Where’s the defense?

Chris Bosh was rendered ineffective by Andrew Bynum
Raptors 99, Lakers 112

Jermaine O’Neal didn’t play which resulted in Chris Bosh guarding Andrew Bynum and that right there changed the entire complexion of this game. You can go two ways on this take: Chris Bosh once again choked when playing a good team or guarding Bynum took away from Bosh’s offense. The answer doesn’t entirely fall into one of the two categories because Bynum did wear Bosh down and made him play a lot of defense but that should not stand as an excuse for a 4-13 night of which 9 were jumpers. With O’Neal’s big body not there the Raptors should’ve tried to exploit Bosh’s quickness advantage over Bynum and get him out of the game, especially after he picked up his first foul less than two minutes into the game. Bosh’s body is not designed to handle Bynum’s bulk and strength and in hindsight maybe it would’ve been better for the defensively improved Bargnani to take on Bynum and leave Bosh to deal with Gasol, a type of player he could handle more easily. At worst Bynum would’ve done to Bargnani what he did to Bosh and in the best case Bosh would’ve been available to score some points in an easier offensive matchup. The NBA’s a matchup game and we allowed our best player to be easily neutralized in this one.

The Lakers have two legitimate 7-footers in the lineup and they both play great help defense. Anytime Bosh tried to make a face-up move Gasol was waiting in the wings to challenge and/or a guard was looking to seal off the baseline before he even started to drive. Bosh did a decent enough job finding the doublers man through a skip or a cross-court pass setting up a lot of our offense but it wasn’t nearly enough to make up for our porous defense. He also had issues turning the ball over and wasn’t as effective negotiating the double-teams as he was against Atlanta. We needed a monster game from Bosh to have a shot in this one but ended up losing the big-man battle to Gasol and Bynum quite handily. Once our best player fails to win his matchup the rest of the team has to play flawlessly for us to even come close and flawless we were not.

Let’s look at some humbling and sobering statistics: Out-rebounded 54-36, fastbreak points 18-7, PINP 58-32 and second-chance points 30-10. Those numbers speak of complete domination in the paint and in transition. The only reason we were able to stay within a dozen for the better part of this game was because the Lakers turned the ball over 19 times and we made 11 threes, each one coming every time the Lakers threatened to pull away. The transition defense was the worst it has been all season, the Lakers were leaking out on every defensive rebound and we didn’t get back to force them into a half-court set. It was clear that playing transition defense was not part of the gameplan. We have trouble defending mediocre teams which play simple 2-3 sets so when you’re face-to-face with the triangle offense where there’s movement in all areas of the court our defensive foundation is rocked. We’re left scrambling and forced to help on everything because they have scoring options everywhere and worst of all the passers to get them the ball; we’re either closing out a shooter, trailing a cutter or fighting through a beautifully set screen. This is an offense predicated on movement where the assist or score can come from anyone. To slow this machine down you need to shorten the shot-clock by trapping, applying ball-pressure, maybe even a press so that once the Lakers get into their half-court set, they’re pressed for time and have less options to look for. We didn’t try to do anything to disrupt their flow and the Lakers executed their offense without impediment, our gameplan seemed to be to play simple man-defense which is not going to cut it against a complex offense like this. Take a look at their assist distribution: Kobe 7, Odom 6, Ariza 5, Fisher 4, Vujacic 4, all in all a total of 34 to the Raptors 23. Sam Mitchell talked about the horrible transition defense:

“It’s tough. Our guys know with those Gasol and Bynum in there, they can leak out. A couple of times, Kobe was at halfcourt before the shot went up. Those are things we have to get better at.”

I’m not sure that’s something we can improve because if we could, we would’ve done it by now. I find it hard to take anything from this game like some others are. Yes, we played a very good team and did some good things on offense but the defensive effort was so bad that it serves as a reminder that it’ll be hard for us to beat a good team unless we shoot better than 50% from the floor, something that doesn’t happen often enough for us. This team isn’t the offensive juggernaut that 05-06 team was and needs to up its defense to make up for the difference and so far we haven’t been able to do that. Granted, O’Neal’s absence is the variable that we think (hope?) can solve that problem but the willingness and desire to play defense is far from instilled on the team. Our transition defense has not improved an iota since the NJ series and regardless of how much talk surrounds around “getting back on D” and other nitty gritty but important details, the results on the floor never jive with the talk coming out of practice or the locker-room.

In the pre-game post I said that we needed to keep it close till the fourth quarter and rely on Bosh from there. Thanks to Parker’s hot shooting and we were down only 9 going into the fourth but it seemed like a lot more because of the way we were playing defense. We never looked like we could get a single stop that wasn’t because of an unforced turnover. There was no pressure on the Lakers offense at any point in this game and they were allowed to traverse through screens without bumps or bruises. Kobe was coasting in this game and only looked for his offense on a few occasions, notably when Joey Graham was put in the game. Graham’s impact on the game was far less than his two previous outings, he still played hard and tried to slash to the rim but in a game where you’re displaying so many flaws, one man’s performance hardly matters (unless you’re Bosh). Jamario Moon’s outing was far less aggravating than usual, he got schooled by Radmanovic in the first quarter but Moon countered by hitting some good in-rhythm shots and moving without the ball. Again, its the star players that need to step up first in these games, we shouldn’t be looking at Moon, Graham or Hump’s performances here.

Andrea Bargnani’s defense is impressive, he was taken to task by Gasol on a few occasions but overall he had a great defensive game. His shot’s not falling but he still managed to get 14 points and 11 rebounds, many of which didn’t fall into his lap. The four blocks were impressive and came off of man and help defense. He ran the break, didn’t settle for jumpers and drove the ball when he needed to. He took 11 jumpers of which only one could be deemed a bad shot. We will need more offense from him and shooting 5-14 will be unacceptable but given how poor he was last year and how much he’s improving in different areas on a game-by-game basis, I’m willing to cut him some slack. We’re 4-4 since he’s starting and 4-4 when he’s coming off the bench so the net effect of the move hasn’t paid off great dividends. I still prefer he starts because as crazy as it is saying this, we need his defense.

Jose Calderon needed to abuse the allegedly inferior Fisher on offense, Calderon is our second best player and we need him to play like our second best player, especially when the best player is being shut down. He needs to be less petulant and more concerned with enforcing himself through scoring. Statistically he had a nice little game, 12 points and 12 assists is nothing to be scoffed at but he’s supposed to do much more than that for us this year. The expectations for him are higher this season but so far he’s been very average. He did look to drive the ball more in this game and had success beating Fisher in the first quarter. Bosh was being smothered by Bynum and was being forced into uncomfortable fadeaways; Calderon should’ve seen this as a call for him to force Bynum away from Bosh and give CB4 some room to operate. It goes back to whether he can suck the defense and dish the rock and to be able to do that you need dribble-penetration. It’s a major component missing from our offense and we haven’t been able to replace that aspect of TJ Ford’s game through our starting or backup PGs.

Chris Bosh smiling on the bench at the end reminded me of Vince Carter, please don’t do that again. We needed the Lakers to be around 40-44% shooting to have a chance. They shot 51% to our 39%, our percentage dropped big time in the fourth quarter when garbage time came when even Hassan Adams got on the court. Note about Hassan, he’s the only NBA player I’ve seen who plays with a t-shirt underneath.

It’s hard to be too upset about the result because the Lakers are a great team and we aren’t even a good one yet. Maybe with O’Neal things would’ve been different. Maybe. What’s disconcerting is the defensive effort and lack of an idea of how to slow the Lakers down, I’m reluctant to blame Sam for the defensive problems because a lot of it is common sense. You have to get back on defense, it’s that simple, but at the same time you can’t just play simple predictable man-defense and expect to slow them down. For us to have a shot we needed to play with a defensive swagger which slowed the game down to Eastern Conference levels and then relied on our scorers to pull us through in the half-court. Zero on both counts and add 1 to the loss column. I’m not willing to let Chris Bosh off the hook so easily, it’s one thing to dominate the Atlantas and Charlottes, its an entirely different thing to perform against championship caliber teams and as much as it pains me to say this, he’s come up very short against Boston, Detroit and LA this season. Let’s keep the MVP talk on hold till we get that sorted out.

Check the Roll Call for more analysis than usual. On to Denver.

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