Toronto’s win was far from perfect, but it represented an important psychological lift that was absolutely required following back-to-back losses to Denver and Miami when the Raptors were in a position to win and should have won had they paid more attention to details.
Had Chris Bosh kept possession of a missed free throw by Carmelo Anthony and had Bosh not missed his own attempt from the line, the Raptors would have knocked off the Nuggets.
Had the Raptors not blown a 17-point lead and created more looks when Miami made its predictable run with Dwyane Wade handling the ball, Toronto escapes South Florida with a win.
The margin for error with the Raptors is thin, but their fragile state did get a boost, and how they capitalize in the next three games will go a long way in determining their playoff hopes and seeding.
Nothing should be taken for granted, even though Toronto’s next three opponents have nothing on the line.
The Clippers, Wednesday night’s opposition, are very beatable because of the dreaded back-to-back scenario. Having played in Milwaukee, L.A.’s task is that much harder given the change in time zones.
On the road in Philly and back home against Golden State, the Raptors have to avoid turning the ball over, which they did for the most part in Charlotte, and limit transition points against teams such as the Sixers and Warriors that rely so much on getting up and down the floor and getting off quick shots.
The next three games could well be a defining moment for the Raptors because what follows is a three-game run against Cleveland, Boston and Atlanta, who are a combined 7-2 against Toronto.
“We know what’s at stake,’’ Hedo Turkoglu said. “We play together and we play hard and we’ll be fine.”
But the overriding impression is that the message delivered emphatically with his benching in Miami on Sunday was unequivocally accepted. And not with anger.
"No, I was upset that I couldn’t help but I can’t be angry," Turkoglu said before he came off the bench to score 11 points in Toronto’s much-needed win in Charlotte on Monday night.
"I respect all the decisions, and from now on I’m going to. You’re upset that you see the situation and you can’t help. You can’t be mad about it. All you can do is be positive. From now on, I’ll try to be positive."
To say Turkoglu has been at the centre of a storm almost all season long is a bit of an understatement. The team decided to give him almost all of training camp off to rest after playing for his Turkey homeland in the European championships and he started the season slowly, as did his team.
As perhaps I’ve mentioned, Antoine Wright’s gone way up in my estimation the last little while, not only for his play but for his actions and his willingness to demand things of himself, his teammates and his coaches.
It helps, obviously, that he’s playing well because that always makes the message easier to take and I was asking Jay about “leadership” and whether Wright brings it to a team that needs it.
“He’s a leader because he’s doing what we ask him to do, which is play at the defensive end of the floor.
“Antoine just finds a way to get in front and fight and get through screens and help side and still do what we ask him to do.”
Considering that some of these guys have a hard time consistently doing what’s asked of them – like play hard and well at both ends of the floor every night – Wright does seem to stand alone.
I’ve long thought there was some kind of void in outward leadership on this club, it’s nice to see someone who’s playing well take it on.
In a way, Antoine Wright is the anti-Hedo.
That might not be fair to Turkoglu, who performed admirably, if not spectacularly, in a reserve role during Monday night’s win in Charlotte. But if Turkoglu’s too-sick-to-play-but-not-to-party saga represented everything that was wrong about the floundering Raptors, Wright’s presence has been part of the antidote keeping Toronto from a complete collapse.
It is not a coincidence that Wright has started the last three games, in which the Raptors delivered much-improved efforts.
"I think we need what he’s given us the last three games," coach Jay Triano said on Monday night. "We tried to rest him [Monday] when [Charlotte's] Stephen Jackson was out of the game, we tried to rest him the other night. He’s guarding the best guy every single night."
Like anybody else, Wright has some good nights and some bad nights. Monday was the former. Wright had a rare efficient offensive evening, scoring 15 points on 7-for-11 shooting, while helping hold Jackson to 5-for-13 shooting. His effort against Miami on Sunday was the latter, as neither he nor any other Raptor could slow Dwyane Wade.
It is Wright’s attitude as much as anything else that has buoyed the Raptors. He sprained his ankle during a devastating loss on Friday night, but he returned to that game ( just in time to fall to the floor after Carmelo Anthony hit his buzzer-beating game winner) and he was a surprise participant in the next day’s practice. "I can’t keep him off the floor," Triano marveled.
What’s hot? History, which dictates the Clippers should be long out of the playoff race by this point. Sure enough, with 11 losses in 13 games before last night, the Clippers are playing out the string.
Who’s not? Rasual Butler is shooting just 17-for-52 (33%) from the field over the last four games.
This demotion/role-restructure, although merited, was handled clumsily. Triano danced around the fact that Turkoglu was benched for disciplinary reasons to the media and didn’t seem to be any clearer with Hedo either, saying his main message to the forward before the Charlotte game was ‘be ready to play.’
For what it’s worth, Turkoglu did make a difference in the road upset of the Bobcats, hitting the go-ahead three-pointer with 4:22 left for a 95-93 lead. He finished with 11 points and three assists in 28 minutes, but clearly isn’t going to end Toronto’s tailspin by itself and is likely to hear boos when he reports to duty against the Clippers in his first home game since stepping out after skipping out.
Turkoglu has shot only 41 percent from the field, his lowest figure in six seasons, while posting his lowest player efficiency rating in seven seasons. The team hasn’t helped much as they’ve nullified the one main advantage of having a 6-foot-10 ball-handling point forward — you know, the part where he handles the ball.
Despite the move to the bench, Turkoglu still spent plenty of time on the court with Jose Calderon, standing in the corner and waited for the kick-out. We’ll see whether Triano adjusts, as the better pairing for the Turkish Michael Jordan is undoubtedly Jack, who can spot up or look to get lost in other mismatches while Turkoglu creates.
The way things stand, figuring out where they’re headed and how they’re going to get there not only affects this season, but a number of major factors going forward. Will Triano, Bosh, Calderon or Turkoglu himself be back? A lot of those answers depend on what happens these next fews weeks. It’s not to say the Raptors aren’t in shambles, just that they still have a few minutes of borrowed time set to blow though.
Let’s get something straight here. This guy is awesome. He signed a contract worth 53 million dollars over 5 years. He has his shit together. You think you have a hard time calling in sick when you’re really not? Just ask Hedo. He has the whole thing figured out.
Fans are all hating on him in the blogesphere and on talk radio, but let’s be honest with ourselves. The reason you dislike him is the same reason you hated the popular kid in high school who was actually an asshole. Or like how you resent someone who makes more money than you do, but doesn’t work as hard. The kind of person who catches all the breaks while not seeming to deserve them. Secretly, you wish you were that person.
Hands up if you wouldn’t want to be Hedo Turkoglu.
I don’t see very many hands. And anyone with their hand up is disingenuous. I would love to call in sick and hang out in Yorkville. In real life I can afford to do neither. I would love to be a multi-millionaire without putting much of an effort into my work.
Hedo is awesome. It would be awesome to be him. And I hope he keeps giving us fun reasons to pay attention to an otherwise disastrous season. It’s a nice distraction from the predictably annoying Chris Bosh speculation.
And no, even if Hedo “put his heart into it”, the Raptors would still be a bad defensive team with no real identity. It’s not his fault that Colangelo gave him such a rich contract. I’m taking the position of envy rather than scorn when it comes to Hedo.
He’s got it all figured out. Those of us that overpay to see this team play do not.
There are going to be those that celebrated our last win as proof that this team is showing a pulse after almost making it back two games in a row and failing. For those of you who would like me to be kinder to the Raptors, I’m sorry, but I can’t. I’ve been optimistic for most of the year, but these remaining games are supposed to be the sharpening stones by which our Raptors team should be using to get ready to go deep in the playoffs. Instead, here we are, not even sure if they will be occupying the final spot to get in. Here we are, not even sure of our roster rotations.
Which brings us to our next "must win" game.
The L.A. Clippers are far from being the top of anyone’s "tough" list, but for the Raptors, beating up on must-win teams has not come automatically this year. For a conference contender, these games are the ones that the team should be looking at as games that should be put to bed early. Instead, the Raptors have to use these games to iron out kinks in their rotations and settle into a confidence-building win. It’s why this game is much more important psychologically for our Raptors, and it’s how I’ll start today’s keys:
Now, there have been quite a few who have predicting gloom and doom for the Raptors from the beginning. Some have even said that nothing has changed, that they just don’t have the same soft schedule. Apparently they haven’t watched the Raptors much this season. Despite what some claim, the descent we have seen was not inevitable. It’s not just a tougher schedule that are doing them in. Wins against the Magic, Mavericks, Spurs and Lakers during their good run debunk this theory. Sure, they’ve never been a very good road team (their recent win against Charlotte, notwithstanding), but even during their horrid play in November, they never had trouble scoring, even on the road. In March, they failed to score 100 points seven times. That’s more than November and more than both January and February put together. Obviously this isn’t simply a matter of their defense failing.
The question, apart from why, is what happened?
Might Bosh Stay?
This may surprise some, but I also feel that Bosh staying in Toronto still remains a possibility (albeit not likely) if the Raps can build on the Charlotte win and finish strong.
There is a realistic opportunity to close out the final 10 games with a 7-3 record, based on a relatively easy schedule. Six of the next nine games are against sub-500 teams. There are two back-to-backs with both being Away/Home, which makes a B2B easier.
The Charlotte game is already on the books as a W. Here what the Raptors must to do over the final nine games to salvage an otherwise disappointing season.