THE SOPHOMORES ARE SHINING
March was a good month overall for the Toronto Raptors. The team went 10-6, clinched a playoff spot, and maintained its lead atop the Atlantic Division standings. Credit for that success was partly due to second-year players Terrence Ross and Jonas Valanciunas.
I wrote a while back that down the final stretch of the season it would be important for both the Raptors and Valanciunas to get the 6’11″ center more involved in the game. Staying out of foul trouble was step one, but giving the Big V touches in the low post was also something I saw as motivation for him to be more assertive at the defensive end and on the glass.
Valanciunas was given that chance to succeed in March and he certainly delivered. In 15 games played, he posted averages of 12.2 points and 8.5 rebounds in 29.6 minutes per game. The 21-year-old did this with a high degree of efficiency, connecting on 60.5 percent of his field goal attempts and 84.8 percent of his free throws.
Ross also appeared in 15 games in March and registered a double-figure scoring average of 11.9 points per game. When the Raptors defeated the Boston Celtics on Mar. 26, Ross poured in a team-high 24 points on a tidy 9-for-16 from the field, including five 3-pointers. His athleticism at both ends of the floor has been a major plus for the Raptors.
THIS TEAM HAS A SECRET WEAPON
It is definitely not breaking news to say that the Raptors have a formidable starting five, with the dynamic duo of DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry, the aforementioned Valanciunas and Ross, and Amir Johnson — the team leader in heart and hustle.
The bench has also been a big reason for where the Raptors find themselves today: on their way to the playoffs and battling for home-court advantage.
Patrick Patterson, who was limited to three games in March because of an elbow injury, brings defense, rebounding, and a surprising outside shooting touch, while Greivis Vasquez provides a steady hand and scoring touch from the point guard position when Lowry needs a rest.
However, there is one player in particular who I want to highlight, that being Steve Novak.
When the Raptors acquired Novak from the New York Knicks, the trade immediately looked favorable simply because Andrea Bargnani was heading the other way. On top of that, though, was the fact that the 6’10″ Novak is a sharp-shooting, 3-point specialist.
In the lockout-shortened 2011-12 season, Novak finished third in the league in 3-pointers made (133) and his 3-point shooting percentage (47.2) was tops among all players that season. He followed that up in the 2012-13 campaign by draining a career-high 145 buckets from beyond the arc.
Fast-forward to this season where Novak has only appeared in 49 games and averaged only 10 minutes per contest, but has still managed to chip in with 51 3-pointers at a rate of 44.7 percent.
Novak’s best performance of the season was on Mar. 9 in a 111-104 victory over the Minnesota Timberwolves. That night he scored a season-high 15 points, hitting five of his six 3-point attempts.
Just to hammer home the extent to which Novak is a specialist — he is six-for-20 on 2-point field goal attempts in 2013-14, so hanging around the 3-point line is definitely his thing.
Novak will likely never wow you with his defense or rebounding abilities, but his accuracy and knack for situational shooting is an asset that could pay big dividends in the playoffs.
FRANCHISE RECORD STILL WITHIN REACH
Heading into Wednesday night’s game against the Houston Rockets, the Raptors carry an overall record of 42-32 and are in need of six more wins to eclipse their franchise record of 47.
The Raptors would have to finish out the season 6-2 to accomplish this goal — a feat that may seem far-fetched, but is still very much a possibility. To do this, though, the Raptors would definitely need to earn a split of the next two games at home versus the Rockets and the Indiana Pacers.
From there, the road gets a little easier as the remaining schedule after that sees them face the Bucks (twice), the Knicks (twice), the Sixers, and the Pistons. But even more important than aiming for the record books is that the Raptors may need to get to 48 wins just to hold onto the division lead. After beating the Rockets 105-96 on Tuesday, the Brooklyn Nets are 40-33 and just 1.5 games behind the Raptors.