José and the Raptors

Blake Murphy and his miserable luck returns.

Nets 95, Raptors 87 – Box

Over Christmas, my girlfriend and I got a puppy. I named him José (Yes, as an homage to Toronto sports stars Calderon and Bautista).

Without going into too much detail, my life for the past two weeks has been a mess. Between a severe lack of sleep, the waking energy requirement, and the complete lack of schedule flexibility, the dog has been more of a monkey (ZING!).

That said, he is an awesome dog. Even ignoring his adorable bat-face (having earned him the nickname Joey Bats, or Shit-Bat), there is a pretty overwhelming sense of pride that accompanies one’s first foray into dog ownership. Every successful urination or defecation in the designated area, every time a trick is performed successfully, and every time he allows us to sleep for more than an hour uninterrupted, I am immersed in calm, pride, and hope for a future where he is less of a stress.

And then, of course, he’ll wake me up having shit in his crate.

Tonight, the Raptors shit in their proverbial crate.

The reason I talk about my dog, you may have guessed, is because I feel like I can really relate to Dwane Casey right now. Dwane Casey is, for all intents and purposes, the owner of a young, impressionable, inconsistent, and maddening basketball team in the Toronto Raptors. The parallels are never-ending.

To wit, just yesterday John Hollinger was writing about the Raptors as one of the league’s most pleasant surprises, while one ESPN reader even posited that Casey was an early coach of the year candidate. You may remember that the Raptors were 3-3 through a relatively soft schedule at that point. Still, they were in the top half of the league in both offensive and defensive efficiency, and were near the top of the league in opponent Field Goal Percentage. Casey, the credited defensive mastermind behind the defense of the NBA Champion Dallas Mavericks, appeared to have already brought over and installed his defensive schemes with a team that finished last year dead last in defensive efficiency and near the bottom in just about every other defensive statistic.

Basically, despite a shortened training camp, a roster without many strong individual defenders, and offseason additions that sadly included names like Butler, Carter, and Magloire, Casey had quickly trained himself quite a good puppy. Similarly, despite the challenges of being given a dog in Burnaby (Vancouver suburb) while staying a week with in-laws, and facing an exhausting flight home to his third home in his 14-week existence, we seemed to have a good puppy on our hands.

José was adapting quickly to pee pads, commands, and even the snow. The Raptors were adapting quickly to zone schemes, help defense, and Andrea Bargnani was rebounding (the equivalent of my dog writing this article for me, basically).

And then we left José in his crate while we left for an hour and he destroyed it with explosive diarrhea. And then he did it during a 15 minute absence. And then he did it in my car while I was getting Quiznos. Separation Anxiety or not, it doesn’t appear we have quite as easy a pup as we anticipated.

The Raptors, meanwhile, hosted a lowly 1-6 Nets squad that boasted starters like Mehmet Okur and DeShawn Stevenson, with subs like Johan Petro and Sundiata Gaines. And the Raptors had metaphoric diarrhea in their metaphoric crate. Dog analogies aside, this game was Pug-ugly.

Interestingly enough, the defense wasn’t that bad, as the Raptors held the Nets to just 38.8% shooting on the whole. The issues came almost exclusively with rotations and lazy close-outs on shooters, as the Nets rained down 15 threes in 31 attempts despite being just a 28% 3FG team entering the night. Sharpshooter Anthony Morrow was consistently left open by a lackadaisical DeMar DeRozan and a confused Leandro Barbosa, padding his reputation as a marksman with a 6-of-10 night from long range. Morrow finished with a team-high 24 points on just 14 field goals, without taking a free throw. That’s an impressive night in an empty gym, and that’s basically the resistance he faced tonight.

DeShawn added 5 triples in 12 attempts for 15 points, which is one more point than he had in the six previous games combined, and was his highest total in a game since January 8, 2011. That left the rest of the team to go a combined 4/9, which aint too shabby either.

Of course, it wasn’t just the distance shooting that hurt the Raps, as Deron Williams finished the game with 24 points on porous 6-of-18 shooting, aided by a 11-of-13 night at the line. Deron added 5 boards and 9 assists, and really took over in the second half from a scoring and distributing perspective. I know the Raptors contingent of Calderon, Carter, and at points Rasual Butler’s Corpse aren’t exactly world-beaters defensively, but the wings need to figure out when to help and when to stay on their men. There was one maddening play where Deron waltzed toward the bucket and Barbosa left his man just enough to give him the open shot while being in no position to help on Williams if he continued under the basket (basically, the least perfect spot on the floor he could choose to be), and you bet your best kicks Deron found Morrow for an easy triple.

Should I continue? Why not, I’m only 900 words in full of dog shit and stories about my puppy (see what I did there? Hey-oh!).

The rebounding was pretty awful tonight too. I mean…Baby Huey (K-Hump) had 16 boards, NINE of them on the offensive glass. NINE! In all the Nets won the rebounding battle 44-39 with a 13-9 edge on the offensive glass, but it was much worse than that makes it seem when you realize the Raps closed that gap with some garbage time buckets. Amir Johnson and Ed Davis were the only interested parties on the glass, collecting 10 and 8 respectively, while Bargnani, who I’ll remind you is 7 feet tall, somehow managed just 4 boards in 36 minutes of play. One rebound should hit just land in his hands every eight minutes if he held them above his head with no effort (Hmm…).

Speaking of Bargs, where the hell did he go in the second and third quarter? He started off red hot 4-for-4 shooting, and then took just five attempts until the fourth (missing all five), finishing just 6-of-12 for 17 points. He was guarded by Kris Humphries, Shelden Williams, and Johan Petro…C’mon Son! If you can’t be aggressive against that convoy of A-plus defenders, what matchup can you recognize and exploit?

It was no better for our other top scorer, DeRozan, who seemed to sulk his way through his 27 minutes at both ends, finishing just 1-of-6 for 3 points with just two boards. That line is just completely unacceptable, and at least Casey took notice and sat him down for good with about 8 minutes to go. Nice to see some accountability, but that move could have come at halftime and I couldn’t really have argued.

Once again, puppy namesake José Calderon was our best and most inspired player, posting 19 points (7/13) with 8 dimes and playing turnover-free basketball. No, he’s not a strong defender, but he works his ass off and is an offensive dynamo. I love how he wears the emotion of every play on his face and clearly cares at all times, and while I know this shouldn’t factor into “analysis” it’s something I love and appreciate (obviously…I mean, my dog’s name is José).

We’ll do a quick lap around the rest of the line-up: Amir showed solid hustle and continues to prove himself a better player than the box score would show with 8p-10r-2b but a best-among-the-starters +/- of -1. I’m sure when we have enough data for Liston, Amir will grade out as a high-quality player in terms of adjusted-+/-; Ed Davis has looked better the past two games after Casey’s big sit-down, and he earned a season-high 26 minutes. He posted 11 points and 8 boards, adding a block and some solid energy; Rasual Butler’s Corpse somehow managed 11 points but is still welcome to retire any time now; Silky Johnson had 8 points and a pair of blocks, but despite shooting 4-of-6 from the floor looks just completely lost offensively. I made the Antoine Wright (King of PER) comparison (offense only) during the game, which I feel kind of bad about in retrospect; Forbes continued to struggle in limited playing time, going 1-for-5 in 8 minutes; Barbosa continues to struggle with his shot, going 1-for-5 and dropping close to 40% FG% on the year; the old guys played a bit.

Really, it was a huge let-down. This game should have and could have huge implications for the confidence of this team moving through an extremely tough stretch of schedule. Including tonight they play 7 times in 9 days, going Home-Away-Off-Home-Away-Home-Off-Home-Away, a stretch that will allow Coach Casey very little practice time and will allow the players very little downtime between disappointments. The quality of opposition isn’t exactly daunting but isn’t full of push-overs either, so starting off with a lethargic loss to the Nets is definitely a bad sign.

Of course, you could easily just blame this loss on me. If you’ll think back to 2010-11, the Raptors went 1-12 in games I covered for this site. Here we are at 0-1 for 2012.

Or you could blame it on the growing pains Casey and the fan base will continue to deal with as this young, inexperienced team continues to learn the value of defense and improves as a unit (we hope). We can keep hoping the Raptors see their potential when they can block 10 shots and hold a team, even one as bad as the Nets, to 16-of-49 (32.7%) shooting on two-point shots, and how with continued improvement to rotations and close-outs (among other things), they can show this defensive efficiency to be more than a sample-size error. Meanwhile, I’ll keep praying to whatever God will listen that my dog sleeps through the night and that I don’t return from a morning coffee run to a messy, brown-anxiety-covered crate.

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