Raptors 120, Pistons 116 – Box

Last year, I would’ve turned this game off at the half. Don’t get me wrong, I was extremely tempted to do the same last night as well (as I’m sure many did), but resisted because despite being down 19 at the half, the Raptors were giving an honest effort and shooting a whopping 65%. Not sure if that has ever happened in any NBA game, ever. I figured that if we sustained our shooting, at some point the Raptors would figure out how to dribble up the court without coughing it up and maybe they’d come close. Another reason I kept watching is because, sensing garbage time approaching, I wanted to see Solomon Alabi get some run. Finally, the main reason I kept on watching past halftime is because I have simply nothing better to do on a Saturday night.

With Jose Calderon out, Jerryd Bayless got his second straight start and with that, a lesson in how not to handle pressure. The Pistons boast the NBA’s 26th ranked defense (Raps are 25th) but you would not have known it by how they were forcing turnovers in the first half. Not to take away from their pressuring of Jerryd Bayless and the rest of the wings, but a lot of the Raptors wounds were self-inflicted. Bayless was guilty of picking up his dribble too early too often, things were compounded when nobody presented themselves to a Raptor in a trap, and the waters were further muddied when Detroit started running back things efficiently. The Raptors, despite shooting 79% in the first quarter were down a point thanks to 8 turnovers leading to 14 Detroit points. Things got worse in the second quarter and Detroit finished with 29 points off of turnovers at the half, where the Raptors were down 72-53.

The Raptors were understandably deflated after seeing Detroit, the league’s 26th ranked offense, get so many easy points. The Raptors effort didn’t exactly take a dive, their enthusiasm just seemed to take a hit. The defense, which wasn’t putting Detroit under any sort of pressure to begin with, lost it’s focus in the half-court. The small/big communication between Bayless and Bargnani wasn’t happening, and Detroit was getting good looks on the pick ‘n roll. Amir Johnson and Ed Davis were providing help defense as best they could, but it took them out of rebounding position leading to second chance points – the Pistons ended up with 20 second-chance points at the half, Ben Wallace taking good advantage of both, Joey Dorsey and his night off against the T’Wolves. As the game turned ragged, the transition defense suffered as well, and the Raptors went into the half scratching their heads more than hanging them. Note to Joey Dorsey: You go up against your idol Ben Wallace (36 years old) and he gets 23/14 while you get 3/2?

Tracy McGrady, who averages 4 points, looked like an All-Star for the first few minutes of the second quarter where the Raptors defense looked it’s worst. Linas Kleiza was blowing his defensive coverages left and right during this period, and got the hook for the half at the 10:04 mark of the second. Searching for defensive options, Jay Triano barked out to assistant Alex English, asking him for the list of players on the roster. Triano was at the W’s when he saw Weems listed. After seeing Sonny’s name, he made a mental note to never play him again, and was almost about to hand the list back to English when he noticed another name below Weems. It was some guy named Wright. “Wright?”, he thought, “Who’s this Wright guy, Alex?”. English, equally perplexed replied, “I don’t know, I know we traded Antoine last year, must be a mistake”. That’s when a voice from the end of the bench spoke meekly, “Sir, my name is Julian Wright and I can play defense”.

We’ll get to Kansas-alumni Julian Wright’s contribution in just a minute, but let’s rewind this tale to the early first quarter when three things were happening well. Three things that seemed rather innocuous at the time but played a significant part in the greatest comeback in Raptors history. First, Andrea Bargnani was getting open looks, Ben Wallace did not want to come out to the perimeter and Bargnani got two threes out of Wallace’s reluctance. Detroit switched Greg Monroe on him, who fared a little better but not really. The former #1 pick is playing with a level of confidence on offense that right now cannot be shaken. He had 12 efficient points at the half but given the nature of the Raptors turnovers, it was hardly a talking point. Second, DeMar DeRozan (16pts, 4asts) was also having a good game, he was hitting his early jumpers and had some chemistry gong with Bayless. Third, Bayless might have been having trouble protecting the ball, but when he was offensive-minded, he was getting to the rim with ease and collected 13 points by halftime.

INTERMISSION

Just like the game had begun with Bayless and DeRozan supplying the offense, so did the third. The lead was cut to 15 but soon expanded to its apex of 25 at 5:09 of the third – 89-64. Surely, at this point the game was done and dusted and I was just waiting for Solomon Alabi to grace us with his presence, D-League stench intact. Instead, Julian Wright came in to relieve the ineffective Sonny Weems. Shortly after, Leandro Barbosa (who had not played a minute in the quarter), came in to replace Jerryd Bayless and assume full point guard duties. Things started to happen. Barbosa took Will Bynum off the high screens with his blazing quickness and notched two quick assists, which were followed by a three of his own. Julian Wright (4 steals) created a turnover and indirectly caused another one to spark the Raptors who went into the fourth down 99-83; they had shaved 9 points off the lead by making two smart substitutions.

Barbosa’s assault on Will Bynum continued into the fourth, the Brazilian had 6 early points and two more assists in the first few minute of the frame, all coming in pretty much the same manner. Use an early screen to get to the baseline or elbow area and then use his speed to get to the rim, or to create enough confusion in the defense to nick an intelligent pass. You can’t count on this kind of production from Barbosa on a consistent basis, but when you’re trying to overcome a 25-point hole you need someone in the zone and Barbosa was. His line read 8-13 FG, 22pts, 3reb, 7ast, and for my money he was the player of the game.

The previous night in Denver it was a matter of which team was going to go cold first, and the Raptors were always in the underdogs in that bet against Denver. Last night, the shoe was on the other foot. Detroit had one field goal and no free throws between the 8:45 and 3:47 marks of the fourth quarter. I’ll attribute it to two things, a committed Raptors defense, which had tightened up its interior rotations, and although they were still giving up the offensive rebounds, were not letting it hurt them. It also had a lot to do with luck, Charlie V, Tayshaun Prince and the Pistons got some very clean looks in that span and simply missed the shots. Andrea Bargnani had only five rebounds in the game, usually that’s worthy of criticism unless you note that he pulled a couple huge contested ones to prevent what surely would amount to back-breaking second-chance points.

Bayless was re-inserted at the 4:52 mark of the fourth to play the off-guard as Barbosa held command at the point. The strategy paid off because Bayless was the quickest guy on the court and found it easy to catch-and-drive instead of being tasked with the responsibility of bringing it up against a hound like Bynum or the physical Stuckey. The Raptors went on a 9-0 run shortly after, a run consisting of three assisted threes. Barbosa was assisted by Bargnani, Bargnani was assisted by Bayless, and then Bargnani once more found Bayless for three, the sequence saw some great decision-making by Bargnani who was playing with confidence right from the first quarter. The last trey gave the Raptors a three point lead and I was relieved for Bayless, he must have been feeling awful with the way his point duties were going and that shot was a reprieve. After a Wallace tip of an offensive rebound, Bayless bravely drove for two more. On the following two clutch possessions, he did the same and got fouled both times. He ended up with 31 pts on 10-12 FG, 7asts and 4 TOs. Most of all for him, this must have been one hell of a learning experience.

My calls for Julian Wright were answered, and him and Barbosa supplied the key spark towards the end of the third and the start of the fourth without which the fourth would have been little more than garbage time. Yes, Bayless and Bargnani supplied the clutch scoring late on but Barbosa was the reason they even had a chance to do that. Triano managed Kleiza and Wright’s minutes very well, Kleiza had 20 while Wright had 17 which also means there was also a better balance of offense and defense. Kleiza’s offensive game was efficient but struggled defensively, Wright was a beast on defense and nobody will fault him for not being a scorer because that’s really not what the Raptors have a problem with. Although, let it be known that Wright has shown that he can run two-man games on the back-end of the clock when need be. Too many times the ball has swung to his side where it would be very easy for him to hoist up a shot, but instead he drives the ball and finds a better option. It’s something he needs to be given credit for. Never read anything into game +/- stats unless it’s a game-high +17.

It’s only against the Central-worst Pistons, but it was still good to see swagger on the faces of Bargnani and Bayless down the stretch, haven’t seen that kind of genuine enthusiasm and “pumpedupedness” since early part of the last decade. We’re only 23 games into the season and have already seen more moments of joy than all of the last two years. That’s an endorsement of the trajectory this franchise is following, even though there is still a lot to be sorted out, not the least of which is what to do with the “Young Onez”. Of Johnson, DeRozan and Weems, only Johnson has shown that he’s capable of consistency and that has more to do with the position and style he plays than his skill level. DeRozan was better tonight and Weems continues to struggle, the problems the two are facing are quite different. DeRozan is struggling technically with his jumper and ball-handling; Weems seems to have those bases covered but is having concentration issues in his contract year – never a good sign. Right now Bargnani remains the most skilled player on the team, but as is well-documented thanks to A-Dub, there are holes in his game that can prevent him from reaching “franchise player” status or even a consistent positive net force. Whatever the future lies, I know one thing for damn sure: I’d rather live with this Raptors team than any of the last three, at least this way we have a chance to be good.

I had made a few notes on my iPhone to talk about at this point in the post in bullet format but a sync with the PC blew up. All I can remember is that the Rogers Ultimate View looks a lot like the big screen located on the West side of the ACC, and if so, it’s hardly “ultimate” and more like pedestrian. Literally. Also, can the production crew figure out how to broadcast a game without making a viewer miss at least five plays?

Losing skid snapped. Job done. History made.

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