Taking the defending champs to the final possessions of a game is worthy of applause so let me applaud: clap clap clap, clap clap. OK, that warm fuzzy feeling of keeping it close has worn off and instead the rotten stench of defeat has set in.
A proper effort from almost everyone was foiled by back-breaking turnovers at the worst possible times. The slow start that’s been dogging the Raps on this trip hit them again, this time in the form of some ball-handling that made you question whether anybody on the team is capable of dribbling twice and making a chest-pass. Jack struggled under very little pressure from Fisher in the first quarter and left his feet to pass about four times, twice resulting in turnovers. Same was true for DeRozan and Barbosa who dribbled themselves into trouble and then tried to get out of it by making a pass that raised eyebrows. To make his life more miserable for himself, Jack decided to wander on Steve Blake who nailed him for three wide open threes. That’s what Jack does, if one part of his game isn’t working, he lets it affect the other. The early story was Raptors hot-potato ball-handling fueling the Lakers offense. Twenty-one turnovers for the Raptors crushed the momentum they fought so hard to gain too often in the game.
Last year the Raptors beat the Lakers once and played them tight the other time, so there’s a level of confidence amongst the players when they play LA. DeRozan symbolized that confidence by going straight at Kobe on his first couple touches and getting something positive. Other than Evans’ 14 rebounds, he was the only starter that made any sort of tangible impact on the game. Gasol (30pts, 12-22 FG) obviously killed us inside, he’s too tall for Evans, too crafty for Johnson and two quick for Andersen. The only Raptors defender that had a chance at stopping him was Bargnani, but this was one of those games where the Raptors center didn’t bother showing up on defense. He had a couple instances where he rotated as per plan on defense, but generally speaking, he just wasn’t into this game.
After an ineffective Jack had led us to a big early hole, Triano brought in Jose Calderon who sparked the second unit into life. Jose was effective because he established his jumper early and then used that threat to setup some easy looks after dribble drives. He was also instrumental in igniting Barbosa and Weems in that second quarter, a quarter in which the Raptors bench outscored the Lakers’ 36-22 and took a three-point halftime lead.
Much happened in that first half, Kleiza got off to a hot start by making Artest pay for cheating on the perimeter, but later went into ball-hog mode and took some very chucky shots. Julian Wright (who Triano finally used!) played extremely well in the zone defense deployed and executed to perfection. With the exception of conceding two offensive rebounded, the Raptors’ zone was as effective as it has ever been. The alert movements of Calderon, Wright and Johnson anchored that defense and the Lakers were left wondering how to break this new look. Weems ignited the spirit with a great dunk in traffic, too bad for him he was soon recalled to the bench for taking a fadeaway early in the clock. He looked pretty motivated, though, even if it was for just three minutes (got hurt).
Despite being total shit for the entire first half, Jack was brought in to start the third. Not surprisingly, his ball-hogging ways didn’t do the Raptors much good, and the good guys were forced to get theirs through scrambling. By scrambling I mean hitting the glass (49-31 Raptors) and going from there. The offense was shaky under Jack but the Raptors still maintained a hard-fought one point lead when Calderon was brought in with about 2:15 left. Barbosa, who had had a good second quarter thanks to Jose’s, dare I say, vision on offense was also on the court. However, unlike earlier when he relied on his teammates to find him in transition and on the wing, he decided that going one-on-five was the way to go. A terrible turnover, a horrible miss from three and a blown rotation on a Shannon Brown triple later, the Raptors were down four going into the fourth.
This is where Triano repeated his mistake from the Sacramento and Utah games: He didn’t play his starters. The Raptors most potent offensive threats were DeRozan and Calderon, both of whom were benched to start the fourth and were the two players on the court when the Raptors had made their big run in the second quarter. A lineup of Barbosa, Wright, Andersen, Johnson and Calderon were given the early fourth quarter duties and they rewarded Triano with a nine-point deficit with 9:57 left to play. With DeRozan and Bargnani on the bench, I don’t know where Triano expected the offense to come from, maybe somebody should ask him that in the post-game interview.
The Raptors did claw their way back to within three after that, but playing from behind on the road in the fourth quarter took a toll which was too much to overcome. The bottom line is that Triano has to give his team the best possible chance to win the game, and for the third game in a row it was to have his best lineup out there to start the fourth. He didn’t do that and the Raptors were made to pay. From then on it was more or less a two possession game which was there to be had if the Raptors got some stops and were able to muster some team offense, but that’s hard to do for them. Whereas the Lakers can just go down to Gasol or Kobe in the post and either score or get fouled (32-19 Lakers edge in FTA) , the Raptors have to work for their point. When Bargnani appears to be figure-skating an 8 in the middle of the key, and DeRozan is blowing wide-open 21-footers, it’s going to be tough. Both these two also missed two big FTs down the stretch.
I’ve been calling for Julian Wright to get some playing time since the pre-season and hopefully you saw why. The guy has a huge wingspan, covers a lot of ground on defense, and actually plays with a lot of heart (all KU guys except Wayne Simien do that!). In my opinion, Triano dropped the ball in the fourth quarter by asking DeRozan to defend Kobe and be a big part of the offense. The job of stopping Kobe (without a double) should have been assigned to Wright, it would have allowed DeRozan to guard a lesser offensive player like Brown or Blake or Artest, and kept him a little fresh for his offense. Instead, DeRozan was tasked to check Kobe and fought hard but still couldn’t push him out far enough out of the paint. The energy he spent definitely took a toll on his offense as he front-rimmed two jumpers. Hopefully somebody can bring this up in Triano’s press conference.
Of course, there were positive signs, Jose Calderon’s offensive play was simply terrific and he didn’t get burned on defense. He had eight assists but dropped 14 points which is more of what the Raptors need from him. Yes, assists are great for a point guard but scoring has been an issue for the bench. When Jose can be a shot-making threat, he can facilitate much better and get those hockey-assists which come from dribble penetration and swinging the ball.
Amir Johnson had a phenomenal game (12pts, 15rebs, 4-8FG) and was the reason the Raptors were within striking distance in the second half. He had some impressive offensive rebounds against Gasol, fought hard against Odom whenever matched up with him, and played defense with his feet instead of his arms, even forcing the Lakers to foul him because of his activity. Hopefully this can serve as a jumping-off point for his season.
Looking at DeRozan, one thought pops immediately to mind: this guy need a jumper. He’s got a very aggressive spin move which he’s getting better at and will continue to do so, he’s developing an understanding of when to pull-up and avoid the charge, he’s got his angles of attack down from the wing, he’s even learnt how to use misdirection to get him a less congested path to the rim. That mid-range jumper can quite possibly turn him into a Rudy Gay type player, except with a better heart. He got the short end of the stick on a fastbreak where he got called for the charge when Fisher’s foot was on the line. That doesn’t excuse him for not passing it earlier for an easy bucket on a 2-on-1.
Andrea Bargnani – I have to say I expected him to at least try and use his 20 pound advantage over Odom in the post. I counted one occasion where he was posted up in a proper position, all other times he was setting random weak screens at random parts of the floor. Coaching issue? Maybe. Effort issue? No doubt, he demanded the ball in Salt Lake City and that entire element was missing last night. Late in the fourth quarter in a two possession game, his casualness with the ball resulted in a turnover, on defense he refused to dive for a loose ball and clearly appeared less motivated to get the ball than any of the nine other players on the floor (Weems was on the bench). He had a great game in Utah and followed it up with a stinker (14pts, 5-13FG, 3 reb) and we have no idea how he’s going to perform tonight in Portland. To be a good player you have to be consistent and that he is not. If he’s not providing efficient offense and above-average post-defense on a game-by-game basis, he becomes useless and that’s what he was last night. I don’t think I’m even holding him to too high of a standard, just one to be expected of the best player on the team.
In conclusion, we lost a game nobody expected us to win. I just hated seeing that early fourth quarter where Triano took out a Magnum .45 and shot the team in the head.