Rudy Gay and DeMar DeRozan - teammates soon?
Careful Chris, don’t want to injure that mouth.
Cavaliers 93, Raptors 76

As unlikely as a playoff spot is, I’m still looking forward to this bunch at least try and make a push to prove that they’re more than a collection of overrated misfits and underachievers. The trade has breathed a little purpose into the season and I felt that as I made the brisk walk over to Philthy’s to catch yet another game on TSN2. Going up against Cleveland sans Chris Bosh and having two new players is an tough impossible challenge so all you really looked for in this game is some signs of whether this group could seriously pose a threat to anyone but my blood pressure. Results were leaning towards the negative.

Joey Graham was matched up against Anderson Varejao at the 4 as Shawn Marion got the call against Lebron James. The rebounding-allergic Bargnani was assigned to guard the unmovable object that is Zydrunas Ilgauskas and a 91.6524% Jose Calderon and Anthony Parker rounded out a starting lineup lacking in size. We were overmatched at the two rebounding positions and the stats reflected that, Cleveland outrebounded us 48-32 and our high-man (Parker) only had 7. Chris Bosh is our best rebounder and we traded away our second-best, what did you expect?

Like many a Raptor game the only positives in this one came early. All the up-tempo talk had Jose Calderon all excited as he kept his dribble alive against Tarence Kinsey and found his way to the basket for a couple layups. Cleveland misses were quickly rebounded and pushed up the court by Calderon and Marion, the latter finding Parker for an alley-oop on the break, a great pass and a surprisingly fine finish. Marion and Graham were getting into the blocks early and executed a couple strong drive-oriented moves for scores. It was going according to plan as the Raptors went up 19-10.

Bargnani got two scores out of face-up situations against Big Z but got called for his second foul at the 8:49 mark of the first. It’s unfortunate because he had it going early and the sub that followed killed his rhythm. Jake Voskuhl got the call (it’s either him or Jawai now) and that was a big drop-off for us as Bargnani was our only threat to create off the dribble. We soon went into jumper-mode as Joey Graham and Anthony Parker took the first shot available and Cleveland cleaned up the glass. Lebron was creating the offense by shifting the defense towards him and swinging to the weak-side where JJ Hickson and Varejao were left unattended – the lack of discipline in our defense was showing early and Cleveland shooting 58% for the game was no surprise. They ended the quarter on a a 15-4 run and led 24-23 at the end of the first.

Marion last night showed what he could possibly do for us. His defense on Lebron was good enough to force him into low-percentage shots, he got a steal off a front on Ilgauskas (no easy task) and took his man off the dribble for a couple scores. He made some good entry-passes (that’s a big deal for us) and executed a jump-hook in the low-block which I think will be his primary means of scoring. If we can get him into the post through a slip-screen he has the leaping and finishing ability to be a scoring threat. He looked lost at times, for example on one play Calderon used the high-screen and Marion sealed his man off so Jose could continue with his drive but instead he pulled up. Marion didn’t get why he did that and took the rest of the possession off by standing in the corner. All in all a decent game considering he’s guarding Lebron James – 10 points, 6 assists, 6 rebounds and 2 blocks. Here he is talking post-game about not being found despite moving without the ball and the Raptors being quiet on defense:

When you hear people talking, it makes people much more alert. When you’re out there all quiet and stuff it’s that much more harder. I was cutting, I was getting wide open and he couldn’t get a feel for it and couldn’t see me…It’s a feel thing.

The second quarter was all about us NOT guarding Big Z. He made Bargnani look small by patiently backing him down and finishing with jump-hooks and layups. It wasn’t all post-ups though, on the pick ‘n roll we were understandably cheating towards Lebron leaving Big Z open from 18 feet and he made no mistakes. He finished with a game-high 22 points on 11-17 shooting and created countless scoring chances. He’s only credited with three assists but he made our defense work by forcing us to send blind-side doubles, having our wings cheat on the strong-side and of course, forcing our defense to rotate which it does so pathetically. Graham and Bargnani were three steps too slow in closing him out all night long.

I noticed that Bargnani was inexplicably switched to Lebron on at least five possessions and looked like a guy about to get gunned down by a firing-squad. You know it’s coming, you just don’t know exactly when. How many times does this guy need to get owned by a SF before we realize that at no cost can we afford to switch him onto one? Speaking of ownage, I was very disappointed with Joey Graham’s inability to break down Anderson Varejao off the bounce. He’s conceding size on one end but I expected him to use his quickness to an advantage against Varejao but no such luck. Varejao was playing Joey tight and recovering in time to contest his little drives, I was impressed. We need to sign this guy.

Jason Kapono is officially the only NBA player Wally Szczerbiak can post-up. He had Kapono chasing ghosts in that second quarter as he took him across screens and finished with 6 points. Mo Williams took liberties with Jose Calderon by faking him to the other side of the screen and pulling up for jumpers he makes in his sleep. Calderon’s early aggressiveness was nowhere to be found and he was content with dribbling it up the floor and passing it to a wing. He was held scoreless in the quarter and his defensive play had me wondering whether Marcus Banks should be brought in to check Mo Williams. Remember, he is supposed to be a good man-defender. The lack of defensive tenacity on this team really pisses me off to no end, just for once I’d like to see somebody fire the team up through their defensive play but I know it’s not going to happen.

Since Voskuhl wasn’t giving us much Triano went with Nathan Jawai in the second quarter and I kid you not when I say that Big Z gave him 10 whole feet of shooting space on one possession. Jawai wisely passed it off. Lebron was still being held in check by Joey and Marion, two of his passes in transition were picked off and although he was racking up the assists, his own offense was slow to come. On the other end we went through another cold spell – Parker’s butter fingers turned the ball over carelessly and he missed jumpers that he’s specifically being paid to make. Joey and Kapono missed their share of jumpers as our offense went stale. Despite shooting 39.5% we were only down 47-41 at the break because of Cleveland’s 11 turnovers.

A note about up-tempo play. If Shawn Marion thinks we’ll be playing up-tempo ball in Toronto I hate to disappoint him. As I see it there are two problems. Firstly, you need the ball to run and we don’t have the rebounding to facilitate early break opportunities. Secondly, no team will ever be able to run ‘n gun with Jose Calderon at the point. He simply does not have the court-vision, blow-by speed and pushing mentality that is needed for that style to have a remote chance at success. He might fool you into by “being aggressive” on a couple plays here and there but he just does not have the skill-set to sustain that kind of play for 30+ minutes a game. This brings us back to Shawn Marion, he’s going to have to be as much of a half-court scoring threat as much as a gunner for us to be any good.

Early Anthony Parker turnovers and missed jumpers characterized the third quarter in which Cleveland went back to Big Z in the post and we went back to not having an answer for him. A 10-4 run to start and end the quarter resulted in a 71-56 deficit heading into the fourth and with Lebron heating up and Big Z already established, this was a done deal. As this game wore on so did the Raptors’ desire to move the ball and naturally, the offense went in labor. Without anybody to command a double team or create off the bounce our offense was reduced to meaningless passes which didn’t unsettle the defense in the very least. What flowed forth was pure trash: one-on-one moves, contested jumpers off of pansy screens and confusion resulting in turnovers which amounted to only 15 points in the quarter and 36.5% shooting for the game. The futility of Ukic and Calderon to kick-start something presented Triano with an opportunity to test out Marcus Banks.

He looked as expected: a tight enough handle, not keen to drive and a low defensive stance that is a marked improvement over any of our point-guards. PGs are the hardest players to judge because there’s so much to evaluate them on, not the least of which is their ability to run a called play. You might think I’m being harsh but Banks looked like a slightly more composed version of Solomon. Again, it’s only one game and evaluating him will take much longer.

The fourth quarter rolled along and we scored the first couple hoops giving the Philthy’s crowd some hope but soon Cleveland went on a 17-7 run and put this one to bed. Triano got ejected for rightfully arguing with the officials about a non-call on a Parker jumper but let’s not kid ourselves, the officials didn’t affect the outcome in this one. Marion has a nice enough showing as the short-handed Raptors fall to the Cavs, instead of needing to go 17-10 to catch Milwaukee we now need to go 19-7. Ouch.

Liners:

  • Cleveland shot 58%, the Raptors shot 36.5%. This is a season-high percentage differential.
  • Anthony Parker GTFO: I can’t believe that Colangelo is actually thinking of bringing this guy back. He’s gotten progressively worse each year and you have to believe that his decline will continue. Now I know that he has an outside chance of being a contributor at backup PG for about 10 minutes a game but with Marcus Banks and Roko Ukic on the team, how many point-guards do we need? His bread-and-butter is the 18-21 foot jumper and he hasn’t made that consistently enough to warrant further consideration on the team. Great guy, but let’s move along. And no, even if he has an unbelievable end to the season I still don’t want him back.
  • Roko missed three cutters.
  • Shawn Marion has good basketball IQ. Other than a couple jumpers when the game was decided, he played within himself on offense and fundamentally sound defense. Lebron got some dunks over him but he does that to everyone. I was pleasantly surprised how easily he can make an entry pass, can’t wait to get Bosh back to see if he can guide him to better post position.
  • Joey Graham finished with 15 points on 6-16 which aren’t bad scoring numbers but know that he took some very questionable jumpers, something that he’s been avoiding all season long.
  • Jake Voskuhl should never be the first guy of the bench. With Humphries out and Bargnani prone to foul trouble this will continue to be a problem. AltRaps wanted Jawai to get some PT in the D-League, he just might get it here.
  • I already said this in the post but I’ll repeat it in case you skipped down to the liners. Terrible switching by the Raptors in allowing Bargnani to be guarded by Lebron. Very disappointed in Joey not being able to take Anderson Varejao off the dribble.
  • Jose Calderon was up against Tarence Kinsey and had 3 assists and 3 turnovers. When our big gun is out our second gun needs to step up and didn’t. I’m not surprised, merely pointing out that he doesn’t have the star ability many attribute to him. This was the one matchup where we were supposed to have a distinct advantage yet failed to capitalize.
  • JJ Hickson has shown me something. Very poised player that doesn’t panic with the ball in the paint and moves beautifully without it. He also plays hard and strong, great pick by Cleveland.
  • Cleveland’s wing shift on the perimeter better than any team I’ve seen. When they have Lebron or Big Z in the low-block, Gibson, Williams and Wally cleverly move along the arc and create just enough space for a shot.
  • Best Lineup: Graham, Parker, Bargnani, Marion, Calderon going +4 to start the game. Worst Lineup: The same five going -6 to start the third.
  • A body language expert told me that Bosh and Colangelo are lying in their recent interviews and Bosh is done with Toronto.

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