As this is my first time writing in a few months, I wanted to blow everyone away with a great overarching theme, and melt your hearts with metaphor. Basically, I wanted to come out of the gate like gangubusters; the anti-Bosh, so to speak.
However, after watching the Raptors get outplayed by a tired Golden State Warriors team on the back end of a road back-to-back, I’m left only with a truth I knew to be so before this game, and even before this season, started. The Raptors are not a very good basketball team right now, and they are going to struggle to beat any team on any given night.
This loss wasn’t the same as the previous four on the West Coast, but the same themes remain overriding. The team does not defend well enough, appears uncomfortable with each other offensively, can get soft for long stretches, and lacks a go-to player when they need a momentum bucket. We figured all of this would be true to some degree, and it has been, but just enough to keep them in a few close games to drive us nuts.
And so it was against the Warriors, as the Raptors fell behind as many as 20, and in the late stages had it as close as five, but it never really felt like they were threatening to get over the hump. A Raptor run was followed by an Ellis jumper, a Curry drive-and-kick, or a possession where the Warriors grabbed a timely offensive rebound, and et cetera. An Amir Johnson fastbreak dunk, a Sonny Weems one-handed jam, and a Linas Kleiza three-ball were all followed quickly by a Warriors score or a bad possession for the Raps.
This is what bad teams do, of course. The difference between bad and awful teams, I guess (and I should know this by now), is that teams that are simply bad will still take advantage of winnable situations once in a while. With the Warriors having travelled in from Detroit (a 102-97 loss where their key players got little rest), and with Steph Curry dealing with a sore ankle, the Raptors faced an opponent operating at far less than 100%. Still, it was the Raptors who looked lethargic offensively in the first half, struggling to just a 38% shooting clip and posting an 11-rebound deficit. By that time, the Warriors had built a 14-point lead, an amount that it doesn’t seem the Raptors are equipped to come back from.
The Raptors certainly played a better second half, but the defense struggled with the quickness of the Warriors’ guards, and Golden State shot 52% in both halves. Steph Curry and Monta Ellis are a tough matchup for any team’s backcourt, what with Ellis leading the league in scoring and all (efficiently, too, haters), but the Raptors’ well-known deficiency against quick guards was made glaringly obvious here. The duo combined for 62 points on 22/38 shooting, with seven assists and six steals to combat their 11 turnovers. Even Jeremy Lin looked like an NBA-calibre player here, dishing three assists with a pair of steals and blocks to boot.
What was different tonight, though, was that we got a glimpse of what this team would look like without Andrea Bargnani. Struggling on the defensive end with a -17 plus-minus and just one rebound in 21 minutes, Bargs found himself nailed to the bench for most of the second half, exiting at the eight-minute mark of the third quarter and returning for less than a minute later in the fourth.
The team has been criticized for the lack of a go-to option, but with backs against the wall it is usually going to be Bargnani, the most offensively gifted player on the team. Barbosa, Jack, and Kleiza took over the bulk of the offense, including a stretch where Barbosa made three straight field goals before missing three straight. After the Raptors brought the lead down to seven with 4:46 to play, the offense was distributed as follows: Johnson (2/2 FT), Weems (nasty dunk), Kleiza (charge), Jack (missed 3pt), Jack (2/2 FT), Kleiza (1/2 FT), Johnson (dunk and-1), Weems (layup), Kleiza (blocked 3pt), Kleiza (turnover).
Now granted, the lineup of Jack-DeRozan-Weems-Kleiza-Johnson doesn’t scream out crunch time offense, and Jack and Kleiza both enjoyed 20-point outings (24 for Jack), but the offense looks disjointed. The majority of the scores came off the fast-break or broken plays (or very curiously designed ones, if they weren’t broken). Jarrett Jack had the hot hand, but the Warriors knew this and were able to hold him to the perimeter in the final couple of minutes, limiting his effectiveness. Kleiza had a good game on the boxscore, but the majority of his points seemed to come outside of the flow of the offense, save for a few early buckets on the fast-break and on the block against Dorrell Wright. You can’t really run plays for Amir Johnson at this point, and Demar DeRozan has been unspectacular creating for himself thus far. That leaves Sonny Weems, who had a 12-point fourth quarter but who was well guarded if he didn’t beat his man down the floor.
Like I said, we knew this team would have problems in crunch time, but the benching of Bargnani magnified this. Yes, the team absolutely played better with him off the floor tonight, but the offense lacked a player who can create for himself, which Bargnani can do when motivated (case in point – he had two great dunks off the dribble tonight).
So yes, defense was an issue, as the Warriors shot 52.7% and torched the guards. And yes, the team was outrebounded for the first time in six games. But this game was lost in the early stages because the offense couldn’t get itself going (despite an early 8-0 run to start the game) and then again lacked identity and flow down the stretch.
The crunch-time role is Bargnani’s, like it or not. It seems pessimistic to harp on this point so early in the season, as it will be a frequent issue, but when a team scratches and claws to decrease a lead four or five teams in a fourth quarter, it’s going to get on a fan’s nerves.
And for a team that is going to be out-skilled on most nights, they can’t be outworked and tonight they were. The Warriors looked tired, save for their backcourt duo, but they still outworked the Raps for loose balls and rebounds early, creating a deficit that was too large for a punchless Raptors squad to overcome when the Warriors wore down.
Amir Johnson once again provided the energy we all expect from him off the bench, but he came into the game with 19 fouls in just 96 minutes, and racked up another five in 29 minutes tonight. While they mostly came later and didn’t interfere with substitution patterns too much, he is averaging a foul for every five minutes of play. He has the potential to be one of the team’s largest contributors, but that foul rate means that even in a best-case scenario he would only be playing 30 minutes a night. And if they were hard fouls or valuable fouls, I could forgive him, but they are very light fouls on most occasions, including one where Monta Ellis beat Sonny Weems off the dribble, and Amir had his back to the ballhandler, turning around just in time to lightly foul Ellis for an And-1. Again, Johnson has large potential as an energy player, providing efficient scoring and a great volume of rebounds, but he needs to stop fouling or make the fouls count if he is to be of considerable value.
The chatter in the Republic will certainly remain negative for some time. With no player on the cusp of superstardom and nobody grabbing the reigns of the offense (or defense) consistently these past two weeks, the team remains one without much identity or short-term hope.