Gameday: Celtics @ Raptors, Feb. 6 and The Return of Bargnani

You know what sucks? I have this thing where I can’t listen to music while I write. I get totally side-tracked and lose my writing flow. It means as my writing volume increases, my music intake decreases, such that I’m still bumping the Kendrick Lamar and Frank Ocean albums instead of moving on to some newer stuff. All of this is to say, if you have any suggestions for new-ish hip-hop/R&B albums from the past few months, shout me a holler in the comments or on the twitter machine.

On another personal note, I got back on the court for the first time since June on Monday. In June I landed on a foot coming off a rebound and destroyed my right ankle, putting me on crutches for three or four weeks. I’ve been fine for hockey, ball-hockey, the gym, etc, long since then but hadn’t gotten around to balling since I don’t have a crew to run with in Vancouver (I know, I should just jump in open gym time). It felt great. I find with hockey and basketball, especially, nothing reaffirms a love for the sport more than getting back into playing after a long absence.

This wasn’t MEANT to be a long lead-in to a discussion about Andrea Bargnani, but now that I see how well it segues, let’s roll with it.

So…Andrea Bargnani might return tonight when the Raptors host the Boston Celtics (7 p.m. on Sportsnet). If he goes, it will be his first game action since Dec. 10 against Portland in what was perhaps the Raptors’ worst loss of the season. Bargs went down in that game and didn’t return, which happened to coincide with the turning point for this squad. 4-18 at that point, a team meeting allegedly got the team back on the right track and they have gone 13-13 since (although that meeting came a game earlier).

A lot of that turn-around is owed to a change in schedule strength, and nobody should look past that. In addition, it’s difficult to suggest that addition by subtraction works over the long haul (the so-called Ewing Theory, applied to Bargs and Rajon Rondo presently). However, you also can’t deny the difference in records with and without Bargnani, especially when you remember just how poorly he was playing before his injury.

Bargnani was shooting a near-career-worst 39.8% from the floor with a terrible 31.9% clip from long range, plus his lowest free-throw rate in three years. It all added up to 16 points a night on 15.2 field goal attempts, which is pretty inefficient for a scorer. His PER was 12.4 and his win shares per 48-minutes were worse than anyone on the team except Linas Kleiza and Mickael Pietrus.

He only played 21 games, which is a small-ish sample but he also wasn’t showing signs of coming out of it or doing other things (like rebounding, passing, or playing better defense) to help in other ways. His man defense, which had improved a lot last season, had slipped a bit, and his team defense was as poor as ever.

Okay, so Bargnani was bad. I think that point has been driven home, and I probably shouldn’t have dedicated two paragraphs to it. Bargnani was not the only issue with the team at the start of the year. He is, however, a relic of a previous era for the team and a symbol of what has been wrong with the team under Bryan Colangelo.

He’s had a landscaper and a housekeeper since he was born, the star-shine always kept him warm.

That can no longer be the case. Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan and the newly-acquired Rudy Gay are all players that will demand touches, and Amir Johnson has been a beast in Bargnani’s absence, securing his rotation spot. So Bargnani HAS to be the one asked to adjust now, rather than having the team adjust to him.

It’s been suggested for years that Bargnani might be best suited as a sixth-man type, being the primary option off the bench and facing weaker competition at times. That’s not a bad suggestion right now, even with the frontcourt relatively thin. Bargnani is, at lowest, the third big in the rotation right now and still the most talented, so he’s going to get minutes. But his touches with the starting unit would and should be limited, so a reserve role might benefit everyone, especially with Alan Anderson struggling to produce bench scoring and the team no longer possessing two very strong point guards to balance the units.

It’s my sincere hope that Bargnani can return and improve, perhaps showing a fire, as I did after a long absence, after having been kept off the floor for so long. Now, Bargnani has never seemed to be that type of player, but maybe at age 27 and seeing how the team can function without him, he’ll take it to heart and improve.

Or maybe he’ll coast his way through a few games until he shows he’s healthy so the Raptors can deal him for pennies on the dollar. Many want this outcome, but even if he’s eventually dealt (which he probably should be), it benefits all parties involved if he returns and plays well in the interim.

Anyway, 850 words in to this “pre-game” article, let’s talk about the actual game.

Tale of the Tape
O-Rating: Toronto 106.2 (12th), Boston 102.2 (27th)
D-Rating: Boston 102.7 (7th), Toronto 108.3 (26th)
Pace: 91.3 (18th), Toronto 90.0 (25th)
Strength: Toronto Ball Control (2nd), Boston Forcing Turnovers (3rd)
Weakness: Toronto Fouling (30th), Boston O-Rebounds (29th)

It’s interesting to see Toronto and Boston with competing strengths that neither team may possess any longer. The Raptors no longer have Jose Calderon to produce 25 low-turnover minutes, while the Celtics have lost their point guard in Rondo, a turnover-forcing menace. The Celtics are still a good team in that regard, but Rondo is good for a pair of steals a game.

So let’s discuss the Celtics sans-Rondo, as they’ve won four straight games without their supposed franchise player. The team has been strong defensively, save for a late Clippers comeback on Sunday, and the offense has looked better than in previous streaks, like their six-game losing streak that preceded this winning streak (and before that, they had a six-game win streak and a four-game losing streak, geez). No wonder nobody knows what to actually make of this team who, by the way, sit in eighth in the Eastern Conference and suddenly look shaky as a playoff lock, which would have seemed absurd coming into the year.

With Rondo out, Avery Bradley and Courtney Lee are now the starting backcourt along with Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett and…oh, wait, Jared Sullinger is done for the year now, too. Yikes. Brandon Bass is the fifth starter now, which leaves the bench relatively thin with Jeff Green, Leandro Barbosa and the resurgent Jason Terry, who has found his stride since Rondo went down after a very disappointing start to the season.

The key focus will obviously be on Pierce and Garnett. Pierce has become somewhat of a Men’s League style player, only saving his flashes of athleticism for when they’re needed most. He’s still been effective with an 18.4 PER and with a 19-6-4 line. Garnett is as good as ever but only plays about 30 minutes a night, posting 15-and-7 and playing solid defense (and excellent defense when he still needs to).

Garnett and Terry, especially, have been more effective in games without Rondo, possibly because the team runs more of a spread-style offense now that they don’t have one key facilitator and ball-handler. It’s an offense that is probably more difficult to guard but at least allows the team to use its wing athleticism and ability to recover and close out on shooters without having to worry about Lowry chasing and gambling against Rondo.

The Picks
Vegas: Raptors -3.5
Hollinger: Raptors -3
Blake: Raptors by 6

Sorry this wasn’t the standard pre-game format, as I felt very write-y this morning. 1300 words is probably a few hundred too many for a pre-game before getting to a prediction. So I’m going with the Raptors, under the assumption that the Celtics are due for a cold-ish shooting night and the Raptors are now relatively well-equipped to guard a spread offense. As for Bargnani and what role he’ll play, it’s yet to be seen if he’s even a “yes” for tonight, as he’s still reportedly a game-time decision, but signs are sure pointing to him playing. He’ll be guarding the Bass’, Wilcox’s and Collins’ of the world, assuming Johnson takes Garnett for the most part, so it’s a fair enough return match-up. I’d also expect the Celtics to run small with Green at the four and Garnett at the five, which the Raptors are now able to handle just fine by moving Gay to the four. If you care about these kind of things, a win would move the Raptors to 6.5 games behind for the eighth seed, while a loss would drop them to 8.5 games back.

UPDATE – <a href=>Brian Robb of Celtics Hub</b> was kind enough to answer a few questions for us, as well.

24-23 is obviously a bit disappointing for the Celtics. Other than the recent Rondo injury, what has been the team’s issue through the first half of the season?
It’s been a variety of factors. The new additions have been slow to pick up the offense and the defensive schemes. There have been plenty of shooting slumps. Rondo was having a pretty down year himself offensively, as the team’s offense couldn’t do much with him out there. Add that with an undersized front court and you have a .500 team.

The team has won four straight without Rajon Rondo. Is the team just realizing their backs are against the walls for the playoffs and coming together? What’s going on here?
The change in offensive design. The C’s are now going with a spread now, which is much more useful for guys like Jeff Green, Leandro Barbosa and Jason Terry. The ball is moving more, the offense is more unpredictable and the C’s are getting better looks because of it. Also the team’s defense has improved a bit without Rondo, since it means more time for better defensive players like Avery Bradley and Courtney Lee
Will the Celtics make the playoffs?
Yes, as long as they don’t blow it up. There is enough depth on this team to stay afloat in the East, as long as they can dodge any more injuries. The team’s offense and defense has been better recently and I don’t expect that formula to go away.
What can the Raptors try and exploit to put an end to the Boston winning streak?
Hit the offensive glass and take care of the ball. The Celtics’ rebounding has taken a dramatic hit with the injuries to Rondo and Jared Sullinger, making them very vulnerable on the glass. The Raptors can use their athleticism and size to make them pay. Also, the C’s have been living off turnovers lately, using them to get themselves out in transition for easy buckets. If Toronto takes care of the ball, they’ll have a better chance of containing the C’s offense.

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