Fret not Kyrie-lovers, this minor setback will do little in stopping the Raptors’ charge towards the top of the lottery. The streak was destined to come to an end against the Timberwolves, winners of only two road games who the Raptors haven’t lost at home to then since the Cold War ended. DeMar DeRozan and Amir Johnson lead the way with impressive performances, the latter’s coming against Kevin Love, who he held in check throughout the game and even bested on several occasions. The steady improvement of DeRozan’s jumper culminated into a masterful shooting performance, best described in visual terms with his shot-chart:
It’s not against the best of defenses, hell, not even a decent one, but the man was on fire right from the start: 10-13 for 20 points, acceptable defense and a gleam in the eye usually reserved for the fine ladies of Real Sports. Andrea Bargnani (10-26 FG) took twice as many shots as any other player on either team and managed to trudge his way to 30 points, he did hit a big three in the fourth quarter which pushed the lead to 8 and finally created the needed separation. His shooting percentage wasn’t great and his defense was so-so, so I’m not ready to say that he’s out of his slump just yet. At least for a change he helped the team win a game rather than ensure that they lose it. Note to Devlin, drop the Il Mago. It’s like calling me Edgar Allan Poe after I write a recap.
The matchups were set right from the start – Johnson on Love and Darko on Bargnani. Love had notched 21/12 in only 24 minutes on Saturday night, and production of that proportion would have been tough to overcome for the Raptors; Amir Johnson had to have recognized that and brought his A-game all night long. He beat Love to 50-50 balls, bodies him hard, even got robbed by the officials who were going by reputation, and never let the toll he was taking in the paint affect his offensive production – 19 points on 8-10 shooting. I can’t recall the last time a Raptor was playing both ends of the floor as well as Johnson has been doing of late. The power forward is easily Minnesota’s biggest advantage against the Raptors and Johnson neutralized, if not bettered, Love. In Love’s defense, he gets looked off way too often. It didn’t matter if he had his man sealed off or how wide open he was, he was the last option on the team. Kinda like A-Dub when we distribute writing assignments.
In the other big matchup, Bargnani was faking the pants out of Darko and Darko was posting up Bargnani for points while showing a slender and mildly retarded left-hook. Big men generally hate coming out to defend on the perimeter but Darko takes that to the extreme, the guy wants no part of defense beyond 10 feet. The man that did do a job on Bargnani was D-League product, Anthony Tolliver. The 6’9″ center is the prototypical “Bargnani stopper”, if you will: quick enough to neutralize him on the outside and active/long enough to disrupt him in the post. I was surprised Kurt Rambis didn’t give him full-time duties against Bargnani.
The first quarter was all about two things: 1) DeMar DeRozan’s jumper, 2) DeMar DeRozan’s movement before his jumper. Once somebody makes a couple jumpers their tendency is to continue shooting, which is where a lot of players get into trouble by taking bad shots. It’s hard for me to recall a low-percentage DeRozan shot in this game, he never rushed his offense and focused on freeing himself in the mid-range area by brushing off screens. Minnesota’s wing-men aren’t renowned for their defense to begin with and DeRozan’s efficiency with the jumper probably surprised them the most. Also helping the Raptors was Michael Beasley, who has cleverly managed to wriggle in a clause in his contract which allows him to take any shot at any time. Sweet deal. He hurt is foot or something in the first half and hopped off like a kangaroo whose ass was on fire.
The Raptors shot 60% in the first quarter but were only up 33-31, that’s because Minnesota shot 57% and were getting easy penetration from Jonny Flynn and Sebastian Telfair. Jose Calderon reserved the heroics for late in the first quarter, but until then he hasn’t looked worse on defense all season, the damage included being victimized by crossovers, shredded through hesitation moves, topped off with some transition blow-bys for good measure. Jay Triano has never been shy to send help for his point guard, as he duly reminded us at halftime, and off went Bargnani, Davis and Johnson coming in to stop incoming guards. The result were Minnesota’s 12 threes which is what kept them in the game.
The problem with our wonderful defense is two-folds. One one hand we are forced to help on beaten guards, now this is standard fare in the league and an issue most teams deal with. The frequency of which the Raptors are forced into help situations is definitely far above normal, but it’s not like that can’t be overcome. The secondary problem – the one that kills them – is that once the help defense gets there it’s ineffective, and if the ball get pushed back out to the perimeter, the recovery isn’t there. Help and recovery go hand-in-hand, any team with half-decent guards make you pay if you’re poor at both. You could even say that how good a team defends the three-point shot is an indication of their overall team-defense. Other than the anomaly that are the San Antonio Spurs (whose opponents attempt the third lowest threes in the league), the worst teams in defending the three-pointer are Cleveland, Minnesota, Indiana, Toronto, and Washington.
The Raptors burst to start the game was followed by a 20-8 Minnesota run with both teams paying little care to defense. Take your pick of the following two sentences: The halftime lead was 59-55, with the Raptors not blowing them out because of the defensive issues mentioned above. The halftime lead was 59-55, with the Raptors hanging in this game because of DeRozan, Johnson and Bargnani. Both are true.
With Bayless out, Jose Calderon was forced to extend himself to 38 minutes in which he delivered 19 assists (overall, Raps had 35 assists on 46 FGs – shot 55%). He’s making it look easy out there, no doubt helped by the return of Weems who loves to leak out. The assist numbers are also high because of DeRozan’s accuracy on his jumper, Calderon collected five of his assists just by hitting DeMar in the right spot at the right time. Trey Johnson also deserves a high-five for his 10 points. When Sebastian Telfair was having a strong second-half, Johnson stuck two jumpers and made some very good decisions when the second-units were in play.
The third quarter was Bargnani’s most complete, he had 13 points on a variety of moves and looked very interested in the proceedings, even playing some defense and chasing his misses. Jack Armstrong once again stated how he “doesn’t see that effort” on most nights from Bargnani, it was there in bits last night, hopefully this serves as a springboard for him to something great. More likely however is infuriating inconsistency. The Raptors held a 6 point lead going into the fourth and extended it to 10 shortly after, Minnesota cut it to 2 with 6:09 left and the Raptors called timeout.
That timeout was followed my a masterpiece stretch from Jose Calderon where he had six assists, including one for a Bargnani three, one for a Weems fastbreak, and two on Amir Johnson pick ‘n rolls. That was what iced it, that along with Minny making only one field goal in the final 7:30 of the game. Credit goes to the Raptors fourth quarter perimeter defense for pressuring the ball and closing out on those shooters, it was a decisive factor in this game, a game that snaps too long of a losing streak, and probably starts another one.