Kyle Lowry made a surprise return to the Toronto Raptors last night but it wasn't enough to beat the Philadelphia 76ers, who used a small-ball line-up in the fourth quarter to steal one from the Dinos.
Well that was fun wasn't it?
I mean, besides the loss of course.
The Toronto Raptors and Philadelphia 76ers raced up and down the court last night, putting up a combined 204 points as two offensively challenged clubs fired on all cylinders, and neither played much in the way of defense. Philly came into the match with one of the top five defenses in the league by various metrics, holding opponents to 90.1 points per game, and while they were scoring two points less than that per game on average, they found their stroke yesterday evening.
And they found it when it mattered most.
A 33 to 18 fourth quarter in favour of the Sixers broke this one open as the Toronto Raptors dropped a 106 to 98 decision. The Raps held the lead for the bulk of the match but using a "small-ball line-up," the 76ers were able to create a bevy of defensive mismatches in that deciding fourth quarter, enabling them to get to the rim at will, or find shooters for open looks. Nick Young, Jason Richardson and Jrue Holiday all torched the Dinos during this stretch and the Raptors countered by, well, not countering.
Nope, instead of going small themselves, they kind of half did it, using Kyle Lowry (yes, he's back!) Jose Calderon and DeMar DeRozan, along with Amir Johnson and Andrea Bargnani. Eventually Amir Johnson was removed for Dominic McGuire, but the damage had essentially already been done. Toronto looked lost on D, and couldn't get much going on the other end either as the Sixers motored to the win.
So why didn't the Raptors go small you ask, or at least put Jonas Valanciunas, who had one of his best games yet, back in?
The Toronto Sun's Ryan Wolstat, who was there in Philly covering the match, tweeted this about the decision after the game:
"Casey said he could have played JV for Amir a bit but liked AB at C against that small lineup."
"Raptors didn't believe Valanciunas would be able to guard any of the small Sixers and take it to them enough at other end to make sense"
And this is where again I want to break my laptop over my head.
As I tweeted post-game, at face value, I understand the CONCEPT of using Andrea at the 5 in a small-ball line-up. He's got the size and skill to create havoc in these situations, similar to the Mavs' use of Dirk Nowitzki (there's that compare again!!) in their playoff finals drive a few seasons ago.
One problem though.
When have we ever seen Andrea actually PLAY in this manner?
This is a player who routinely shies away from contact, who doesn't automatically post-up against smaller players, and who settles for jump shots far too often. As if we needed further evidence of this insanity, even in the actual game up to that point, Bargs had TWO free-throw attempts, and that was against one of the league's most underwhelming front lines!!!
Why did Dwane Casey and co. think that suddenly in the fourth quarter, that would change?
And of course, without Bargnani being an asset an offence, your team is basically playing five on four. Jrue Holiday blew by him on switches, Bargs failed to get back in transition on one crucial play, and like that it was over.
But this wasn't all on Bargs, or Casey for that matter.
The club hit only 69 per cent of their free-throw attempts on the night, a far cry from their season average leading up to that point.
Jose Calderon was hardly in lock-down mode in the deciding quarter and while he put up nice box score stats (13 points and 12 assists), his defensive miscues were the most egregious of any of the Raptors on this night.
Amir Johnson looked unfocused all evening, fouling out in only 21 minutes and barely registering in this affair.
And while Ed Davis only saw five minutes of action, he wasn't exactly blowing anyone away either.
So as I noted yesterday morning, this was another night when to some extent, Casey looks at his bigs and considering the offensive woes of Ed and Amir, shrugs his shoulders and goes with Bargs.
Not that this was the right decision, or correct logic, but I'm guessing that was the thought process here.
However overall, with the Raptors' size and athleticism up front, they should have been able to dominate inside and really, we only saw that from Jonas Valanciunas.
Yep, let's move to the bright spots in this one shall we, starting with the Raptors' Lithuanian sensation.
He had a double-double with 11 and 11 to go with three blocks. He hit five of his six free-throws, didn't register a foul on the night, and was a team-high plus seven. At some point Casey has to give him crunch time minutes, especially in matches like this when he's playing at a high level, deserving of more burn. So in response to the thought process by Casey noted above, I think giving Val a shot over Bargs was the way to go. Despite his need to put on weight, Jonas is much more aggressive in terms of posting up and sealing his man, something that I'm not sure the Sixers would have been able to counter.
And pair him with a jumping jack like Amir or Ed for offensive rebounding purposes, then maybe you create some offense that way.
Something's gotta give because on a night when none of what we'll call "the Raptors' big 3" is scoring so efficiently (Lowry, DeRozan and Bargnani combined to go 23 for 55 from the field), the Raps desperately need offensive production in those key moments.
Much like some of the team's previous matches, one big dry spell does the team in because their margin of error right now is so small. Last year at times the Dinos' defense could hold the fort until their offense got sorted out but so far this year, neither is working.
That being said, part of the reason the Dinos were in command of this match for so long was indeed, the return of Kyle Lowry. His shot looked pretty rusty but his mere presence allowed the Raps' offence to function much better than it has been of late. His forays to the hoop opened things up for Toronto's shooters and he finished with a box score filling seven rebounds and seven assists in 30 minutes of action off the bench.
The Raptors now turn around and head to Charlotte to face a surprising Bobcats club, and they'll need every bit of Lowry energy that he can muster.
The Cats are off to a solid 5 and 4 start thanks not only to a decent defensive group (17th in defensive efficiency), but also thanks to the development of some of their youngsters like Kemba Walker and top pick Michael Kidd-Gilchrist.
Here are our three keys:
1) Learn from last night. The Sixers went small and gave the Raps all kinds of trouble, and Charlotte is more than capable of doing the same thing, using the likes of Walker and Ben Gordon or Ramon Sessions together along with MKG and a stretch-four, Byron Mullens as the club's center.
The Bobcats had time to prep for tonight's contest so I expect them to attempt a few of the Sixers tricks.
2) Rebound the basketball. Another reason the 'Cats have had early-season success? Their rebounding ability. Charlotte is averaging 44 rebounds a game, seventh best in the league as even smaller players like Walker and Sessions are getting on the glass. Add on MKG pulling down over SEVEN a game from the small forward position and giants like Brendan Haywood and Bismack Biyombo being more than capable of doing work on the boards and this is an area the Raps will have to address if they want to grab the W.
3) Set the pace. The Sixers played an up-tempo style last night and I fully expect Charlotte to do the same tonight. We're talking about a club that gets almost 97 possessions a game, sixth-most in the league, and while that doesn't mean the Raps need to play at a snail's pace, they can't let the Bobcats dictate the style of play tonight. This ties into the previous point as if the 'Cats secure rebounds and let guys like MKG get out in transition, the Dinos could be in for a lonnnnng night.