Raptors stumble in first step without DeMar DeRozan

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LOS ANGELES — The Toronto Raptors entered Sunday night with the best record in the East, a fast 13-3 start in part built in large part on continuity and balance — it’s hard to defend a team where on any given night Kyle Lowry or DeMar DeRozan or Terrence Ross or Lou Williams off the bench can light you up, where five guys averaged double digits and a sixth is at 9.5 a game, where that unit plays defense on a string.

But pull one piece out of the Jenga tower and that balance becomes less stable, it teeters and can fall easily.

We saw that Sunday night in Los Angeles. To a man the Raptors recognized that and said they needed to find their stability again over the coming weeks.

DeRozan is out for an extended period with a torn tendon in his groin — history of the injury suggests at least six weeks, DeRozan hopes to be back in a month — and Sunday without him the Raptors struggled. An offense that usually shared the ball became isolation heavy. And their Top 10 defense crumbled for the night. The result was a Los Angeles Lakers win, 129-122 in overtime, behind a triple-double from Kobe Bryant, who seems to save up his best games for Toronto.

Without DeRozan the Raptors have a much smaller margin for error on both sides of the ball. Sunday night they didn’t adapt well on either end.

What was the bigger issue for Toronto, the offense or defense? Depends on who you ask.

“Offensively, I thought that we were a little out of rhythm…” Raptors coach Dwane Casey said afterwards, particularly referring to the team’s first half. “This is who we are and who we’re going to be, so we have to get it together. Everyone is happy during good times, We lost a couple games and now we’ll see what we are made of…

“A lot of our offense is built around, or for, DeMar. Getting into a rhythm that way, plus new stuff, and new positions, I would say (players roles are changing) a little bit. But we’ve been doing that for two years so it’s no excuse.”

“We’re not making any excuses, we just didn’t play defense,” said guard Greivis Vasquez, the guy thrust into the starting lineup with DeRozan out. “We scored enough points to win, we just have to play defense.”

To a man, the Raptors used the no excuses line. It’s something every pro sports team says when a key player goes down, and it’s been a common refrain around the NBA this early season when a raft of top stars — Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, Dwyane Wade, Dwight Howard and so on — have gone down for extended periods. Some teams have adapted better than others, the book is out still on Toronto.

For a Raptors team built on continuity they believe they should be able to adapt, adjust and step up better than we saw Sunday.

“Next man up,” Casey said spouting the pro sports cliché pregame. “It’s so true. I know it’s corny but that’s why you have a big roster. Injuries are a big part of the NBA….

“The year we won the championship in Dallas (Casey was an assistant coach) we lost Dirk (Nowitzki) and everyone thought the world was going to hell. But it didn’t, we stuck together and bonded, developed some confidence in the guys who had an opportunity to play, and you’ve got to look at it from that positive standpoint.”

The Raptors players talked about that too, being a better team when DeRozan returns, about finding a level of stability for the next six weeks.

In Sunday night’s loss Vasquez was right, it was the defense — the Raptors offensive production on the night was very close to their season average (using points per possession), but it was on the defensive end where the Raptors could have used DeRozan’s length and athleticism. Not that it would have mattered in the first half, when the Lakers just got hot and hit contested or just poor shots to the tune of better than 60 percent from the floor until deep in the second quarter. Everything fell for them. Plus Kobe was doubled early and with that started dishing the ball to open teammates — the Lakers are more dangerous when he facilitates (and other guys hit those shots).

Toronto players also saw defense as a more easily correctable issue. While DeRozan is an athletic and long defender it is Ross who often gets the toughest defensive assignment of the night and James Johnson comes off the bench to help get stops. It was the offensive side where the roles really changed Sunday.

“I think Kyle and I can play together…” Vasquez said after the game, and the pair combined for 48 points but on an inefficient 44 shots. “The offense wasn’t really the problem, it was our defense. There’s no excuse, we have to play defense as a team….

“Defensively as a team we do a great job collectively, it was more of a focus thing.”

DeRozan gave Toronto better than 19 points a game and a player defenses have to watch at all times. That’s not easy to just replace.

“He’s a franchise player, no question about it,” Casey said.

But this is life in the NBA. Always has been. Guys go down and the best teams adjust — the model everyone strives for is the Spurs, who never seem to miss a step even when Tim Duncan or Tony Parker are out for a night.

Toronto has work to do to get near that level, but they can be a much more dangerous team come the playoffs if they can become a little more Spurs like in the next stretch while DeRozan recovers. For Casey that starts with a better effort.

“(DeRozan’s absence) had nothing to do with the loose balls in the first half, the no box outs in the first half and, I thought, the soft play defensively in the first half…” Casey said. “Defensively I thought we had good stops but we didn’t come up with the loose balls and second shots. That has nothing to do with rhythm and more with wanting to get on the floor and get those.”

The Raptors don’t have the margin for error to let those little plays go anymore.

Carmelo Anthony: Nuggets should retire my number

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Carmelo Anthony said he hopes the Knicks will retire his number.

With his Trail Blazers playing the Nuggets last night, Anthony had a stronger statement for Denver.

Jena Garcia of The CHICK n Nuggets Podcast:

Anthony:

This is where it should be retired, to be honest with you. Just my opinion.

The history is here. This is where it all started. But maybe not. The Joker’s got 15 now. We’ll see. We’ve still got time for that.

There’s a better case for the Nuggets than the Knicks to retire his jersey. Though he peaked in New York, Anthony spent more time and had more success in Denver. The Nuggets also don’t have the Knicks’ storied history, which lowers the bar for number retirement.

Nikola Jokic wearing No. 15 shouldn’t be an impediment. Though Jokic is on his way to having his number retired in Denver, there’s no good reason two No. 15s can’t hang in the rafters.

The biggest issue is Anthony’s bitter exit from the Nuggets. For a player who never even advanced to the NBA Finals, let alone won a championship, that still lingers. There just isn’t that cherished memory with Anthony to fall back on.

Time heals most wounds, and Anthony is becoming less and less of a villain in Denver. But will he eventually become cherished enough to have his number retired there? That could take a while.

Luka Doncic greets Mexico City fans in Spanish, a tough act for Blake Griffin to follow (video)

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The Pistons had a rough time in Mexico.

Andre Drummond suffered an allergic reaction to avocado. Detroit lost to the Mavericks. And Blake Griffin had to follow Luka Doncic in addressing Mexico City fans.

A Slovenian, Doncic spent several years playing for Real Madrid in Spain. We knew that prepared him for the NBA. We didn’t know it prepared him this well.

‘Seinfeld’ predicted last night’s Cavaliers-Spurs game 28 years ago (video)

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On a 1991 episode of “Seinfeld,” Jerry woke up in the middle of the night with a joke idea for his stand-up routine. He scribbled it down on paper by his bed. But when he woke the next morning, he couldn’t read what he had written.

George suffered what he thought was a heart attack. On Kramer’s advice, George visited a holistic healer.

The storylines converged when Jerry, accompanying his friend to mock alternative medicine, asked the healer to read his note. The healer read it, laughed and said:

“Cleveland 117, San Antonio 109”

The score of last night’s Cavaliers-Spurs game?

Cleveland 117, San Antonio 109

Bucks easing into life after Malcolm Brogdon

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Gary Dineen/NBAE via Getty Images
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George Hill has become a trusted voice within the Bucks. The savvy veteran is in his 12th season. He began his career with the Spurs when they were still the gold-standard franchise, started for the championship-contending Pacers, helped the Jazz become a breakout team, played for the Kings, joined the Cavaliers as they made a run to the NBA Finals, stayed in Cleveland for the Cavs’ post-LeBron James freefall then came to Milwaukee. In other words, Hill has been (basketball) hell and back. He knows the game, knows the league.

Among his biggest talking points: role acceptance.

“I think that’s the difference between good teams and bad teams,” Hill said. “Good teams have guys that accept that role and excel in that role. That’s what good organizations do. And the bad teams have the ones that are just trying to chase their own stats.”

That sounds nice for someone where Hill is in his career. But what about young players still trying to establish themselves?

“You can make a lot of money being a great role guy,” Hill said. “You can last a lot longer in this league being a great role guy, a great teammate, a guy that everyone wants to play with and a guy that teams want you because they know you know how to win and you can fit with any type of style of play.”

A shining example of Hill’s worldview? Malcolm Brogdon.

Brogdon was mere months removed from winning Rookie of the Year when Milwaukee supplanted him at point guard – his preferred position – by trading for Eric Bledsoe. So, Brogdon shifted to shooting guard. He learned to keep the ball moving quickly rather than stunting the offense for his own looks. He sharpened his defense. He kept working hard.

The Pacers rewarded Brogdon with a four-year, $85 million contract and a leading role. Brogdon is flourishing in Indiana, building a case as an All-Star.

Meanwhile, the Bucks are trying to move on without him.

Milwaukee letting Brogdon leave in restricted free agency was the most consequential choice an NBA team made last summer. The Bucks are competing for a championship. They’re one season from Giannis Antetokounmpo‘s super-max decision. And they let a player as good as Brogdon depart?

There are reasons good (getting a first-rounder and second-rounder in a sign-and-trade with Indiana, maintaining flexibility without being tied to a long-term contract for someone with concerning injury issues, opening the door for cost-efficient replacements) and bad (avoiding the luxury tax) for the move. But it’s dangerous to willingly take a step back at such a critical juncture.

Except Milwaukee looks like it has hardly missed a beat.

The Bucks are 22-3. Their overall net rating season (+12.9) is higher than their net rating with Brogdon – who spent considerable time with other starters – on the floor last season (+10.7).

Maybe Milwaukee knew the guards – Wesley Matthews, Donte DiVincenzo, Pat Connaughton, Sterling Brown – that could be added/empowered without Brogdon justified letting Brogdon walk. After all, the Bucks also have Bledsoe, Hill, Khris Middleton and Kyle Korver to bolster the lineup.

“That collection of wings,” Milwaukee coach Mike Budenholzer said with a chuckle, “it’s really good. I don’t know how I can play them all.”

Matthews has replaced Brogdon in the starting lineup. Matthews brings a ruggedness that perfectly fits the Bucks’ NBA-best defense. Shooting 39% on 3-pointers, he also provides essential floor spacing.

It seems clear Brogdon’s exit ushered in Matthews’ entrance. Matthews signed a 1+1 minimum-salary contract last offseason, returning to the state where he grew up and played collegiately at Marquette.

“I’ve been eying Milwaukee for a couple years now,” Mathews said, “and it was just the timing was right, the fit, the style of play.”

Did Brogdon leaving and vacating a role factor?

“That’s part of saying the timing is right,” Matthews said. “They probably wouldn’t have called if Malcolm didn’t leave.”

What if they kept Brogdon and still called, wanting Matthews for depth?

“Fit was the key part,” Matthews said. “So, it probably would have been a different situation.”

The Bucks’ other notable minimum salary signing last summer, Kyle Korver, said Brogdon leaving a role open didn’t really factor into his decision.

Ditto for Hill, who re-signed for three years, $28,771,806 with $20 million guaranteed

“It was pretty much a no-brainer,” Hill said. “The camaraderie we have, from the top guy in Giannis all the way down to the bottom teammates, were amazing. The time that we had here, the success that we had, made it fun to be here.”

Brogdon’s departure also opened the door for a few incumbent players – DiVincenzo, Connaughton and Brown – to step up.

DiVincenzo has especially taken advantage. Though he was happy for Brogdon, DiVincenzo also recognized opportunity for himself after barely playing as a rookie.

“The Bucks drafted me for a reason,” said DiVincenzo, last year’s No. 17 pick. “I don’t think they drafted me just to sit on the bench. I think they drafted me to develop and put trust in me.”

DiVincenzo has already played more this season than last season, and he should be a Most Improved Player-ballot candidate. His defense has been tenacious. He’s growing into his role offensively as someone who can shoot, dribble and pass.

In the shuffle, Brown and Connaughton are actually receiving fewer minutes per game than last season. That can’t be easy in contract years. But they appear to be following Hill’s lead.

“It’s great!” Brown said of Milwaukee’s guard depth. “I love it. It’s competition all-around. Practices are great.”

For his part, Connaughton said he prides himself on always being ready regardless of his role. When he gave up professional baseball to play in the NBA, he made a conscious decision to enjoy every aspect of the process. So, sitting doesn’t bother him – especially with the Bucks winning. On all teams, it’s more difficult for anyone to gripe about playing time when winning.

Of course, it always comes back to Antetokounmpo. Without Brogdon’s playmaking, Antetokounmpo has taken on an even larger burden. Antetokounmpo is creating more of his own and his teammates’ shots, combining the differing skill sets he employed in previous years. That’s why he’s favored to win Most Valuable Player again.

Everything the Bucks are doing now is encouraging. The real tests will come in the playoffs and, relatedly, when Antetokounmpo has that super-max offer in front of him.

Antetokounmpo said he wanted Brogdon to remain Milwaukee. Kind words about a friend or a message to management? The answer will become clearer in the offseason.

First, the Bucks will look to build on last year’s run to the Eastern Conference finals. They’ll do it, for better or worse, without Brogdon.

“Yes, we wish we could have kept Malcolm,” Hill said. “It would have been great. But we know it’s a business, and we still thought that we have enough pieces to take a shot at it.”