Are the Raptors a bad team because they have young players that have a lot of unrealized potential, or are those young players just bad players that will always be bad? That’s the question I’ve struggled with for much of this year. The realist in me is let down by the fact that this team has one of the worst records in the league, has shown very bad defensive tendencies and not enough consistency offensively. The optimist in me, he’s kind of like the guy you see in those Viagra commercials, that guy points to tonight’s game. Sure, they have come few and far in-between, but nevertheless impressive. Was it just a coincidence that one of the most impressive efforts of the year came with the addition of an amped-up James Johnson to the team, in the starting lineup no less? Not really, the dude came to play, and the team just fed off his energy, even the Tinman was stirred out of his stupor on this night. You know that’s some high octane mojo when you’re getting results like that.
To say that the medium-sized Johnson, no pun intended, had a chip on his shoulder would be an understatement. He possesses a combination of size and athleticism at the three that we that we haven’t seen since, well Jamario Moon but I really wanted to say a young TMac, and if he can play motivated like that the rest of the way, we’re going to win a few more meaningless games before this season’s over. He’s a much better complement to the current lineup than Sonny Weems is. I liked him in the draft, especially his steal/rebound numbers. He really looks like someone who can mask some of the void that Andrea Bargnani creates defensively. It’s really hard to turn off super-optimistic ADub once the bugger gets going, I’m tellin’ ya. TMac? C’mon now.
The Raptors never let the game get out of reach. They survived a horrid stretch of irresponsible basketball by Jerryd Bayless to stay within 10 points, but some sloppy play by a clearly complacent Bulls team, accentuated by a James Johnson alley-oop brought the Raptors back to a 43-43 tie. The Raptors shot very well pretty much all game, much better than the Bulls, but Noah and Taj Gibson’s offensive glasswork undid pretty much all of that. But the energy Johnson brought was infectious, and he was seen talking some smack after blocking a Carlos Boozer attempt.
DeMar DeRozan started picking up his play in the second, and it’s quite obvious that his shot is different. It’s softer with a quieter release, for lack of a better term. You can tell just by the way the ball goes in, with a little more loft and spin . His aggressiveness was back, which seemed to be declining as his jumper was getting better. He needs balance, between the shot and the drive, and this is what willl make him a more consistent offensive threat. Especially with Kyle Korver on you, drive on that sumbitch every time. Sonny Weems had a decent game, and seemed a lot more focussed than usual. You have to think that James Johnson coming in, without a practice, getting the starting spot over him had to sting a little bit. This can only be a good thing, if Sonny views him as a legitimate threat to steal his minutes and his value to the team.
The third quarter was really where the game was won. It gave the underdog belief that they were better on this night, and the team rode that confidence right till the end. Boozer couldn’t shoot over Bargnani and wasn’t able to get around him on a few possessions. Amir Johnson gave him fits as well. Derrick Rose, who seemed like he was deferring to his teammates, was quiet. Let’s please give Jose Calderon some credit for not giving him space to shoot until that point. Rose did eventually go off in the fourth, but he got hot against Bayless to start the quarter.
Clutch plays defined the end of the game for the Raps. An assist by Bargnani to the post while he was falling down to make it 91 – 84. A Jose to Amir alley-oop to make it a 98 – 91 ballgame. Even when Derrick Rose activated MVP-mode to tie the game at 107-107, the Raptors, led by the steady hand of Calderon, calmly made play after play. Two excellent play out of timeouts to DeRozan worked perfectly, and are noteworthy. Is he becoming the go-to guy for the Raps? If he is, he’s passed one of the tests last night.
The biggest plays right at the end of the game belong to, who else, Amir Johnson. He had every reason to take it easy after what many were calling a generous contract. Instead he shows us a pretty up-and-under on Carlos Boozer to make 115 – 111 and 16 seconds left and then make a monster weak-side block on Rose with 10 seconds left in the game. Overpaid? Please.
On this feel-good night, you have to give credit to each member of what I call the Unholy Alliance (Triumvirate?) of Bryan Colangelo, Jay Triano, and Bargnani. Colangelo pulls of a pretty decent trade, giving up an unknown in a late pick of a weak looking draft for a player who he liked that was buried behind the more established players on a deep Bulls team. He has nailed the 2009 draft thus far with the DeRozan selection and now Johnson. Triano for some great out-of-timeout plays at the end of the game hooking up Demar DeRozan and not forcing touches for Bargnani. But credit goes to Bargnani as well. If Bargnani could build off a game like this, the majority of his detractors would be fighting to jump on Il Bandwagon. He still had a few lapses defensively, but played inspired basketball for some important stretches. His offence was aggressive and intelligent. He drove when guarded by bigs and drew fouls by pump-faking on smaller defenders.
I’ve noticed that he plays well on opening nights, this game was not that, but it did have the energy of the first game back after almost a week off due to All-Star weekend. Will he build on this performance? I doubt it, because of 5 years of experience tells me that. If Colangelo stays on as GM, which would be a mistake as long as he still undervalues defense, then we will have to accept the possibility that Bargnani will be here for a long, long time. Call me crazy, but if you stick him at the 3, his lack of defensive awareness and rebounding would be minimized. I mean if BC really wants to make it work with this guy for whatever reason, try him there. He’s shown that he can score on smaller defenders and he’s pretty much drifting out to guard a perimeter guy on most defensive possessions, and doesn’t get burned that badly out there from what I can see. Andrea at the 3 makes more sense than him at the 5 or even the 4, which is not saying much. Probably won’t ever happen due to the sheer esthetics of it, and because of the ugly precedent that was set in his sophomore season. I’d argue that he’d do better this time around.
The reality is that James Johnson will get every chance to prove he’s a decent three in this league, which after tonight, does provide room for optimism in a season that has been largely devoid of it.