Mental Lapses Have Been Costly For Toronto

jonas-valanciunas

The Toronto Raptors’ Achilles heel so far this season has been their inability to play consistently for 48 minutes.

Toronto was an impressive 11-6 in January but their schedule is littered with examples of the team not playing consistently for four quarters.

Against the Brooklyn Nets they nearly choked away a nine point lead late in the fourth quarter after letting the Nets go on a 12-2 run. It took a last second steal and bucket by Patrick Patterson to steal a win back from the clutches of the Nets.

Another big collapse came against Los Angeles last weekend when they raced out to a 50-31 lead only to see it evaporate and the game end in a tough loss.

There were games against Dallas (15 points) and Charlotte (11 points) where anemic first quarters created huge deficits that were too tough to climb out of. They were lucky to steal a win against Dallas but the hole they dug against Charlotte was too large to overcome.

If that trend continues it will result in the team enduring some painful growing pains and probably a quick and embarrassing ouster from the playoffs.

“It’s difficult because the only way you learn is through experience,” Casey admitted to me before the game against Orlando. “I can threaten them but I can’t hit them. Guys just need to learn through experience.

“Again, we are doing much better. Our starts have been fantastic. I thought our start against Brooklyn was fantastic and the couple of starts before that game had been good. We’ve had that focus so we just don’t want to let it creep up again.”

Toronto started the game against Orlando perfectly as they raced to a 19-9 lead before Orlando called timeout. They were swinging the ball to open teammates, hitting open looks and forcing Orlando into bad shots. The only time they let up was in the third quarter when Orlando crept to within eight points at 61-53. Toronto was quick to squash that rally and coast to an easy win.

In the first half against Denver this weekend neither team wanted to play defense and it resulted in a high scoring first half. Toronto came out inspired in the third quarter and applied defensive pressure which resulted in a 26-17 advantage in the quarter.

The fourth quarter started out strong only to see Toronto unable to make a field goal for six minutes and barely put the ball in the basket over the last seven minutes of play. They limped to the end of the game – fatigue from playing in Denver? – and only scored 14 points in the fourth quarter.

Playing against a talented Portland Trail Blazers squad this weekend they dug themselves into too deep of a hole so that a fun fourth quarter rally couldn’t help them steal a road win.

Toronto shouldn’t think they are good enough to east into a road game (Portland jumped out to a 35-19 advantage) and then steal a road win against one of the top teams in the NBA.

Tired legs from a game in Denver the night before isn’t a valid excuse either.

Against playoff caliber teams Toronto can’t coast for a quarter or start games slowly. If they do, they will be quickly ushered out of the playoffs in April.

Lucas Finds An Unlikely Fit

John Lucas III doesn’t look the part of a third-stringer.

The diminutive point guard carries himself with pride and purpose, and talks excitedly about what he and the rest of the Toronto Raptors feel that they can accomplish this season.

“I came here because I see this as a place where I can contribute by helping some of the young guys and doing my part to keep things going in the right direction,” says Lucas. “We know that we can be a playoff team.”

Lucas’ current standing as a third-on-the-depth-chart floor general on the Raptors says less about his own abilities and more about the newfound depth that the club’s off-season additions have afforded them at the position. Kyle Lowry came over from the Rockets via trade in what was the team’s biggest move of the summer. With Jose Calderon already in tow, Lucas knew where he stood when he signed with Toronto in late July.

However, the soon-to-be-30-year-old doesn’t sound like a guy disappointed with his lot in life.

“I love it here,” Lucas says emphatically. ”I’ve been telling all my friends back home that Toronto is a mix of San Francisco and New York combined. […] It’s very liberal, very free-spirited – like San Fran, but then there’s the hustle and the go-go-go lifestyle, like New York. […] Plus, I’ve already gotten to know the team a bit and it’s a great group of guys here.”

For Raptors fans, it’s refreshing to hear from a player who is not only proud to play in Toronto, but carries high expectations and believes in the organization’s prospects.

In some ways, it shouldn’t be surprising considering the parallels between the player and his new team. For one thing, they are both underdogs – Lucas is a scrappy 5’11 ball handler (if Lowry is the bulldog among Toronto point guards, Lucas is more the chihuahua) who went undrafted despite leading Oklahoma State to the Final Four and has toiled in the CBA and NBDL. The Raptors, meanwhile, have been outside the playoff picture for five years and are never mentioned as players for marquee free agents.

For another thing, they both enter this season having made some strides in the previous campaign. In 2011-12, Lucas struggled to simply find a spot on the Chicago Bulls’ roster, getting cut and re-signed on two separate occasions during the season. He ultimately found a permanent role in the aftermath of Derrick Rose’s groin injury and thrived, pouring in 25 points off the bench against Miami and helping the Bulls to an 8-4 record in the absence of their star (he didn’t fare quite so well in a disappointing playoff run).

For the Raptors, the gains were more modest. Under new head coach Dwane Casey, the club’s increased commitment to defence helped them to a one-win improvement in spite of playing 16 fewer games.

In spite of his current third-string status, Lucas can still be expected to carry a significant role within Casey’s system. He brings energy, character and intangibles, all of which fit within the club’s new culture. On top of that, he brings the type of reliable jumper (50% shooting and 13.7 points per game through three pre-season games) that the team so desperately needs in light of last year’s bottom third league finish in scoring average and field goal and three-point percentage.

For a second straight season, Lucas’ big opportunity may come from unfortunate circumstances surrounding a teammate. While an injury is always possible, a likely scenario also exists in a move involving Calderon. Long-standing trade talk concerning the Spanish veteran got even louder this summer, to the point where GM Bryan Colangelo publicly acknowledged it, admitting that ”you have to look at Jose’s [expiring] contract as something that would be a vehicle to accomplish [a deal]”.

Regardless of how things play out, Lucas with be ready to seize any opportunity as it presents itself.

Toronto’s Season A Step In Right Direction

I’ve taken my time in writing a year-end review for the Raptors because there are things that have already been said much better than I and at the end of the day I’m not really sure how I even feel about the way this season transpired.

The Raptors were not a great team.  They lost a lot of games.  Hell, they lost twice to the lowly Charlotte Bobcats (quite possibly the worst team in history).  They missed the playoffs again and did not secure a great chance at a top three pick.

Still, I’m a “glass is half full” kind of guy and I still feel the team had enough positive this season to be hopeful for the future.

While we saw problems with the club like the lack of a bona fide star, poor wing play for most of the season and a rash of injuries, we also saw marked improvement in a number of areas.  Our defence was much improved, some unexpected players stepped up to show they belong here and our coaching staff showed that they can strategize with the best in the league.

Overall it was a tough year, but one that has given the fan base reason to believe next year is going to be better.

My Captain, My Captain

It was clear early in the year that Dwane Casey was going to be the voice of this team.  He addressed the media at every turn and preached the same philosophies over and over.  He talked about “building a culture”, improving the team defence and to keep working hard.  His mantra, “pound the rock,” was adopted by each of his players and became a rallying cry throughout the year in the locker room, interviews and on twitter.

In wins and difficult losses his players continued to stick to the plan.

The turnaround in this team is most notable on the defensive side of the ball.  Last year the Raptors ranked near the bottom in all defensive statistics, but this year they finished 9th in points allowed, 8th in Opponents field goal percentage, and 5th in opponents three-point field goal percentage.  This was all with a back court that many thought was too weak on the defensive end.

Who then should be credited with the turnaround?  Look no further than the coach. Casey had a successful first year in charge of the Raptors because his message was simple and consistent and it stuck with his players. He was able to mask the defensive shortcomings of Jose Calderon and Andrea Bargnani (two players that everyone thought were hopeless on the defensive end) in his zone defense and turned the Raptors into a tough team to score against.

The effort Casey put forth helped make Bargnani a top-tier player during the first half of the season and helped rejuvenate the career of Jose Calderon.

Casey, for his efforts, has already had his contract extended and bigger and better things should be expected from the team with improvements to the roster.

Had Casey been on a higher profile team he might even be a candidate for coach of the year. His extended contract was a no-brainer and a bigger pay day may be coming if the team keeps heading in the direction it is currently pointed.

In this shortened Raptor season, Casey has given Raptor fans a reason to be hopeful for the future.

Jekyll and Hyde

No one knows on any given night which Andrea Bargnani or which DeMar DeRozan will show up.  Both had polarizing years, to say the least, and neither player could put it all together for an extended stretch of games.

Early on it looked as though Andrea Bargnani was going to bust loose on the NBA.  He was shooting the ball with confidence, driving the lane, hitting shots and playing with confidence on both ends of the floor.

For the first month and a half of the season all of the Dirk Nowitzki comparisons were beginning to finally make sense.

Then he got injured.

Bargnani wasn’t the same player when he returned.  He was hesitant, lost his confidence and couldn’t find his rhythm.  Either the injury was not fully healed or opposing defenses made adjustments.  Either way he wasn’t a dominant player in the second half.

Raptor fans are now left wondering which player was the real Andrea Bargnani and which player is going to show up next year.

While Bargnani was having a great start and rough finish, DeMar DeRozan’s season was almost the complete and utter opposite.

DeRozan started the season terribly.  By the all-star break he was averaging 40% shooting and 15 points per game.  He was getting to the foul line five times a game.  He was sputtering and everyone in the city seemed to be noticing.  Journalists, bloggers, pundits, everyone was questioning whether DeRozan was going to be a significant part of this teams future. He looked like a player destined for a career off the bench.

In the second half, he spent a lot less time trying to shoot three-pointers and started focusing on getting to the foul line.  He was able to draw contact and get to the stripe a lot more. In December, Derozan averaged little over two free throw attempts per game.  Later in the year, he bumped that to as high as six attempts per game. A significant improvement.

DeRozan has begun to learn what he does well.  Casey had him attacking the rim, and allthough he didn’t always get the call, he kept attacking.

By the end of the second half of the year, DeRozan began to look a lot more like the player Raptor fans were expecting when he was drafted out of USC.

Now Raptor fans have to hope that ‘First half Bargnani’ and ‘Second half DeRozan’ are actually who these players are.

Supporting Players

The Raptors may not have a bona fide superstar at the moment.  They may have to steal that star from the draft or in free agency, but what the team does have a plethora of is character players.  Guys that come to the court and leave it all on the floor.  A squad of fighters that any coach would love to have coming off the bench.

Jerryd Bayless showed himself to be a very capable point guard and shooting guard this season and is perfectly suited to a bench role next season, if he stays in town. He can shoot, drive and dish and can potentially cause match-up nightmares for opposing teams.

James Johnson can play many positions and does a little bit of everything.  He can block, rebound, defend and occasionally score.  He plays the 3, 4 and occasionally the 5, and he has a high basketball IQ when he’s on the floor.  If he has not burned bridges with coach Casey he will be a valuable part of the team next year.

Jose Calderon had one of his best seasons as a professional basketball player in 2011/12.  He distributed the ball with ease averaging 8.6 assists good enough for fourth in the league behind only Rajon Rondo, Steve Nash and Chris Paul.  He established himself as a team leader for this team going forward and one that Dwane Casey is not afraid to put full trust in.  He also became a much better defensive player under Casey.  Calderon may just retire here in Toronto and the fans, who have cheered and jeered him over the years, likely have no issue with him staying after the year he has had.

The Colangelo Factor

Raptors fans were subtlety reminded of the fact that they have one heck of a GM in Bryan Colangelo. Though his star is not nearly as bright as it once was in Toronto, Colangelo has positioned his team to be a player once again in 2012/13.  The steady GM has cleared cap space for his team and has drafted a number of strong young players to build around.  He’s also got all of his players signed to team friendly contracts meaning that they are very tradeable.

This kind of flexibility has given the Raptor faithful some hope for next year especially with the arrival of highly touted 2011 first round pick Jonas Valanciunas.  Jonas made Colangelo look even better this year by having a stellar year overseas and raising eyebrows with his strong play on both ends of the court in Lithuania.

Colangelo should also be credited with his very clever scouting of the D-league.  He brought over three players (Anderson, Uzoh, Dentmon) and  in the final two months of the season and all three played valuable minutes and showed they belong in the league.  Uzoh and Anderson may actually have a shot of sticking with the club next year.

No Raptor player, outside of maybe Bargnani, has been as often criticized as Jose Calderon. This season may have helped to prove all the negative voices wrong once and for all.

If that doesn’t prove to people that Colangelo has got some skill as an executive, then hopefully his off-season moves will.