If defensive-ball is your thing, then this game was must-see TV. It fittingly ended with Stephen Jackson making a defensive play on Andrea Bargnani after Jay Triano’s poorly constructed “play” was easily countered by a Charlotte defense that appeared more amused than anything.
Andrea Bargnani went into one of those zones where he’s knocking down every single jumper, it happens every few games and it happened last night. The streak doesn’t last for the whole game, maybe the first quarter or so but it’s enough to jet the Raptors out of the gate. Bargnani hit his first five shots for 11 first quarter points, nothing fancy, mostly sizing up the defense and knocking down a jumper. After getting off to such a hot start, one might assume that he’d continue his strong offensive game at a reasonably efficient pace, but the rest of the night saw him go 3-14 FG. It wasn’t surprising and to be expected. While Bargnani got the glory in the first quarter, Raptors nemesis Gerald Wallace had 12 points of a very different kind: attacking the rim in transition. Despite shooting 63% in the first quarter, the Raptors were down by a deuce to a Bobcat-side that was more than content getting theirs in semi-transition and by driving to the rim (5FTs vs 0 early). The lack of interior shot-blocking for the Raptors was only too evident as Wallace, Jackson, and Augustin displayed no sign of fear going to the rim (13-5 blocks in favor of Charlotte).
With Andersen and Barbosa out, Triano turned to Amir Johnson and Julian Wright earlier in the game, introducing two athletic and strong defensive players. Charlotte’s second-quarter lineup was a mixture of Nazr Mohammed, Boris Diaw and Desagna Diop, but for some reason Gerald Wallace ended up being matched with Amir Johnson, giving the Raptors power forward a distinct advantage on the glass. This matchup had a major say in the second because Johnson had his best quarter in a long time, he had 7 points and 6 rebounds (3 offensive) in the second quarter to lead the Raptors charge. It’s also worth mentioning that Calderon’s facilitation of the offense was quite neat in that frame, all-in-all the Raptors wings did a fine job of increasing the pace and staying true to Triano’s mantra of offense-from-defense by winning the fastbreak points battle 36-23.
For Charlotte, it was D.J Augustin and Wallace doing the ball-handling and pushing the issue in transition and forcing the Raptors to deal with early shot-clock screen ‘n roll situations, something they struggle with. Augustin’s passing was supplemented by penetration which was a problem all night long, he made it tough on the Raptors points by hitting his jumpers early and forcing respect out of them. A guy I thought was key for them was Gerald Henderson, he gave them a good boost off the bench with 10 points, nice looking player with a reliable mid-range jumper. Give the first quarter to the Bobcats, second to the Raptors. 48-48 at the half.
The game was evenly poised at halftime, both these teams struggle to score in the half-court and count on igniting the offense in transition. The difference is, as we saw in the second half, that the Bobcats have some great defensive players that can play at a high yet sustainable energy level. As Devlin kept hammering home, the Bobcats score the least amount of points in the league, but that stat doesn’t mean anything because they also play the slowest pace in the NBA. In my opinion, they struggle because they have a lot of people handling the ball and going out on their own to create offense, it’s not selfish basketball, it just seems a little unorthodox that Wallace and Jackson are ignoring their point guard and making behind-the-back passes. On the other hand, the Raptors get into offensive funks because they just lack talent.
An example I’d like to point out is Reggie Evans; Evans played 30 minutes last night and in every offensive possession in which he set a screen for his point guard, he played no part in the rest of the offensive play. Sometimes Jack gets a lot of flak for being a “ball hog”, but once you consider his primary option in the two-man game (Reggie on the screen), you understand why he’s taking so many shots. I counted at least three plays in the third quarter alone that those two ran a screen ‘n roll with Reggie somewhat open after the initial pick, the problem is that he’s not even looking to receive the pass back, and in the odd chance he finds himself with the ball with only the rim to beat, it turns into a catastrophe.
Linas Kleiza struggled again going 2-7 with 0 rebounds and Bobcat blood all over his nails. He picked up four fouls in 17 minutes, could not move his feet against Wallace and was reduced to swiping at the ball when he got beat. He’s not doing himself any favors with his shot-selection either, 36% of his shots this season have been threes and according to Colangelo, he’s supposed to be our post-presence? He might have been a post-presence in Turkey over the summer, but here against NBA competition the defenses are quick enough to provide help to counter his bulk, and have wingspans that can bother any shot-attempt. Kleiza was benched in favor of Julian Wright midway through the third and did not play the fourth. The KU product continued his excellent run of form while playing within his talent-level and role, he had 9 points, 4 rebounds, a great block on Stephen Jackson in transition and an even better steal that directly led to two points for Jack. I’ve long been in shock that he wasn’t utilized earlier in the season and Triano has only called on him in instances of injury to Barbosa and Weems. You could argue that the starting lineup is a little imbalanced in terms of offense and defense, giving Wright a start isn’t a bad idea, with the way Kleiza is playing the Raptors have nothing to lose.
The Bobcats switched their defensive tactics and increased their pressure in the second half. Tyrus Thomas was largely ineffective in the first half but once he permanently came on for Nazr Mohammed at the 6:18 mark of the third, the Bobcats defense suddenly became fierce. They were fronting everything in the post, daring the Raptors to make a lob pass or a hi-lo feed. They were collapsing two guys from the wings to the paint, daring the Raptors to go up or find a shooter. The aggressive defense that Larry Brown is known for could be seen on every play, credit to the Raptors for holding their ground. Amir Johnson was smothered in the paint on a few occasions but managed to get up and muster field goals, Jack bounced off of defenses to knock his bullish layups in, and even Sonny Weems (20 points, 8-12 FG) found the drive to continue attacking despite being blocked violently by Wallace on a couple of occasions.
Jose Calderon hit a big three to give the Raptors an eight point lead late in the third, but on the ensuing possession Stephen Jackson hit an even bigger one to slice it back down to five and take away the momentum entering the fourth. With both teams desperate for only their second win of the season, this one was going to come down to the wire.
As great as the Raptors response to Charlotte’s increased defensive pressure was in the third, the final quarter saw the advantage slide over to the Bobcats. Tyrus Thomas finished with 5 blocks, three of them saved the Bobcats six points, he had 12 points in the final quarter (including scoring on the three of the last four Bobcats possession – damn clutch!). Amir Johnson had had a great game until that point, but his coverage of Thomas in screen ‘n roll situations was poor, all three of Thomas’ field goals were setup by screen ‘n rolls. It’s an area of play where the Raptors have struggled for years now and the main problem isn’t even talent or effort, it’s communication. The most common case is the big weakly hedging the ball-carrier but not supplying enough pressure to prevent a pass. Augustin and Jackson’s assists to Thomas were garden variety passes that any half-decent wing could make. In a game played so tightly, the margin between winning and losing comes down to a couple possessions and for me, it was that.
This isn’t to say that Johnson is to blame by any means, Kleiza was a no-show, DeRozan was downright brutal with zero rebounds and zero defense, Bargnani couldn’t get going past the first quarter, and Augustin had too much leeway with Jack and Calderon. There’s a reason we’re 1-7 and it’s because even though we have some decent players, the chances of everyone playing well on the same night are low. I know it’s only his second year and he’s only had one year of college, but DeRozan has to announce himself more consistently. His off-the-ball movement isn’t as good as it was last season, and he’s a stagnant wing on more possessions than I care to remember. That would be fine if he was a good shooter spacing out the floor, but when he’s not providing offense or keeping the defense moving, his man becomes free to roam, as Jackson was today.
So after a tug-of-war fourth quarter, the Raptors had the ball down three with 12 seconds left. The play coming out of the timeout was poor, no question about, there’s just no debate over this one. Calderon got trapped on the right wing and swung it to Bargnani 28-feet from the rim in an isolation situation with no screens being set for him. The big man showed the ball straight up to Stephen Jackson who couldn’t believe his luck and swiped it out, game over. I feel bad for Bargnani, that is a terrible thing to happen to any player and I for one am not blaming him. Yes, that was a bad turnover and he should not have been so casual with the rock, but man, you cannot expect him to make a play with the clock winding down in that situation. A drive ‘n kick, maybe a back-screen, double-stagger, something better had to be in order to get him a clean catch-and-shoot look. He’s not even a good shooter off the dribble from beyond 12 feet, so expecting him to hit a three in an isolation situation is a bad coaching decision. Bargnani had five turnovers on the night, three of them were strips. Triano has to know that in that situation, Larry Brown will not be stupid enough to put a big on him and allow him to get his shot off as easily as he did in the first quarter. Everybody and their mom knew that either Wallace or Jackson were going to guard Bargnani (our best three-point shooter) on that final possession. This is the third time this season Triano’s late-game play design has come into the equation and he’s 0-3 thus far.
Up next is pain. A Florida trip to face Orlando and Miami. Brace yourselves.
Random weird stat: Bargnani has lost every single opening tip.