Thunder 99, Raptors 111 – Box

I had a pretty crappy day to end an even crappier week, but all that went away thanks to the Raptors, and I got reminded once again why I follow this team. There are times where everything is going so perfectly that you have to pinch yourself to keep the expectations in check, last night was one of those occasions. A Man of The Match poll for this game would leave the vote split between Bargnani, Calderon, or Barbosa, but that would discount the most important ingredient of this fantastic win – the effort. Jay Triano and his staff can’t be given enough credit for getting this team to play hard and with pride each night, especially after the debacle of the last two years. Last night’s inspiring third quarter display is one to be remembered and the coach deserves a lot of credit.

The start to this one saw both teams trying to exploit a matchup, the Raptors first few possessions are now consistently geared towards getting Bargnani involved and off they went. There wasn’t much early success to be had in terms of scoring, but the touches that he consistently received kept him warm till later when he was needed. OKC went with Jeff Green against Sonny Weems, again, not much came of it but that didn’t stop them from persisting. The first quarter belonged to Jose Calderon, who you would not have picked to come out on top in his matchup against Russell Westbrook. And you certainly wouldn’t expect him to bother Westbrook too much on defense. The only possession Calderon got beat on was the first of the game, after that he picked Westbrook up early, played him tight when he did get to the lane, used active hands to continually bother him and even picked up two impressive steals at mid-court to start breaks.

Sometimes the best defense is offense and Calderon’s first quarter offense was what drove the Raptors to a 28-25 lead against the Durant-less Thunder. Calderon had 4 points and 4 assists in the first frame and he is largely responsible for the Raptors shooting 58% in it; his impact was unmistakable to the point where he was a dominant force on the court. He had 15 assists on the night, many of them timed to perfection for alley-oops and layups, and of course there were a fair share of the traditional pick ‘n pop assists. I’ve always been a proponent of the traditional point guard setup where you have an unquestioned starter and a backup who knows his role. The Raptors haven’t had that in three years, and over the last few games we’re seeing the benefits of a point guard playing without looking over his shoulder. Hopefully it carries and Bayless can continue to play the role of the studious assistant.

OKC’s defense was intact and they were playing us tight, the Raptors offense simply executed brilliantly. They didn’t get many cheap points in transition and most of what they earned came by nailing the open jumpers (Amir Johnson showing his improved range), finishing strongly in the paint, and crashing the offensive glass. The second quarter was a bit of setback due to the turnovers, in total the Raptors committed ten of them in the half. Against a normal team that might have gone unpunished, but OKC’s transition game is amongst the best and they rode it to a 59-52 first half lead. Ed Davis, Jerryd Bayless and Linas Kleiza got run in the second and performed well, but the man that kept the Raptors in it during their turnover turmoil was Leandro Barbosa. The Brazilian had 10 points in the second, many of them coming in those offensive possessions where nothing seems to be going and suddenly you score.

With the emergence of Weems, the return of Barbosa and the organization’s commitment to DeRozan, Kleiza’s role has shrunk to the point where he’s got to produce in limited minutes to earn further time. He’s adapted positively so far, he’s definitely cut down on the stupid threes and is putting an emphasis on his post-game, something Triano wants to feature more and more. Credit to him for sticking to it, not sulking, and giving it his best on either end, I hope he continues to be a pro about it. Ed Davis (18min, 6pts, 4reb) with another solid game, you again saw his defensive oriented style of play, the PnR coverages are completely off but that can be attributed to lack of playing time. His shot-contests on rotations are great, he’s fighting for position on both ends, and is even finishing with poise instead of acting scared. You have to like what you see.

Coming out of the third the danger of being buried was ever-present. OKC had to be smelling blood since the Raptors 52% shooting was bound to cool down as the home team had appeared rattled in the second, but it wasn’t happening. Up until now, the Raptors defense had only forced two turnovers and Triano’s cry at halftime had to be to pressure the ball and increase the intensity. That they did in tremendous fashion. The quarter started with the Raptors picking the passing lanes to the tune of three turnovers leading to fastbreaks, suddenly the offense got looser as the Raptors didn’t have to grind it out, and were getting easy baskets. It was the Thunder that didn’t see the punch coming and saw their percentages drop in the face of a frenetic and stingy defense – the Raptors giving them a dose of their own medicine. All in all, the Raptors forced 6 turnovers leading to 13 fastbreak points in the quarter.

The offense in the third was a thing of beauty, Calderon had 8 assists (full distribution) in it and check out the point distribution: Weems and DeRozan with 8 each followed by Bargnani and Johnson with 6 apiece, that is the very definition of the ball “not sticking”. Bargnani didn’t get any assists in this quarter and that’s a shame, because it’s because of his mobility and capacity to be a threat on either side of the court that the Thunder defense kept shifting. Krstic and Collison had played him well in the first half, not so much in the third where the Italian took it upon himself to prove a point. He also improved his post-up decisions, in the first half he was getting the ball in the block and turning baseline, thus being blindsided leading to steals and pressure. In the entire second half he kept going towards the middle so when help came, he had an easy pass to a teammate looking to move the ball. The Thunder were on the ropes in the quarter and shot only 28%, but just like Barbosa had kept the Raptors in it in the second, James Harden’s threes kept OKC in it going into the fourth – down nine.

The road-weary Thunder, having played a triple overtime contest against the Nets on Wednesday, looked the more tired in the fourth and played all 12 players. In contrast, the Raptors stuck to a 9-man rotation. Bargnani looking up and evaluating his options led to two scores for Barbosa early in the fourth and the Raptors extended the lead to 95-81 with 8:08 remaining. Scotty Brooks was left searching for an answer to Bargnani and the Raptors, and countered with a small lineup with Jeff Green at center. The matchups caught Triano by surprise who didn’t budge and continued playing Bargnani and Johnson at the big positions. An option would have been to go small and insert players like Barbosa, DeRozan, Weems and Bayless together, but that would have been suicide as OKC excels at small-ball while the Raptors are still figuring out their mix.

With Sefolosha guarding Bargnani (even Eric Maynor was on him at one point), the Raptors offense let OKC off the hook by not punishing them in the post on a couple possessions giving them hope. Triano then called an excellent timeout where he reminded the players of the matchups and their advantage through them. Luckily for the Raptors, Calderon made a tough jumper to keep OKC at a distance and Barbosa was fouled on a three and made two free throws. However, Triano’s message had been received and the Raptors started going inside-out once again, Bargnani and Johnson scored 10 straight Raptors points (8 were Bargnani’s, Amir also had a great offensive rebound), and the Raptors reestablished control with their offense. On one play, Bayless and Bargnani had a re-post sequence where the latter hit the jumper over Sefolosha, leaving the OKC coaching staff hanging their heads in despair. The Thunder simply had no answer to the Raptors’ ball movement, effort and belief, and settled for shots ending up with only 40 points in the second half. As Triano said post-game, it was all about the Raptors sharing the ball and having it fuel their defense..

A word on Bargnani: 26 points 12 rebounds. I’ve never been too concerned about Bargnani’s rebounding (except for games like Sacramento earlier in the year where he’s just not functioning) as long as he’s just picking up a man when the ball goes up. I just don’t believe it impacts the game if the Raptors are playing an up-tempo style, especially when the power forward is a guy like Amir Johnson or Ed Davis who can swallow rebounds with their length. Since Evans went out he’s averaging 9 rebounds a game, that’s about 4 rebounds above his season average. What does that mean? It supports the theory that Evans collects rebounds that any other player (especially a big) would collect under normal circumstance. I don’t think Bargnani has technically “improved” his rebounding since Evans has left, it’s just that the easier rebounds that were swallowed by Evans are now falling to him and he’s doing a job of it. Having said that, he had two monster offensive rebounds last night, one of them late when OKC was busy playing small ball – great timing on the tip!

I’d like to end by commending the sheer effort and dedication that the team showed in getting this impressive win. In my books, Bargnani wins the Man of The Match, because when OKC went to small ball he responded and carried the team. Sure, he had help but OKC disrespected him by putting wings on him and he made them pay. Chris Bosh never did that and maybe that’s why this game was so exciting: it was great to see the Raptors, as a team and individually, respond to a challenge and win it.

Great win and as Bargnani said it: “We did a hell of a job”.

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