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.

Seth Curry, Mavs hand Heat third loss in 19 games with 96-89 win

Dallas Mavericks guard Seth Curry (30) shoots against Miami Heat center Hassan Whiteside (21) during the second half of an NBA basketball game in Dallas, Monday, Feb. 27, 2017. The Mavericks won 96-89. (AP Photo/LM Otero)
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DALLAS (AP) — Seth Curry scored 29 points, Harrison Barnes added 24 and the Dallas Mavericks beat Miami 96-89 on Monday night, handing the Heat just their third loss in 19 games.

Curry looked a little like famous older brother Stephen Curry of Golden State by hitting two long 3-pointers in the fourth quarter, the latter giving Dallas a 90-89 lead. The Mavericks rallied from 14 points down in the first quarter and let an 11-point third-quarter lead get away.

Two games after scoring a career-high 31 points in a loss at Minnesota, Curry was 5 of 7 from long range to help the Mavericks improve to 2-0 with forward-center Nerlens Noel, who came from Philadelphia before the trade deadline.

Goran Dragic scored 24 points for the Heat, who went scoreless over the final 4:37 as a three-game winning streak ended.

Hassan Whiteside, a free agent target for Dallas last summer, had 19 points and 19 rebounds. Now the Mavericks are preparing for a future with the 22-year-old Noel, who had a crowd-energizing block from behind on Whiteside and finished with six points and six rebounds.

Dragic finished a 9-0 Heat run with a 3-pointer that bounced high off the front of the rim and went in for an 89-84 lead. But Miami missed its last seven shots, and the Mavericks scored the final six points on free throws after Curry’s go-ahead shot.

Curry scored 11 points in the second quarter, including a three-point play that gave Dallas its first lead at 48-46 after the Mavericks trailed by 14 in the first quarter. He had another flurry late in the third, hitting a long 3 and a pull-up jumper for the final five points as Dallas took a 78-69 lead into the final quarter.

TIP-INS

Heat: C Willie Reed won’t need a boot or crutches to treat bursitis in his right ankle. Coach Erik Spoelstra said Reed was day to day. … The visit to Dallas was the Miami’s last road game against the West this season.

Mavericks: Coach Rick Carlisle said G J.J. Barea is at least a week away from returning from a left calf strain that has sidelined him the past 16 games and for 33 of the 41 games he has missed this season. … G Quinn Cook, undrafted in 2015 out of Duke, made his NBA debut a day after signing a 10-day contract, getting two points and two assists in 17 minutes. … Seth Curry had a big night while his brother had a most miserable one. Stephen Curry was a career-worst 0 for 11 from deep in the Warriors’ win over Philadelphia on Monday.

 

LeBron James shakes off strep throat, leads Cavs past Bucks 102-95

CLEVELAND, OH - FEBRUARY 27: Rashad Vaughn #20 of the Milwaukee Bucks guards LeBron James #23 of the Cleveland Cavaliers during the second half at Quicken Loans Arena on February 27, 2017 in Cleveland, Ohio. The Cavaliers defeated the Bucks 102-95. 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 Jason Miller/Getty Images)
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CLEVELAND (AP) — LeBron James returned from a bout with strep throat and scored 24 points, Kyrie Irving added 25 and the Cleveland Cavaliers held off the Milwaukee Bucks 102-95 on Monday night.

James missed Saturday’s loss to Chicago – the Cavs fell to 0-4 this season without their superstar – and was listed as questionable before arriving at Quicken Loans Arena. He looked fit from the start, delivering an early dunk and adding one in the fourth that he capped by screaming, “That’s and one!” at MiIwaukee’s John Henson, who fouled him.

James’ dunk triggered an 11-0 run that helped put away the Bucks, who were within 86-85 midway through the fourth.

Malcolm Brogdon scored 20 to lead Milwaukee, and Bucks All-Star Giannis Antetokounmpo scored just nine on 4-of-13 shooting.

The Bucks may have sustained a costly injury as forward Michael Beasley sprained his left knee in the first half. Beasley’s knee buckled grotesquely as he tried to defend James on the baseline. He scored 11 points before going down and had to be helped to Milwaukee’s locker room.

Looking to stay on top in the East, the Cavs signed free agent point guard Deron Williams before the game.

The three-time All-Star gives Cleveland depth, someone to lead its second unit and a reliable backup for Irving. Williams negotiated a buyout of his contract last week with Dallas before being waived and informing the Cavs he wanted to join them and try to win a title.

Cleveland is more than happy to add him to a bench that has improved in the last month with the additions of Kyle Korver and Derrick Williams, who combined for 27 points in the win.

There’s also a chance the Cavs could sign free agent center Andrew Bogut, who was waived by Philadelphia on Monday and is being courted by several teams.

Derrick Williams beat the horn ending the third quarter by dropping a 3-pointer from 35 feet to give Cleveland a 77-73 lead entering the fourth.

The Cavs were down by seven earlier in the quarter before going on a 13-0 run.

TIP-INS

Bucks: Beasley started for G Khris Middleton, who didn’t make the trip as part of the team’s plan to rest him in back-to-back games. He missed three months with a torn hamstring. … G Matthew Dellavedova spent part of the pregame meeting with former Cavs teammates and coaches. He received his diamond championship ring on Milwaukee’s previous visit. … Coach Jason Kidd said it’s a treat getting to watch Antetokounmpo develop. He’s the only NBA player leading his team in points, rebounds, assists, blocks and steals. “It’s a great seat to have,” Kidd said. “When you’re able to see for the last three years, his growth and understanding, how fast he picked up things and how much he wants to be good in this league.”

Cavaliers: Irving became the eighth player in team history with 2,000 career assists. … While James was better, coach Tyronn Lue was under the weather and awaiting results on a strep test. … Deron Williams received a loud ovation when he was introduced during the fourth quarter. He has worn No. 8 throughout his career, but will don 31 for Cleveland. “My first high school number was 31,” he said. “I wanted a single number, but all of them were pretty much taken, so I went with 31.”

 

Dwight Howard pushes Al Horford, gets technical, later ejected for hanging on rim

Atlanta Hawks center Dwight Howard (8) drives past Boston Celtics center Al Horford (42) during the second quarter of an NBA basketball game in Boston, Monday, Feb. 27, 2017. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)
Associated Press
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It ended up working out for Atlanta — the Hawks went on a 22-11 run after Dwight Howard was ejected, then hung on for a comfortable win 114-98.

Still, Howard found a way to get tossed. He did it two separate technical fouls in the third quarter. The first came when he shoved Al Horford after the Celtic big fouled Howard under the basket (always a smart move rather than give up a dunk).

The next came a few minutes later when Howard slammed then pulled himself up like a pull-up on the rim, an automatic tech every time.

That’s technicals 10 and 11 on the season for Howard. He’s got some work to do to catch up with DeMarcus Cousins, but still he’s racked up a few.

It just didn’t matter on Monday, with Dennis Schroder leading the way with 21 points for the Hawks.

 

DeMar DeRozan drains game winner to cap 37-point night, Raptors beat Knicks 92-91

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With Kyle Lowry out until around the start of the playoffs, a lot is going to be asked of DeMar DeRozan. Monday night at Madison Square Garden, he delivered.

The Raptors needed a bucket as time ran down, not only got the ball to DeRozan but got the switch so Derrick Rose was guarding him, and that allowed the Raptors star to get to his spot, rise up and bury the midrange jumper for the win.

It capped off an impressive 37-point night for DeRozan — he’s going to need to do more of this in the coming weeks.