Heading into this one the Raptors were 1-7 after losing two home games against very mediocre opposition. Usually that’s alone to warrant serious skepticism about the team and that may still be the case, but if you’ve watched this team play this season, you know there’s something different about them. There’s no marquee talent, no name that stands out, and certainly no great expectations, but there’s one trait this team has shown that was missing from any Raptors roster since 2006-07: they play hard. Doing that alone can keep you in games and the Raptors have been right there in six of the nine games played. Last night in Orlando it all came together for an impressive road scalp of an Eastern Conference giant that was unable to cope with the persistent intensity of the men in red, making all Raptors fans proud.
Right from the get-go the focus was there, it had to be with Kleiza, Barbosa and Andersen out. Triano’s game-plan was excellent by any standards, the usually proficient Magic had only been shooting 33% from behind the arc this season and Triano threw the 2-3 zone out early, challenging the Magic to use a weapon that had been proven rusty this campaign. The Magic missed their early looks and just as they were adapting to the Raptors defense, Triano switched it back to man-defense giving the home team something to think about. Switching defensive looks didn’t exactly stop the Magic from scoring, they just had to work very hard at it and even though they scored 30 in the first quarter, their frustration at the friction they were encountering on offense was evident.
On the other end, picture-perfect point guard play relying on early drive and kicks and two-man games shaped the Raptors offense. The resulting shots were high percentage looks and the visitors shot a whopping 63% in the first quarter. The scoring load was evenly distributed between Bargnani (6), Johnson (8), DeRozan (5) and Jack (7). Triano chose to start Evans on Howard instead of Bargnani who usually defended him when Bosh was still around. Great move, it allowed Andrea to focus on offense rather than use up his energy on defense. The Italian finished with 21 at the half but struggled with his shot in the second, he still managed to finish with a game-high 27 points. Bargnani’s work-rate on offense was high – he was destroying Rashard Lewis by sealing and turning on him, getting into the elbow area for a quick release and knocked down some bail-out shots to keep the Raptors rhythm going. Evans didn’t fare bad either, yes Howard scored his points but Evans was fighting him tooth-and-nail for positioning and made the All-Star center’s life difficult. Not to be forgotten in this spell was Amir Johnson knocking down two long-range jumpers, as soon as he released them I tracked them in slow motion as they went through the air and sure enough, they went in the basket.
Forget about offense, let me give you the taste of the kind of plays that made you lean forward in your seat:
- Amir Johnson rises high to block Howard’s layup.
- Duhon charges hard for what looked to be an easy layup but Julian Wright comes out of nowhere for the block which starts the break.
- DeMar DeRozan bothers Nelson at half-court to get the steal for an And-1 on Vince.
- Sonny Weems anticipates the point-to-wing pass in the zone and picks it off to start the break.
At the break Amir Johnson commented on the Raptors defensive tactics:
We just tried to keep their offense guessing, sometimes we went zone, sometimes man, sometimes we trap to try to keep them guessing so they don’t know the offense they have to get in.
If it weren’t for Mickael Pietrus’ four threes in the first half, the Raptors would have had a comfortable lead at the break. Twenty-five lead changes and twelve ties later it was 59 apiece at halftime, the score says it’s a tie game but you knew the tempo and flavor of this game was suited to the Raptors. Now, if only they could keep this masterclass performance up for another 24 minutes?
The Magic sought ascension in the early third, attacking the Raptors known defensive weaknesses – dribble penetration by Nelson (so far being outplayed thoroughly) and Bargnani via Lewis. Both strategies got them some points early but the Raptors were not rattled. Once a man got beat, the rotations were crisp, not just the first one but the second, and even the third, resulting in contested shots for the likes of Carter, Bass and Lewis. As the game wore on the drama increased, late in the third when Amir Johnson was adjudged to have been the guilty party in a 50-50 loose ball against Jameer Nelson, the Raptors called timeout after two Nelson free-throws. The momentum was shifting to the Magic, mostly due to a fledgling Raptors offense that had Dorsey, Wright and Johnson on the floor at the same time.
Following the timeout, Calderon supplied a 28-foot three point bomb that gave the Raptors room to breathe, and after Howard was forced into a three-second violation mostly because of fantastic fronting by the Raptors, Julian Wright drove the lane and handed off to Johnson for the slam. A semi-intentional Howard foul later Wright knocked down a three with the clock running down, giving the Raptors an eight point advantage late in the third. Thanks to this great defensive play by Julian Wright the lead was seven going into the fourth. The home fans were getting nervous and rightfully so, the Raptors hadn’t folded in the third, had withstood their own offensive shortcomings and had come back strong to close the quarter to head into the final stanza of this epic tale holding both the lead and the belief.
The Magic were flirting with a zone of their own which the Raptors countered with dribble-drives that forced the Magic into man coverages, the Raptors followed it up with good ball-movement to create shots, some measured screen usages saw DeRozan (26 points, 7 rebs, 8-13 FG) produce scores edging the Raptors in front by 10. The NBA is a game of runs and the Magic made theirs. Triano had wisely deployed the Hack-a-Howard (7-17 FT) which had kept the Magic at bay, but the Raptors offense went into a funk under Jack and only mustered one field goal between the 7:37 and 2:03 marks of the quarter. At that time, a seemingly broken play which had Reggie Evans dribbling the ball in the post turned in the Raptors favor as Evans spotted DeRozan’s baseline cut for a jam.
A couple of coaching notes. Triano left Amir Johnson in the game after his fifth foul at 11:48 of the fourth, he played well and survived till the 6:48 mark (a full five minutes). When he fouled out, Triano went small by getting in Wright instead of Evans or Dorsey which I thought was a terrible move because it meant Evans was the only big on the floor. He came to his senses less than a minute later and added Bargnani for size, even though he only had two rebounds in the game, the defensive work was much better.
It happened with 28 seconds left to play. I knew it was going to happen and was just glad the Raptors had a chance to take the lead once the Magic had tied the game on a Pietrus three off of an offensive rebound. Triano’s plan to take the lead involved having a four-guard lineup – Jack, Calderon, Weems, DeRozan – and Bargnani out there. The floor was spaced evenly, Jack drove to the left of the paint and caught Howard stepping away from Weems – BANG! Three pointer. Weems (14 points, 6-9 FG) had had a great game despite heading to the bench with a minor foot problem, his chemistry with DeRozan was evident, he was playing motivated defense, and was hitting his mid-range jumpers. When his three went up I knew it was a good shot, even if he had missed it, it would have been a decent look because he was open. He was only 1-5 prior to that from three this season, but he has a sweet stroke and he showed an extended range in the summer and pre-season so I wasn’t surprised when it went down.
Down three, the Magic had a chance to tie it with 7 seconds left and Triano forced them into a second timeout by switching everything. Pietrus was inbounding (presumably to receive it back for a three, he was 8-11 from there) and had a pass to Howard in the circle but didn’t make it for fear of Howard being fouled. He opted to go to Nelson in the backcourt but Calderon picked it off. Game over.
We’ve beaten the Magic in Orlando before but not like this. Before we used to rely on 40 point games from Bosh by dumping it to him against Howard, last night was different and much more enjoyable. We saw a team committed to the cause and playing for each other. The bench was into it, Jose was getting elbowed in the throat by Howard, the Magic were frustrated at our resilience, Triano was scheming plays, Evans was taking it personal against Howard, this is what team basketball is like. This game is the best-case scenario for this version of the Raptors, if they can play like this every night they’ll get fans back in the seats, win or lose.
Tactically, Triano got it right and the players delivered on their front. The ball-movement, swing passes and screens were all on point, one play that I’d like to point out is how the Raptors skipped the wing man on the swing sequences and went straight from top-to-corner, throwing off the Magic rotations and setting up a drive from the baseline corner. Or how about Calderon’s decision making after using the high screen – no waiting around, either shoot or pass. Except for a period in the second half, the Raptors never settled for a shot but worked their ass off and Triano needs to be credited for that. I’ve been saying it all season, he’s got these guys playing hard and that’s huge!
Some small game notes:
- Amir Johnson with 12 points on 5-7 shooting, 4 of his field-goals were assisted and one was on a put-back. This guy takes the least amount of bad shots on the team. His offensive rebounding rate this year is at a mind-boggling 21.1%. Four of his personal fouls were against Dwight Howard, how did Howard fare on the eight FTs resulting from those fouls? He missed all 8. Is that the game right there?
- Bargnani lost the tip again (hasn’t won one yet). On the other hand, Johnson beat Howard twice in tip-offs to gain two extra possessions – is that the game right there?
- Julian Wright continues to impress, absolutely phenomenal hustle and smarts on the defensive end. He seems to be very coachable and I am glad Triano has found a use for him.
- When you score, you automatically put the break on your transition defense problems. The Raptors shot 50% and the Magic only had 14 fastbreak points.
- The Raptors outrebounded the Magic 39-34, Evans’ 12 rebound performance was bigger than his 19-rebound performance against Sacramento because of who it came against. He had to work for every single one last night.
- I think Matt Devlin finally discovered hoopdata.com and how they measure shooting percentage based on distance, because he was busting out “at rim” percentages for everyone.
Great win for the Raptors.
Tonight it’s Miami, A-Dub will recap the proceedings as the Raptors take their talents to South Beach.