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Aggressive Denver too much for sloppy Raptors

The Nuggets suffocated the Raptors all evening long.
Denver Nuggets 105, Toronto Raptors 94

This game served as a good test for the Raptors which if they passed would’ve given them some confidence heading into the regular season. In the end it turned out to be yet another reminder that this team has more question marks than answers. An athletic Denver side which was committed to attacking the rim shot 53% as the Raptors defense (especially the second unit) failed to cope with Denver’s speed and aggression. It’s what you get when you have a 19-man roster fighting for 15 spots, people come out and play for their jobs. It’s a spirit that’s been lacking at this year’s Raptors training camp where players like Moon are playing like they’re already guaranteed minutes.

They don’t keep a stat of deflections but if they did you’d see Denver get one every three possessions. They challenged the Raptors by playing extremely aggressive defense – fronting the post, early doubles, ball-pressure and fighting through screens rendering them pointless. All this pressure forced the Raptors into making 20 turnovers which were of the very sloppy kind. We had the ball literally taken out of hands three times not to mention countless strips that either resulted in a turnover or took a bit chunk out of the shot-clock as the Raptors reset. Although Denver’s lead was only around 10 for the entire game you knew that this was a huge uphill mountain to climb – you’d never have picked the Raptors to come up with five defensive stands against a determined Denver while scoring five times on the other end. Hell, I’d even have settled for five straight possessions without a turnover.

There were some positives from this game, especially early on. Our offense clicked rather well when Jermaine O’Neal was in the game. O’Neal executed his patented post-moves on a couple occasions drawing double teams and kicking out for swing sequences. He hit a pull-up mid-range jumper and felt comfortable in driving to the rim against Juwan Howard or Nene. Chris Bosh was hitting his jumper and Parker executed two of his patented off-the-screen fadeaways. Andrea Bargnani went through good and bad stretches but ended the game strongly and looked good when he wasn’t turning the ball over. Let’s not kid ourselves though, we saw more bad than good last night and learned that this team is far from ready. Mitchell believes he doesn’t need any more preseason games but welcomes the practice time coming up. He feels that he knows what he wants the team to do, its a question of teaching the team how to do it. Of course, how could we forget…Mitchell knows everything, its the other that are lacking around him.

Jermaine O’Neal didn’t return for the second half because of a sore knee which rang many alarm bells in many heads. According to O’Neal its not a big deal:

“The back problem caused a little tightness in the leg. It’s more of a maintenance thing.”

Oh, a little maintenance thing. It’s something like getting an oil change, you need to do it and if you neglect it you’ll have to buy a new engine. Hopefully all we’ll need to do this year is oil changes because the mileage on this baby isn’t too high, although on the other side it’s been driven by a piss-poor driver for the last few years. I don’t know, you decide the depreciation on this equipment and whether it’ll have any buy-back value at the end of the year. I guess we could have brought something a bit cheaper and a little more stable but we went for the name brand here instead of really trying to find a good car to fit our needs. We ended up by buying a used BMW whose Kelly Blue Book value was way higher than what she was actually deemed to be worth by anybody other than the Kelly Blue Book people. They say BMW’s have long lives, obviously your mileage may vary so all we can do is hope that it works out.

There was a play in the second half which showed what the team’s continuity level is. Jose Calderon drove the ball across the paint and right underneath the rim expecting Bargnani – who had set the screen for him – to cut to the basket to receive the pass. Bargnani never cut and Jose ended up with a turnover and setup a picture perfect fast break for the Nuggets. Two players that are just not on the same page. Will Solomon was rested due to hamstring issues so Roko Ukic got the nod as the backup PG and showed us how raw he really is. Ukic’s ball handling needs to be a lot better before he can execute the passes that his mind wants him to make. Half the time he’s trying to protect the ball rather than make a play with it; his dribble isn’t nearly as tight as it should be and you can tell that he wants to attack the rim and create but doesn’t yet have the tools to do it. Ukic didn’t make many mistakes on the court, he dished out five assists and went 4-9 FG in a game where he was under constant pressure. Not a bad performance from the Croatian who is showing that with some experience he can be an effective member of this team.

Is there anything funnier than Jamario Moon trying to sell a head-fake? Yes, there is. It’s Jamario Moon trying to sell a pump-fake. His misery continued with another 0fer as he went 0-4 and got thunderously dunked on by Nene at the end of the second half. Again, I point out to two plays that tells you all about Jamario Moon’s state of mind. After O’Neal kicks out the ball and Denver’s rotating on the perimeter the ball comes to Moon who launches a 18 footer when two extra passes would’ve resulted in an open Calderon three. Granted, he’s wide open but that doesn’t mean you take the shot. So that’s #1. Then he managed to get an offensive rebound and instead of going up strong with it, he tried to use the highest part of the glass to avoid being blocked. Naturally he misses the layup. Contrast this with what Ruben Patterson or Dahntay Jones did last night and you’ll see the difference in aggression between the players. Denver is full of slashers and we don’t have a single one; the two guys that actually might be able to do that (Moon and Graham) are just not willing to do it. Afterward Mitchell was critical of Moon’s play (again):

“The Jamario of last year isn’t good enough for this year..if you’re not going to apply (what’s being taught), we’ll get people who will. But it’s coming for him. But it’s coming for him.”

Moon then chimed in with another unintelligent comment about how its just the preseason and how his problems will disappear come opening night. At least he’s admitting he’s playing the kind of basketball which is unworthy of a starting NBA small forward:

“I feel like I’ve had one of the worst pre-seasons that anyone could have, but that’s why they call it pre-season. I was just working on what coach wanted me to work on, drive to the basket. But I’ve got to step up now. The season’s ready to start.”

One of the painful things about this game was watching Jason Kapono struggle like a fish out of water. He’s unable to get his shot off because there’s no reason for his man to leave him open. It sounds ultra-simple but its true. Why would you leave Jason Kapono open if you don’t have to? The way Kapono can get his threes off is if someone is doubled and the rotation gets to his man. If we’re not consistently posting up Bosh or O’Neal, Kapono’s success rate falls instantly. We can’t expect Kapono to get his shot attempts off the high pick ‘n roll because that’s basically a two-man game the way the Raptors run it. Defensively he got exploited on every opportunity and worst of all the help of the second unit was brutal making for great interior Denver passing followed by Sportscenter material.

Bargnani’s late spurt resulting in 19 points might’ve saved the bench’s face but let it not be lost that they were outplayed throughout the game. Aside from Roko Ukic creating off the bounce or forcing the issue and Bargnani knocking some one-on-one shots down, they looked horrible on both ends of the floor. If we’re expecting this lot to sustain us during those crucial late third quarter and early fourth quarter periods we might be in trouble. Defensively they’re shot. Denver guards were able to split our pick ‘n roll traps every single time which led to easy points in the paint as Kris Humphries, Andrea Bargnani and Joey Graham looked at each other quizzically. You should’ve seen the way Hassan Adams tried to close-out JR Smith on this one three – it was f*****g weak!

Generally speaking our defensive effort was not good. We fell for way too many simple head-fakes (Moon, Graham, Bargnani and Bosh all guilty) which opened up things for Denver. We were -6 on the boards and were in shambles anytime Denver made more than two passes. Again, the second unit is far more guilty of this than the starters but you’re only as strong as your weakest link.

The preseason is over and I feel like we hardly learned much from it. Nobody’s taken ownership of the starting SF spot, who the backup PG will be is anybody’s guess and there’s no sign of the Raptors coming close to becoming a cohesive unit by October 29th. We have one-a-day practices for the time leading up to the season opener and we have a lot of work to do.

I feel bad for the fans who came out last night in Edmonton. They were trying to cheer on the Raptors all evening long and even had Ole, Ole going at one point. Instead they saw Nene crush Jamario Moon and Denver manhandle the Raptors. Oh well, better than staying at home.

That’s it for today.

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