Deja Vu: Another comeback falls short in Sacramento

Poor D, third quarter comeback, bad decisions down the stretch. Lather, rinse, repeat.

It's Boogie time.

It's Boogie time.

Ugh, my heart can’t take it.

In my short few months writing for Raptors Republic, I feel like I’ve written this recap before. More than once. Fall to an early deficit, on the road in a winnable game, furiously come back after making an essential tactical move that should have been made a quarter earlier, and then fall short at the end. That appears to be this team’s M.O., and though glass-half-full people may look at it as a positive that the team is in every game, it’s been enough of a pattern now that it can’t just be chalked up to tough luck anymore. You don’t flip a coin eight times and get tails every time. It just doesn’t happen.

Anyways, enough of my ranting and let’s get to tonight’s game. I’ve spoken about each individual player in my Quick Reaction piece so I won’t do too much of that here, except to elaborate on a few points.

This was a matchup between two struggling teams that was certainly circled on both of team’s calendars as one they had to have. Both teams showed it on the offensive side of the ball in the first quarter, getting any shot they wanted – for Toronto, this meant a nice mix of Bargnani jumpers, DeRozan drives, and Pietrus 3s, and for Sacramento, this meant getting the ball inside. Over and over and over again. The teams ended the first quarter tied 29-29, and I don’t want to dwell too much on it, because I feel like the next three quarters is where this game really played out.

One quick note while I’m still on the first because I’m not sure where else to put it – this was the only time Bargnani had any effect whatsoever on this game. He started his offensive night with a beautiful pump fake which Jason Thompson bought hook, line, and sinker, took one dribble inside and swished a mid-range jumper, and you had a feeling that this might be one of his hot nights. However, for the rest of the game he was completely invisible, getting benched for long stretches and for good reason. I wish I’d counted the number of times the Raptors lost a possession due to him getting the ball and immediately jacking up a shot with 20+ seconds on the shot clock, but we’re talking at least five by my highly unofficial guess, and when your team loses by 7, that’s significant, and game changing. I don’t expect Andrea to change his game, and there’s no doubt that it’s been effective at times, but I really don’t feel like a bit more patience with the ball is too much to ask, especially when he’s clearly cold from outside (0 for 6 from three and just 3 for 12 overall). Here’s his shot chart, which basically tells the story (bear in mind that one of those “makes” on there are free throws):

Both sides brought their benches in to start the second, and the first half of the quarter saw the teams keep pace with one another in much the same way as the first. The most notable thing at the start of the quarter may have been the play (and general demeanor) of ex-Rap James Johnson, who was running around like a house on fire – blocking DeMar, leading some plays on the fast break, talking crap to the Raptor bench, and wearing one of the oddest glasses/headband combos I’ve ever seen on an NBA court. You could tell he was looking to make a statement – this was definitely an “F-you” game for him – but he was really only effective in those early minutes in the second quarter. That said, I’m sure he’s proud as hell of those few minutes.

Starters came back in with the game tied at 41 and Sacramento continued to do what they do best – bring the ball inside over and over again. This strategy shouldn’t have been a surprise to the Toronto brass – hell, even Leo had it in his “keys to the game” – but the team appeared utterly unequipped to defend it to start the game, instead playing their brand of aggressive help defence that led to multiple 2 on 1s in the post. I left the second quarter wondering if there was anything the Raptors could do strategically to change the flow of the game, figuring that whatever Casey had thought of must have been what he started with and that it maybe it was just a personnel issue (turns out, I was wrong – and giving Casey way too much credit – but we’ll get to that).

In stark contrast to the Kings’ offense, the Raptor starters all contracted Bargnani-itis late in the second – forcing up long jump shots time and time again and throwing lazy, lethargic passes. Put those two things in a pot, mix it up, and what do you get – that’s right kids, fast breaks! Turnovers and long rebounds contributed to a ton of fast breaks for the Kings, which led to even more mismatches and points in the paint, and which provided the eight point difference at the end of the half – one team was getting whatever it wanted on offence, while the other team was not only settling on that end, but actively contributing to the other team’s strength. Really frustrating way to close out the half, and as the Raptors went to the locker room, you couldn’t help feeling that a bit more thinking would have had the scoreline flipped.

The one Raptor starter who did seem to thrive throughout the entire game on offense was Mickael Pietrus, who played a magnificent offensive game tonight. He may have forced up a few shots late (as did every Raptor, to be fair), but the variation of his offensive game was fantastic – hitting open threes when they came to him, posting up Aaron Brooks every chance he got (DeMar, take notes, bud), and throwing down a thunderous dunk to start the fourth to point the exclamation point on what was a statement game for him. Don’t expect this every night, but what a breath of fresh air to get a game like that from our starting small forward after the turd sandwich we’d been forced to watch all season at the position.

One other personnel note from the first half – I don’t know if the Denver altitude took it out of Jonas, or if it was simply a case of Cousins being too big and strong for him, or a bit of both, but he looked lethargic tonight. He certainly wasn’t helped by all the Sacramento fast-breaks in the second, but watching him plod back behind the pack, or half-heartedly try and jump over his check for rebounds after losing position, was difficult to watch. Not the best game for him, but the whole thing’s a learning curve, he’ll get better and more consistent, yadda yadda yadda. Bottom line is that it’s (obviously) not a red flag for the future, but he didn’t give the team much tonight, which was amplified by the fact that Sacramento was going wild inside in the first half.

We saw much of the same to start the third – after a pretty drive from DeMar coming out of the break gave hope that the proper adjustments may have been made in the locker room, the Raptor starters began firing up bricks from outside once more while the Kings continued to take it to the hoop with impunity. Finally, with the team down 11, Casey made the switch to a zone, which I was admittedly skeptical of – in the games I’ve seen this season, it’s only exacerbated the Raptors’ issues with slow switches on help defence. However, it was the perfect kryptonite for the offensively-limited Kings, who were forced to choose between taking long shots or driving the ball into multiple Raptor defenders and take their chances with the referees (who were awful tonight, by the way – inconsistent throughout, making mistakes on who can and can’t shoot a technical free throw, and can DeMar get a freaking call?!?!?).

The strategy paid off on the defensive side, and with the Kings being limited there, the pre-ordained third quarter Raptor comeback was completed thanks to a healthy dose of Pietrus heroics with an entreé of Kyle Lowry, who put on his superman cape and decided it would be up to him to lead the Raptors back into the game. Normally, I hate when he does this, and he made some mistakes tonight – throwing tough passes to nobody in particular, as well as one sequence where he dribbled the shot clock down to 1 before bailing himself out with a circus floater – but in this game it was warranted due to the offensive ineffectiveness of the other Raptor scorers. To be honest, I don’t think this was by design – even if other players were effective offensively, I’d imagine he’d do the same thing – but tonight, it was the right call, and driving the ball into the Kings time after time led to multiple scores and trips to the free throw line, where he was a perfect 12 for 12 on the night. On the back of the tightened up D and a more varied offense, the Raptors ended the 3rd down 2 and, it seemed, in control of the game.

The fourth quarter was one of those rock-em, sock-em 12 minutes of basketball that you’d expect from two teams desperate for a win – Pietrus kicked things off with his incredible dunk in traffic, and was quickly answered by a Jimmer Fredette 3. How Fredette, who is about as pure of a shooter as you can get in the NBA, was left alone on the point by Jose Calderon is an absolutely mystery to me, but it kind of went with the way Jose played tonight: he seems like he’s in a bit of a haze lately, throwing lazy passes that are being picked off and just being generally lethargic out there. I haven’t heard anything in regards to injuries, but he certainly doesn’t look 100%.

The teams went back and fourth in the waning minutes, Toronto’s scoring load being carried by Lowry, who continued his “hero-ball” efforts (again, warranted – every time he passed the ball away down the stretch it resulted in a bricked long shot), and Sacramento by Cousins, who went into beast-mode and unleashed an array of impressive post moves and circus shots on the stunned Raptor D. Finally with the game tied and a minute to go, Tyreke Evans (Tyreke Evans?) put the game away for the Kings with two backbreaking threes that essentially sealed things. I don’t like to use the word “fluke” when it comes to sports very often – I feel like most things that happen within the flow of a game are indicative of a bigger issue – but these two shots were a fluke, and I can’t help but feel bad for the Raptor defenders, who made the correct play (letting a 25% career three point shooter take the crunch-time shots) and were burnt by fate. Bargnani finally made me yell at my TV for the first time as an RR writer by jacking up another ridiculous early-shot clock 3, the teams played the free-throw dance, ballgame.

All in all, another disappointing result in a season that’s fast becoming full of them. Watching this game, you certainly felt like the Raptors had the talent to win this game by double digits, but they were done away by poor coaching strategy, offensive decision making, and defensive inconsistency (as well as a healthy dose of Boogie Cousins). However, unlike Monday’s game in Denver, the effort was consistently there for four quarters – tonight’s result was about execution.

That said, I’m getting tired of writing about the negatives, so let’s end on a positive note – Pietrus was excellent, Davis was very good, and Lowry played his game about as effectively as he could have tonight. That, and there’s only 3 more games before this nightmare road trip is over.

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