A little home cooking and the Toronto Raptors are playing their best basketball of the season.
No, it’s not because Kyle Lowry is a ball hog who gambles on defense. Lowry is a very good point guard, and when he’s not playing he’s replaced by a player that’s almost as good. Different style, but comparably good. Now it seems convenient to say this after a game where Jose Calderon nets a triple-double, but his passing skills and shooting accuracy have been elite for some time now. He’s just been associated with a lot of losing and his perceived lack of aggressiveness makes him an easy target. Funny that he would be looked at completely differently if he was on a winning team. Then he would be a great floor general.
Is it as simple as Andrea Bargnani not being on the floor? It never is, but the way they Raptors shut out the Rockets for the first 4 minutes of the game, does anyone think that happens with Bargnani in there?
Didn’t Bryan Colangelo attribute the Raptors’ defensive struggles this year to having a rookie centre in the starting lineup? But suddenly they’ve reverted back to being decent defensively, with Valunciunas surprisingly present. Sure, small sample space, but I think you all know where I’m going with this.
About that start, it was 8-0, built on the back of Jose Calderon’s shooting and excellent help rotations by Ed Davis. Houston tried to establish pick-and-roll with Omer Asik to start the game. It worked, Asik would slither through and receive a pass on the roll, but wouldn’t you know it, Easy Ed Davis was there to prevent the basket. This happened a few times early on, and it really changed the tone of the game. Easy baskets were not to be had against these Raptors.
DeMar DeRozan and Calderon carried the Raptor offense in the early going, although there was an element of luck, as they repeatedly let the shot clock run down until they had to make desperation attempts. Fortunately they went in, but it looked like something had to change for the offense to consistently produce.
The bench came in for the Rockets and made a difference later in the quarter. It was a barrage of kick outs for 3-pointers, and they hit almost all of them. The interior defense of the Raptors had necessitated this change to go small and find more long-range shots, but it’s generally unsustainable as on its own. That’s what ended up happening as the Rockets struggled to find any consistency after that run late in the first quarter.
James Harden was really the only player that could make things happen. There’s other guys, but he’s the only one can create his shot, and everything else the Rockets did seemed like smoke and mirrors.
As Houston closed the gap with their up-tempo attack, it kind of played into the Raptors hands. With someone like Calderon running the point, they avoided turnovers but benefited from the numerous ones that Houston was giving up. People should not discount the importance of avoiding turnovers. It’s part of Jose’s value that is severely overlooked. It made a difference in this game.
The second unit of the Raptors seemed to recover from Houston’s run and the likes of Terrence Ross, Alan Anderson and John Lucas restored some of that Raptor lead with some well executed fast breaks. They went on a 12-0 run, and it was really just Harden who was keeping Houston competitive at this point with trip after trip to the free throw line.
The problem here was that Harden was getting by his defender with ease. One idea was to put a small quick guy like Lucas on him to force him to shoot over the top. Or someone like Ross who seems like he has the quickness and length to at least bother him.
Dwane Casey stuck to DeRozan/Anderson, and it’s really just Harden not choosing to completely abuse these matchups, that this strategy didn’t backfire on him.
The defense picked up again once the starting lineup went back in during the second. That meant Jose as well, as he completely suffocated Jeremy Lin at the point of attack. It wasn’t even close.
Telling you right now, when/if Jose gets traded to a good team, he will do exceptionally well and that team will be better because of him.
Sure, Ed Davis had 2 fouls, but he should have got more time in the first half. In the end it didn’t matter, because he would have a third quarter to remember. Regardless, it’s just so frustrating to see an NBA organization that should know basketball better than any of us, not realize what they have in this guy. Even today he played less than Bargnani would on his worst night. Bargnani unconditionally plays more than 30 minutes/game and Ed Davis unconditionally plays less than 30. Such is the state of talent evaluation in Raptorland.
So big runs by both sides, but unsurprisingly tied at the half.
The third quarter might have been the most fun I’ve had as a fan watching this team. Ed Davis was absolutely everywhere. First a solid and1 and then a nice cut to the basket for a dunk to start a quick 5 – 1 run., and then Amir Johnson was subbed in earlier than usual. The block party was in full swing.
If you’re a fan of On/Off Offensive/Defensive ratings, especially when isolating player combos, you will see a wealth of information pointing to one conclusion: When Ed Davis and Amir Johnson play the 4 and 5 together, they are elite defensively, and more than adequate offensively. Of course we rarely see them play meaningful minutes together because of the great Bargnani, but this third quarter only reinforced this data.
The strange thing is that we have this Alex Rucker dude who’s supposed to be doing next level advanced stats. The well-known advanced stats like PER, Win Shares, Wins Produced all cast Ed Davis and Amir Johnson is a very positive light. Andrea Bargnani is mediocre in PER and is not just bad in Win Shares/Produced but “all-time historically bad” bad.
While Jose is not always the most active player on the court, he is elite at finding active bigs who flash to the rim. With two bigs doing that consistently, Jose is smart enough to know a high-percentage play when he sees one. The best dish was a wrap-around pass to Ed Davis for another throw down. The whole look of the offense suited Calderon, and it looked so much more fluid and effective than watching a 7-footer shoot long twos all game.
As the final quarter began, it was interesting to see how Toronto would avoid the Houston bench going on that run like they did in the first half. Luckily Alan Anderson had something to say about that.
He had a little extra pep in his step, did Anderson. First he wowed the crowd with a slick move, then hitting a couple of big three’s late in the shot clock as James Harden simply watched. Not sure why Harden couldn’t at least crown Anderson, but that’s Houston’s problem.
85 – 76 after a big Anderson three.
Terrence Ross played crunch time minutes as Dwane Casey went small. Ross has a nice floater to make it 89 – 80. Ross’ biggest issue is Ross himself. He needs to see how good his drives look, yet continues to hoist mostly jumpers. Once he picks up his dribble he has elite speed and hops.
Although I wished Ed Davis would have been subbed in for these crucial minutes, the team played inspired defense. Ross sacrificed himself to take a shot from Chandler Parsons. He didn’t get the call, but you can already see the new-found change in culture rubbing off on the rookie.
A big charge taken by Amir at 5 min mark on a great rotation was also noteworthy. Then Jose sacrifices his body, taking a charge at the 4 min mark. All this sacrifice had me invested more emotional into this game than I have been in a while. Perhaps other felt this way too.
Houston resorted to three balls in the last 2 minutes, but the Raptors closed out so well on these attempts that a couple were near airballs. Their coaching/lack of execution was exposed during this stretch as they let Jose get fouled while in the penalty in one situation and then let Anderson drive baseline unimpeded for another and1 to put the Raptors up 102-96. That last play was the game.
So can the Raptors continue to excel without two of their top scorers? Maybe not without Lowry. Imagine him as he sucks in interior defenders with Ed Davis and Amir Johnson rolling to the rim. It could be like the year where TJ Ford and Jose Calderon gave the Raptors 48 minutes of quality play at the 1.
He should be getting back sooner than Bargnani, and then it should become clearer than it is even now why this team seems to be suddenly playing better, grittier basketball.