Alright, let’s say you didn’t watch the game last night, and I told you that the Raptors, as a team, had ten assists on the night against the Howard/Harden-led Houston Rockets.
Then, imagine if I told you the team’s three starting perimeter players went a combined 23 for 78, and Jonas Valanciunas fouled out in the fourth quarter.
Then, imagine if I told you that despite all that, this game still went into double overtime. You’d tell me that made no sense, right?
Well, you’d be right. It didn’t. And after that one, I’m desperate for some structure in my life. So, rather than a willy-nilly post-game recap, let’s go with one of my favourite sports column gimmicks: it’s time for the good, the bad, and the ugly, Raptors/Rockets edition.
(Spoiler alert: Rudy Gay does not end up in “The Good”)
- Defensively, the Raptors were as solid as they’ve been all season. The Raps’ struggles defending the high pick-and-roll have been well-documented and have clearly made their way onto other teams’ scouting reports by now: for the duration of the game, it seemed that Houston’s entire half-court offense revolved around setting a high screen and either throwing to a driving Dwight Howard or jump shooting. The strategy paid off in the first half with plenty of open looks and late rotations (including one memorable James Harden four-point play), but the effort level by the visitors increased dramatically in the second half. Rather than trying to fight through screens against Houston’s twin towers, the Raptor wings started using their length to disrupt passing lanes, and out-stole the Rockets on the night 12-8 after being down 6-3 in that category in the first half.
- Terrence Ross, in particular, was impressive on the defensive end. In the second half and through both overtimes until he fouled out, he was the primary defender on James Harden, and visibly disrupted him with his length and effort. Yes, he’s still raw, and there were still moments in this game where he had you scratching your head (a corner-three off a fast break with Houston’s lone defender playing him tight sticks out in my mind), but on the whole, it was one of his more impressive nights on the year. He’s beginning to look more confident on both ends of the floor, and given the way he was blown-by on a regular basis last season, that’s a really exciting development. Here’s hoping his role on this team continues to increase: last year, I was convinced that at least some of his struggles were due to inconsistent playing time, and I’m hopeful that as he becomes a bigger and bigger part of this team’s strategy, we’ll see games like this more often. Of course, he could just love playing in Houston (remember this game last year?).
- For most Raptor fans, the expected Jonas Valanciunas/Dwight Howard matchup was the main event, and Jonas more than held his own against his all-NBA foe. His touch around the rim is really impressive, and he seems to have a nose for the ball on the offensive glass (7 on the night). He’s clearly still got room to grow: saddled with early foul trouble, he became either overly passive on defence or just couldn’t handle Dwight Howard’s athleticism in the block at times; and his head-fake/two dribble drive is becoming a bit predictable. That being said, he generally acquitted himself quite well against one of the game’s best big men despite his minutes being limited due to foul trouble, which has to be an exciting sign, no matter the game’s result.
- Dwight Buycks seems to have secured the backup point guard spot on the team for the time being, and last night, he showed what he can bring to the team: tough defence and reasonable-if-occassionally-ball-stopping offensive decision-making. His work defensively, particularly on James Harden, allowed Casey to use him in a 2-point guard lineup in the second quarter. Is he the best backup in the NBA? No, of course not. Is he serviceable? Yes. Yes he is. And given what we’ve seen from the Raptors’ backup point guards this season thus far, that’s worthy of a spot in the “good” column.
- As a whole, the level of grit/swagger displayed by the Raptors last night was extremely impressive. Say what you will about Dwayne Casey’s offensive schemes (and I will), but he’s clearly got the team buying into the attitude he’s looking to instill in the locker room. The toughness of the Raptors defensively and on the offensive glass (particularly Amir Johnson after Jonas fouled out) cannot be fun for other teams to play on a night by night basis – it sure didn’t look fun for the Rockets last night, and the Raptors did well to rally from down 17 despite some really poor offensive decision-making/shooting.
- I never thought I’d say this, but I was begging for Aaron Gray to get some burn last night after watching the Rockets eviscerate the Raptors’ small-ball lineup in the first half. After Jonas hit the bench in the first quarter with two quick fouls, Casey’s lineup of choice seemed to include Amir Johnson at center and either Landry Fields or Rudy Gay manning the power forward spot, and both had severe difficulty on the defensive end, despite a couple of nice weak-side blocks by Gay. A team like Houston is able to get away with one big on the floor due to the size and skills players like Dwight Howard and Omer Asik possess when it comes to help defence – the Raptors, not so much. It became obvious early that when anyone besides Amir or Jonas was switched onto either Howard or Asik, the only possible defence was to foul – not a bad strategy, given their free-throw shooting prowess, but not one that you’d hope your team has to employ. It was pretty clear last night that the Raps need another big big-man – Tyler Hansbrough, in particular, looked like when you’re playing a pick-up game at a family reunion and your little cousin gets switched onto your 6 foot 5 uncle.
- The shot selection of the Raptors, generally, was not a pretty thing to watch. Far too often – particularly when Buycks/Gay/DeMar were all on the floor at the same time – the offence resembled a pick-up game where everyone’s looking to get theirs with no regard for spacing, the shot clock, or off-ball cuts in the least. In my game notes, I wrote: “this team has too many players who play superstar ball, but not enough superstars.” Never a good sign.
- Rudy Gay: 11 for 37 (the most shot attempts of his career, by the way). DeMar DeRozan: 6 for 25. Those numbers not ugly enough for you? Fair enough, let’s look at some shot charts. Here’s Rudy’s:
And here’s DeMar’s:
Now, by my count, that’s 7 shots made for Gay outside of the key out of 19 attempts, and 3 for DeMar on 12. Not displayed in these charts, either, are the amount of time spent in an offensive set before either player seemingly settled for a difficult shot – it seemed like nearly every player on the Raptors save Jonas was allergic to passing at times, and it made the offence really, really difficult to watch at different times during the game. When either player attempted to take it inside (more often early on, when the plan seemed to be to get Howard/Asik in foul trouble, and then less frequently as the game went along), the predictability of their games rang through: Gay was blocked three times, DeRozan six. The amount of assists between them? An almost-unfathomable three (in over 100 combined minutes of game-time!). Yes, complain about the reffing/non-calls against both players all you want (and I’ll get to the reffing in a second), but not being bailed out by a referee doesn’t excuse a poor offensive possession, and these two players simply took far too many of them last game for the team’s top two scoring options. After last night’s game, I’m more convinced than ever that one of these players needs to move in order for the Raptors to take the next step offensively – one black hole on offence can be dealt with, two is simply devastating to a team’s flow in a game like this.
- No “ugly” list can be complete without mentioning the refereeing in last night’s game, which bordered on atrocious. Non-calls and ghost calls reared their heads for both teams – with two questionable calls against Lowry late in the game being perhaps the most game-altering, but certainly not the only ones. It certainly didn’t help what was already a clunky game offensively, but it did affect the Raptors more definitively than the Rockets due to their offensive strategy (or lack thereof, at times) of driving the lane and looking for contact against Howard/Asik or playing in one-on-one situations. Honestly, even with all the difficult to digest statistics to look through from this game, the Raptors could have conceivably won it in regulation with a bit more consistent refereeing. When I asked my Dad what he thought I should write about this game, he texted me to “say that if the refs weren’t biased, this would have been over even with the stupid shots.. Just my opinion.” It says a lot about the general insanity of the proceedings of last night that he’s probably right. Alas, though, they didn’t, and so I get to post this awesome photo of Amir Johnson clicking his heels here, instead of at the top of the article (GIF here):
- Dwayne Casey might be a great defensive coach, and a great motivator, but he desperately – desperately – needs to give up the late game play calling/time management responsibilities to somebody else. Two examples: with 35 seconds left in regulation and the game tied, the Raptors inbounded the ball to Rudy Gay, who, instead of working for a quick possession and potential 2-for-1, dribbled at the perimeter for 19 seconds before shooting a contested three; and with 6 seconds left in overtime, the Raptors could only manage a Gay ISO three that miraculously went in. It’s tough to watch, and it’s not a sustainable method for success. Leo Rautins, who was generally excruciating last night to listen to, managed to drop a nugget of truth in the middle of his nonsensical rambling: in the fourth quarter with the Raptors down 9, he simply said that all the team had to do “was get hot” to get back into the game.Unfortunately, this appears to be the coaching staff’s plan A, B, and C as well, which is great for the Riggin’ for Wiggins bandwagon and bad for the #playoffs crowd.
The Optimistic (bonus!)
- Did we see good basketball last night? No. Did we see the Raptors’ two sophomore players play solid games against All-Star counterparts, and the team manage to grit their way to an entertaining if confusing double-overtime loss against a team generally thought of as a contender? Yeah, we did. And you know what, in Raptorland, sometimes that’s enough. If we’re headed for more of last season this year, let’s see some improvement, let’s have some fun, and let’s enjoy the fact that Rudy Gay can blow up Twitter until Masai manages to find a trading partner.