If this was a soccer game it probably would’ve ended in a well-deserved tie with both sides netting a point. The Raptors were good throughout, great at times and looked to have the upper-hand in the fourth quarter, but as is the norm around these parts, when a stop was needed it was nowhere to be found. The tormentor once again came from the power forward spot, this time in the form of LaMarcus Aldridge, a much different player than DeJuan Blair but far more dangerous. Aldridge’s determination to carry the Blazers on his back in the face of Jerryd Bayless’ three-point assault proved too much for the Raptors, who fought valiantly and ended up just short.
This was a showcase for the class of 2006 with Bargnani (29pts, 6reb, 10-17FG) and Aldridge (37pts, 10reb, 14-25FG) going at each other, the latter undoubtedly powered by an All-Star snub. Dante Cunningham was the man guarding Bargnani for most of the game, and for a change Bargnani made the opponent consistently pay the price of having a shorter defender on him. He was money with his jumpshot for most of the game and had some very good defensive sequences against Aldridge, mostly in one-on-one situations. Ninety percent of the Blazers offense originates on the left wing with a pick ‘n roll between Miller and Aldridge, or with an Aldridge post-up. Bargnani played both adequately and his interior rotations were rarely tested, which is good.
No Amir Johnson meant Ed Davis got the start and you had to like what you saw again. Nothing flashy or brilliant, just a solid 13 rebounds in 28 minutes, on the down side he got outmuscled by Aldridge which was to be expected. The job Davis and Dorsey did was commendable, the two were a constant nuisance on the glass for the Blazers and did well to congest the paint enough for Miller and the other guards to kick-out, which is when the Raptors’ wings nicked their steals.
How crazy would it sound if I said the defense was actually decent relative to the pathetic standard. The Blazers shot 60% in the first quarter, were at 56% by halftime and finished the game at 54%. Nothing about that previous sentence speaks of good defense but such was the case for many parts of this game. The Raptors’ man-defense was excellent, I’ve already mentioned the bigs, there was also DeRozan who seems to be getting at least a couple deflections a game. The problems were Barbosa who could not stick with Rudy Fernandez in the first half and got lit up more than a doobie at Woodstock. Jose Calderon conceded a crucial late drive for an And1 against Miller, and Jerryd Bayless was nothing short of embarrassed by Patrick Mills in his first stint. On a side note, Bayless sure does seem like a petulant little f***er. I don’t mind.
So I guess what I’m saying is that if our point guard defense was even remotely decent, we’d have won this game. What also makes no sense is Sonny Weems playing 35 minute and Julian Wright playing only 5. Weems went 5-10 with 2 rebounds, didn’t get to the line, and was a non-factor in the game. Yet, Wright only managed to play 5 minutes in a game where the Blazers were shoot at a 54% clip. The only explanation I can muster up is that the Raptors want to get a final look at Weems and see if he’s worth hanging on to for next year. After all, we already know what Wright can bring to the team, Weems has been more or less of an unknown and the performances he’s putting up might seal his fate in Toronto.
The deficit was 8 at the half and it appeared the Blazers would slowly pull away because of their transition offense which appeared a bit too quick for the Raptors. Calderon (10 assists) was doing his thing in transition as well, hitting people in the perfect stride, seeing passes that even the TV viewer couldn’t see, it just felt that the Blazers, much like the Spurs, weren’t firing on all cylinders. Surprisingly, the third was the Raptors’ best defensive quarter as they held the Blazers to 41% shooting. The halftime speech had to have also addressed how the Blazers’ zone should be handled, something Bayless had immense trouble with in the first half. The Blazers rely a lot on interior passing in heavy traffic, and the Raptors anticipated and pressured well enough to force turnovers leading to points. They also turned the table on the Blazers by supplying their own backcourt pressure as well, something Portland had had success with earlier in the game.
Stuck two entering the fourth, this had become a game and the first sniff of a win was given by Jerryd Bayless, who decided he’d just start shooting. He hit three threes, practically from the same spot and all followed by a glare to the Blazer bench, none of whom remembered who he exactly was. The Raptors surged ahead by as many as 7 with 6:39 left. The patient Blazers didn’t budge from their offensive stance, they dumped it down to Aldridge and worked it from there. Either he delivered or the movement was good enough for them to get open shots. Nicolas Batum’s three was massive and as I already mentioned, so was a crucial Andre Miller drive against Jose Calderon right down the middle.
The Raptors offense didn’t exactly die, they kept scoring thanks to Bargnani’s stellar play, the problem was that they could not get a defensive stop. In the final quarter, they only managed to stop the Blazers from scoring on a total of five possessions! Of those five possessions, two were turnovers and two came in the final 52 seconds when the game was over. Either the Blazers got to the foul line, got an offensive rebound or simply scored. I don’t care how efficient an offense is or how good it’s got Bayless and Bargnani going in the fourth, it’s damn near impossible to overcome defensive futility of this kind.
Taking an evaluative approach, DeMar DeRozan stands out. He had a very nifty fade on the right baseline which was nowhere to be found two months ago. A fake inside followed by a spin towards the baseline, finished off by a silky jumper. There’s definitely progress and he’s also grown in confidence to the point where there’s no hesitation in launching the jumper. The release-point is more consistent, he’s much more vertical, and the follow-through happens every time. Eric Hughes needs a raise.
Raptors get closer to a top pick, play hard, we see good games from Bargnani, DeRozan and Davis, and even a pretty good shooting spell from Bayless. What more do you want?