Raptors Battle Bad Luck, Good Defense but Fall Just Short

Choose your own adventure: This one is glass-half full!

Okay everyone, just take a deep breath.

I’m serious. Breathe in, breathe out. If you’re reading this with a coffee in your hand, take a nice long sip and think of happier times. Think of Vince Carter winning the dunk contest! Think of the 2006-07 Raptors that captured the Atlantic Division crown! Think of Lowry’s recent dominance! Think of…okay I’m out. Man this is a depressing franchise.

Look it wasn’t that bad. If anything, there were a lot of positives to take from this game.

[If you’re looking for balanced analysis, read Sam’s player grades. If you’re still fuming over the loss, read the cup-half empty recap]

Butler might have taken his lunch money on the last play of the game, but Derozan was feasting before that shot! Scoring 30+ points against the Bulls is really difficult! Here’s a list of players who achieved that rare feat since Thibs took over — sure there’s your Nick Young and your Chris Douglas-Roberts — but for the most part, it’s a star-studded list! And it’s not like Derozan just settled for long-twos — he shot 12 of his 25 field-goal attempts from inside the paint and he shot 11 free-throws! Demar soldiered out there for 42 minutes and ran a 2.7 miles, which is 29% more than any other Raptor! If you’re going to blame the loss on anyone, don’t throw your vitriol at Demar. He wasn’t the goat tonight, he was the GOAT, tonight.

Actually, he couldn’t have been the GOAT tonight, because that honor belongs to the tandem of Amir and Hansbrough. Somewhere along the way, our collective interests shifted towards the shinny new toy — affectionately known around these parts as “2Pat” — and we forgot our lunchbox heroes (miss you, Travis Snider!), but last night they showed us the error in our ways.

When 2Pat wasn’t strong enough to contend with Carlos Boozer on the block, Hansbrough came in and literally struck some fear into the Bulls. Amir Johnson picked up the slack for an over-matched Jonas and played Noah to a standstill on defense — a rare and impressive feat. That’s the benefit of having depth — when your starters aren’t getting the job done, you have a fresh corps waiting in the wings, chomping at the bit for that rarefied playing time. With Amir and Hansbrough manning the middle, the Bulls couldn’t sniff an offensive rebound, and they were kept to the perimeter on offense.

And how about that comeback? It’s a tired old tale, but the Raptors once again battled back from a sizable deficit in the fourth and put themselves in a position to win the game. Lowry and Derozan were performed well down the stretch, scoring just enough points to slice into the Bulls lead. Derozan’s alertness to pump-fake his defender into the air, thus drawing the free-throws was very clever, and Lowry’s turnaround three in Augustin’s face was huge. Without their steady contributions, the Raptors would have never made a game of it. Actually, that applies for the season as a whole. Also, let’s not forget that the Raptors were playing on the second night of a back-to-back. A lesser team might have just given up and conceded defeat — the Raptors fought until the end.

While we’re on the subject of the Bulls, let’s not forget how lucky they were, especially in the fourth quarter. DJ Augustin sunk a contested 30 foot three-pointer with the shot-clock running out! He also sank a fall-away jumper in the lane? Come on, he got lucky. Their other point guard, Kirk Hinrich, was also the beneficiary of this shot chart. I mean, look at this disparity!

seasonI do have to give the Bulls some credit — they won because they were the better team last night. Noah was huge on both ends, steadying the defense whilst running the offense. I’ve always wished for Jonas to turn into a player of his ilk, but I know my hope is misplaced. Noah is one-of-a-kind, and aside from Marc Gasol, I don’t think any player in the NBA comes close to matching his impact on both ends of the floor. Maybe playoff Lebron gets there, but his defense is on cruise-control throughout the season. Noah is their backbone, and he was a huge reason why the Bulls were victorious.

Alas, I hate to be the sour grape, but I do need to deflect some of the blame to the referees. In total, they called 7 technical fouls on the game, which only seemed to irritate the players more than anything else. Aside from Hansbrough wrestling Nazr Mohammed in the second quarter, most of those technicals were unnecessary, and it slowed an already tardy game to a crawl, which made for a very poor viewing experience. Also, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the phantom goaltend that was called on Amir Johnson in the fourth quarter. Replays showed that the “Doctor of Denial” did perform a successful basketot0my on Augustin’s layup attempt. To be fair, the refs did call a tech on Augustin for complaining (weird, because he was awarded the points), but that one point margin was the difference between overtime, and a loss for the Raptors. That has to be accounted for.

Finally, the Raptors simply lost a nail-biter to a better team. Even without Deng and Rose, this Bulls team with Taj Gibson, Joakim Noah and Tom Thibodeau is a 50-win team in the weakened East, and they’re likely better than the current iteration of the Raptors. They play very stringent defense, and they have enough playmakers between Augustin and Noah to patch together a passable offense. They love playing a slow, halfcourt-heavy game, and they would be a tough out for anyone in the playoffs, tougher than even the Raptors.

More importantly, this game exposed most of the Raptors’ flaws. If the Raptors want to make it past the first round of the playoffs, they’re going to need a couple of upgrades, most notably on the wing, and at center. The honest truth is that at this point, Valanciunas and Ross aren’t consistent enough to be counted on in games of importance, so it’s best to have a contingency plan. Nabbing a solid back-up center would be tricky — especially since there are already up to 5 bigs in the rotation at any given time — but the Raptors need a big body to contend with the likes of Noah and Hibbert in the playoffs. Same goes for the wing, where Ross’ inconsistency, coupled with Salmons’ inability to play heavy minutes, portends trouble. Grabbing a wing who can create his own shot would go a long way in a potential playoff run. The decision to upgrade, or stand pat through tomorrow’s deadline will be a matter of price.

Overall, this game showed us what we have with this current team. It showed us the good — the ability to mount comebacks, Derozan’s steady scoring, the defensive capabilities of the front-court — and it showed us the bad — see my other recap. What we have is this: the Raptors are probably the third or fourth best team in the East, and their success is predicated on two things; strong team defense, and backcourt scoring. We’re not battle-tested like the Bulls and the Nets, nor are we horrendously awful like the Cavs and the Knicks. We’re somewhere in-between, and it’s on Masai to decide whether we continue down the path below our feet, or to yank us off the path and start anew.

At the very least, we know this team will try their best and compete.

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