Aah…it’s good to be on the right side of a blowout for a change and see Bosh and O’Neal smiling on the bench instead of looking like they’re searching for a cliff to throw themselves over. A solid defense-inspired win is exactly what this team needed, the players needed to see a return on investment of what Triano’s been preaching and although some good things happened over the last few games, the results weren’t great. Last night it all came together and we won an ugly basketball game where not a single Raptor’s effort or determination could be questioned. If there’s a recipe you’d want every Raptors game to follow, it would be this. The offense wasn’t operating close to peak efficiency but then again, it rarely does. The one thing every player can control even on an off night is their defensive commitment, we did that tonight and got rewarded with a big win. The naysayers can point to Carter’s 0-13 night and write the win off as a fluke but they’d be completely wrong. Two weeks after the Carter/Harris combo went off for 69, they were held for 17. The 60 points we gave up in the paint in that game were reduced down to 24 (10 in garbage time) and none of that is fluke, it is a testament to how we dug down and showed pride in our defense and helped each other.
Let’s talk about the defense which did its job at a few different levels. Firstly, Triano didn’t throw Calderon at the mercy of Harris like Mitchell had, he rotated the assignment between Calderon, Graham and Moon (getting the start for the injured Parker), each of those three gave Harris different looks and forced him to adjust his game. Joey bumped him on the perimeter, Moon conceded the jumper but challenged the shot and Jose forced him to where he knew the help would be. Secondly, the ball pressure on Harris and Carter was consistent enough to bother them and they weren’t able to get into their offense, execute a dribble-drive and kick out against a stagnant defense. Whenever they did drive the help was there and the kick-outs were forced through passing lanes that were not easy to pick out resulting in deflections and steals. Jamario Moon picking up five steals in the process, a couple coming through half-court pressure. Thirdly, we contested perimeter jumpers after helping on drives. Yes, Kapono got caught watching Bobby Simmons drain a few threes but aside from his slow recovery, most of our perimeter rotations were intact. The interior ones still need a lot of work but those are much tougher to master as it’s hard to communicate the rebound, box-out and rotation while the ball’s bouncing on the rim. We lost the rebounding battle 50-37 but the perimeter defense made up for it. Kapono talked about the plan for shutting down the paint:
Our defensive schemes were solid. We shut down the paint, closed the gaps. Vince missed a lot of shots but that was our game plan, to force guys to make shots from outside.
I really dig the use of the word “plan” when talking Raptors basketball. Haven’t had that for a while. The game started with Chris Bosh being assertive, he finished with 10 first quarter points and set the tone against Yi Jianlian by going in for a couple NBA facials. The Raptors ended the second quarter with a 10-0 run and at halftime Bosh confessed that he wasn’t being aggressive of late and needed to fix the issue:
I’m just trying to be aggressive, lately I haven’t been as aggressive as I was in the beginning of the season. I’m just trying to be really aggressive, take them off the dribble and be unselfish at the same time
At least he’s acknowledging that there was something wrong about his games of late. The matchup tonight was favorable and Bosh took advantage. Now Josh Boone and Yi aren’t close to being as good or physical as David West will be on Sunday and Bosh’s play against West will tell us more about him than tonight did. For now, he gets the credit for doing the right thing against players that he’s clearly better than.
We built an 8 point lead in the first quarter by playing good defense and going inside-out with Bosh, the Nets made a bit of a run to end the quarter and took the lead in the second but it wasn’t a concern because it wasn’t like our defense let up, they just made some contested shots. The offense picked up towards the end of the quarter as Jamario Moon scored off his own good defense, Chris Bosh buried one in Yi’s face and Graham was found neatly by Calderon in the lost-post for a score. A four point deficit had turned into a six point lead going into half. The third quarter began with Kapono losing Simmons for a couple threes but after that Jose executed the two-man game with Bosh to nail a three after his man left him to double, the misfiring Kapono started to fire and Moon continued his impressive defense on whoever he got on the switch, and the Raptors were switching a lot. Since Carter was struggling the constant switching worked in our favor because other than a big switching on Harris, there’s nobody on New Jersey that could take advantage of any 2/3/4 switch we made. Negating their pick ‘n roll was huge because it forced them to rely entirely on drive ‘n kick scores and we were up to the task. NBA.com has a good analysis of the defense.
New Jersey tried to rekindle their struggling offense and counter the aggressive Raptors perimeter defense by looking for Brook Lopez against Jermaine O’Neal, a matchup that’s gone in their favor in both games. Triano was smart enough to recognize this and provided immediate help testing the rookie’s ball-handling and passing ability, as suspected it wasn’t that great. The Raptors even tried a few defensive tricks tonight, they caused at least 3 turnovers by just backing out their weight against a driving guard causing them to stumble or lose control, the break started as soon as they recovered the turnover and the 16 fast break points were the highest since opening night. Vince Carter took 13 shots, 11 were jumpers and its not like that because he was lazy. We were aware of his drives and had a man ready to help as soon as he drove to the paint, Carter only found the helpers man a couple times all game thus making the strategy a success. We forced New Jersey to make plays, they were forced to shoot contested jumpers, had to finish between our trees, negotiate our tight-checking defense and be weary of protecting the ball. Once you have all these things going in your mind your offense is not going to functions smoothly and NJ shooting 31% sounds about right.
It’s become so obvious that all we needed to do with Joey Graham is to let him play. I was convinced that under Sam Mitchell he would amount to nothing because of the short leash combined with the mistakes he makes. As Joey himself admitted, he doesn’t have to look over his shoulders and can just play loose, free basketball. He’s our only wing player that has the ability to finish in the post and Triano is aggressively looking to get him there, he only finished a couple such moves but there is a play in the Raptors offense that slides Joey Graham into the paint from the weak side as we fake a Calderon-Bosh-Calderon handoff on the strong side. Jamario Moon did not have any plays run for him and nor should he, he just played good aggressive defense, didn’t take dumb shots and used his length in the passing lanes. I just hope Triano can permanently get through to him so that we don’t have to suffer through his lackadaisical play 80% of the time.
Roko Ukic is learning to play defense, he’s quicker than Calderon and it showed in the job he did against Harris in that second quarter spell. He’s got a good defensive balance and does a decent job of taking away the drive and contesting the jumper at the same time. His defense gets him in trouble when the ball is not in his man’s hand, Roko has a tendency to ball-watch and slowly drift towards the paint when on the weak side, he got burned more than once doing that but I’ll attribute that to the learning process. Let’s be thankful that he’s aware of his responsibility to provide help, he just needs to fine-tune his decision making of when to cheat. He played a 5:30 spell (9:00 1Q to 9:30 2Q) in that first/second quarter stretch which allowed Calderon to rest for a good 10-12 minutes or so. Valuable stuff.
Our wings played so well in the third quarter that we didn’t even need Bosh to do anything, his second half contribution was three FTs. Jason Kapono hoisted up 15 shots for 16 points, he started off 1-6 and ended going 6-15. Simple plan by Triano: shoot the ball. Well, it’s actually slightly more complicated than that, Kapono’s now running the high screen ‘n roll with Bosh almost as much as Calderon and it tends to work out well when his decision is on target. His defender rarely goes under the screen in fear of getting burned by the J (although I’d test him a few times shooting off the dribble) which allows Kapono to go one step towards the rim leaving the defender on his side or back forcing Bosh’s man to deal with the minor problem and thus leaving Bosh open for a jumper. Regardless of whether Bosh takes the jumper there’s enough going on for a cutter (Moon/Graham/O’Neal) to take advantage by getting to an open spot.
Bargnani struggled again, his offense is non-existent right now and he’s trying to shoot himself out of a slump. There’s no rhythm or lift in his jumper and he’s starting to look like the player of last year. His defense is still there, 4 blocks and 7 rebounds is nothing to be ashamed of especially since most of his damage came when the game was still somewhat in doubt. However, 2-10 FG is embarrassing. Will he ever find the offensive consistency to not be an X-Factor but a known quantity heading into a given game? It would be nice to count on Bargnani giving us 15/8/2 on a nightly basis and who knows, he might even do this season. It’s just hard for me (and everybody else) not to get out the #1 pick measuring stick when looking at the boxscore.
The Raptors complete a convincing revenge mission where a lot of the stuff Triano’s been emphasizing finally came to the surface. We got a great team coming to our house on Sunday, if we just replicate our defensive effort we’ll be in the game. No Roll Call today, AltRaps’ PVR pulled a Will Solomon.