For an NBA offense to be remotely effective there have to be double team threats on the floor, and if an offense lacks it, then it has to make up for it through super-efficient execution, great ball movement, and rebounding, none of which were present last night. The Raptors went up against the NBA’s 3rd ranked defense without Andrea Bargnani, who remains the only person a coach needs to plan for when playing the Raptors. Without Bargnani in there to shift the defense and create an environment for ball movement, the Raptors struggled against the Bulls’ excellent man-coverage and were soundly beaten to start a four game home-stand.
Andrea Bargnani’s numbers against Joakim Noah are in his favor, so you think he would have at least had some sort of say in the game if he had played. At the very least, the defensive-minded Tom Thibodeau would have had to account for him instead of simply playing man for the full 48 minutes and rely on their superiority inside to control the boards and the game.
The Bulls have a talent advantage at four starting positions and the fifth one is at best, even (DeRozan vs Bogans). The only times the Raptors didn’t labor when trying to score is when the Bulls were committing turnovers in the first quarter, and when Jerryd Bayless took it upon himself to drive the ball. Neither of those two things can happen consistently and so the Raptors struggled. Ideally, Sonny Weems and DeMar DeRozan would step up and find a way to assert themselves on offense, instead they went a combined 7-22, with Weems throwing in four turnovers for good measure. One of the signs of a committed player is when, despite having a bad offensive game, they retain their focus on defense and that is obviously not the case with either of these two or Kleiza.
None of them position themselves at an angle which is conducive to ‘bumping’ the cutter, the cutters are allowed to go anywhere on the court without any impediment. They don’t anticipate screens being set on them, instead they’re always trailing and trying to “catch up” with the play when all a quality NBA wing needs is a foot of space. Luol Deng’s movements against Sonny Weems were a manifestation of this phenomenon. They don’t read scouting reports, Weems’ coverage of Kyle Korver was nothings short of horrific, he was giving him jumpers when that’s his bread-and-butter. None of DeRozan, Weems or Kleiza have any impact on help-defense, the Raptors are dead last in the league in steals and a big part of that is these guys not making plays such as stripping the ball or picking the passing lanes. Their feet are glued to the court when defense is all about anticipation and reaction.
Keeping the Bulls contained is a challenging task on any night, let alone with the wing play the Raptors have going. Getting to the bigs, Carlos Boozer must have been licking his lips when he saw Amir Johnson and Ed Davis start in the Raptors front-court. The Raptors’ bigs were no match for Boozer, his bulk was too hard to keep out of the paint and his post-game is too refined to let eager shot-blockers get the better of him. Last week it was Amare Stoudemire who picked apart the Raptors’ interior man defense and last night it was Boozer who dropped in a cool 34 points on 13-17 shooting without breaking a sweat.
The Raptors were being suffocated on offense right from the start and the game’s trajectory wasn’t looking promising with the Bulls grabbing a 19-10 lead with 3:19 left in the first quarter. The Raptors capitalized on 6 Bulls turnovers in the first quarter and made up for their 14-8 rebounding deficit and 40% shooting. That was about it, though. The Bulls settled in to a groove after that with Derrick Rose pressurizing the Raptors defense which struggled coping with the excellent Chicago ball movement. When it came time to dump the ball underneath to Boozer, there was no answer. Amir Johnson was sent packing after two fouls and in came Joey Dorsey (12 points, 13 rebounds), he had a solid game on the glass and converted on a few desperation dumps (you know, where a wing doesn’t want the ball at the end of the shot-clock and dumps it to a big man whether he’s capable or not).
The Raptors sent a couple half-hearted double teams but seven Chicago threes kept everyone honest. The Bulls are a very well-coached team and you can’t help but notice the little things they do. Joakim Noah steps in as if he’s going to drive from 10 feet out, stops on a dime after attracting help, and passes to the corner to create a swing sequence. Boozer fakes a pass to create space to dribble for his post-move. Korver’s always moving at the wing making the pass out to him easier for his point guard. Deng and Boozer are on the same page on the baseline screens, and the screens set by their bigs are crisp and get the Raptors every time. There’s not much a team like the Raptors can do against a focused group like that. Jerryd Bayless and Leandro Barbosa tried to respond as best as they could, mostly in one-on-one fashion, but it was too much to overcome. At the end of the half, the Bulls had 38 points in the paint and Boozer was 8-11. More importantly, the Raptors conceded 63 points and were down 19.
Ed Davis got his first NBA start and had his hands full, yet managed to have a good showing with 10 points, 10 rebounds and a block. It’s clear that he’s got a lot to learn, from setting a decent screen to making a proper roll, and of course, figuring out who he’s guarding after those interior rotations happen. However, nobody should have any problem with him playing despite these issues because the guy is trying on defense and gives you rebounding when he’s giving you nothing else; the trait I described above about staying focused on defense when the offense isn’t going for you applies to him perfectly. One might expect the interior help defense to be better without Bargnani, but that theory wasn’t fully tested since the Bulls’ primary attack didn’t come wing drives into the lane.
At the half I was thinking to myself what might need to happen for the Raptors to come back in this one, and nothing came to mind. The Raptors were simply outclassed by a much better Chicago side which is stacked to contend. There’s a lot to be learned from the Bulls over the years, although they’re far from an archetype for rebuilding, they do prove that persistence pays off. Following the six seasons after the Jordan era ended, they averaged 19.8 wins and relied on their draft picks to get them past the tough times. Elton Brand, Marcus Fizer, Chris Mihm, Eddy Curry, Jay Williams, Kirk Hinrich, Ben Gordon and Tyrus Thomas (via trade with Portland) were all lottery picks that never quite turned into franchise players. Then they struck gold with Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah, and added Taj Gibson as gravy. A key trade (Deng for Robinson) came along the way and they finally made a splash with the free-agent signing of Boozer, and now you have a contender.
What’s the lesson learned? There are no shortcuts to contention, the draft is where it’s at. The question is: Are DeRozan and Weems the equivalent of Jay Williams and Kirk Hinrich, or is their impact closer to Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah? Are the YGZ® just a shot in the dark on the long road towards finding a jewel in the draft, or are they the jewel in the draft? You decide.