51 Questions: Can Toronto transition to a defensive-minded team?

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51 Questions in 51 Days. PBT is previewing the 2015-16 NBA season by tackling 51 big questions that we can’t wait to see answered once play tips off. We will answer one a day right up to the start of the season Oct. 27. Today’s question:

CAN THE TORONTO RAPTORS TRANSITION TO A DEFENSE-FIRST TEAM AND ADVANCE PAST FIRST ROUND OF THE PLAYOFFS?

For two straight seasons, the Toronto Raptors have finished atop the Atlantic Division. Last season, they won 49 games, the year before 48 — the two highest win totals in franchise history. That is something to celebrate.

Then, for two straight seasons, they have been bounced in the first round of the playoffs. Last season, they were unceremoniously swept out of the postseason by the Washington Wizards — the porous Raptors defense was destroyed in the pick-and-roll by a John Wall and Bradley Beal led Wizard’s attack that averaged 110.3 points a game. It wasn’t pretty, and it prompted changes.

This past summer, Raptors’ GM Masai Ujiri made only a handful of moves, but they had a very specific goal — return Toronto to being a good defensive team. Yes return, two seasons ago they finished ninth in defensive rating. Last season, the Raptors took huge steps backward and finished 23rd. Their perimeter defenders recognized and reacted to plays about as well as traffic cones, and Jonas Valanciunas was hanging back to protect the rim and not doing it well. The team seemed to take on Lou Williams‘ offense first (and second, and third) style, and that needed to change.

Three specific moves show what Ujiri was thinking:

• Signing DeMarre Carroll. This was a direct move to address the Raptors perimeter defense, Carroll is one of the better “3&D” guys in the league. Carroll was central to the Hawks surge to 60 wins last season, and this was a great signing for Toronto. He is going to be asked to step into Terrence Ross‘ lineup spot but actually get some stops (Ross will slide into the Lou Williams “gunner off the bench” role).

• Signing Bismack Biyombo. This is about having some rim protection at the center spot — if Valanciunas isn’t going to provide it, they are going to get it somewhere else. Biyombo will come off the bench as a defensive big.

• Signing Cory Joseph. He brings one thing to the table, and it’s not playmaking. Joseph is a good defensive point guard and the Raptors needed to add that.

The hope is that Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan and Valanciunas (a gifted offensive big man) can keep the Raptors racking up enough points while everyone else helps play some defense. The belief is if they defend well enough they can be a threat to the Wizards, Bulls, Hawks, and Heat in the second tier of the Eastern Conference — and they can make the second round of the playoffs (at least).

If you believe Toronto is going to take that step forward, you must have faith in two things.

First is coach Dwane Casey. Ujiri inherited him and since the day the new GM took over there has been speculation about the coach, but there has been no change (in fact he got an extension). Casey is well respected around the league and seen as a defensive coach — he has got to get a system in place that this team can execute.

After watching a chunk of Raptors defensive film from last season, Toronto seemed to play a system looking to have their big man hedge out on pick-and-rolls to cut off the drive (not “ICE” it as is the NBA trend). However, that system counts on a big man who has the foot speed to step out and recover, and wing players who instantly recognize what going on and rotate quickly to cover ball movement. The Raptors had neither. Valanciunas prefers to sit back, he didn’t hedge much meaning opposing guards/wings got to play downhill and drive right into the lane (the Raptors were bottom 10 in shots allowed within five feet). From there things fell apart. The recognition by the other wing defenders to help — or help the helper — was often slow (especially when DeMar DeRozan sat or was injured). Guys like Ross, Valanciunas, and Patrick Patterson got killed on defending spot ups because they did not get their quick enough to contest. Teams got a lot of good look floaters inside or open threes.

The second is Valanciunas — the guy who just signed a $64 million extension is the hinge to the entire Raptors season.

The Raptors need him on the court, he is too valuable offensively to sit for extended periods. This is guy who had a 62.3 true shooting percentage last season, is strong around the rim plus you have to respect him from the midrange, a guy who averaged 12 points a game last season with a usage rate of just 19 percent. They need to get him the rock more. But that is not the end of the floor that is in question.

The perimeter defense from Toronto is going to be better, but in a league where you can’t go Gary Payton and hand check/body up guys on the perimeter point guards (and others) are going to drive the lane. Valanciunas has to improve defensively — he has to handle pick-and-roll defense better (whatever the system); more importantly he needs to be more aggressive and just better at being a paint and rim protector. He’s not going to suddenly become Dikembe Mutombo, but he has to be respectable on that end and force some misses. Last season, he played so far back guys had a full head of steam coming off the pick and had him backpedaling and being ineffective.

The Raptors are going to win the Atlantic Division again this season (which says as much about the rest of the sad Atlantic Division as it does Toronto). They are going to be better defensively.

But if the Raptors are going to be good enough on that end to make it to the second round for only the second time ever in franchise history, it’s going to be a little about Carroll and a lot about Valanciunas.

My prediction: They are better on defense, win about 49 games, and get bounced in the first round again. But with an improved defense, they have a chance to advance.

Three Things to Know: Lakers make defensive statement in back-to-back road wins

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Every day in the NBA there is a lot to unpack, so every weekday morning throughout the season we will give you the three things you need to know from the last 24 hours in the NBA.

1) Lakers make a defensive statement in back-to-back road wins in Denver, Utah. After winning 10 games in a row against the softest part of their schedule, the calendar flipping to December was supposed to start a real test for the Lakers. No more playing hard for 24 minutes and getting a victory, no more sloppy quarters leading to a comeback win — the Dallas Mavericks made that clear on Sunday.

Los Angeles answered that with back-to-back road wins where their defense — led by Anthony Davis — shut down the Nuggets and Jazz. Through the two games, the Lakers allowed less than a point per possession (96.5 defensive net rating total), including holding Donovan Mitchell and Utah to 96 points (and a 97 net rating) on the second night of a back-to-back. The Jazz shot just 41 percent as a team for the game.

Mitchell, who has played at an All-Star level this season, scored 29 but on 11-of-24 shooting — the Laker defense made him work for his buckets. (Bojan Bogdanovic had another strong game for the Jazz with six threes, he has been the Utah summer signing that has worked out well.)

Los Angeles led struggling Utah by 18 at the half and cruised to a 121-96 win. In what looked like a scheduled loss before the season — the second night of a back-to-back at altitude against a good team — never felt in doubt as Davis had 26 points and LeBron James 20 and 12 assists.

The only drama was that LeBron got away with a blatant and hilarious travel and double dribble in the first quarter, one the officials somehow missed.

After the game LeBron owned it, via Dave McMenamin of ESPN.

“It was the worst thing, probably one of the worst things I’ve ever done in my career,” James said after the game… “I didn’t realize I did it until halftime. One of my coaches showed me.”

Coming into the season there were questions about how good the Lakers’ defense was going to be, with coach Frank Vogel wanting to play two bigs and more of a drop-back style of defense. That’s the style Vogel used with success back in Indiana (with peak Roy Hibbert protecting the paint) and has become in vogue again in the NBA. That includes in Utah, where Rudy Gobert has won back-to-back Defensive Player of the Year awards because he owns the paint but also because of his length and mobility tp contest and cause problems out on the perimeter.

Davis has done exactly that for the Lakers this season.

It was most evident late in the game against Denver Tuesday. On one fourth quarter play big man Nikola Jokic tried to back down Davis, put on a move and score in the post and AD just stuff blocked him. A couple of possessions later, Davis got switched onto quick guard Jamal Murray on consecutive plays and forced him into a couple of bad shots that missed.

Stretches like that are the reason the Lakers’ have the fourth-ranked defense in the NBA this season — and it is their defense that has them looking like legit title contenders. Davis is at the heart of it, although both Dwight Howard and JaVale McGee have used their mobility to be surprisingly good defenders who can contest at the arc and get back to protect the rim.

Davis’ performance has the Lakers already campaigning for him to win Defensive Player of the Year (and some in the Lakers’ media core seem eager to promote that idea). We’re just a quarter of the way into the season, and this award is one that has to be earned over a much longer stretch of ground. There are no actual frontrunners yet, and players like Gobert, the Bucks’ Greek Freak, and Boston’s Marcus Smart — among others — will be in the middle of any conversation down the line.

But make no mistake, the Lakers defense and Davis are for real. They made a statement about that the past couple of nights — and showed why their defense could carry them to a parade in June.

2) Blake Griffin steps over Giannis Antetokounmpo and tempers flare. There wasn’t much drama in the game itself between the Bucks and Pistons on Wednesday — Milwaukee blew the doors off Detroit and never looked back.

Any drama came in the third quarter when Antetokounmpo tried to back down Griffin on the left block, Detroits Bruce Brown came over to double and fouled the Greek Freak, who fell to the floor. Then Griffin stepped over him.

Khris Middleton ran over to get in Griffin’s face about the disrespect and then… well, a lot of words were exchanged. Nothing else. The officials reviewed the play, and both Brown and Middleton ended up getting technical fouls.

That’s the most drama there was in Detroit Wednesday. Antetokounmpo scored 35 points and the Bucks won by 24, extending their win streak to 13.

3) Houston “leaning toward” protesting loss to Spurs over missed James Harden dunk call. That will fail, too. Let’s start with the obvious: The referees missed the call on James Harden’s fourth-quarter dunk against the Spurs Tuesday night. The basket should have counted, and after the game the officials admitted they missed the call.

The league’s response to this has been the same as when it says officials missed a call in the Last Two-Minute reports: be transparent about it but nothing changes. Missed calls are part of the game.

The Rockets are now leaning toward filing a protest of the game, according to multiple reports. We’ll see if they actually go through with it (this could be a lot of noise to make their star happy). If the Rockets do file a protest, it probably fails, too, but from the Rockets’ perspective it at least forces the league to rule on the issue.

First things first: The idea put forward that the league would step in and overturn the game outcome and just hand the Rockets a win was — to use the word of some around the league (not directly involved in the case) — “absurd.” The league would never do that. Let us never speak of that idiocy again.

The Rockets’ protest — if they actually file it — is a longshot. The bar is incredibly high. A successful protest requires proof of a  misapplication of a rule that seriously inhibited Houston’s chance to win a game. Meaning, just saying the crew got the call wrong is not enough. Houston’s protest would hinge on the idea that coach Mike D’Antoni wasn’t given a fair chance to protest the call because of how the referee crew handled the situation. The lead official said after the game D’Antoni didn’t call for a coach’s challenge within 30 seconds, as the rule demands, so there could be no challenge to the call.

The Rockets have a point here. We can be honest and say the referee crew should have handled this better.

However, remember the bar for a protest is the misapplication of a rule that seriously inhibited Houston’s chance to win a game. Back in 2008, the league ordered the Hawks and Heat to replay the final 51.9 seconds of a game because the scorer’s table incorrectly said Shaq had fouled out of the game and forced him to sit when in reality he had just five fouls. That scorers’ table error could have changed the end of a game. In the Rockets case, the referees missed a call but proving the referees misapplied the challenge rule and that’s why the Rockets lost (in a game with nearly 8 minutes left) is a tough sell.

We’ll see if Houston goes through and files this, or if all the bluster is just a PR move to keep an angry Harden happy and show they have his back.

Giannis Antetokounmpo scores 35, Bucks’ winning streak reaches 13 with rout of Pistons

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DETROIT (AP) — Giannis Antetokounmpo scored 35 points to lift the Milwaukee Bucks to their 13th consecutive victory, 127-103 over the Detroit Pistons on Wednesday night.

The last time the Bucks had a longer winning streak than this was when they won 16 in a row spanning the end of the 1972-73 season and the beginning of 1973-74. They also had a 13-game run shortly after that 16-game streak ended.

Milwaukee had won its previous two games by 41 and 44 points, and the Pistons had won their previous two by 34 and 33. This one wasn’t close either. The Bucks have dominated Detroit of late.

Milwaukee won all eight matchups with the Pistons last season – four in the regular season and four in the first round of the playoffs. The Bucks also beat Detroit last month in their first meeting of 2019-20.

The Bucks went on a 13-2 run late in the second quarter to lead 57-39, and although Detroit closed within 11 at the half, the Pistons never made a major run during the final two quarters. Antetokounmpo scored 12 points in the third quarter, and Milwaukee led 92-72 after three.

Andre Drummond had 23 points and 14 rebounds for Detroit. That included a monster dunk over the Greek Freak.

Khris Middleton had 17 points for the Bucks.

There were six technical fouls in the game, and there were words exchanged during a couple mild altercations. The first involved Antetokounmpo and Detroit’s Blake Griffin after those two collided around midcourt in the second quarter.

In the third quarter, Antetokounmpo fell to the ground after being fouled, and then Griffin stepped over him. Middleton came over to confront Griffin. Three technicals were assessed after that.

 

LeBron James blatantly, obviously travels, referees miss it and don’t make call

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Another day, another “how did they miss that?” call in the NBA. At least this one is not going to lead to a protest.

LeBron James blatantly traveled when bringing the ball up the court during the first quarter against the Jazz, and the officials completely missed it.

There was a double-dribble in there by LeBron, too, if we’re going to be sticklers for the rules. Which clearly we are not.

After the game LeBron owned it, via Dave McMenamin of ESPN.

“It was the worst thing, probably one of the worst things I’ve ever done in my career,” James said after the game… “I didn’t realize I did it until halftime. One of my coaches showed me.”

The reaction of Bojan Bogdanovic is maybe my favorite part, he’s incredulous.

This play did not impact the game, the Lakers ran away from Jazz early and went on to win 121-96 behind 26 points from Anthony Davis.

Rockets reportedly going to file protest over missed dunk call in loss to Spurs

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Houston apparently has been hoping — unrealistically — that the NBA would step in, rule in its favor on the missed call on James Harden‘s dunk, and give the Rockets the chance to replay the final 7:50 of their double-overtime loss to the Spurs from Tuesday night.

If the Rockets want the league to rule on this, they will have to file a protest, something they are likely to do, reports Tim MacMahon of ESPN.

Houston had been optimistic in the wake of the loss that the NBA office would take action without a protest being necessary. However, sources said the Rockets are leaning toward filing a protest to ensure that the NBA office will have to make a ruling…

The Rockets contend that they should either be awarded the win — because they actually outscored the Spurs in regulation — or that the final seven minutes, 50 seconds of the game be replayed at a later date.

There is zero chance the league would overturn the game and hand the Rockets a win. The idea the Rockets even wanted that was described as absurd by some around the league (not directly involved in the case).

Even a protest is a longshot, it requires proof of a  misapplication of a rule which seriously inhibited Houston’s chance to win a game. Just saying the crew got the call wrong is not enough. Protests rarely go anywhere in the NBA because the bar to clear is very, very high.

No doubt the officials missed the call (even they owned up to it after the game). Here is the play in question.

Mike D’Antoni said he tried to challenge the play but was not allowed to by the game officials. Crew chief James Capers said after the game D’Antoni didn’t make his protest within 30 seconds as is required by the coach’s challenge rule.

Houston’s protest would hinge on the idea that D’Antoni wasn’t given a fair chance to protest the call because of how the referee crew handled the situation.

A protest is a full challenge process that the league would go through, but it’s hard to picture the Rockets winning it.

We’ve seen before with the Last Two-Minute Reports that even if the league admits an officials mistake that could have changed a game nothing is done. An official protest — where just saying the call is wrong is not enough to win — is not very likely to change that. The Rockets would argue that not only was there a missed call but that the crew mismanaged the challenge process. Good luck with that.

The Rockets are going to try, anyway.