The Raps dropped their second straight game last night to a desperate Atlanta Hawks team, 118-113, in a lifeless (literally lifeless; there was no people there) Phillips Arena. The Raps fall to 1-5 in overtime games this season, and are now just half a game up on the 4th seed Chicago Bulls.
More worrying than that is the fact that, after an impressive opening, Jonas Valanciunas left the game with a lower back sprain. The Raps have a game in New Orleans tonight, and with Patrick Patterson set to miss out again, God only knows who's going to guard Anthony Davis. Chuck Hayes certainly ain't going to cut it.
Injuries are a worry, of course -- every playoff bound team will be sweating it out as we near the post-season -- but before I start to bitch and moan, it's absolutely worth reiterating the big-picture positives. The Raptors are 8 games above .500, and are far and away exceeding the fans' -- and likely the front-office's -- expectations this season.
Sometimes as fans -- especially those of us immersed in the non-stop news cycle that is the sporting blogosphere -- we get bogged down in small picture, game-by-game minutiae, and fail to see the forest for the trees. Big picture wise, the Raps are still in great shape -- heading to the playoffs, still with a great shot at home-court advantage in the first-round. The team is playing with house money at the present time. Let's not lose sight of that.
That being said, as someone writing for a site that covers the team on a day-to-day basis, it's tough to avoid over-analysing wins and loses -- even though the line between the two is often paper-thin. We all want to extrapolate big-picture trends from a single win or loss. Sometimes those trends are meaningful, and sometimes they aren't. I'll try not to overreact here.
Harsh Dave did a nice job breaking down last night's game, so I'm just going to run through a few general likes and dislikes (nod to Zach Lowe there) as they pertain to last night's tilt, and the Raps' overall play as of late.
Like: Jonas Valanciunas' Recent Play
Jonas has had his ups and downs this season -- that's been well-documented. But over the last few games he's been very solid. He dominated the undersized Hawks early last night, and mixed-up his shot selection nicely. One of my criticisms of Jonas has been his unwillingness to take the open jumper when it's ceded to him by the opposition -- but he's become a lot less reluctant to shoot it in recent games. Unfortunately, Jonas got in foul trouble early last night, so his great start was somewhat derailed. Oh, and then he got injured. Let's hope it's nothing serious.
Dislike: Casey's Ineffective Lineups.
Okay, don't get me wrong, some of Casey's lineup experiments have been good. A willingness to pair Greivis Vasquez with Kyle Lowry in the back-court has worked well at times. However, I'm not a fan of his insistence on playing Chuck Hayes regardless of the match-up, and giving John Salmons substantial minutes.
Last night was not the night for Hayes -- the Hawks just have way too many big-men who can step out and score from the perimeter. It makes sense to play Hayes against troublesome post-up bigs like Al Jefferson, but not against an undersized, super-quick forward like Paul Millsap (Millsap had a triple-double last night). And here's a novel thought: Maybe let Jonas play through some foul trouble once in a while, especially when he's killing the opposition.
Regarding Salmons: How bad does Landry Fields look in practice right now? He can't even get a few minutes when Salmons stinks it up like he did last night. Even Nando de Colo saw minutes in a weird 3-guard lineup. I can't help but wonder if Fields could offer the Raps something in small-ball line-ups -- especially as he's a better defensive option than Steve Novak.
Like: DeRozan Mixing Up His Game
DeMar DeRozan made a couple questionable decisions last night -- he's getting killed all over the internet for those 2 turnovers in overtime -- but overall I felt like his season-long progression on offense was on show. DeMar attempted 14 free-throws, and while he undoubtedly got the benefit of some iffy officiating decisions (How refreshing!) his ability, and willingness, to get to the line is one of the biggest reasons why he's made the jump to an All-Star level this season. It's also worth reiterating that DeRozan is now able to contribute when his shot isn't falling, or when he isn't the focal point of a possession -- another 6 assists last night are illustrative of that.
Dislike: How the Raptors are using Steve Novak
Steve Novak does one thing well on a basketball court -- very well, in fact. If Dwane Casey insists on playing him major minutes as a small-ball 4, he needs to get him more involved in the offense -- because lord knows he's going to kill you at the defensive end during that time. The Raptors run a great pin-down play to get Terrence Ross open --Amir usually sets a screen under the basket, and Ross runs baseline and pops out on the wing -- and there's no reason why they can't draw up more of those for Novak when he's on the court.
Like: Everything About Kyle Lowry
Seriously, what's not to like?! After a slow start, Lowry was once again beast-like last night -- 20 points, 7 rebounds, 9 assists; and of course, those gutsy-as-hell charges that go unrecorded in the box-score. Lowry is the heart and soul of this team, and it speaks volumes about the kind of player that he is, that he was able to bounce back so brilliantly after being kneed in the head by P.J. Tucker's just two days ago.
And I absolutely loved the fact that Lowry had the ball in his hands on the final possession of regulation. DeRozan's been great this season, but I've watched him dribble the ball off his foot one too many times on final-play isolations. In late game situations the Raps need to live and die by Lowry's decision-making.
Dislike: The Bench Sans Patrick Patterson
Post Rudy Gay trade, it's very possible that we all confused "Hey, we have a solid bench now because of Patrick Patterson" for "Hey, the Raptors have a great bench now". The bench unit was a little better last night than they were against Phoenix, but the fact remains; without Patterson, and the unique versatility he offers the Raps at both ends, the team has major depth problems. Vasquez is good in small-doses (but definitely not when he's shooting 3s off-the-bounce); but Patterson is the difference between a bench that can hold it's own when the starters sit, and one that is forced to run plays for the offensively anaemic Tyler Hansbrough. Come back soon, Patrick!
One last thought: The Atlanta Crowd
The Hawks have hardly set the NBA on fire in recent years, but they've made the post-season 6 straight years (they're going to make it 7) and have been a consistently solid ball-club during that time. And yet, every time I tune in to watch a game in Atlanta, the attendance is dismal. Leo Rautins made a quip that Atlanta might be a tough place to play because the silence is so disconcerting -- hilarious and depressing.
If the Hawks were genuinely awful -- if they had to go through a 76ers-esque rebuild -- would anyone show up to Phillips Arena? Would 10 people come to watch? Who knows, the ticket prices for Hawks games could be prohibitive -- maybe the arena is inaccessible -- but on the face of it it's pretty pathetic. Basketball fans in Seattle must wonder what they have to do to get a team.
On the other hand, the Raptors have missed the playoffs for 5 straight years, have put up with an endless amount of front-office incompetence, and the ACC is sold out, night in and night out. Give yourselves a pat on the back, Raptors fans.