O Defense, Where Art Thou?

The Bulls game was a shot in the arm for the club and maybe you figured they’d carry some momentum from that over to last night. Nope.

Suns 110, Raptors 92 – Box

The Bulls game was a shot in the arm for the club and maybe you figured they’d carry some momentum from that over to last night. Nope, any prospects of the Raptors being buoyed by Wednesday’s performance were quickly laid to rest midway through the first quarter when it became all too clear that only one team had shown up. The motivations were very different due to the circumstance, one team is chasing a playoff spot and the other is figuring out who the club representative at the lottery will be this year. Jay Triano was getting a lot of credit from this corner earlier on in the season when the effort was a consistent thing around these parts, but since January it’s been generally poor and the Suns game might have been the low-point.

Jumpers are nice if you can make them, when you can’t you look fat and lazy taking them. That’s a note to every Raptor not named Andrea Bargnani and Demar DeRozan. Shooting 30% in the first quarter doesn’t automatically translate to a blowout, lots of teams get off to slow starts and win the game, what’s unique and lovable about the Raptors is that they pile on the misery by playing such lazy and uninspired defense that you kick yourself for thinking that this might be a good game. And at this point in the season all you’re hoping for is to see a good game.

The transition defense (also known as effort) was terrible from 1 to 5, which is odd because that’s the one area of defense you know will be tested against Phoenix and you’d think they’d be prepared for that. Right from the very start, nobody was getting back and Phoenix was either getting fouled or laying it in. Vince Carter had a spectacular game, he was ‘on’ from the beginning on both ends and took the energy out of the retarded ACC boo-birds early with a spectacular dunk and a couple jumpers. He’s physically superior to DeMar DeRozan and it showed, further solidifying the theory that when Vince wants to, he can be great. Last night he came to play. His first-half display was demoralizing to the Raptors and his work on the defensive end was shockingly good – 17 points, 6 rebounds and 6 steals, all of them earned.

Nash’s 9000’th assist. He passes is it to Robin Lopez who dribbles it twice, turns and shoots. How is that an assist? Nash’s shot wasn’t working which doesn’t mean he was worthless (ahem, you know who you are), he had 11 assists in 30 minutes, 5 of them coming on pick ‘n rolls with Gortat and Frye. Jose Calderon was brutal defending the play and got worse with each iteration of it. For Nash to burn you on the pick ‘n roll all that needs to happen is the big defender to come face-to-face with Nash as he blocks his path for less than half a second. It’s over. That’s all the time he needs to pick out a perfect pass to the pick-setter who is a step ahead of the big defender. A less risky strategy is to go under the screen and force Nash to test his shot, something he was struggling with. Instead, Calderon gets caught on the pick and next thing you know the Raptors are inbounding the ball. Say what you will, Nash is impressive, his chief pick ‘n roll partner Amare Stoudemire is gone and he’s increased his assists from 11.0 to 11.3 this year. Great player.

Jay Triano turned to Jerryd Bayless to slow down Nash and it didn’t make a difference, it didn’t help that Bayless got clocked by a screen that Bargnani didn’t call out, the second time that’s happened this month (Dampier). Bayless had two assists in his first stint and played alright in garbage time by getting to the line, his game just doesn’t have a nice feel to it right now. He seems a step slow and doesn’t ignite the second unit like he did earlier, the jumper isn’t going in and it’s preventing him from executing drive-and-kicks, which is when he’s at his best.

Phoenix’s versatility was hurting the Raptors in transition, they were eager to test their quickness on the break, perhaps fearing the Raptors’ perceived frontline advantage. Andrea Bargnani (26 pts, 12-16 FG, 4 reb) had Channing Frye for dinner by posting him and driving on him for the better part of the game, the only Sun that did a decent job of stopping him was Hakim Warrick who wasn’t matched up with him for too long. Bargnani was the best Raptor on the night and even for him it was job half-done, because the Raptors interior defense was non-existent, and one of the main reasons is Channing Frye and Jay Triano.

Frye’s three-point threat always drew one Raptors big away from the rim and when the pick ‘n roll was being executed, there was no interior help defense available. Frye had 16 points and 4 rebounds, but the real damage he did was by spreading the floor and allowing Nash to operate two-man games with the other big’s weak-side help being unavailable. Jay Triano didn’t adjust (or even notice?) this consistent trend and it ended up costing the Raptors – what was supposed to be an advantage turned out to be a 42-31 drubbing on the boards and a 12-6 deficit on the offensive glass.

Amir Johnson, a good help defender, was always in man-situations against the bigger and stronger Gortat, and Bargnani was about 8 feet away from the glass at all times. Johnson also had only four rebounds and didn’t do enough against the Phoenix frontline. Ed Davis’ work on the offensive boards (5 rebounds, 4 assists) was a bright spot, but even he was taken out of the help-defense equation by Frye, a player he does not matchup well against.

It was 35-14 at the end of the first quarter and the Raptors never quite recovered. A Bargnani-inspired second-half spurt cut the lead to 12 but Vince quickly deflated the building with a great And1 against DeRozan in the post. Jay Triano picked up a technical for a non-call and that was it, the Raptors were done.

It was a thorough defeat in which the effort was poor, the preparation inadequate, and the result deserved. On the bright side, Leo Rautins wasn’t calling the game. He usually spends 80% of all Phoenix games reminding us that Steve Nash happens to shit gold. Although he didn’t have the usual platform to air out his man-love for Nash, he did sneak it in there during those quarterly segments which everybody hates.

The TV audience had to sit through Bill Bellamy, who called Justin Bieber’s dribble “a little retarded”. Nice touch, I’ll take Bellamy calling Bill Cosby the Michael Jordan of comedy any day over Matt Devlin singing, or just talking.

James Johnson watch. His athleticism and size are good enough for the NBA, everything else seems a bit shoddy. The good was that he had two legit steals and two hard fouls, the bad was his ball-handling, presence of mind when driving, and jumper. Buy hey, as Jack Armstrong said, the Raptors weren’t going to get anybody as good as Johnson with the 28th pick so it was a good deal. Come to think of it, NBA teams are stupid for drafting outside the top 20.

Raptors lose, up next is Dallas on Sunday.

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