It is now to the point that I think I should resign as a writer for Raptors Republic. Three games covered, three early deficits, three displays of lethargic play, and three losses. I’ll keep trucking and hoping that the Raptors turn things around when under my writing microscope, while in the meantime, I refuse to mail in this article the way the Raptors mailed in tonight’s loss to the Indiana Pacers.
While the Pacers are a good team at 10-9 (and ninth in Hollinger’s power rankings due to a strong past 10 games and a tough schedule), they are not the type of team that you expect to play the Raptors off the court after the first quarter. One quarter. That’s all it took for a .500 team to play the Raptors into a 13-point deficit, one that would grow in the ugliest of manners in the second quarter, swelling to 24 at halftime. It is never a good night when midway through the second quarter you find yourself thinking, “If they can only get this lead down to 20 going into halftime…”
Nothing stood out as a point of moral victory for the Raptors, perhaps with the small exceptions of Amir Johnson’s continued inspired and efficient play, or Jose Calderon’s return to strong shooting form. But Jay-Z’s words hold true at the quarter-pole of the NBA season, “Moral victories is for minor league coaches, and ‘Ye already told you we major you cockroaches.” In other words, it’s getting a little tiresome to look for moral victories in ugly losses at this point, although I guess that’s the job description when covering a rebuilding team.
It’s not that the Raptors fell to 8-13, because that record is roughly what I expected, and it’s still good enough to have the Raptors in the hunt for the right to get swept in the first round of the playoffs in the East (and seriously, how awful is the bottom of the East right now?). The bigger disappointment is that this is a young team, and young teams are supposed to be hungry. Some games this team looks the part, and other games they don’t.
Tonight was a night that they certainly didn’t look hungry. Early deficits have been more than commonplace for Toronto so far this season, and they’ve played their way out of enough deficits to leave us with hope when it happens. But it only took an 11-4 run to start the second quarter to let us all know that this wasn’t the night. Off nights are to be expected, especially on the back end of a back-to-back, but the frequency with which the Raptors have bowed out of games early is disconcerting.
Yesterday, the Raptors dropped a game to the Knicks at home. While the key factors in the loss were the same (primarily three-point defense), it looked like a completely different team on the floor. Jerryd Bayless struggled after playing the best game of his career on Sunday, shooting 2/10 (bring on the me-bashing!), and the wing duo of Sonny Weems and Demar DeRozan combined to shoot 6/19 for just 15 points and, worse yet, just two rebounds. Bayless was let off the hook by a throwback shooting performance from Jose (21 points on 8/12 from the floor, though he had just four assists), but this team can’t afford to have DeRozan and Weems both struggling.
As I mentioned, Jose and Amir were bright spots. Since entering the starting lineup, something with Amir’s defense has shifted, and he has fouled less than usual. Or it’s a conveniently timed sample size error. Either way, while averaging 3.6 fouls in just 21 minutes a night on the season, Amir has posted games of two fouls (in 31 minutes), five fouls (but in 38 minutes), and tonight, three fouls (in 28 minutes). What it has meant is more floor time for the Raptors’ most efficient player, as he has posted 51 points and 34 rebounds on 22/32 shooting. Amir provides the type of hustle and energy we expected, but has slowly begun to prove that he can do it for more than just short foul-prone flashes. The team has to be crossing its collective fingers that this is a long-term development for the 35 Million Dollar Man, and that he won’t be held back by a Reggie Evans return or Ed Davis’ development.
Speaking of Davis, he had a quiet six points and seven rebounds, and so far looks like a nice player, but we really haven’t seen enough to get a grasp on how good he could be. Once he’s played his way into mid-season condition, I’d hope the frontcourt minutes are a fairly clean split between himself, Bargnani, and Johnson. As much as I love Reggie, he is trade bait with an expiring contract and I don’t think anyone would argue that fact. I was very high on Davis coming into the year, but I’m trying to keep it in my pants until we’ve seen a bit more.
As I mentioned, the three-point defense was a huge hindrance to the Raptors’ chances yet again. Indiana shot 13/26 from long range (6/8 by Brandon Rush), and the past two games don’t seem to be a case of the team getting an unlucky stretch against hot shooting teams. The Raptors have made some poor decisions on screen-and-rolls, and spent much of the game tonight chasing open shooters. While the effort to close out on shooters is commendable, and the Pacers’ ball movement was great (33 assists on 47 field goals), one has to question why the Raptors are so often out of position and forced to chase shooters rather than playing solid D from the beginning of the set. You can blame defense on talent only to a certain point, at which point it becomes a byproduct of the schemes and the effort.
Speaking of effort, the Raptors were slightly outrebounded, but the Pacers are the league’s fourth best rebounding outfit, and the Raptors managed 18 offensive rebounds (for the record, the Raptors entered tonight seventh in the league in rebounds per game, an impressive feat given the personnel).
The other major complaint with the game tonight was the lack of early focus on getting Andrea involved. For much of the game, the offense seemed individualistic (just 16 assists on 42 field goals and no player with more than four dimes). If I’m a coach and my team is struggling early, I’m going to give the ball to my star player. Granted, Bargnani looked disinterested, and at one point only one of his seven attempts were from inside 15-feet, but the fact remains that he took just four attempts in the first half. With the team shooting only 40% at half, Bargnani couldn’t have been a worse option than the looks they were settling for, even with Roy Hibbert on him. Bargnani finished 5/11 for just 12 points and four boards, several blank expressions, and one rare display of emotion when he was whistled for a phantom elbow on Mike Dunleavy. He took just one shot in the paint, so this is a case where Bargnani is as much to blame as anyone.
This article is admittedly a bit disjointed, so we’ll call the theme “The Raptors Offense Edition.” With three more games this week, Jay Triano will have to try and fire the squad up with a Tuesday practice before they get a chance for revenge against the Knicks in MSG, followed by another back-to-back at home against Denver Friday and in Detroit Saturday. It’s a chunk of schedule that could go 2-1 just as easily as it could go 0-3, and it will depend on which Raptors team shows up.