I do have to admit, after this morning I thought reading Blake’s April Fools Day column was about as disappointed as I could get thinking about the Raps today. Then again, I haven’t covered a game in a while.
I don’t have a ton to add from my quick reaction column, so this won’t be a long post-game, but after tonight (and Sunday’s Washington game), the message is clear: the Raps are in full-fledged tank mode from here on out. Whether you choose to root for such an outcome or not is up to you – click here for Blake’s excellent column debating the pros and cons with Raptors HQ - but I will say that, from my perspective, it’s extremely disappointing that this is where we’re at with 8 games left in the year after all the promise, hype, talk of playoffs, and major trades made both in the offseason and during the year. Unfortunately, all sizzle and no steak is quickly becoming a Raptor staple: start hot for 3 quarters, and then blow it in the fourth; sign Landry Fields, but not Steve Nash; trade for Rudy Gay, and your best player immediately becomes Amir Johnson.
Yes, these are not fun times in RaptorLand. But, before I depress myself too much, let’s talk a bit about the game itself.
To call this game a full-fledged tank job is probably a bit harsh, as the Raptors were in it for 3 and a half quarters, and actually held a double-digit lead in the 3rd. It would also do a disservice to the excellent effort put forth by Jonas Valanciunas and Quincy Acy, particularly Jonas, who is blossoming into a future star before our very eyes. He’ll need to put on a bit of bulk to continue playing with reckless aplomb, as he has been throughout the year; and he’ll need to work on his left hand during the offseason; but man, oh man, is he fun to watch. Watching him take Andre Drummond on the blocks time after time on both offense and defence (finishing with a career high 5 blocks on the night) was a nice reminder that yes, even in the darkness, there is always some light.
Unfortunately for Jonas, though, he didn’t exactly get much help on the defensive end of the floor tonight. The first half seemed like a lay-up line for both teams, as the Raptors and Pistons traded buckets like a streetball pickup game – both shooting over 55% for the half. For the Raptors, a lot of those made field goals were jumpers – they were 5/11 from 3 going into the break – but, for the Pistons, a disproportionate amount of points were scored on either the pick and roll or by simply driving past their mark and straight to the hoop. It got so bad in the first quarter that DeMar was switched off Brandon Knight and onto Jose Calderon for a time – unacceptable for a player who is looking to assert himself as a future face of the franchise.
Of course, one of these methods of scoring points is sustainable, while the other one almost always isn’t, and it was clear that the Raptors were going to have to make a concerted effort to stop the Pistons’ dribble penetration to win the game, even though they went into the half with a one-point lead. To their credit, the defensive effort was much better to start the 3rd quarter, where the Raptors were quickly able to pile up an 11 point cushion. Sure, Detroit was cold as ice coming out of the break, but where the shots were taken was the most telling stat. Take a look at the Pistons’ shot chart after 10 minutes of the 3rd quarter:
Keep in mind when looking at this that those two makes under the basket were both Greg Monroe buckets scored literally moments before I took this screen shot – basically, the Raptors were doing an excellent job keeping the Pistons out of the lane, especially compared to the first half. Take a look at Pistons’ second quarter shot chart for comparison:
Of course, after the Raptors finally managed to stop Detroit’s dribble penetration, Greg Monroe decided to take over the game, quickly bringing Detroit back and sucking any of the defensive life the Raptor wings had found. I found it shocking that Casey didn’t bring Jonas back into the game early in the fourth, even as Detroit quickly closed the gap and then took a lead themselves, instead choosing to go with a small lineup featuring Rudy Gay at power forward that essentially sealed the Raptors’ fate. I admire the coaching staff’s insistence to get Jonas as many minutes as possible – 37 in total for the night – but not bringing him in until there were 5 minutes left in the game and the Raptors had literally bled away the game was a major oversight. Who knows if it would have made a difference, but it should have been clear that the Raptors’ small-ball lineup couldn’t handle Detroit’s massive frontline even before the game started.
After Monroe did the heavy lifting and brought the Pistons back in front, the Raptors’ effort level noticeably waned, it began to look like a pickup game once more, and the Raptors were mathematically eliminated from playoff contention. The Raptors have now missed the playoffs for five straight seasons – the longest streak in franchise history. Chew on that for a second.
Instead of leaving this post-game on a low note, though, let’s take a minute to celebrate the return of José Calderon – here’s the tribute video played at the ACC last night, and it was fantastic to see him have a great game in his return (finishing with 19 and 9 and just a single turnover), as well as the phenomenal reception given to him by the fans in attendance at the ACC. Truly a classy individual who deserves every bit of it – and, for the fans, it was good to at least have one reason to cheer at the end of the game.
Eight games to go, and Washington up Wednesday. On the bright side, a top-3 pick might not be totally out of sight after all.