Josh Smith, Amir Johnson
76ers 90, Raptors 106 – Box

Something has surely changed since the ugly defeat in Washington and I quite can’t put my finger on it. Maybe it’ll take some time to figure…wait, what? I know exactly what changed. Andrea Bargnani decided to show up and stamp his name all over this team. His play has been nothing short of All-Star caliber since then and he has managed to seal every critic’s mouth with duct-tape dipped in super-glue. Take this game for example, Reggie Evans gets the game-ball for his 22 rebounds but it’s Bargnani that imprinted the Raptors’ authority in the first quarter, on their way to a blowout of a Philly squad that had lost an emotional game in OT the night before.

The first possession is indicative of the attitude change in Bargnani (24pts, 8-16FG): a hard post-up for a foul. It sets the tone, it says to the defense what your’e all about, it says that you’re not going to let them off the hook by not testing their strength inside or their quickness outside. Instead, you’ll go against those scouting reports that have labeled you as a “settler” who will take the easy three instead of fighting for it amongst men. Bargnani drew three early fouls in the first quarter which went some ways in putting the Philly defense under pressure, what shouldn’t be discounted is the spacing on the floor that allowed for Bargnani to catch the ball and make a move without the fear of getting stripped. Pressure can be applied in various ways, most equate it with defensive work or a point guard penetrating, but the way Bargnani set the tone for the Raptors early shook Philly. Spencer Hawes and company were already weary of him after he dropped 30 easy last week, and after he asserted his dominance early, their defense shifted to open up seams for others.

Here’s a Breaking It Down segment which highlights Triano’s efforts to get Bargnani an early look to get him going.

Take Leandro Barbosa for example, he finished with a relatively poor 5-14FG, but the part he played in building the Raptors’ early lead isn’t reflected in the box score. Barbosa and Linas Kleiza’s usage of down-screens to come back up for curls broke the Sixer defense at least five teams in the first half. Barbosa’s penetration for scores (exquisite finger rolls) and a classic one-man fastbreak added a new dimension to our offense, an offense that was already prospering courtesy of Jose Calderon’s shooting, Bargnani’s diverse offense, and Jerryd Bayless coming off the bench to knock down threes. The new Raptor looked out-of-sorts early with the confusion in his eyes evident, he didn’t know who was supposed to set the screen for him, didn’t make some reads, and sort of convinced himself to take some long jumpers early. He ended up nailed three threes which must have done his confidence a world of good, because there’s nothing like joining a new team and dropping bombs. Lou Williams was giving him some trouble early with some herky-jerky stuff and Bayless got burned on a few occasions. John Hollinger’s scouting report states that he has trouble playing defense because he fouls too much, I can see where he’s coming from – three fouls in 15 minutes. This guy should share bunk-beds with Amir Johnson (heh). Overall, a good debut for him and if there’s one thing he definitely has over Jack, it’s a tighter dribble and quickness at the point of attack. His work needs to improve once he does manage to get in the lane, but we’ll leave that for another day.

The Raptors shot 65% in the first quarter on their way to a 15 point lead. Jrue Holiday beat Jose Calderon a few times off the dribble but that threat subsided as Sixer legs grew tired. Calderon appeared much more focused on defense, played the angles on his ‘deny’ assignments well, and pressured Sixer guards into getting on with their offense. His defense fed into the Raptors team-defense which held Philly to 43.2% shooting. The rotations were very crisp and when the bench came in, the Raptors didn’t miss a beat. The only complaint I have in this game (and this is based on the first half, since that’s really what mattered) is Sonny Weems’ close-outs – poor, very poor. He needs to get a hand up in the shooter’s face instead of jogging back up the court to play offense, I understand you want to leak out to get the break going but there’s no excuse for not contesting a shot.

It didn’t come into play today, but DeMar DeRozan’s struggles continued. A 1-5 night (8/29FG – 27% over the last 4 games), he tried two jumpers in the first quarter and when they didn’t fall, he seemed to step back from the action. Good move, because the rest of the team had it going and there was no need to shoot yourself out of a slump this game. It’s already been said numerous times in these articles, countless times in the forums, and it’s worth mentioning again – a shooting guard without a jumper is a shooting guard out of the league. You would have bet that he would have wanted to take it to Evan Turner after dropping the chance to do so in Philly, but it didn’t happen. He notched an early steal and then almost had another one, that was about it in terms of production.

The Raptors went on to extend the lead to 22 and Philly was never in it. Stojakovic got some burn late in the second and third quarters, six minutes in total and he hit a three. Make no mistake, he’s not going to be here next year, however, that doesn’t mean he can’t come in handy this season. I can already see him being used to space the floor out in key fourth quarter possessions to allow breathing space for the rest of the crew to do their thing.

This game was how Bryan Colangelo envisioned the Raptors this season – Bargnani leading the charge, Reggie Evans dominating the glass, Calderon racking up the assists and hitting his mid-range jumpers, Amir Johnson earning his coin (some very nice interior passes by him last night) and just about everything going right. Here’s to the streak continuing. For fun, like I did the last few years when the aspirations were higher, let’s check Jose Calderon’s assist distribution: Bargnani 4, DeRozan 1, Weems 2, Stojakovic 1, Johnson 1. It appears that Bargnani is the new Bosh, except that he’s much less of a #$&!.

Obviously, I didn’t talk enough about Reggie Evans and his 22 rebounds. What can you say? I remember the year we signed Kapono I wanted the Raptors to acquire Reggie, back then he was a much better defender and was on the trade block. He was exactly the player we needed at the time and it’s one of those moves that I can never forgive Colangelo for not making. Here we are three years later and Evans is playing as advertised, there is no doubt that someone will come calling for his services at the deadline. I’d like to think that I’d be fine with flipping him for a pick, but you look at the effect he’s having on everyone else and you wonder whether he’s not the true motor on this team.

Great win by the Raptors, four in a row with a very tough game coming up in Boston. Al Davis had a popular phrase, Just win, baby, that might not apply to the Raptors at this embryonic stage of their development, but we can come up with something more suitable and reflecting what they need to do in Boston: Just fight, baby.