Fix the defense and go from there

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These are tough times, team’s not playing well, the injuries are piling up, the defense isn’t there and worst of all a potentially humbling West coast trip is lurking in the shadows. They say you have to hit rock-bottom before you can start to rise and I think we officially did that this weekend. The New Jersey loss was shocking and the Boston massacre was just that, a massacre. It’s the way we lost the Boston game that bugs you more than the defeat itself. We were outplayed, outclassed and made to look like a very inferior team, a team that is leagues below the Celtics in every category. Before the season started there were many who thought that we could give the good teams a run for their money but so far it just hasn’t happened and we’ve followed the same old Raptors pattern – beat the bad and lose to the good.

One of those “bad” teams is coming to town on Wednesday, its the Charlotte Bobcats who stretched us earlier in the year before Bosh took over in the fourth. You would think we can come through here and briefly restore the winning feeling around the club before we head into a tough matchup against an athletic Atlanta team. If we get these two we’ll be back above .500 before heading out to meet the Lakers on Sunday where the struggles are likely to continue. The goal is to have Jose Calderon and Jermaine O’Neal 100% healthy and if it means they got to skip these games, so be it. The last thing we want is Jose Calderon – a terrible defensive player – limping around with an excuse to not play any defense. It’s not a slight at Calderon, his effort is always 100%, but I don’t want to lose any more games by having a PG that can’t come close to defending his position. Let Roko or Will play, they’re our designated backup point guards and we shouldn’t be scared to give them playing time. After all what does it say about the confidence coaches and management have in them when they ask Jose to play hurt instead of giving Willoko some burn. Speaking of those two, here’s what NBA scouts are saying about them:

“Neither of those guys have shown they deserve to be in the NBA Certainly not on a good team. At best they should be your fifth guard and inactive most nights. If I was Sam I’d be playing Calderon 40 minutes a game. ”

The difference between winning and losing in the NBA is so small that if you can sell something as an advantage to your team, you’re going to do it and if you know Calderon is a little banged up and the guys behind aren’t at the same level, that’s the kind of thing that’s going to be sold to your team.”

As much as I like Roko the scout is bang on. Playing Calderon for 40 minutes a game and hoping his defense picks up is the way to go if you want to beat more than a treadmill team. We got to hope the last couple performances by him were anomalies because of his injury and not something permanent. To his credit, he recognizes that his defense needs to be a lot better:

“There are no excuses because of injury. I have got to get better. I’m the first that has got to be much better on defense.”

Anytime a team is struggling there’s always the Don’t Panic post and it comes from Eric Smith. He’s urging you to wait while Sam Mitchell waits for Jamario Moon, Jason Kapono and Joey Graham to develop consistency. He’s also waiting for the “killer instinct” to show up and rescue the lax malaise that surrounds the club. He’s waiting for the chemistry to develop and looking at positives such as the leads we’ve had in the games we’ve lost rather than the loss itself. My answer to that is we couldn’t get Jamario Moon, Jason Kapono and Joey Graham to develop consistency all last season so what makes you think its going to happen now? The “killer instinct” isn’t an on/off switch, its something you’re born with (ask KG) and sad to say nobody on this team has shown that they have it. Maybe Jermaine O’Neal but I haven’t seen enough of the guy to form an opinion yet. For us to get better it has to start at the defensive end. Anthony Parker, Jose Calderon, Jamario Moon have to play defense at a much higher level for this team to accomplish even the modest of goals. It has to be a team-commitment and an individual one, as they say the strength of the Pack is the Wolf, and the strength of the Wolf is the Pack. I believe that our offense will find itself if we can get stops and generate points off of our defense. That’s not to say the offense isn’t a problem, it’s a big problem especially the fourth quarter kind, but if you have to start somewhere, start on D.

Check out Sam Mitchell’s interview after practice yesterday (JO didn’t participate but saw video) and he sounds about as defeated as ever. He’s saying all the right things – looked at tape, got good work done, help the helper, get back to basics, better spacing, stop dribble penetration yadda yadda yadda. He’s searching for answers just like we are and coming up empty. He’s hammering away his philosophy to the team and the team has trouble responding because #1) the talent isn’t there and #2) the motivation is questionable. I can handle #1 and blame Colangelo for sleeping through the draft and the summer but if #2 is off then its time to become angry.

The other issue with Mitchell is that our offense can’t seem to get an easy shot to save their lives. The defense always seems to recover after doubling Bosh leaving the offense back to where it started. The high pick ‘n roll hasn’t been nearly as effective as in previous years because the ball defender is managing to negotiate the pick by either fighting through it or going under and quickly recovering before Jose can launch his jumper. Jose’s quickness hasn’t been there so far this year and he hasn’t been able to turn using the pick for layups or deep penetration. The NBA scouts seemed to have figured out what we’ve been doing the past two seasons and its time for us to look elsewhere for offense. Unfortunately that’s easier said than done. Aside from the PnR our other natural route for points is Bosh double leading to open threes, something that we did very well two years ago. Clever double-teaming by the opposition combined with poor spacing has neutralized this plan of attack. Rewind to the Celtics game and Bosh is being doubled on the right block, Celtics bring a double from the weak-side which Bosh never sees and turns the ball over. Another possession: Bosh is doubled but Jason Kapono is on the weak-side so his man has no reason to leave him and instead Andrea Bargnani takes a forced jumper. It’s the little common sense stuff that the Raptors have got wrong which tells me we’re far from being an offensive machine. Sam Mitchell’s ingenuity is on the line here, its unacceptable for Kapono to have 0 shots or for us to get crushed in PINP and lose the fastbreak battle every single time. He’s got to come up with ways to kick-start this offense and he’s got to think beyond running the same play expecting different results because that’s insanity.

I’m a little concerned with Bosh’s reaction after the Boston game. It’s not very leader-like. I understand his disappointment in his teammates but he’s got to look in the mirror before pointing the fingers. He had a statistically okay game but his impact was minimal. He’s got a right to be upset with the dribble penetration, the lack of intensity and “playing scared” but the way to air that out is going to your GMs office and showing him the tape that you’re forced to watch in practice. You can’t blame a poor player for being a poor player. You have to blame the GM for selecting him. You have to blame the GM for allowing the team to become so poor that your star player is out of answers when asked why they got blown out at home in a game everybody but the team was up for.

Here’s the business we got to take care of this week: 1) get JO and Calderon healthy 2) beat the Bobcats in a strong defensive performance 3) revenge Atlanta and play like you’re pissed that they beat you last time. This will give us some momentum going out West and hopefully the team and coaches will do some soul-searching and come up with answers as to why they can’t score, defend or play hard. It’s a tall order but you got to start somewhere. I don’t know if Sam Mitchell’s days are already numbered but if we get a poor performance out of the club in the next two games you can be assured that he’ll be flying commercial once we come back from out West. Speaking of which, you can win some money by predicting when Sam might get fired.

Doug Smith said that Sam Mitchell’s job is very safe, I don’t know how he knows that because I don’t think Colangelo calls him up for friendly chats. I have to think if the team struggles and continues to show the offensive ineptitude and spotty defensive effort, Colangelo would be forced to swallow his salary to prevent a disastrous season. Is 6-7 disastrous? No, it’s nothing like the Washington and OKC records (1-10, 1-11) so I can see why Colangelo would give Mitchell some more time to correct the course. If by some divine intervention we come back with a winning record from the West coast trip all will be forgotten. It’s also important to note that the Raptors of the past two seasons have started off with pretty poor records (6-7 and 2-8) before picking up the pace so that’s got to be weighing on Colangelo’s mind too. But if we do end up replacing Sam Mitchell we need to bring in a veteran NBA coach, Ettore Messina is not going to work. Mark Jackson anyone?

That’s about it. Oh yeah, we’re falling like a rock in those power rankings.

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