The Real Killer B’s: Bargnani and Bench

For the second straight game the Raptors bench supplemented a ‘Beast Mode’ performance by Andrea Bargnani to start their first winning streak of the season. If the Raptors are to beat anyone, it has to be close to a total team effort and that it was, if there’s a stat which reflects that effort it has to be bench scoring – 46-11.

Rockets 96, Raptors 106 – Box

For the second straight game the Raptors bench supplemented a ‘Beast Mode’ performance by Andrea Bargnani to start their first winning streak of the season. If the Raptors are to beat anyone, it has to be close to a total team effort and that it was, if there’s a stat which reflects that effort it has to be bench scoring – 46-11. It was like having two starting lineups out there, one led by Bargnani and Weems, and the other by Jose Calderon who quaterbacked the side in their time of need, which was the late third and early fourth quarters.

The pessimist that I am, I expected Bargnani to cool down under the scrutiny of Luis Scola. Rick Adelman hoped the same by having a cross- switch going, Bargnani was defending Miller but was being defended by Scola, the flip side of the matchup had Miller checking Evans. Scola played Bargnani tight by taking away his jumper and angling away his drive space, it took a few possessions for Bargnani to think about what was going on and when he did, the screen usage and quick turns he used to get free of Scola was exquisite. Mix in a drive and a deep three and you have 11 first quarter points on hot shooting, the numbers for the game were equally impressive – 26pts, 6reb, 4ast 11-17 FG. The Raptors have been notorious for coming out slow at home and this was just the start they needed. They were up 28-27 at the end of the first and things could have been better if it weren’t for the transition defense, a problem that needs to be addressed as they again gave up 27 points. The bigs seem to be the ones who get caught too often, Evans is the obvious culprit because he’s going for the offensive rebound on every possession and leaving the back vulnerable.

Just like against Philadelphia, Weems chipped in with a tidy 9 points (all against uber-defender Shane Battier who was playing him well) in the first quarter, giving the Raptors a 1-2 wing-big punch that has proven to be only too effective in this league. It’s no secret that I have a soft spot for Weems and you can see why, he had an offensive “cycle” early on – a three pointer, a drive and a mid-range jumper. On the RR Facebook page the question about who has more potential was asked – DeRozan or Weems? You can have your take on that one, I’ll just say that Weems, right now, has a much more well-defined and polished skill-set than DeRozan. Maybe it’s the extra year in college or his experience in the D-League, but you cannot deny that there is a touch of class in Weems’ game that gets you excited. Of course, that doesn’t answer the question of potential.

The start of the second quarter saw the bench play as well as one can imagine. I already praised Amir Johnson’s interior defense and shot- changing ability in the Philadelphia recap, and it’s worth mentioning again. This point can’t be over-stressed, Lowry (Brooks out with injury) and Martin were finding pathways to the rim too easily in the first quarter, and Johnson changed all that. The second quarter was a different story where Houston settled for the jumper on their favorite play – a high- post where the big comes out, clearing the space underneath and then handing off to a guard on the outside who then has an option to get left or right. Jose Calderon’s orchestration of the offense was simple and clean, no getting into the face of big men (ahem, Jack) or trying out his own jumper as the first option on the play. Shades of Jose when he used to back up T.J Ford in that oh so enjoyable year.

Before we get too ahead of ourselves, let’s make it clear: the second quarter belonged to Linas Kleiza. In a perfect example of why he should be coming off the bench, Kleiza torched Chase Budinger in the post and off the dribble. Now, if he was starting he’d be going up against a much better defender in Battier; that would have made his life much more difficult and he would have never gotten on the roll that he did. Kleiza scoring on Budinger again in the fourth has to be attributed to his second quarter performance because that’s when the confidence had been developed. Kleiza had 8 in the second quarter and David Andersen continued to make Bryan Colangelo look smart with 7 against his former team, as the bench extended the lead to 9; the Raptors broke at the half with a 51-43 lead.

I thought the Raptors would bring the hammer down in the third quarter but they came out flat. The Rockets exploded out of the gates with a 15-4 run sparked by Kyle Lowry and his abuse of Jarrett Jack, who struggled to create a balance in the offense. DeRozan had provided very little of substance on the offensive end in the first half, but I wasn’t paying much attention to it since the overall offense was chugging along just fine. Defensively, Kevin Martin was jerking him around too easily as the USC product couldn’t sort out a proper defensive stance, and this problem escalated in the third quarter causing some grief. Negotiating screens has been DeRozan’s biggest problem on defense, he has the athleticism, quickness and motivation to play defense, it’s his thinking that is hanging him out to dry. Houston ran their high-post hand-off play about 20 times in this game and it seemed that DeRozan was caught on it every time. Offensively, he showed some life in the fourth quarter by getting to the line, but until then was doing his usual thing – driving to the rim only to find a defender there and then contorting his body in such a way that it takes away his shooting angles. Early days for him.

We need more of this from Jose.

Back to the third quarter, I’m not big on calling strategic timeouts in the third quarter but it was quite obvious that Triano was about three minutes too late with his intervention at 7:58 of the frame. To make things more confusing, the play coming out of the timeout was a Jarrett Jack jumper with nobody else touching the ball. Albeit late, the message was delivered that Bargnani needs to get more touches, after all the guy was killing it the whole game and not giving him at least a touch against whoever was guarding him made little sense. After the Raptors surrendered the lead with Jack at the helm, Triano brought in Calderon who did the opposite of Jack. Jose was probably watching Jack play the anti-point from the bench and told himself that all he needs to do is be the anti-anti-point which is just a pure point. He came in and immediately delivered two assists and two jumpers which put the Raptors back on course, leading by one heading into the fourth.

Calderon, Kleiza, Johnson and Andersen were the bench players to start the fourth and they once again held their own. Kleiza’s 7 points against Bundinger in the middle part of the quarter signaled a momentum shift in the game and I’m surprised that Rick Adelman allowed that travesty of a matchup to continue. Kleiza had burned Budinger in isolation situations in the second quarter and you would think Adelman would try Battier on him instead. Triano stuck with DeRozan through most of the fourth quarter and the sophomore continued to drive the ball, only this time getting the benefit of the call. He went 6-8 from the line in the fourth, and his points seemed to come at a time where Houston really struggled to score. Andrea Bargnani also had two great back-to-back baskets to keep things rolling along, and the Raptors simply waited for Houston’s one-man show of Kevin Martin to cool down, confirming that team play always wins.

The zone defense Triano pulled out of nowhere in the fourth quarter also threw Houston off, their plays rely a lot on their guards pinning their checks on high-post screens for pretty things like UCLA-cuts, and the zone neutralized that part of their game. It also took them a few possessions just to realize that the Raptors were zoning, it reminded me of the Orlando game where the Magic were completely baffled at how to go about running their offense because the Raptors were mix and matching defenses very well.

Some notes:

  • Muchos credit to Jose Calderon for not only having a 10/7 game, but injecting some composure in the second half. One of the plays he won’t get an assist on but should is a great use of a right wing- screen to get to the paint and then shovel it off to Johnson for the foul. Those are back-breaking plays for a defense because they’ve given up something out of nothing.
  • The rate at which Reggie Evans gets stripped is very high. He is lucky not to get ejected for the way he swung his elbow when Lowry tied him up in the first half. It was a weak jump-ball, but still, dangerous elbows.
  • If you have the game PVR’d, go to the 6:44 mark of the second quarter.
  • Jack’s vision is considerably narrowed when he’s driving the ball, he’s OK at spotting cutters to the rim but he neglects his shooters too often. I spotted two instances where Bargnani was literally waving his arms for the ball and Jack took the shot.
  • You got the feeling that Kevin Martin was going to either win or lose the game for them. He kept them close, but missed a key open jumper which would have cut the lead to two.
  • The Raptors finished shooting 48.8% but were above 50% for most of the game. The Rockets shot 43.6% and cooled off in the late-third, early-fourth, it proved to be fatal for them.
  • The Raptors win the PITP battle 44-36, and I’ll credit Bargnani for that. Look at his shot-chart.

Have a nice weekend.

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