Toronto’s Junk Is Chicago’s Treasure

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D.J. Augustin was never able to find a role on the Toronto Raptors this season. He was signed during the summer to be Toronto’s back-up point guard, but he struggled through 10 games this season averaging 2.1 points and only 8.2 minutes per game.

Toronto decided to cut their losses when they obtained Greivis Vasquez and cut Augustin.

Toronto’s junk turned out to be Chicago’s treasure.

On December 13, 2013, he signed with the Chicago Bulls and he had season high in assists with 12 assists against the Charlotte Bobcats.

On January 22, 2014, Augustin scored a season high 27 points against the Cleveland Cavaliers.

Heading into the game against Toronto tonight, Augustin was second on the Bulls in scoring (13.7 points) among active players. Luol Deng (19.0) is no longer with the team while Derrick Rose (15.9) is out for the remainder of the season due to an injury.

Dwane Casey was quick to attribute Augustin’s production due to an increase in playing time.

“He needs minutes to get in and get a rhythm the way he wants to play,” Casey explained. “He’s getting that in Chicago, while here, knock on wood, unless something happened to Kyle (Lowry) he wasn’t going to get that opportunity here to play that many minutes because Kyle was going to play big minutes.”

For Thom Thibodeau, adding Augustin filled a need for the Bulls while it helped give the young point guard another chance that he needed after things didn’t work out particularly well for him in Indiana or Toronto.

“We had a great need because we weren’t shooting the ball particularly well,” Thibodeau admitted. “I think part of it is they made the trade here (in Toronto) and they had more bodies and that created an opportunity for us where they had to cut somebody. It was good fortunate on our part and it also worked out pretty well for them. Obviously since the trade they have taken off so sometimes things work out for everyone.

“The one thing about DJ is he had already done it before in the NBA so we knew it was in him. Sometimes a player can get into a situation where they play a lot early on in their career and he hadn’t played as much recently because he got stuck in a back-up role. He had some good games for Indiana but he wasn’t playing a lot here (in Toronto). But, to his credit, he stayed ready and he took advantage of the opportunity (here in Chicago). I love him for us.”

When Sam Mitchell was coaching the Toronto Raptors he used to joke with the media that playing time is like oxygen for NBA players. It doesn’t matter how much your current contract is worth, it’s all about proving yourself right now so that you can ink another deal.

Well, for Augustin, he’s getting plenty of oxygen in Chicago and it’s working out well for him and the Bulls.

Monty Williams Isn’t Worried About Hurting His Players Feelings

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Monty Williams isn’t worried about hurting the feelings of a player.

He doesn’t want to a player’s buddy, pal or friend.

He has an old school mentality and his coaching philosophy that has been molded by working with or playing for ornery coaches like Gregg Popovich, Larry Brown, Nate McMillan and Pat Riley.

“I’m probably hard on everybody, except my wife,” Williams said to a chorus of giggles from the media gathered for his pre-game media scrum prior to a game against the Toronto Raptors.

“It’s just the nature of coaching. Great players want you to coach them. It just depends on who you are. Some people look at it as me being tough on them. Some people look at it as coaching. My job is to make guys better. I don’t get caught up in being, you know, somebody’s friend. I guess now it’s called a player’s coach and I’m probably the furthest thing from that. I just know I always have to make guys better so I’m always demanding the things that I think they need. The last thing I think guys want is somebody to tell them that everything is okay and I don’t want to do that as a coach.”

Tyreke Evans hasn’t taken warmly to this style of coaching so far and has butted heads with his head coach at times. He arrived with the New Orleans Pelicans after spending his first four NBA seasons playing for the Sacramento Kings and being allowed complete freedom on the court. Evans has had to adjust to a new role coming off of the bench and playing for a coaching that holds him accountable.

To say there have been growing pains is an understatement.

Evans was benched against the Brooklyn Nets on Sunday evening for reasons that haven’t been fully explained to the public or media.

Shortly before Evans erupted for a game-high 23 points and 12 dimes off the bench, he was in a reserved mood sitting at his locker eating french fries.

When I approached him to talk he was apprehensive about talking with a member of the media and when the topic of Williams came up he wasn’t impressed with me.

“Umm… uhh… it’s just a good challenge” Evans mumbled while keeping his eyes down and refusing to make eye contact with me. “He will push and challenge you and you have to run with that.”

After answering two more questions, Evans was rescued by assistant coach Brian Gates who came into the locker room to get Evans for his pre-game workout.

Evans bolted out of the locker room and appeared happy to find solace from a reporter’s questions while working through his pre-game routine on the Air Canada Centre court.

While Evans was elusive while talking about Williams, other young teammates, like Jeff Withey and Austin Rivers, have had their share of growing pains in the NBA but were quick to praise Williams.

“I like it, personally,” Withey told me when asked about what it’s like playing for Williams. “I’ve always had coaches who have pushed me so I’m used to it. At Kansas, Bill Self pushed me and helped me get better. I’m happy that he’s always on my butt because it shows he cares. It’s hard at times, but in the big scheme of things, he’s just trying to get you better.”

Rivers struggled through a rough rookie season which saw a large contingent of the media and fans peg him as a bust. He averaged 6.2 points per game in 23.2 minutes while shooting 37.2% from the field.

This season, however, he has fought his way to playing time in a crowded backcourt and is averaging 6.1 in only 15.9 minutes per game.

“That’s who he is,” Rivers explained when asked if felt his coach was hard on him. “He’s a very competitive person and he demands a lot. Which is fine because that only means he wants the best out of all of us. Especially from us point guards. He’s really hard on me and Brian (Roberts) which is great because I know he just wants us to get better. I’m used to that anyway. Coach K wasn’t, umm, the easiest… I can’t really say too much, but he’s tough on us because he demands greatness. That’s why he is who he is and that’s why Monty is going to be who he is going to be.”

Williams may come across as mean or callous, but former players like Greivis Vasquez are quick to embrace his coaching style.

“It will be (a nice reunion for me) but Greivis (Vasquez) probably doesn’t want to see me,” Williams joked with the media. “I was really tough on him. He will probably start itching or sweating when he sees me because he will probably think I will yell at him or something.”

It’s because Vasquez was willing to work hard and take to constructive criticism that he had a career year for Williams and New Orleans last season.

Vasquez has shown flashes in Toronto, but in Sacramento he was a completely different player than the one who was third in the NBA in assists last season.

“He is a guy who came in and worked his tail off,” Williams boasted about Vasquez. “He had his best year with us and I feel fortunate to have been able to coach Greivis (Vasquez). He’s another guy I was really tough on. But I tell the guys we can be friends later or you can get better now, so which one do you want? We can be friends now and you’ll suffer. He was a guy who took hard coaching. He’s a great kid and I know the people up here feel the same way.”

Moments after Williams said those things, Vasquez crashing Williams’ pre-game media scrum and gave his former head coach a big embrace.

While Evans may be struggling to adjust to a coach like Williams, once he grasps that his coach is trying to help him through tough love, the growth will occur.

Players like Withey, Rivers and Vasquez have realized that Williams is only trying to challenge them to grow as players and it has helped them grow as NBA players.

Hopefully for Evans’ sake he’s able to buy in soon, too.

Just don’t expect Williams to become buddies with Evans like John Calipari did when Evans was a college freshman or be someone to give Williams a big hug like Vasquez did.

Toronto Raptors Showing Signs Of Slippage On Defensive End

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Dwane Casey has made the defensive end a focus this season, but during Toronto’s recent road trip where the team went 2-3, there were noticeable signs of slippage.

Toronto has held opponents to 97.1 points per game this season (tied for third in the NBA with Charlotte), but during their recent five game road trip, they only held Denver (90 points) and Utah (79) below those averages.

It’s also not a coincidence that those two games marked their only wins on their road trip.

In losses to Portland (106 points), Sacramento (109) and Los Angeles (118), their defense showed signs of slippage.

Toronto’s slow start on both ends of the court have allowed teams to run out to large leads to start games. Portland raced out to a 31-19 advantage, Sacramento held a 67-52 lead going into halftime and Toronto found themselves down 18 to Los Angeles in the second half which forced Casey to employ a “Hack-a-Jordan” strategy.

During the television broadcast of the Los Angeles Clippers game, Jack Armstrong made an astute observation and then asked Casey during halftime how the lack of practice time since January 1 has hurt Toronto.

“It’s really huge,” Casey told Armstrong. “Because right now as far as rotations, the habits of boxing out, our big-big rotation, transition defense, communication, those little fundamentals are hurting us right now and we’ve gotta’ get through it. It’s not like it’s due to a lack of effort. It’s a lack of timing and a lack of togetherness on the defensive end.”

Casey was predictable in gathering his team for a walk through and quick practice before Toronto’s home game against the New Orleans Pelicans.

That combined with a practice on Sunday had Casey feeling confident that some of the kinks had been worked out.

“It was huge,” Casey admitted. “I don’t know if it will cure all of our problems or issues, but again, the speed of the game, I think that is what you lose when you don’t have a full, hard, tape it up practice. We had one and it was the first one we had had in a while because we’ve had so many games. It has been brutal. Just game after game with just one day off we couldn’t put too much energy into practice. We had an extra day and we wanted to utilize that.
“Then after the (all-star) break we have some days penciled in as far as good days to practice. We’ve gotta’ get out timing, our rhythm (back) defensively as well as offensively.”

Things looked great in the first quarter last night as Toronto opened up a 31-20 advantage and looked great doing it. They only turned the ball over three times and they held New Orleans to 40% from the field while shooting an impressive 63.2.

But the second quarter saw a regression to what has become the norm during their west coast road trip. Toronto was a step slow on their defensive rotations the entire quarter which allowed New Orleans to outscore them 23-12 to begin the quarter and coast to a 29-18 advantage through the entire quarter.

Toronto allowed New Orleans to score nine second chance points and 14 points in the paint in the second quarter; two problems Casey had hoped he had cleaned up this week but evidently hadn’t.

On top of that, Toronto allowed New Orleans to get a lot of good looks and the Pelicans capitalized by going 11-21 from the field.

The rest of the game was a see-saw title which saw Toronto tighten things up in the third only to have the bench nearly throw things away again in the fourth. Part of the issue was Patrick Patterson being moved from the bench to the starting unit due to Amir Johnson being out with an injury, but the normally strong play from Toronto’s guards coming off the bench wasn’t there.

The fact Tyreke Evans was able to come off the bench to score 23 points and dish out 12 dimes the day after being benched against Brooklyn won’t sit well with Casey and his coaching staff.

Regardless of the reason or excuse, there’s no way Casey is going to be happy going into all-star weekend with countless signs of slippage on the defensive end. Look for Casey to sneak in another practice or two before the break and then for him and his coaching staff to continue to work on fixing the issues hurting the team on the defensive end when the team reconvenes following all-star weekend.

Toronto Raptors Return Home for Important Stretch

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It seems like every season the Toronto Raptors hobble back from their west coast road trip a tired and beaten team.

Last season, the early Western Conference road trip was, arguably the nail in the coffin for their playoff hopes. This season, they return home after a tough western road trip tired, but not beaten.

Even the most optimistic fan would have been happy with a 3-2 record on this trip, so 2-3 isn’t bad considering the quality of their opponents. But this trip came at such a crucial time in Toronto’s schedule because the next 10 to 15 games could decide the playoff fate of this team.

The Raptors will play at home for the last two games before the All-star break and play eight out of their next 10 at the ACC. Of those next ten games, six of them are against conference rivals that they will be battling for position in the Eastern Conference playoff picture.

It is important for Toronto to be healthy and ready for those games.

For the first time this season the team is looking a little worse for wear. Amir Johnson and DeMar DeRozan are fighting nagging injuries. Kyle Lowry has been bothered by a knee issue lately and the team is coming off a long road trip.

Late nights, time zone changes and lots of flying can take its toll on a team at this stage in the season, especially a young one, but the Raptors need to fight through this rough patch. The next 10 games will go a long way toward deciding if they are a playoff contenders or pretenders.

The asset the Raptors have going for them right now is depth. They are a far deeper team than they were a year ago and have used this asset to their advantage since the ‘Rudy Gay trade’. Dwane Casey has used a tight nine man rotation most nights and seems very confident with this group.

As the season continues he may have to dig deeper than was originally thought. We may see a lot more of Landry Fields, Steve Novak, Julyan Stone and Chuck Hayes may be needed to take some minutes away from overworked starters.

The coaching staff may have to make moves in the starting lineup, trading Amir for Patterson or Hansborough on a given night to help keep the legs on this team fresh and ready for battle. Young players like Jonas Valanciunas and Terrence Ross have only gone through a complete NBA season once and certainly not playing the amount of minutes they are currently playing.

Rest may be needed and players that haven’t been logging very many minutes may be called into duty.

On this road trip we saw a lot more of Novak than we have in a long while. I would expect this to be something we see more of as the season wears on. He came in ready to play and played valuable minutes during the trip. Having a strong veteran presence at the end of the bench (Novak, Fields, Hayes) may become an unexpected benefit.

The Raptors have given it everything they could over the first two chapters of this season and they are in a great position because of it, but they are going to have to use every weapon available to them to finish out the stretch.

On paper, the hardest part of the season may seem to be over, but the reality is, it only gets harder from here.

Toronto Raptors Shouldn’t Rush To Offer Kyle Lowry An Extension

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Kyle Lowry is putting up all-star caliber numbers this season and he has been the best player on the Toronto Raptors all season, but why rush to sign him to a contract extension after a couple of good months?

Last year was a rocky year to say the least for Lowry as he butted heads with head coach Dwane Casey and suffered through injury issues. He was anointed the savior of the team when Bryan Colangelo traded for him two summers ago only average 11.6 points while shooting 40% from the field last season while being limited to playing in only 68 games.

Sure, there was a meeting of the minds at the beginning of the season that gave Lowry a fresh new perspective, but there’s also the chance that this is a typical career year from a player in a contract year.

While fans and some members of the media are currently urging the front office to give Lowry an extension, there’s something to be said for waiting to see what the market dictates this summer.

The fact that few general managers were willing to offer up fair value for Lowry when Masai Ujiri floated him as being available is a sign that Lowry may not fetch the kind of contract he expects this summer.

The other warning flag for Lowry is that coaches around the NBA have labeled him as bristly as shown by their lack of votes for the all-star game. Granted, he still almost nudged out Joe Johnson, but it should have been Lowry’s spot if it was based just on performance.

Another thing to consider is Toronto will be flush with cash this summer if they don’t pick up the qualifying offers for Greivis Vasques and Patrick Patterson while paying John Salmons close to $1 million to not pick up his option next summer. If that happens the team will have under $35 million locked into salaries next season and they can make a move for a free agent point guard like Eric Bledsoe, Lance Stephenson, or Mario Chalmers.

Or, if they can’t sign a point guard, they will have the ability to trade for one, which will probably be their best option if they can’t retain Lowry.

Regardless, signing Lowry to a contract extension right now isn’t prudent. The Raptors would be best served by seeing how the next few months shake out on the court and then letting the market dictate how much he’s worth this summer.