Months of suffering may finally be coming to an end; there are only four games left in the 2013-14 New York Knicks season. The Knicks have roughly a 2.4 percent chance of making the postseason. The Knicks obviously need this one, so to get a better idea of what the Knicks are up against tonight I brought in William Lou of Raptors Republic and Adam Francis of Raptors HQ.
The Raptors have won seven of their last eight games coming into tonight. What’s been the key to their late-season surge?
William: When you factor in the relative ease of their schedule (Bucks, Sixers, Celtics x2, Magic), their recent success is right in line with their post-Gay performance. The Raptors did pick up a pair of impressive victories against the Pacers and Rockets without two of their most important players in Kyle Lowry and Amir Johnson, but the Rockets were short three-fifths of their starting staff, and the Pacers apparently suck now.
That being said, in the absence of Lowry and Johnson, Greivis Vasquez and Jonas Valanciunas have stepped up their output on offense. Vasquez led the league in total assists last year with the Hornets (RIP), so his play isn’t a surprise, but Jonas is playing the best basketball of his career. Over the last 8 games, Valanciunas is averaging 17.8 points and 10.1 rebounds per game on 66.7% shooting from the field. Granted, some of those numbers are inflated by a recent outing against the Sixers — where he set a career high in points with 26, while chipping in 12 rebounds — but he’s managed to maximize his production by simplifying the game: outwork, outrun, sprint, set legal screens, step to, and box-out.
Adam: I think the schedule in all honesty has a lot to do with the recent success as the Raptors haven’t been great in many of these latter games, especially on the defensive end. Toronto has beaten the Celtics (twice), the Bucks, the Magic and the 76ers during that span – not exactly Murderer’s Row – a short-handed Rockets’ squad, and the Pacers, who are in a slight nosedive. Against some of the league’s upper tier clubs, I fear the results would look a lot different.
That being said, the club has fought through injuries of their own and have a mental tenacity that’s been absent from this franchise in recent seasons. Even if the club gets down early, as has been the case in many of these recent contests, they almost always roar back late in games, something echoed by their fourth-quarter point differential mark, best in the league.
The Raptors are 10th in both offensive and defensive efficiency this season. What makes this team so good on both ends of the floor?
William: Toronto loves to use horns, followed by a pick-and-roll to set up their offense. Their sets usually start with Amir Johnson and Jonas Valanciunas lining up on the elbows. Amir steps up to screen-and-roll with Lowry, while Jonas dives, and sets up a down-screen near the baseline. From there, DeMar DeRozan and Terrence Ross usually weave in-and-out, curling around screens before spotting up along the perimeter. Ross’ favorite spot on the floor is the left-corner (where he shoots 47.1% on the season), and DeRozan likes to do his damage from the mid-range. If all that fails, Lowry and DeRozan reset, and try to attack from the perimeter. As a whole, the Raptors’ offense thrives in the half-court, and they struggle if goaded into playing a less structured, more up-tempo style.
Defensively, the Raptors don’t do anything particularly special. For the most part, they play a conservative style, they rarely use the big to trap in pick-and-roll situations, they run shooters off the three-point line, and they try to contest every shot at the rim. Amir Johnson is the lynchpin that makes the defense function, as he is a mini Tyson Chandler (circa 2012) of sorts. His length and mobility allows him to hedge hard on the perimeter, while also being able to recover and contest shots at the rim.
Adam: On offense, the club has a nice balance now with its starting group, able to score fairly efficiently in close thanks to guys like Amir Johnson and Jonas Valanciunas, stretch the floor thanks to the emergence of Terrence Ross, and even play in between thanks to Kyle Lowery’s forays into the paint, and DeMar DeRozan’s mid-range abilities. The Raptors do a nice job getting to the free-throw line (DeMar DeRozan is sixth in the NBA in free-throw attempts per game) and have excellent offensive rebounding at a number of positions, giving the club second-chance opportunities. All in all, their effectiveness on O I would say is thanks mostly to this nice balance of options.
Defensively, Dwane Casey has always had solid systems in place but this season, he’s got the personnel who are not only able to really execute on it, but also willing to do so, something that wasn’t always the case in the past. (See Bargnani, Andrea.) Now more than ever, Casey’s got length and athleticism at a number of spots, has more rim protection than he’s had during his Raptors’ tenure, and has a club that rarely gives up second-chance opportunities. (10th best rebounding rate in the league.)
Also. THE RAPTORS HAVE TYLER HANSBROUGH.
The Raptors starting starting five of Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan, Terrence Ross, Amir Johnson and Jonas Valanciunas has been incredibly dominant this season — +/- of +64 — while their original starting five that had Rudy Gay instead of Ross was -43. What changed?
William: The difference is the switch from Rudy Gay to Terrence Ross. Gay is tremendously talented, gifted with size, athleticism and quickness, but he simply couldn’t fit into the Raptors’ schemes. All the horns, and spot-ups described earlier didn’t take place when Gay was in Toronto. Rather, the Raptors would just hand the ball to Gay, and run isolation sets. For all his talents, Gay is no Carmelo Anthony. In his 18 games as a Raptor, Gay posted a true-shooting percentage of 46.8, and he used up 30.8% of Toronto’s possessions while he was on the court.
The Rudy Gay trade freed up swaths of possessions, and more importantly, it put the ball into the hands of Kyle Lowry. Rather than non-stop isolation, Lowry initiated pick-and-rolls, and as the trigger man, he was able to leverage his playmaking abilities into good looks for his teammates, and a career year for himself (just in time for free-agency!).
Adam: Simply put, Rudy Gay. Gay never meshed well with the bulk of the remaining quartet’s skillsets, especially on offence, rendering some redundant, and relegating others to much lesser roles than were likely deserved. The result was a fairly inefficient offense -not to mention one that was EXTREMELY painful to watch- often having possessions deteriorate into Rudy Gay going one-on-five up against an expiring shot clock.
The removal of Gay had a two pronged effect in that it not only got the ball moving again on offense, but also allowed players to fit more into their natural roles at both ends of the court. The team began creating easier and more efficient scoring opportunities, and I think as a result, overall offensive confidence was given a big shot in the arm, something you’ve seen in the individual games of players like Terrence Ross (Mr. 51 points) and DeMar DeRozan (All-Star!)
Which player plays a more pivotal role for the Raptors success : Lowry or DeRozan? Why?
William: In the abstract, Lowry is definitely a better player than DeRozan. He’s just as good of a scorer, a better passer, three-point shooter, rebounder, and most importantly, he’s a better defender. There’s a reason why Lowry ranks 8th in total Win Shares, ahead of the likes of Joakim Noah, Paul George, and even Carmelo Anthony.
However, the Raptors are incredibly thin at the wing, and they would struggle mightily to replicate DeRozan’s scoring output. DeRozan’s back-ups are 34-year-old John Salmons and the jumpshot-less Landry Fields, which in part explains why DeRozan has played the fourth most minutes in the NBA this season. Altogether, I’d say their contributions to this team are relatively equivalent, wherein Lowry is the better player, but DeRozan plays at a position of greater need.
Adam: In my opinion, it’s Kyle Lowry. While DeRozan has had a terrific year and has taken another big step forward in development, Lowry is the more complete basketball player, and the heart and soul of the club. On many an occasion he’s either willed his team to victory, or dragged them back from the dead kicking and screaming. Whether it’s providing a spark offensively, or taking a charge on D in a key moment, Lowry is the engine that makes this club go.
Who ultimately wins tonight and why?
William: I’m pegging the Raptors for an 8 point victory. I’m worried about Carmelo, as the Raptors have no one to guard him (expect John Salmons guarding Melo in the second quarter, and have yourselves a hearty chuckle, Knicks fans), but Toronto is the better team, and I expect Lowry to demolish his matchup with Raymond Felton. The Knicks also don’t defend the three-point line very effectively, so Terrence Ross and Patrick Patterson should find themselves open more times than not.
Adam: While I’m tempted to say that the Raptors win this one based on both teams’ overall body of work, I actually think based on Toronto’s play of late, this could be a loss for the Raps. As noted, the Dinos’ defence has been suspect lately, and against a Knicks team that sits only a hair behind Toronto in terms of offensive efficiency on the season, this could be trouble.
So I think whichever team decides play a bit more defense than the other gets this W and tonight, my gut says it’s the Knicks, who are desperately trying to grab a final playoff spot in the East.