I’ve been off for the past month, working like Kyle Lowry on defense to finish a project two years in the making. Like Lowry, I got a little surly at times and tough to deal with, but it’s done and I’m back to discuss everything Toronto Raptors as the playoffs, and draft, near. The past month has been good in Toronto and they essentially have the same lead in the Atlantic Division that they had at the beginning of March. The Raptors haven’t fallen off and the guys they’ve had to count on all year have continued to deliver. After a month of no commentary from me, I could look forward and start previewing bigger things. But, I noticed a couple things in the past month that I want to address in this column. Regardless of whatever nitpicking I do, this team is trending up, and I am certain that the Eastern Conference is on notice.
Solid since March 1, but those Nets … : The Raptors are 13-6 since the beginning of March, with wins over Houston and Indiana in that span (although that Indiana win looks a bit more ho-hum now, no?). They currently have a two-game lead in the Atlantic Division, but only because the Brooklyn Nets have risen up, going 16-5 during the same period. It’s a commendable run, but one that I anticipated given the veteran presence on that team. While I was laughing at the ineptitude of Jason Kidd and his deer-in-the-headlights look and, um, tactics, I still had to admire their collection of accomplished players. I thought they would turn it on down the stretch and they have. Toronto hasn’t been able to relax. The Knicks haven’t posed even a semblance of a challenge even though I figured they would get it together, if only a little bit. The Raptors will hold on and win the division. I also wonder whether Phil Jackson will abandon his post in quick order with some sort of health concern when it dawns on him exactly how daunting a task he has on his hands in New York.
Continued inconsistency from Valanciunas: One of my last columns before my hiatus had detailed that Jonas Valanciunas had gone through wild swings of playing time, shots, and points that made no sense to me. He would have a five or six game stretch where he would play 35 minutes and have double figure shots followed by a five game run of three or four shots in a game without being burdened by foul trouble. That trend continued in March. Coming off a stretch in late February where Valanciunas had two, two, and three shots in a four-game period, he started March with five straight games of single-digit shot attempts. Valanciunas then followed that with 15- and 23-point games where he had double-digit shots. But the aggressive trend didn’t follow the earlier passive trends. In his next 10 games, eight of them were single-digit shot games even though the efficiency is high regardless of the output. To me, no stat could be more frustrating. Valanciunas shot 61 percent from the field in March but only averaged 7.9 shots a game for the month. He was 85 percent from the free throw line but only averaged 3.1 attempts per game there! I’ve seen too many games where Valanciunas goes 3-for-4 in the first quarter and ends up 5-for-7 by the end of the game.
This is unforgiveable and if the trend continues into the playoffs, it will be an ideal scenario for whoever draws the Raptors. Since the start of 2014, the Raptors are 11-3 in games where Valanciunas has double-digit shot attempts. It’s crazy that the so-called “untouchable” player on this team has only had 14 games of double-digit shots out of 48. It would be one thing if his efficiency was holding the Raptors back; it isn’t. However, there has been a recent uptick. I obviously know better than to get our hopes up, but Valanciunas has scored in double figures in seven straight games and is averaging 11 shots a game in the young April, at 66 percent no less. Of course, a DUI isn’t going to help his cause in the confidence department.
So the playoffs are nearing and we have the same principal concern that I had a month ago. Color us cock-eyed optimists, but I do believe coach Dwane Casey will make this a more Valanciunas-centered offense when the playoffs roll around. He simply can’t ignore the numbers, can he?