You know one of those warm days in the dead of winter when it’s like 12 degrees outside and you think to yourself, this is a really nice day, wouldn’t it be amazing if we had 12 degree temperatures the entire winter. You go to bed feeling all fuzzy and warm only to wake up and find two feet of snow everywhere, and just as you’re rubbing the sleep out of your eyes you catch the snow-plow driving off after it constructed an icy retaining wall at the mouth of your driveway. That’s when you realize that it’s still winter and things are probably going to stay like this. But hey, let’s just enjoy the 12 degree weather while we can and hope that it sticks around.
The Rockets opted to play Tracy McGrady against us instead of the Hawks hoping to go 1-1 in their back-to-back. Their thinking was that they may as well focus their energies on getting the more obtainable win. It didn’t work out. The Raptors torched the Rockets without Jermaine O’Neal in the lineup and Jose Calderon playing less than a quarter due to a hamstring injury. A great defensive effort inspired by individual performances and a commitment to team-defense held the Rockets to 73 points as Bargnani led the offensive charge for the second straight game. The Rockets shot an anemic 34% from the floor and looked a lot like the Raptors at their worst, if you don’t follow the Western Conference much you’re probably asking yourself how the hell this team managed to win 21 games so far. Give the Raptors credit, they showed up from the opening tip and followed the game-plan to perfection.
Let’s talk about this notion that we’re a better defensive team without Jermaine O’Neal in the lineup. Yes, we played better interior defense today, were only -6 on the glass and +1 in second-chance points. The interior help rotations were effective and we collapsed on Yao forcing him into 5-12 shooting (10% below is average) with 5 turnovers. We were quick to double Yao as soon as he put the ball on the floor and there weren’t many easy back-downs followed by turnaround 6-footers for him. That’s all great but I don’t see how that’s a slight against O’Neal unless we’re operating under the assumption that having O’Neal in the lineup somehow makes this group of players play less as a team mentally. O’Neal is not the answer to our defensive troubles, he’s part of a solution. That solution also requires Jamario Moon to play as effectively as he did today, that we stop dribble-penetration, that shots be contested even after we allow dribble-penetration and other such defensive subtleties. Jermaine O’Neal being on the floor isn’t preventing our bench to outrebound their bench as it happened today, it’s not preventing Anthony Parker to box-out his man and get 8 rebounds as he did today. The only explanation I can offer is that when O’Neal is on the floor the perimeter players take his presence for granted and relax their individual defense knowing that there’s someone back there to bail them out. When he’s not there, their incentive to play tighter defense increases resulting in the type of performance we saw tonight. Then again, this might’ve been a different game if the Houston wings could make a jumper.
The Raptors built a healthy 25-14 first quarter lead by shooting 55% as Bosh and Bargnani led the Raptors with 7 and 6, respectively. Yao was getting deep post position on Bargnani and had three scores against him. After that the Raptors decided to help earlier on him and Bargnani picked up his defense which bothered Yao who was forced to kick-out to his shooters who were all collectively colder than my beverage at Philthy McNasty’s. Other than Yao’s three early FGs they were 4-15 in the quarter and couldn’t punish the Raptors for doubling him. So far nothing was out of order, the Raptors had built a lead in the first quarter and the next natural step was to to watch them blow it. We didn’t have to wait long as Ron Artest opened the second quarter by hitting three straight threes, the last of which cut the Raptors lead to a single digit. Oh crap, here we go again was the feeling in the building when Will Solomon was handed the reigns as Jose Calderon limped off with a strained hamstring. The game was setup perfectly for the Raptors to blow it. Enter Will Solomon and Andrea Bargnani.
Bargnani kept Yao honest by taking it to the rim and getting fouled, driving on him for a dunk and then just for good measure, draining a long two and a three on him. Will Solomon had his best game as a Raptor and quarterbacked the team brilliantly through this crucial stretch. His court-vision was excellent as he passed up a couple so-so jumpers instead choosing to find Joey Graham and Andrea Bargnani for scores. A crucial 6 points and 5 assists in the frame by Will allowed the Raptors to stretch their lead to 10 at the half. The Rockets did do their part by playing disinterested basketball, Tracy McGrady looked like he didn’t care, Rafer Alston and Luther Head were taking shots that made Bosh’s three against Denver look like a good decision. They turned the ball over 22 times in the game and the Raptors scored 27 points off of them.
The third quarter always makes you nervous because you feel the Raptors luck just ran out but not on this night. Houston’s misery continued as a shocked ACC and Philthy’s audience couldn’t believe how bad the Rockets were playing. Their woeful shooting continued and the Raptors kept going back to Bargnani who was delivering every time. He ended with 19 points and 6 rebounds on 8-12 shooting and could’ve had more if there was something to be played for in the fourth quarter. McGrady looked even worse as time went on, he didn’t even bother running back to contest Moon’s steal which resulted in a very harsh response from the Houston Chronicle who insist that he’s quit on the team. Gotta love reporters who aren’t afraid to call it like it is. But it wasn’t even just that, he never looked to drive the ball or execute a move in isolation situations, all he basically did was launch long jumpers which hit back rim. The Rockets offense was entirely stagnant and consisted of one-on-one moves that were lazily executed and ended with contested jumpers.
The Raptors perimeter defense looked a lot tighter against Rafer Alston and Luther Head who aren’t exactly speed merchants. Moon’s defense on McGrady was excellent as he forced him into bad jumpers; the way McGrady poisoned his team reminded me of how Bosh does the same to us when he’s unassertive and settles for what the defense wants him to do. I might be entirely wrong because I was at Philthy’s and the crowd was pretty entertaining but I swear I saw the Raptors trap at one point. Correct me if I’m wrong. All this defense resulted in the Raptors holding the Rockets to 73 points, a season low for a Raptors opponent. Our motivated play combined with the Rockets mailing it in resulted in early garbage time which saw Hassan Adams dust off his shoes and Kris Humphries put his People’s magazine down. Aah, it’s good to see the other team looking like this for a change.
I used to do these things called “One Liners” in the post-game report on the old blog which talked about miscellaneous points in the game. I’ll reintroduce them here and just make the accompanying text a bit more verbose.
Jose Calderon: You have to feel sorry for Jose, his offensive game had been coming along of late and he was being much more aggressive in taking it to the rim and looking for his shot off the high pick. If this injury takes as long to fully recover as the earlier one then we’re in trouble. Obviously we can’t rely on Will Solomon to have games like he did today, Roko Ukic will need to produce in the minutes he’s about to get. Tonight Roko got in during garbage time and played well. He made some very nice passes, played great defense including a very clever steal on Yao as he came from the weak side. His shot still sucks and it remains to be seen how much teams sag off of him in meaningful game situations to hurt us.
Kris Humphries v Jake Voskuhl: Humphries got in the game and looked bad. He was rushing his shots and it felt like he was trying to put up numbers so he can get his minutes back. When you’re rushing your game you’re never going to be effective and to my surprise he was replaced by Rasho-lite in garbage time. I don’t get this move by Triano, why is he still holding it to him in garbage time? Voskuhl’s numbers aren’t shabby – 8 rebounds in 18 minutes and some nice defense on Yao is damn good but I still maintain if we give those minutes to Humphries he’ll do the same, if not better. Humphries doesn’t strike me as a chap who’s slacking off in practice and doing things to irk Triano so his playing time is really becoming a mystery. A drunk at Philthy’s offered the following theory: Triano had a big say in acquiring Jake and wants to see show to Colangelo how right he was in his decision.
Andrea Bargnani: Great shooting game and more importantly, great decision making based on matchups. In the pre-game we talked about how he needs to shuffle Yao’s wooden feet on the perimeter and that’s exactly what he did. It’s hard to say whether he’s better coming off the bench or starting, or playing the C versus the SF, because last year he struggled in every role we put him in and did the same earlier this year too. If he finds consistency in his current role and the results are good, we’ve got no other option than to move O’Neal to the bench. Let’s see if Bargnani can do it for three games in a row against the team that torched him in the playoffs.
Jason Kapono: 22 minutes, 3 turnovers, 2-7 FG. One of three things is happening, 1) teams are playing very good defense on him, 2) we’re not using him properly, or 3) He’s being too passive with his shot. I saw him pass two three pointers, one where he drove baseline and lost the ball and another where he opted for a runner which was no good. Guess we were being too simplistic in our thinking that two post-presences in Bosh and O’Neal would result in open looks for Kapono. I say trade the sucka.
Chris Bosh: Looked better in this game but hardly as good as he did earlier in the year. Took a lot of 15-18 footers and you almost lost track of him on the floor. On a night like tonight we didn’t need him but he definitely needs to make his presence felt in the upcoming games, especially if he feels a trade is not necessary. Maybe he’s saving himself for Howard on Sunday and the Boston back-to-back starting next Sunday.
Jermaine O’Neal: Why isn’t he on the bench? Nobody in our media brings this up and I think it’s a very important topic. Obviously I’m not insider the Raptors locker-room and have zero clue on what the players think of his absence but it’s got to be in the back of their minds. The same drunk at Philthy’s offered this explanation: O’Neal was totally hammered before Golden State game and was basically trying to play off a hangover and was uncoordinated enough to bang his knees.
Wing play: Joey Graham was moving without the ball and got rewarded by Solomon for a couple dunks. He is easily the most aggressive Raptor and continues to thrive under Triano, it’s looking very likely that he might stay in the NBA past his rookie deal. Still would like to see more of Joey in the post after inviting a mismatch through a slide-screen or a pick ‘n roll. He’s definitely got what it takes to finish against smaller/weaker players and we need to use it more. Jamario Moon looked about as good defensively as he’s ever done. And against T-Mac too. Go figure.
Sobering Stats: The Rockets’ biggest advantage was in the paint and we ended up winning the PINP battle 40-32. The Raptors are the worst fast-breaking team in the league, the Rockets and second-worst. We won the stat 11-4. The Rockets shot 34% compared to our 48%.
Houston didn’t play well today but that doesn’t stop me from notching this as a quality win. It’s a good start to 2009, hopefully we can keep this going and all that talk of rebuilding and blowing everything up can be put to rest.
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