Raptors lose another close one in Detroit

A slow start and a rough finish = a 3-10 record.

Another heartbreaking loss for the Raptors tonight in a game they absolutely could have and should have won. I wrote my thoughts on each of the players in my quick reaction last night, and I’ll do a bit of elaborating here, but I’ll spend most of my time commenting on the game in general.

From the outset, the Raps looked sluggish – jacking up shots from all over the court is never a recipe for success, and when a team’s tired, those shots tend to miss short, which we saw a lot of in the first two quarters last night. It was particularly disappointing to see from Lowry and DeMar, who are our primary offensive weapons at guard and should know better than to keep forcing shots when they aren’t going down – both have excellent first steps and abilities to drive to the rim and cause contact, even against the Piston’s massive front line. I don’t know if it was tiredness, or an aversion to going straight at Greg Monroe, or what, but it caused some serious offensive deficiencies early in the game and created a ton of fast break opportunities for the Pistons off missed jump shots (leaving the bigs down low and not giving them any time to recover on D).

The Raps ended the first quarter down just 1 due almost entirely to what was a heroic offensive performance for everyone’s favourite Italian lightning rod. Andrea Bargnani had 17 of the team’s 20 points after one on 7 of 10 shooting, and showed (particularly in the first half, but throughout the night) the tantalizing ability that keeps management and fans crossing their fingers on him. Bargs didn’t get his points by playing particularly differently than he has in the games we’ve criticized him in – 5 of his first 6 touches resulted in shots within 3 seconds of him getting the ball – but when your shot is falling, everything is sunshine and rainbows, and he managed to single-handedly keep the Raptors within striking distance.

Late in the first, Casey switched the Raptors into a zone defence, either to combat the Raptors’ perceived disadvantage on the boards or to give a tired team more of a breather (probably a bit of both), and the Pistons proceeded to blow up the Raptors down low, scoring 30 points in the paint in the first half. I wouldn’t stick this number on the bigs, who I thought played reasonable defence, given the circumstances, but on the Raptor wings, who were extremely slow on switches, forcing a big to come up to help in the high post, and leaving one man to defend two Pistons down low. It seemed like the Raptor zone called on the team to sag on the Pistons and force them to shoot 3s (a fine strategy – they’re notoriously poor from long distance) – but after the initial set-up, the Raptor guards/wings seemed to forget this, routinely sending multiple men out to hedge on the Detroit shooters and opening up huge lanes for cutters.

Our small forward spot in particular was abysmal tonight in this respect – Cory Maggette and Tayshaun Prince ate up Linas Kleiza and Dominic McGuire, respectively, routinely getting into the lane almost uncontested and, ultimately, leaving a Detroit big open beneath the basket. I have more tempered expectations on this end from Kleiza, who’s been known as a porous defensive player for a while now, but when you’re as offensively limited as McGuire, you have to at least be able to play passable D on the wing in a zone in order to get minutes in the NBA, and we didn’t see that tonight from him. I don’t think it’s fair to expect too much of him (it’s not his fault the team is so injury riddled), but, then again, I don’t think I’m asking for that much with this request.

The Raps ended the half down just four, due in part to some craftiness by Amir and Jonas on the offensive end in the second quarter. I was excited to see the Jonas/Drummond matchup tonight and, for the most part, saw what I expected – two bigs with vastly different games that were able to exploit one another in different ways. Drummond is quick moving up and down the court but is quite slow side to side, and both Amir and Jonas were able to use that to their advantage on the offensive end, Jonas with some slick jump hooks and Amir by flying through the lane and either finishing or dishing the ball off.

Quick tangent, but here are my impressions of Drummond: he’s got an NBA centre’s body at 19 and a nose for the ball – his offensive rebounding at the end of the game was key – but is still fairly limited offensively. I’m not going to go as far as saying that we made a mistake passing on him, but he definitely has potential to be a solid NBA centre down the road and those are damn hard to find. He was clearly fired up to play tonight and was a difference-maker on the offensive side of the floor, where his slow-ish feet aren’t as much of a liability in the low post.

The Pistons threatened to blow the game open in the third quarter, going up 13 on a particularly putrid stretch of Raptor D (why did we stay in that zone so long???), before Lowry remembered that even guards can drive the lane in the NBA and proceeded to pull the Raptors back with some nice moves inside and a couple of key 3s. He may have had a rough start but he’s certainly a gamer, and you could see his tenacity pull him through tonight when it didn’t seem like the body was quite willing at the outset. This lies in stark contrast to DeMar, who was visibly tired, and then frustrated, and seemed to pull back after a nice drive to start the 3rd quarter. I’m willing to give him the benefit of the doubt tonight – he’s been playing his butt off lately and had a ton of minutes, and it’s not easy to make the transition to number 1 scoring option on a nightly basis – but  a bit more from him tonight would have made all the difference.

The most notable moment of the third quarter was a scary play where Jonas came down on Terrence Ross’ leg and twisted his ankle awkwardly – hopefully it’s not going to be a lingering thing, but it did look quite gruesome on the replay. That said, it did allow us to see the kid’s heart, which he’s got buckets of – hobbling up and down the court for two series, setting a high screen for Lowry and then catching a Piston turnover and pushing the ball down the court for a Lowry bucket. He was abused by Drummond on the boards in the fourth quarter when he ultimately returned to the game, but was visibly slowed by the ankle injury and gave a strong effort. The mind was willing, the body wasn’t. It’s so refreshing to see a young player put the team ahead of his personal well-being, though – the Raps really do have a keeper here.

Raptors ended the third quarter down 3 and began the fourth with the bench in, who proceeded to go on a nice little run and give the starters the lead back when they returned around the 8 minute mark. Ed Davis in particular was key during this stretch – he’s been impressive this season so far in limited minutes, hustling for boards, going up strong for and and-1, and doing a good job checking Greg Monroe when the Raptors belatedly switched back to a man defense. Casey acknowledged his strong play by leaving him in with the starters for a couple minutes after the rest of the bench came out, and it’s only because of the Raptors’ depth at the 2 big spots that he hasn’t gotten more minutes this season – but I’d imagine they’ll come, if we continue to see efforts like this.

The Raptor D was much improved after the switch back to man, but the Pistons were able to stay in the game due largely to Drummond’s rebounding, partially aided by a hobbling Jonas, who was kept in the game for far too long after it became evident he wasn’t able to box out with strength on the defensive side of the ball. Amir finally came in with 2 minutes left, but by then, Drummond’s damage had been done, and the Pistons turned to their wing players to close out the game, particularly Tayshaun Prince, who posted up and drop a nice hookshot over McGuire and Amir on two consecutive possessions late. The Raptor offense late in the game largely fell to Lowry and Bargnani, which is fine, especially considering the struggles the rest of the team had getting going. Bargnani in particular had a strong fourth, hitting a couple of impossible fall-away jumpers that we’d all be yelling about today if he didn’t hit them. But hey, he did!

Casey made some really peculiar offense/defence switches late in the game, bringing in McGuire to help with the team’s defence (which I’d argue, but is understandable), but choosing to take out Kyle Lowry instead of Linas Kleiza, who by all accounts may be the worst defensive player on the team. Lowry was rubbing his ankle on the sideline and Casey did make the Kleiza/McGuire swap on the Pistons’ final possession, but if this wasn’t injury motivated it seems like a personnel miscue to me, especially when Lowry is our best perimeter defender, by all accounts.

The final play was… what it was, I guess. Brandon Knight slipped two Raptor defenders for an uncontested layup, indicative of the Raptor wings’ inability to stop the Piston players from getting into the lane all night. Lowry’s final shot was contested, and missed, and that was that.

All in all, a very inconsistent effort from the Raptors tonight, and a really disappointing loss. The Pistons were basically giving the game to the Raptors – looking basically inept on the offensive side of the ball from the second half of the third on – and we just couldn’t close it out. This is a young team, and hopefully closing games is something that’ll come along with experience, but it still doesn’t change the fact that it sucks to lose a game like that.

One last comment re: Drummond’s offensive goaltending. It sure looked like he touched the ball when it was in the cylinder, but it didn’t make the difference tonight. This Raptor team had serious issues on offense and defence, and it was only due to the quality of the opposition and some hot shooting by Bargs that they were even in a position to win the game at the end of the night. If we’re going to play the “one bucket made the difference” game, let’s also talk about Lowry going 1 for 3 at the foul line after he was fouled shooting a 3 in the fourth quarter. They’re both plays in a basketball game, but neither one made the difference tonight.

Raptors head back to the ACC for a game with the Spurs on Sunday. Temper your expectations, but a consistent effort throughout would be a great benchmark for this one.

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