Despite a heartbreaking loss on an extremely difficult Raymond Felton three, the Raptors showed some good things in their 113-110 defeat to the New York Knicks, mostly on offense. However, it’s their deplorable play on the other side of the ball that holds them back.
This dichotomy was most evident in the play of Andrea Bargnani.
With the Knicks wary of putting Amar’e Stoudemire on Toronto’s most skilled offensive player, Bargnani was able to carve up the Knicks in perhaps his best game as a pro—16-24 FG, 7-9 FT, 7 REB, 6 AST, 1 TO, 41 PTS.
He mostly set up on the left box and unleashed turnaround jumpers over the smaller Knicks defending him. He was comfortable in reading and accepting double teams and making passes out to the appropriate player, and also completed a pair of nifty plus-ones on a baseline drive to the cup, and a roll, catch—count it, plus the foul.
All told, Bargnani murdered the Knicks in the post. He shot 6-9 on post ups, and his scores and passes directly lead to 28 points on 19 possessions, a magnificent ratio.
The fact that Bargnani is doing more of his work in the post—both high and low—serves the Raptors well considering the tissue-soft nature of their team. Bargnani’s vision and passing is coming along nicely, and he’s still a crafty perimeter shooter—2-3 3FG. His miss was an emergency heave to end the game, and his previous attempt was a clutch make late in regulation.
Bargnani had a lot more difficulty attempting to create his own shots from the top of the key as he wasn’t nearly as quick as the smaller Knicks defending him. He also doesn’t have a terrific handle, and most of his assaults on the basket were going away from or parallel to the hoop. His screens are totally ineffective as he avoids making contact at all costs. Still, it was a big time offensive performance that nearly led the Raptors to a win. Except…
Bargnani’s defense was nearly as bad as his offense was good. He spent most of the game defending perimeter players as the Raptors didn’t trust him defending Amar’e Stoudemire. Bargnani’s post defense isn’t too bad as he’s big and long and absorbs contact relatively well.
However, when zoning screens, or defending players who can face and go, Bargnani still may be backing up, backing up, and taking himself right out of the play.
On several screen/roll defenses Bargnani would stand in no man’s land guarding the ball handler, usually Felton. When Felton would stop his dribble, even if his own man wasn’t back to contain him, Bargnani would leave the area, allowing the Knicks several uncontested layups.
Also, because Jay Triano doesn’t trust Bargnani’s help defense, he’s forced to set up his defensive rotations where smaller players are rotating along the baseline, instead of having Bargnani meet the offensive player at the rim. This was even true when Amir Johnson was guarding Stoudemire. Even though Bargnani would be the optimal rotator, Johnson would be the designated helper. Because of Stoudemire’s offensive prowess, this put Johnson in several tough predicaments of whether to help or not to help.
Finally, Bargnani’s a horrific rebounder for his size.
Because of this, despite Bargnani’s prolific scoring, the Knicks were able to take advantage of his defensive deficiencies late:
- He gave Stoudemire too much room at the elbow, allowing Stoudemire to make a jumper over him.
- He offered no help on a Landry Fields drive, allowing the Knicks rookie to convert a plus-one.
- He again failed to offer help on a Knicks drive, but Raymond Felton missed a layup.
- He didn’t throw his hand up quick enough on a Stoudemire jumper, allowing Amar’e to hit another short jumper.
Overall, grading defensive plays as good or bad in regards to help defense (shading over), perimeter closeouts/rotations, full rotations, and shot contests, Bargnani was credited with seven good defensive plays—mostly in contesting Stoudemire post ups—and 16 bad ones.
This doesn’t take into account his poor rebounding, or more theoretical accounts like how his lack of a defensive presence forces the Raptors to alter their defensive rotations.
Since Bargnani is the team’s center, his defensive failings are more evident than if he were a perimeter player. Because of this, the Raptors will be stuck trying to outscore bad teams, while good teams will feature good defenses more capable of limiting Bargnani. He’s still young and he is improving his offensive game, but unless his defensive game ever comes along, and unless he becomes a tougher defender, post player, and rebounder, mediocrity is the best the Raptors can hope for.
Going down the rest of the roster, Sonny Weems and DeMar Derozan are exactly the same player. Both are athletes who love to leak out and isolate in early offense. Both take poor shots, or make shots more difficult than they need to be. Both are subpar shooters who often overhelp on defense.
Amir Johnson is a smart player who can’t defend without fouling, severely crippling his effectiveness.
Jose Calderon is a smart point guard who makes good decisions, but he’s not strong, doesn’t have great vision, and is a defensive chump.
His rotations are usually on point, but he’s not tough enough to do anything once he’s in position to make a play. Plus, his inability to keep Felton to one side of the court, repeatedly broke down Toronto’s defense. Even on Felton’s lucky three to end the game, Calderon was overplaying him to the baseline, and still allowed Felton to spin away to the left to create space to shoot.
Ed Davis has a long awkward release on his jumper, and is extremely raw. He did do a decent job on the glass, and had a nice interception of an entry pass to Stoudemire when he fronted the post.
Leandro Barbosa is nothing more than instant offense off the bench, and as such, his offensive output justified his playing time—3-7 FG, 2 AST, 1 TO, 7 PTS.
Linas Kleiza was easily Toronto’s best defender at closing out along the perimeter, but he left his offensive game at home—3-11 FG, 1-3 3FG, 1-4 FT, 1 AST, 2 TO, 8 PTS. In Denver, Kleiza was always afforded lanes to shoot and drive because of the Nuggets’ perfect spacing. Toronto’s spacing isn’t quite as good which hurts Kleiza as he’s not a world-class athlete on his isolations. When he’s cheated over to the power forward spot, he becomes a severe defensive liability.
Jerryd Bayless—3-5 FG, 4-5 FT, 4 AST, 1 TO, 10 PTS—is an athletic, slashing shooting guard in a point guard’s body. He can’t run an offense, and he’s overaggressive on defense.
Going forward, the Raptors will need to cut the redundancy to maximize their roster. With Bayless on board, Barbosa isn’t necessary. DeRozan and Weems both bring the same strengths and weaknesses to the table so in an optimal world, one would go.
Instead, the team could use an upgrade at the point in terms of a creative playmaker, instead of a glorified system runner like Calderon. Continuing the thought, Calderon would make an exceptional backup. A smart, young defensive wing who could shoot would be an important addition, as would a more consistent defender than Amir Johnson.
What the Raptors need most though is time, defense, and their wings to improve their basketball IQ. Without such, the dino’s are fundamentally toothless, even compared to the rest of the dregs of the Eastern Conference.