Hate to lose a winnable game

Chalking up 25 wins is going to be hard but if it’s possible, it’ll only happen if the Raptors figure out how to beat the “bad” teams. The Knicks aren’t world-beaters, and as visitors to the ACC last night they were an opponent ripe enough for the Raptors to devour with a great crowd behind them.

Knicks 98, Raptors 93 – Box

Chalking up 25 wins is going to be hard but if it’s possible, it’ll only happen if the Raptors figure out how to beat the “bad” teams. The Knicks aren’t world-beaters, and as visitors to the ACC last night they were an opponent ripe enough for the Raptors to devour with a great crowd behind them. The reasons it didn’t happen aren’t hard to point out because omens of such a defensive performance were right in front of our eyes throughout the preseason. Add a touch of clutch-scoring fail and a badly designed play for a game-tying three and that’s the difference between a win and a loss.

The positive start to the game had Andrea Bargnani giving a little speech to the crowd and then following it up by showcasing the offensive talent every fan knows he has. From the mid-range game to the low-block post-up, Bargnani was looking to mix and match his weapons with good effect. He presented himself nicely leaving his teammates no option but to pass him the ball, making you wonder why we don’t see this kind of enthusiasm from him more often. Eleven early Bargnani points were overshadowed by the Knicks’ transition offense. Looking at the box score they’re only credited with 12 fastbreak points which leads me to believe that the definition of what a fastbreak point is needs to be examined.

The prime inflictor of the Raptors’ pain was Raymond Felton; his keenness to push the ball in transition against a retreating Raptors defense was paying off for the Knicks. The Raptors, for all their athleticism, couldn’t quite keep pace as nobody managed to force Felton to slow his dribble down so that the Raptors could enter their set defense instead of playing on their heels. Credit to the Knicks’ ball-movement as well, after the initial penetration by Felton the Raptors defense was already scrambling to cover and when Felton didn’t go in on his own, he did well to kick-out to a typical D’Antoni setup shooter on the corner (usually Chandler or Gallinari). Jack’s defense was being exposed.

Only Reggie Evans seemed immune to the lull in defensive energy, his 16 rebounds (4 offensive) were what kept the Raptors in this one, especially after the second-unit got shellacked early. The Jose Calderon led second-unit went a -11 in their first spell, coming in facing a five point hole at 19-14, by the time the starters were put in the Raptors were down 38-22. Jay Triano got his subs all wrong here, he played Andersen and Bargnani together in this stretch and neither could keep up with the Knicks’ fervent pace in transition. The New York attack was led by Toney Douglas who was getting around a misfiring Calderon all too easily, serving up a double-whammy for the Raptors backup point. The time on the bench gave Jack some perspective on matters and he returned aggressive, insisting on administering the Knicks with a dose of their own medicine.

Jack’s play in his second spell was admirable, his 6 points and 2 assists fueled the Raptors comeback and they had the lead whittled down to four at the half. The theme Triano’s been preaching has been “offense from defense”, when it’s equally plausible to suggest that the Raptors should be getting their “defense from offense”. Let me explain, the Raptors look to be a poor defensive team in transition and the best way to minimize playing transition defense is to force the other team to start from a dead-ball. It’s a lot easier for a point-guard like Felton or Douglas to run at you after they collect a rebound at the FT line than it is when they’re receiving it from an inbounds. That pretty much sums up the Raptors’ second quarter – Jack’s offense slowed the Knicks down to the half-court game and since Stoudemire was struggling because of Evans’ defense and the Raptors’ quick double-teaming of him, the score evened out.

The bench scoring ended 41-33 for the Knicks but that doesn’t tell the tale of the damage done by their reserves. The Raptors never got the shot in the arm they needed from Amir Johnson, Jose Calderon or Sonny Weems. The matchup that might cost us the game was Amir Johnson trying unsuccessfully to guard Wilson Chandler. Triano failed to adjust when the Knick went small with Chandler at the four and Turiaf at the five (partially forced by Mozgov’s four fouls), this forced Johnson to guard Chandler and the Knick swingman lit him up. It’s no fault of Amir Johnson here (and I’m glad this puts to rest that theory that he can defend threes) but he didn’t make life any easier for himself by jumping too easily at the three-point line and letting Chandler carve him open. Jack Armstrong was practically begging for Weems to switch over to Chandler and when that happened, Chandler was quieted. But it was too late, the man had already dropped 22 points. This is where I have my doubts about Triano – in-game management. He has Julian Wright at his disposal, he could have easily called on him to guard Chandler and match the Knicks’ mobility while increasing his own defense.

DeMar DeRozan got the start as expected and didn’t do much with it. He’s got to understand that NBA defenses are forcing guards to use that short pull-up jumper once they get in the lane; trying to barge in with a leaner now automatically results in an offensive foul so don’t even attempt that. DeRozan’s confidence took a hit after he got blocked a couple times early and then got called for a charge. He never quite recovered and looked bad against second-rounder, Landry Fields. That shouldn’t happen. The only bench player to give a boost was Barbosa, he hoisted up 16 guilt-free shots and knocked down 6, not a great percentage but with Calderon struggling and Weems not doing much, somebody had to do something. We saw the good and bad of Barbosa, some great live-dribble quickness to get in for a layup only to be followed by some great live-dribble quickness to throw up a wild shot high off the backboard. That’s him, though, can’t change it.

Kleiza 5-12 was a disappointment as well, the Raptors started off a few sets with him in the post but they didn’t yield much. He doesn’t have any fluid post-moves that can get him right to the rim, what he has is bulk which he can use to free up an ounce of shooting space between 8-12 feet. Since he’s not used to playing that type of role at the NBA-level, he’s not going to be good at it just yet. If Triano continues to feed him the ball there, the results will eventually come.

With a tight game on their hands, the Raptors needed clutch scoring and defense down the stretch. Let’s get to the scoring first. Chris Bosh wasn’t a great offensive player but he was the best one the Raptors had, and the void left by his departure is going to take some time to fill. With no clear replacement for his scoring in place, the Raptors are forced to generate team offense which is much harder than dumping a ball into Bosh and waiting. Not having a consistent double-team threat on the court doesn’t make that task any easier; the final play designed by Triano was evidence of that – a Jack drive followed by a kick-out to a bum-wrist Barbosa who had his shot contested and threw up an airball. The Knicks easily handled the play by simply switching, something you expected them to do being down three. Before that play I thought to myself what the Raptors could possibly run, and concluded that a post-up for Bargnani was in order with Kleiza, Calderon, Weems and Barbosa waiting on the wings. Either a quick Bargnani two or a three off of a double. Even though Bargnani hadn’t converted at a high rate (8-21FG), he was able to establish some semblance of a post position through the game, albeit he was sometimes pushed a little too far out of his comfort zone. There are problems with that play too, right now the Raptors don’t have any good three-point shooters and Bargnani is probably one of the better ones. Putting him in the post takes him out of the equation for a three which Triano probably had going through his mind as well. Not much to pick from here.

I can understand failing offense, defense is another matter. When this was a two possession game with less than three minutes left, the Raptors never deployed any sort of trap that could have forced a turnover and led to some points, thus easing the pressure to score. In fact, I don’t recall the Raptors pressuring the Knicks in the backcourt at any point in this game, maybe they felt that the Knicks were too good and would burn them too easily? Not sure but you have to wonder why Triano chose to let the Knick points dictate things.

Amare Stoudemire was fairly silent for most of the game and had 12 points midway through the fourth. Evans had done a job on him on defense and the Raptors quick doubles in the block bothered him into turnovers 9 turnovers. However, Stoudemire delivered in the fourth quarter as big players do and that was the difference in the game. Again, you have to question why Triano didn’t keep doubling Stoudemire early because that was a strategy that was working well throughout.

This game reaffirmed some preseason impressions:

  • The Raptors transition defense needs work.
  • Both ours point guards are liable to be exposed.
  • The pick ‘n roll defense is bad – Bargnani had a two feet-on-the-ground blocks but overall, him and Johnson deserve flak for their handling of PnR situations. Surprisingly, Evans fared the best among them.
  • Three-point shooting is going to be an issue this year, not having a gunner is going to put us in a lot of pressure in clutch situations as we saw today.
  • DeMar DeRozan has some serious soul-searching to do as to how he wants to play this game. I can understand that the jumper will take some time, but his intelligence once he gets into the paint has to increase immediately.
  • Jose Calderon went 2-8FG. I don’t care how many assists he notches up, we need him to provide a scoring punch and leadership in the second-unit because if he doesn’t, we’re just asking Barbosa and Weems to jack it up.
  • Paging Amir Johnson’s offense.
  • With no double-team threat, clutch scoring will be very tough. Unless somebody is on fire for the night, this is going to be like making lemonade without lemons.

It’s a tough one to drop at home and Jay Triano needs to be at least questioned about why he didn’t react earlier to D’Antoni’s small-ball changes. All in all, the Raptors need much better offensive production from DeRozan, Calderon and Weems, and they need to figure out their problems in transition. Expecting Calderon and Jack to see the defensive light at this point in their careers is unrealistic, you can make a case that if Douglas and Felton hadn’t torched them the Raptors have won this game. For me, it comes down to balance and complementarity at the point and right now the Raptors don’t have it.

Let’s end with a positive quote, Jarrett Jack talking about the Raptors second quarter comeback:

“We’re a very resilient bunch. I thought we showed some fight and some grit out there. There was a point where we got down early. If we didn’t make a stand the game could have gotten away from us, and we battled back.”

Here’s to that resilience showing up in Cleveland against the Cavs who beat Boston.

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