Ship Righted: Raps beat up Sixers

We wanted it more, and we took it. Simple as that.

Amir Johnson: Assist Machine.

Prior to the start of last night’s game, there was a lot of talk about the rest of the Raps’ current homestand being a “turning point” for the team. After the December hot streak brought the Raptors back to the fringes of playoff contention, a pair of ugly losses to Oklahoma City (justifiable) and Sacramento (not justifiable) left the momentum lost, the roster more shorthanded than ever, and the team’s flaws clearly back on display (as A-Dub detailed in his excellent post-game piece after Sunday’s game).

The ultimatum for the Raptors was simple: with 3 games left in their longest homestand of the season, all seemingly winnable (Philly, Charlotte, Milwaukee), it was (and please excuse the lewd expression) time to sh*t, or get off the pot. If the Raps seriously wanted to both be considered a threat to the number 8 seed this season, as well as a squad with potential up and down the lineup going forward, they’d have to right the ship right now, while the schedule was favourable. This bounce-back quality was one of the major question marks for the Raptors this season, especially after the seemingly countless heartbreaker losses they suffered earlier this season.

All this preamble left us with our decimated Raptors (playing, as it turns out, just 8 tonight) facing off against against a reeling Philadelphia team that had gone 5 and 15 in their last 20 games and was, on paper, as desperate for a win as we were. It seemed like an ugly NBA game in the making, and, for the majority of the first half, it was – both teams seemed to struggle on both ends of the floor alternately, and the first half did little to answer the question the fans were hoping for a definitive response to tonight: if we’re at a turning point, which way are we going?

The answer, though, came quickly and strongly in the second half, and was both an exciting and refreshing one for Raptor fans: if our players (and coaching staff) have anything to say about it, we’re not going away quietly. On a night when it seemed like nothing was coming easy for either squad, only one team had the determination, the guttiness, and the sheer force of will to push themselves over the finish line. Execution notwithstanding, only one team was going to force the other to step up, or step out.

To all of our reliefs, that team was the Toronto Raptors. And no, I’m not saying that this win was a franchise-altering one, or that we’ve put ourselves back in the playoff discussion thanks to a blowout win over a sub-.500 team. But what I am saying is that no matter your criticism of each of our individual players’ styles or effectiveness, or our coaching staff’s decisions, know that, when push comes to shove, this group is not going to be the ones to lay down.

In an NBA where it seems like a third of all teams are tanking with 20 games left in the season, that’s refreshing. So, before I delve into the game a bit deeper, here’s to our Raptors. Effort and guts are forgotten far too often in the NBA landscape, but tonight, they made all the difference.

And now, back to our regularly scheduled programming.

As for the more technical aspects of the game (click here for the Quick Reaction/player grades), the first half for the Raptors was defined by stagnancy. Although there were a couple of stars on both sides of the floor – DeMar in particular had a great start to the game on the offensive end, hitting his open jump shots and taking the ball through the lane with impunity, and Fields rebounded like an absolute maniac – the Raptors looked like they were playing in quicksand for the better part of the half, finding themselves slow on defensive switches and with the ball stopping far too often on offense. It was only due to the Sixers’ putrid start, as well as some excellent play by DD, that the Raptors were able to escape up a point at the break. The Raps’ defensive struggles in the first half can be largely attributed to two factors, in my opinion:

  • Ed Davis’ early foul trouble, which sent him to the bench and left both himself and Amir hesitant to foul, and thus hesitant to challenge shots in the lane.
  • The Raptor wings’ seemingly maniacal approach to forcing turnovers through steals, which left Philly players uncovered when their counterparts overcommitted and missed the ball

The first point was a piece of dumb luck, but the second was likely a product of the scouting report – Jrue Holiday is known as a point guard who turns the ball over often, and, likely looking to both exploit that and their small-ball lineup, the Raps ball hawked all over the court. They did come up with 6 steals in the half, but the by-product of this agressive D was that Philly’s wings were left open far too often, allowing them to drive through the lane and right into Toronto’s hesitant bigs. A noble effort, perhaps, but a misguided one, given both Boss and Amir’s hesitance to foul.

When they did get into the open court and ran, though, the Raptor fast break was about as effective as I’ve seen it, largely due to the trailing presence of Amir Johnson, who made DeMar look like Chris Paul on a couple of occasions thanks to some beautiful hand-offs. Amir was in rare form tonight on the offensive end and really epitomized the Raptor effort as a group: with Davis in foul trouble and the team short-handed, he played over 40 minutes (a number he’s only ever hit four other times in his career) and didn’t take a single one of them off, running through every Raptor fast break, running the pick and roll to perfection with Jose, and showcasing some rare form in his post-passing game (he had 5 assists tonight, a number he’s only ever hit twice before). He gets a fair amount of flak on this board, and deservedly so, but tonight, he (along with a few other Raps) was ready to go out on his sword if the Raptors were to lose, and ended up with one of the better stat lines of his career for his troubles.

Offensively, the Raptors’ first half swoon seemed to be epitomized by the play of Alan Anderson, who ended the half just 2 for 8. Those 8 shot attempts led the team once again – an indicator that’s just not a feasible one if the Raptors are going to be effective offensively. I love Anderson as a bench creator/streaky shooter/irrational confidence guy, but on nights like tonight when his shot isn’t falling, he needs to start moving the ball (in fairness, he did this much better in the second half) – by the end of the second quarter, it seemed like Philly was simply keying on him as soon as he got the ball in his hands, knowing that he’d either be shooting or driving. Thanks in part to this, as well as the rest of the Raptors’ reluctance to move the ball (tired legs, maybe?), the offense became really stagnant at the end of the half, and it was only thanks to the ineffectiveness of the Sixers that the Raptors went into the tunnel up a point.

The third quarter, though, was a different story, at least from our narrative. It seemed like Casey and his coaching staff made a couple of key defensive adjustments coming out of halftime, keeping their wings close to home and letting them leak off to help on the Sixer bigs in the lane, rather than pushing outside for steals. This led to far more difficult shot attempts for Philly on the outside, contested shots in the lane, and, as it turned out, a litany of turnovers that helped the Raptors find the consistency in the fast-break game the staff had been pushing for in the first half. Along with cutting down their turnovers (11 for the night, but just 3 in the second half), this gave the Raptors a significant advantage in the possession department, and that, coupled with better ball movement, allowed them to slowly but surely take control of the game.

As far as the Raptors’ dominant second half, rather than breaking down every play, here are a few things that caught my eye:

  • Jose’s “anything you can do, I can do better” routine with Holiday sure was entertaining, wasn’t it? As Bill Simmons loves to say about players like Rajon Rondo and Russell Westbrook, Jose’s defence makes him a “table guy” – he takes a lot off the table with his defensive inabilities, but, on nights like tonight, he sure puts a ton on there with his efficiency (11 assists and no turnovers tonight, yet again) and his shooting touch. Holiday’s hot streak was the ace-in-the-hole that Philly needed to get them back into the game quickly, and it sure was impressive watching Jose starch the fires with multiple jumpers of his own before coming out at the end of the 3rd.
  • Ed and Amir’s chemistry tonight was fantastic. These two, along with Jonas once he returns, may give up a lot of size against opposing bigs, but their speed and athleticism in the post can be really complementary when they are looking for each other, and that was really evident in the second half of tonight’s game, where Ed was constantly active in looking to improve his position down low and Amir seemed to have eyes on the back of his head.
  • Landry Fields’ jumper still looks awful, but it was really nice to see him hit one late in the game. He’s as aware of his struggles offensively as anyone else, and, to his credit, he’s been doing an excellent job pitching in and generally making himself valuable on other sides of the court with strong man defence, rebounding (11 tonight, including a few Reggie Evans-esque thieveries from his own teammates), and a contagious effort level. He really stepped up tonight with Ross out. Say whatever you want about that contract, but he’s making a fan out of me.

In the end, the Raps managed to gut out a win against another desperate team and continued their slow climb back to relevancy (now one game back of Philly for fourth in the Atlantic and 5 back from Boston). We’ve also blown out 3 teams in our past 5 games, which is a rare sight around these parts. With Charlotte coming to town Friday night, I’m crossing my fingers that we can make it 4 in 6.

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