Kyrie Irving
Raptors drive the paint against paper-thin Clips
Raptors 97, Clippers 75

On the day the Raptors fell to dead last in NBA.com’s power rankings, we finally found a team that was bad enough to beat. The Clippers had come back from a 5-game Eastern swing and were playing without Chris Kaman and Marcus Camby, both out with injury. But hey, you don’t pick who you play so give the Raptors credit for coming out the right way – going inside and staying inside. Jermaine O’Neal provided the paint offense in the first quarter and Chris Bosh carried the load in the second half including 18 fourth quarter points as the Raptors snapped their second 5 game losing skid of the year. I’d like to think we still would’ve managed to win this game if Zach Randolph hadn’t been injured after the lead was cut to 6 from 19 early in the fourth quarter.

The Raptors came out playing well as usual, they built an early 15 point lead by going inside to Jermaine O’Neal who’s offensive game is returning to form. He’s still missing relative easy-angle layups but his jumper is tighter and his footwork in the post much is much better. He was up against Zach Randolph who isn’t the greatest defender but does have enough reach to bother you if you’re unsure of yourself. 10 first quarter points from O’Neal and 8 from Bosh (4 FTs, one hook-shot in the paint and a dunk) set the tone for this game – no stupid jumpers, we’re going to hurt you where you’re weak. Makes sense, DeAndre Jordan, Paul Davis and Brian Skinner have no business slowing us down and they didn’t, resulting in a stat you rarely see the Raptors winning handily: 32-24 points in the paint.

So when we get the early lead the next question to take bets on is when do we blow it? The smart money usually has the lead evaporating by the late 2nd quarter and the Raptors – true to form – let go of half the lead by the end of the 1st quarter which ended at 25-18. Baron David and Eric Gordon hitting back-to-back threes right before Baron had unlocked Calderon’s relatively good defense to find DeAndrea Jordan for two in the paint. When the second quarter began all signs pointed to the Clippers coming back to tie and the smart money paying off. However, the Clippers looked a lot like the Raptors of late and settled for jumper after jumper even though early Baron Davis drives had suggested that all they needed to do was break us down at the point-of-attack. Parker came off the bench in the second quarter to hit 3 smooth Parkeresque jumpers, Kapono got both his scores of the night in the frame to make up for the 4 turnovers and an unhealthy dose of Will Solomon. In fairness to Will, he did knock down a three so it wasn’t all bad today. The Raptors took advantage of the Clippers’ 4 turnovers and 5-21 shooting in the quarter to take a 19 point lead into the half. Steve Smith called it in favor of the Raptors at halftime.

The inevitable Clipper run came in the third quarter, Randolph scored nine points during the 18-5 spurt which cut the lead to 6 in the final minute of the third and then again early in the fourth. That’s when he went down and took any Clipper hopes with him. So what happened in that third quarter? Bargnani happened, check out his action in that frame:

5:58 Andrea Bargnani enters the game for Chris Bosh 61-44 
5:39 Andrea Bargnani clear path foul (Baron Davis draws the foul) 61-44   
5:20 Andrea Bargnani offensive foul (DeAndre Jordan draws the foul) 61-48   
5:20 Andrea Bargnani turnover 61-48   
4:03 Al Thornton personal foul (Andrea Bargnani draws the foul)  61-50 
4:03 Andrea Bargnani makes free throw 1 of 2 62-50   
4:03 Andrea Bargnani misses free throw 2 of 2 62-50   
3:20 Andrea Bargnani shooting foul (Eric Gordon draws the foul) 62-52 
3:00 Andrea Bargnani misses 26-foot three point jumper 62-54 
0:57 Andrea Bargnani loose ball foul (DeAndre Jordan draws the foul) 66-59 
0:57 Jake Voskuhl enters the game for Andrea Bargnani 66-59 

He’s just awful right now and should’ve been replaced much sooner, and by Kris Humphries, not Jake Voskuhl. Don’t get me wrong, 5 rebounds in 8 minutes by Rasho-lite is good production and he’s playing much better than what anybody expected him to but it seems rather unfair that its Humphries whose expense the minutes are coming on. VL gets to play through a stretch where he singlehandedly let the Clippers back in it while Hump is glued to the bench? I thought we were done playing #1 pick favorites in terms of playing time. Voskuhl appears to be higher in the depth chart than Humphries for whatever reason and I’m not sure what Humphries has done to deserve the relegation. Maybe it’s Triano’s way of finding out what he has in Voskuhl and is just letting Humphries recover slowly from his injury.

As for VL, he’s playing like its the first time he’s stepped on a court. He’s got the deer-in-headlights look on every play. He’s unsure of what to do with the ball every single time he touches it. Even the stuff he does right he gets wrong. He caught the ball on the left wing last night and checked whether his feet were behind the 3-pt line before shooting, even after checking and stepping back he still shot a two. Earlier in the year he was playing good defense, now he can’t even keep his arms straight up and is fouling constantly. He’s not just missing his jumpers, he’s shanking them wide-left and wide-right like a bad field goal kicker. His offensive ineptness was easier to ignore when he was somewhat making up for it on the other end by playing good man-defense, blocking shots and providing non-fouling help defense, but when he’s doing none of those his offense becomes front and center and right now it’s so bad that you just want to bench him if for nothing else than to prevent his trade value from plummeting. So disappointing, so very, very disappointing.

After we caught a break with Randolph going down with injury, Chris Bosh decided that there was simply no way anybody could come close to slowing him down and his 18 point fourth quarter is a testament to that. Bosh scored 12 consecutive points in a 3:02 span including a couple threes and a three-point play to push the Raptors ahead 92-73 with 4:43 remaining. Even we can’t blow that lead this late. It did include two threes but I can live him taking those kinds of shots when we’re up 15, it’s only when he takes those with us down 7 and a minute to go that they’re classified as bad shots. The game was practically decided when Randolph went down but Bosh hammered home the result.

What does this win mean? Nothing much, the Clippers are too short-handed to be judged fairly and this was their first game back after a long roadtrip – team’s always under-perform in those situations. They had won 4 of their last 6 but none of the energy or desire needed to win an NBA game was present for the first 35 minutes, they also seem to have tuned out Mike Dunleavy who seems to be talking to walls in the huddle. We start a three-day break on a winning note and are still 6 games under .500. The disgusting habit of blowing early leads is still there as evidenced by last night’s third quarter. As Feschuk has one scout saying:

They’re a great first quarter team

Unfortunately that’s all the scout said, no further elaboration was sought or provided. We have some idea though: weak bench, bad conditioning, nerves, drop-off in intensity, defensive indifference etc. If we have a third quarter like that against any other team they would’ve completed the comeback in the fourth.

Chris Bosh and Jermaine O’Neal had excellent games but how much of that is due to the shot-blocking Camby and the lane-clogging Kaman not being there. We won the rebounding battle 48-38, that’s just wrong. This game does not provide any basis for analysis, it’s like if we had beaten the Thunder, how much would you read into that?

The Raptors flew back to Toronto after the game and arrived in town at 7AM. They’ll fly out back to California on Christmas afternoon and face the Kings on Boxing Day. We’re 1-2 on the trip and if only we would’ve beaten the Thunder we actually could’ve realistically aimed for a winning record on this trip.

Let’s end with a couple quotes, Jermaine O’Neal talking about the importance of defense after holding the Clippers to 78 points, he’s the only Raptor that has consistently backed what he’s said and last night was no different:

Every good team in our league is a good defensive team. The last 10-15 years an offensive team never has won anything in the NBA. Good defence gives you opportunities no matter what you’re doing offensively. If we don’t play defence it doesn’t work because if we’re spending all that energy on defence and you’re really not stopping them, then when you do come down with the ball, you’re fatigued. Us being a jump-shooting team, often those shots are short and that becomes a problem.

Triano, the eternal optimist, believes that this team will find it in them to play a high level of defense while thriving offensively.

We’re going to play good defence and we’ll eventually get our legs. I don’t know if it’s the schedule, the travel, the defence or the system we are playing but I have no doubt that we have good enough shooters and eventually we’ll find it.

Hopefully it won’t be too late.

If you want more from this game there’s the roll call and the live blog. Raptors Republic will be a little slow over the next three days and by “slow” I mean only one article a day. Keep up to tabs by grabbing the RSS feed or following us on Twitter for updates and Raptors tidbits throughout the day (and night).