I was away all weekend for one of my best friends' weddings. He was in fact one of the original members of RaptorsHQ so it was great to catch up, and talk some ball and invariably, the discussion turned to the Toronto Raptors.
Both my friend and various others simply remarked that they just didn't care too much about the club currently as this was not only a bad basketball team, but one that was nearly unwatchable from an entertainment standpoint.
Spending so much time in the minutia of the club and the analysis of each and every play, it was refreshing to discuss the club from a bird's eye view and bemoan the club's horrific offensive sets, and middling defensive displays.
And yesterday's 112 -98 loss to the Denver Nuggets was a reaffirmation of everything we had discussed as again Toronto kept up with an opponent for a portion of the game, only for the club's true colours to show forth as the sample size extended into four quarters of play. The Raps led early but to anyone who took in the contest, you knew that that lead wasn't going to last.
Sure enough, this time it was the fourth quarter that was Toronto's undoing as the Nuggets put up 36 points in the final Q, en route to the final margin of victory.
However as usual, the warning signs were there early.
The club kept pace with Denver at the outset, taking advantage of Jonas Valanciunas inside, and a few more attempts at the free-throw line.
But the club all night failed to stop the Nuggets on key possessions, and couldn't refrain from falling back into their vaunted "one-on-five" offensive sets. Far too many times Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan and Rudy Gay would take turns isolating on offense and failing to create anything resembling a high-percentage shot for themselves or teammates.
And while the Raps were going uno a cinco, the Nuggets were using crisp ball movement to get open looks for teammates, and easy baskets.
The proof is in the pudding as they say and on the night the Raptors had only 18 assists on 87 field goal attempts while the Nuggets had 29 on the same number of shots.
That stat right there likely tells the whole story but for a visual of the discrepancy, just rewind yesterday's fourth quarter. With about seven minutes left in the game, Rudy Gay comes down the court with the ball, stands, dribbles, stands, dribbles, crosses over a few times, then drives into two defenders and turns it over.
With about five minutes and thirty seconds left, the ball goes to DeMar DeRozan who jabs, fakes, dribbles, and pulls up for a fadeaway long-range two which Denver promptly rebounds and runs down Toronto's throat, resulting in a Kenneth Faried alley-oop dunk.
Soon after, with about four minutes remaining, Kyle Lowry drives the ball into the paint, doesn't like what he sees, curls around the rim looking to juke his defender into a backdoor lay-up, and then decides instead to drive all the way back out to the three-point line, and jack one up.
It misses, and again, off go the Nuggets, this time with Ty Lawson finding Andre Miller, who moves the ball to Wilson Chandler, back to Lawson and then Lawson penetrates, finding a cutting Timofey Mozgov for the easy dunk.
And on and on.
The juxtaposition between offensive styles couldn't have been more clear and throw in some flame throwing by Nate Robinson (18 points in the fourth quarter) and this one was over.
The Raptors' bench didn't do themselves any favours in this one combining for 16 points and a -46 mark. Meanwhile the Nuggets' pine crew had 72 points, and post-game this discrepancy was viewed as a big reason for this loss.
I think it's a little overdone though as it's simply a tradeoff from game to game. If Toronto's starters had run a reasonable facsimile of an NBA offense, the club wouldn't have needed to lean on the bench so hard. The Nuggets are built in such a fashion currently that aside from perhaps Lawson and Faried, there are no locked-in starters on this group as the club's strength is its depth. Toronto's strength is supposed to be its starting five but again yesterday the group strugged offensively, hitting only 30 of 72 shots. (42%). Considering the starters took 72 of the team's 87 shots, I'm not sure how much you can fault the bench here. Did Dwane Casey actually look down and think "sure they have Nate Robinson, but we have Julyan Stone, it allllll evens out!!"
I mean, Landry Fields, Dwight Buycks and DJ Augustin didn't even play so other than Terrence Ross, I'm not sure how Casey expected his reserves to make up that 72 to 16 point differential. If the Raps want to win these kinds of matches its the starters that need to get the job done, plain and simple.
Speaking of which, Casey, hoping to shake up his starting group after two straight losses, subbed Tyler Hansbrough in for Amir Johnson in the starting lineup., and it had a positive impact on the surface. The club started strong, built an early double-digit lead.
But I'm hesitant to say this is going to help much in the grand scheme of things. Hansbrough is a minus defender most of the time, and not exactly an offensive juggernaut so unless the move is simply to motivate Johnson, it's hard to see how this really helps. The fact is that Johnson's usage rate right now is hovering around a career-low with the Raptors so I'd say that he's not likely the problem here. It's pretty hard for a player to be effective, even one like Amir who doesn't always need the ball, when guys like Rudy Gay are simply going one-on-five on every possession.
To me, this game was simply the same old story of a club that doesn't have the overall talent to compete with the league's best clubs, and doesn't have the offensive discipline or planning to even compete with the mediocre ones.
Until that changes, we'll keep seeing games like this for the bulk of the season.