Toronto Raptors 95, Philadelphia 76ers 84

If we had lost that game would you have written off this team? No, of course not. So let’s not get carried away after one win either, even though it happened to be the most impressive regular season win this franchise had registered in six years. Yes, six years. Excuse me if I’m giggling like a little schoolgirl but I haven’t seen a Raptors defense man the paint that well since Oakley and Davis. Yes, Oakley and Davis. I haven’t seen a Raptors player execute a legitimate professional post-up move since Vince used to take pathetic little guards and drive his shoulder into them until his shoulder was touching the rim. Yes, not since Vince.

There is a stat in this game which I fail to comprehend and am barely able to explain. We were outmanned by 23 rebounds – 56-33. Now if you had told me that we’d get killed on the boards that bad and still register a convincing victory on the road I would’ve taken you to be soft in the head and tried to sell you my Merrill Lynch shares. As was being discussed in the live blog I put out the theory that many of the rebounds Philadelphia was getting were of the Moses Malone type. You know, get four rebounds on one possession where you don’t even end up scoring. That appeared to be the case with Samuel Dalembert who ended up having 17 rebounds which all seemingly came in the first quarter and didn’t go unnoticed by their media. The offensive rebounding numbers were even for the last three quarters which showed that the Raptors had some very serious early jitters which they overcame by quarter #2. If that doesn’t make up for the rebounding difference than I think Philly’s 34.5% shooting compared to our 44% definitely does.

During that first quarter Jermaine O’Neal looked rusty and got dominated by Dalembert on the glass. Brand faced up Bosh and got scores on him and…and…well, that was about it. Philly only shot 6/15 in the first quarter which reprieved the Raptors’ 4/15 shooting. Had Philly been able to extend their lead during this crucial period we might’ve seen a different outcome to the game but as it turned out, the Raptors regrouped in the second quarter and made it a point to establish Jermaine O’Neal in the paint. The rest they say is history. With O’Neal displaying a plethora of moves including post-ups, mid-range jumpers and even a blow-by of Samuel Dalembert, order was restored and the Raptors offense started to click. Most impressive about O’Neal’s defense and his willingness to step in for charges, aggressively challenge guards who drove the lane and fight for rebounds. For the first time in a long time I felt comfortable that a guard driving to our key would be met with a force that was capable of repelling him consistently. Don’t get fooled by O’Neal’s lone block in the boxscore, he altered at least five shots and made the Philly guards think twice about how to finish when he was around the paint. A 17/8 night from O’Neal will likely not be the norm but we’ll take as many as we can get.

Chris Bosh was once again the hardest working Raptor on the court. After the initial mess that was the first quarter Bosh returned to his Olympian style of play and literally gave the 110% he’s been talking about. He wrestled away rebounds from would-be offensive rebounders and was belligerent in trying to finish his post moves with authority. Bosh ended up writhing his way to two huge dunks in that crucial 2nd/3rd quarter stretch after he had caught the ball in the post in less than favorable positions. Sometimes a dunk sends a message that says FUCK OFF MAN, I OWN THIS RIM and that’s what CB4 was saying when he dunked around Dalembert. All game long I counted only two bad Bosh shots – both long range jumpers (which he was otherwise making) that were the first option in the set. I’ve also noticed that he’s added a foot or two to his shooting range and feels very confident in taking the jumper when given space. Not hesitate in the least bit. Bosh’s work on the glass has become so good that we don’t even talk about it anymore, his 11 rebounds on a night where Philly was desperately assaulting the offensive glass need to be commended. Later he spoke about being aggressive and not settling, something I’d like to see over the course of a season not a game here and a game there:

“I wanted to be more aggressive. It was kind of like a chess match with me. If I do have an open shot, of course I’m going to take it, I’m not going to hesitate. The coaches are staying on me about settling, I want to keep the pressure on guys, I don’t want them to just be able to check my shot all night. I want them to have to move their feet.”

In the pre-game post and with my interview with Tim Chisholm I alluded to the fact that Philadelphia’s second unit isn’t exactly top notch and the entire team is a tad bit overrated because everyone’s making their predictions for them based on half a good season and an off-season acquisition coming off major injury, sound familiar? Well, we saw in this game how bad the Sixers are capable of playing once you take away their drives to the rim by congesting the painted area with enough bodies where they’re not just laying the ball in but meeting with the likes of Bosh and O’Neal. If that’s not completely shutting them down, take away the break and you’ve then eliminated their easy points leaving them with one option – bombs away from the perimeter which they happen to be very crappy at (11-33 FG from Iggy and Miller). Elton Brand is a great player but he can be neutralized by one of Bosh (quicker than him) or O’Neal (bigger than him) and once you add all this together and you have a winning formula against the Sixers. More from the Philly perspective.

A word about Sam Mitchell’s coaching. After Philly made their fourth quarter run (inevitable in the NBA) primarily through transition scores, the Raptors were facing a clutch possession at 90-84. Coming out of a timeout I was expecting a post-up of O’Neal or Bosh for a high percentage shot or a kick-out to a player left open by the double, something that was working like butter all night long (Bosh and JO with 8 assists combined and that’s not even counting the shots made after the swing sequences). Instead we ran the same “play” as the one we ran in Game 2 against the Magic when we were down 1 – give the ball to Bosh, don’t run any screens for him and have him take a 19 footer. The only difference? He made it. Close call, I’ll take it but next time let’s try to run some shit instead of playing Bosh’s 19 footer percentages.

Roko Ukic was impressive and if we see a few more games like these we can safely release Will Solomon and send him back to his resting place – Mike James’ body. Ukic showed patience by not picking up his dribble under pressure (dare I say almost Nash-like), displayed composure when running 3-2 and 4-3 semi-breaks and made two very nice low seeing-eye passes off the pick ‘n roll for scores. His lone dumb play came at the end of the third quarter when he fouled Lou Williams for three shots. Other than that he spelled Calderon beautifully in that second quarter when the Raptors made their big run. With a little experience and understanding of how quickly NBA defenses can adjust to what you’re trying to do he can play backup point guard. He often makes the mistake of underestimating the speed and reach of defenders and gets his shot blocked or turns the ball over because he’s honestly surprised that what used to work in Europe doesn’t necessarily work here. His shot is a work in progress and teams will soon figure out that all you need to do is tempt him to shoot in order to take away his aggressive drives, hopefully by then he’ll make them pay for it.

Bargnani’s 0-4 night with 5 rebounds is easy to overlook because we won but keep in mind that its not as bad as it looks in the boxscore. Yes, he was caught ball-watching a couple times but his two blocks came in that key second quarter run which opened up the game for us. His jumpers were rimming out but he didn’t sulk and become a total non-factor like he woud’ve done last year. Instead he continued to play hard, set good screens and managed to grab five tough rebounds – there were no easy rebounds tonight. We’ll give Bargnani a pass because its not like he took bad shots or made bad decisions on the court – his shots just missed, that’s really it. Last year he looked like a lost soul on the court looking over his shoulder every time the whistle blew, today he looked confident, did the right things on the court and got rewarded with a well deserved +10. Seriously, I’m not even joking, he had a half-decent game. The great negative on the night was the man-defense of Calderon and Parker who could not keep anyone in front of them and if it weren’t for O’Neal and Bosh behind them this game could’ve turned ugly for us.

The much maligned duo of Anthony Parker and Jamario Moon had mediocre games that were covered up in the great play of Bosh and O’Neal. Moon was active but ended up doing little more than hitting a couple jumpers and getting an early block and a steal but you’ll take that from him because he only played 24 minutes instead of his usual 33. Why did he play less? Because Kapono was on. After passing up a few jumpers early on, Kapono realized that Philly’s defense is far from suffocating if the ball is moving on the court and since the Raptors were busy swinging the ball around after Bosh and O’Neal doubles, Kapono got his looks and drained them. Parker chipped in with some big pressure-lifting threes that kept Philly at bay. After the game Bosh said in plain speak: You have to double O’Neal or myself and our shooters will be open. Basketball sure is a simple game.

Joey got in the second quarter and did a typical “Joey drives to his right and into the paint and tries to finish strong” move followed by a “Joey attacks the rim, misses the layup but fights hard to get the ball back and finished what he started” move. Those two scores got you out of your seat and his next two “moves” which were just ill-advised jumpers put you back in your seat and made you wonder when Parker or Moon would return.

So, the Raptors struggle early. Regroup starting in the second quarter through a commitment to defense and by running their offense inside-out. Philadelphia fails to counter the Raptors defense because they can’t shoot and we get enough complimentary clutch scoring through our wings (Kapono 15, Calderon 13) to make O’Neal and Bosh’s effort count for something. It’s only one game but its a damn good start and it feels really good that our set of twin towers outplayed their on their home court. Take that Lang Whitaker for picking Philly over us. Props to Tim Chisholm for correctly predicting tonight’s outcome.

Remember that you can check out pictures, video and player ratings from last night’s game right here on RR.

Later!

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