Lewenberg: Novak making his presence felt with Raptors

Josh Lewenberg
11/23/2013 10:32:29 PM
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TORONTO - Raptors forward Steve Novak doesn't exactly blend into the crowd these days.

In support of prostate cancer and the Movember campaign, Novak has been wearing his contribution to the cause on his face.

"Everyone who sees me, they're not sure [whether] to take me seriously," Novak joked prior to Friday's win over Washington, his moustache 22-days-old.

A few weeks into his eighth NBA season, Novak is still getting comfortable with a new team but his presence is hard to ignore, on the court and off of it.

Acquired from the Knicks in the Andrea Bargnani trade this summer, Novak is one of the most dangerous offensive specialists in the game, something the Raptors are finding out more and more as the 30-year-old works his way back from a series of early-season injuries.

Since the start of the 2011-12 campaign, Novak has hit 286 threes - 16th most in the NBA over that span - and his 44 per cent clip from long range is ranked fourth.

After sitting out most of training camp nursing a sore thumb and missing six of the first nine games with a bad back, Novak's playing time has increased steadily in each of the last four contests. So too has his impact.

Without even touching the ball, the mere presence of Novak on the floor changes the complexion of Toronto's offence. Uncharacteristically, the veteran sharpshooter has knocked down just four of his 17 three-point attempts but his true impact - playing 34 minutes in the last two games, both wins - cannot be measured using a box score. "He creates instant spacing," Dwane Casey said on Thursday.

"He really made a big impact, opened up the floor," the Raptors' coach continued. "Teams in the league respect his ability to shoot the ball. Whether he makes the shot or not he is a threat."

As the Raptors' offence continues to evolve, Novak will become more valuable to the team's second unit. In back-to-back victories this week, the Raptors have benefited from better spacing, improved ball movement and timely outside shooting. At least some of that is an indirect result of having Novak on the court, where he is a plus-19 - the third best plus/minus on the team - in 61 minutes. The Novak-Terrence Ross pairing has been especially intriguing with their ability to stretch the floor. The two have shared the court for 30 minutes over the last couple games and Ross, a beneficiary of the attention Novak receives, has thrived. The sophomore has averaged 14.0 points in those games, shooting 11-of-18 from the field including 4-of-8 from three-point range.

Three-point shooting has long been an area of weakness for Toronto. Through 13 games, the Raptors rank 19th in the NBA shooting 34 per cent from long distance. They haven't finished in the top half of the league in three-point percentage since the 2009-10 season, the last year Chris Bosh was in Toronto preoccupying opposing defences.

"He's one of the best three-point shooters in the league," Casey said of Novak. "Now that he's healthy we want to make sure we utilize that."

Casey and the Raptors are still learning how to utilize Novak as a weapon off the bench, maximizing his strengths offensively while masking his defensive shortcomings. Novak's return to the lineup has forced Casey's hand defensively, where they've had to be more creative.

Although they used their zone defence sparingly Wednesday in Philadelphia, as the Raptors' coach pointed out the following day, they leaned on it heavily with Novak on the floor Friday. It helped them regain the lead in the fourth quarter after being outscored by 17 in the third.

"We have to do some special things for Steve and the whole league knows that," Casey admitted after the win over Washington. "We had to mix it up, our man [defence] wasn't working. We had to go to something else and it had to be our zone."

The Raptors are prepared for opposing teams to go at Novak, looking to exploit the veteran one-on-one. "Teams look to attack him," Casey knows, "which sometimes we invite." For Novak, this is nothing new. He's made a career out of it, or at least in spite of it.

"I think that statistically I've proven that I've never been a liability [on defence]," said Novak. "If there's going to be a one-on-one defence contest I'll probably lose and I'll be the first to admit that but as long as I have my teammates out there I know I'll be fine."

For his career, Novak has a defensive rating (an estimate of points allowed per 100 possessions) of 110, inferior to the league average but not the worst mark on the team. DeMar DeRozan has a rating of 111 through four NBA seasons.

"Honestly, defensively basketball's a team game," Novak emphasized. "I think the good team's know that when you get out of your offence and go individual and [start] going at guys it usually hurts them more than it helps them."

"So to be honest I think it's a good thing for us if they start picking who they're going to throw the ball to and not running offence. I think it probably works to our advantage."

Utilizing Novak to his fullest may take time to master. It's a give and take, as the Knicks learned during his mostly productive two-year tenure in New York. If he's deployed in situations that allow his unique and specific skill set to flourish he can become a lethal weapon off the Raptors' bench.

"It's my eighth year so I must be doing something right," he said with a smile.

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