There’s no point in beating around the bush, mincing any words or going through the futile exercise of sugar-coating.
The Raptors are too soft and until this culture changes, nothing of any substance will be achieved.
The fear is not whether the Raptors can win a playoff series, assuming they even qualify for the post-season, but whether Chris Bosh has seen enough of this team that is prone to being soft.
At the heart of this issue is the team’s core group.
Bryan Colangelo remade the roster last off-season, but he kept his three key pieces in Bosh, Andrea Bargnani and Jose Calderon.
Hedo Turkoglu was acquired at considerable cost, adding a fourth piece that has yet to play up to its billing.
Bosh can simply walk away from it all, but until he decides on his future the Raptors have to find a way to summon more out of their core.
How one transforms soft into tough is like trying to get Bargnani to rebound the ball more or attack the basket rather than settle for jumpers.
Not surprisingly, the two most effective Raptors on Wednesday were Antoine Wright and Reggie Evans, two guys who thrive in physical contests where it’s as much about the will as it is about the talent.
Wright had 15 points coming off the bench, four off his season high. Evans’ stat line — seven points, eight rebounds — didn’t reflect the impact he had on the game. He was the one Raptor who actually seemed to be battling the Jazz for possessions with as much or more enthusiasm than they were bringing.
But easily the story of the night was Williams, a guy who doesn’t get his due in this league, probably in large part because he plays in Utah, which seems to be the only NBA market that gets ignored nationally in the U.S. as much as the Raptors do.
All Williams did was lead his team in scoring with 18, single-handedly beat the entire Raptors team in assists with 16, not to mention pull down eight rebounds, which matched the Raptors high shared by Evans and Chris Bosh.
The Raptors got 19 minutes in the first half out of Hedo Turkoglu before he called it a night with flu-like symptoms.
He had four points, two rebounds and two assists on the evening.
Chris Bosh stood at his locker, lamenting the lack of fight in the Raptors after the 113-87 beat-down administered by the Utah Jazz. But if the questioners were looking for answers, there would be none forthcoming because Bosh can’t quite figure the obvious lack of intensity with any degree of certainty.
“We didn’t come to play,” he said, stating the obvious after another disheartening outcome left the Raptors at 35-35 on the season. “Yeah, they’re good, but we have to take the mentality of ‘who cares, we’re still going to win this game’ and I don’t think we have that fire right now.”
The alarming part is no one knows if the Raptors, clinging precariously to the eighth and final Eastern Conference playoff spot with a dozen games left in the season, have enough in them to find that “fire” Bosh alluded to.
“We could not contain Deron Williams from the start of the game,” Raptors head coach Jay Triano said. “He just goes where he wants to go, does what he wants to do.”
He was doing it to a variety of defenders and defences, but initially to Raps guard Jose Calderon, who was ineffective against his Olympic rival.
“He got me in the first quarter, three times in a row,” said Calderon, who finished with 10 points and three assists. “It was too easy [for him] it was kind of a straight line, so it was my fault. What are you going to do, it happens.”
But after Williams, the Jazz (47-25) are more proletariat that Hollywood. Even Carlos Boozer, their next-best player, and Mehmet Okur, their starting centre, are former second-round picks. (The Jazz have six second-round picks on their roster, along with four undrafted free agents.)
Which is maybe why the biggest gap between the two clubs – one priming for a deep playoff run in the Western Conference and the other hoping to hang on to the eighth (and final) seed in the East – wasn’t just the gift of Williams but the effort of those around him.
It is either that the Raptors could not defend the Jazz, or that they would not defend the Jazz. Both options, it would seem, are fatal flaws.
"The effort was good," Triano said, providing a truly scary thought. "They’re bigger, faster, stronger. We could not contain Deron Williams from the start of the game. He goes out, we get [the Utah lead] to 14. He comes back in, it’s 20. He just goes where he wants to go, does what he wants to do, delivers the ball to everybody."
Not everybody was buying Triano’s line about the adequate effort, though.
"They’re good. They’re one of the best teams in the West," Bosh said. "That’s still no excuse. We didn’t come to play.
"Yeah, they’re good. But we have to take the mentality of, ‘Well, who cares? We’re still going to win this game.’ I don’t think we have that fire right now."
As we walked into the locker room at Air Canada Centre after the Jazz’s 113-87 victory Wednesday over the Raptors, Carlos Boozer greeted reporters by saying, “Great game, though, wasn’t it? Great game.”
He could tell immediately from the faces in front of him that not everybody agreed. The Jazz couldn’t have asked for more, but as far as games go, not so much with the Jazz leading by double digits for all but 50 seconds of the final 38:35.
The Jazz led from start to finish in setting a fantastic tone for their three-game trip. Deron Williams had more assists (16) than the Raptors had as an entire team (14). Toronto threw a zone defense at the Jazz and changed assignments but none of it slowed Utah.
Then again, the Raptors give up nearly 106 points a game on average, so it wasn’t as if the Jazz came up with some kind of outlier with 113. What was shocking was the fact that the Raptors seemed content to fall behind by 20 before putting up any resistance.
I think that inside Jay Triano is a good coach. I think that he has a brain for basketball and that he has enough respect in the basketball world that my opinion (or that of any pundit) doesn’t remotely affect his standing one way or another. However, the way in which he has handled his team’s slide of late has appeared out of touch with reality and defending much of his decision-making would strain the credibility of anyone who chose to do so.
In one sense, his decision to re-insert Calderon into the starting five is a perfect starting point for this mess. After all, for all of the team’s problems in the last few weeks there aren’t many who were feeling the blame fell at the feet of Jarrett Jack, the man who lost his starting role to Calderon. Nor did many see Calderon as a savior wasting away on the bench, primed to launch his team back into competitiveness. He’s only steadily regressed since signing a long-term deal with the club in 2008, in both on-court performance as well as reputation. However, Triano’s decision to start Calderon only brushes at the edges of the real problem that is eroding this season for the Raptors and that’s accountability. At least, it’s accountability in a useful, impacting sense.
On the other end, the Jazz limited Raptors All-Star Chris Bosh to 20 points. He had 15 through three quarters.
"Everybody helped on Chris Bosh, everybody did a great job of getting back to their man and rebounding the ball," Boozer said after Utah won its 10th straight over Toronto.
"We tried to help as much as possible on Chris Bosh in the beginning," swingman C.J. Miles added, "and tried to make everybody else become a scorer and take outside shots — and they missed them, which allowed us to get out and run and build a lead."
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Which by the time the fourth rolled around was all they would need, and plenty more.
Trailing by 20 points after just 15 minutes, the Raptors called timeout to boos. They scored nine unanswered points, but Miles buried a 3-pointer to blunt the comeback. Even with Boozer exiting with his third foul with 3:02 left, the Jazz still finished the half impressively.
Williams hit a jumper as the Jazz played the two-for-one possession game, then got a runner to fall as part of a three-point play to make it 61-43. "His line is deceiving, 18 and 16," Raptors coach Jay Triano said of Williams. "He was better than that."
Williams was so aggressive, he tried to push 1-on-4 with another two-for-one opportunity presenting itself late in the third quarter with the Jazz leading by 23. He lost the ball for a turnover, but Williams set an unmistakable tone.
"However he goes, that’s how we go," Jazz coach Jerry Sloan said, "and I thought he played extremely well."
The Raptors (35-35) came out in a zone defense to open the second half, then switched Weems to guard Williams instead of Jose Calderon, who went 1-for-6 in the first half. The Jazz still scored on five consecutive possessions as well as seven of eight during one stretch.
"I thought they had been playing well coming into this game," Williams said of the Raptors, who are fighting for a playoff spot, "but we’re just on a mission, it seems like."
– (this space is intentionally blank tonight)
– Toronto never led at any point in this game
– “The Raptors were completely dismantled by a better team tonight. But yet again the effort and intensity – and commitment to D – could be called into question.”
– “That bell you hear is the Utah Jazz saying ‘class is now over’.”
Is it hard to move past two big home losses like this?: “It’s a bit of a let down because we’re playing for so much and to have all of this at stake and still be worrying about trying to get guys up for games, it’s frustrating and I know it’s frustrating for our fans. To lose like this is disheartening but you’ve got to have a short memory, you’ve got to get over it. We’ve got Denver coming in here, they’ve had some struggles, we’ve got to be focused and be ready to play that game.”
One has to wonder whether there is something more to this sudden run of bad basketball. The Raptors looked great heading into the All-Star break and seemed poised for a top 5 finish in the East. They were becoming a team that other clubs in the league did not want to face. Something happened. It could just be good players playing bad basketball or maybe it’s something more. The players don’t look like they’re having fun, they are smiling less. Of course, losing will do that to a player, a coach, a fan or two. Maybe something is up. Jack doesn’t seem happy with his backup role, Jose didn’t seem happy with his. Turkoglu wants “ball” and has been mentioning it regularly to anyone that will listen. Antoine Wright is fired up 24/7 and then there’s Bosh’s looming free-agency. Maybe this is a club that is imploding. Maybe there is something going on behind the scenes we are not aware of. The Raptors have lost their mojo. If they’re too worried about next season in the thick of a playoff battle then that is all they will be playing for.