Play of the Game
Raptors 83, Thunder 91

Nobody should be surprised. The 2-24 Thunder might be the NBA’s worst team but they have more than enough talent, athleticism and heart to beat the Raptors. The only reason I was leaning towards the Raptors eking this out was the pre-game injury report on Chris Wilcox which had him listed as doubtful due to a dislocated finger, but he smelt blood, taped his fingers up and delivered 8 quality rebounds and 7 points to help propel the athletic Thunder past the hapless Raptors. The same old problems came back to bite us: bad transition defense leading to fastbreak points, inability to get key defensive rebounds and un-clutch late fourth quarter offense. Those are the specific things that lost us the game, the more general problem of course is bad shot selection (36% shooting), point-of-attack defense, lack of consistency from the wings and of course, the mother of them all, effort. This was supposed to be the one winnable game on the roadtrip and we managed to blow it by playing without the defensive effort required to beat any NBA team on the road. The only time our defense stepped up to the challenge was early in the fourth quarter when we erased their 9 point lead but at that point even if we had won the game it wouldn’t have meant a damn thing. The Thunder were the better team for 42 minutes of the game and outclassed us while looking really good. That’s the Raptors for you, making 2-24 teams look great.

It’s unfathomable how the Raptors can talk all the right stuff about intensity, defense, trust and all those sorts of buzz words after each practice and as soon as game time comes, fall behind by 14 points in a matter of minutes. Nothing the players say should be believed, the talk in yesterday’s papers was about focusing, staying the course, picking up the defense, executing on offense but all that was fluff. Save for a few plays here and there we saw none of that in that in this game. The Thunder started this game by pushing the issue on the break and forcing our guards to get back which they didn’t. Russell Westbrook’s a nice little player but if you set your mind to check him, he can be stopped. They were looking for their offense early in the shot-clock through trailing jumpers, quick perimeter one-on-one moves and drive ‘n kicks against Kapono and Calderon. Kevin Durant and Jeff Green nailed early jumpers and got their rhythm going after being setup by Westbrook who doubled his season average of assists with 8.

Our early offense was primarily perimeter oriented with the only thing going to the rim being Jermaine O’Neal’s post-up and a couple early Bosh efforts which were being stuffed by the OKC help. To his credit he tried to go inside early but when he realized that Collison and Green were up to the challenge, went back outside. Bosh’s waiting game with the ball allows the defense to get set which gives the help ample time to meet him when he does drive. Contrast his first-half play with his early fourth quarter play and you’ll notice one important thing: when he’s successful there’s no hesitation in his moves. Jose Calderon’s lack of vision and inability to create offense when the team is struggling is a cancerous problem that has no cure in sight. We’re used to quicker guards making him look like a pylon but the least he could do is make up for part of the damage done against him by carrying the scoring load and distributing effectively. Instead, he gets handily outplayed by a rookie who goes for 19/8 and controls the tempo of the game as Calderon goes for an inconsequential 8/8. The Thunder beat us 15-0 on first half fastbeak points thanks to Westbrook and Durant. What say you Jose?

We were right there the whole game. We just couldn’t finish. We have to keep working and believing in our team. I know it is tough. This wasn’t our best game. It was one of our worst.

Even if we did finish the game in the fourth quarter the theme of this recap would be very similar. The perimeter defense throughout the game, and especially in the first half, was beyond ridiculous. Westbrook was beating Calderon, Durant was beating Parker, Green was beating Bosh, and everybody was beating Kapono. We couldn’t control their pick ‘n roll because we don’t know how to hedge properly and allow the PG to split easily. The idea behind the hedge is to show help, prevent the dribble penetration and then recover. We only do the “show help” part. The pick ‘n roll defense was as bad as it was against Dallas as Westbrook, Durant, Mason and Green all used it to free themselves for easy jumpers from the elbow area. If they didn’t do that, they took advantage of the hedge man being caught in no-man’s land to drive to the rim and cause chaos in our defensive rotations. Same old story, nothing new. There were stretches in this game where we made them look like the Utah Jazz, no kidding. No NBA team can stop any other NBA team without putting a stop to dribble-penetration. Pure and simple, this falls directly on Colangelo’s head who has failed to assemble a wing rotation capable of slowing an NBA offense down. Remind me again what Hassan Adams is good for.

We don’t put any pressure on wing players to pick up their dribble and then can’t prevent the penetration which forces the help to come. Usually this results in kick-outs for open threes but tonight OKC punished us further by cutting baseline leaving the help defender exposed from behind resulting in alley-oops aplenty. When the help wasn’t there the penetrator finished with a flare and authority that could’ve demoralized Alexander the Great. Kevin Durant’s crossover on Anthony Parker and ensuing facial was the stuff of legends. Desmond Mason’s hop-step dunk on Jamario Moon could result in career-ending embarrassment. Jeff Green’s power-slam with 33 seconds left to ice the game as the Raptors’ red sea parted was the epitome of a broken defense…there are other examples too but I don’t have all night.

For every shot Bargnani makes he misses two but when you’re struggling as bad as the Raptors are that’s not a bad percentage. He got a couple hoops in the second quarter, Joey Graham gave us a spark off the bench and Kapono knocked down two jumpers to send us to the half -10. We only lost the second quarter by 1 point but it could’ve been much worse, Wilcox and his busted finger missed 4 FTs in the frame preventing this from being a laugher at the break. Overall the Thunder shot 16-27 from the line (59%). If they had lost the game that would’ve been the reason.

The second half starts with us stuck 10 on the road against the NBA’s worst team. We had shown that if we played aggressive offense we could get to the FT line and score points, the fix needed to be applied on the defensive end. No such luck, Westbrook was running circles around Calderon and Durant was setting up Green and Collison for clean looks inside as Bosh and Bargnani were forced to help the broken perimeter defender. Having Parker, Kapono and Calderon defend athletes of this caliber is a risky proposition and a disadvantage we have to concede every night, there’s no hope in hell that we contain any team with these three playing majority minutes in key positions. And that’s a fact!

Instead of Bosh attacking the rim every time against Green and Collison, he does it 1 out of 3 times. That’s a percentage any team is willing to concede as OKC did tonight. The Thunder dropped into a zone tempting Moon and Bargnani to prove that they could shoot but Bargnani failed to make them pay by missing clean looks. Durant ended his 8-point quarter with a driving layup with a second left which pushed the lead back up to 9 and basically negated Bosh’s good work and Moon’s contributions. The Raptors only managed to shave 1 point of the lead leaving a lot of work to be done in the fourth.

The defense we played in the first few minutes of the fourth quarter was the best of the night, we had the young Thunder team rattled by applying ball-pressure, aggressively playing the passing lanes and collapsing on Durant. How come we can’t play like this for 48 minutes? Oh, I know, it’s an effort thing. With Bosh on the bench and Roko leading the charge, Bargnani scored 7 points in this early fourth quarter run that helped wipe out the Thunder lead. He finished with 16 points and 5 rebounds and shot 6-16 which isn’t a terrible percentage, but what everyone will remember is him missing two wide open looks setup by Triano coming out of a timeout in the fourth quarter at 2:16 and 0:30. The first would’ve tied the game and the second would’ve made it a three-point game. He makes those two and he’s a hero. Speaking of heroes, there were many for the Thunder – Durant’s scoring, Westbrook’s creativity, Mason, Wilcox, Smiths’ rebounding but it was Nick Collison that made the two plays of the game.

With the Raptors down two we get a defensive stop and Chris Bosh seems to clear the rebound but Nick Collison manages to get his hands on it a bit late – all ball and all legal. As Bosh tries to shake him off Collison goes to ground and brings Bosh and the ball with him. At this point if Bosh simply hangs on to the ball for a couple seconds more the referee would have to call a jump ball, instead he lets go of the ball in hopes of grabbing on to it from a better angle, in that brief moment Collison kicks it out and Westbrook burns Calderon for a drive and a score. On the ensuing possession, Bosh fades on a jumper and Collison plays great defense as Durant clears the board – game over.

So what did we learn today? Nothing, we just further confirmed what we already know. Kapono, Parker and Calderon are liabilities on defense and with them on the court we don’t stand a chance against a team with average athleticism. Chris Bosh’s offensive game isn’t refined enough to be relied on in the fourth quarter, the defense can stop him when need be and he doesn’t have the support staff needed to take the pressure off of him. 22 points and 16 rebounds are great but shooting 33% (6-18) isn’t going to cut it. We need him to be more efficient than that. Sounds harsh but its true. Andrea Bargnani had an average game today but the standards are fallen so low that we might even be inclined to call this a great game. If you put an athletic player on Kapono he’s done for the night and will be forced to get his points through floaters, runners and contested jumpers, he’s a great shooter but the percentages will fall drastically once he’s out of his comfort zone. Jose Calderon’s vision in the half-court is narrow and he is incapable of running the break, finding cutters, breaking rookie’s off the dribble and creating for his teammates. So what can he do? Shoot, but when the shot’s not falling he’s a write-off.

The best Raptors play I’ve seen over the last few games is this: Bosh has the ball at the high left-elbow and Bargnani or Graham flashes from the weak-side diagonally into the low-post for a quick hook shot. We need to run that baby about 20 times in a game. Jermaine O’Neal left the game late in the second quarter with a strained shoulder when the Raptors were down 8. My colleague AltRaps seems to think that he quit on the team, I disagree.

This is a bad loss but I’m not remotely upset over it because I saw this coming. It seems everybody but Bryan Colangelo can see the problems with the roster he’s assembled, sooner or later he’s going to have to take the blinders off and see this team for what it really is: a group of flawed individuals who cannot meet success as a team because of their lack of athleticism, skill and talent. He keeps saying that he “still believes in this team” but a couple more losses like this and he’s sure to see the light. Chris Bosh is a nice enough player but the talent drop-off from him to Calderon is significant enough to be worrisome. This team cannot be allowed to continue like this, we need to make a decision: acquire real talent and wing help by going over the luxury tax OR start the rebuilding process. As things stand they’re not helping anyone, at least not the fans. Status quo will result in Bosh bolting at the end of 2010 and us getting nothing for him and more importantly, delaying the rebuilding process.

It’s time to be honest with ourselves and evaluate the talent and personnel on this team without considering how they were acquired (risky trade, #1 pick, bad signing). Only once you recognize and admit to yourself that there’s a problem will you be able to fix it. Right now we have problems at everything but the 4 spot, let’s start addressing them intelligently because if things don’t improve significantly, the fans will turn away. Perhaps that’s what needs to happen for MLSE to be hit where it hurts – the wallet – and maybe finally realize that the on-court product does not match the marketing or the hype.

Be sure to check out my conversation with Tim Chisholm of TSN.ca. It’s good unlike the Raptors.

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