What a difference a couple of weeks make. Everything seemed fine and rosy in Raptorland this season as they once again find themselves amongst the top teams in the Eastern Conference. During the Christmas season, they were cruising with a 21-7 record but it seems that all of a sudden, the engine started to sputter and may have come to a complete standstill. In their last 15 games (including the 108-106 loss to San Antonio) they have a paltry 6-9 record including 4 straight losses and a possible 5th with the difficult Memphis Grizzlies on the horizon.
Good teams go through stretches like this in a season but great teams find a way to quickly correct the ship and get back to sailing in calm waters. The fear in Toronto is that the ship isn’t being corrected fast enough and it’s possible that ship may be sinking altogether. This is usually the time when I would say something like, “People of Toronto, take a deep breath… relax. There is no need to panic.” Although I am looking for everyone to remain calm, there is cause for concern. The bottom line is that the only thing this long 82 game season is good for, is to get home court advantage. Other than that, it really doesn’t matter how many regular season games you win as last year’s Golden State Warriors can attest to that. So lets’ not get out of sorts just yet as these games are nowhere near as important as those in the post season. What is alarming however is that the style of play (high efficient offence) the Raptors used to cruise to that great record, will not serve them well in the playoffs. For the most part, championships are won on two things, defense and rebounding. This is why there is cause for concern, because the Raptors haven’t been good at either.
It’s not that their defense is atrocious, calling what they try to do as “defense” now that’s atrocious. They are ranked 18th in the league at this time and the only thing that has been saving them is their offensive efficiency has at times been one of the best in NBA history. Trouble is, when it matters (like the playoffs) defense is what will win you games. Raptors far too often allow easy baskets around the rim and this isn’t the sole fault of Jonas Valanciunas as people would like to think. Week perimeter defending allows opponents to get to the paint where JV then has to come and help. If that player passes to JV’s man and they score, it looks like it was JV’s fault. If the player shoots and scores over JV, it looks like JV’s fault. If the player shoots and misses but the rebound is gathered by the opposing team, guess what… it appears to be JV’s fault because he is supposed to be the one rebounding the ball. Don’t get me wrong, Jonas Valanciunas does need to improve his lateral quickness and decision making to help the overall team defense, but this is a systemic team issue that needs to be corrected and not just his. This really is surprising as Dwayne Casey’s forte was coaching defense and yet, his team isn’t displaying it.
Funny enough there have been many times this season where the Raptors have played good, even great defense for 20-23 seconds forcing opponents to take bad shots. That great defense goes to waste however as they don’t successfully secure the rebound and the ball goes right back to the opponents. This causes a number of issues as you a) miss out on a chance for a fast break and an easy basket, and not only b) do you give your opponents an extra chance, but you c) give them a chance when your defense is all over the place as they tried to chase down that rebound. These added opportunities lead to more points against you and demoralizes you because you had already made the stop. The Raptors rank 25th in rebounding (27th in defensive rebounding) which is quite dismal. The math really is quite simple. More chances tend to lead to more points. Therefore the more rebounds you have, not only increases the more chances you get but also limits those of your opponents.
The Raptors play is a matter of concern, but not panic as they still have time to correct the ship before heading into the playoffs. Just because they took Cleveland to the 6th game of the Eastern Conference Finals, doesn’t mean they are entitled to get there again. If you recall, they still struggled in the playoffs and it took winning two game 7s to reach there. If they don’t find their defensive and rebounding rhythm soon, they may not make it out of the first round and that my dear friends… that is a reason to panic.
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