Raptors cut it close, secure pizza

Cavaliers 81, Raptors 101 – Box

Breathe a sigh of relief because the Raptors have won a game. With four road games against Sacramento, Utah, LA Lakers and Portland on the horizon, the first win of the season could have taken a while. A total team effort from the Raptors combined with a bad Cavaliers team missing Mo Wiliams and Andersen Varejao meant a blowout win in front of the smallest crowd in ACC history. If effort is your cup of tea, the Raptors delivered it, and that’s the foremost quality one expects from this bunch.

After shooting a paltry 38.3% against the Knicks, the Raptors held the Cavaliers to 38.1% shooting and had enough offensive punch to overcome a Cavalier effort that lacked any real threat. For the second straight game the Raptors came out with a sense of purpose on offense, some very specific plays geared towards kick-starting key players who they depend on for offense. Against the Knicks it was Andrea Bargnani and last night it was DeMar DeRozan, the sophomore converted two of his five early looks which included two jumpers. The numbers for DeRozan were 6-13 FG for 14 points and four jumpers made, a decent rate for a player who is trying hard to get better in that area. His finishing when he does get to the rim also needs work, for a played deemed ‘explosive’, he completely fizzles out near the rim and throws up a shot that is either easy to block or one which has the wrong angle, speed or spin. Sometimes you just want him to elevate and throw it down in traffic just so you can believe what people say about him – that he’s EXPLOSIVE! So far I’ve heard it but haven’t quite seen it.

The only advantage Cleveland had over the Raptors was the mobility of their bigs and the bench scoring of Antawn Jamison. J.J Hickson and Ryan Hollins gave the Cavaliers a lift to start the game with Ramon Sessions testing the Raptors transition defense. The Raptors looked vulnerable early but caught on to the pace of Sessions and not long after that, scoring became an issue for them. Unlike against New York when Raymond Felton and Toney Douglas got to the middle of the paint far too often, Sessions and Daniel Gibson were contained on the perimeter and the Cavaliers were forced into testing their outside jumper. Aside from some damage adminstered by Hickson in the post, the visitors were made to work for their points. Reggie Evans supplied 14 rebounds (5 offensive, great effort, picture in post is a joke) giving the Raptors a 46-33 edge for the game; Andrea Bargnani only collected two rebounds in 30 minutes but his offense was efficient enough that he was worth the playing time (7-13 FG, 20 points). It also helped that he moved his feet well when challenged inside the paint.

Linas Kleiza decided to test his three pointer seven times (making three) and got in the post against Jamario Moon (headband on one ear intact!) on a couple occasions as well. The versatile and diverse Kleiza that fans saw over the summer in Turkey hasn’t arrived yet, what we have right now is a player figuring out how he can score without looking like he’s dominating the ball. He’s trying to establish his jumper so that his drive game can open up, last night he was afforded enough space on the perimeter that not taking the three would have been a sign of weakness. He was used a lot less in the post than he was against the Knicks, still would like to see Triano work his bulk there more, much like he’s done with Bargnani on the left baseline/block, which is working fairly well so far.

Leandro Barbosa with the live-dribble is something to watch, he hunts for seams in the defense so he can slice them open with lightning quick pace. He notched 13 points (5-10 FG) and had two assists, I can’t see why he can’t average 4-5 assists a game with the liberty and playing time he will be given with the Raptors. Anytime he has the ball in his hands at mid-court he’s trying to side-step defenders and force shifts in the transition defense, he will not get an assist on the play but he’s giving the defense enough to think about that some other Raptor who cares to run hard will find a path to the rim. The Raptors had 26 fast-break points and they weren’t all off of turnovers, Barbosa needs to be credited with giving the Raptors a dimension to their transition game that has been missing since T.J Ford was here. Coming off a poor game against the Knicks, Sonny Weems found his range and also got two assists, one of them a play that the Raptors should be running a lot more. It’s the side screen set by Bargnani on Weems’ man.

Here we got two guys who can shoot the ball. If the defense switches, you get a big man on Weems who is good enough to size him up and shoot a jumper right over him. If the defense shifts towards Weems (as it did at 10:04 of the second quarter), a quick hit to Bargnani forces a rotation to be made which gives Bargnani enough time and space for a three. This combination would work well with Jose Calderon too, but the Spaniard simply cannot buy a bucket. An 0-5 night where he missed from everywhere. Speculating what could be ‘wrong’ with Calderon is hard, he doesn’t appear to be injured, he’s getting good minutes, the looks he’s getting are clean, he’s just not making them. The worst part about his misfiring mid-range game is that he’s not making up for it by getting to the rim, and that’s partly because defenses don’t have any incentive to play him tight.

Amir Johnson deserves mention for a 4-4 cameo in which he ran well in transition and worked hard on those screen ‘n rolls. Right now Evans’ sheer hustle on the glass is keeping him ahead of Johnson in the rotation and if the latter has a chance to outshine the Iowa veteran, it’s going to happen in the shot-blocking and scoring departments. Of course, matchups dictate lineups and Johnson happens to be a more nimble defender than Evans, if this game wasn’t a blowout I would have liked to see him matchup against Ryan Hollins.

Let’s end with a little Jarrett Jack (5 TOs) talk. He obviously feels that he’s got a responsibility to carry part of the scoring load which is 100% true. At the same time he’s got to realize that he should only be doing that if the bigger ‘guns’ on the team are struggling. On a couple occasions last night he had a case of tunnel-vision and looked off Bargnani and Kleiza because he was too focused on getting his own shot off (which he ended up missing). It’s no surprise that Jose Calderon ended up playing more minutes in this one.

One has to scale down the quality of the Raptors’ performance as appropriated by the quality of the opposition, but you don’t pick who you play and when you play them. As far as this observer is concerned, job done and done well.

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