Zan in the Key
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Zan for Three
Down Goes DeMar
In the coming weeks we will get a better picture of what this team looks like when its back is against the wall. With DeMar DeRozan, arguably the teams best player, out for an extended period of time the Raptors will need to find production from other sources. If Sunday nights game against the Lakers is any indication, it could be a long couple of months in Raptor land. The team looked out of sorts and couldn’t get anything going without DeMar in the starting lineup.
This is really the first adversity the team has faced in the last couple of years, at least from an injury standpoint, and will need to adjust on both ends of the floor. DeMar has been a very focal part of the team’s game plan each night and this injury will test the resolve of the team and the coaching staff.
DeMar cannot be replaced. He is the heart and soul of the team and even when he isn’t scoring, the attention he gets from opposing defences is what helps other players on the team produce.
The Raptors are going to need big time production from Terrance Ross, Jonas Valanciunas and Lou Williams while we all wait for DeRozan to return.
Hopefully they can hold down the fort while DeRozan is out and keep this team near the top of the Eastern Conference.
It won’t be easy
Sometimes young players need to be forced into playing to their potential. It’s easy to get into a routine and play at the same level all the time when you’re just starting out and not much is expected. Jonas Valanciunas has been good since he arrived from Lithuania two years ago, with flashes of great, but he’s never been great consistently.
This season is supposed to be the year he breaks out and becomes a higher level player. We all know the potential is there. Now with DeMar DeRozan out for an extended period of time an opportunity is presenting itself for Jonas to become a bigger part of this team.
Jonas possess qualities that other NBA centers do not. He is 7″2′ and 300 lbs. He is a beast of a man in the mould of the 90’s centres. He would be just another big body next to guys like Shaq and Alonzo Mourning. But he’s matching up against guys like Mason Plumlee and Enes Kanter and should be dominating them.
DeMar DeRozan is gone for a while and my money is on the Raptors looking to make Jonas a much larger part of the offensive game plan. They would be foolish not to. He is a matchup problem for many teams in the league and has the potential to be a 20 and 10 guy every night.
In fact, last week when Jalen Rose visited Toronto as part of Flashback Friday, he made this exact point. The key for the Raptors going forward is for Jonas to make the jump from contributor to star. He needs to be a 20 and 10 guy every night for the Raptors to take that next step they so desperately want to take.
To do this he is going to have to keep himself on the court and out of foul trouble. He’s also going to need to play in crunch time. On Sunday night in L.A., though he didn’t have a great game, Jonas was on the floor during the fourth quarter and overtime. That is the first time in quite a few games that Jonas has been allowed to play crunch time minutes. This would seem to indicate that Jonas is going to be a big part of the team over the next little while DeMar nurses his injury and Dwane Casey is going to let him sink or swim in the most important parts of games.
DeMar’s injury may force Jonas to finally step up.
Credit to the Coach
While there has been lots of love being tossed around (rightfully so) to the Raptor players and Masai Ujiri for the teams’ hot start, little has been mentioned of the coach…until yesterday.
Casey was awarded the coach of the month award for his stellar work leading the Raptors to first in the Eastern Conference.
Dwane Casey needs and deserves more credit like this for how great things are going in Toronto. The team is scoring at a high rate and playing pretty strong on the defensive end as well. Anybody who thought last year’s success was a fluke has been rather quiet this season as Casey and the Raptors are proving that last year was no outlier season.
Much of the credit for the turnaround should be given to Casey. He has helped bring the best out of Kyle Lowry and his hardworking, focused demeanor has really caught on with the players.
This season the team burst out of the gate and are currently first in the East, but you wouldn’t know it from looking at them. The team is focused on the task at hand and never lets themselves celebrate too much. Last year’s playoff defeat is still too fresh to allow for that.
Casey took a team last year that many thought would be battling for the first overall pick and led them to an Atlantic division title. This year he appears to have the team reaching even higher.
Though the great start to the season is no guarantee of playoff performance later in the season, Casey deserves credit for the way this team has fought and the way they carry themselves day in and day out. They may just be the team to beat in the East this year.
We are lucky to have Coach Casey.
It was nice to see Jalen Rose on Friday at the ACC. Though his Raptors tenure will not be remembered for many wins or playoff appearances, he remains one of the best interviews in the NBA. Rose is a true “call it like I see it” guy and whether you agree with his opinion or not, you have to respect the way he carries himself. He has become one of the most watchable retirees out there in broadcasting and is a solid addition to the Grantland staff. It was great to hear his take on the Vince Carter trade one which he was very closely affected by when he was playing here. Referring to the players the Raptors got in return for Carter as a “box of rocks” and reminding us that Rafael Araujo was our number one draft pick that year are the type of straight up comments you’d wish more players weren’t afraid to say. He was and still is one of my favourites to listen to.
There is one thing I can’t stand about basketball and that is the incessant complaining to referees that players do on almost every single call. Usually it is the LeBron’s and Kobe’s of the world that a guilty of it, but lately I have seen my own Toronto Raptors complaining a lot more to the referees.
Now, it is a good sign that the Raptor players now feel they deserve calls on our side as it wasn’t long ago that referees would almost completely ignore our players getting hacked and bounced around by opposing teams because we were so terrible. But it might be getting a bit out of hand lately.
While I agree with most of the “twitterverse” about the strange calls and lack thereof during the late stages of the Lakers game on Sunday, it should be noted that the Raptors straight up stunk it up. A call here or there in the Raptors favour could have made a difference in the final outcome, but so could a bucket or two on the offensive side of the game and the Raptors couldn’t buy one of them.
You can’t play for the whistle and the Raptors seemed to be doing that a lot in LA. I hope Casey reminds them of this in practice and gets them back to playing the gritty style of play that got them to the top of the Eastern Conference.
Zan Tabak Herald
Zan for Three
Too Legit to Quit
Let’s get this straight right off the top. This Raptor team is for real. They’ve got fight, they’ve got heart and they are continuously finding ways to win games. It has been a long time since this city has seen a team that is able to do the things that this team can. If you are already thinking about a top three seed in the East and a long playoff run, you might be getting a little bit ahead of yourself, but not by much.
This team is scoring in bunches and sharing the ball and finally playing more consistent defense. It would be fair to point out that the Raptors have had a fairly easy schedule thus far in the season, but they have come up big in games against tough teams. Yes, there was the loss to Chicago, but the Raptors also reeled off decisive victories over Washington, Atlanta, Memphis and Cleveland. The Raps are showing they can hang with the best in the league.
This Raptor team is going to make some noise. For the first time in a long time you can raise your expectations for this teams success.
This could and should be a very special year.
The Raptors biggest strength this year has definitely been their bench. Last year Masai Ujiri traded Rudy Gay for Vasquez, Patterson and Chuck Hayes. This summer Ujiri went out and added James Johnson and Lou Williams. Both have been incredibly effective when called upon.
Lou Williams is some kind of hot right now. He was brought in for his ability to provide instant offense off the bench for the Raptors’ second unit, but he’s been looking like our go-to guy this past week. He poured in 22 against the Bucks and followed that up with a very impressive 36 points in Cleveland. More than that, he has not been a deficiency on the defensive end.
His efforts off the bench earned him the Eastern Conference Player of the Week award and has Raptor fans seriously wondering how good he can be. Whether or not he can maintain his current pace, one thing is for sure; Williams will play a pivotal role for the Raptors this season.
We The North
Raptor fans are the best. They are. I’m not just saying that, they are absolutely the best fans in the association.
Not only are they loud and boisterous at the ACC for every home game, they travel with the team now. This week a large contingent of Raptor fans traveled to Cleveland for a very important clash against Lebron and the Cavs. Not only were the fans supportive throughout the whole game, they were often louder than the hometown Cavs fans.
Raptor fans are taking over.
In The Paint
The Raptors are playing exceptionally well this season, but if they are going to make noise in the playoffs they are going to need their bigs to play better ball.
Jonas has shown signs that he is finally ready to turn the corner and provide that consistent double-double every night inside. Last night he was dominant inside against a much smaller Suns team and that advantage needs to be utilized more. He’s done a better job lately of staying out of foul trouble and is looking dominant on the offensive end. For some reason he is still not seeing a lot of court time in the fourth quarter. If he is going to become the player the organization and the fans envision, he is going to need fourth quarter experience.
There hasn’t been much to criticize Dwane Casey for this season, he’s been absolutely solid, but his handling of Jonas might be something to critique. Jonas is going to be a big part of the success this Raptor team has and when he plays well he deserves some fourth quarter burn. It makes sense to take him out if he’s been off defensively or is having foul issues, but give the kid a shot in the arm when he’s done well and let him finish the game. Jonas needs to learn how to get it done in the fourth.
It was refreshing to see the ACC crowd cheer Vince Carter this past week. He was one of my favourites growing up and I, like many, turned on him when he turned on us. He was, however, a huge part of the history of this franchise and deserved to be acknowledged. The ACC’s standing ovation for Vince after the jumbo-tron tribute will be remembered by anyone who cheered for the Raps during the Vince Carter years.
To the crowds credit, I loved the way they stood up for Vince after the tribute and then went right back to booing him once the game began. Raptor fans are the best (have I mentioned that yet?)
The Zan Tabak Herald
Sunday afternoon’s game 7 loss to the Nets is going to take some time to recover from. The franchise and its fans were so close to their second appearance in the NBA’s second round only to have it slip away in the final seconds of game 7. Over the next few days, weeks and months fans will look back and think about how one call, a couple free throws, a bounce here or there could have made the difference in deciding this series.
When the anger and sadness subside fans should focus on the positives that developed and on the road ahead. This team has a lot to look forward too and the next few months will be important ones in deciding where the team goes next.
While the outcome of this first round series wasn’t what anybody was hoping for, the young Raptors seem more ready and more determined than ever to get back to playoff basketball. Next time they’ll be ready too.
The 2014 playoffs and the ups and downs experienced by the Raptors young core will go a long way toward shaping the future of this franchise. Many positives presented themselves in this series.
DeMar DeRozan, arguably the team’s biggest star had his playoff coming out party. After years of missing the playoffs with the raps he finally made it to the postseason and did not disappoint. The All-Star got to the line, scored in bunches and put the team on his back numerous times. He was a fairly consistent threat and learned to adjust to the tight defensive style of basketball most teams use in the playoffs. He looked confident, he looked comfortable. Coming into this series there was serious concern about how DeRozan would adjust to playoff style basketball, but he looked right at home. The young star is now likely licking his chops for another chance. That’s exactly what the team wants.
Kyle Lowry solidified himself as the heart and soul of the Toronto Raptors. Going into the offseason it was already very likely that the organization would try to convince Lowry to stay long-term, but after his playoff performance it is now a certainty that Lowry will be asked to come back. Tim Leiweke, Masai Ujiri and MLSE are going to break the bank to keep him in town. Fans want him back, the players want him back and the organization now has little choice. The choice will be his.
For young players like Terrence Ross, Jonas Valanciunas and Amir Johnson this experience was critical for their development going forward. All three players are set to be large parts of the Raptors future and all three got big minutes in this series. Amir and Jonas had occasional moments of brilliance and at times were the best players on the court. Jonas struggled in game 7, but overall he had a good series and gained the experience of matching up against the leagues elite. It is important for fans to focus on his game 1 success rather than his game 7 issues. He will need to learn to stay on the floor early on. He needs to control those fouls.
Terrence Ross had a rough series. His shot wasn’t falling, he was having trouble all series guarding Johnson and Pierce. He looked lost. Game 7 was his best performance. He looked more confident and his defensive play at the end of the fourth quarter gave the Raptors a chance to tie the game. He will get better. This series was a great learning experience for this team and his struggles will likely serve as a chip on his shoulder next year. He is going to want to get back into the playoffs to redeem himself.
The young Raptors were not supposed to make the playoffs this year. The original plan in the minds of most was to tank the season in hopes of landing Canadian college superstar Andrew Wiggins. Kyle Lowry was supposed to be a Knick. Yet after all that the team was able to hold on for the Atlantic Division title and take the veteran Nets to the limit.
It must also be said that the Raptors would have likely been quick fodder for the Miami Heat, as Brooklyn now looks to be. The Raptors season ended on a last second drive that fell just short, it could have ended in a second round sweep. The optics of losing a close series in round one are better than getting pummeled in round 2. The loss, in a weird way, may have ensured a more positive outlook to the season for the team and its fans. A crushing loss to the Heat in round two could have killed the confidence and momentum this team built during the regular season and first round. Instead fighting their way back from certain defeat in game 7 and giving themselves a chance to win the series on the last play of the game left the team and its fans feeling very positive about the future and how close they are to contention.
This season was a great success. The team learned to play together, Dwane Casey emerged as a strong reliable coach and young players stepped up. The young core of the Raptors is now in place and the team has this shared experience to draw on in the future. One they can all look back on together and spend the next year working to improve on.
Much like Vince Carter and the Raptors of 2001 were after their first playoff loss, the Raptors of 2014 are a team on the rise. With the right moves this off-season and hopefully the re-signing of a few key free agents this version of the raptors can surpass the success of their predecessors.
While it’s easy to think of what could have been, the overall experience of being in the playoffs can only have positive results. These young players now know what it takes to win playoff games and they will all be better prepared next time they get there. The fans are now more hungry than ever for playoff basketball. “Jurasic Park” was the place to be during the first round. It was the talk of the NBA, mentioned on many broadcasts on both sides of the border and provided the Raptors with a definitive home court advantage.
Management now knows that it is time to take advantage of this new-found basketball frenzy and strike while the iron is hot. With a core consisting of DeRozan, Lowry and Valanciunas that has yet to hit its ceiling the organization can now afford to take its time to build the right way. Though it is likely that there will be some change in the roster, the plan has to be to keep these three together.
Fans in Toronto have legitimate reason to look forward. This team is young, talented and ready to strike in an Eastern Conference that is right for the taking.
The hurt we all felt on Sunday was real and it was deep, but there is every reason to believe there will be brighter days ahead. This is a team on the rise, now everyone knows it.
The Zan Tabak Herald
The Raptors may have been on the losing side of Saturday’s playoff opener, but definite positives emerged. While it was clear the “playoff jitters” got the best of the young Raptors, it was also clear that this game was still theirs for the taking and the series remains very much as well.
While much of the narrative coming out of Game 1 has been about DeMar DeRozan and his poor shooting and Amir Johnson and his inability to get going, the young Raptors did enjoy some strong playoff performances from their supporting cast.
Jonas Valanciunas looked right at home in his playoff debut. He played strong on the offensive end and tore down a record number of rebounds. He wasn’t intimidated by the older, more experienced Garnett. He fed off of his team, took advantage of his opportunities and may become a more significant player in this series. Not one of the Nets bigs could do much to contain Jonas.
We also saw Greivis Vasquez and Patrick Patterson play significant minutes. While DeRozan was cold from the field, Vasquez was red-hot. He shot the ball extremely well, got to the line and looked really confident out there. Patterson shot 50% from the field and was given the unenviable task of guarding Paul Pierce in the second half.
The Raptor bench picked up the slack.
If Toronto is to get back into this series and ultimately win it, they will need a continued effort from their bench.
In the playoffs some stars play like stars and some don’t, but often the playoffs are when you need to rely on your depth, on your role players. The Raptors will need Vasquez and Patterson to continue their strong play. They will also need others to step forward. Tyler Hansbrough may be called upon for an energetic boost off the bench, Landry Fields may be asked to defend Paul Pierce or Joe Johnson and Steve Novak may need to hit some timely three pointers.
The most important player for the Raptors may very well be Terrence Ross. When the Raptors are winning games the ball is moving and it often ends up in the hands of a wide open Terrence Ross. With the Nets focused on stopping Kyle Lowry and making life difficult for DeMar DeRozan, they leave Ross open. On Saturday it was Vasquez that benefitted from the open looks (and he will continue to get them on the second unit), but Ross needs to get more looks early on.
Foul trouble shut down Ross early and he was never able to get it going. On Tuesday, he will be a key to a bounce back effort. He is a finisher for this Raptors team. While the defense focuses on DeRozan, Ross can emerge and take open shots or drive the net. When the Nets adjust, DeRozan will get his looks. Ross will be a key factor in any Raptor resurgence.
Every team, whether it was the Championship Bulls, Celtics, or Heat have relied on their role players. The Steve Kerr’s, the Eddie House’s and the Shane Battier’s have made names for themselves because of their ability to rise to the occasion when it mattered most.
Terrence Ross can be that player for Toronto.
Don’t get me wrong the Raptors still need DeMar to be better. They need Kyle Lowry to facilitate the offense and they need to keep feeding Jonas inside. Without their big stars doing their job, the Raptors are likely sunk, but in the playoffs solid performances from your stars aren’t enough. You need your role players.
On Twitter fans are frequently using the hashtag #15deep to describe this team. All season long they have needed their entire bench to win big games. They’ve needed different players to step up when another falters. The playoffs are not going to be different. The Raptors, to win this series, will need big performances from their role players. Rebounds, blocks, timely buckets and defensive stops. All can and will mean the difference between victory and defeat.
The Raptors possess a far stronger bench then their counterparts. While Vasquez and Patterson looked solid for the Raptors, Mason Plumlee, Mirza Teletovic and Andray Blatche were almost non-factors. Even Kevin Garnett was rendered ineffective by this Raptors squad. This needs to be used to their advantage.
So while many were lamenting the struggles of DeRozan and Amir (and the Raptors do need them to be better), there were some significant reasons to be optimistic.
Game 2 and beyond depend not on DeMar’s ability to rebound. He will be better, there is little doubt. The Raptors need to take greater advantage of their biggest asset: their secondary scoring in order to turn this series in their favour.
The Raptors bench is going to play a big part in this series. Vasquez and Patterson have already shown their worth in Game 1. Whether they continue to be the difference in game 2 or others step up, the Raptors will be leaning on their supporting cast.
This team got to where it is now by being a team of 15 deep. On Tuesday that’s exactly what they need to be.
Zan Tabak Herald
No matter what has been said by anyone, this was not the first round matchup the Raptors were hoping for. Even if you choose to ignore the playoff history between these two teams (The Nets, behind Jason Kidd and Vince Carter, beating the Raptors in six games in 2007) or the massive difference in playoff experience (the Nets with a combined 459 playoff games played to the Raptors 94) the Nets are going to be a tough matchup.
Brooklyn is a tough test for any team. They shoot well from the perimeter, something the Raptors have not had great success gaurding, and their team is full of older guys who understand the playoff atmosphere.
This the narrative you’re going to hear over and over again, especially if the Nets draw first blood on Saturday. Young vs. Old, Rookies vs. Veterans, Experience vs Inexperience. I’m sure the Raptors are sick of hearing about it. But still, that divide exists.
Brooklyn was built for the playoffs. Pierce, Garnett, Joe Johnson; this is what they live for and where they have had great success in the past. Even coach Jason Kidd, a rookie behind the bench, has a wealth of playoff experience to draw on. The Raptors don’t
This is not to suggest the Raptors should be counted out. They absolutely should not. Yes, many of the players will be making their playoff debuts on Saturday, but there is more here than meets the eye.
When looking at this current Raptors team it is easy to recall the ghosts of the past and beleive the trend of young Raptors teams losing in the playoffs will continue. Vince Carter and the Raptors couldn’t beat a veteran Knicks team they had dominated in the regular season. A young Chris Bosh couldn’t turn an Atlantic division title and 47 wins into a playoff victory against the veteran Nets in 2007. Every young team the Raptors have seen debut in the playoffs, have fallen short. Only one team in the franchise’s history has even made it out of the first round.
But this team isn’t like those other Raptor teams.
This team is deep. This team is built like a team and they have numerous weapons in their attack. In 2001 the Raptors relied heavily on Vince Carter and the veteran Knicks made life difficult for him. In 2007 the Nets knew Chris Bosh was the key to the Raptors’ team and they shut him down for their series. This year there are too many concerns for the Nets. Shut down DeMar DeRozan and you have to worry about Kyle Lowry. Shut down Lowry and you have to concern yourself with Terrence Ross, Jonas Valanciunas or Greivis Vasquez. After that you have to legitimatley worry about Amir Johnson, Tyler Hansborough and Patrick Patterson all of whom could play huge roles in this series.
This Raptor squad has a lot of different weapons to use and their strength is in their unselfish play. In every Raptor win this season ball movement and defensive play has been key. This Raptor squad likes sharing the ball. It is their unselfishness that makes them so dangerous to opposing teams. It’s not something they’re going to have to figure out how to do the way Carter did in 2001 and the way Bosh did in 2007. This team is already a well-oiled machine.
On paper the Raptors lead the Nets in a number of key statistics cheif among them Rebounding (Raps are 17th in the league while the Nets are 29th), defensive efficiency (10th) and field goal percentage. Of course, the games are not won or lost on paper, but this Raptors squad has something the teams of Raptor past did not.
They have the will to win.
At the beginning of the year this team wasn’t expected to do much more than fight for the first overall pick in the upcoming entry draft. When Rudy Gay was traded half way through the season it seemed clear that this team wasn’t going to be a contender. Following that deal the Raptors played some of the best basketball in the association. They found the right recipie to win.
Kyle Lowry was cemented as the leader of the franchise. He was no longer looking over his shoulder and the franchise put their faith in his talent and ability to lead. DeMar DeRozan, after the Rudy Gay trade, was finally free. He was the focal point on the offensive end and didn’t have to share touches with anyone else. Jonas Valanciunas was given more and more court time and responsibility and his game began to develop especially in the last month of the season. Amir Johnson got some help up front and was no longer being asked to carry the load for an entire 48 minutes. The team added a bench. A motley crew of characters that could, in the end, be the difference between winning and losing this series.
The Raptors are ready. This Atlantic division title wasn’t a fluke. It was the product of hard work, of playing together and of focusing on the big picture.
Come Saturday, the Raptors will look across the court and see a team that is more experienced than them, a team that has won championships, one that they are not supposed to beat. But the Raptors have heard that all season.
They weren’t supposed to make the playoffs, they weren’t supposed to win the division and they definitely were not expected to be one of the top three teams in the Eastern Conference, but here they are.
The Raptors are faster, tougher, they shoot better, defend better and rebound better and, most importantly, they play together.
On Saturday, the Nets will look across the court and see a team beyond its years. A team hungry for playoff victory and one that is very capable of bringing home a win.
While this likely wasn’t the matchup the Raptors were hoping for it is certainly one they are up for.
Get ready for one hell of a series!
Zan Tabak Herald
It seems like every season the Raptors hobble back from their Western road trip a tired and beaten team. Last season the early Western road trip was, arguably the nail in the coffin for the Raptors 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 the Raptors schedule. 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 8 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 the Raps 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 9 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 and 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. Players that haven’t been logging very many minutes may be called into duty.
On this road trip we saw a lot more of Steve 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.
Zan Tabak Herald