Toronto Raptors: Playing To Lose
Back in July, I’d written a piece on the Toronto Raptors, or, more specifically, the team’s identity issues. The gist of it was that, due to a lack of cohesive leadership, there was no real direction for the Raptors, no one to set the pace, and thus, no way for them to truly succeed.
A lot has been said already about how the team has been doing. They are currently 2-6, a dismal statistic to see, and one that many people are taking to mean that, in spite of all the preseason hype, it really is just business as usual for the poor Toronto Raptors.
They couldn’t be more wrong. And I’ll tell you why.
Let’s look at the roster. We’ve got a pretty solid group of returning players, and an equally large number of new faces. Anytime that a team has to integrate a slew of new players, there will be an adjustment period. Look at the Lakers, who are stacked with superstars and started with the worst record in the West! The only team that seems to be bucking this assumption is the Dallas Mavericks, who hardly have any recognizable faces left!
Of all the new Raptors, let’s take a moment here to really examine two: Jonas Valanciunas and Kyle Lowry.
Let’s be realistic: For the past year, JV’s arrival has been treated like the second coming. Daily updates, documentaries, coaches sent overseas to start his training. All that hype… Deep down, we had to have known that he couldn’t possibly live up to it.
Except he kind of has.
Going from any other league to the NBA is a huge adjustment. Rules are different, play is faster, intensity is heightened. And during the first game against the Indiana Pacers, when Jonas had to go toe-to-toe with Roy Hibbert, everyone saw very clearly how much the kid had to learn. What no one anticipated was just how fast he’d pick it up! Already, he’s adjusted his defence to be tougher while fouling less, he’s found his groove scoring, and he’s becoming more productive on the glass.
(The only thing he still hasn’t improved is setting a decent screen.)
From game to game, he’s learning at an exponential rate. Check out the second meeting between the Raptors and the Pacers. Valanciunas was, once again, going up against Roy Hibbert. The difference was incredible. The rookie played like the pro that he needs to be, holding Hibbert to only six points, JV scored nine. In their first match-up, Hibbert had had fourteen points.
Seems the hype was pretty legit, after all!
Now, let’s go back to the article I was referring to earlier, in which I had lamented the lack of a team identity. I had pointed out that, quite often, the pace is set by the point guard. And boy, has that ever proven true with the arrival of Kyle Lowry. For the few games before he was injured, he invigorated the defence, seemed to be psychically linked to DeMar DeRozan, and was well nigh unstoppable on offence. Even when he wasn’t on the court, he had set a tone that everyone else followed.
With Lowry, the Raptors are quick, aggressive and don’t give up. Even with him injured, they have battled back from large deficits to finish with a respectable score. They are becoming scrappy fighters, and once they hit their stride, they are calm, cool and collected.
The Raptors have, for a few years, been a very young team, based on the core trio of DeMar DeRozan, Amir Johnson and Ed Davis. It’s impossible to ignore the way that DeRozan has stepped up, finally growing into the consistent and reliable scorer that he’s always needed to be.
I was asked, recently, why that is. Look at last season, and who the big stars of the Raptors were: Jose Calderon and Andrea Bargnani. Both older and more established players, with different styles compared to the younger DeMar. This year, with the arrival of Lowry (who is, really, only a year younger than Bargnani), whose up-tempo style fits better with DeRozan’s speed and drive, as well as the influx of rookies, DeMar seems more comfortable, playing to his strengths, rather than everyone else’s. He’s driving hard, settling less for jump shots, and seems more comfortable in general.
That’s not to say that he’s the only player who has stepped up. Ed Davis has quietly changed, becoming more effective at either end. He’s worked hard for it, too, having played summer league, and spending time in the weight room, bulking up to face off better against his low-post opponents. And the fact that he’s finally gone through a full training camp with the Raptors, probably hasn’t hurt either.
His efforts haven’t resulted in the same explosive success as DeMar, but it is visible. Last season, if he’d pulled down an offensive rebound, he would have had very little chance of putting it back up, due to lack of upper body strength. This season? No problem. He’s powering through everyone!
Even Amir Johnson is stepping out of his comfort zone, playing further and further from the basket, chancing jump shots more often, and becoming more agile defensively, stealing the ball from outside the three point line to result in a fast break play.
Finally, take a look at the veterans. While Andrea Bargnani is still not back to his pre-calf strain self, Jose Calderon has had no problem picking up the slack. In the games when Lowry was starting point, Calderon was finally free to take on a role that he’d experimented with last season with Jerryd Bayless: scoring guard.
Jose’s style as point guard has always been more as a facilitator than a scorer, and now, without that burden weighing him down, he’s free to prove himself as a stone-cold shooter, capable, when given the opportunity, to take that final shot, and drain it.
All that to say that, no, this is not the same old team. So why, then do they seem like it?
The problem with the Raptors game play has always been mental. They lead going into the fourth quarter, and when the opposing team puts up a concentrated (and not unexpected) effort, the Raptors balk, falling apart in the face of a true, intense will to win.
In early games, the problem wasn’t the fourth quarter so much as the first, and that can be blamed on lack of chemistry. They really have been pushing, physically, mentally, emotionally, to get the W.
A new issue has risen, and now that I’ve noticed it, it’s driving me nuts.
In the gruelling, bitterly fought, triple overtime game against the Utah Jazz, nearing the end of the game (around the second overtime), Dwane Casey went small. Granted, Amir Johnson and Linas Kleiza had both fouled out, but there was still plenty of size on that bench.
Why did he go small? Because Utah was small.
This is the exact issue of “parroting” other teams that the Raptors had so many problems with last season! Only now, it’s at the coaching level! Instead of planting a flag, on home court no less, putting in Ed Davis and Jonas Valanciunas, making Utah play catch up, they let the other team get the upper hand. And the Jazz won.
The lesson here is this: No matter how much talent you have, if you aren’t accustomed to winning, it’s very difficult to train yourself to play to when. The Raptors have taken some steps toward becoming a successful squad, and now they need to believe that that’s what they are: Successful.
Thankfully, in the following game against Indiana, the Raptors played their game their way, played like they knew they would win, and they did, in spite of scoring only five points in the fourth quarter.
Honestly, to see the true change in the team, see their performance against the Pacers. Aside from taking control, when Indiana came out strong in the fourth, the Raptors didn’t lay down and die. Where last season, they would have given up, this time around, they pushed back.
And boy, does that ever feel good.
Agree? Disagree? Comment below.