There’s a different feeling in the air at the Air Canada Centre these days. No telling how long it’ll last, but right now everyone is feeling good. Lighter, happier, less pressured. It’s a nice way to kick off the new year. With wins in eight of their last nine games, for the first time this season, the Raptors get to answer questions about winning basketball games and doing things right rather than thinking of new ways to say the same things about trying to turn things around.
Yep, that’s right. The tide has turned. For now, at least.
After a 23-point victory against the Portland Trail Blazers in their first game of a six-game home stand, there were plenty of smiles and talk was of team basketball. The talk hasn’t been empty, though. The Raptors are playing their best basketball of the season and look more together than anyone on the outside could have predicted less than a month ago.
Instead of falling apart during that brutal west coast swing, the team came together — in a big way.
While they were able to take care of the Blazers with ease on Wednesday night, they know that the Sacramento Kings and DeMarcus Cousins will be a handful on Friday evening.
“We have to play him head up,” Amir Johnson said about the talented third-year big man. “It’s going to be a man’s game playing against him. We’re just going to have to play him hard. Sic AG (Aaron Gray) on him, me and Ed Davis, we’re all going to have to do a collective job of guarding him. It’s going to be a tough matchup.”
Support from teammates helping Ross’ confidence
Knowing that your teammates are confident in you and want you to be aggressive can go a long way for rookies. Amir Johnson talked about Ross’ confidence and said that he’s become much more comfortable on the court because he knows that both his coach and teammates want him to be aggressive. Taking things a step further, Johnson threw all of his support behind his rookie and said that the team’s encouragement of him isn’t going anywhere.
“It helped me when I had a bunch of vets on the team building my confidence,” Johnson said. “It’s huge for him. We’re always going to stay on him. We’re never going to let him down. We’re going to keep helping him.”
After scoring 26 points in 24 minutes against the Blazers last night, Ross talked about getting comfortable with the speed of the NBA game and pointed to the positive reinforcement and encouragement he’s getting from his teammates.
“I think his confidence is just building more and more,” Johnson said. “Coach definitely wants him to shoot the ball and we tell him all the time just shoot the ball. His confidence is building. He’s going to give us that energy. He’s athletic. He’s going to give us his athleticism all game so he’s just more confident.”
The duo of DeMar DeRozan and Terrence Ross
Helping to make things easier for the Raptors as of late has been the play of DeMar DeRozan and Ross. Both swingmen have been playing with a lot of confidence and, most importantly, are putting points on the board in an efficient manner. Against the Blazers, the two combined for 50 points on a stellar 19-for-31 from the field.
Dwane Casey said the next step for Ross is to figure out the balance of when to shoot and when to pass. While he’s getting better at being aggressive and taking his shots, at times, he is still looking to pass when his coach would rather him take the shot himself.
“He has the green light. Teams are going to start playing him aggressively. He has to recognize when he has that three-point shot or when do I attack or when do I go into draw-and-kick mode. Teams are not going to let you just come off freely like you’re out in the park by yourself and have the green (light) … and shoot ‘em up. But he’s done a heck of a job. He was red hot last night, white hot. We had him coming off screens. We ran plays for him. The players were even making him do pushups for every point he made in the locker room after the game. That was pretty good.”
Casey also singled out the team’s reaction after Ross drilled a buzzer-beating three-pointer to close the first half, saying, “I thought a great point last night was right at halftime. He fell on the floor and made that shot. The entire team went out and helped him up. That’s what the team is all about. That’s what we’re trying to create.”
The relationship between DeRozan and Ross is a good one. DeRozan said he tries to help the rookie however he can, and he knows all too well how much faster the game seems when you first make the jump to the pros. Casey talked about their practice matchups, saying, “They go at each other. He and Terrence go at each other every day in practice. DeMar’s experience right now gets him. He understands the game and understands how he can get the young kid. But the young fella can shoot it. The goal is always open to him. They go at each other pretty well. DeMar is just more polished right now and knows how to play the game and the game within the game. That’s where Terrence is learning.”
Talking about DeRozan, Casey said of everything he has added to his game, his overall efficiency is the most impressive part of his performance this season.
“Before last year, he had to get up a lot of shots to get his points,” Casey said. “This year he’s more efficient in understanding shot selection, draw-and-kicks, getting to the rim versus taking the jumpshot and not just going in and flinging up something, hoping to get a foul and not getting it and getting frustrated. That would take him out of the game. He’s playing more of an efficient game, I think.”
As for what DeRozan needs to work on next, not surprisingly, Casey talked defence.
“Defensively, he still can get better,” Casey said. “He’s strong enough and athletic enough to guard any twos or threes in this league. Just make sure he stays focused on that end of the floor. He does a good job of rebounding. But just defensively, guarding his guy, guarding his yard is where he can make an improvement.”