Mental lapses, inexperience cost Raptors

I suppose this is what rebuilding is all about: fighting hard but making mistakes and hopefully learning in the process. Last night a relatively healthy Raptors squad again showed us glimpses of what they are capable of, and just when you were about to commend them for a job well done, they reminded you that this is a work in progress and that there’s a lot to be learned by everyone.

Hawks 104, Raptors 101 – Box

There’s good and bad in this game, but let’s start with the blame:

  • Jay Triano – Why would you not put your strongest defensive lineup out on the final possession of the game? Why is Jose Calderon in the game and why is Julian Wright not defending renowned Raptors-killer Mike Bibby?
  • Amir Johnson: Three fatal errors. 1) Crucial illegal screen late in the game, 2) Did not communicate on the switch with Jose on the Bibby three, 3) Fouled Jamal Crawford on a three for no reason.
  • DeMar DeRozan: Horrible decision to drive the ball right at a shot-blocker while nursing a one-point lead, ended up getting blocked. And then fouled Crawford on another three.

I suppose this is what rebuilding is all about: fighting hard but making mistakes and hopefully learning in the process. Last night a relatively healthy Raptors squad again showed us glimpses of what they are capable of, and just when you were about to commend them for a job well done, they reminded you that this is a work in progress and that there’s a lot to be learned by everyone. Jay Triano’s decision to go with the zone befuddled the Hawks for most of the second half, it forced them into outside shots they were reluctant to take and introduced a hesitancy in their drives. By all accounts, this was a game to be won, if not for the mental errors (and they are all mental) described above.

DeMar DeRozan had 9 points in the first quarter on 4-5 shooting, his drives were purposeful and his finishing strong, it actually made me jot a note down about how he’s using hesitation moves on his dribbles. His burst was countered by Jamal Crawford’s 11 points in 4 minutes, two threes and two drives in transition, which gave the Hawks a 27-21 first quarter lead. The Hawks were using Windex on the defensive boards and the Raptors commitment to offensive rebounding was hurting them in transition, adding fuel to Crawford’s already heated game. Crawford was only just getting warmed up for a big night of 36 points, unfortunately for the Raptors, DeRozan was never to be heard from again except when he was making mistakes. Also up for debate is whether Triano should have nipped Crawford in the bud by sticking Wright on him, perhaps the damage could have been minimized because simply ignoring the problem didn’t do anything. The bigs for both teams were silent in the first quarter despite getting a lot of touches, Bargnani for the Raptors and Smith/Horford for the Hawks.

The Hawks have always been able to bother the Raptors on the offensive end by playing them tight on the perimeter and using their length inside, and until Leandro Barbosa introduced himself, it appeared this time around was going to be no different. Barbosa had his best overall game as a Raptor, his 26 points on 11-16 shooting will get the limelight which is only half the story. His defense was outstanding in every respect, he played the zone very well, he nicked three steals and had at least three deflections. He was the Raptors’ answer to Jamal Crawford and he did it wisely. He was always looking for a 1/5 switch on the high-screen and when he got it, he accelerated and finished with accuracy. He managed to counter Atlanta’s length with sheer speed and showed a real knack of using the window wisely.

As Joe Johnson and Jamal Crawford continued to dissect the Raptors (specifically Bayless and DeRozan) in the second, the Raptors turned to Andrea Bargnani. Some excellent hi-lo feeds leading to deep post-ups had Bargnani scoring rather easily in the frame, he needs to be credited for moving very well without the ball and his 13 efficient points in the second quarter went a long way in keeping this a five point game at halftime.

With individual defensive matchups not producing desired results, Triano went for the zone and stuck with it. He usually uses it intermittently to throw offenses of, but since the Raptors were so outmatched in their individual matchups, his hand was forced. The strategy worked wonders because the Hawks appeared as if they were seeing it for the first time. Contested threes and drives right into the strong part of the zone didn’t produce the results Larry Drew was hoping for. The Hawks shot only 30% in the third quarter – one where they had pulled away from the Raptors last time around – and looked in disarray. The home team was contending nicely with the Hawks’ defensive pressure by making their perimeter looks, thus negating the discrepancy on the boards. The Raptors’ offense was patient with Jose Calderon, Leandro Barbosa and Andrea Bargnani making smart decisions through the frame, often testing Zaza Pachulia’s horrible help defense. I felt the Hawks could have done more to pressure the Raptors, but their offensive difficulties surely must have hampered their defensive cause.

It was a 77-75 game heading into the fourth with the Raptors carrying the lion’s share of the momentum. The third quarter break didn’t resolve Atlanta’s issues with the zone and they continued to labor on their sets. Joe Johnson made two very tough shots for them with the shot-clock bearing down, shots that big-time players are supposed to make. However, even with Johnson and Crawford operating efficiently and the Hawks getting to the line far more frequently (31-12 FTAs), the Raptors were keeping pace thanks to Barbosa and Bargnani’s 7 fourth quarter points each. The Hawks were hanging in there by getting perimeter scores and the Raptors were getting inside often – the points in the paint had the Raptors with a blistering 60-38 advantage. Of course, the fourth is also where we saw the questionable play mentioned earlier in this tale.

I’ll be honest with you, I usually go back and watch the last little bit of the game one more time before writing these, but this time I didn’t have the heart to do it. The lingering feeling in my mind is that the Raptors’ inexperience came into play and they made boneheaded decisions which at first kept Atlanta in the game and then later, pushed them forward. Jamal Crawford’s 30-foot three is something you can’t plan for and chalk up to luck, that is not the case with the final possession. I am a matchups guy, just because somebody hasn’t played a minute in the game so far, doesn’t mean he can’t step in and contribute when he’s needed most. In my opinion, you have to put the strongest defensive lineup out there when the other team has to score. Jay Triano did not do that. The miscommunication between Bargnani, Calderon and Johnson led to Bibby being wide open from dead-center and he drained it. If nothing else, you have to automatically switch on the perimeter, force the drive and hang your hat on your help defense. You can’t give the offense their first option, and that too a wide open look.

Amir Johnson’s effort over the last couple weeks has been impressive, he’s shown a commitment to his teammates, has played through injuries, and has displayed a quiet sense of leadership. However, a player in his fifth year has got to know better than to set an illegal screen up two with 10 seconds left, that’s just lack of concentration. I don’t expect offensive consistency from DeMar DeRozan, he is destined to struggle in the league during his first three years. That doesn’t excuse him for not exploring a better option than to go up against Josh Smith without having a positional advantage, and it certainly doesn’t excuse him for repeating Johnson’s earlier mistake and fouling Crawford on the three. As usual, his defense throughout this game was nothing short of atrocious, and something Jack Armstrong is keen on pointing out time and time again.

When the Raptors did finally get a ball down one with 8 seconds left, the two natural options for me were Andrea Bargnani or Leandro Barbosa. Bargnani was getting his shot off against Josh Smith much more easily than he was in the first quarter, and Barbosa was on fire. At the very least, these two could have put pressure on the defense and perhaps drawn a foul with the help of the home support. The play was for Calderon who challenged Al Horford, the latter gladly obliging with a block.

The distasteful feeling left after this one shoudn’t take away from the performances of Bargnani and Barbosa, or the Raptors zone-driven team defense, it should serve as a reminder that this is what rebuilding is all about. Coming close but not necessarily winning, that will come later. Hopefully.

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