Cleveland did not have a chance. The Raptors have suffered three losses where they’ve played well enough to win on the given night, and ended up losing. That painful feeling of defeat when you’re so close to winning has made this team appreciate nights like these a lot more, nights where a win is there for the taking if you approach the contest with a professional flair. And that the Raptors did. Clevleand was playing on a second night of a back-to-back, which can’t have helped, especially in the second half when the tiring of their limbs coincided with the ascension of the Raptors, specifically Andrea Bargnani.
I would classify this game as a “routine win”, which the Raptors are capable of nabbing if they play with the same professionalism and discipline that they have adopted towards the young season so far. It’s hard to count how many times over the years the Raptors have gone into one of these “winnable” games and laid an egg. Home games against the Timberwolves, Clippers, Wizards, and countless other minnows were lost by Raptor teams who were, on paper at least, “better” than the current crop.
This is the type of basketball that we’ve been thirsting for since Vince Carter turned pussy on us, since Oak left town, since the time when the Raptors were viewed as the team with the potential in Toronto. It’s only six games in but the early returns suggest that the tide is turning and that an environment that can foster growth is being cultivated. I might be getting too dramatic, and if so forgive me, for I can’t help but feel a strange inkling of something resemgling pride in me as I watch these Raptors compete every night. This is a sight for sore basketball eyes.
Let’s complete the formalities of a post-game article and go through this one with in a cursory manner.
Andrea Bargnani has become the focal point of the offense without dominating the ball or run of play. That is a beautiful thing because he’s not taking away shots from anyone, the offense isn’t geared towards him, and yet he manages to be the player that is getting you the bucket when you need one the most. Those run-killers, momentum-shifters, crowd-boosters, are all coming from Bargnani right now, all in the flow of the pace-reduced offense the Raptors are running.
His game is mixed as well, and tonight’s rematch against Antawn Jamison yielded surprising results. Even at 36, you expect Jamison to be the more agile player capable of giving Bargnani problems off the bounce, and that is the opposite of what transpired. Jamison did get his points through an assortment of ways, however, it was Bargnani that dominated the one-on-one matchups and gave Jamison a taste of his own medicine – pump-fakes, blow-bys, and sheer quickness off the bounce.
The post-moves are becoming more fluid as he’s increasing with confidence, and the confidence in my opinion is being instilled on the defensive end. He’s not a joke of a defender anymore, and anyone can see that he’s finally doing his part, and perhaps even more on defense. Bargnani is now playing like a team player, instead of a guy with a sense of entitlement who plays one end. If you play ball, you know. You make a good defensive play on one end, your teammates salute you, you feel like you’ve contributed. That’s what’s happening with Bargnani. I mean, diving on the floor against Varejao? Wow.
At the end of the first the Raptors had a three point lead, when it really should have been more. They shot 50% for the quarter, and Cleveland missed some clean looks while shooting only 30%. Bargnani was again carrying the load for us, with Jamison doing the same for Cleveland. A short James Johnson and Jose Calderon (13pts, 11ast, ate Kyrie alive) burst to start the second quarter gave the Raptors an eight point lead, which they rode for most of the quarter until giving a piece of it back late. DeMar DeRozan’s 3-3 from threes is what stands out in the quarter statistically, what I noticed was the other little things.
Ed Davis is struggling with his confidence right now, and I think the Raptors need to give him the ball a little more to help him out. He’s got a developing post-up game and it might not be a bad idea to throw him a bone once in a while in the block. James Johnson had a very good defensive game, he was supreme last night against any of Cleveland’s threes in closing out baselines, dropping down to help against Varejao, and coming in to close any plays near the rim. He had a block from behind on Tristan Thompson that could be the best play in this game (other than Bargnani’s reverse baseline moves).
The general positioning on defense is simply better. Guys aren’t worrying about covering their ass anymore and are helping out intelligently, knowing with confidence that there’s cover in the rotations. There’s a trust factor in defense that everyone on the floor needs to have in order to be successful, and Casey has done well to instill it. The Raptors almost always push the ball handler further out on any wing screens using their big, and there’s always cover for that big. Small thing that can get missed when watching a fast-paced game, but notice it, it’s always there!
It was a seven point game at the half and the third was when this one was put away, largely thanks to Bargnani’s 11 in the quarter, and Cleveland’s offense coming to terms with it’s quality. I sound like a broken record, but it’s true: Bargnani was the man in this game and scored whenever it felt that Cleveland might have a lifeline left in them. DeRozan will get a lot of ink for his breakout game consisting of mostly threes that you or I would otherwise cringe to see him take, however, let that not shroud the fact that Bargnani was the man.
The fourth was a mere formality. The Raptors are 3-3, which nobody expected. The halftime interview had James Johnson speaking with Leo, and he said the key phrase that defines this Raptors season so far: no expectations.
It’s so true. There are no expectations of this season, most fans including myself are expecting this team to suck, suck and suck hard, land a high pick and continue with the building process alongside Jonas. Almost everyone has counted these guys out and the Raptors are responding to the pressure-free environment by kicking ass.
Stay tuned later in the day for the first edition of the Statophile with Tom Liston.