Posts Tagged ‘Patrick Patterson’

No-Lowry minutes have been a mess for Raptors in playoffs

HANG TIME NEW JERSEY — By all accounts, Kyle Lowry‘s performance in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference semifinals was a disaster. The Toronto Raptors’ All-Star point guard shot 3-for-13 and looked shook for most of the game, passing up shots when he wasn’t missing them.

Fast forward 10 days and, as the Raptors try to close out the series in Game 6 in Miami on Friday (8 p.m. ET, ESPN), they need Lowry on the floor as much as possible. Lowry hasn’t exactly been on fire since that Game 1 (and his post-game shooting in both at the practice gym and the main floor at the Air Canada Centre). He scored 33 points on 11-for-19 shooting in Game 3, but also shot 18-for-58 (31 percent) in Games 2, 4 and 5.

Still, shooting poorly isn’t the same as playing poorly. Playing poorly is what the Raptors have done when Lowry has gone to the bench.

In Lowry’s 204 minutes on the floor in the conference semis, the Raptors have outscored the Heat by 48 points, having scored 101.9 points per 100 possessions. But in Lowry’s 51 minutes off the floor, the Raptors have been outscored by 45 points, having scored just 72.8 points per 100 possessions.

In the regular season, the Raptors had an *aggregate bench NetRtg of plus-7.0, the second best mark in the league and the best in the Eastern Conference, their best three-man combinations all included Cory Joseph or Patrick Patterson, and two of the league’s seven best lineups (minimum 200 minutes played) were Lowry with four reserves and DeMar DeRozan with four reserves.

* Aggregate bench NetRtg is, basically, an average of the plus-minus of players that came off the bench, adjusted for pace.

Lowry and that same group has continued its excellence in the playoffs, outscoring opponents by 20 points in 29 minutes. But Patterson is now starting, so that unit’s minutes have been limited. And DeRozan’s minutes with the bench have been generally terrible.

Lowry has played at least 41 minutes in four of the five games in this series. But the Raptors managed to get outscored, 23-6, in his 6:34 on the bench in Game 5, when their no-Lowry problems were as much defensive as offensive.

For the entire postseason, the Raptors have been 36.6 points per 100 possessions better with Lowry on the floor than they’ve been with him on the bench. That’s the third biggest differential among players who have logged at least 100 minutes in the playoffs and the biggest among those that are still playing.

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In the conference semis, the Raptors have been 60.6 points per 100 possessions better with Lowry on the floor (plus-10.4) than with him on the bench (minus-50.2). We’re not talking about a large sample size here, but small samples is what you get in the playoffs, where the key to the Raptors ability to advance to the conference finals could be their ability to stay afloat when their point guard needs a rest.

Morning shootaround — May 8

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Lillard’s helpers were invaluable | Miami’s dark side without Whiteside | Lowry comes back for Raptors | Jackson ‘owes’ Knicks job to Rambis?

No. 1:  Lillard’s helpers were invaluable — First things first: Without a medical degree, can you nonetheless hazard a guess as to whether Golden State’s Stephen Curry will play in Game 4 of his team’s Western Conference semifinals series at Portland on Monday night? Even before we got any official updates from Curry, coach Steve Kerr or the Warriors’ crackerjack media staff, it seemed likely Curry would test his sprained right knee rather than risk seeing Golden State slip to even, 2-2, in the best-of-seven series. As for how Portland even got it to 2-1, there was Damian Lillard‘s 40-point performance and then there was the work of other Blazers, such as Al-Farouq Aminu, Allen Crabbe and Gerald Henderson. Those were the guys Draymond Green was moaning about, per Kevin Arnovitz‘s report for ESPN.com:

The way the Warriors saw it, they began to lose the game on the margins. Green sensed the Warriors could’ve effectively wrapped up the series in the first quarter had they only paid sufficient attention to the smaller details they generally master.

“That team — they had doubt,” Green said of the Trail Blazers. “You could just tell they were unsure about everything that they were doing in the first quarter. Then all of a sudden, like I said, you get a couple of offensive rebounds, hit a couple of shots, that’s when the crowd gets into it. That’s kind of what happened for them. I think right there in that first quarter, they felt like they were on the ropes and we didn’t really take advantage of that.”

When the Warriors ratcheted up their defense on Lillard after intermission, he just pitched the ball out to the likes of Allen Crabbe, Gerald Henderson (who took over defensive duties on [Klay] Thompson) and Aminu, who were a combined 6-for-6 from distance heading into the fourth quarter. Lillard assisted on 18 Trail Blazers points in the third quarter and scored another five of his own, as Portland extended their lead to 93-80 after three quarters.

“[Lillard] getting 40 — that’s not going to beat us if we don’t let Aminu get 23, Crabbe off the bench get 10,” Green said. “If we cover those guys, Dame’s 40 doesn’t beat us. C.J. [McCollum]’s 22 really don’t beat us if we cover the other guys. I think a big part of that fell on me.”

It’s a shame for Green, who put on an individual shooting display of his own in the third quarter. “Draymond from long range” can be a touchy subject in Warriors World, but with the Trail Blazers begging him to shoot from distance, Green politely obliged — draining 5-of-6 3-point attempts in the third quarter and matching a career high for the game with eight total. He finished the game with 37 points, while Thompson added 35.

“All that’s cute,” Green said of his prolific offensive production. “I didn’t do what I do for this team. I don’t feel like I led my troops tonight, and I feel like I was horrendous on the defensive end.”

***

 No. 2: Miami’s dark side without Whiteside — If the result of Hassan Whiteside‘s MRI Sunday is as troubling as he and the Miami Heat fear, if he’s facing even the 2-3 week layoff that Curry has endured for Golden State since slipping on that wet part of the court against Houston, then the Heat are in a bad way. Ethan J. Skolnick of the Miami Herald reminds us of young Whiteside’s value to that veteran club, his status as its X factor and the limitations it faces without him merely surviving the current series against Toronto, never mind a possible clash in the next round against Cleveland:

He was the one who, if channeled correctly, could lift this from a nice little squad to a fearsome one, a squad that could even scare the Cleveland Cavaliers should it come to that — since most teams to topple LeBron James in the playoffs have had at least two perimeter players who could make James work (which Miami has in [Luol] Deng and Justise Winslow) and a rim protector who could make him think. He was the unaccountable element, the one who might literally swat away a superior opponent, should he be energized, focused and disciplined for an extended stretch.

The Heat knew how much it needed him, Erik Spoelstra above all. That’s why, for all the warts (in Whiteside’s game) and worries (about his contract) Spoelstra invested more personal time in the 26-year-old center than anyone else in the past eight years. That’s why, on the Friday night prior to Game 3, with so much else at stake, Spoelstra was at the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino, dining in a group with Whiteside and Bill Russell, aiming to expose Whiteside to the ultimate winner.

That’s why Dwyane Wade, as the team leader, while critical of Whiteside at times, also took opportunities to pump him up, even suggesting this could be a “Hall of Fame career.”

This wasn’t just a passing interest, after all. The Heat wants to make Whiteside a core component, wants to see his development all the way through, especially after improvements in foul shooting and screen-setting and — to a degree — composure, in the second half of this second Miami season. And perhaps, regardless of the severity of the injury, that will still occur; maybe, in the worst case, it comes at a reduced cost in free agency in this cruelest of businesses.

But, for this particular postseason, it’s hard to see how the Heat competes for much without Whiteside. Win this series? Maybe. Wade nearly saved them Saturday, with a remarkable 38-point performance, and Udonis Haslem was his usual spirited self while playing a season-high 22 minutes. Heat players generally believe the Raptors are beatable, though some were baffled about why movement was mostly taken out of the offensive plan for Game 3. And Toronto started making rollicking rim runs as soon as Whiteside went out.

Beat Cleveland?

That seems fantasy. Wade has gone above and beyond already, and everything he’s doing should be appreciated. But the Cavaliers are rolling now, 7-0 in the postseason, seeming past their regular season drama.

Whiteside was always the X-factor.

Now he may be X’d out.

***

No. 3:  Lowry comes back for Raptors — Playoff basketball means more than hard fouls, no easy layups and cherished possessions. It also means seeing the individual highs and lows of the participants, usually under the brightest and least forgiving lights. When things are going well – say, for LeBron James or LaMarcus Aldridge these days – those lights can make a guy shimmer like the star he is. But when things are not going so well – think Toronto point guard Kyle Lowry – every flaw gets uncovered and it’s the heat of the lights that matter more than the illumination. Lowry had been suffering through a postseason of personal torment, the Toronto Star’s Bruce Arthur wrote, until the second half of the Raptors’ Game 3 at Miami Saturday:

[Finally], Kyle Lowry came back. Toronto had been waiting for him, and he came back. The Raptors were winning Game 3 against the Miami Heat, who had lost their monster centre, and then the Raptors lost their monster centre, like this was some kind of chess match, like they had exchanged queens. The Heat started rolling, and Dwyane Wade, the old Hall of Famer, rose to the moment. The Heat crowd, a laid-back crew, were singing along with Seven Nation Army, thundering. The Raptors were coming apart.

But Kyle Lowry came back. He had hit a three-pointer to start the half, and then another. Hmm. The 30-year-old points had missed 96 of his last 139 shots, had openly said it was messing with his head. In Game 1 he had tried to avoid shooting the ball altogether. In this game, with Toronto’s two all-stars flailing again, [Jonas] Valanciunas had become the centre of things. Lowry had four points in a quiet first half.
Then Valanciunas was gone. Lowry came back.

“That’s the Kyle I know,” said DeMar DeRozan.

“Kyle went back to being Kyle,” said head coach Dwane Casey.

“I don’t think we played him that poorly, either,” said Miami Heat coach Eric Spoelstra.

Lowry’s third quarter was revelation, a flashback, a return. He scored 15 points, and Wade exploded for 18, and the game was tied entering the fourth. The Heat run reached 32-13 and with 8:49 left Miami was up six, and the Raptors’ offence looked gummed in glue again. All season long the Raptors relied on Lowry in these situations: they’d be up two or three, tight game, and he’d hit a string of middle-finger shots to cinch it.

Two games earlier his teammates said he looked beaten. His old friend Goran Dragic said he was thinking too much. All that vanished into the afternoon air.

“He was hitting shots, he was happy,” said Patrick Patterson. “We just tried to do whatever possible to keep him happy. We tried to free up some room for him to create opportunities, and just keep feeding the monster. He was hitting shots, and he was keeping us in that game. When he was hitting the shots, he started calling more plays for himself. He was just feeling it, saying he wanted the ball.”

Did Lowry tell them he was feeling good, finally? That his shot was back in alignment, smooth and assured?

“He never does it,” said Patterson. “The Cleveland game (when Lowry scored a career-high 43), he didn’t did that. No matter how he’s feeling, he doesn’t let us know. He’s just playing within the moment.”

***

No. 4: Jackson owes Knicks job to Rambis?Phil Jackson‘s affinity for the triangle offense that won his Chicago and Los Angeles teams a total of 11 NBA championships – even if that offense has had limited success when run by others whose rosters don’t include two Hall of Fame stars – is, at least, an understandable factor in how he might shape the New York Knicks’ search for a head coach. But Marc Berman of the New York Post cites a noted NBA author and relative Jackson insider when exploring a secondary, more deeply rooted reason for Jackson to stick with Kurt Rambis. It might have something to do with guilt and the employment history of Jackson and Rambis, Berman writes:

Phil Jackson may have cost Kurt Rambis a potentially promising head-coaching career back in 1999, back when they didn’t know each other.

Rambis was the hot, young Lakers assistant, coming off a cult-hero playing career in purple and gold during which he won four championships. Rambis passed over head-coaching offers from the Kings and Clippers, believing he had a bright future on the Lakers’ bench.

Indeed, Rambis took over for fired Del Harris in February of the 1999 lockout season as interim, with promises he would become the permanent guy.

Rambis closed with a 24-13 record, lost in the second round to the eventual champion Spurs, but had plans to smooth a frosty partnership between Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant.

Late Lakers owner Jerry Buss, his new Staples Center and expensive skyboxes set to debut, changed his mind once Jackson expressed interest. Buss felt he needed a marquee name. Rambis was removed from the staff completely, demoted to broadcaster and, according to the controversial biography “Mindgames,” conducting arena tours.

According to the 2002 biography, Buss’ daughter, Jeanie, who didn’t know Phil Jackson from Andrew Jackson, was furious. Jeanie had been close friends for years with Rambis’ wife, Linda, since the 1980s.

“Mindgames” cited Rambis as “discouraged, confused and bitter.’’ Two years later, in 2001, at Jeanie’s behest, Jackson promoted Rambis to his staff, demoting triangle legend Tex Winter. But Rambis’ head-coaching career never took off.

Jackson’s current Knicks coaching search has been ongoing for 3 ½ weeks, with indications he is leaning toward Rambis. Is Jackson, who won five titles in L.A., making up for 1999?

Knicks general manager Steve Mills reached out to newly freed former Pacers coach Frank Vogel. But it might take a striking turn for Jackson, at his Montana think tank, to hire Vogel.

Roland Lazenby, the “Mindgames” author who is out with a new book on Kobe Bryant in August, said he believes Rambis will be the guy and explained a move that would not go over well with fans on social media.

If Jackson is making up for 1999, it’s in his subconscious.

***

SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: Miami isn’t the only conference semifinalist sweating out a big man’s injury; Toronto’s fate might swing on Jonas Valanciunas‘ sprained ankle. … With Dave Joerger out, the Memphis Grizzlies can talk about stability if they like, but it’s a concept with which they’ve had very little experience, writes Geoff Calkins in Memphis. … Joerger was scheduled to spend at least part of his Sunday in Sacramento being interviewed for the vacant Kings coaching job. Though circumstances suggest he’ll likely end up getting hired, there are other candidates in play, at least for appearances sake. … Maurice Harkless and his sore hip might be out of Portland’s rotation for Game 4 . … Acquiring Channing Frye was a bold and expensive move at the trade deadline for the Cavaliers, but it has the look of a difference-maker for Cleveland in its NBA title quest. … Here’s one more look at Howard Garfinkel, the grass-roots basketball legend who died Saturday, as well as some appreciative tweets from fellows whose professional lives he touched. …

First Six Minutes Will be Critical for Raptors, Pacers in Game 4


VIDEO: Best of Phantom: Raptors vs. Pacers

INDIANAPOLIS — If the Indiana Pacers are going to even their first round series with the Toronto Raptors in Game 4 on Saturday (3 p.m. ET, TNT), they need to get off to a good start.

The Toronto Raptors, in the regular season, were bad (worst among playoff teams) in the first six minutes of the first quarter and terrific in the last six minutes of the first quarter.

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The Raptors’ starting lineup has gone through a lot of changes over the course of the season, but has been consistently bad, no matter the configuration. Neither DeMar DeRozan nor Kyle Lowry has been as aggressive early on as they’ve been later in games, and Toronto has been downright awful defensively in the opening minutes.

But things change when Cory Joseph and Patrick Patterson *check into the game. Joseph and Patterson combined to averaged just 15.3 points per game, but were two of the league’s best reserves in regard to the lift they provided to their team. The Raptors outscored their opponents by 8.9 points per 100 possessions in 1,529 regular-season minutes with both on the floor.

* Note: They typically check in separately, Patterson before Joseph.

That number is plus-12.5 points per 100 possessions through the first three games of the first round and Patterson’s raw plus-minus is a series-high plus-35. He and Joseph are still giving the Raptors a big lift when they enter the game.

And in the Raptors’ wins in Games 2 and 3, Toronto actually had the lead when the two checked in. The Raptors have gotten off to better starts (14-7 after six minutes in Game 2, 17-11 in Game 3) than they typically did in the regular season. After winning the first six minutes just 30 times in 82 regular-season games, they’ve done it twice in three playoff games.

“I think it’s a mindset, more than anything else,” Raptors coach Dwane Casey said about his team’s stronger starts on Saturday. “Coming out with a sense of desperation, a sense of urgency is the key to that.”

And because their bench is so good, the Raptors have never given those leads up. The Pacers led for less than one minute in Game 2 and less than two minutes in Game 3.

If the Raptors continue have a lead when Joseph and Patterson check in, they’re in terrific shape for the rest of this series.

“We want to start off the game the right way,” Patterson said. “That is hitting them first. That is making a statement. That is setting the tone from the jump.

“When Kyle and DeMar and the starters come out from the jump and set the tone, that makes our job a lot easier.”

If the Pacers want to have a chance, they need to take advantage of those first six minutes of the first quarter, which have been a problem for Toronto.

Their inability to do that in Games 2 and 3 could bring about a lineup change. Pacers coach Frank Vogel started the third quarter on Thursday with Myles Turner instead of Lavoy Allen up front. Turner certainly brings more energy than Allen, and energy is what the Pacers need.

Of course, after practice on Saturday, Vogel wouldn’t divulge any planned changes, or even the likelihood of a change, for Game 4. Stay tuned … and tune in early, for what may be the most important six minutes of the series.

Analytics Art: The three hottest shooters in the NBA this week


VIDEO: Utah’s Rodney Hood scores 30 points in first half vs. Lakers

By Will Laws, Special to NBA.com

Teams are fighting for their playoff lives as the calendar turns to April. This week, two Western Conference sharpshooters helped their clubs keep pace in the frantic race happening on the postseason bubble. Meanwhile, a veteran experiencing a bit of a down season up north showed he could still make a difference with his shooting stroke.

PointAfter breaks down the three hottest shooters of the week with interactive visualizations.

Note: All weekly statistics cover games between March 25-31.  

Guard: J.J. Barea, Dallas Mavericks

The Mavericks were briefly out of the Western Conference playoff picture after losing 10 of their first 13 March contests. Their smallest player propped them back up into a tie for seventh place this week by helping them claim two victories to end the month.

J.J. Barea logged a double-double (18 points, 11 assists) in a nine-point road win over Denver on Monday, then poured in 26 points off the bench in a 91-89 triumph over the Knicks, the most scored by a Dallas reserve this season.

The 31 year old has made at least half his shots in Dallas’ last four games, and he finished March shooting 49 percent from downtown. Barea rediscovering his shooting touch after three mediocre seasons from beyond the arc has helped him post a career-best 15.1 PER this year. He could be an unlikely hero for the Mavericks in their quest for the postseason.

 

Wing: Rodney Hood, Utah Jazz

For this generation of NBA players, the ultimate compliment when you’re playing the Lakers is having Kobe Bryant ask to guard you. Rodney Hood experienced that on Monday night after he dropped 30 points in the first half of Utah’s clash against Los Angeles. Bryant hardly let Hood touch the ball in the second half, and the second-year wing didn’t score a point in the second half.

No matter — the damage was already done. The game ended up as Bryant’s worst loss of his career, a 48-point shellacking that Hood sparked by making 8-of-9 3-pointers in the first half. He was easily the most dangerous scorer on the court, whether you measure by efficiency or raw point total. No other player scored more than 17 points or came close to matching Hood’s astronomical 115.4 true shooting percentage.

Hood also acquitted himself well in Utah’s overtime loss to Golden State, notching 20 points on 7-of-16 shooting. But it was his utter domination of the Lakers that he’ll remember when he looks back on his “sophomore” season in the league.

 

Forward/Center: Patrick Patterson, Toronto Raptors

Patrick Patterson has taken a back seat in Toronto’s offense this year, and for good reason. He’s posted career lows in usage rate (12.3 percent), field goal percentage (42 percent) and scoring rate (11 points per 40 minutes). However, he can still provide the occasional boost off the bench for the Raptors.

The stretch-four was 7-of-13 from deep this week, including a 16-point outburst in 20 minutes against New Orleans on Saturday that saw him sink all three of his treys.

Patterson impacts Toronto on offense more than most realize. He shoots 39 percent from deep in the Raptors’ franchise-record 50 victories compared to 33 percent in their losses, and the team’s offensive rating increases by 7.5 points when he’s on the court.

With the six-year veteran launching more 3s than ever before this year (3.8 per game) and providing savvy defensive play, he’s still positively affecting the Raptors despite his reduced role.

This story was published by PointAfter, a partner of NBA.com.

Will Laws is a writer for PointAfter, a sports data aggregation and visualization website that’s part of the Graphiq network. Visit PointAfter to get all the information about NBA players, NBA historical teams and dozens of other topics.

Numbers notes: The stagger question


VIDEO: Thunder hang on to top Knicks

ALSO THIS WEEK: Raptors bench stands out in East | When you can beat the Warriors

HANG TIME NEW JERSEY — The Oklahoma City Thunder almost left New York without a win. They lost to the 11-33 Nets in Brooklyn on Sunday and were in trouble against the Knicks at Madison Square Garden on Tuesday.

The Thunder trailed the Knicks by three after the third quarter and, with both Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook on the bench, the Knicks’ lead went from three points to 11 in the first 2:29 of the fourth.

Thunder coach Billy Donovan took a timeout and got Westbrook back in the game. It wasn’t too late, the Thunder erased the 11-point deficit by the end of regulation, and won in overtime.

But the situation brought to the surface the question about whether the Thunder have to play any minutes with neither Durant nor Westbrook on the floor. The pair average 70 minutes per game between them and Donovan could stagger their playing time so that he never has to play a full bench unit.

He does stagger their minutes a little bit. Westbrook usually gets replaced with 2-3 minutes left in the first quarter and third quarters, while Durant stays on the floor for the remainder of the period. Then Westbrook returns a little earlier in the second and fourth quarters than Durant does. Over the last eight games, the Thunder have averaged about seven minutes per game with one of the two (but not the other) on the floor.

But stretches like they had in New York could be avoided if Westbrook sat earlier in the first and third quarters, returning to start the second and fourth.

Earlier in the season, I looked at the same issue with the Clippers, who don’t have as good a bench as the Thunder do and who don’t really have to answer the question with Blake Griffin out for another 4-6 weeks.

Donovan answered the question after the OT win in New York, and he’s willing to see his bench sink or swim with his two stars off the floor.

“Kevin, I think, for his rhythm, what he likes is playing that whole first quarter,” the coach said Tuesday. “He likes the rhythm of that. He feels like he gets in the flow of the game. So there’s going to be some times those guys are not going to be on the floor. I’ve said this from the beginning of the year, I got confidence in the guys coming off the bench. I got confidence in other guys. Other guys need to step up. And our bench has been playing pretty well.

“If 40 minutes are going to be played with one of those two guys on the court, we got to be able to play for that [other] six or eight minutes.”

Durant and Westbrook will obviously see a minutes increase in the playoffs, but it remains to be seen if Donovan also staggers their playing time more as well in the postseason. In fact, the night after the game in New York, Donovan staggered his stars’ minutes even less. In Minnesota on Wednesday, he had one of the two stars on the floor for just three total minutes. But the Thunder were a plus-2 in the 10 minutes that both were on the bench in another close win against a bad team.

Best bench in the East


VIDEO: The Association: Toronto Raptors

One team that has staggered the minutes of its stars is the Toronto Raptors, who have kept either Kyle Lowry (who sits at the end of the first and third quarters) or DeMar DeRozan (who sits at the start of the second and fourth) on the floor at all (non-garbage) times.

That’s one reason for the Raptors’ success with reserves on the floor, which was the topic of this week’s stats video…


VIDEO: GameTime: Schu’s Advanced Stats – Raptors bench

Against the Knicks on Thursday, the Raptors’ starting lineup was outscored by nine points in 13.4 minutes, but they still won by 10. Through 46 games, their starting lineups are a minus-23 and they’ve been the fourth worst team, getting outscored by 9.3 points per 100 possessions, in the first six minutes of the first quarter. Only the Suns (minus-11.8), Sixers (minus-14.3) and Lakers (minus-21.9) have been worse.

But the Raps are about even in first quarters overall, because they’ve outscored their opponents by 9.2 points per 100 possessions in the last six minutes of the period, when the reserves start taking the floor. A lineup of DeRozan and their top four subs (Cory Joseph, Terrence Ross, Patrick Patterson and Bismack Biyombo) is a plus-14 in 126 minutes this season.

The second quarter, though, is when the Raptors have really been separating themselves. A lineup of Lowry and those same reserves has outscored opponents 279-194 in 127 minutes. Lowry (plus-255) has the best plus-minus on the team, and he’s followed by Patterson (plus-213), Joseph (plus-185) and Ross (plus-164). The Raptors rank second, behind only the San Antonio Spurs, in aggregate bench plus-minus.

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The Raptors have won 10 straight games, with a top-5 offense and a top-5 defense in that time, taking a strong hold on second place in the Eastern Conference. It’s not only the third straight season that they’re heading for the playoffs. It’s also the third straight season that they’ve been at their best with reserves on the floor.

When you can beat the Warriors

The Warriors are kind of the opposite of the Raptors, in that the first six minutes of the second and fourth quarters are when they’re at their worst. In their two meetings, the Raptors outscored the Warriors 53-40 in the first six minutes of the second and fourth quarters.

Like Oklahoma City and Toronto, the champs have two elite players, and they’ve subbed them in and out more like the Thunder than the Raps. Golden State has outscored its opponents by an amazing 25.1 points per 100 possessions in 1,331 minutes with both Stephen Curry and Draymond Green on the floor. And in 361 minutes with one of the two on the floor, they’re a plus-8.1 per 100 possessions.

But in the 536 minutes that both Curry and Green have been off the floor, the Warriors have been outscored by 10.5 points per 100 possessions, a point differential worse than that of the Sixers this season.

Some of that is garbage time. But if you look at just the first three quarters and fourth quarter minutes where the score is within 10 points, the Warriors still have been outscored by 6.9 points per 100 possessions in 308 minutes with neither Curry nor Green on the floor.

The champs have been ridiculously good with their two best players on the floor. No kidding. But the Warriors’ bench hasn’t been able to hold onto leads with Curry and Green off the floor as well as they did last season.

Through Thursday, Curry and Green lead the league on on-off-court NetRtg differential. The Warriors have been an amazing 29.8 points per 100 possessions better with the MVP on the floor than they’ve been with him on the bench. That number is 10 points per 100 possessions higher than that of last season’s leader (Chris Paul, 19.8) and almost 13 points per 100 possessions higher than Curry’s mark last season (17.1).

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Morning shootaround — Oct. 25


VIDEO: The Starters predict who’ll will the 2015-16 Finals

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Luke Walton not intimidated by coaching in Warriors opener | Monta Ellis looks for big season with Pacers | Derrick Rose loves Fred Hoiberg’s system already | Hassan Whiteside could be the difference for Miami this season

No. 1: Luke Walton not intimidated by coaching in Warriors opener — Just four months ago Luke Walton was the third man on the bench of the soon-to-be world champion Warriors, next to Steve Kerr and Alvin Gentry. But Gentry left to become coach of the Pelicans and Kerr has missed most of training camp with complications following back surgery. And now Walton will steer the Warriors at least temporarily until Kerr recovers, and there’s no timetable for that. Warriors GM Bob Myers made it official on Saturday. Here’s Ron Kroichick of the Chronicle with the details:

Kerr’s absence vaults Walton, 35, into a head-coaching role only 2½ years after his playing career ended. He spent one season as an assistant coach in the NBA Development League and last season, essentially, as the No. 3 assistant with the Warriors (behind Alvin Gentry and Ron Adams). Walton did lead the team in the summer league and throughout the preseason, but he realizes the intensity will rise into another realm Tuesday night.

His biggest challenge could involve substitutions. Kerr proved adept at this in his inaugural season at the helm, helping Andre Iguodala thrive as the sixth man and finding sufficient playing time for Marreese Speights and Shaun Livingston, among others.

“Managing minutes and lineups will probably be the trickiest thing, because we have such a deep team,” Walton said. “A lot of times it’s a crap shoot, as far as who we’re going with. Is it Mo? Is it Festus (Ezeli)? How long are we playing Andre and Shaun? …

“So we have to be ready to make moves quickly. I’m confident we’ll be able to do all that stuff.”

Walton, son of Hall of Fame center Bill Walton, played on two NBA title teams with the Lakers in 2009 and ’10. That earned him instant credibility with Warriors players, to hear Myers tell it.

Also notable: Walton is barely older than the players he will lead into the season (he’s only four years older than Iguodala, for example). He clearly established a rapport with them as an assistant, though the dynamic could change as he makes the decisions in a game.

“I think the players respect Luke,” Myers said. “He’s real, he’s authentic. … He’s one of the smartest basketball minds we have in the organization. He grew up around the NBA, so he’s not intimidated by the NBA.”

The timing of Saturday’s news was interesting. Not only did Kerr attend practice, he was more involved than he had been since the Warriors announced on Oct. 1 that he was taking a leave of absence. Walton said Kerr even installed some new plays at the end of practice.

They will work in concert, even with Kerr steering clear of the bench. He’s expected to attend Tuesday night’s pregame ceremony, in which Warriors players and coaches will receive their championship rings. Myers said it’s unclear whether Kerr will remain in the arena for the game; if he does, he will stay in the background.

***

No. 2: Monta Ellis looks for big season with Pacers — There’s no looking back for Monta Ellis, now with his third team in four years, unless it’s involving his childhood growing up in Mississippi. Ellis is anxious to put his mark on the Pacers and help that franchise back to the playoffs, but he and his family took time to reflect on the hard journey he took from childhood to the NBA. Candace Buckner of the Indy Star-News has a terrific profile of Ellis, one of the best players in the NBA who has never made the All-Star team:

The walls didn’t come down in California, where Ellis was the shoot-first thorn stubbornly pricked into Don Nelson’s side.

These days, Nelson has retired to the shores of Hawaii, where he is unplugged from the NBA transactions wire and unburdened by old beefs with former players. Still, his bouts with Ellis are well known. Nelson inherited Ellis in his second year in the league and coached him until the 2009-10 season.

“Well, the first thing that pops into my head is that he’s …” Nelson starts, and you’re expecting to hear a sort of basketball pejorative: selfish scorer, one-dimensional ball hog. And yet, Nelson makes a surprising declaration.

“…a terrific player,” he finishes.

Then comes the verbal asterisk: “Right now.”

“He was hard to coach when he was young; there’s no question in my mind about that,” Nelson continues. “He was very difficult to coach early. Like I said, single-minded. He thought he could do everything, like a lot of young players.”

***

No. 3: Derrick Rose loves Hoiberg’s system alreadyDerrick Rose has had a painful preseason, as you know, suffering an eye injury and then dealing with double vision. He finally saw action in his first exhibition game and declares himself fit for the opener. He’s also a big fan of new coach Fred Hoiberg and especially Hoiberg’s offense. As you might remember, offense was always a sticky point under the previous regime. Here’s Sam Smith of Bulls.com with the details:

 Rose knows well the vagaries of the game.

“I felt good,” Rose said. “I just wanted to come out, get a feel for the offense. I loved the way coach designed everything, the way the offense is run. They’ve got me running down hill every time I catch the ball and I’m catching the ball with a live dribble.

“He asked me to play yesterday,” said Rose of Hoiberg. “For him to ask me it must mean he loved the way I was playing in practice. With this offense it’s a lot of openings and gaps. With the way we shoot the ball and the freedom we have to shoot the ball, it’s like you can’t help off anyone; if someone has it going we’re to keep feeding them. We’re going to play off matchups. We’ve got to do that a little bit more and get people the ball a little more, like when Jimmy (Butler) had a couple of post ups when he had (J.J.) Barea on him a couple of times and we missed him. That’s all about reading the game and reading who is out there, giving the ball to the right person.

“There are a lot more (driving) lanes,” enthused Rose. “It’s so many opportunities to drive or so many opportunities to shoot my mid range even in transition; it’s open. I’ve just got to get used to playing this way. I know that might sound crazy, but playing in a (deliberate) system for three or four years kind of got me out of my rhythm.

“Whenever I see lanes I’m driving,” said Rose. “As soon as I step up, I’m hitting whoever is open and just trying to play basketball. I love the way the offense is. Coming down we’re not thinking about what we are running. Coming down, start with a pick and roll and then that pick and roll opens up everything else.

“I thought I was just going to come out and facilitate the game,” said Rose. “But I saw openings and I got all the way to the basket. So I can take this and put it in the bank. It’s very encouraging. It’s scary for my confidence right now. The last thing I need is any more confidence.

I’m going to take this and run with it.”

***

No. 4: Hassan Whiteside could be the difference for Miami this season —  There’s a swell of enthusiasm not seen in Miami since, well, since LeBron James left town, and that’s because the Heat are revamped and, they hope, finally free of the injury bug that hampered them last season. They’re also counting big on center Hassan Whiteside, who was a surprise revelation last season and now must prove that his min-breakout season wasn’t a fluke. Here’s Manny Navarro of the Miami Herald with the latest:

If he expands on what he did in just less than 24 minutes a game last season, the Heat could zoom right back into title contention after missing the playoffs for the first time in seven years.

If he just does what he did last year — averaging a double-double and defending the paint at an elite level — he’s still headed toward a monster payday (anywhere from $12 million to $18 million per season).

And if he goes backwards, it’s only going to make what is shaping up to be another interesting summer (when Durant hits the free agent market) only that more interesting.

The Heat, who has only $48 million and four players (Chris Bosh, Goran Dragic, Josh McRoberts and rookie Justise Winslow) on the books for next season, could build its future around Whiteside. Or, it could go in an entirely different direction.

For now, though, there are at least 82 games to go through. The ride for Miami’s new starting five — finally whole again with Bosh back from the blood clots in his lungs and point guard Goran Dragic directing what should be a faster pace on offense — begins Wednesday at AmericanAirlines Arena against the Charlotte Hornets.

Most pundits are picking Miami to finish anywhere from second in the East behind James and the Cleveland Cavaliers to fifth or sixth behind younger teams like Washington and Atlanta or the veteran-laden Chicago Bulls.

Coach Erik Spoelstra, though, isn’t pinning the Heat’s hopes on one player. “You can’t just point it to one guy,” Spoelstra said. “It’s a five-man game. Hassan’s not going out there in UFC by himself or playing tennis. We have to build cohesiveness, and that takes some time to develop that trust.

“What Hassan gives you is a presence in the paint on both sides of the court. He’s bigger and stronger than most people you play against. Defensively we hope he can be one of our anchors near the rim and someone who can put a lot of pressure on the rim offensively.”

***

SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: Last year the starting point guard on opening night for the Sixers was Michael Carter-Williams. Now, it’s Isaiah Canaan … Cleveland GM David Griffin is already signing the praises of newly-extended Tristan ThompsonRudy Gobert isn’t sweating a so-so-preseason start … The Raptors might be concerned about Patrick Patterson‘s struggles; he was supposed to have a major role with the club this season … The new Michael Jordan store in Chicago has folks standing in line already

Morning Shootaround — Sept. 30


VIDEO: Stephen Curry looks ahead to the upcoming season

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Derrick Rose injured…again | Next man up in Cleveland…again | Durant back in action | Bennett back home in Toronto

No. 1: Derrick Rose injured…again Just hours after an unprompted Derrick Rose discussed free agency during Chicago Bulls media day, which brought up a whole range of emotions for Bulls fans, Rose unwittingly became involved in another storyline familiar to Bulls fans. During the first practice under new Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg, Rose caught an accidental elbow and suffered a facial fracture that required surgery. More importantly, it means Rose will be out for time being, although the Bulls are holding out hope he can return for the season opener. For a guy who has battled injuries seemingly non-stop the last few years, it’s yet another tough break, writes K.C. Johnson in the Chicago Tribune

Derrick Rose caught an accidental elbow to his face halfway through Hoiberg’s first session and left for tests that revealed a left orbital fracture. The team said Rose, who turns 27 Sunday, will undergo surgery at Rush University Medical Center on Wednesday. A timetable for his return will be determined after the procedure.

Absences following surgery for orbital fractures have run the gamut recently with players missing anywhere from five to 28 games. Whatever the case, Rose’s injury piles on top of Mike Dunleavy’s back surgery last Friday. Dunleavy’s rehabilitation process could sideline the veteran forward eight to 10 weeks.

Suddenly, 40 percent of Hoiberg’s projected starting lineup will miss most, if not all, of training camp. A source said there is optimism Rose will be ready for the Oct. 27 regular-season opener against LeBron James and the Cavaliers.

And while this setback pales in comparison to the three knee surgeries Rose has endured, it’s yet another mental challenge for a former most valuable player who tried to remind all of his greatness during Monday’s media day.

“I know I’m great,” Rose said then.

Since becoming the youngest MVP in NBA history in 2011, Rose has missed in chronological order — deep breath here — five games each to a sprained toe and strained back; 17 games to groin, ankle and foot issues; the entire 2012-13 season to a torn left ACL; 71 games to a torn right meniscus; eight games to ankle and hamstring issues and 20 games to a second right meniscus tear.

In all, Rose has played in 100 games over the last four seasons.

Suddenly, Jimmy Butler’s boast he can play point guard may not be a far-fetched idea. If Rose does miss any regular-season time, the Bulls have Aaron Brooks, Kirk Hinrich and E’Twaun Moore at the position.

Three players who addressed the media said they didn’t know whose elbow caught Rose.

“Might have been me,” Taj Gibson said. “It’s one of those plays where everybody’s going so hard.”

At least Gibson, who is coming back from offseason left ankle surgery, practiced fully. But with Dunleavy not sure when he’ll return and now the Rose injury, there has been more bad news than good on the Bulls’ injury front.

Whether Rose wears a mask upon his return has yet to be determined. At the very least, he will have to overcome the fear of getting struck in the face again.

With Rose leaving practice early, teammates were left to answer if Rose’s curious and unsolicited comments about his 2017 free agency from Monday were irksome.

“I don’t care what the guy talks about as long as he’s helping us win games,” said Butler, who signed a $92.3 million deal this offseason. “Whatever he’s focused on let him be focused, but I think his objective is to win a championship. I’m pretty sure he talked about that as well — and how he wants to help this team win. Everything else, he is who he is.

“He can talk about unicorns and rainbows for all I care. Just help us win some basketball games.”

***

No. 2: Next man up in Cleveland…again The Cleveland Cavaliers made it to the NBA Finals despite a seemingly non-stop series of injuries, including season-ending stoppages to All-Stars Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving. Four months later, the Cavs entered training camp heading in the right direction, with everyone healthy or at least nearing full health. And then Iman Shumpert suffered a wrist injury and, as the Cavs announced yesterday, Shumpert will miss the next 12-14 weeks following surgery. As Chris Haynes writes for Cleveland.com, the Cavs are relying on the same mantra they have for months: Next man up

This wasn’t the best way to begin Day 1 of training camp.

“It’s ‘next man up’ for our team,” LeBron James said. “It’s a big blow for our team. He’s a guy that we wanted around here long-term, and he still will be around here long-term obviously, but the next man up will be ready to go until he gets back.”

Cavs coach David Blatt echoed those sentiments.

“He will eventually be back and in the meantime, we will follow the same philosophy that we had all last year: Face the adversity, next man up and play the game that we know how and the way that we should,” Blatt said.

With Shumpert sidelined, Griffin said there are no immediate plans to tinker with the roster due to the team’s depth. But he’s keeping his options open.

“We’re going to give people a chance to kind of absorb it from within,” he said “but obviously we’re paying a lot of attention to opportunities that we may be able to improve the group. We’ll just play it by ear.”

J.R. Smith will likely get the starting nod in the backcourt along with Mo Williams at the start of the regular season. The acquisition of Richard Jefferson should also play a key part in stabilizing the rotation.

Griffin said Shumpert worked “incredibly hard” this off-season to come into camp in top shape.

Injuries are something that all 30 NBA teams have to deal with at some point. The Cavs know first-hand that injuries at the wrong time can hinder them from reaching their ultimate goal.

“Injuries will probably be the only thing that can stop us long-term, [but Shump] is a short-term thing,” James said.

***

No. 3: Durant back in action One day after he turned 27 years old, Kevin Durant went through his first full day of practice with the Oklahoma City Thunder after missing 55 games last season following three foot surgeries. While the team announced Durant was fully cleared to return to action, as Durant explained yesterday, there’s a difference in being cleared to play and being in game shape. But, as Durant told ESPN’s Royce Young, he’s the same player he was before the injury

“I feel great, actually,” Durant said. “It’s really different being out there in a practice setting. I haven’t been there in a while. It’s definitely going to take me some time to really get comfortable out there again.

“I’ve been injured, but I’m healed now. So I try not to think about it. If I’m on the court, I’m OK. So I’m the same player I was.”

Despite the frustrations of last season, Durant enters his ninth NBA season full of the confidence. Asked about how long it’ll take to rediscover his rhythm, the 2014 MVP says his game isn’t back — because it never left.

“The most humble way I can say it is I’ve always got feel,” Durant said. “Every time I step on the court I feel great. I know how to play the game. My body might say a little different, but I always feel like I’m in rhythm. That’s just from me being a skill player and knowing what it takes to go out there and showcase my fundamentals of the game. I always feel like I’m in feel, but my body has to catch up, I guess.”

The one area Durant said may take a bit of time is his conditioning, though he said he felt like he was in already in a good place.

“My conditioning feels great,” Durant said. “I know it’s gonna take some time for me to really get back to feeling great and mid-season form, but I’m on my way.”

Monday’s practice was also the first for new head coach Billy Donovan, who said the focus was working to establish an identity, specifically on the defensive side.

“I think it went well,” Donovan said of his first NBA practice. “Guys were obviously very, very excited, certainly a lot of teaching to do in the first couple hours just to try and get a defensive system and a philosophy, trying to break down and teach. I thought we got a lot in, especially considering it was the first day.”

Said Durant of adjusting to a new coach: “It’s the first day. We’ve still got to figure it out. It’s just the first day. We’re smart players, and we know how to figure things out.”

***

No. 4: Bennett back home in Toronto The Cleveland Cavaliers made him the first pick of the draft in 2013, but since then Anthony Bennett has struggled to find a home in the NBA. After one season in Cleveland he was traded to Minnesota, and this summer his contract was bought out, making him a free agent. But for Bennett, his latest team is the Toronto Raptors, which is actually home. And as Bennett told CBS’s James Herbert, that’s a good thing

After Bennett walked into the practice court at the Air Canada Centre wearing a Raptors shirt — apparently his new No. 15 jersey wasn’t quite ready, and when he put it on a short while later, there was no name on the back — he called playing in Toronto “the perfect situation for me.” It was “definitely not an easy decision” to leave the Minnesota Timberwolves, but when he got back from the FIBA Americas in Mexico City, his agency and his former team were working on a buyout. Other teams were interested, but he knew where he wanted to be.

“It has been something I’ve been thinking about growing up, watching Vince Carter play,” Bennett said. “And now I’m back here. It’s surreal, but at the same time it’s work. I’m just ready to go all out.”

Playing for the Canadian national team, Bennett had a solid summer. He was perhaps the team’s best player at the Pan-Am Games in Toronto, and he had his moments at the FIBA Americas in Mexico City, too. Unsurprisingly, fellow Canadian Raptor Cory Joseph believes he can build on that.

“I feel like it’s a new beginning here,” Joseph said. “I think he’ll do great for us, for the city, for the country. I think he’ll revive his NBA career.”

While the homecoming angle is nice, Bennett’s redemption story has been written before. He looked in shape and confident at last year’s summer league, where he said he was having fun again after a rookie year filled with adversity. Just like with Team Canada, in Vegas he showed off the athleticism that made him such a great prospect, screaming into the stands to punctuate his dunks. He didn’t play much in his second season, though, and it wasn’t pretty when he did. Bennett missed way too many midrange jumpers and often looked lost on defense. He has a long way to go, and there are proven players in front of him.

As Raptors training camp begins, Bennett will find himself battling Patrick Patterson and Luis Scola at power forward. DeMarre Carroll is also expected to spend some time at the 4, and James Johnson could be in the mix, too. Given Toronto head coach Dwane Casey‘s preference for veterans and his dedication to defense, it seems unlikely Bennett will be a regular part of the rotation.

“This is an opportunity,” Casey said. “This is a good place for him. It’s home. He should feel comfortable. But, all the [playing] time and everything else, he’s going to have to come in and earn it, which I’m sure the other players would be happy to hear.”

For the Raptors, there was little risk in signing Bennett. He’s on a one-year contract for $947,276. Where he was selected doesn’t matter anymore.

“It didn’t work out in a couple places,” Toronto general manager Masai Ujiri said. “I think he’s moved past that. I think the experiences he’s gone through will help him. For us to get a Canadian 22-year-old power forward that is athletic and can play at the minimum? We’ll take it. He’ll have a chance.”

***

SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: Paul Allen says the Blazers have moved on from losing LaMarcus AldridgeBen Gordon went vegetarian and now hopes to make the Golden State Warriors roster … In Denver, Kenneth Faried is the Nuggets’ biggest wild card … The Brooklyn Nets want Brook Lopez to take more of a leadership role

Report: Bennett’s next stop is home

Former No. 1 pick is likely headed back to his hometown of Toronto.

Former No. 1 pick is likely headed back to his hometown of Toronto.

Well, that was quick.

After being released by the Timberwolves via buyout, Anthony Bennett will sign with the Raptors now that he has cleared waivers, according to ESPN’s John Goodman. If so, he’ll boomerang back to Canada, his homeland, and maybe a friendlier team with the Raptors than he had in Minnesota and Cleveland.

Yes, we say “maybe” because while the Raptors are providing a cushion for the former No. 1 overall pick, playing time is hardly guaranteed. Toronto this summer acquired power forward Bismack Biyombo and signed free agent small forward DeMarre Carroll. There’s also Patrick Patterson, and besides, the Raptors are a win-now team, meaning they’re more likely to put a premium on players who can produce right away, rather than try to develop players for the future.

Clearly, Bennett’s value lies in the future, even though he was drafted two years ago. He’s still trying to find his fit in the NBA and labors as an undersized power forward. However, this is a no-lose situation for Toronto. Maybe the change of scenery and familiarity of home will benefit Bennett, who plays on Canada’s emerging national team, and he also came cheap.

Only the 76ers and Blazers had the cap room for Bennett’s $5.8 million salary but neither team bit. That allowed Bennett to go elsewhere. His buyout from Minnesota was roughly $3.6 million and he’ll likely sign with the Raptors for just under $1 million this season. He’s the only No. 1 overall pick to fail to reach the fourth year of his rookie deal.

 

Casey, Raptors want to ride continuity

 

casey

Dwane Casey will be looking to build on last season’s 48-win campaign. (NBAE via Getty Images)

LAS VEGAS — Back in December it hardly seemed possible that Dwane Casey would be standing here at Summer League with a smile on his face and his lightweight button-down shirt casually untucked, and most of all still as the coach of the Toronto Raptors.

This misbegotten big-market franchise with the redundant roster was floundering again, off to a 7-12 start, and the well-liked, but lame-duck Casey looked to be running out the clock on his three-year contract.

Then, on Dec. 8, new general manager Masai Ujiri, having built a reputation as a next-generation whiz, made the deal to send Rudy Gay and his massive contract to Sacramento for depth help in point guard Greivis Vasquez and forwards John Salmons, Patrick Patterson and Chuck Hayes. Around the same time, Knicks president James Dolan vetoed a trade that would have landed Raptors starting point guard Kyle Lowry in New York.

Suddenly, a feeling of stability overtook the team. They looked around, looked at themselves and liked what they saw. And everything changed.

“After the trade happened, I thought it brought our team together — camaraderie,” said Casey, who signed a three-year contract extension in May. “They made the decision that we were not going to be a lottery team — I think that’s what everybody expected — and we kept teaching them the principles of what we wanted to be doing and it just came together.

This wasn’t a referendum on Gay, who went to have a surprisingly efficient offensive season with the Kings. Gay and DeRozan are friends off the court, but ill-fitting parts on it, and as the parts fit better and the floor opened up, the Raptors’ offense, also buoyed by Lowry’s uprising, took off.

“It was a fit,” Casey said. “A lot of times you have talent and it doesn’t fit. DeMar and Rudy were similar and Terrence Ross is sitting there, he’s similar, so once you took all the pieces out it opened up things and we went from 29th, I think, in the league in assists to 16th or 17th. That really changed things for us. It helped us tremendously.”

On Dec. 8, the Raptors ranked 30th in assists and 28th in offensive efficiency (101.4 points per 100 possessions). From Dec. 9 to the end of the season, they ranked 13th in assists and ninth in offensive efficiency (107.2). They went 41-22 after the Gay trade and played a rousing seven-game series in front of madhouse crowds, plus gatherings of 10,000 fans in Maple Leaf Square. It was truly one of the great scenes of the postseason.

And it was enough to convince Lowry to stay put, making him the rare Raptor to re-up when he had a chance to leave. He signed a four-year deal worth $48 million. Free agents Patterson and Vasquez also re-signed. Amir Johnson, Landry Fields, Jonas Valanciunas, Ross, Hayes and Tyler Hansbrough are all back, giving the Raptors a real sense of continuity in roster and process.

Toronto also traded Salmons to Atlanta for guard Lou Williams and intriguing developmental center Lucas Nogueria, and signed long, athletic wing James Johnson, who is coming off something of a breakout season with Memphis.

“I don’t know if [Lowry] is the first player to be a free agent to re-sign that had an opportunity to leave, so that says something about what we’re trying to do, where we are, trying to build,” Casey said. “For the first time in his career he was able to say, ‘this is a team that I’m one of the leaders of,’ and for him to come back, it does make a statement of where we are in our growth process and the kind of program we have, and kind of opened some eyes to what kind of city Toronto is.

“The continuity is huge,” Casey said. “You can just see it turning, guys are getting comfortable with the defensive system, the offensive system. We can be top 10 in both offense and defense. Now we just have to continue to do that.”

The Raptors could get some votes as the team to beat in the Eastern Conference when the preseason predictions start to hit the newsstands. LeBron James’ return to Cleveland has shaken up a conference that might boast a favorite in Chicago, but mostly has a handful of what should be entertaining squads, including Toronto, Cleveland, Washington, Indiana and perhaps Brooklyn and still Miami.

“There’s opportunity for somebody to step up, it’s so balanced right now from top to bottom,” Casey said of the conference. “It gives us an opportunity to move up and take another step.”

Back in December, that hardly seemed possible.

Raps keep Lowry, still have more work


VIDEO: Free Agency: Lowry Remains a Raptor

HANG TIME NEW JERSEY — The Toronto Raptors have taken care of the important business, agreeing to terms with Kyle Lowry on a new four-year, $48 million contract. After winning their division for the second time in franchise history and returning to the postseason after a five-year absence, they’re bringing back their best player. Lowry is a bulldog on both ends of the floor, and if he wasn’t the best point guard in the Eastern Conference last season, he was right there with John Wall.

The Raptors had one the conference’s best benches as well. Greivis Vasquez and Patrick Patterson arrived in the Rudy Gay trade in December and made big impacts. Patterson spaced the floor at the power forward position, while Vasquez’s passing was infectious. Toronto recorded assists on just 49 percent of its baskets before the trade and 60 percent after it.

The numbers spell out how important Patterson and Vasquez are. They had the two best on-court NetRtg marks on the team, with the Raptors outscoring their opponents by 9.9 points per 100 possessions with Patterson on the floor and by 8.5 with Vasquez on the floor. In the playoffs, Toronto outscored Brooklyn by 53 points with Vasquez on the floor and was outscored by 64 with him on the bench. Patterson was a plus-30.  As it was in the regular season, they were at their best with those two guys on the floor.

If the Raptors want to build on last season’s success, they need to keep the bench together. If Lou Williams (acquired in a trade for John Salmons) is healthy, it could be even better than it was last season.

On Friday, Toronto reportedly agreed to terms with Patterson, a restricted free agent, on a three-year, $18 million contract. That’s Step 2.

Vasquez is another restricted free agent, meaning the Raptors can match any offer sheet he receives from another team. But with the new contracts for Lowry and Patterson, the addition of Williams, and the possibility of adding rookies Bruno Caboclo and Lucas Nogueira, Toronto is approaching the luxury tax line. And they want to make one more move.

After Joe Johnson beat them up in that playoff series, the Raps acknowledged that they need more size on the wing. Even if Caboclo is less than “two years away from being two years away,” that size would have to come in free agency, perhaps from an Al-Farouq AminuAlan Anderson, Jordan Hamilton or Richard Jefferson. The Raptors have the mid-level exception (or a portion of it) to spend on an outside free agent.

Adding one of those guys, keeping Vasquez, and staying under the tax line will be a challenge. If Darren Collison can get the full mid-level exception (from Vasquez’s former team) in Sacramento, Vasquez should surely be worth that much. Complicating matters is that Toronto is already paying small forwards Landry Fields and Steve Novak almost $10 million to ride the pine.

Back in January, SportsNet’s Michael Grange reported that the Raptors would be willing to go over the line “at the right time.” But if they bring everybody back, they’re still a team that lost in the first round.  Even if they add a piece, they still have a ceiling, especially if LeBron James remains in Miami. And if Jonas Valanciunas gets a lucrative contract extension next summer, it will overlap with the last two seasons of Lowry’s deal (and the last of DeMar DeRozan‘s), which may be the time to think about paying the tax.

So Raptors GM Masai Ujiri has his work cut out for him over the next couple of weeks. He got the most important deal done. But his team’s depth is just as critical to its success as its best player.