Well, there you have it, folks. The Raps have now had 3 games since Rudy Gay’s debut: A blowout win against an injured, albeit strong team, a sizeable loss against an NBA championship contender, and a close loss against a low playoff seed. Sound familiar? Yes, the more things change, the more they seem to stay the same – but there are a bunch of positives to take away from tonight’s effort, and I’m not just including the surprisingly effective return of Andrea Bargnani (we’ll discuss him in detail in a second, but for now, click here for the Quick Reaction and player grades). But, rather than do this as a traditional post game, let’s instead blow out a mega-version of the classic tried and true “Good, Bad, and Ugly” write-up for the Raptor effort tonight. Because even if the results stay the same, it doesn’t mean that I have to.
The Good: Andrea Bargnani’s return to the Raptors
Il Mago may have been unceremoniously greeted back into the lineup by the ACC faithful (seriously, booing someone who just came back from an injury is cold-blooded), but he responded with the kind of effort that gives Raptor fans faith that he can be an extremely effective bench player while he’s still on the roster (albeit an overpaid one). We’ve seen stat lines like this from Andrea before (5 for 10 shooting, 13 points, a few rebounds, and a couple assists), but what’s noticeably different from his play pre-injury is his acceptance in his role in the flow of the Raptor offense, moving the ball when I fully expected a forced up 3 or long jumper (his only 3 point attempt of the game was an end of the shot clock desperation heave), as well as his effort on the defensive end. He wasn’t rewarded with rebounds tonight, but Andrea’s ability to get his hand in the face of Celtic shooters was a big key to the Raptors’ third quarter surge. Here’s his shot chart for the first half last night, which almost seems too good to be true:
Long term, one game doesn’t change much – he’ll continue to be shopped, and his future with this group beyond the short term is still very much in doubt. That said, I’ll take confident bench scorer Bargnani over disinterested chucker Bargnani every day of the week. Here’s hoping this wasn’t a one game thing.
The Bad: Team defence in the first half
The end of the first half saw the Celtics take a 50-45 lead into the tunnel on the strength of 54% team shooting, with Kevin Garnett the key culprit (14 points on 6 of 9). The Raptor defence played a big part in the Celtics’ hot start, primarily due to some poor matchups (Gray on Garnett, for example) and lethargic man-to-man D at times (DeMar, Lowry, and Gay were all culprits of this). Because Boston’s “bigs” (Garnett, Wilcox, Brandon Bass, and Jeff Green, essentially) are far more mobile on the perimeter than most NBA teams, the Raptors chose to mask both Aaron Gray’s inability to contest long-range Garnett shots by rotating wing players and the Raptor wings’ inability to contest Boston drives (Avery Bradley went by Lowry like he was standing still multiple times, and Terrence Ross got beaten into the lane on 3 straight possessions) by keeping their forwards in the lane and having their wing players play help defence on Boston’s bigs at mid-range. Unfortunately, what this led to, essentially, was Celtic shooters open on the perimeter, and their forwards shooting over smaller Raptor players, which just compounded the problem. Here’s KG’s shot chart in the first half, which effectively illustrates how Boston’s first half went from an offensive standpoint (I promise, just one more shot chart after this):
The Ugly: John Lucas III
Look, I’m a really big fan of the guy – as a third string point guard. In extended minutes tonight, Lucas looked lost, particularly on offense, where he continued his annoying habit of over-dribbling on the perimeter and effectively rendering the offense stagnant before the possession even begins. He finished a team low -12 tonight in just 10 minutes of action, and though plus/minus is often a deceptive stat, it wasn’t tonight. The Raptors will really need to seek long and hard for another ball-handler at the trade deadline, preferably one who can set up the Raptor offense by slashing through the lane like Lowry did in:
The Good: The Raptors’ small-ball lineup
Whoo, boy, was that fun, hey? With the Raptors up 2 late in the 3rd quarter, they chose to run a Lowry/DeMar/Anderson/Gay/Bargnani lineup out against Boston’s small front-line, and with no Kevin Garnett out to make them pay down low on the defensive end, they were a devastating force – moving the ball well and even rotating adequately on D, and ended the quarter with the Raptors up 10, which was, unfortunately, the last time Casey tried something like this in the game (what about switching Ross for Anderson? Amir for Bargnani?). The nice thing about having Bargnani back is all of the different looks he can give the Raptor offense, and with a player as versatile as Gay playing the 3, some of his deficiencies (rebounding, particularly), can be overlooked for stretches in a lineup like this. Much ado has been made of the Raps’ difficulties with floor spacing this year, but with Bargnani and Anderson (more on him in a bit, but hopefully this will be Ross’ spot in future) spacing the court at the 3 point line (and Bargs’ ability to drive the ball hopefully keeping opposing bigs honest), Gay and DeRozan’s mid-range games, and Lowry’s ability to drive and kick to set up his shooters/slashers, there is a ton of potential for this group at the offensive end. Clearly, there’s still kinks to be worked out, but it was a lot of fun to watch last night.
The Bad: DeMar DeRozan’s shot selection
Maybe he let that ridiculous Matt Devlin “best mid-range shooting guard in the game” comment get to him, but the amount of contested jumpers he took tonight bordered on ridiculous – doubly ridiculous because literally none of them were going in. Here’s his shot chart, which looks like something directed by Eli Roth:
Yes, that’s 1 for 12 from outside the paint. I hate writing it over and over again, but TAKE THE BALL TO THE FREAKING HOOP.
The Ugly: Casey’s insistence on playing Alan Anderson
As I wrote in my Quick Reaction piece yesterday, Alan Anderson might have a more difficult time figuring out his role in this new Raptor rotation than any other player. With Andrea back, he’s no longer the team’s number one scoring option off the bench, and with Gay on the squad, he’s no longer the crunch time small forward. Last night, his struggles were evident, as he proceeded to chuck up his regular variety of early in the shot clock 3s and long 2s even though there were far more options available to the Raps from an offensive standpoint. Indeed, when the Raptors went on their small-ball run in the 3rd with him on the floor, it seemed like they were intentionally avoiding him on the offensive side of the floor for fear of him throwing up an ill-conceived shot. So, with Anderson playing a mostly ineffective game, and Terrence Ross (more on the rooks in a bit) seemingly a much better fit given the flow of the Raptor offense, what does Casey decide to do? Well, the only thing that makes sense: play him the entire fourth quarter. Along with Lucas, Anderson was the Raptors’ most ineffective player last night, and I’ve always hated these seemingly counterintuitive lineup decisions because to me, they reek of being “safe” – play the vet over the rookie, and even if he plays poorly, that can be your justification. Maybe the order was given from on high to showcase AA for potential trades, as suggested on Twitter, but it was obvious last night that he’ll need to accept his role as a lock-down defender and fourth/fifth scoring option to be effective when the Raps are at full strength.
The Good: The third quarter
Oh, that third quarter. Thirty-four points, compared to just 19 for Boston. A highlight-reel alley-oop from Lowry to DeRozan, followed by a Gay 3/steal combo that led to a DD and-one and a 10 point lead heading into the fourth quarter. A huge offensive rebound for Kyle Lowry that immediately led to a dunk for a cutting Bargnani. An effective man defence followed by a solid small-ball zone. The third quarter was one of the Raptors’ most effective stretches of basketball all season, and was a tantalizing taste of what Raptor fans hoped the Gay trade would bring: stability on the offensive side of the ball. Unfortunately for Raptor fans, it was followed by a quarter that reminded everyone that yes, this is still the same team.
The Bad: The fourth quarter
Casey started the fourth by giving Lowry a break, which I can understand given the fast pace of the third, but, as I mentioned earlier, it succeeded in completely stagnating the offense and giving the Celtics a chance to get back in the game. Lucas’ difficulties running the offense were compounded by Rudy Gay missing two straight 3s early in the shot clock, which effectively ended all the momentum the Raptors had built ending the third. Upon Lowry’s return, the Raps were down in the game and pressing on both sides of the ball, which led to turnovers (6 in the quarter) and easy Boston baskets – essentially the classic case of a savvy veteran team taking a group of young bucks to school, and something that the Raptors have had to deal with all season. Apparently Gay isn’t the answer, though it is reassuring that he has emerged as the Raps’ crunch-time scorer. The puzzle is slowly coming together – but it’s not there quite yet.
The Ugly: Where were the rookies?
Last night’s game seemed like a perfect fit for Terrence Ross – his length would work great in a small-ball zone, and his shot can help stretch the Celtic defence and open up the floor for Toronto’s slashers. Instead, he spent it glued to the bench after getting beaten a few times off the dribble. Ditto for Jonas Valanciunas, who logged just 2 minutes of game time tonight for reasons I can’t quite fathom (maybe they were trying to protect him from Garnett?). I understand the need to protect rookies and play veterans when looking for the win, but the only way to let our young players mature is to let them make mistakes and play through tough match ups – only then will you have a truly sustainable core that can pull out tough games like this one. Forget #LetRossDunk for a second. Let’s start up #LetRossPlay.
The Final Verdict: Lots to like tonight, lots to dislike – yep, it was a Raptors game. The road doesn’t get any easier anytime soon, as the Raps visit the Pacers Friday night.