When Masai Ujiri made his tweaks in the off-season, never had he, or likely any fans, or anyone in the Toronto Raptors‘ organization envisioned this team going off on this surprising, scorching hot start. They’ve so far proven most of the naysayers wrong, blasting out an impressive, and East-best 9-2 record. What’s even more impressive, despite their awful starts and 3rd quarters, is how they’ve learned to close out games; a totally different outcome in comparison to past seasons.
The Raptors have exploded as the best team in the league, so far. Very recently, the Raptors blew the Memphis Grizzlies off the top spot. Another trend in that win? A terrible 3rd quarter, trailing the entire time, and digging themselves out of a hole (10 points) in which they had to climb back from. Countering that with another early trend, the Raptors closed it out in the 4th quarter, holding Memphis to under 30% shooting from the field, and did not allow the Grizz to score in the last minute and a half of the game.
Another impressive statistic to tell the tale of the Raptors in the 4th quarter is their point differential. They are currently rated number one in the league at approximately +5.0 points, thus illustrating the team’s defense, and the offence finding its rhythm in the clutch. #WeTheFourth
The recent home game against the Orlando Magic was a huge teller of how hard the Raptors fought in order to get a win in the 4th quarter. Orlando was held to 7-20, 35% shooting from the field, while the Raptors finished 9-14, 64% from the field. It’s simple, defend the basketball, and put the ball in the hoop.
However, to counter the Raptors being the best 4th quarter team in the league, they’ve been absolutely awful at the start of games, and coming out of the half. To start, the team looks unprepared, and are jumped on from the tip. Half-time over, however, the team doesn’t play like it’s over. A lot of the time, they step out onto the court as if they dipped their little toes into a hot tub while biting into a bowl of Kraft Dinner. Exaggeration? Possibly, but it’s deserving, considering this team is not there yet, to where they can turn it on whenever they like in order to achieve victory.
The Chicago Bulls game was the perfect example of the team’s complacency with even a little margin of comfort. Raps, up 52-45, finished an impressive first half, with terrific defence and momentum-shifting scoring from the second unit. With the second half rolling in, everything changed; the starters playing on their heels, and with little to absolutely no energy to spare. It was such a dreadful 3rd quarter, shooting 6-21, 29% from the field, while allowing the Bulls to put on a show, going 12-18, 67% from the field. Defense was atrocious, especially on the inside, with seven of the Bulls’ 12 makes coming inside the paint. Pau Gasol and Joakim Noah were a terror to deal with that entire evening.
Again, broken record, Raps defended, Raps scored. In this case, however, too little too late. This is where the concern lies; relying on effort in the 4th quarter is such a major risk, no matter if they’re a talented team, or one that’s expected to be fighting for lottery balls.
Hard to find a lot of negatives with a team that’s 9-2, but for some reason, the Raptors have highlighted their concerns in bright yellow. Despite having solid rebounding bigs in Jonas Valanciunas, Amir Johnson, Tyler Hansbrough, Patrick Patterson, James Johnson, and solid rebounding guards in Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan, the team is bottom five in the league in total rebounding. Sorry, that is just bad, and from the eye test, it shows. The rebounding makes you want to pull your hair out. There have been countless occasions where a point guard slips in between a tower of bigs to sneak a rebound, or bigs are constantly making their 3rd, 4th jump for the ball before a Raptor big makes his first jump or attempt to corral a rebound. It’s almost embarrassing to see such solid rebounding individuals get beaten nearly consistently on the boards. Either the guys aren’t physically in shape to play defense for 24 seconds and pound a body for a box-out, or they’re way too offensive-minded to grab a board before running out for a score. Whatever the reason is, it’s got to change.
Ball movement has made a noticeable change as well, and not a good one. The ball movement has decreased, and almost completely comparing to last season. Players have settled more and more in throwing the ball into DeRozan in the low-post, or in isolation situations, or settling for constant pick-&-rolls. While DeMar has improved significantly in his shot creation, and the team has added some impressive scoring, the team’s identity offensively was how well they share the ball; that’s all being proven otherwise ranking in the bottom of the league in assists per game. More specifically, 27th in the league, with the struggling Detroit Pistons, Indiana Pacers, and isolation-heavy Sacramento Kings right under them.
Other concerns are their rankings in the bottom third of the league in 3-point percentage, and ranking in the bottom half in field goal percentage – two things the Raptors made strengths of last season after the major trade was made last season.
As we lighten the mood, positives mostly lie in the team’s turnover numbers, ranked second in free-throw attempts, impressive overall scoring at 4th in the league, and tops in blocks and steals, 10th and 8th in the league respectively. Despite being near the bottom in assists, the team is among the top in taking care of the ball at an impressive rate of 11.0 turnovers per game. While the ball movement has decreased significantly, at least the team isn’t throwing the ball away foolishly.
The biggest positive to take away early on has to be the strength of the bench unit. They’ve created an identity already; tough, energetic defense, pushing the tempo offensively, and able to shift the momentum of the game in little time. It’s impressive what the main line-up of Greivis Vasquez, Lou Williams, Johnson, Patterson, and Hansbrough have been able to do in their little time together as a second unit. The Raptors’ second unit is currently 9th in the league in scoring, 4th in the steals, 13th in rebounding, and 8th in free-throw attempts. Sure, this second unit on paper was, and currently still is expected to produce, but it wasn’t expected that the second unit was going to find its chemistry so early into the season.
Individual observations are also to be made. For example, Kyle Lowry has been a much better floor leader this season, not being as aggressive, but being significantly more passive and timely in his scoring opportunities. With the should-be increasing usage, but actually decreasing usage of Valanciunas, a more confident DeRozan, and improving Terrence Ross, his scoring opportunities are going to take a hit.
DeRozan has been quite a different player this season, much more effective in creating off the dribble, however the efficiency has taken it’s hit, and he tends to force more shots up rather than passing out for better attempts. The result of this has been decreased assist numbers and low shooting percentages. Possibly, the all-star/gold medal thing is getting to his head, because from the live eye there’s a whole lot more shimmy shakes and fade-away’s than there were last season.
Ross has been inconsistent, Vasquez as well still finding his rhythm, while Hansbrough – who saw inconsistent court time last season – has carved out a nice role with the team as a main back-up big. James Johnson and Lou Williams have also found comfort with their new roles and mates.
The biggest individual observation, on the other hand, is Jonas. Some games, he looks like the potential all-star he can be, and there are quarters and plays that make him look like an absolute scrub. What’s even more frustrating is the big man has a short leash with Coach Dwane Casey, and doesn’t get that touches and minutes he deserves despite how well he’s playing.
A problem with JV is his attitude. Expressive, which isn’t a bad thing, but it’s obvious when a play has affected his mental part of the game. He commits a foul, throws a silly pass, isn’t in the right spot defensively, and he’ll either throws his arms up in the air, yell at the top of his lungs, or shake his head in disbelief, with a sad frown on his face. If Valanciunas can focus and move onto the next play, rather than allowing the past play to affect the next one, his personal confidence can rise, and he will gain the confidence from his teammates.
Lost in all this early season success, is the great coaching by Dwane Casey. The man has ridden the hot hand, made the necessary line-up and match-up changes, and makes the right calls after timeouts. He’s done a solid job in calling the timeouts in the right situation, and has really found a way to keep the right set of players on the floor when the game is in closing mode. This man deserves as much credit as the players and the man who built this team together in Masai (sure, you can maybe argue Bryan Colangelo put this team together), but, one wish— let the young Valanciunas play through some mistakes; he’s averaging less minutes and less touches to last season.
In conclusion, the Raptors have a lot still to work on, however they’ve made some impressive strides. The fact that despite all of their troubles, they’ve got the best record in the East is quite encouraging. One can only imagine what will happen when this team hits full stride. Stay tuned, Raptors’ fans.