In a battle of the #2 and #4 ranked team in the lottery odds table, #4 prevailed, thus suffering a blow in the Anthony Davis sweepstakes, if you can call them that. Unlike against Houston, the Raptors were able to turn the recovery from their usual slow start into a win, thanks mostly in part due to Kleiza’s hot outside shooting and some inspired fourth quarter play from Jerryd Bayless. In a season of ups, downs, downs, downs, an up, and more downs, Kleiza has actually looked fairly decent. I’m not sure if that’s because the team is really bad and any mediocre play is magnified accordingly, or whether he’s improved as a player. I can’t even be cared to give it a second thought because the amnesty axe is hanging over his head like the Greatsword over Ned Stark. Still though, good showing.
After the customary Raptors slow start caused by lethargic play and Chris Kaman’s Kamanesque play, Jose Calderon and Linas Kleiza (21 pts, 7-13 FG, 5-7 3FG) fired the Raptors back with some hot outside shooting, and at the end of the first the Raptors were firing at 63%, leading 29-25. The next two quarters were downright unwatchable, where it was crystal clear that these were two of the NBA’s basest products. The Raptors in the second and third quarter shot 26%, and would’ve actually played the Hornets even if it weren’t for some late third quarter Marco Belinelli shooting.
The only thing worth watching in the two middle frames was a “small” Raptors lineup of Bayless, Barbosa, J. Johnson, Kleiza, and Davis, which appeared early in the second. This was the most movement-heavy lineup the Raptors had all night, and was something nice to behold. What wasn’t so nice was DeRozan’s play in this stretch. He had a nice statistical game of 21/6/4, and yet managed to leave the viewer with a feeling that all isn’t right.
It’s his drives. I feel like if he doesn’t get a step on the defender on those curls Casey runs for him, there is nothing to be had for him going to the rim. The finishing is astonishingly poor, and we should stop equating him with dunks or any “high flying”, because when he’s contested, his finishing is one of the worst in the league for a starting two guard, thus making it critical for his jumper to be consistent. If he’s going to be a consistent, reliable, scorer in this league, it’ll be on the basis of his jumper and not his drive.
So yeah, halftime came and went, and the third continued with Jarrett Jack reminding us how silly we were in thinking he could ever be a meaningful part of a team that isn’t bottom five in the NBA. The Raptors were bricking things from all angles, with the Hornets doing the same. The apex of the excitement had to be Jose Calderon’s three point attempt getting stuck between rim and backboard, allowing the crowd to momentarily catch their breath. As mentioned, Belinelli got things going for them by hitting a couple deep bombs which prompted the arena staff to stroll out Italian flags in the crowd (not joking, like three massive flags came out).
The Raptors were down five heading into the fourth quarter, and started it with a 17-3 run. Full credit to Jerryd Bayless for injecting the game with desperately needed energy. He had two crucial assists, one on a nice drive ‘n kick to DeRozan, and the other in transition to Barbosa. That got the Raptors going and Kleiza chimed in with a couple threes, before Bayless added one of his own. This game was rescued from the jaws of defeat, because at the end of the third, momentum was squarely on the side of the Hornets after Belinelli’s theatrics, and it took something special in those first five minutes of the fourth to bring it back.
DeRozan had seven in the fourth, and played the full quarter (kissed and made up with Casey, I guess). Granted, the reason he got benched wasn’t because of his often-sputtering offense but because of his defense, and Belinelli isn’t exactly one to exploit in one-on-one situations, so life on defense wasn’t as hard for DeMar as on other days. Barbosa had his 15 points, and was crucial in the fourth as well. All in all, a tame road win on a night where both team were on a back-to-back. We’ll take the W and match our road win total from last year.
In the end, it doesn’t really matter. If you look at this team in terms of talent and group it in terms of hi, medium and low, pretty much everyone but Bargnani is in medium or low. That should indicate if there are any pieces here worth carrying over to next season. My current feeling is that I don’t think I’ll be heartbroken if any of the current crop of players (save Bargnani if he’s going to play like has this year) is moved along.
Let’s wait till the end of the season to have that discussion, for now though, all we can conclude is that this Raptor team seems to give a lot more shit about things than the last three. That’s progress. Small progress, but progress.