Apr 22, 2014; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Toronto Raptors guard DeMar DeRozan (10) and center Jonas Valanciunas (17) and guard Kyle Lowry (7) come off the court after a play against the Brooklyn Nets in game two during the first round of the 2014 NBA Playoffs at Air Canada Centre. Toronto defeated Brooklyn 100-95. Mandatory Credit: John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports
4. Toronto: Yeah, yeah I know you’ll call this the home town favoritism call, but the fact stands the Raptors entered the break on three successive and impressive wins. In the first they came back from 23 points down to beat the Clippers (with Blake Griffin still in the line-up) by 16 points. Next they rallied in a dog fight to beat San Antonio who were playing like the championship team of last season. Finally they took down an inspired Washington team looking to avenge their two previous losses to the Raptors this year.
While the break did stop the upswing of the Raptors surge ahead it also was a welcome respite for several players who’ve been playing hurt. Amir Johnson notably has played the entire season on glass ankles and has been sporting additional injuries to his shoulders, not to mention the toe nail he lost recently. Kyle Lowry carried a heavy burden during the 21 games DeMar DeRozan was out, and while he played in the All-Star Game he’ll take full advantage of the few extra days off in between to recharge. To that end, DeRozan needs to get some rest. He’s come back playing more intelligently especially in terms of his game management which was immediately visible via his increased assists, however it was obvious his hops haven’t fully returned, so the extended time off will help to rejuvenate him.
Some key numbers to consider:
- None of the top East contenders of Atlanta, Washington, Chicago or Cleveland have lost the first or second best offensive player for more than 8 games in a row (James being the one player who missed 8 in a row). When DeRozan got injured he was the top scorer on Toronto.
- Toronto is the only team to have beat the Hawks twice, and while it came at the beginning of the year look for them to come out hungry post break to prove a point.
- While many pundits ranted about Toronto have an easy strength of schedule to start the season the truth is they’ve actually played a tougher schedule than most of their counterparts. Case in point in the last 25% of games the strength of schedule for the top 8 Eastern teams looks like this:
- Bulls; 54.2%
- Raptors: 51.8%
- Hawks: 49.7%
- Heat: 48.0%
- Wizards: 47.3%
- Bucks: 46.1%
- Cavaliers: 44.3%
- Hornets: 41.9%
More to consider:
- Since DeRozan’s return the Raptors are 11-5, yet three of those losses came in his first 5 games back while DeMar and the team adapted to getting their rhythm and timing back.
- Taking into consideration DeRozan and the team were reintegrating combined with the loss of James Johnson for a stretch and Terrence Ross being moved to the bench there was a lot of restructuring taking place.
- Following DeRozan’s first 5 games back the Raptors have been 9-2
- When DeRozan returned the Raptors defense had fallen to 22nd behind a poor stretch of play (with many of the team beginning to show the wear from the extra work load while DeRozan was out). Since his return they have climbed 5 spots to rank 18th and are showing signs (as per their last 3 games) or finding last year’s top 10 defense.
- They’ll come out of the break with arguably their toughest stretch of games facing: Atlanta, Houston, New Orleans and Dallas on the road prior to returning home to face Golden State.
- Overall they have just 11 games remaining at home of their 29, however 17 games are versus sub-.500 teams
- The Raptors have lost just 1 game versus their division and have a 14.5 game lead over closest rivals Brooklyn. The magic number for Toronto to clinch the Atlantic is 15.5 (any combination of Raptor wins and Nets losses)
- Jonas Valanciunas seems to have found more consistency on the defensive end especially at the rim where he blocked Tim Duncan 4 times in the game versus San Antonio. He also was the player on the court guarding John Wall on his final shot in the Wizard game; this is notable as Valanciunas hasn’t seen regular time on the floor late in games. Perhaps a sign coach Duane Casey is beginning to trust the big Lithuanian more.
- Everyone knows Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan are the main cogs of the team with the long term of goal of developing center Valanciunas. What many don’t know is Lou Williams is quietly putting up 6th man of the year numbers (15.2 ppg, 1.8 rbp, 1.8 apg), or that Patrick Patterson while he likely won’t receive consideration for Most Improved Player has been the most consistent player on both ends of the court this year.
- General Manager Masai Ujiri may well have grabbed the best under the radar off season acquisitions in Lou Williams and James Johnson who is proving to be as key to the Raptors offense as he is to their defense.
- As I highlighted Memphis’ Allen, GSW’s Green and Atlanta’s Horford the heart and soul of this Raptor team lies with the play of Amir Johnson who is the epitome of a quiet leader. The intangibles he brings to the court are immeasurable, whether it’s getting a timely rebound or block, setting a pivotal screen, calling out the defense that leads to a stop or scoring at the end of the shot clock (note: Johnson does not have play sets called for him, every bucket he scores comes within the organic movement of the offense or an offensive rebound).
While the media continues to bestow accolades on the surprising uprising of the Hawks and still maintain Chicago and Cleveland are the likely teams who’ll advance to the top of the East they might be sleeping on the team who could play spoiler. It’s likely they are a year and one small forward away from staking their claim but in truth this tightly knit group has versatility and something I haven’t seen on any other team: 2 different players in Kyle Lowry and Amir Johnson that seem to know exactly when one play will change a game. If you get a chance to watch them in close games look for one of these two players to be the catalyst at precisely the right moment.
The impending 4-game road trip will be telling as they face off against the team directly above them and then against a myriad of Western power houses. If they get a split it will be considered a successful road trip, but watch for the bull dog Lowry to be dialed in after the All-Star game and DeRozan to be closer to his pre injury form. The scary part is a healthy Amir Johnson is literally the Hawks, Rockets, Mavericks and Pelicans worse nightmare!
(last week 5th)
Next: Can a waived player be the x factor?