no argument here about the less than exciting off season in Toronto. The big news has been Lowry didn’t bolt for the West with everyone else and Serge Ibaka really did want to come to Toronto as reported at the trade deadline in February.

Their other trade deadline acquisition, P.J. Tucker, we hardly got to know you, opted for Houston early in free agency and president Masai Ujiri didn’t even try to re-sign the defensively talented but offensively frustrating Patrick Patterson. Important role players to be sure, but hardly irreplaceable and the lack of off season excitement continued.

The addition of a real three-point threat in veteran wing/forward C.J. Miles was a solid acquisition, but not a star.

Ujiri’s summer has been all about getting below the Luxury Tax threshold while trying not to take a step backwards and in that narrow context, no one is arguing with the result, but in the disappointment of not trying to make the team dramatically better by spending more, did Ujiri succeed in putting together a roster that is better than last season?

In short, painfully, yes.

Two of Ujiri’s biggest off season moves were salary dumps.

  1. DeMarre Carroll, don’t let the door hit you on the way out, took two draft picks to get the Nets to take him and,
  2. Cory Joseph, who’ll be missed mostly because he’s a nice Canadian kid who everyone liked.

These moves cleared the space below the luxury tax threshold to sign the Pacers very solid three-point shooting veteran free agent Miles and make no mistake, Miles at forward will be light-years ahead of what Carroll gave the team over the past two seasons.

Small forward and backup point guard

Carroll: 72 games, 26.1 minutes, 8.9 points, 3.8 rebounds, 4.4 three-point attempts per game at 34.1 percent and a whole lot of missed or poorly played games due to injury. “3-and-D” was more like iffy D and no 3 as the expensive forward rehabbed as he played.

Miles: 76 games, 23.4 minutes,10.7 points, 3 rebounds, 5.4 three-point attempts per game at 41.3 percent. An overall better journeyman forward at half the price of Carroll. The Raptors finally have a player that’s among the NBA’s best at the corner three-ball.

At backup point guard, it was just time to let the young guys move up a step by sending Joseph to another team,

NBA Toronto Raptors backup PG stats 2016-17

Joseph’s only faults were he made more money than either Delon Wright or Fred VanVleet and while the two guys playing behind him were getting better, Joseph hadn’t really improved since being signed two summers ago.

It’s not for sure, but the Raptors are probably a better team with Wright backing up Lowry.

Power forward

It’s easy to forget Ibaka was only part of the Raptors for 23 regular season games and Lowry was injured for almost all of them. The full impact of having Ibaka on the roster has yet to be seen.

It’s also easy to forget that the Raptors played most of last season without the power forward a 50-win team should have in their starting lineup. Rookie Pascal Siakam undoubtedly got a lot out of starting 38 games for the Raptors, but substituting in Ibaka is like an order of magnitude improvement.

The Raptors went 16-7 in the regular season with Ibaka and Lowry just trying to play himself back into shape over his last three games. The record says a lot about what Ibaka added to his new team. The likelihood of Toronto having a 50-win season without Lowry for a month and a half wasn’t very good.

Center

The move that didn’t happen was the departure of Jonas Valanciunas. In a league moving away from traditional centers, it’s still important to have one just in case you need an answer to a player like the Bucks Greg Monroe.

Valanciunas may or may not ever fully adapt to the changing ways in the NBA, but as he showed in the Milwaukee series, when you need a big traditional center, you had better have one.

Heading into his sixth NBA season, Valanciunas can probably average a double-double in 24 minutes as a starter or a reserve, so while he’s likely still an available trade piece, Ujiri isn’t about to just give him away.

“We believe in JV’s talent. I want everybody to know that,” Ujiri said. “You can say the style of play in the NBA is going in one direction, but we also believe in offensive rebounding and he’s really good at that.

“We are not trying to give JV away.”

The Rest?

Maybe everyone just forgot? But last year the Raptors had seven guys on rookie deals and the veteran Ujiri signed for depth (as a starter), Jared Sullinger, effectively ended his season before it started with a broken foot. Proven depth was almost nonexistent for the 51-win Raptors.

This year Ujiri could have 10 guys on rookie deals, but,

  1. Lucas Nogueira is in his fourth season and played in 57 games last year.
  2. Norman Powell is in his third season and will be fighting for a deserved spot in the starting rotation. He’s not a rookie or just a “young guy” anymore.
  3. Wright looks ready to takeover at backup point guard. In fact, he looked ready last year.
  4. Jakob Poeltl deserves more run, but as long as JV is around, there aren’t many minutes.
  5. It’s possible the NBA G League Finals MVP Pascal Siakam took a big step over the summer. He’s played in 55 NBA games and seems to have the potential to stick around long term.
  6. As is often the case, there is some excitement over new rookie OG Anunoby, but predicting what you’ll get out of any rookie is a crap shoot.

The Raptors are deeper than last year because the young players from last year gained some real experience and are expected to be better.

As Basketball Insiders 

While the Celtics added the top available free agent and the Cavaliers appear to be unraveling at the seams, the ever-reliable Raptors just kept things exactly the same.
All in all, the recapture of Lowry and Ibaka likely won’t lead to an NBA Finals appearance anytime soon, but it’s a strong indication that the franchise’s newfound success will continue until further notice.

Unless the Cavs implode, no other team in the NBA East including the Celtics will be given a shot at making an NBA Finals appearance, so it’s hard to argue with 

 

 

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

 

 

 

NBA Toronto Raptors DeMar DeRozan and Sacramento Kings Rudy Gay 2016 by Larry Millson

Raptors DeMar DeRozan As Facilitator Is Nothing New

It was nice of Raptors head coach Dwane Casey to spend some time on Rogers Sportsnet Fan590 radio recently as nothing exciting is expected to happen on the trade or free agent front in Toronto for a while now. However, suggesting All-Star guard DeMar DeRozan would be asked to act more as a facilitator, a point guard this season really shouldn’t have surprised anyone.

“Everyone and their brother knows we want better ball movement,” said Casey.

“DeMar DeRozan, have him handle the ball a bit more as a point guard, a facilitator, a passer. Kyle Lowry moving the ball a bit more, spacing up. We don’t want to give our whole ‘what we’re going to try to do next year’ away, but again it comes down to passing the basketball and better spacing more so, than we know, one-on-one play.”

You can only be excused for not knowing the ball goes through DeRozan’s hands on over one-third of the Raptors plays if you never actually watched the team play. What is less talked about, however, is, DeRozan was top five among shooting guards in assists last season at 3.9 per game according to ESPN and that’s pretending James Harden was still playing as a shooting guard.

DeRozan has been averaging right around 4 assists per game every year since his first All-Star appearance in 2013-14, the same year this team actually started winning games – probably not a complete coincidence.

Asking the Eastern Conference’s second leading scorer to handle the ball more and create more opportunities for his teammates hardly feels like a stretch. It’s more like just the next expected evolution of a 28-year-old three-time All-Star guard’s game.

Casey has been letting other guards bring the ball up the court to initiate the offense every year he’s had a second guard capable of doing so. It allows his best above the arc three-point shooter Kyle Lowry to play off the ball and be a bigger scoring threat and makes defenses adjust to an alternate look. Having DeRozan handle the ball more really wouldn’t be anything unexpected.

DeRozan was third on the Raptors in passes per game made last season (34.8) per NBA.com behind only Kyle Lowry and Cory Joseph. He was second in secondary assists (1.0), second in potential assists (8.1) and second in points created off of assists (9.8).

DeRozan and Lowry have a nearly identical assist to pass ratio, further illustrating he already was a significant contributor to the Raptors offense beyond creating his own shot. Asking him to create more, isn’t a major leap.

When president Masai Ujiri was asked if the Raptors were going to play differently this coming season at the C.J. Miles media availability, he put everything in it’s proper perspective.

“We are going to try (to play differently) a little bit,” Ujiri explained. “We are not asking for a dramatic change. If that is what anybody is looking for, I don’t know that this is the team to watch.

“It’s not going to be a dramatic change. We have to be conscious of the things we can do better. We have to pay attention to those things we can do better, moving the ball a little bit better, spacing the floor a little bit better.”

Can DeRozan bring the ball up the court more often next season? Sure, I doubt anyone would even notice.

Could DeRozan initiate the offense more often? Again, sure, what’s the big deal here?

Will DeRozan get more assists next season? Passing the ball to Miles in the corner a couple of times a game should accomplish that all on it’s own.

 

 

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 Dwane Casey

Toronto Raptors Casey For Coach Of The Year

With a baker’s dozen worth of games left in the NBA schedule, the season isn’t over and little is set for a lot of teams, but the field for this year’s Coach of the Year (COY) candidates is down to four or five and the Toronto Raptors Dwane Casey should be at the top of that list.

A COY should be having a good season with better than expected results and an objective look back at ESPN Summer Forecast provides a benchmark for the preseason consensus. There is no requirement to agree with the ESPN panel of more than 200 members, but they say it’s “produced the most accurate predictions in the game.” At least it was done before any games were played and it’s done by a very diverse group which should eliminate bias.

Our list of candidates comes down to six head coaches. In the West: Steve Kerr, Gregg Popovich and Terry Stotts. In the East: Dwane Casey, Brad Stevens and Steve Clifford.

Steve Kerr, Golden State Warriors, expected finish +13 wins better than projected

Last season 67-15, ESPN summer projection 60-22, current record of 63-7 projects to 73-9

If last year’s COY runner up Steve Kerr had of coached the entire season in Golden State, there wouldn’t even be a race. We now expect the Warriors to tie or beat the all-time NBA record for wins in a season. But when you miss the first half of the season, how can you still vote for the guy when assistant coach Luke Walton was running the show at the same pace?

Gregg Popovich, San Antonio Spurs, expected finish +11 wins better than projected

Last season 55-27, ESPN summer projection 57-25, current record of 59-11 projects to 68-14

Three-time Coach of the Year winner in 2002-03, 2011-12 and 2013-14, there are those in the media who’d give the award to Pop every year, but that isn’t how the NBA awards are handed out.

Exactly how ESPN managed to only project the Spurs to gain two wins after adding All-Star LaMarcus Aldridge and David West to an already deep roster is a little confusing and the bold attempts to argue how tough it must be for Pop to integrate all that talent seems more than a little forced. Ask almost any other coach and they’ll beg to be struck down by having to deal with another All-Star on their roster.

To put it bluntly, Pop is a great coach with a great team who is having a great season, but who honestly didn’t expect it?

Terry Stotts, Portland Trail Blazers, expected finish +11 wins better than projected

Last season 51-31, ESPN summer projection 31-51, current record of 36-35 projects to 42-40

Stotts basically lost his entire starting lineup sans Damian Lillard and his team was supposed to be rebuilding with a crop of promising but unproven young talent. To put it mildly, some of those guys have played a lot better than expected.

Projected to finish 11th in the West and currently precariously perched in 6th 1.5 games ahead of the 9th place Jazz, the Trail Blazers are a success story. If they can hang onto a playoff spot, Stotts will get some votes for COY.

Brad Stevens, Boston Celtics, expected finish +7 wins better than projected

Last season 40-42, ESPN summer projection 40-42, current record of 41-30 projects to 47-35

Brad Stevens has created a lot of believers in the media. He got a few COY votes last year and he’ll likely get a few more this time, but Boston has been stubbing their toes at the wrong time.

Not long ago the Celtics were considered to be the biggest threat to the second place Raptors, but a recent four game skid has taken the shine off an otherwise better than expected season. You can’t be lowering expectations heading towards the end of the season and still be in the COY race. Stevens needs to turn this ship around fast.

Steve Clifford, Charlotte Hornets, expected finish +12 wins better than projected

Last season 33-49, ESPN summer projection 35-47, current record of 41-30 projects to 47-35

The Hornets have been red hot since the All-Star break and are rocketing up the standings to be wedged in a three-way tie for fourth in the East with the Hawks and Boston. The third place Heat are only a half game in front of this pack. Forecast to finish in 10th, it’s safe to say the ESPN panelists didn’t see this coming.

Clifford has earned some votes for COY and if he can win the Southwest Division, he’ll get even more attention.

Dwane Casey, Toronto Raptors, expected finish +11 wins better than projected

Last season 49-33, ESPN summer projection 44-38, current record of 48-31 projects to 55-27

If you are looking for proof that ESPN doesn’t really pay much attention to the only team north of the border, look no further than their summer projection. Objectively the Raptors improved in the off season, but somehow the ESPN panel consensus was for five fewer wins?

Under Casey the Raptors number of wins has increased each season from 23 in 2011-12 to 34 to 48 to 49 and now projected at 55 wins this year.

Toronto has been closely tracking the first place Cleveland Cavaliers all season as the second best team in the Eastern Conference and are now just one loss back of the leader with 13 games left. Second place at a minimum is secure, eight losses in front of the third place Heat.

The Raptors franchise has never won 50 games in a season. They have never finished better than third place in their conference. Already in contention, if Casey can lead his team to a first place finish, it’s going to be hard to argue against him for COY.

 

 

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 Cleveland Cavaliers Kyrie Irving

Lue’s Cavs No Longer Look Like A First Place Team

Call it karma, call it fate, but ever since the Cleveland Cavaliers fired coach Blatt at 30-11, they haven’t really looked like a first place team anymore. Inserting a rookie head coach into any team mid-season is tough, but it has to be doubly hard when he’s expected to raise them up from a 60 win pace. No one outside of the Cavs brain trust understood that move.

As head coach Tyronn Lue has implemented changes, the team has gone 19-9 and the consistent Toronto Raptors are now just a game back of the preseason’s heavy favorites to coast through the Eastern Conference.

The Cavs offense has been better under Lue, but their slip-sliding defense has wiped out any gains. Just like every top team in the Association, LeBron James led teams have thrived on defensive presence. Lue seems to be taking this group down the wrong path.

Cavs Blatt vs Lue

With the highest payroll in the NBA and the best all-around player in the game, the Cavaliers could play street ball and win a lot of games on talent alone and with Lue focused on upping his team’s pace, winning on talent alone seems to be happening.

The Cavs are shooting a higher percentage and scoring more under Lue’s guidance, but they are giving it all back at the other end. There is no discernible improvement in the net numbers except net rebounding is getting noticeably worse and the loses are piling up. Isn’t it defense wins games?

Lue might have enjoyed more success if he could have implemented his system during training camp. Good teams thrive on a consistent message. The longer they play a certain way, the better they get at it. Implementing big changes mid-season is never a good idea in a winning program.

“Consistency is a part of life,” James is quoted by ESPN’s Brian Windhorst. “You would like to be playing extremely well in late February going into March.”

“Now I see why coaches get mad about little, small things. It happens a lot. Things I want to do, things I want [to] implement, it’s been tough to do it midway through the season,” Lue said.

The Cavaliers are not an easy team to coach. Make no mistake, this is James’ team and everything revolves around him, but James wants to share the load and on offense, he’s got two ball dominate stars in Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving who never had to share the wealth before he arrived. They also aren’t known for their focus on defense and that puts an even heavier load on James.

As Bill Livingston of The Plain Dealer writes,

the biggest problem is defense. Love and Irving are both particularly big defensive liabilities.

This is a team with great talent that comes with a warning label.

Coaches say of a player with many facets to his game, “He’s a tough guard.”

I wonder what general managers think of a  team that has  to apportion ball-handling between isolation-set stars such as James and  Irving and still mollify the other players? Might they say, “They’re a tough coach”?

This trio is a tough coach and it’s proving to be too tough to coach for a rookie. You’d think the Cavs would have figured that out before they fired last year’s rookie head coach David Blatt.

If Lue can keep the Cavs at the same winning pace since he took over, they’ll end up with 58 wins and by rights that would have considered enough to secure first place in the East at the start of the season.

Unfortunately, things change.

Since their 41st game, the Raptors have gone 22-6 and if they keep winning at that pace they’ll end up at 58 wins as well. Toronto has won the season series with the Cavs 2-1, so a tie gives first to the Raptors.

But, maybe Lue just doesn’t care about finishing first (anymore)?

“We definitely want the No. 1 seed if we can get it, but I think we have to rest our guys also,” ESPN’s Dave McMenamin reported Lue said after the team’s shootaround Monday morning. “I think health going into the playoffs is more important than the seeding. If we’re fortunate enough to get the No. 1 seed, it will be great for us. But if not, then we just got to play through it.”

Well, if the Cavs don’t want it, there’s a Raptors team that has never won 50 games in a season or even come close to finishing first in the Conference before that would be ecstatic to take it off their hands.

 

 

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 Kyle LowryRaptors Can Clinch A Playoff Berth On Monday Night

The Toronto Raptors don’t play again until Wednesday in Boston, but they may have already clinched a playoff spot if any one of Indiana, Detroit or Chicago loses on Monday night

 

 


NBA Toronto Raptors Kyle Lowry

Raptors Kyle Lowry Named EC Player Of The Week

The NBA announced Monday that guard Kyle Lowry has been named Eastern Conference Player of the Week for games played March 14-20. Lowry, a two-time All-Star, earns the honor for the fourth time as a member of the Raptors and the fifth time in his career. He becomes the first player since Chris Bosh in 2009-10 to win the award multiple times in the same season after being named player of the week for games February 22-28.

Lowry ranked fourth in East scoring last week averaging 27.2 points and led the NBA in fourth quarter scoring at 10.8 points. He also posted 6.8 assists, 6.4 rebounds, 2.2 steals and shot .471 (16-for-34) from three-point range while helping Toronto post a 4-1 record.

Lowry recorded double-doubles on consecutive nights March 14 vs. Chicago (33 points, 11 rebounds) and March 15 at Milwaukee (25 points, 11 assists) to start the week. He followed up by scoring eight of the team’s 16 points in overtime March 17 at Indiana and then 13 of his game-high 32 points in the fourth quarter March 18 versus Boston.

With victories against Indiana and Boston the Raptors improved to 12-4 versus the top-7 teams in the Eastern Conference, 11-1 against Atlantic Division opponents and 3-1 in overtime games. Toronto also holds the second-best road record in the conference with a 20-13 mark.

Lowry currently leads the NBA averaging 2.16 steals per game and helped Toronto’s defense rank fourth in the NBA last week holding opponents to 96.6 points. He is tied for the most games in the NBA with three or more steals, including three games last week.

 

 

NBA Toronto Raptors Kyle Lowry

Raptors Can Clinch A Playoff Berth On Monday Night

Someone check a calendar, it’s still March isn’t it? The Toronto Raptors don’t play again until Wednesday in Boston, but they may have already clinched a playoff spot if any one of Indiana, Detroit or Chicago loses on Monday night according to the NBA and Elias Sports Bureau.

The matchups that matter to Toronto on Monday night are:

76ers (9-61) at Pacers (36-33)
Bucks (30-40) at Pistons (36-34)
Kings (27-42) at Bulls (35-33)

Those should all be wins for the home teams, but each of them are 5-5 over their past 10 games, so it shouldn’t be much of a surprise if one of them has an even worse than lately off night.

In reality, any scoreboard watching should be of the Nuggets at Cleveland to face the Eastern Conference leading Cavaliers (49-20). The Raptors (48-21) are only one game back of the Cavs and can almost taste first place for the first time in franchise history this late in the season.

“We are in this to compete,” head coach Dwane Casey said after the win over the Magic.

But when asked if being one game out of first place was front and center Casey responded,

“It is, but still, I’d rather have health than anything else and freshness. That’s so important. Nobody wants to win more than me … but it’s a double-edged sword. I understand that it’s important to this organization, this city to fight for a championship. To even talk about playing for a championship is important. It’s never been done here before, so I think it’s important to say hey, we’re fighting for a championship and playing for that pride.”

The Toronto Raptors are only one win shy of tying the franchise record for wins in a season that was set just last year at 49 and they still have 13 games remaining. They are a team that is now on pace for a 57 win season having never cracked the 50 win barrier.

A playoff spot in March? First place in the East a possibility? No one saw that coming – maybe it’s time to suggest this team is actually pretty good?

 

 

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.

 

 

 

Can The Raptors Catch The Cavs For First In The East?

If Toronto can keep pace until April, they have a shot, in part because they own the tie-breaker having taken the regular season series with the Cavs 2-1. In the last two weeks the Cavaliers face a list of teams fighting for playoff position and possibly a playoff spot right thru to the end of the season in Atlanta twice, Charlotte, Indiana, Chicago and Detroit.

 

 

NBA Toronto Raptors Jason Thompson

Jason Thompson Steps Up To Keep Raptors On Track

The Toronto Raptors have been able to stay on track despite various injuries this season, but veteran experience after their tenth man was non-existent prior to president and general manager Masai Ujiri picking up big man Jason Thompson on March 1 after he was waived by the Golden State Warriors. It was a smart move by Ujiri, Thompson has already been forced to step up the the face of a wave of injuries to Toronto’s bigs.

Starting center Jonas Valanciunas has been resting a bruised hand for a week. Forward James Johnson has been working thru planter fasciitis for a couple of weeks now. Power forward Patrick Patterson turned an ankle during the game against Boston. Plus, it’s easy to forget about combo forward DeMarre Carroll who as been out since January.

However, head coach Dwane Casey now has his insurance in the 29-year-old veteran Thompson who has stepped in, stepped up and performed.

Through his first six games in Toronto Thompson got 24 minutes against Brooklyn and little else, but starting a stretch of five games in seven nights against Chicago last Monday, Casey had to be thanking his lucky stars that Ujiri found him a proven veteran big man in the Warriors discard pile.

Thompson has averaged 5.2 points, 5.4 rebounds, a steal and 0.6 blocks in 19.6 minutes over the past five games and played some pretty solid defense for someone who’s had to learn the playbook on the fly. He’s still learning his place in the offense, but Casey almost doesn’t care about that and Thompson brings a pretty useful offensive repertoire with him once he figures out how the Raptors play at that end of the court.

With no Patterson available against the Magic on Sunday night, Thompson played 28 minutes and came just one bucket shy of posting his first Raptors double-double in the 105-100 Toronto victory. Also, the Raptors were a team best +13 points with Thompson on the court.

“You need players,” Luis Scola told Pro Bball Report after Thompson’s arrival. “You need a solid team of players you can trust, so it’s a good thing for us. (Thompson) is a good player. He’s been playing for quite a few years. He wants to have an opportunity to be on a winning team. He is going to help us. For us it’s a race for how fast we can adapt him to what we do here by the time the playoffs come.

“It’s very important because stuff is going to happen. You just have to make sure you overcome whatever happens. Stuff is going to happen. Bad things are going to happen to every team. You are going to go through a slump, somebody is going to get hurt, you are going to get a bad matchup. Stuff is going to happen. It’s a long road to the playoffs, a lot of time, a lot of games. Good teams (just) walk around whatever happens and become even stronger after that. So you need guys like (Thompson) for that to happen.”

At 35-years-old, Scola is the voice of experience. Stuff has happened and Thompson has been the guy who is letting the Raptors walk around simultaneous injuries to Valanciunas, Patterson, Johnson and Carroll. When everyone gets back, the Raptors are going to be even stronger because Thompson is available and will be ready to step in when needed again.

 

 

 

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 Jason Thompson

Can Jason Thompson Crack The Raptors Rotation?

“Obviously this team is very established,” Thompson explained to Pro Bball report. “Got a lot of positive things going, so I just want to be part of the ride and help as much as I can (if) guys are banged up or injuries. Be ready if my number is called.”

 

 

 

NBA Orlando Magic Andrew Nicholson

Raptors Can Close To Within One Game Of The Cavs

The Miami Heat did the Raptors a big favor on Saturday in Miami by demolishing the visiting Cavs 122-101 and Toronto needs to take advantage at home against the 29-39 Orlando Magic on Sunday in order to close to within a single game of the heavily favored front runners.

The recurring theme out of Cleveland this season has been this team gets tired and as reported on ESPN after the game, LeBron James is getting a little concerned.

“I think the pace, we couldn’t keep up with it tonight,” James said. “Whether it was our fifth game in seven nights, we couldn’t keep up with their pace.”

ESPN’s Brian Windhorst followed up with,

“The way they’ve beat us here is a little concerning if we face them [in the playoffs],” James said after Saturday’s loss. “I think we’ll be ready for it more. We didn’t play [up to our] potential. We didn’t play our game. We let them play their game, and they took it to us.”

With the Heat hanging around the three, four, five hole, facing them in the postseason is a very real possibility for the Cavaliers.

However, the second round of the playoffs probably shouldn’t be uppermost in James’ mind. Since “the team” fired coach David Blatt with a 30-11 record on January 22, the Cavs have gone 19-9 under new head coach Tyronn Lue. Apparently “being tired” wasn’t a coaching problem.

Playing the role of Captain Obvious, Lue said, “We need to start getting up for these games.”

The Raptors have split the season series with Orlando 1-1 and this young team has talent that can explode for points at any moment. Victor Oladipo scored 45 points on the Cavs Friday night.

Take the Magic lightly and the 47-21 Raptors could waste this opportunity. Toronto can’t afford to punt any games if they hope to catch the 49-20 Cavaliers for first in the East.

Notes:

  1. Team Canada forward Andrew Nicholson plays for the Magic.
  2. Center Nikola Vucevic has missed the past seven games with a groin strain.
  3. Elfrid Payton (elbow) has missed the last five games.

 

 

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 Cleveland Cavaliers LeBron James, Kyrie Irving and Toronto Raptors DeMar DeRozan, Kyle LowryCan The Raptors Catch The Cavs For First In The East?

Catching the Cavs will be tough and the race could be over soon if the Raptors are the team to stumble over the next couple of weeks, but if they can hang in there somehow, it’s the Cavaliers who’ll be tested. First place in the East could be up for grabs right up until the last week of the season.

 

 

 

NBA Cleveland Cavaliers LeBron James, Kyrie Irving and Toronto Raptors DeMar DeRozan, Kyle Lowry

Can The Raptors Catch The Cavs For First In The East?

With less than a month left in the regular season the Toronto Raptors remain within easy striking distance of the first place Cleveland Cavaliers. The rest of the pack has fallen by the wayside, but the Raptors have stubbornly remained right where they’ve been all season, 2 to 2.5 games behind the leaders just waiting for the heavily favored Cavs to stumble.

If it seems like Toronto has been in lockstep with the Cavs this year it’s because they have. At the end of each month they have been precisely 2.5 games behind the favorites and on March 16, it was still 2.5 games. The Raptors made up the half game by defeating the Pacers in overtime the next night, so heading into Friday both teams had 15 games remaining and a margin that really hasn’t changed since the end of November.

But can Toronto make up the difference?

The remaining schedule is really interesting. If the Raptors and Cavaliers keep on winning at their current pace, Cleveland will finish the year with 58 or 59 wins and Toronto will end up with a franchise record 56 wins. However, if they want it, there is still some hope for “We The North” to catch up.

The Cavaliers have the easier remaining schedule playing teams with an average winning percentage of 46.8 versus Toronto’s opponents who are winning 50.8 percent of their games, but it may not be as simple as that.

Toronto has won 82.8 percent of the games against their last 15 opponents with a record of 24-5 and the Cavaliers are 24-8 against the teams they have left to face. If these trends continue, Toronto could make up a game and a close-finish for first in the East could get even closer.

However, the race first for first could be over before the end of March.

Toronto plays Boston twice, in Houston and then home to Oklahoma City and Atlanta with only the Magic and the Pelicans to soften the schedule before April. The Raptors are in for a tough couple of weeks.

Cleveland gets the Magic, Nuggets, Bucks, Knicks and Nets twice with only Miami and Houston who should challenge them. Head coach Tyronn Lue likely has already scheduled days off to rest for some of his star players during this stretch of games.

However, if Toronto can keep pace until April, they have a shot, in part because they own the tie-breaker having taken the regular season series with the Cavs 2-1.

The Cavaliers face a list of teams fighting for playoff position and possibly a playoff spot thru to the end of the season. Atlanta twice, Charlotte, Indiana, Chicago and Detroit are expected to playing for real right until the last game on the schedule with only a game against the Bucks giving Cleveland an opponent with nothing to play for.

The Raptors schedule starts tough and finishes easy with Memphis, San Antonio, Charlotte, Atlanta and Indiana before wrapping up the season against the Knicks, Sixers and Nets. This is the stretch of games Toronto anticipates having DeMarre Carroll back in the lineup and they will want to see what they have. If they have something to play for, so much the better.

Catching the Cavs will be tough and the race could be over soon if the Raptors are the team to stumble over the next couple of weeks, but if they can hang in there somehow, it’s the Cavaliers who’ll be tested. First place in the East could be up for grabs right up until the last week of the season and if it is, Toronto could be the surprise team on top.

 

 

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 Bismack Biyombo

Raptors Rim Protector Bismack Biyombo Is Finding His Offense

Bismack Biyombo blocks shots. The Toronto Raptors brought in the Charlotte Hornets discarded big man because of his defense and rim protection, but after the last game of the 2014-15 regular season, Biyombo told Pro Bball Report he has an offensive game too and he was going to surprise some people. It was one of the reasons we believed he should be a free agent target.

Biyombo came into the NBA as a legitimate future hack-a-big man candidate. He couldn’t hit free throws, shooting just 48.3 percent from the charity stripe as a rookie, but that’s not really true any more. Each year he worked on his shooting stroke and this season he’s been to the line 169 times and made 64.5 percent of his tosses.

The occasional mid range jumper has been falling as well and it’s becoming less of a surprise to see it drop, but Biyombo is still doing dunks or layups 2/3rds of the time and finishing better than 65 percent of his attempts within three feet of the rim. However, Biyombo really does believe in expanding his offensive game.

“I work each and every night, before and after practice I come come back in the gym when no body is around here and get my work in and go home and come back and play the game,” Biyombo said. “The hard work always pays off. I believe in it.”

The hard work hasn’t gone unnoticed. Right from the beginning of the season his teammates have been feeding him the ball in the post and for short jumpers, even in situations that made a lot of people cringe. He deserved to get those chances to score because of his defensive effort, but those cringe worthy situations usually didn’t turn out well.

Biyombo was often tentative at the offensive end, but he’s gotten better as the season has progressed. He’s not hesitating when he needs to take a jump shot and he’s stopped bringing the ball down when catching it in the post. His confidence is higher and it shows.

“Trust in myself and have confidence in my shot,” Biyombo explained. “If I shoot it and make it, I make it. If I shoot it and miss it, I miss it. For me it is a reward for myself and I am taking them with confidence. If I make it, I was supposed to make it because I worked for it. For me it is being able to play with confidence, being able to focus on myself and not get distracted with wanting to do so many things at the same time. Do one thing at a time. Know what I know how to do and get out there and have fun with it and obviously it is paying off.”

Biyombo hasn’t been ignoring his defense. The Raptors did well picking up this rim protector. He’s second in the the NBA blocking six percent of the two point attempts while he is on the floor – just ahead of Rudy Gobert and DeAndre Jordan. Head coach Dwane Casey trusts his big man at the end of games when he needs to get stops. The improving offense has been a bonus.

“I think everybody is comfortable and fits into the system,” Biyombo said. “As a team we are getting better and I think that’s the most important thing. Guys are playing together, guys are playing better and as we get closer to the playoffs we are going to need everybody if we want to accomplish something special.

“At the end of the day, I just want to go deeper in the playoffs and have a special year with the team.”

Biyombo is having a special year with his new team. Off the scrap heap and into an important role on a contender. It’s good to know that his goals extend beyond what he’s done in the regular season.

 

 

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.

 

 

 

 

Toronto NBA Raptors Bismack BiyomboBismack Biyombo Is Having A Career Year In Toronto

You never know for sure if a young player is going to step up when their opportunity knocks. The Charlotte Hornets certainly didn’t think Bismack Biyombo would be setting new career bests this early in the season or they just might have not let him walk away in free agency to the Toronto Raptors for nothing at the end of his rookie contract.

 

 

NBA Toronto Raptors DeMar DeRozan and Chicago Bulls Jimmy Butler

Da Bulls Beat The Raptors Again, What Else Is New?

By Frank McLean

Stop me if you herd this one before. Inexplicably, the floundering Chicago Bulls beat the Toronto Raptors in an NBA game. So, what else is new? For the ninth straight meeting between the two clubs Monday night in Toronto, the Bulls edged out the Raptors 109-107, but with the Bulls sliding and the Raptors rising, other than the embarrassment, what does it really matter?

The amazing thing is that when you talked to people who cover the Bulls and are with them on a daily basis before the game they were telling everybody that this would be night Toronto snaps the streak.

They came to this conclusion when looking at the Bulls inactive roster for this one.

Sitting at home in Chicago were Pau Gasol with a knee injury and Joakim Noah with a long term shoulder injury. Veteran Mike Dunleavy had a bad case of the flu and when I saw him in the Bulls locker room prior to game he looked like death warmed over. And Derrick Rose was missing as he is taking his time getting back from a left adductor strain.

It looked like easy pickings, ah not so fast folks.

Raptors head coach Dwane Casey was prophetic earlier in the day when he talked about how the Bulls had won eight in a row prior to Monday’s game.

“We’ve got to figure it out because you don’t want to go 0-for against a team and not find out exactly what it is (that isn’t working). Every time we’ve played them somebody’s come in and had an out-of-body experience, whether it’s (Jimmy) Butler, last game it was (Doug) McDermott (scoring a career high 30), the time before that I think it was (Derrick) Rose or (Tony) Snell or somebody rises up out of the woodwork and has a big night. They have a very talented team, very talented roster and it seems like against us they figure it out and we’ve got to make sure we find out what it is tonight.”

McDermott was the man again scoring 24 points in the first half and finishing up with a game high 29.

Jimmy Butler returned after missing the last three games with a sore left knee, but his presence was desperately needed with the Bulls running out to the court a shorthanded line-up. He only scored 13 points, but with a second left in regulation time he made a huge stop on DeMar DeRozan as he tried to make a layup and send the game into overtime.

The Bulls have now 15 man games lost to injuries and illness. With the win and a Detroit Pistons loss in Washington the Bulls now cling to the eighth and last playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. This is why the Bulls are in the bottom half of the standings.

With Derrick Rose broken down again and Joakim Noah’s shoulder still hurting the Bulls need Butler to try and steal a playoff berth.

“Gotta risk it to get the biscuit,’’ Butler said after Monday’s game when asked about playing heavy minutes with the knee the rest of the season. “I gotta do whatever it takes to help my team win. I let the coaches know that. If I’m stepping out on that floor, I’m giving my all for as long as my team needs me.’’

“I think my knee is going to be banged up a little bit,’’ Butler added.“Gotta learn to live with it, get my wind back, get in that gym, get my rhythm back.’’

Rose is taking his time getting back from his injury and with less than 20 games to play in the regular season, if Butler misses any more time with his knee the Bulls will be on the golf course by mid April.

Meanwhile for the NBA Eastern Conference second place Toronto Raptors one thing is certain, they don’t have da Bulls on their schedule for the rest of the regular season and sitting with a 6.5 game lead over the Celtics and Heat with just 16 games left, they can forget about the eighth place Bulls for a while.

 

 

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 Jonas Valanciunas, DeMarre Carroll, Kyle Lowry & DeMar DeRozan

It’s Time For Toronto To Board The Raptors Bandwagon

The Toronto Raptors pulled out another win at the Air Canada Centre on Saturday night against a potential playoff rival to boost their home record to 26 wins and just 7 losses and increase their solid hold on second place in the Eastern Conference with a 44-20 record overall, but for some bizarre and completely historical reasons, the locals are still reluctant to board the bandwagon.

Sure, even at historically high ticket prices, the building has been sold out all season. Toronto is a huge market, but the refrain across the all-powerful social media remains, let’s wait and see what this team can do in the playoffs.

Maybe the skeptical Torontonians are distracted by the high powered offense of the Toronto Blue Jays as they tear up the exhibition season in Florida? Even the call-ups from the AHL Marlies to the heavily tanking NHL Toronto Maple Leafs seem to get more attention in this usually hockey crazed city, but the Raptors aren’t just having a good season by their own previously low standards. This year the team is actually good – very good by any standard.

The Raptors are on a 56 win pace and it’s nothing new. They’ve been on a solid winning pace all season. Plus, it’s not a mirage like last year either.

Last season this team set a new franchise record with 49 wins, but they did it by beating up on their weak sisters. The 2014-15 fourth place Raptors were only 15-21 versus teams with a .500 record or above and the three teams ahead of them in the Eastern Conference standings had solid winning records against winning teams. Even the fifth place Wizards who swept them out of the playoffs had a nearly identical 14-22 record against winning teams. That kind of regular season success indicates a team who’ll be lucky to advance past the first round of the playoffs and isn’t much of a threat in the second round.

This year the Raptors record doesn’t indicate it’ll take luck to to be considered a favorite to advance past the second round of the playoffs.

Toronto currently has a 13-5 record against teams in the East holding down a playoff spot and to put those Western Conference blowhards in their place, the Raptors are 9-3 against playoff teams in the West. 64 games into a season, your record is no longer a fluke. You are who you are at this point and the Raptors are beating the teams they are likely to face in the first two rounds of the playoffs and are 2-1 against the heavily favored Cavaliers.

One of the big holes in the Raptors game from last season was their rebounding. As much as their defense was being maligned, it was the inability to secure the rebound after a stop that did them in. Toronto was outrebounded 193 to 154 by the Wizards in the playoffs and everyone should have seen that coming. The Raptors were regularly being out rebounded during the regular season and a bigger and more physical Wizards team literally pushed them around in the playoffs.

Life on the boards is good for Toronto this year. The combination of Jonas Valanciunas and Bismack Biyombo has given the Raptors a presence on the glass this team isn’t used to having. The two centers are top five in rebounding percentage in the East. Add in the veteran presence of big man Luis Scola who is a solid rebounder in his own right and the Raptors rebounding differential versus their opponents has improved by 3.5 rebounds per game. That’s enough to move them from a bottom 10 rebounding team last year to a top 7 team this year.

The better overall defensive effort is stark when compared to last season. To-date the Raptors are holding teams to an NBA fifth best 98.4 points per game and no one beats this team without scoring over 100 points. They have a franchise best 29 straight wins when holding their opponent under 100 points.

For comparison, last year’s squad gave up an NBA 12th worst 100.9 points per game on the season and they were in the bottom three of that year’s playoff teams for points allowed.

All that and this team has been playing without their best overall defensive player DeMarre Carroll since January 3rd and he’s expected back any time now.

It’s time Torontonians jumped on this team’s bandwagon. They aren’t just historically good by their own previously low standards any more. The Raptors are in second place in the East with a six game lead on the fourth place Celtics and they’ve taken over fourth place in the NBA overall. It’s a team enjoying success over the best in the East with a 13-5 record and the best in the West at 9-3. It’s no mirage this time. All aboard.

 

 

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 Jason Thompson

Can Jason Thompson Crack The Raptors Rotation?

Jason Thompson is a 29-year-old power forward/center who has played 571 NBA games and started in 407 of them. He has career averages of 9 points and 6.7 rebounds. He’s shot 49.7 percent from the field and has range out to – and more recently past – the three-point line. A sold rebounder for a big man and a decent enough defender, but can he crack the fairly well established Raptors big man rotation?

Head coach Dwane Casey seems pretty comfortable going with Jonas Valanciunas, Luis Scola, Patrick Patterson and Bismack Biyombo at the four and five spots and he should. His team is solidly in second place and on track to win a new franchise record of 56 games. This is rarefied air for a club that has never made it to 50 wins in its 21 years of existence. Their 43 wins (March 11) already represents their sixth most ever.

“Obviously this team is very established,” Thompson explained to Pro Bball report. “Got a lot of positive things going, so I just want to be part of the ride and help as much as I can (if) guys are banged up or injuries. Be ready if my number is called.”

Thompson has already got a start in Toronto so Casey could give Scola a day off to rest and that could become very important as the season quickly runs thru the final 19 or so games and the Raptors look to be fresh heading into the playoffs that start in about 5 weeks from now.

However, spot starts to give a regular a rest is not the same as cracking the rotation and it isn’t going to be easy to displace any of the Raptors top four big men.

Known as a good rebounder, Thompson has grabbed about 15 percent of the total available boards over his career and once he’s settled in that’s a pretty good indication of what he can do in Toronto. However, both Valanciunas and Biyombo are taking down over 20 percent of the available boards when they are on the court and have been superior rim protectors as well. Valanciunas providing offense that’s ahead of Thompson and Biyombo has gained the complete trust of his coach on defense.

NBA Toronto Raptors Jason Thompson

The one very interesting and somewhat unexpected skill Thompson could bring at the center spot is what looks like a reliable three-ball. A stretch-five that can rebound and play acceptable defense is a valuable commodity in today’s NBA, so maybe there’s something here – against all the odds.

Patterson doesn’t rebound particularly well, but in the current small ball NBA, he’s a mobile big man that can guard the perimeter. It’s obvious Casey is in love with what Patterson brings to the table, even when his big forward isn’t hitting his three-ball. That kind of loyalty and trust isn’t shaken easily.

Scola and Thompson’s games seem pretty similar and in reality, these two are probably fighting it out for a contract offer for next season. Both players have size, hustle for rebounds and have pulled out an unexpected three-point shot that increases their value as a stretch-four. Probably interchangeable, but that gives a distinct edge to Scola as he’s been the starting power forward all season.

So, this period is really like an extended job interview. Who fits best for the long term?

“I kind of really never been through it before being on one team for seven years,” Thompson said. “(Then) being on so many many different teams in a year’s span. It’s just part of the route I’ve taken and it just shows how much character a person can have going thru those times. It’s easy to be a pro when stuff is going positive, but when something doesn’t go your way, it’s how you react to that. So, I could definitely learn from this experience.

“It’s an audition. For me, going thru adversity can make myself better character-wise and (as a) player as well.

“Players are needed for the playoffs as well and this is the first playoffs in my career, my eight year career and that’s the most interesting part. It’s good to be here at this time and learning from a talented team like this in the second seed and trying to go for the first.”

It’s hard to believe, until one remembers the 29-year-old Thompson has played most of his career in Sacramento, that this eight year veteran has never been to the postseason. At least from his experience with the Kings he should be used to the audition process with a new head coach, he had seven head coaches in seven years there – then he had two more in Golden State this season, plus Casey in Toronto makes 10 head coaches in eight seasons.

“I don’t think it helps,” Thompson said. ” Because you want to be in a role where you are comfortable with a coach and a system and just worry about yourself and not the system per se. Every time you have to learn from a new coach and a new system it’s not the easiest, but that’s how you learn character-wise as a player. If you can get thru those things and find ways to be effective on both sides of the floor then you can make yourself into a player.”

At least Thompson shouldn’t be shaken up or surprised by having to learn yet another system on short notice from another new head coach in Toronto. That aspect of the change should be like getting out of bed in the morning by now.

Unfortunately, minutes for all of the Raptors big men are expected to be feeling the squeeze very soon from the pending return of DeMarre Carroll.

Carroll has only played in 23 games for the Raptors this season because of foot and knee issues, but he’s expected back in short order (no date has been set, but its been about 8 weeks since his surgery) and once he’s reclaimed his spot in the starting lineup, everybody playing in the three/four/five spots in the rotation will feel his impact. Like so many teams, the Raptors are at their best playing some version of small ball and Carroll is at his best defending against power threes and stretch-fours (and even stretch-fives).

Plus, if Carroll returns as Toronto’s third best three-point threat, it will be the competition adjusting to match what the Raptors can put on the court rather than the other way around.

As Casey said on Thompson’s arrival, he’s “insurance” and he’s needed insurance. A team can’t play small ball all the time against every opponent and the Raptors options at center are not all that comfortable if Biyombo or Valanciunas are lost for even a few games. Thompson is also likely the best option if Scola wasn’t available, although his fellow former Kings teammate James Johnson would probably fill in for Patterson if needed.

Cracking the rotation and taking the spot of any of the four big men Casey currently relies upon isn’t likely at this point, but Thompson will get to play as guys get days off heading towards the playoffs. As much as anything, this is an audition for next season and this veteran looks pretty interesting.

 

 

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 Bruno Caboclo

Bruno Caboclo Is Learning Fast With Raptors 905

Bruno Caboclo is most famously known as being “two years away from being two years away,” but that was before Toronto had their own NBA D-League affiliate. Last year Caboclo had a terrible experience with the Fort Wayne Mad Ants, but this year he’s been learning fast with the Mississauga Raptors 905. Pro Bball Report caught up with Caboclo at the Air Canada Centre recently and just maybe the 905 has put those first two years in the rearview mirror for Caboclo.

“The Mad Ants wasn’t a team from the Raptors, so they were focused on other guys, but here they are more focused on us and we can develop our game,” Caboclo said.

Last week we got a taste of just how far that development has come.

 

 

Caboclo scored 29 points and grabbed 11 rebounds against the D-League team that pretty much refused to play him last season. He shot 10-17 from the field and dropped 5-7 three-pointers. It was a game indicative of just how far he has progressed over this season.

With the 905 Caboclo gets to play, whether he’s having a good game or not. He has averaged 33.4 minutes, 14.1 points, 6.1 rebounds, a steal and 1.6 blocks in 30 games. His shooting has improved over the season to 44.8 percent from two-point range and 34.7 percent from three-point range (and those numbers were pretty terrible at the start of the season.) It’s been exactly what he’s needed to develop his game.

“I feel more comfortable,” Caboclo said. “We have more freedom in the D-League. (Head coach) Jesse (Mermuys) gives (me) a lot of opportunities there. I am trying to do my work, find out what I need to do, so I can improve.

“I always play(ed) on the outside, but now I have more opportunities. (It is) easier close to the basket, in the paint. Open shots are easy too, but it depends on the situation. Who is guarding you, if they are a good defender.

“I feel more comfortable playing small forward because I haven’t played much at power forward, but I am getting used to it now and I feel better at both small forward and power forward.

“If you are able to play at other (positions) it is better for you, you can get have more (of a) chance.”

Caboclo may have lost a year because the Raptors didn’t have their own D-League affiliate (as planned) last season, but this was never a short term project. Raptors president and general manager Masai Ujiri admittedly swung for the fences by taking Caboclo with the 20th overall draft pick two summers ago.

“It is going to take Bruno a little while,” Ujiri said after the 2014 draft. “I’m sure when you see him you’ll feel the excitement that we feel having a young player like that – that loves to work, is a basketball junkie, just loves to play basketball all day. I think that will be fun for our team, another young player like that. A 6’9 wing with a 7’ 6.5” wingspan, shoots the ball with good confidence. (He) needs to gain weight, there is some good upside there. In the 20s, he is a good risk to take.”

“(Caboclo) needs playing experience,” Mermuys told Pro Bball Report earlier this season. “He needs minutes and he needs us as a coaching staff to help him every single day and be able to live with some mistakes and growing pains.”

The big Brazilian kid won’t be 21-years-old until September, but he’s put on some weight since he was drafted and remains a physical specimen in terms of height and length. Add an improving shooting stroke and it’s still easy to project/imagine Caboclo as an impact NBA player at some point. The best news is Caboclo really is learning fast with the 905 and the improvement is obvious.

 

 

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

Raptors Rookie Norman Powell Stifles Kyle Korver

Watch out for Raptors rookie Norman Powell, especially if your name is James Johnson or possibly even Terrence Ross. Head coach Dwane Casey favors defense above all and even he was impressed by how Powell was able to stifle the Hawks red hot sharpshooter Kyle Korver in Toronto on Thursday night.

“(Powell) played like an old man,” Casey said. “He was physical. He was gritty. He was grimy. His attention to detail, he didn’t fall asleep. Korver had one three in the first half and that wasn’t on Norm, that was in transition. I was really proud of the way he competed. Again, he’s growing as a player each every time he’s out there on the floor.”

In case any of the Raptors other players fighting for minutes in the rotation didn’t notice, those were shots fired by the head coach. Powell took a defensive assignment against a tough veteran player who had been shooting 55 percent from three-point range over the past four games and helped shut him down. Korver finished shooting 2-6 from the field for 5 points and as Casey pointed out, the one three-pointer wasn’t Powell’s fault.

The second round pick has been on Casey’s radar since the beginning of the season and he just started his seventh game in the last five weeks. Powell has been gaining his coach’s confidence by playing tough physical defense. The fact his own shot is finally starting to fall is just a bonus and a real threat to the guys who might have believed those minutes Powell is playing belong to them.

Powell has fun playing defense and it looks like Casey has noticed.

“I thought it was fun (guarding Korver),” Powell told Pro Bball Report. “A little different for me, but he definitely kept me active just staying attached to him. He’s always moving, so you have to be alert on everything. On quick pin downs his setups are great just because he gets to his shot, so he really kept me active all game. I thought I did a great job running him off, making him frustrated, making it tough for him to catch the ball.”

Earning a coach’s trust as a rookie when a team has more veteran alternatives is never easy and it can be doubly tough for a second round pick, but Powell had confidence that Casey has believed in him from the start. It’s starting to look like his confidence was justified – or maybe that confidence helped him play the tough physical style that Casey wanted to see?

“I think it goes to my work ethic,” Powell said. “When I was in here for the predraft talking to (Casey) after the workout I had with him, he said he liked my game. He liked the way I played. My energy and just my defensive toughness that I brought to the game, so I am fortunate to be here in Toronto and he liked the way that I played early on. (I am) earning (his) trust, earning those minutes and showing that he can put me in the game and I am going to give him 110 percent.”

Powell is living the rookie dream. Not just playing garbage minutes, but actually starting games on a top two team in his conference. This is fun.

“It’s a lot of fun,” Powell said. “This is something I’ve dreamed of as a little kid. One of my goals this year was to get a start, the fact I’ve got multiple starts now in my rookie season is a blessing and I’m looking forward to completing a couple more accomplishments this season and just go out there and play my role and help this team win to the best of my ability. I’m really glad I’ve been able to go up against some of the guys that I’ve watched. It’s just a dream come true.”

A dream for the rookie and maybe, possibly, a nightmare for opposing guards and wings in the future.

 

 

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 Portland Trail Blazers Ed Davis

Ex-Raptors Series: Ed Davis Has Figured It Out In Portland

Ed Davis was drafted by the Toronto Raptors 13th overall in 2010 as a skinny athletic 21-year-old power forward that needed to find a way to make his mark in a man’s game. His skill and energy made him a fan favorite, but he still got shipped off to Memphis in his third season as part of the trade that brought Rudy Gay to Toronto.

Davis was a likable young man during his time in Toronto, but he never gave the impression that he knew his game still needed a lot of work. Getting pushed out of the way in the post was an all too frequent occurrence and he had to work hard for whatever he was going to get. At the time, working hard, especially off the court, wasn’t something that seemed to cross the young Davis’ mind nearly often enough. He needed to mature and the school of hard knocks was about to make an impression.

“I think sitting on the bench for a year and a half in Memphis really matured me,” Davis told Pro Bball Report. “I’ve seen a lot of things. I’ve been humbled, so I just try and take my experiences and try to help other guys out and use all the negative times I’ve had throughout my career as to not take things for granted.”

After his rookie deal expired and the Grizzlies let him explore free agency, Davis discovered just how humbling the NBA can be as he ended up signing a minimum deal with the woeful Lakers. However, the school of hard knocks seemed to inspire Davis and he had a good year on a bad team. The Trail Blazers noticed and signed him to a three-year $20 million contract last summer.

It isn’t easy to evaluate talent playing in a bad situation, but Davis’ evolution was for real and he’s having the best season of his career coming off the bench for a surprising playoff contender. He’s figured out how he can help a team.

“Just how I can come in and help a team somehow, however that might be,” Davis said. “Come off the bench, bring energy, change the game up. Whatever I can do to help the team get extra possessions, the hustle plays and things like that.”

Davis is older (26) and stronger, but he still isn’t about to push anyone around. He is, however, rebounding at an impressive rate at both ends of the court (18.9 percent of available boards) and he’s taken his shooting up a notch (60.9 percent).

“He keeps getting better and feeling more comfortable with what we are doing at both ends,” Trail Blazers head coach Terry Stotts said. “He’s a great guy, a great teammate. He has a knack of getting a shot off in the paint. He is a versatile defender and he complements what we are doing. His ability to guard inside guys and outside guys has really helped us.

“He still is not a bulky figure, but he really holds his own against some of the bigger guys in the league. He finds a way to get things done. Sometimes it’s a little unorthodox, but he finds a way to be productive at both ends of the court.”

Davis has enjoyed some big games with Portland. He’s put up eight double-doubles so far this year and perhaps more importantly, 16 double-digit rebounding efforts. Davis has figured out how to help a team and he is part of the reason Portland is in the playoff picture rather than tanking for a draft pick right now.

 

 

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 Brooklyn Nets Brook Lopez

Raptors Have No Reason To Take Nets Lightly

The Toronto Raptors welcome the Joe Johnson-less Brooklyn Nets to the Air Canada Centre on Tuesday night having dominated them so far this season, but head coach Dwane Casey insists that’s no reason to take them lightly.

“They are still a team that has a lot of pride,” Casey said after shootaround. “You have an All-Star in Brook Lopez. I think is one of the top centers in our league. Thaddeus Young is one of the top power forwards in our league, so they have some firepower. We can’t look at their record. In the last six games they are 3-3 and playing at a high level. Out of their last six games they have scored over 116 points three times, so all those things are pluses for them and things we have to guard against. We have no reason whatsoever to go in any game and look at a team’s record, who they are, how they are playing and not come out and play our game cause when we do, I promise you it’s ugly.”

 

 

In their two earlier matchups, the Raptors have outscored the Nets 101.5 to 87, shot 47.3 percent from the field and outrebounded them 42.5 to 39.5.

The Nets have been bad this season, with or without Johnson. They have posted the fourth worst record in the NBA at 18-45 and have nothing to play for except pride, but in the NBA pride can win you games if your opponent doesn’t show up ready to play.

Lopez has averaged 26.5 points, 11.5 rebounds, a steal and 2.5 blocks against the Raptors this season and Young is averaging 11 points and 8 boards. They can carry this team on any given night.

A potential trap game because it should be a blowout, but as Phoenix, Denver and Minnesota found out recently, these Nets can still put up a ton of points in a hurry if you aren’t ready to defend.

 

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 Lucas Nogueira

Are The Raptors Holding Center Lucas Nogueira Back?

It’s not easy joining a winning team as an unproven rookie and it doesn’t get any less arduous when your team signs a young free agent backup at your position the next summer. 7′ center Lucas ‘Bebe’ Nogueira believes he’s ready to play in the NBA right now, so have the Toronto Raptors been holding the 23-year-old Brazilian back?

“Honestly, it’s hard to show you are ready cause sometimes you are ready,” Nogueira told Pro Bball Report. “But things don’t happen like you want in the game and because of that game you don’t play well, Coach can take it and say you are not ready, but sometimes you are. It is so hard to figure out if you are ready or not.

“In my opinion, I am always ready like I did in the last game because this is the same mentality that I try to play every game, but sometimes things don’t go well and maybe that one day things don’t go well, Coach, GM can use that game against you to say he’s not ready. So, it’s hard to say if you are ready or not, but in my mind I try to be ready and I think I am ready every time.

“I do my regular practice, my team practice, my individual workouts, so I don’t know what I should do more to be ready.

“I think I just got to wait. The chance is coming and see what happens.”

There have been games where Nogueira has looked ready. He has set perfect screens. He has used his length to be unstoppable on rolls to the basket and a nightmare defender in the post. Then there’s those other games where he has looked lost on the court and unsure of what to do next.

The Raptors have used their NBA D-League affiliate in Mississauga to get Nogueira some run against competition and the big man has looked pretty good in his 8 games with the Raptors 905. He shows potential as a playmaker, stretch-five, rim protector and finisher at this level averaging 9.4 points, 7 rebounds, 3.4 assists, 1.8 blocks and 0.9 steals in just 25.1 minutes per game. Also, he’s played his best basketball at the NBA level right after being called back up.

“It is part of my game to show energy and be active on both sides of the court, but sometimes it is hard when you don’t have the game situation because I don’t play much in the D-League,” Nogueira said. “So it is not enough to get in shape, but it doesn’t matter, you got to be in shape. I don’t know how, but you got to be in shape and you got to be active.”

Nogueira can look a little out of place playing in the D-League as he has an obvious size and skill advantage at that level, but he makes a strong argument as to why he needs to play there more. It really has looked like Nogueira has some trouble staying in game-shape in the NBA when he isn’t playing enough in the D-League.

However, playing time in the NBA for Nogueira isn’t going to be easy to find in Toronto. Head coach Dwane Casey has every reason to trust Jonas Valanciunas and Bismack Biyombo over his sophomore center. JV and Biz might be young centers, but they have a lot more NBA experience than Bebe and as long as they are available to play, minutes at center are going to be hard to find whether Nogueira is ready or not.

“You know the young (guys) have the potential, (but) you don’t know if he can be consistent,” Nogueira explained. “Veterans can be consistent for the whole night and this is the reason coaches and GMs want veterans because veterans when they have played this game for a long time, they are going to be consistent, but what about the young guys? They have talent yes, they have potential, but can they be consistent? So everybody have their doubts about the young guys. So you have to show them, take the doubt out of their mind and you got to show work every time out.”

The Raptors are undoubtedly holding back Nogueira’s development. This team is on a 55-win pace and are already investing a lot of minutes in developing players a little further along than Bebe like Valanciunas (23), Biyombo (23), Ross (24) and Joseph (24).

If Nogueira needs an example to follow, the 22-year-old rookie guard Norman Powell has gained the confidence of his coaches with consistent energy and effort. He stays in NBA ready shape and shows the work every time out.

 

 

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

Raptors James Johnson With A Fresh Look For Spring

There should be no doubt, the Toronto Raptors forward James Johnson is is stylish guy and part of that is keeping his look fresh. He doesn’t just show up rocking the same look all the time.

Well, apparently it was time for another change. Here’s a look at James since he’s been back in Toronto.

NBA Toronto Raptors James Johnson

James Johnson on his return to the Raptors in 2014

When Johnson first returned to Toronto at the start of the 2014/15 season, he was displaying the scruffy stubble look, but by the next season he’d gone to the full on beard.

NBA Toronto Raptors James Johnson

Raptors James Johnson at the start of the 2015/16 season

However, Johnson is constantly working on both his game and his look (the other game). It was time for something fresh.

NBA Toronto Raptors James Johnson

Raptors James Johnson rockin’ a long goatee after the 2016 All-Star break

“Just changing it up,” Johnson told Pro Bball Report during some light postgame banter. “Different style, different everything. Whatever makes you feel good makes you play good.

“No big reason, cause I look good like this.

“Just keep it clean, keep it classy and try to keep the focus on basketball.”

The always stylish Johnson will get no argument from this corner, the goatee does look good on 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.