The Toronto Raptors finished the pre-season with a impressive 7-1 record; their only loss coming to the Sacramento Kings on the road. However, that record means absolutely nothing. I repeat, nothing. What does matter from the pre-season, on the other hand, was what fans and analysts could grasp from the way the team played. Mind you, inconsistent minutes and inconsistent rotations were in effect, but that doesn’t take away from what could be seen on the court.
As Coach Dwane Casey has always emphasized, defence first was the motto. From eight games, the defence was nowhere near sharp, however, the effort was present. Many times, there were missed rotations leading to open shots, point blank layups, and easy points. To counter the negatives, when the new guys like Lou Williams, Greg Stiemsma, and the rookies Bruno Caboclo, and Lucas ‘Bebe’ Nogueira were getting run, it’s easy to understand why there was so much sloppy play in terms of the defensive IQ. Either they haven’t learned the terminology and the team concepts of the defence, or are learning an NBA defence altogether.
What was nice to see on that end of the court, however, was James Johnson. He has become the go-to guy for Dwane Casey to call on in order to defend opposing team’s best perimeter player(s), or bruising offensive players like Carmelo Anthony, and the favourite example, Joe Johnson.
Against the New York Knicks in Montreal, ‘Melo blazed the Raptors for 14 first quarter points. Johnson was then called upon to slow him down. After the 1st quarter, ‘Melo went on to have 10 points for the rest of the game. This ability for the coaching staff to run with different defensive match-ups like Terrence Ross, Landry Fields, and Johnson play largely into the team’s strength of versatility. Put it this way, seeing different jerseys defend you forces you to adapt offensively, change the way you make your move, watch where you dribble the ball, etc. Last season, one-on-one defence was a weakness. This season, it might have turned into a strength with the JJ addition, quickness in Lou, length in Caboclo, and bigs in Bebe and Greg Stiemsma.
Another nice sight, was improvement in DeMar DeRozan‘s ability to defend. This was expected, considering he spent over a month with some of the NBA’s best rising talent with team USA. He didn’t become a quicker or more bruising defender, but a far more intelligent one. His close-outs against jump-shooters have become quicker; he’s been able to react at a faster rate to what the offensive players are going to do. Standing straight up, leaving them absolutely no breathing room, DeRozan would be right under the shooting player with a hand in the face of the offensive player. With the pick-&-roll, he has improved in his ability to read whether he needs to jump the ball-handler, slip under the screen, or fight through. Again, DeRozan’s improvement at that end has come from maturing and understanding the game at another level, which will definitely play a part in him evolving into a superstar.
From a team standpoint, it was quite a sight for sore eyes to see the same, familiar faces back on this year’s roster. That enough – the continuity – will be a big reason the defence and the offence being much sharper this season; expect a far more prepared basketball team.
Speaking offensively now, the Raptors have amassed quite the arsenal of weaponry. DeRozan to start it off, has not only come back noticeably bigger, but comfortable in shooting the outside shot and handling the basketball. The two needs he had to address in the off-season have clearly been worked on; he looks incredibly confident on the offensive end.
Kyle Lowry has come into camp in amazing shape, looking buffer than any other season. Throughout the eight games, Lowry has played at a confident level as well, not only making plays for himself, but also improving his floor game, getting others involved throughout the game – something that was inconsistent, and sometimes only done in the first quarter or halves of games.
What’s most intriguing about this team, however, is the back-up in the backcourt. The reserves of Greivis Vasquez and Lou Williams are as potent, and as strong as some of the starting back-courts in the league. Lou, from pre-season, looks like he is very near 100%, back to the form he was in when he first came to Atlanta, and during his time in Philadelphia. His ability to create points in a short span of time was something the Raptors seriously lacked last season; he will be that guy to shift the momentum of the game within a snap of a finger.
With the front-court, James Johnson adds versatility. Johnson’s ability to create for others off the dribble, post-up, and slash to the rim makes for another dynamic, especially because a lot of the Raptors’ offence is based on drive and kick. For example, pushing Ross to the 2, and Johnson at the 3 makes for a strong defensive perimeter, or push him to the 4, Patrick Patterson at the 5, and a combo of whatever perimeter widely spreads the floor open. We’ve seen many occasions where Coach Casey ran Johnson at the 3/4, and throughout the pre-season he demonstrated his passing ability and effectiveness when attacking the basket.
Unfortunately, there were many cringe-worthy moments during the pre-season. A huge need that Coach Casey and his staff will need to address is the turnovers. Again, pre-season, new faces, young players, and guys trying to experiment mean these things are going to happen. However, it was a problem the Raptors had at numerous occasions last season, which dug them into deep holes. Turnovers are going to make or break this team, and at times, what was seen was forced shots, guys trying to play around with the basketball in front of three opposing jerseys, or guys forcing passes that really aren’t there. It was refreshing to see guys like DeRozan, Johnson, and Ross demonstrate their abilities to dribble, however, making the game simple was what the Raptors were so good at last season. Making the extra pass, as Jack Armstrong likes to say, “side-top-side” and trusting one another to be in the right spots was why the Raptors were a successful team without a superstar.
In connection with the turnovers, the inconsistency in feeding the ball to the low post is still a present problem. At times, there was the effort to get the bigs involved, specifically Jonas Valanciunas, but if they’re taking their time in getting the young centre involved, once regular season defence kick in, you can bet that the ‘gimme’ opportunities JV gets are going to be seldom throughout games. Again, JV needs to be involved at the very least, every third possession down the floor; it’ll open up everything for DeRozan, for Lowry, and pretty much every offensive option on the team.
Rebounding was also an issue. Overall, the Raptors were largely out-rebounded, losing both the overall and offensive rebounding battles through their eight games. Rebounding was a strength of the team last season – with what we saw in pre-season, it didn’t look like it has translated over. Again, it’s pre-season so the concern shouldn’t be too high, however let’s hope this bad habit doesn’t carry forward.
In conclusion, what we saw was a whole lot of sloppy play, but demonstration of what individuals can do. That’s usually what’s expected from every team in pre-season, however, most players aren’t going to play 100%, and the core pieces typically aren’t even on the floor for more than 15 minutes. On the other hand, seeing a potent offensive player like Williams get his own, James Johnson back in Toronto as the bruising defender, and some new young faces gives excitement for the future.
We’re done with pre-season. Bring on the Atlanta Hawks.