It’s hard to look past the pain that accompanies this loss and see the great overall effort put in by the Raptors. Blowing fourth quarter leads hasn’t been a problem for this team, mostly because they’ve rarely had them, and it’s clear that they’re still learning to protect them. In other words, they’re figuring out how to win. The calamity in Dallas started in the third, last night it all happened in the fourth where the Raptors scored only 15 points, and allowed 32.
Instead of painting a carefully crafted portrait of this game, let’s just talk about Andrea Bargnani. He is playing like a man, and he is getting that look for him teammates for the first time in a long time which says, ‘respect, bro’. His decision-making on drives has been near perfect, he kicks out at the right time (after actually driving deep enough for it to mean something), he extends for scores as needed, and he dunks it when required. With DeMar DeRozan’s offense completely invisible, Andrea Bargnani has taken charge on offense, while escalating his defensive game. It’s impressive – 28pts, 7reb, 10-21FG, in 41 minutes. Right now he’s in the type of form that he usually only shows three weeks a year, and knock on wood that this carries through.
I don’t know what Jose Calderon’s trade value was at the start of the season, but the shifts he’s putting in lately has raised it by at least 75%. His jumper’s on, his play on pick ‘n rolls is a joy to watch (no, seriously, it’s actually a joy to watch him pick out players). And surprisingly, maybe not to some, his defense has been more or less outstanding. Last night it included an awesome block on the rat-faced Jameer Nelson.
Calderon and Bargnani were the consistent performers on the night, with James Johnson putting in a decent shift early by playing in control, and passing when it made sense to pass, leading to assists. Funny how that works. His first half performance only set our expectations too high for the second, in which his jumper looked obscene. With Bayless out, Anthony Carter got in the game in the first quarter and had a positive bearing getting a steal and scoring twice. Similar to James Johnson, he was a one-shift pony as well.
The Raptors offense was shining in the first quarter, while Orlando’s appeared surprised at the Raptors’ defensive fortitude. They weren’t getting clean looks at threes because the Raptors were rotating 1-5, taking out Nelson’s options by forcing him too far on the high screens, and closing in tight on Turkoglu and Ryan Andersen, the latter being a mismatch threat all night.
The second quarter saw the manifestation of the Andersen-Bargnani mismatch. Andersen is a 6’10” power forward who is very mobile, and by mobile I mean he can dribble with the ball very well, especially on his drives and first steps. His exploitation of Bargnani was in parts to the latter being a little too fatigued after his offensive display, and second to the need for Raptor bigs to pay attention underneath to address the weight mismatch that could potentially turn into a rebounding mismatch (even on the night). The Raptors were up double digits before Andersen and the Magic bench brought them back in the game. Dwight Howard served to supply the punches on the rope once he returned from the bench.
The Raptors, thanks to Calderon’s measured play, ended the half on a bit of a run and went into the lockerroom up 52-47. The good news was that Orlando’s offensive rebounds were in complete check, despite the Raptors bigs giving up a lot of strength underneath to Baby Davis and Dwight Howard. The other positive was that the Magic were only 4-12 from three. Check and check.
If you’ve been watching the Raptors over the last few years, the act of the first half might lead you on to believe that the third is where we’d completely fall apart. I suppose that’s the difference this season, that the Raptors are approaching the game the right way. The third was all about FTs, the Raptors went 16-16 from the line, and the majority of the action came off of Calderon’s brilliant quarterbacking. I won’t lie, we got bailed out a couple times too, but still, you got to make your own luck.
The Magic were having a lot of trouble dealing with simple pick ‘n rolls, and Dwight Howard’s weakness in dealing with high screen ‘n rolls was evident. Jack Armstrong felt he had “checked out”, and it was hard to argue at that point. The role of aggressor carried the Raptors to an 11-point lead into the fourth quarter, and the only warning signs were a couple magic clean looks from threes, and Howard exerting an increasing influence on the offensive glass.
In the fourth, all went to shit. Andersen exploded against Bargnani, and Casey failed to counter in any way. At this juncture, I was wondering why he’s not putting a mobile three on Andersen who was running around the court at will. The Raptors defense was stretched and unable to keep up with Andersen, Redick, and the tumultuous feelings in their stomachs that said, “oh no, not again”.
The Raptors offense up until this point had been fairly reliable, either via the stripe or just plain solid ball movement leading to clean looks that were stuck. At this critical time, though, it let them down. Specifically, DeRozan and Barbosa. Two guys who weren’t having great games to begin with tried to do too much offensively, and it hurt the team. Some of DeRozan’s attempts at making plays are visibly forced, and this game hammered home the theory that he’s not finding Casey’s equitable offense that easy to adjust to. DeRozan in his rookie year was the fifth man on the floor, who got his offense quietly in the background. In his second year, he was the guy you consistently look for in the offense, hoping he can carry the scoring load. This year, he’s got to function in a team framework, while carrying an offensive load and it hasn’t been easy for him. He’s got to figure it out, and not helping right now is his jumer which seems to have regressed. Drew League to blame? Perhaps that time would’ve been spent better in a gym with a shooting coach. Just sayin’.
Barbosa, well, he was a little too fast for his own good in the fourth quarter, committing three turnovers all by himself and taking shots that leave the viewer with a grimace regardless of if they go in or not. It’s the usual Barbosa stuff, you don’t need me to repeat it. The WTF moment of the fourth had to be Anthony Carter launching a three with plenty of time on the clock with the game at 91-89 and 3:12 left! This after a Turkoglu three that had given the Magic their first lead since the second quarter and caused the building to explode. Picture this for me, the crowd is going nuts after the Magic go ahead and the Raptors need to respond. Their “veteran leader” pukes out the most ill-advised shot of the season so far. It’s followed up by an Andersen three, the fifth for the Magic in the quarter, to kill the game.
So there you have it, a quality effort gone to waste because the offense sputtered in the fourth, the defense got overstretched, and missing leadership down the stretch. You might say there were some questionable calls. In my opinion, Amir Johnson was correctly called for a three-second violation, and Barbosa’s offensive foul wasn’t one, but has been given consistently enough in the league. The officials might have gotten calls wrong, but enough either way for it not to affect the outcome.
Credit to the Raptors for keeping the Magic contained for large portions of this game, and compensating for their lack of strength underneath. Ed Davis was a little disappointing against Baby Davis, and only had one rebound in 12 minutes. They said he added 15lbs over the summer (who doesn’t?), so far it hasn’t quite shown. At the same time, the Raptors don’t look for him enough in the post in 1v1 situations. I think he has more to offer there than what’s currently mined.
Reality check! The Raptors are short on talent and it’s bound to show, which it did in the fourth quarter. The positive flow of the season continues despite the losses. It’s what we all expected, I’d say it’s even been a bit better than that.
Jose Calderon summed it up:
“I don’t really have an explanation as to why this game got away. It’s tough. It’s kind of like the same thing that happened with Dallas. They’re two veteran teams. They know how to play in those moments. We’ve got to learn from that.”