"The effort was good...they're just bigger, faster, stronger."
And with that statement last night by Jay Triano, the Toronto Raptors 2009-10 NBA season may have gone down the drain.
Toronto was absolutely dominated last night by Utah, 113 to 87, and post-game, Raptors' coach Jay Triano waved the white flag, essentially saying that the players on his team just weren't on the same level as the those of the Jazz, especially regarding Deron Williams.
"We could not contain Deron Williams from the start of the game. He goes out, we get it to 14, he comes back in, it's 20." He just goes where he wants to go, does what he wants to do, delivers the ball to everybody..."
And my personal favourite? Jay indicating that "his (Deron's) line was deceiving."
You mean his 18 points and 16 assists?
What? As Doug Smith slightly sarcastically pointed out to Jay post-game, Williams had more assists than the Raptors' entire team last night! What exactly is "deceiving" about that?
I'm not sure about the rest of the media post-game, but Triano's acknowledgement that he's coaching a group of D-Leaguers threw me for a loop. I was expecting the usual "the effort wasn't there" type answers, to which I had multiple questions prepared. But this? Isn't that the ultimate cop-out?
Not that I don't agree to a certain extent that this club is sorely lacking certain intangibles and talents; I've preached that since last off-season. But would we hear Jerry Sloan say something like that? This club isn't the Nets! You're telling me Jay that there was nothing you could have done to at least make this one competitive?
After sitting there in a daze, wondering these type of thoughts, I finally asked Triano therefore about his use of the zone defence in the second quarter, a move that while not perfect, disrupted Utah's offensive flow, and did a nice job cutting into a good chunk of Utah's lead.
RHQ: "The zone seemed to be effective for periods of time, second quarter and stuff like that, were you thinking of going back to it, maybe to start the third quarter?"
Triano: "We did go back to it for a couple of possessions there and got four or five stops, but when you don't score, you're back in transition you're in man-to-man and they picked us apart with the man-to-man again. I thought the zone was ok only because it made five guys have to guard one (Williams) and make him do something else other than break us down and score, or dish off to someone."
Wow. Again, another answer that blew my mind on several levels.
First of all, if that's not a stinging indictment of the Raptors' individual defensive talents, I don't know what is. Triano is essentially saying that it took five Raptors to stop Williams, and that even that wasn't enough in the end.
The obvious next thing to do then was to talk to the Jazz's havoc-wreaker himself, Deron Williams:
RHQ: "Jay said he had no answer for you all night and that he couldn't stop you off the bounce, was there anything in particular you saw that you were trying to exploit? Match-ups say?"
Williams: "Yeah, match-ups, just knowing personnel...we were just trying to get going early. I think that was the most important thing, establishing a good tempo early, executing, and getting stops, and I think we did that.
RHQ: "You've played this Raptor team twice now, can you contrast before and now? I mean you look at this team and they're sort of a mess out there tonight; they're not scoring the ball, they're not playing well at all defensively..."
Williams: "They are a different team than what came to Salt Lake for sure. I'm not sure what's going on with them right now, but part of that is that we're playing well right now, we're on a mission it seems like, which is how you need to act this time of the year."
RHQ: "Pre-game strategy, when Coach Sloan talked about playing the Raptors, what particular things did he look to emphasize?"
Williams: "We know how they like to play, they like to get up and down and score a lot of points, and we didn't want to get too caught up in that, but it kind of worked to our advantage. We're a team that can slow it down, we can speed it up. We're like to mix it up and I thought we had a good balance of that tonight."
Apart from Williams responses, what I found most interesting about this interview was the discrepancy between what questions I was asking, and what the Utah media who had made the trip, were querying. Outside of being Raptors-related, my questions were regarding a team that is still trying to figure things out this late in the season, whereas the Jazz reporters' questions all dealt with a team who is looking ahead to the playoffs, and the mentality needed to close the season out, etc, etc. Again, it just reiterated how far away this Raptors' club is from being an elite level club.
Antoine Wright reiterated this point to several of us as well in the Raptors' locker-room post game, and you can hear the piece here:
As you can hear, unlike some of my previous talks with Wright, he didn't bite this time on line-up changes or singling out teammates. However it's obvious that he feels the effort level isn't there each night, and it's not simply a matter of the other team being "bigger, stronger and faster."
After all, by that logic, how does Kansas lose to Northern Iowa, and how does Toronto compete with the likes of Orlando, Dallas and the LA Lakers, all of whom Toronto has beaten this year? Aren't those teams "bigger, stronger and faster as well?"
Really, the issue with this team is and has been two-fold, and until some changes are made, fans can probably kiss the playoffs goodbye.
First of all, the players themselves. From my bird's-eye view of the court last night from the Foster Hewitt Gondola, I watched a team exhibit about as little effort as possible defensively at times.
After a great block by Andrea Bargnani on an attacking Utah Jazz player, three Raptors (most egregiously, Hedo Turkoglu) are outhustled for the rebound by Jazz rookie Wes Matthews, who secures the ball, resets the possession, and ironically ends up with a look for an open 3 which he nails.
Rinse and repeat.
This was the case all game as only Sonny Weems and Antoine Wright appeared to up to the task last night at both ends in terms of hustle, defence and aggression. This team simply has too many players who aren't willing to go that extra mile for the win, (Hedo Blatcholu, who apparently announced at half that he wasn't feeling well enough to go for the second, even though the coaches knew nothing of any illness pre-game) or who don't know how.
DeMar DeRozan is an example of the latter. It's mind-boggling at this point in the season, with the club trying to make a playoff push, that he's still out there. What other team would do this? It would be one thing if like his counterpart last night, Matthews, he was constantly contributing to the team's success. But he's not. He's getting absolutely killed each night on the defensive end, and most of the time he's invisible offensively. He's not nearly aggressive enough for someone with his hops, (how do you get blocked by Okur??) and his jump-shot is still pretty busted.
While some of this is on DeMar for his lack of on-court success (the Jazz media made the point pre-game, much to Jay's chagrin, that if you took away their draft status, you'd never know which one of Matthews or DeRozan was the lottery pick), the rest falls on Triano, which brings me to the second issue, coaching.
I've been a Triano backer for most of the season. I've called into question some of his decisions, and some of Toronto's losses I've pinned on him (OT loss to Memphis being the best example.) I do think he's a solid coach overall, but last night for the first time I really got the feeling he was out of his league. His statements, which I opened this post with, are a cop-out plain and simple. Even if that is true about the Jazz being a superior team talent-wise etc, (which I feel is true), it's a very risky proposition to state that to the media. Not only does it pass the buck to Bryan Colangelo, the man responsible for assembling said "talent," but inevitably that gets back to the players, and that could make for an ugly finale to the season.
On top of that, his refusal to make line-up adjustments is downright disturbing.
Pre-game, I asked him about the starting line-up.
RHQ: You made some changes to the starting line-up obviously, a few games ago, how have you felt they've been? The third quarter has been a lot better recently...
Triano: The third quarter has been better, I don't know if that's a different group of players out there or a mindset. We're looking to shake things up a little bit and we've won 3 of 4 since then. Has it worked? I don't know. Like I said before, who starts doesn't matter, it's who finishes the game. Jarrett's been on the floor in that situation the last couple of games after not being a starter because I thought when he was on the floor the team was doing really well. It could be the complete opposite tonight, Jose could be on the floor down the stretch, depends who's playing well.
RHQ: I guess what I should have asked is if you feel you've gotten the end result you were looking for when you made the switch, and if not, are there other positions you're looking at moving players in and out of?
Triano: I don't think so. I still think what we do is a collection of all 48 minutes put together and who starts doesn't matter, our rotations haven't really changed that much. We need to have support from guys off the bench and we've been forced into it because of early fouls against different players. And I'm sure that will be the same. We gotta keep guys ready in case there are fouls and guys have to be ready to go in whether it's on schedule, or because it's off schedule because of foul trouble.
I don't get it.
The team regularly gets outplayed in the first and third quarters, and yet there's no notion of swapping anyone but Jose? I haven't looked at the numbers yet, but outside of wins, (and really, do wins against the Nets and Wolves count?), I feel that this switch has hurt Toronto more than it's helped and that Jack needs to be re-inserted as a starter. At least one of Wright or Weems need to take DeRozan's place as well, something the stats have supported all season.
But apparently stats aren't on Triano's mind too much.
RHQ: There have been some articles out lately talking about your use of stats now, I think you employ a third party group to do this, any particular ones you guys look at each and every game to sort of get players prepped and for yourselves and the coaches?
Triano: Not really. We look at players' tendencies and what they want to do but for the most part, the stats, sometimes a one-game sample isn't enough so we look at them more in groups, hopefully to give us ideas on the tendencies of teams and what we may do differently to make us more effective at both ends of the floor.
RHQ: What about post-game, are there any stats you emphasize, adjusted plus/minus etc?
Triano: No, not immediately no. We look at plus/minus but it's gotta be waited and scaled a lot of the time because of who's on the floor. For the most part we just look at a box score after the game and our stats guys will compile things after five or six games to see if they notice any trends.
I don't know about you, but this could explain the constant use of Hedo, Andrea and Jose together defensively, not to mention the issues with the starters and various other substitutions.
The overall point being here, this team is in trouble.
Denver is up next, then two tough matches against Miami and Charlotte, which could very well determine the Dinos' playoff fate. Chicago has an easier schedule over the next few, so it's not impossible that Toronto is looking up at them in the standings after this stretch.
The club needs to find a way to come together now, otherwise their playoff hopes will have vanished like most of the players post-game for interviews last night.