Raptors Q1 Review: Change is good

The Toronto Raptors looked as though they were finally hitting their stride.

Passes were zipping across the court, three-pointers were falling, and all the players were contributing when called upon. Four straight wins — six of their last seven — the culture change was in full effect.

The Raptors jumped out to an 11-point lead at halftime against the New York Knicks, but what happened in the third quarter is still hard to explain. An unheard of 28-0 run that at times looked like a layup drill for Tim Hardaway Jr. ended in a 41-10 third quarter in favour of the Knicks. Toronto made a spirited fightback in the fourth, but the damage was already done.

Hardaway Jr. had a career night with 38 points, 7 assists, and 6 rebounds. Photo credit: Julie Jacobson/AP

One could look back at that run and just call it a random event. Something that has the potential to happen over the course of an 82-game season, and did. Move on, right?

Not so much. The Raptors had a chance to put that loss in the pass and right the ship in Indiana where they squared off against former teammate and Toronto’s very own Cory Joseph, but the third quarter haunted them yet again.

Once again, after carrying a notable nine-point lead into halftime, the Raptors were outscored 31-20 in the third, before Lance Stephenson put the game to bed in the fourth.

The Raptors completed their road trip Saturday night in Atlanta with a comfortable 112-78 victory, and while the positive is that they played well enough to win the third quarter 32-19, it’s hard to read to much into it against a team with four wins from 20 games.

The Charlotte Hornets came into the Air Canada Centre knowing they couldn’t benefit from the services of their franchise player, Kemba Walker, but still caused Toronto more third quarter woes. They won the frame 33-22 after the home side had done ever so well to build a 19-point advantage in the first half.

The Raptors came away with the victory, but a visibly agitated Dwane Casey was proof that their third quarters have become a serious concern. Through the first 16 games (11-5) of the season, the Raptors had a net rating of +0.6. The warning signs were there, though, with a defensive rating of 113.7.

Over their last four games, that net rating has dropped to -36.4 (worst in the league over that stretch), and while the defence is still horrendous, it’s the offence that has plateaued to the tune of an 85.1 rating.

The most pressing issue is the lack of energy the starting five has played with. That’s the perception, at least. With how much the pace of play has increased, Dwane Casey essentially starts his first and third quarters with two centres on the court.

Jonas Valanciunas’ value has taken a significant hit with today’s style of play, while Serge Ibaka has struggled to perform consistently at power forward. He’s just unable to keep up. His minutes with the Lithuanian off the floor point towards that direction as well.

Ibaka is usually slotted next to Pascal Siakam when playing centre, and has a defensive rating of 100.8 when Valanciunas is off the court, as opposed to a rating of 112.4 when the two are paired together.

When Valanciunas is paired with someone other than Ibaka, the defensive rating is still an unacceptable 112.1, although it must be said that this sample size is very small as the majority of the career-low 20 minutes per game he now plays are with the starting unit.

Casey’s hands are tied, to an extent, here. If Siakam were to start alongside Ibaka, he risks impacting a bench unit that has been very productive as is. Considering the amount of time and money the Raptors have invested in their fifth overall pick from the 2011 NBA draft, it seems highly unlikely that they would make a move that glues him to the bench.

Once there’s more at stake in the postseason, expect these decisions to become a little bit easier with each loss holding much greater consequences.

On the positive side, the culture changes are for real. Almost 20 games into the season, the Raptors have a healthy assist percentage of 56.2 after finishing bottom of the league last year at 47.2. They’re playing at a pace that’s a couple of possessions faster than they were last year, and Kyle Lowry is playing almost five fewer minutes per game.

Of all the changes that were needed to improve Toronto’s playoff performances, ensuring Lowry enters the playoffs fresher and less battered and bruised than the 37 minute per game load would expose him to the past two seasons is perhaps the most significant.

After a slow start, the all-star point guard is averaging 20.6 points, 7.3 rebounds, 7.3 assists, and a blistering 47.2 percent (8.1 attempts) from three over the past 11 games.

The rebounding is easily the most impressive aspect of his game, and he’s perhaps taken a page out of Russell Westbrook’s page in terms of being first to the boards so the Raptors can get out and run more often.

You can often see Lowry looking up the floor for Pascal Siakam (who has been excellent), often ahead of everyone going back down the other end of the floor. When Lowry has the opportunity to hit it ahead to DeMar DeRozan or another guard/wing player to see what they can create in early offence, he does that as well.

The re-emergence of Kyle+bench units has also helped his production. Fred VanVleet has found some nice chemistry alongside him, and the return of Norman Powell has served as a huge boost to their offensive productivity thus far.

The decision to start Powell at the beginning of the year didn’t pan out as many would have expected. The former UCLA guard had some positive returns in the role last season, but was unable to find a groove early before being forced to sit with the hip pointer injury from the game in Boston.

He has looked much more comfortable off the bench, and is ironically joined off the bench by C.J. Miles. The debate at the start of the season was about which one of the two should start, but they both complement each other nicely — Powell with his drive game, and Miles with his shoot-on-sight approach — and so this should be the way forward for Toronto.

Anunoby is someone who the Raptors starting lineup doesn’t need to cater to, and he brings more size and arguably the best defence at the small forward position. The team has lucked out here. There is simply no way he should have fallen to 23rd in the draft.

The best player award through the first quarter of the season must go to DeRozan. Every year he finds an aspect of his game to improve, and this time it’s his playmaking. He stated before the season started that he wanted to kill teams with the pass, and he’s averaging a career-high 4.7 assists per game thus far.

He’s shooting more threes too (2.8 attempts per), but has been ineffective at just 28.6 percent. He must improve as a catch-and-shoot guy, and especially from the corners where he has been a frigid 6-of-22 thus far. For the most efficient shot in basketball, that number has to go up.

Enough nitpicking.

On the whole, at 13-7 and a very impressive 7-1 on their home floor, the Raptors are on pace for another 50-win season. The offence looks more sustainable than years past with less reliance on its superstars and role players that are looking to seize the initiative.

The Raptors only play twice between now and Dec. 7, and so Casey will be looking forward to having plenty of practice time to continue working through some of the kinks.

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