Not to sound the alarm bells, but the Raptors appear to be a run-away train with no end in sight, at least not one that has a happy ending.
Leandro Barbosa, a heart-and-soul guy who gives the Raptors much-needed offence, hurt his hamstring during Friday’s visit to the Air Canada Centre by the Detroit Pistons.
He was carried off the floor, unable to put any weight on his leg, his status in doubt at a time when the Raptors desperately require a reserve to elevate their game.
The way the Raptors defended the Pistons in the first half, they need a lock-down defender in both the frontcourt and backcourt, or at least someone who takes pride when an opponent is able to score at will.
In more favourable circumstances, Sonny Weems would have provided a lift in Barbosa’s absence, but his wonky back makes this high-flyer questionable for any tip.
Amir Johnson’s troublesome back made him a game-time decision against the Pistons, but Johnson managed to start at power forward and persevered through the pain.
What is likely to happen is an even shorter rotation by head coach Jay Triano, who enters each night not knowing who is physically able to play.
And even when he does know, Triano isn’t sure what he’s getting.
The midway point is on the horizon, but more than any mid-season retrospective, the Raptors need to get healthy, need practice time and above all else they need to take ownership of a defence that is offensive.
The Raptors had matched a franchise record on Wednesday by shooting over 50% from the field for the fourth game in a row.
The team is second only to the Boston Celtics in field goal percentage over the past 10 games prior to Friday’s, but the run of sharpshooting ended with the team finishing at 47.5%
Particularly galling was Toronto’s horrendous 4-for-17 performance from beyond the arc.
While bombing away has long been a staple of this franchise, given the current edition has been the league’s worst from long-range for most of the season, it might be time to stop relying on that plan of attack so much.
The last straw was a volleyball-like sequence when the Detroit Pistons had five offensive rebounds in a span of about a minute — and the Raptors head coach made his move.
Out came Andrea Bargnani, eventually banished to the bench for what turned into almost 10 minutes of game time in Toronto’s 101-95 loss to the Pistons at the Air Canada Centre, as Triano delivered a message loud and clear.
“I was looking for someone to get us some defensive rebounds,” he said tersely when asked about the benching.
When it was pointed out that, yes, Bargnani had allowed a couple of Pistons to sneak by him for boards and that it was kind of a poor effort, the coach’s post-game media session ended with:
“You’re being kind.”
On a night when they might not have had enough offence to win anyway, the Raptors simply weren’t good enough individually on defence to have much of a chance to win.
Bargnani may have been singled out most publicly, but it wasn’t as if he was the lone culprit.
“They took turns posting different guys up, they went one-on-one,” said Triano. “It’s not a scheme, it’s not anything. It’s just man-on-man and they exploited mismatches.
“Guys should be embarrassed when a team runs a play six times in a row right at you.”
The fact the defence was terrible – especially when the Pistons rang up 61 first-half points – was not lost on the players.
“Yeah, we have to get better,” said Jose Calderon. “They just tried to play everybody on the post and they beat us.
“It wasn’t like it was one-on-one from the top or anything like that, they were trying to post up myself and DeMar (DeRozan) with Tracy McGrady, (Rodney) Stuckey, the big guys and it worked for them.”
With Calderon restricted in how much he can practice and how much he can handle in back-to-back games, and after Bayless tweaked his ankle during a practice mishap Thursday, the Raptors reached out to the 6-1 Gaines, signing him to a 10-day contract about a week after he was released by the Minnesota Timberwolves.
“He is a point guard who can set up and run offences rather than one who’s going to come down and look for his own,” coach Jay Triano said of Gaines, who played bits of last season with the Utah Jazz.
“I think we’ve got guys like DeMar (DeRozan) and Andrea (Bargnani) that we need to find ways to get the basketball to and if we had signed a scoring point guard, I don’t know if we need points from that position as much as we need someone to orchestrate who gets the basketball.”
Gaines, 24, is under no illusions about what his role is – if there even is one. He’s going to be told to keep it simple when he gets on the court and run the offence rather than be it.
“Pretty much that I’m an all-around basketball player,” he said when asked what fans needed to know about him. “I like to fill up the stat sheet but my first thing is I want to get everyone involved in the offence. Pick and choose my spots on the court. I like to push the ball and penetrate.
“Whether you’re on a team for a couple of years or just coming in, the point guard is always the toughest position. To me, at the end of the day it’s just basketball. I’m going to learn some of the plays and things of that nature … but I just have to get guys going.”
Defensive woes continued to thwart the Raptors on Friday. Despite strong shooting and superior rebounding in the first half (Andrea Bargnani led the team on offence with 16 points), Toronto trailed by as many as 16 points. Detroit sank 60 per cent of their shots, led by point guard Rodney Stuckey and Charlie Villanueva with 16 each.
There would be no miraculous comeback like the one Toronto pulled off in Detroit on Dec. 11 – despite Bargnani’s game-high 31 points and nine rebounds, and a last-ditch surge to bring the score to within six.
Sophomore shooting guard DeMar DeRozan struggled, finishing with just 15 points on 6 for 11 shooting. Tracy McGrady led the Pistons with 22 points.
Just before half-time, Raptors shooting guard Leandro Barbosa suffered a strained right hamstring, limped off the court and was carried into the locker room. He will remain in Toronto for the beginning of the Raptors’ upcoming road trip, and could miss the entire week. (Sonny Weems, Reggie Evans and Peja Stojakovic also will not travel). More back spasms meant Weems missed playing in his 13th straight game since Dec. 17. And although Amir Johnson’s sore back made his status a game-time decision, he started and delivered seven points and 10 rebounds.
“[The Pistons] took turns posting different guys up,” Raptors coach Jay Triano said. “They went one on one and scored on whoever matched up. It’s not a scheme or anything. It’s just man on man. They exploited mismatches. Guys should be embarrassed when a team runs a play six times in a row right at you.”
The Pistons shot around or better than 60% for the majority of the first half, and it was not before Triano opted for a lineup featuring the offensively challenged Julian Wright and Joey Dorsey that the Pistons’ shooting percentage dropped significantly. Obviously, that lineup had its own issues.
Without Leandro Barbosa, who strained his hamstring on an innocent-looking play at the end of the second half, the Raptors managed just 18 bench points. Both Barbosa and Sonny Weems, who is nursing a sore back, did not travel with the team to Washington. Their status for the rest of the Raptors’ five-game road trip is uncertain.
It was a weird night all around. Tracy McGrady, the way-past-his-prime superstar, was the best player on the floor. He finished with 22 points, as he continued his practice of enjoying the boos supplied by Toronto fans.
In a game where little of it was played, a defensive play down the stretch proved decisive in the Pistons 101-95 win over Toronto Friday.
The Pistons led by double figures most of the game, but got lazy in the final few minutes, settling for contested jumpers and even nearly getting an eight-second violation because Tracy McGrady was content to casually saunter up the court, just getting it over halfcourt as the shot clock was hitting ’16.’
That malaise, combined with Andrea Bargnani’s ability to get anything he wanted helped the Raptors pull to within five with the ball and about a minute remaining. Jose Calderon hit a cutting Amir Johnson, and just as Johnson was going up to finish, Greg Monroe stuck a hand in and just jarred the ball loose. The Pistons corralled it and Toronto was forced to foul, essentially sealing the game.
But let’s face facts: the Pistons are not a strong defensive team, and they beat Toronto because they played well on offense. That started and ended with the McGrady and Monroe combination. McGrady scored a season-high 22 points, and he assisted on three of Monroe’s six field goals. The two have great chemistry with each other, McGrady was constantly looking for Monroe on cuts and they run the pick and roll really well together. In fact, McGrady would’ve assisted on a fourth Monroe basket, but Monroe bobbled a catchable pass in good scoring position and couldn’t finish.
Coming into tonight’s game Toronto is 5-14 this season on the road. Washington has 10 wins this season, 10-27, with all 10 wins coming at home. The Raptors will need to correct a few things that they were unable to do last night against the Pistons to have a chance at a win tonight.
First, the Raptors allowed a poor offensive team – the Pistons – to get whatever they wanted in the first half because they were playing without energy. Toronto cannot come out flat again tonight in Washington. They need to use their defence to energize them, which lead them to easier offence. I know – wishful thinking.
Second, someone on the bench has to step up and score for the second unit. Washington is not a deep team, and when the second units are in, someone on the Raptors has to be able to get points. Last night, no one outside of Bargnani was really consistent on offence. If Barbosa is going to miss some time with a hamstring injury then Bayless has to look to score, and provide some of the scoring that Barbosa brings off the bench.
The Pistons found solace against the Raptors despite a fractured dressing room where veteran players Ben Wallace and Tayshaun Prince came to the defense of their benched comrade.
Point guard Tracy McGrady seems to have taken another step in his comeback, finishing with a season-high 22 points and five assists.
In his last 14 games McGrady has averaged 12.1 points, 4.4 rebounds and 4.5 assists.
"I was very impressed with his pace of the game," Kuester said. "His control, making plays when we needed big plays down the stretch."
McGrady shrugged off boos and kept his composure. His biggest basket came with 1 minute remaining when he flipped in a reverse layup to put the Pistons up 98-91 after the Raptors had cut their deficit to five.
"That is the type of player I am," McGrady said. "No matter how the game is going I want to be in control. I am starting to feel a lot better physically. Being out so long I think I am a lot smarter on the court."
Greg Monroe’s streak of four straight double-doubles ended, but he still finished with 12 points and seven rebounds. He made the biggest defensive play of the game when he cuffed a shot attempt by former Pistons forward Amir Johnson in the final seconds to keep the Raptors at bay.
The Pistons enjoyed the victory but there is division.
"It is a very difficult situation for me," Hamilton said. "I’ve never been in this situation before my whole career. I don’t know where to look."
So far, head coach Jay Triano is pleased with the improvements in the seven footer’s verbal leadership.
"He’s come out of his shell a little bit and probably speaks more this year than he did in the past," Triano said before Friday’s contest against the Detroit Pistons.
On the court, Bargnani is on pace for his best offensive season, currently averaging over 21 points per game. He has also chipped in with just under six rebounds per contest.
Pleased with his progress thus far, Bargnani believes there is a lot more growth yet to happen in his game this season, and beyond.
"I’m happy with my performance but I think I can do much better and I want to do better," said Bargnani. "I’ll keep practicing and I’ll work hard, but I’m happy."
Triano is also encouraged by the changes in Bargnani’s game, but feels that even more versatility would make him a better weapon in the Raptors’ attack. Something the head coach has seen glimpses of in crunch time but would like to see more often.
"He’s made slight progress in his ability to score in different ways and he’s shooting the three well," said Triano. "I still need to have him, if we’re going to be successful, be a better rebounder and a better defender. He’s proven he can do it because he does it in the fourth quarter."
It was identified early on in the season, and this recap is simply re-stating the obvious; that the Toronto Raptors are pretty thin on star power, have virtually no good defenders or defensive schemas, and therefore the margin of error each and every time they play is about as thin as wax paper.
But what concerns me over the last while, is the lack of evolution from this bunch.
The talent issue was always there, but Toronto used team play and improved defense at times to get wins no one expected.
The team that played Detroit last night looked for most of the game like it was more interested in playing outside in the Toronto snow.
And that’s why this next little trip could be the one that puts them into the bottom of the league for good.