The one concern to emerge, an area that perplexes Triano, is the way the Raptors began the game, trailing 33-22 after the opening period.
Whether Triano sticks with the starting five of Kleiza, Reggie Evans, Andrea Bargnani, DeMar DeRozan and Jose Calderon isn’t certain.
But he knows the Raptors don’t have the luxury of playing from behind, especially so early in games.
But on this afternoon, there were more positives, beginning with a renewed sense of energy that all but disappeared on Friday when Boston came to town.
Bargnani discovered his jumper, the tandem of Evans and Amir Johnson destroyed Phoenix on the glass and Toronto’s bench was productive.
“I’m getting there,’’ Triano said when asked about his rotation. “I haven’t liked the way we’ve started the last couple of games and I don’t know if it’s personnel based or psychologically, but we’ve got to figure it out.”
Matchup-wise, the Raptors matched up well against the Suns, who were simply overmatched when trying to keep Evans and Johnson, who posted 23 of Toronto’s 57 rebounds, off the boards.
Throw in injuries to David Andersen (back) and Joey Dorsey (hamstring) and the Raptors got to showcase their version of small ball.
“The offence kind of came to me,’’ said Johnson, who made eight of nine field goals, mainly on put-backs. “I really stressed getting to the offensive and defensive boards.
“Our team played hard and we have to have that sense of urgency at the beginning of the season.”
Effort is one area the Raptors can control, a mindset that cannot waver given the team’s shortcomings.
And even then, it still may not be sufficient to win on most nights.
Ball pressure, which is the byproduct of effort, forced 18 Suns turnovers.
When the pace is quick and the Raptors are running the floor, their athleticism is able to excel in that environment.
What they don’t have is an abundance of players capable of creating late in the shot clock.
Compared to the reception given to other former Raptors who left Toronto under bitter circumstances, such as Vince Carter, Tracy McGrady and Damon Stoudamire, Turkoglu’s was pretty mild.
“It wasn’t as bad as Vancouver,” said Phoenix guard Steve Nash, when asked about the fans’s reaction on Sunday to the Turk. The Suns played the Raptors on Oct. 6 at Vancouver’s Rogers Arena and the booing was much louder and longer there.
Still, Turkoglu did express frustration that he is considered Toronto’s most despised athlete (although a case could be made for Chris Bosh).
“When I (said) that I wanted to get out of here, I think (the fans) thought I was talking bad about the city,” said the Turk, who scored five points with five rebounds in 20 minutes. “But I love the city, I never had any problem with anybody.
“I never said anything about the city at all,” he continued. “I was the one who wanted to come here and play. I think people were upset that I left and I guess that’s why they’re mad at me.”
It was suggested to Turkoglu that perhaps his lack of effort last season had the fans upset, including the stunt he pulled in March when he missed a game because of an apparent stomach virus but then was seen partying at a local nightclub.
But Turkoglu blamed a “lack of chemistry” on the club last year for his sub-par performance compared to his glory years in Orlando, and insisted that, video evidence to the contrary, he always played hard.
“People have to understand it’s not just my fault, it’s not any coach’s fault. We just had a miscommunication and things didn’t work out,” he said. “The system wasn’t there. We had CB (Chris Bosh) and he was averaging double-doubles and it’s normal that things were going through him. So I wasn’t able to use the ball as much as I was before.”
He added that the Toronto fans might have thought he was not giving 100%, because he plays with a smile on his face, as he did for most of Sunday’s game.
“I always do,” he said, when asked about his playful demeanor on the court. “That was me all my life. But when I came here people think I wasn’t paying attention, I wasn’t serious. But this is how I play. If you look at the past, that’s how I do (it). I enjoy the game and I go out there and try to do my best. But here, I guess they misunderstand it.”
Turkoglu suggested that there’s a reason why virtually every former Raptors star has left Toronto under acrimonious circumstances.
“You just can’t blame it on the players. You’d have to really sit down and talk to the players and just ask them why they want to leave,” he said. “I’m just a random guy, Chris is an all-star, other guys are all-stars too. You’d have to ask them, what’s the reason they left?”
If the organization has made a mistake, of course, it’s treating the likes of Carter and Turkoglu with kid gloves. And, you know, building 15 years’ worth of mostly-crappy teams.
We’ll have to wait for Feb. 16 to see how Bosh is welcomed here. And Turkoglu won’t get his regular-season dose until Feb. 25.
“I’ve got to come here one more time . . . and get booed again,” he said. “When I came here, people think that I wasn’t paying attention or I wasn’t serious. But this is how I play. And if you look at it in the past, that’s how I do. I enjoy the game, and I go out there and I try to do my best. But here, I guess they misunderstand.”
No, no, people in Toronto don’t misunderstand: Turkoglu played with purpose during a 2008-09 contract year in Orlando, and much less so once he got the money. Slap a technical on Toronto’s fan base for after-the-foul complaining, but understand this: If the faithful in these parts have been guilty of one thing, it’s for making the mistake of expecting a well-paid athlete to actually care about his craft.
“He’s a smart basketball player from a smart basketball nation and he just knows the game,” Toronto coach Jay Triano said of Kleiza, who had 23 points, eight rebounds and four assists as the Raptors beat the Phoenix Suns 121-100 in a pre-season game at the Air Canada Centre on Sunday.
“You can see the way he passes the ball, he’s not a selfish scorer. He can score by shooting it, facing up, mid-range. He’s got a back-to-the-basket game when he’s got a smaller guy on him.”
The diversity in Kleiza’s game is a direct result of his upbringing in the sport. Instead of pigeon-holing players as big men or guards or whatever, Lithuanian — and European — training methods teach players everything. It’s why a guy like the 6-6, 245-pound Kleiza is equally adept shooting and posting up, why he passes well and rebounds effectively and can play multiple positions.
“I’ve been a scorer my whole life, since I was a little kid,” said Kleiza, who was signed as a free agent by the Raptors last summer. “So I don’t know, maybe I have a little knack of where to be and what to do.”
What it does is give Triano a lot of options offensively on a Raptors team not gifted with one dominant scorer. Against the somewhat unorthodox Suns, who like to play small and used Hedo Turkoglu at power forward, the coach simply took advantage of Kleiza’s versatility.
The next time, Triano might use the 25-year-old exclusively at the other forward spot. It’s just good to have options.
“I like him on the floor,” said Triano. “When he plays at the four, he gives you an opportunity to spread big guys away from the basket; if you put a smaller three on him, it gives us an opportunity to post up a guy that he might have an advantage over.
“He’s got a lot of diversity to his game and when we keep him on the floor, we’re taking advantage of that.”
It was not just the fans that gave Turkoglu an unfavourable welcome, though.
Upon seeing him walk into the arena, former teammate Amir Johnson let out a long, mocking “boooooooo.”
Sonny Weems upped the ante: “Get the [expletive] out of here, Turk.”
Weems was smiling as he said that. And, as always, so was Turkoglu.
If the first quarter was to be any indication of how the entire game would develop, the Suns would have run away with a blowout win.
Instead Toronto stuck around, chipping away at a deficit that went as high as 13 points, until ultimately closing out the half on a 10-3 run to cut the lead down to two heading into the break.
The offence picked up for Toronto as its defence improved. The Raptors took advantage of a sloppy Suns team, scoring 25 points off 18 Phoenix turnovers.
A particular Nash give-away in the second quarter seemed to really spark the Raptors side. As the Canadian point guard attempted a behind-the-back pass in the paint, DeMar Derozan swooped in to steal the ball and set off for a fast-break chance.
With just one Phoenix defender back, the sophomore flipped a pass to Amir Johnson at the free throw line, who completed the play with a leaping one-handed slam that drew the biggest cheers of the night.
The dunk brought it to 54-52, and aside from trading buckets in the first few minutes of the third quarter, Toronto never looked back.
Linas Kleiza was expected to step up for the Raptors as the starting small forward and as a top scoring option but what is becoming readily apparent is that the Raptors may not have a true #1 as we are devoid of a true superstar and trying to force a non-superstar into that role could prove disastrous on many fronts.
What is a more likely a scenario for Raptor fans is that we see a team game played where no player truly stands out as the offensive centerpiece.
On some nights it will be Andrea Bargnani, others it may be Linas Kleiza or Jarrett Jack, on others still it may be DeMar DeRozan or Sonny Weems.
But the fact of the matter is without a certified superstar on our team Linas Kleiza may become a Canadian household name by the end of the season.
Of course, offense is not what I’ve been concentrating on while watching Bargnani. And, unfortunately, I’ve seen more of what I’ve seen the previous four years. Just as we’ve seen before, Bargnani has had flourishes of good play, but they’ve been inconsistent. In the last three games, Bargnani has had a few shorts bursts where he looked like he he finally learned how to rebound. But then he fades back into the woodwork. Bargnani grabbed a mediocre 5 rebounds in 25 minutes against Phoenix, but he grabbed 3 of them in the first quarter and then mostly left the rebounding to others. Need I remind everyone of the 17 rebound night Bargnani had last season. Bargnani knows how to rebound. He just has never, ever been able to do it on a consistent basis.
Defense isn’t much better. Teams seem to be focusing on driving at Bargnani knowing he’s the weak link. I noticed it especially in the Boston games. I think the overall team defense is better, so he isn’t getting as exposed as he was last season, but he still doesn’t seem to have a clue what he’s supposed to be doing on that end of the court. I’ve even noticed his teammates yelling at him on occasion for missing a rotation or being late.