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NBA Toronto Raptors Serge Ibaka and PJ Tucker

Raptors Now Have Best Defense In The East

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

 

 

 

 

NBA Toronto Raptors PJ Tucker

Raptors Are Winning With Crushing Defense

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

  Featured image courtesy of Larry Millson

 

 

 

NBA Toronto Raptors team

Team Meeting Turns On The Raptors Defense In Detriot

By Lindsay Dunn

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

 

 

 

NBA Toronto Raptors 50 wins 2015-16 season

Toronto Raptors Are Going For 50 Wins Again

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

 

 

 

NBA Toronto Raptors PJ Tucker and Serge Ibaka

Raptors PJ Tucker Is A Talking Bowling Ball With Arms

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

  Featured image courtesy of Larry Millson

 

 

NBA Toronto Raptors Serge Ibaka

Tucker And Ibaka Make Toronto A Deep And Nasty Team

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Starting:

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

Subs:

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

Bench:

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

Potential closing lineup:

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

 

 

NBA Toronto Raptors P.J. Tucker

P.J. Tucker Adds Defensive Toughness To The Raptors

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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