Zero quality wins for 2008

And this kids is how you DON’T play perimeter defense.
Nuggets 114, Raptors 107

That Bosh brick clanged so loudly that it was mistaken for an early New Year’s eve firecracker. More on that later but first, Golden State beat Boston, Miami beat Cleveland, Indiana beat the Lakers, could the Raptors beat the Nuggets? No. We once again lose in a manner so familiar that we need to take a patent out on it. To be fair nobody of sane disposition was expecting a win today but it would’ve been nice, you know, one of those wins that give you something to look forward to and perhaps even build something on. For a team that coming into the game had 7 losses too many from even being called mediocre, any win would’ve been a good win but the possibility of avenging the earlier 39-point coach-capping catastrophe and making a mini-statement should have at the very least elicited an emotional defensive response that could propel the team through 48 minutes. We got something resembling a response for about 25 minutes or so but that’s only worth another frustrating loss.

Jermaine O’Neal’s knee kept him out and Jason Kapono’s quad saw him miss the game. Nobody really cares about Kapono because having him play or not amounts to the same thing 90% of the time. O’Neal’s offensive output had increased over the last few games and his interior defense was something of a difference-maker so that was a cause for concern. Those concerns were eased by Andrea Bargnani’s monthly great game – 26 points, 6 rebounds and 5 blocks. It’s funny how he’s only motivated to play defense when his shot is going in, earlier in the year that wasn’t the case but his confidence and desire to play defense is directly proportional to his shooting percentage. Let me not bellow too much praise on him until he does this for at least three games in a row, we’ve all seen him struggle for two weeks and then have a good game and then go back to struggling for three weeks. Some consistency would be nice.

Let’s talk about the game. Raptors start Bargnani in place of O’Neal and Parker instead of Kapono, they both have 5 first quarter points as the Raptors come out looking to get out on the break, hit the offensive glass and push the tempo against Denver. The Nuggets do much of the same as there’s very little defense being played early on and the first quarter ends with the Raptors up 31-29. Hey! We got a lead, that’s something to celebrate right? Well….no. The warning signs were there from the start, now I realize I sound like Galen Weston by repeating the same thing over and over again but the dribble-penetration was too much to bear. And it wasn’t just one player that was causing the damage: Carmelo, Billups, Dahntay Jones and even loose cannon J.R Smith can easily get by their checks into the paint and dish off to Nene and Martin for scores or get fouled. Despite shooting 52% (no way can we do this for 4 quarters) we were only up by two because of the aforementioned defense and three uncharacteristic Jose Calderon turnovers which all led to points. Triano later touched on the perimeter defense:

We couldn’t keep anyone in front of us.

Nice, short and sweet. You don’t need to read the rest of the quote about how not being able to keep anyone in front of you affects rotations, close-outs, interior defense and such because you’ve watched more than two games and really, it’s not that hard to figure out.

Nene, Birdman and J.R Smith scored 20 of the Nuggets’ 24 second quarter points as the Raptors modest 5-point mid-quarter lead quickly turned into a three point halftime deficit courtesy of a 10-2 Nuggets blitz coming out of a timeout. The quarter was played fairly even up to that point as Bargnani and Bosh hit their 18-footers and Will Solomon (still no sign of Roko – got a haircut though) spelled Calderon adequately and scored five in the process. However, the Nuggets were getting anything they wanted off the pick ‘n roll as the hedge man was getting caught in no-man’s land too often. We displayed horrid interior defense as cutters were allowed to come right into the paint and catch passes for scores, deep post-positioning was conceded to the mammoth Nene and Birdman wasn’t checked on the offensive glass. All this chaos in the paint contributed to the ghastly 50-34 points in the paint differential. The Raptors early enthusiasm had sagged off as it usually does by this point and it was replaced by that oh so natural tendency to respond to a tight check by taking a jumper instead of driving. Still, a three point deficit going into halftime is red roses considering this is the same team that impaled you with a 39-inch dildo last time around.

So the third quarter starts and I’m already emotionally prepared for a letdown. Raps Fan was supposed to do this post-game report and I called him up and gave him the night off. My evening is about to be ruined, why make him suffer. Anyway, back to the affair. Jamario Moon starts the quarter with an ill-advised, half-assed three followed by a shit-eating grin which increases my hate for him to level orange. Jose Calderon and Andrea Bargnani then combine for four threes on the next six possessions to give the Raptors a one point lead. All this time Denver is having no trouble scoring, they’re going inside to Nene, Carmelo is slashing to the paint and Kenyon Martin is executing hook shots over Bargnani and Bosh. In other words, our offense is clicking but we’re giving it right back on the other end. The fear in these situations is that eventually you’ll cool off and the Nuggets’ depth and superior talent will rise to the top, as the cream always does. And that cooling off happened in the final 3:31 of the quarter as the Nuggets went on an 11-0 run in a stretch that saw Calderon’s third turnover of the quarter, Bosh forcing a terrible shot, missing three FTs, Graham missing two drives and the Raptors drawing the ire of Triano in a timeout because of them settling for jumpers. The tight-checking Dahntay Jones’ defensive pressure on Calderon had a big impact in this game, his five turnovers were all forced and he heavily disrupted Calderon’s ability to control the game. The fact that Calderon still managed to get 11 assists is something to be admired until you realize that his offensive influence was yet again negated by his defense.

The fourth quarter was typical Raptors. Linus Kleiza goes off for 7 points against Bargnani who fails to recover in time for the return pass to the screener on the pick ‘n roll. We ride Bargnani and Calderon’s offense to make this a three point game and get possession with 3:56 left. That’s when it happened. The obligatory brain fart and choke-job came from Chris Bosh on this night as he launched a three pointer that would even make Jamario Moon cringe, this after he had already missed two in the game. I swear the ACC crowd was about to rain down boos but decided to save their energy because honestly, it’s just not worth it. On the ensuing possession Nene overpowered Bargnani for the offensive rebound and layed the ball in. Bargnani missed a jumper (if you live by it, be prepared to die by it) and then Chauncey Billups iced the game with a dagger three against Jamario Moon who for some reason was tempting him to shoot. 8 point game. It’s been a nice evening, time to hit the clubs, I heard Guvernment is good.

I could end this post right here and it would be satisfactory but for the hell of it we’ll talk about some points that naturally come to mind. Firstly, the Nuggets are a vastly superior team that have significant depth at each position as reflected by the 46-17 bench victory. Secondly, we were lucky enough to be in the game in the fourth quarter thanks to our hot shooting and if we had any semblance of a defensive game, we’d probably win this game easily. With less than four minutes to go we need our big money players to step up but the crucial stretch from 4:09 to 1:53 saw our deficit increase from 3 to 17; we were held scoreless but Billups and Carmelo had 5. That’s your game right there. God smiled on our sorry asses for 44 minutes of this game and kept us right in it, then He asked Chris Bosh to take over and he misunderstood the message as asking him to take a trailing three in transition. God then said, “You deserve to lose”.

Some minor points points that probably don’t mean much in the grand scheme of things but here goes anyway:

Roko Ukic v Will Solomon: First up, Roko got a haircut and he’s looking like the innocent Eastern European who recruits American’s to stay in the hostels in those Hostel movies. I know I’m going to piss off my loyal Croatian reader Money Carlo, but Ukic doesn’t deserve playing time. Before Triano pushed him into the doghouse and threw the keys away he had every opportunity to win the backup point-guard duties and failed to do so primarily because of his horribly disfigured shot. We can’t have another player out there who the defense can sag off of without repercussion. Jamario Moon is enough. Roko hasn’t gotten to play a minute in four games, maybe Triano’s got orders to prioritize his tasks and collecting W’s is ahead of developing players. I don’t know how well Roko is playing in practice but if he hopes to get minutes it’ll have to start there. Right now Will Solomon has him beat only because when left open he can shoot the open jumper with 40% accuracy, that’s more than what you can say about Roko. Don’t get me wrong, I still like him.

Chris Bosh: 24 points, 11 rebounds on 7-18 FG. Not a bad game but what will you remember from it? Yup, the three. After the game Matt Devlin didn’t hold back and pointed to that play as the reason the fourth quarter rally was extinguished. Leo agreed. The only one who was hesitant to call out Bosh was Triano who simply said, “It’s not the strongest part of his game” when referring to his three-point shooting. He was biting his tongue, you could tell he wanted to let him have it for taking that horrible shot but hey, he’s the franchise player. Let’s leave his desire to emulate Clifford Robinson alone for a second and just look at his inside game. His finishing in the lane is terribly poor and if he doesn’t manage to blow by his man for a dunk or a layup, he’s forcing a tough contested shot that is nowhere close to the target. If the official blows the whistle we ignore it but when he doesn’t, that’s when Bosh starts to look very ordinary against any defender who can stay in front of him. Forget about developing a post-up game, he needs to add a consistent jump-hook and a runner so that he doesn’t solely rely on the ref to make him a factor every night.

Jake Voskuhl v Kris Humphries: Rasho-lite isn’t terrible but neither is Hump. I can’t understand why Humphries is not getting at least 10-15 minutes of playing time given the interior defense issues we’re facing. He’s the guy you’ve invested in and the guy that you can actually showcase for a trade. We’re asking Voskuhl to do the same things we know Humphries is good at: rebounding and hustle. I would understand the disparity in minutes if Voskuhl gave us a boost in offense or any other area of the game but that’s not the case. Triano, give Humpries the minutes before the Republic turns on you.

Excuses: I called Eric Smith and Paul Jones’ Fan 590 post-game show and went off on the team. They let me vent for a while. One of the things I pointed out was a stupid screen the Raptors TV production had come up with. It talked about how the Raptors had hopped on 15 flights, played 16 games, traveled 9449 miles blah blah blah. Now I understand these are facts but let’s not use them as excuses. It’s not like the Raptors were traveling through a desert without water Moses-style, they’re on private jets and staying in luxury hotels. We dropped winnable games to New Jersey, Oklahoma City and Golden State which would’ve turned the 4-12 record into 7-9 – much more manageable. There are no excuses for these losses or late collapses against Portland (twice), Denver and New Orleans.

Rest of the year: We are 12-20 and assuming we want to finish at least in the 6th spot and avoid Boston or Cleveland, we’ll have to go 34-16 as the current 6th seed (Miami) is projected to have 46 wins. If we don’t care about progression in the playoffs and just want to spread our cheeks and collect some home-game revenue we could strive for the 8th spot. This means going 25-25 the rest of the way which currently mathematically gives you the 8th spot but does not factor into the equation the teams between the Raptors and the 8th seed: New York, Philadelphia, Chicago and Milwaukee. Obviously the pre-season talk of getting home-court advantage is now foolish to speak of as it requires us to get at least 55 wins (projected win total for Atlanta currently in 4th), this means we’d have to go 43-7 the rest of the way. Lolz cats! Seriously though, Colangelo has to make a move and do something because the current course of this ship will lead it nowhere.

I’m not the only one working on New Year’s eve. AltRaps checks in with another epic Roll Call. That’s about all from me. Happy New Year and such…..we’ll pick the contest winner at some point on Thursday.

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