Raptors Bargnani reacts to a missed basket against the Nets during their NBA basketball game in Toronto

NBA Season Preview: Toronto Raptors

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We wrap up PBT’s Atlantic Division previews this week by going north of the border. Next week we head to the Midwest and the Central Division.

Last season: Sure, a 23-43 record isn’t good. But it really wasn’t that bad. Seriously. Sure, the Toronto offense was dreadful and would have been the worst in the league had it not been for the Bobcats setting historic records for futility. It was frustrating for Raptors fans because Toronto has talent — Andrea Bargnani and DeMar DeRozan can score — but it didn’t show up much on that end of the floor (in part because Bargnani missed half the season with injuries).

But here is why there is hope — new coach Dwane Casey got Toronto to play defense. Pretty good defense. They went from the worst defense in the league two years ago to a respectable 12th in the league last season (101.5 points per 100 possessions). And the Raptors played hard, the effort was there every night. They didn’t have much talent but you could see the framework of a solid foundation being built.

Key Departures: Not many. Leandro Barbosa is gone, but they don’t need him anymore. After that the guys going away are people like Rasual Butler. No key players departed this year.

Key Additions: This is why there is hope — Toronto had a good offseason. It’s like they add two lottery picks to go with some nice free agents. After another year in Europe, 2011 No. 5 pick Jonas Valanciunas is coming to Toronto — and Raptor fans are pumped about this one. Last season they lacked a good defensive presence in the paint and Valanciunas is expected to provide that. And a few points would be nice, too. Toronto also has this year’s No. 8 pick, Terrence Ross, plus Quincy Acy coming aboard.

However, the biggest acquisition will be Kyle Lowry, the point guard who played at an All-Star level in Houston last year. Lowry can drive, score, set guys up, do just about everything pretty well. Plus, he’s in a contract year with something to prove. Toronto also added Landry Fields (remember Bryan Collangelo’s attempt to screw up the Knicks with a poison-pill deal — so they couldn’t sign Jeremy Lin — but it backfired and now the Raptors have Fields).  The Raptors also signed John Lucas III.

Three keys to the Raptors season:

1) Just how good is Jonas Valanciunas going to be? Toronto fans are pumped about the young Lithuanian big man — more than one fan in Cleveland screamed “noooo” when they drafted Tristan Thompson in front of Valanciunas. Because Valanciunas has the upside, the potential to be special — he was a defensive force at times in Europe and has dominated age-restricted international tournaments

But I watched him a fair amount during the Olympics and I’m not sold he makes a big impact out of the gate in Toronto. He can play some defense, but he needs to get stronger. His offense was a mess. His coach described his play as the game looking like it was moving too fast for him, and that’s what it looked like. He looked hurried, rushed. He can get over that with time, he can still be very good, but he looked like a project and this season may be a lot of work without a lot of fruit from the garden.

2) Just how much better is the Toronto offense going to be? The Raptors are not going to finish 29th in offensive efficiency this season, not with Kyle Lowry running the show at the point (and Jose Calderon behind him, who played very well last year). With Lowry driving the lane, with DeRozan slashing from the wing and with a healthy Bargnani shooting away from deep the Raptors are going to be better on offense.

The question really is how much better and how can Casey fit all the pieces together? While the Raptors are certainly a deeper squad they are building for the future and that means giving quality minutes to young players — rookies Valanciunas and Ross will both be in the heart of the rotation, Ed Davis is entering his third season, and while DeRozan has been around longer it is just his fourth season and he still plays young at times. Developing chemistry is going to take some time but the Raptors need to find a rotation that both can win and grow a young team.

3) Cut down on the turnovers. While Calderon played well for Toronto last season they had the fifth highest turnover percentage in the league — 14.8 percent of their trips down the court ended in an empty possession, a turnover. Theoretically you can win that way (the Thunder had the highest turnover rate in the league) but you make it a lot harder on yourselves. And while they bring in Kyle Lowry he’s not a guy known for taking care of the ball.

Last season the Raptors were third worst in the league in turnover differential. Their margin for error is not so big that they can keep it that high for another season. They need to take care of the rock.

What one thing should scare Raptors fans? Have you seen the Atlantic division? They play in a division with the Celtics, Knicks, Nets and Sixers — four playoff locks. It’s going to be hard to overcome that group for the next couple years unless the Raptors make some big leaps forward.

How it likely works out: Toronto fans are thinking playoffs. And that’s not out of the question — but everything has to go just right. Valanciunas has to give them a defensive presence they need in the paint from day one. Bargnani needs to play like he did at the start of last season and stay healthy. Lowry needs to play like he did last season. Terrence Ross needs to adjust to the NBA quickly. And so on down the line.

The Raptors likely are in the mix for the eight seed for much of the year, with teams like the Bucks and Cavaliers. They will give Raptors fans hope. But things never go as smoothly as one would hope and most likely the Raptors just miss out on a playoff spot this season and will look at this as a building year.

Prediction: 38-44, finishing like the ninth or 10th seed in the East. The Raptors are building something good but it’s going to take a couple more years to get all the way there.

James Harden’s 37 helps Rockets over Celtics 107-106

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HOUSTON (AP) — Houston’s coaching staff emphasized to the players that Boston led the league in fourth-quarter scoring.

So when they Rockets found themselves down by six entering the final frame they knew they’d have step things up to escape with a win.

Harden made sure they did that, scoring 13 of his 37 points in the fourth before Al Horford missed a shot just before the buzzer to allow the Rockets to hold on for a 107-106 victory Monday night.

“The fourth quarter we just picked up … we just wanted to lock in and get stops and offensively be aggressive,” Harden said.

The game was tied before Harden scored five straight points to make it 107-102 with less than a minute remaining. Avery Bradley made a jump shot and Harden received a flagrant 1 foul for elbowing Marcus Smart in the face. Smart made both free throws before Isaiah Thomas missed a layup.

But Houston knocked the ball out of bounds with 5.2 seconds left, giving Boston one last chance. Horford drove into the lane, but his shot rolled off the rim and Harden grabbed it to secure the victory.

“I felt good when I shot it, but it just didn’t go down,” Horford said.

Horford had 21 points and Thomas added 20 for the Celtics, who had won two straight.

It was the ninth 30-point game this season for Harden, who also had eight assists and seven rebounds.

An 8-2 run by Houston, powered by a pair of 3-pointers by Eric Gordon, cut Boston’s lead to one with about 8 1/2 minutes left. Smart made a 3-pointer for the first of seven straight points for the Celtics that made it 96-88. Smart also had a big defensive play in that stretch when he blocked a one-handed dunk attempt by Montrezl Harrell.

Houston scored eight straight points, topped off with a dunk from Harrell, to take a 102-100 lead with about 3 1/2 minutes left.

Harden raved about Harrell’s work.

“You see how he’s flying around everywhere,” Harden said. “He does a lot of different things, some things that don’t show up on the stat sheet that helped contribute to this win.”

The Celtics trailed by 12 early in the third quarter before using a 15-2 spurt to take a 68-67 lead with about 7 minutes left in the quarter. Boston made three 3-pointers in that span, capped by one from Horford. Houston missed five shots, including four 3s, and had two turnovers to help the Celtics close the gap.

“We guarded at a different level and our first unit played pretty well in the third,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said. “In one stretch in the fourth we turned the ball over and that was hurtful.”

The Rockets were up by three points with 2 minutes left in the first half before Smart fouled Harden on a 3-point attempt and he made all three free throws. Houston had extended the lead to seven when Smart again fouled Harden on a 3-point try and his three free throws made it 58-48 at halftime.

TIP-INS

Celtics: James Young missed the game with an illness. … Thomas received a technical for arguing a call at the end of the first half. … Bradley finished with 16 points and 10 rebounds. … Smart had 13 points.

Rockets: Made 12 3-pointers to extend their NBA record of consecutive games with at least 10 3-pointers to 20. … Trevor Ariza started despite dealing with back spasms and had 15 points and eight rebounds. … Gordon finished with 19 points and made four 3-pointers to give him six straight games with at least four 3s.

PERFECT

Harden tied a franchise record for most free throws without a miss by making all 18 of his attempts on Monday night. Kevin Martin also went 18 for 18 on March 20, 2011 against Utah. He lamented committing the offensive foul on Smart late instead of drawing the foul and getting a chance to go to the line and set the record.

“Of course I wanted two free throws at the end of the game instead of a flagrant, but we won,” he said. “That’s all that matters.”

LATE PUSH

The Rockets have developed a knack for scoring late. After managing just 13 points in the fourth quarter of a 105-103 loss to Oklahoma City on Nov. 16 the Rockets have picked things up, averaging 27.9 fourth-quarter points in the last 10 games.

THEY SAID IT

Stevens on Harden: “Harden is a really good player. I don’t know what else to say. We could go through and dissect every play, but overall he is just a really good player.”

 

Insane: Klay Thompson drops 60 on Indiana in three quarters (VIDEO)

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Oh yea, don’t forget the Golden State Warriors have Klay Thompson, too.

It’s not that the Indiana Pacers forgot, they just couldn’t do anything about it. Thompson hit 21-of-33 shots, 8-of-14 from three, on his way to 60 points in three quarters as the Warriors ran the Pacers out of Oracle Arena 142-106. Thompson was hitting from anywhere and everywhere.

Klay shotchart

The rest of the Warriors loved it.

Russell Westbrook’s sixth straight triple-double leads Thunder past Hawks 102-99

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ATLANTA (AP) — Russell Westbrook extended his streak of triple-doubles to six games, leading the Oklahoma City Thunder to a 102-99 victory over the skidding Atlanta Hawks on Monday night.

Westbrook scored 32 points, grabbed 13 rebounds and doled out 12 assists, giving him the NBA’s longest streak of triple-doubles since Michael Jordan had seven in a row in 1989.

Westbrook’s run has sparked a six-game winning streak by the Thunder. He’s now reached double figures in all three categories in half of the Thunder’s 22 games.

By contrast, Jordan had 15 triple-doubles for the entire 1988-89 season.

Westbrook kept his streak alive with plenty of time to spare. Despite a poor start shooting, he already had 15 points and 11 rebounds when he picked up his 10th assist with 6:20 left in the third quarter.

Scooping up a loose ball after a turnover by the Hawks, Westbrook led a 2-on-1 that ended with a pass to Victor Oladipo for a layup that gave the Thunder a 69-59 lead.

Westbrook, who missed eight of his first nine shots, suddenly found his touch in the third quarter. He made five of his next seven shots, three of them beyond the arc, and finished with 16 points in the period as the Thunder stretched a one-point halftime lead to 83-69 heading to the fourth.

Atlanta rallied down the stretch, but Westbrook closed it out for the Thunder. He finished with 27 second-half points to send the Hawks to their seventh straight loss and 10th defeat in the last 11 games.

It’s the longest losing streak for the Hawks since they dropped eight in a row in February 2014.

Coach Mike Budenholzer decided to shake things up, sending Kyle Korver to the bench and putting Thabo Sefolosha in the starting lineup. The Hawks also were bolstered by the return of Paul Millsap, who had missed three straight games with a sore hip. He led five players in double figures with 24 points.

It didn’t matter. Westbrook made sure of that.

Atlanta had a shot to send the game to overtime after Korver forced a jump ball.

The Thunder clamped down defensively off the inbounds play, and Tim Hardaway Jr.‘s desperation 3-pointer at the buzzer failed to hit the rim.

MONSTER JAM

Oladipo wasn’t afraid to take on Dwight Howard in the lane.

During the second quarter, the 6-foot-4 Thunder guard drove the baseline and slammed one over Atlanta’s 6-11 center, rocking the rim and drawing gasps from the crowd.

Oladipo savored the moment, pumping his fists, stomping his feet and posing briefly in the lane even as the Hawks took off the other way.

RECRUITING DWIGHT

Billy Donovan made a recruiting pitch to Howard while coaching at Florida.

During his pregame chat with the media, the Oklahoma City coach recounted a visit to Howard and his father at Southwest Atlanta Christian Academy.

Donovan quickly gave up any hope of getting Howard to attend college.

“All I had to do was watch one AAU game and then I stopped recruiting him immediately,” he quipped.

Howard, of course, went straight from high school to the NBA in the days before the rules required at least one year of college. He was the first overall pick of the Orlando Magic in 2004.

 

Follow Paul Newberry on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/pnewberry1963 . His work can be found at http://bigstory.ap.org/content/paul-newberry .

Al-Farouq Aminu active for Trail Blazers

PORTLAND, OR - APRIL 25: Al-Farouq Aminu #8 of the Portland Trail Blazers celebrates with a teammate after hitting a three point shot in the first quarter of Game Four of the Western Conference Quarterfinals against the Los Angeles Clippers during the 2016 NBA Playoffs at the Moda Center on April 25, 2016 in Portland, Oregon. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that by downloading and/or using this photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Steve Dykes/Getty Images)
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CHICAGO (AP) — Portland Trail Blazers forward Al-Farouq Aminu is active for their game against the Chicago Bulls after being sidelined by a left calf injury.

Coach Terry Stotts says Aminu will be restricted to around 20 minutes Monday night “depending on how it goes.”

Aminu started the first eight games of the season before he got hurt Nov. 8 against Phoenix. He is averaging 6.4 points and 6.6 rebounds.