Posts Tagged ‘Patrick Patterson’

Big year and a bigger decision for Lowry


VIDEO: Kyle Lowry is one of the more coveted free agent point guards on the market

HANG TIME SOUTHWEST — Kyle Lowry faces the decision of his career: Cash in with the Raptors and maybe one day walk away a Canadian folk hero (you saw those crazed playoff crowds, right?), have faith in the leaky, but legendary Lakers or settle for a mere pittance to play with the King.

But wait, there’s more …

To start free agency at the stroke of midnight Tuesday, Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey and coach Kevin McHale were in Philadelphia seated in front of Lowry. The two men who shipped Lowry north of the border in the first place were now telling him how perfect he is for the team he actually aided in assembling.

Plotting a path to form a super team in Houston, Morey was hoarding drafts picks and the first-rounder he got from Toronto for Lowry two summers ago was supposed to be another carrot to finally lure Orlando into a deal for Dwight Howard. A month later Howard was traded to the Lakers, and the draft pick wound up in Oklahoma City as part of the package for James Harden. Howard, conveniently, followed as a free-agent acquisition last summer.

As Morey, McHale and Lowry dined, or whatever it is that goes on in these after-midnight meetings, Raptors general manager Masai Ujiri was working his own plan (reportedly a contract starting around $12 million) to keep the spark plug point guard behind Toronto’s resurgence, a spark plug Ujiri was prepared to trade to New York at the deadline if not for the reluctance of the  Knicks’ former regime to throw in a future first-round draft pick.

Meanwhile, back in South Florida, Heat president of basketball operations Pat Riley was maneuvering for his own meeting with free agency’s top point-guard target. The Riley pitch, if he gets to make it, will get straight to the point: Come to Sacrifice City and compete for these shiny rings with LeBron James.

Amazing what a career year will do for a guy’s fortunes. Lowry, not long ago down on his luck, last season averaged career highs in scoring (17.9 ppg), assists (7.4), minutes (36.2) and 3-point percentage (38.0), while tying his career-high in rebounds (4.7).

Many believed Lowry, 28, should have made his first All-Star team of his eight-year career. After the All-Star break he reinforced that notion by averaging 20.4 ppg, 7.1 apg and 5.1 rpg, while maintaining his bulldog approach to defense. The Raptors finished the season 20-10 and won a franchise-best 48 games, finishing above .500 for the first time since 2006-07.

So perhaps a contract starting at $12 million isn’t too high for this big-market franchise desperate to maintain its playmaker and elusive momentum.

Yet becoming just as desperate are the Miami Heat.

James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh are free agents, too. They’re waiting to finalize new contracts while Riley works to re-tool the roster. Big men, wing depth and a point guard are needed. On Tuesday, Heat target Marcin Gortat reached an agreement to return to the Washington Wizards at a price (five years, $60 million) far too rich for the Heat. Another report stated small forward Luol Deng will not sacrifice pay to play for Miami. A later report had Washington nearing a deal to bring back yet another Heat target, small forward Trevor Ariza.

The aggressive, 6-foot Lowry fits the Heat needs to a T. Only they won’t be able to match the Raptors’ reported offer and fill other needs. Earlier Tuesday, Jodie Meeks agreed to a free-agent deal with the Detroit Pistons for three years and $19 million, a hefty pay raise for a middling player, and one that would make it seem highly unlikely that Lowry could feel good about taking a deal that wouldn’t pay him much more.

The wild card here, as it always is with the Heat, is a lower pay grade is the price to play with LeBron. We’ve seen it with players nearing the end of their careers, but not necessarily from one in his prime.

Lowry has seven postseason games to his name since 2009 back with Houston when he reached the second round. All seven came this past season with Toronto. The Raptors, boasting an emerging star in DeMar DeRozan and rising talents in Terrence RossJonas Valanciunas and restricted free agent Patrick Pattersonlost a heartbreaker to Brooklyn in the first round.

For a franchise that has experienced two winning seasons in the last dozen, and has had its troubles keeping and recruiting star-level players, Lowry would be welcomed back as hero.

But then there’s always LeBron … or the Rockets … or the Lakers …

The decision of Lowry’s career will be coming soon.

Six factors that can separate the Nets and Raptors in Game 7

By John Schuhmann, NBA.com


VIDEO: Nets-Raptors: Game 7 Preview

TORONTO — How silly of us to think that one of these teams would win this series in six games. We should have realized that the Toronto Raptors and Brooklyn Nets have some sort of reciprocal gravity that keeps one team from ever pulling away from the other.

They’ve played 10 games this season. They’ve each won five, with a total combined score of Raptors 767, Nets 766. Eight of the 10 games have been within five points in the last five minutes.

So it’s only fitting that this first round series will come down to a Game 7 on Sunday (1 p.m. ET, ABC).

For the Raptors, this is an opportunity. A win would give their young core 4-7 more games of playoff experience against the defending champion Miami Heat. It would give head coach Dwane Casey additional job security. And it would help establish the franchise’s place on the NBA map.

For the Nets, this is another referendum. If they can’t get past the first round, what exactly did they spend $104 million in salary and another $92 million in luxury taxes on? And where the heck do they go from here?

“They have more to lose than us,” DeMar DeRozan said Saturday.

Indeed. But payroll won’t determine which team gets their first Game 7 victory (since the Nets came to the NBA). These six factors will.

The nail

Though the Nets lost Game 5, they established some things offensively. One of those was Joe Johnson operating from the middle of the floor, a set that made it difficult for the Raptors to double-team him. The Nets didn’t go to that set much in Game 6, instead using Johnson back in the low post and in pick-and-rolls with Deron Williams more often.

But the Nets did take the middle of the floor away from Kyle Lowry, who scored just three points in the paint or at the free throw line in Game 6 after scoring 14 in Game 5. They took away the Raptors’ primary offensive actions and often had them trying to improvise with less than 10 seconds left on the shot clock.

DeMar DeRozan will make some tough shots, but if it’s only tough shots that he’s getting, Brooklyn is in good shape.

Minutes distribution

The Raptors have been at their best when reserves Greivis Vasquez and Patrick Patterson are on the floor. They may sacrifice some defense by playing big minutes with Lowry, Vasquez, DeRozan and Patterson on the floor together, but their regular small forwards have come up empty offensively all series.

Terrence Ross is gaining experience and John Salmons is a bigger body to put on Johnson. But Raptors coach Dwane Casey shouldn’t hesitate to go to the three-guard lineup early and often, because the positives on offense will outweigh the negatives on D.

Lowry, Vasquez, DeRozan and Patterson are a plus-23 in 54 minutes together, but played just 12 minutes over the last two games.

The 3-point line

Neither team has shot well from 3-point range in the series, but both teams have attempted 22 threes per game. If one team – or just one player – gets hot, it could be the difference. With the attention that Johnson draws, Brooklyn is more likely to get open looks. That’s why Alan Anderson has replaced Shaun Livingston in the starting lineup.

Patterson, of course, puts a fourth shooter on the floor for Toronto. He can punish the Nets’ defense for its focus on Lowry and DeRozan.

Toronto on the roll

One of the bellwethers of this series has been Amir Johnson, who has averaged 14.7 points in the Raptors’ three wins and 4.3 points in their three losses. A lot of Johnson’s production has come as the roll man, catching passes from Lowry and Vasquez. The Nets’ weak-side defender needs to meet the roll man – whether it’s Johnson or Jonas Valanciunas – before he gets too close to the basket.

Transition

Both teams have averaged less than 10 fast break points per game, but have been at their best when they’ve been able to get out into the open floor. Williams pushed the pace from the start in Game 6, which allowed the Nets to get into their offensive actions early in the shot clock and before the Raptors could get set. That produced easier shots.

When the Raptors made a little bit of a run in the fourth quarter, they were getting some easy baskets in transition as well.

Turnovers

After averaging 19.3 turnovers in the first three games, the Raptors have averaged just 13.0 in the last three. But it was an issue that popped up again in the fourth quarter on Friday, keeping them from being able to cut the Brooklyn lead to single digits. Any extended turnover issues in Game 7 (for either team) could end their season.

Is it time for Casey to change his lineup?

By John Schuhmann, NBA.com


VIDEO: Inside Stuff: Amir – The Heart and Soul of Toronto

BROOKLYN — Before Game 3 of his team’s first round series with the Brooklyn Nets, Toronto Raptors coach Dwane Casey was asked about having to abandon something that’s worked all season because you’re getting beat in a playoff series.

“That’s called adjustments,” Casey said. “You got to make adjustments and maybe throw out some things. We’ve already thrown out a couple of sets that we had in mind for the playoffs because it just didn’t work. There’s some defensive schemes that we looked at that didn’t work out. So we had to change. You have to, more or less, gamble a little bit and roll the dice and change some things, because you don’t have a season to work things out or a chance to look at the big picture.”

In the big picture, the Raptors need Terrence Ross, their second-year starting small forward with 50-point-game potential. In this series, they need something else.

Ross has shot 3-for-16 (2-for-11 from 3-point range) in the series, but his ineffectiveness has gone beyond that, because he hasn’t helped defensively either. For the most part, he’s been guarding Shaun Livingston, who hasn’t done too much damage. But as long as he’s out there, there’s a chance he’ll get switched onto Joe Johnson or Deron Williams, which is bad news. The Raptors’ defense has allowed a brutal 117 points per 100 possessions in Ross’ 63 minutes on the floor in the series.

The defense has been better with Landry Fields on the floor, but Fields is basically a zero offensively at this point in his career. And John Salmons hasn’t been able to make an impact either.

The Raptors are down 2-1, but they’ve had chances in each of their two losses. The Nets have outscored them 291-285 in the series.

“We just got to get more productivity out of one more position,” Casey said after Game 3. “[We’re] searching a little bit in those three positions to give us a defensive stopper or add some offense out of that one spot.”

So where does Casey go in Game 4 on Sunday (7 p.m. ET, TNT)? He said Friday that he likes the added “physicality” that Fields and Salmons bring to the table, but his best option may be to sacrifice the defense and play neither.

In the regular season and in this series, the Raptors have been at their best with Greivis Vasquez and Patrick Patterson on the floor. But neither has cracked the 30-minute mark in any of the three games.

That’s tough to do when you don’t enter the game until late in the first quarter. Casey has been quicker to bring in his subs in the third quarter, but he’s still not optimizing his roster.

The Raptors haven’t gotten off to terrible starts. Their starting lineup was a minus-1 in the first quarter of Game 1, a plus-1 in the first quarter of Game 2, and a plus-0 in the first quarter of Game 3. But it’s been outscored (by 16 total points) in each of the three third quarters and is a minus-17 in 39 total minutes.

Vasquez, meanwhile, is a plus-31 and Patterson is a plus-13. The Raptors might be making a defensive sacrifice by playing a three-guard lineup of Vasquez, Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan, but it can’t be worse than it has with Ross on the floor, and it would be the best move for their offense. They’ve scored 115.5 points per 100 possessions in 32 minutes with the three guards on the floor together.

A change (or two) to the starting lineup would give the Raptors their best chance at a strong start on Sunday and, more importantly, get Vasquez and/or Patterson on the floor longer. There’s no reason they shouldn’t each get at least 30 minutes of playing time in Game 4.

“We’re still going to look at that,” Casey said of a lineup change at practice on Saturday. “It’s not panic time, but we do have to look at that position and get more productivity out of that spot.”

Time is running out. A loss on Sunday would put the Raptors down 3-1 against a veteran club that knows it has matchup advantages. At this point, Casey can’t worry about the big picture.

Nets, Raptors have some cleaning up to do in Game 3

By John Schuhmann, NBA.com


VIDEO: Raptors-Nets: Game 3 Preview

EAST RUTHERFORD, NJ — Since the end of Game 2 of their first round series with the Toronto Raptors, the Brooklyn Nets — Kevin Garnett, especially — have been trying to stoke the fire within their fans, hoping for an atmosphere at Game 3 on Friday (7 p.m. ET, ESPN2) similar to the one they saw in Toronto. But in their favor this time.

“I’m very, very, very eager to see how they respond to the ‘F Brooklyn'” Garnett said after practice on Thursday. “Very, very eager to see how they respond to this kid, sitting in our arena.”

“This kid” was apparently a reference to Raptors general manager Masai Ujiri, who incited a Toronto crowd with his “F— Brooklyn” exclamation before Game 1. Later that day, Jason Kidd said he didn’t know who Toronto’s GM was. Then Paul Pierce thought it was Bryan Colangelo. Now, Garnett is calling him “this kid.” These Nets can troll.

But can they rebound? After allowing the Raptors to grab 19 offensive boards in Game 2, rebounding will be more important than how loud the Barclays Center crowd is. So is how well the Raptors — who have 40 turnovers in the two games — hold onto the ball.

Both the Nets’ biggest issue and Raptors’ biggest issue are on the same end of the floor. And both are somewhat a result of Brooklyn’s defensive scheme.

The Nets’ big men hedge hard high on pick-and-rolls in order to stop Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan from penetrating. It’s an aggressive scheme (similar to that of the Miami Heat) and, with the Nets’ length on the perimeter, it helps force turnovers.

At the same time, it takes Brooklyn’s bigs away from the basket, at least temporarily. Here’s an example of Mason Plumlee 20 feet from the rim in an effort to contain DeRozan …

20140425_plumlee_hedge

 

That play resulted in a put-back dunk by Plumlee’s man, Amir Johnson, who had a clear line to the basket.

The Nets will also switch screens liberally, which can leave a small defender on a big rebounder. Here’s Alan Anderson trying to box out Johnson after Pierce switched onto DeRozan …

20140425_anderson_switch

Result: A loose-ball foul on Anderson and a second chance for Toronto.

Yes, the Nets play small. Yes, their rebounding got worse when they switched to a small lineup in January. And yes, Patrick Patterson did bully his way into a few of his offensive boards. Size does matter and the Raptors know that they have an advantage inside.

But part of the Nets’ rebounding issue is just a trade-off for being able to force turnovers and keep the initial play out of the paint. The same goes for much of Jonas Valanciunas‘ production (32 points and 32 rebounds through the first two games). When his man hedges hard, he can roll to the basket with only a smaller (help) defender in his way…

20140425_valanciunas_roll

Even when the Nets’ big recovers, Valanciunas will be in better rebounding position. But the Nets’ will probably take another double-double from the Raptors’ center if it means keeping Lowry and DeRozan in check.

Still, a lot of Toronto’s offensive boards in Game 2 were the result of defensive breakdowns. There were a few non-screen situations where a Brooklyn perimeter defender needed help from a big, leaving a Toronto big unchecked. There were a few rebounds that just bounced off the Nets’ hands. And on the screens, the quicker the guard can recover back to his man, the quicker the big can recover back to his. These things can be cleaned up.

“You can’t just say that we’re going to defend one way and just give up rebounds,” Deron Williams said Thursday of the Nets’ scheme. “We can’t afford to do that. We have to defend, and part of getting a stop is finishing with a rebound. Until we do that, we’re going to have some problems.”

The Raptors can say the same about turnovers. While some of their miscues can be chalked up to trying to get the pace in their favor or take advantage of Brooklyn’s scheme, there has been some general sloppiness on the Raptors’ part.

Too often, Toronto’s guards have tried to find a lane where there wasn’t one. And too often, their bigs have tried to put the ball on the floor and make plays for themselves. They all sometimes need a reminder to keep it simple, especially when the Nets are aggressively denying passing lanes.

Making shots may be more important, but rebounds and turnovers will play a role in Game 3. The team that cleans up best should have a 2-1 series lead at the end of the night.

More Patterson in Game 2?

By John Schuhmann, NBA.com


VIDEO: Nets-Raptors Game 2 preview

TORONTO — The Toronto Raptors scored just 87 points on 92 possessions in Game 1 of their first round series against the Brooklyn Nets on Saturday. They need to find a way to keep Joe Johnson out of the paint in Game 2 on Tuesday (7:30 p.m. ET, NBA TV), but most of all, they need to get more buckets themselves.

That could mean more minutes for Patrick Patterson, a floor-spacing big.

Jonas Valanciunas put up 17 points, 18 rebounds and two blocks in his playoff debut on Saturday, but was a game-low minus-17 (Nets 73, Raptors 56) in 35 minutes. He played well, but his teammates didn’t while he was on the floor.

One thing that can get All-Star DeMar DeRozan better shots is better spacing. And with Valanciunas and Amir Johnson in the game, the Raptors’ spacing is not optimal. DeRozan shot 0-for-8 (0-for-4 from 3-point range) when the two starting bigs were on the floor on Saturday.

That’s just one game, but since they acquired him in the Rudy Gay trade, the Raptors have been at their best offensively with Patterson on the floor. It’s not just that he can hit 3-pointers, but his presence makes it a little bit harder for the opposing defense to put multiple bodies between the Raptors’ ball-handlers and the basket.

In the three games they’ve had him against Brooklyn, Toronto has scored almost 120 points per 100 possessions in Patterson’s 75 minutes. DeRozan has scored 28 points in the 39 minutes he’s shared the floor with Patterson against the Nets, shooting 8-for-13 from the field and getting to the line 12 times.

Patterson’s mark of plus-50 against the Nets is, by far, the best mark of any Raptor this season (next is Chuck Hayes at plus-21). If you count a November game with Sacramento, he’s a plus-80 in 101 minutes against them.

Still, we might we see more of Patterson (who played 26 minutes on Saturday) in Game 2. It’s only been a few weeks since he returned from an elbow injury, but Raptors coach Dwane Casey says that there’s no limit on Patterson’s minutes. Casey just has to space them out differently.

“You got to give him a little more of a blow between his extended minutes,” Casey said. Patterson entered the game late in the first and third quarters on Saturday, and stayed in until late in the second and fourth.

Casey went five-deep with his bigs in Game 1, bringing Patterson, Hayes and Tyler Hansbrough off the bench. The combination of Johnson and Patterson could be the Raptors’ best option – Toronto was a plus-13.6 points per 100 possessions in 215 minutes with the two on the floor together in the regular season – but the pair didn’t play at all together on Saturday.

DeRozan needs to be quicker … to pass

By John Schuhmann, NBA.com


VIDEO: Nets-Raptors: Game 2 Preview

TORONTO — DeMar DeRozan is an All-Star who shot 3-for-13 in his first-ever playoff game. So that’s a story.

And for the Toronto Raptors to tie their first-round series with the Brooklyn Nets in Game 2 on Tuesday (7:30 p.m., NBA TV), they will need DeRozan to play better. But that goes beyond more of his shots going in the basket. More important is that DeRozan make better decisions with the ball.

DeRozan took some terrible shots in Saturday’s Game 1. But he also hurt the Raptors’ offense when he wasn’t shooting, because he was too indecisive. And it started with the Raptors’ second possession of the afternoon…

20140420_hard_hedge

Here, Jonas Valanciunas has set a high screen for DeRozan. Kevin Garnett has hedged out high (standard for Nets bigs defending the pick-and-roll) to stop DeRozan while Shaun Livingston is recovering back to his man. Paul Pierce is ready to help on Valanciunas’ roll to the basket, and Joe Johnson has to make sure that Pierce’s man – Amir Johnson – isn’t left alone under the basket. Deron Williams is shading off of Kyle Lowry toward the strong side of the floor.

At this point in the play, there’s an opportunity to find an open shot on the weak side. A quick kick back to Lowry could produce a swing pass to Terrence Ross, a pass to the rolling Valanciunas, or an entry to Johnson, who could seal his man under the basket.

But DeRozan was too slow in giving up the ball, allowing the Nets’ defense to recover and forcing Lowry into a contested, step-back, 21-foot jumper late in the shot clock. Watch the play here.

There were other examples of this, as well as examples of DeRozan trying to go one-on-one against the Nets’ long defenders, like here, here and here.

Cracking the Brooklyn defense won’t be easy. Whenever DeRozan is the primary option on a possession, he will see a lot of black and white jerseys between him and the basket…

20140420_zone

Getting clean looks off of pin-down screens isn’t happening either…

20140420_curl_double

“You can’t stand and hold the ball against them, because they zone in so well,” DeRozan said Sunday. “All five guys are going to focus in on you. Just so be more decisive, be quicker with our screens, everything we do.”

He said that one way to attack a hard hedge is to go right at it.

“Kyle did that a lot. Once they came out so high, he attacked that big, tried to get on that outside leg, tried to get to the middle. If we keep getting to the middle, we’re going to cause havoc for them, because it’s tough to guard us once we get to the middle of the floor.”

DeRozan did attack Andray Blatche on one possession late in the third quarter. He missed on the drive, but it was one of his better shots of the night. He also tried to get past Garnett, drove into a crowd, and committed one of his three turnovers. So he has to pick and choose when he attacks and when he gets rid of the ball.

Raptors coach Dwane Casey pointed to screening and spacing as things his team can do better in Game 2. The “spacing” part could mean more minutes for Patrick Patterson, who can spread the floor and punish the Nets for “zoning up” better than Johnson or Valanciunas. Toronto scored 57 points in Patterson’s 26 minutes in Game 1.

The Raptors could also make their All-Star the third option (like Pierce was for Brooklyn down the stretch) more often. Some of DeRozan’s best looks of Game 1 came when he was on the weak side as Lowry or Greivis Vasquez ran a pick-and-roll. With the Nets’ defense zoning up on the ball-handler, a quick ball reversal gave DeRozan more room to operate. Here and here are two examples where he was able to draw fouls in those situations.

He still saw a second defender on that last play. And DeRozan argued Sunday that attacking from the weak side isn’t that easy either.

“We really don’t catch them in rotations so much,” he said. “We got to get the ball in the middle of the floor.”

Getting the ball in the middle of the floor opens up more passing options, but it’s easier said than done against the Brooklyn defense. Initiating the offense through the high post, like the Raptors did on their first possession of the third quarter, may be a better way to open up some passing lanes.

Ultimately, DeRozan may have to be more of a facilitator than a scorer in this series. But as long as he’s making quicker decisions — either to attack or get rid of the ball — the Raptors should get better looks at the basket.

Numbers preview: Raptors-Nets

By John Schuhmann, NBA.com


VIDEO: 2013-2014 Raptors Top Plays

HANG TIME NEW JERSEY — If there’s a first-round series that will help us determine the value of experience in the playoffs, it’s Toronto-Brooklyn.

The Nets have six players who have logged more than twice as many postseason minutes as anyone on the Raptors’ roster. Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, Joe Johnson, Deron Williams and Jason Collins have all been to the conference finals or further.

But that won’t matter if the Nets aren’t able to slow down the Raptors’ top-10 offense, which they struggled to do in four regular-season meetings.

Here are some statistical nuggets regarding the No. 3 and No. 6 seeds in the Eastern Conference, as well as the four games they played against each other.

Pace = Possessions per 48 minutes
OffRtg = Points scored per 100 possessions
DefRtg = Points allowed per 100 possessions
NetRtg = Point differential per 100 possessions

Toronto Raptors (48-34)

Pace: 94.4 (23)
OffRtg: 105.8 (9)
DefRtg: 102.4 (9)
NetRtg: +3.5 (9)

Overall: Team stats | Player stats | Lineups
vs. Brooklyn: Team stats | Player stats | Lineups

Raptors notes:

Brooklyn Nets (44-38)

Pace: 93.7 (25)
OffRtg: 104.4 (14)
DefRtg: 104.9 (19)
NetRtg: -0.6 (17)

Overall: Team stats | Player stats | Lineups
vs. Toronto: Team stats | Player stats | Lineups

Nets notes:

The matchup

Season series: 2-2 (1-1 in each location)
Pace: 92.5
TOR OffRtg: 107.0 (10th vs. BKN)
BKN OffRtg: 104.6 (9th vs. TOR)

Matchup notes:

Ujiri The Ultimate Chemistry Teacher




VIDEO: DeMar DeRozan and the Raptors are on a roll right now, winners of four straight games

HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS — Masai Ujiri‘s front office peers around the NBA should pay close attention to the way the Toronto Raptors’ star goes about his business. While some franchise architects like to work their so-called magic with the public watching intently, Ujiri has done a masterful job (first in Denver and now in Toronto) tweaking chemistry and getting results.

In fact, Ujiri has proven himself to be the ultimate chemistry teacher these days in terms of knowing how to tweak a roster just right. The reigning NBA Executive of the Year, an honor voted on by his peers, Ujiri is making a strong push for repeat honors with the way the Raptors are playing since the Rudy Gay trade went down.

They are 9-3 and winners of eight of their last 10 games since moving Gay to Sacramento Dec. 9. It was a move designed to give the Raptors long-term flexibility and not necessarily an immediate jolt that has helped them climb all the way up to the No. 4 spot in the Eastern Conference playoff chase.

But Ujiri has a way of studying a roster, figuring out what works and what doesn’t and then being fearless in his attempts to change things for the better. Since Gay was jettisoned, the Raptors have scored huge wins over the likes of Dallas and Chicago, and most recently in Oklahoma City (where they handed the West-best Thunder their first home loss of the season) and kicked off 2014 with an impressive home win over the East-best Indiana Pacers.

As much as this is about the fine work being done by Raptors coach Dwane Casey and his staff, and of course, the contributions of a roster full of grinders like DeMar DeRozan, Kyle Lowry, Amir Johnson, Jonas Valanciunas, Terrence Ross, Greivis Vasquez and others, this is about the man who put it all together.

Ujiri just happens to have the magic touch right now. And if you don’t believe it, just look at the hard times his former team has fallen upon in his absence. The Denver Nuggets have lost eight straight games, their longest such skid since the end of the 2002-03 season. Veteran point guard Andre Miller turned the heat up even more by ripping first-year coach Brian Shaw after Wednesday’s loss to the Philadelphia 76ers, making matters worse in Denver while Ujiri has his new team soaring.

A boss like Ujiri keeps those dustups contained, as best can be, or at least at a minimum and away from the public. You don’t have to worry about those sorts of altercations when working conditions are at a premium. And Ujiri has freed up virtually every key rotation player on the Raptors’ roster to do what he does best after the Gay trade.

DeRozan and Lowry in particular are allowed to play more to their natural strengths on the perimeter, while Valanciunas has become more of a focal point as well. Role players like Johnson, the ridiculously underrated Vasquez, who came over from Sacramento in the trade, and young journeyman forwards Tyler Hansbrough and Patrick Patterson have become critical pieces in the Raptors’ current run.

“No one on this team is selfish; everyone accepts their roles,” Patterson told reporters after the Raptors outslugged Paul George, Roy Hibbert and the Pacers to kick off the New Year. “No one wants to get more shots, no one wants to do more of this, no one is jealous of another player … we all understand what we have to do in order to make this machine keep rolling smoothly.”

The man responsible for making sure that machine runs without a hitch, of course, is Ujiri. He understands, as well or better than most right now, that team chemistry trumps just about everything else that goes on inside a team’s fabric in this day and age. Even the Miami Heat needed a year (and a Finals defeat at the hands of a Mavericks team that had off the charts chemistry) to figure that out.


VIDEO: The Raptors took it to the Pacers, kicking off 2014 in style before the home crowd

Belinelli, Most Improved Shooter

Marco Belinelli is shooting 57 percent from 3-point range (D. Clarke Evans/NBAE )

Marco Belinelli is shooting 57 percent from 3-point range. (D. Clarke Evans/NBAE )

The List

Biggest improvement, effective field-goal percentage

2012-13 2013-14
Player FGA eFG% FGA eFG% Diff.
Marco Belinelli 610 46.0% 140 63.6% 17.6%
Michael Beasley 766 43.4% 119 58.4% 15.0%
Andre Iguodala 879 50.2% 110 65.0% 14.8%
Jodie Meeks 530 50.2% 198 61.9% 11.7%
Wesley Matthews 808 54.0% 238 64.9% 10.9%
Tony Allen 638 44.8% 128 55.1% 10.3%
Jeremy Lin 897 49.0% 155 57.7% 8.7%
Spencer Hawes 811 48.3% 236 57.0% 8.7%
Markieff Morris 653 44.2% 196 52.0% 7.9%
Klay Thompson 1,205 50.9% 352 58.7% 7.8%

Minimum 500 FGA in 2012-13 and 100 FGA in 2013-14
EFG% = (FGM + (0.5 * 3PM)) / FGA

The Context

It’s interesting how a different team can make a player better. The top two guys on this list went from bottom-10 offensive teams last season to top-10 offensive teams this season. Marco Belinelli went from the Rose-less Bulls to the Spurs, while Michael Beasley went from the Suns to the Heat. Andre Iguodala was part of a top-five offense last season, but the Warriors certainly space the floor a lot better than the Nuggets did.

Speaking of floor spacing, Belinelli is shooting a ridiculous 30-for-53 (57 percent) from 3-point range after going 2-for-3 in Tuesday’s win in Toronto. He’s also shooting 51 percent from inside the arc.

Is it a product of the system? Do Tony Parker‘s pick-and-roll brilliance and the Spurs’ ball movement produce more open shots for Belinelli?

First of all, only 54 of Belinelli’s 140 shots have come with Parker on the floor. He actually has shot better with Parker on the bench. He’s played more minutes with Patty Mills as his point guard and has been assisted 22 times by Manu Ginobili. Mills’ improvement, Ginobili’s resurrection and Belinelli’s shooting are big reasons why the Spurs are 16-4 despite an underperforming starting lineup.

According to SportVU, 61 percent of Belinelli’s shots have been uncontested* this season, a jump from 56 percent last season. But the jump is all in his 2-point attempts. In the 20 Bulls games that were tracked by SportVU last season, none of Belinelli’s 47 2-point attempts were uncontested. This season, 42 of his 87 2-point attempts have been uncontested.

*Uncontested: The nearest defender is at least four feet away.

Both years, most of his 3-point attempts (87 percent last season and 83 percent this season) have been uncontested. But he’s shooting them much better with the Spurs. He’s also 6-for-9 on contested threes this year.

So it’s very possible that this is just a fluky start to the season for Belinelli. Or maybe there’s something in the Riverwalk water.

There is one more aspect to Belinelli’s shooting that SportVU can clue us in on: whether he’s shooting more off the catch or off the dribble.

In games tracked by SportVU last season, 60 percent of Belinelli’s shots were catch-and-shoot. This season, that number is up to 75 percent. But again, he’s shooting much better on those catch-and-shoot jumpers this year.

While the Spurs run the most beautiful offense in the league and that offense certainly makes players look better than they would elsewhere, it’s hard to believe that Belinelli’s shooting numbers are very sustainable.

The Video

Here’s video of Belinelli’s six 3-point attempts against the Rockets on Nov. 30. One was a half-court heave, three were wide-open looks on feeds from Ginobili, one was a semi-heat-check, and the last was a rushed shot with the Spurs down four in the closing seconds. If you’re a Spurs fan, you have to love the way Ginobili has been playing.

And if you really like your meatballs spicy, here are all 30 of Belinelli’s made 3-pointers this season.

The bottom of the list

Kosta Koufos is the anti-Belinelli, with a regression of 13.6 percent. That mark edges out Kevin Garnett (-12.7 percent), Jerryd Bayless (-11.4 percent), Patrick Patterson (-10.6 percent) and Tyreke Evans (-9.4 percent). Koufos had an effective field-goal percentage of 58.1 percent on 508 shots with Denver last season and is at 44.5 percent on 146 shots with Memphis this season.

Trivia question

To qualify for the above list, you had to have attempted at least 500 shots last season. There are five players who had at least 500 field-goal attempts last season and have not played a game this season. Four of them are on rosters and are injured: Carlos Delfino, Danilo Gallinari, Carl Landry and Emeka Okafor. Can you name the fifth?

Random notes

  • Chris Paul has 84 assists to Blake Griffin this season and no other combination has nearly that number. Next on the list of teammate-to-teammate assists is Jeff Teague and Al Horford, who have hooked up for 62 of Horford’s buckets.
  • Paul, Griffin and the Clippers have the No. 1 home offense, scoring 111.2 points per 100 possessions in 10 home games. But they have just the 17th best road offense, scoring only 100.9 points per 100 possessions in 12 road games. Their differential of 10.3 isn’t the biggest in the league. That belongs to the Mavs, who have scored 10.9 more points per 100 possessions at home than they have on the road.
  • The biggest defensive differential belongs to the Rockets, who have allowed 14.9 fewer points per 100 possessions at home. Houston ranks third defensively at home and 28th on the road. The good news is that they have the No. 1 road offense.
  • Deron Williams returned to the Nets’ lineup against Boston on Tuesday and Brooklyn played its best offensive game of the season, scoring about 116 points per 100 possessions against what was a top-10 defense. Point guards are important.

Trivia answer

Shannon Brown, who attempted 571 shots for the Suns last season. He was sent to the Wizards in the Marcin Gortat trade and was waived before the season.

Report: Gay Traded To Kings In 7-Player Deal


VIDEO: Raptors deal Rudy Gay as part of a seven-player swap

SACRAMENTO, Calif. – The Kings made a risky reach for immediate credibility and agreed to acquire Rudy Gay, his bloated contract and his ever-declining shooting from the Raptors in a seven-player deal Sunday that is mostly a salary dump for Toronto.

The Raptors will get Greivis Vasquez, Patrick Patterson, John Salmons and Chuck Hayes, with only Hayes ($5.9 million) and Salmons (a $1-million buyout on his $7 million guaranteed) on the books next season. Aaron Gray and Quincy Acy are also headed to Sacramento as the new management team continues to follow through on plans to aggressively pursue deals, so aggressive that the Kings just countered two moves made in the five months since Pete D’Alessandro was hired as general manager.

The Kings got Vasquez from New Orleans as part of the three-team deal that sent Tyreke Evans to the Pelicans in a sign-and-trade, started him at point guard, and now traded him 18 games into the season, returning Isaiah Thomas to the opening lineup. And, the Kings traded for Derrick Williams on Nov. 26, said they were committed to him as the starter at small forward, and now bring in Gay four games later, unless they have another immediate deal in place for Gay.

Gay is a name, has an active run of six consecutive full seasons of averaging at least 18 points a game and, whether with Williams or in place of Williams, addresses what had been the biggest position need for the Kings. But it says something that he has been traded twice in 10 1/2 months, including when the Grizzlies were willing to break up a lineup with a proven history of long playoff runs and now by a Toronto team trying to build something.

Gay will make $17.8 million this season and has a player option worth $19.3 million for 2104-15 that he almost certainly will exercise. After mostly shooting between 45 percent and 47 percent earlier in his career, though, the 6-foot-9, 220-pounder dropped to 41.6 percent last season with the Grizzlies and Raptors and is all the way down to 38.8 the first 18 games of 2013-14.

The deal will not become official until a trade call with the league on Monday, but Gay, Acy and Gray were all out of uniform Sunday night as the Raptors played the Lakers in Los Angeles, indicating the terms of the move that could save Toronto some $12 million next season were set.