After a rough start, the Toronto Raptors got their act together in the second half en route to a 99 to 89 win over the Chicago Bulls. Franchise breaks things down and in the process, takes his hat off to Jay Triano's coaching job...
If you're a Raptors' fan, you had cause for concern going into last night's game.
The club was leading the league in offensive efficiency yet also leading the league in defensive ineptitude.
It had just come from getting clocked in Dallas, and blowing a winnable game in San Antonio, and on top of this, was one game away from embarking on another tough Western road swing. It was indeed quite possible that a loss to the Bulls at home would be L number three in a row en route to possibly a whole lot more.
And unfortunately, the first half of last night's affair didn't look like it was going to be any sort of reversal of fortunes.
Toronto came out guns blazing, jacking up 3's and looking to run Chicago right out of the gym. However the Bulls showed that they could play that style too, and with little to no defensive resistance, the Dinos found themselves down at the half, and looking to be on their way to a loss.
Howland and I were actually at the game last night, grateful recipients of some last-minute ticket offerings via our 9 to 5 jobs, and it was at this point that I exclaimed to him:
"Triano better tear a strip off this team in the locker room. They can't keep playing this way and expect to win this season!"
Howland echoed my sentiments and noted that the Raps had been nearly allergic to the paint in the first half yet again. Outside of Chris Bosh, the rest of the team, bench included, seemed quite happy to simply run plays for each other at the top of the key, and heave long-range bombs.
And on the defensive end the Raptors seemed to avoid the paint as well, something underscored by the fact that Taj Gibson, a rookie better known for his defensive work, was Chicago's leading scorer. Make no mistake about it, Gibson is having an impressive rookie campaign, but he's a great role player, not a primary scoring option. The problem was, with Toronto so busy chasing the likes of Derrick Rose and Luol Deng around, Gibson was constantly open for lay-ups and short jumpers. The one thing Toronto wasn't doing defensively in fact, was forcing the Bulls into long-range shots from the perimeter, something they've struggled mightly with in the wake of Ben Gordon's departure.
So how exactly did Toronto end up wrestling the lead back from Chicago in the second half, and winning this game?
In my books, they did three things, the first of these, was to stop chucking.
Look, the Dinos are a flamethrower waiting to go off from downtown. However just like a flamethrower, the long-range shot isn't always the most efficient offensive weapon. Long rebounds from said shots lead to run-outs by the opponent, and in particular, when your "bigs" are the guys hoisting up the shots, there's usually nary a rebounder in sight for second chance opps. The advantage of having someone like Chris Bosh is that he can score from inside AND out. This season he's been especially aggressive inside, so why not start the offense through him, and if that opens things up for your perimeter shooters, so be it.
And that's what Toronto did.
Suddenly Bosh was being fed down low, and Andrea was looking for post position as well. The team attempted only four 3-pointers in the half, and aside from a few sloppy passes by Hedo Turkoglu late in the game, did a much more efficient job scoring the ball.
Contrast that with the first half when the Dinos jacked up SIXTEEN 3's!
The second thing Toronto did was step up the D.
Apparently Triano did indeed ring the Raptors' bells in the locker room at half telling his team that they "needed to fix things right now," and it showed. Suddenly Chicago was forced to take their shots from afar instead of finding easy opportunities around the rim, and their offense ground to a halt.
Of course, helping these first two factors was some miserable shooting by the Bulls.
Even when they did get open looks, they just couldn't knock things down, and foul trouble for Joakim Noah early in the fourth quarter also made things tough for Chi-town.
This combination of improved offensive discipline by Toronto in addition to some improved D, and the horrific chucking by the Bulls late in the game (they went scoreless for six minutes in the fourth quarter) sealed the W for the home side. It was an important win against a team they'll likely be fighting for a playoff spot with, and a great way to break up the back-to-back Western Conference road swings.
Before we end this though, I really want to emphasize the coaching job done by Jay Triano last night, particularly after half. He could have simply rolled out Jarrett Jack instead of DeMar DeRozan in crunch time as he had been doing so far this season but last night he decided to switch things up.
Not only did he sub Antoine Wright in for Jack, and have Wright guard Derrick Rose on the perimeter, but he also pulled Andrea and replaced him with Amir Johnson. Suddenly, Rose was being guarded by a 6-7 forward instead of the laterally-challenged Jose Calderon. Rose wasn't able to get to his sweet spots on the floor as easily, and you could see Chicago's offense stagnating.
Then, after Bulls' coach Vinny Del Negro called a time-out to re-group his offense, Triano pulled out the masterstroke with the Amir for Andrea switch. Del Negro's plan out of the timeout was to free Rose up by running screen and rolls with Rose at the top of the key in order to switch Wright off, and force a Toronto "big" to guard Derrick. However now, that "big" was Amir Johnson, all arms and legs, and quick enough again to give Rose trouble even on the perimeter. And Wright at 6-7, could certainly handle Deng, Noah, or whoever he would now have to guard.
The plan worked like a charm and the Bulls found it very hard to get the looks they wanted, often having to settle for fadeaway jumpers. The plan also gave the Raptors a much better rebounding presence to end the game with both Amir and Antoine helping out CB4.
And for bonus points, to ensure all egos were kept intact, once the win looked secure, Triano subbed Bargs back in to end the game.
All in all, some great work and hopefully Triano continues with this methodology.
I never really understood the "Jack and Jose" combo to finish games in all honesty because Jack's not a good enough shooter at the 2 and Jose's simply isn't a good enough defender at the 1. And if roles are reveresed so that Jack is guarding the 1 spot, wouldn't it just make more sense to use a bigger defender like Wright or Weems with Jose instead? If this team wants to win games it's going to have to put egos aside and that means that to close some games maybe it makes sense to use Wright and Calderon, and in others maybe even Wright and Jack, or some completely different combination in the back-court altogether.
And of course the front-court can't be immune from these sort of changes either.
Hedo Turkoglu (who apparently injured his left hip late in the game) was sucking win badly late, looking like he needed a smoke, and I was begging Triano to swap him out as well.
Some of the players on this roster are the benefactors of newly-minted, big money deals.
However if the end goal for this club is a solid playoff spot, Triano's going to have to look past the dollar signs, and make the best use of the skills at his disposal, regardless of their pay-grade.