Even before the buzzer sounded last night this game had been over for quite some time. Unlike the recent string of college basketball games that have all seemed to go down to the wire, the Raptors controlled this game from the tip and never looked back winning 97-77 for win number 26 of the season.
The Raptors raced to a 16 point lead after one quarter and did a great job defensively on Minnesota causing the Timberwolves to stop moving the ball and prevent open looks. As a result, Minnesota shot only three for 12 the first quarter and looked like a team broken and beat even early on. And while Toronto had a few defensive lapses in the third quarter, generally the Raptors continued their first quarter play from start to finish.
As we've alluded to in the past, when Toronto gets contributions from Chris Bosh, Mike James and a third individual offensively, this team can put up serious points. Last night Bosh, on his birthday, finished with 17 points and 15 rebounds, James had 18 points and five assists and Morris Peterson completed the triumvirate finishing with a game-high 21. On top of this, the Raptors got great play from Matt Bonner (10 points and 12 rebounds - SIX of which were of the offensive variety) and Pape Sow and the rest of their bench.
Even an overly tanned Hoffa got in on the action playing in the game's final few minutes scoring once and playing with a zest that has not been seen for quite some time. Check that...I have not seen Hoffa play for quite some time!
However as mentioned at the top of this article, was this game truly a blow-out?
In spite of the 20 point win the Raptors shot only .8 per cent better from the floor, had 10 less assists and shot one less free throw. Based on these numbers the game should have been a lot closer...and it would have been had Toronto not hit 11 of their 25 three-point attempts and out-rebounded Minny 53 to 34 including 17 to six on the offensive glass.
My point here is that this game was a great example of everything that's currently good and bad with this team namely, the reliance on jump shooting. When they go in, great...but when they don't and that's all your offense is centered around...
One quick look at last night's shot chart shows just how few points in the paint Toronto scored. And when a team attempts 25 three-pointers, you don't even need a shot chart to realize just how perimeter oriented the team is.
Luckily last night Toronto connected on the majority of these long-range bombs and hit the glass with ferocity to make-up for the amount of outside attempts. But let's look at the other side of the coin...what if the Raptors had only hit three or four outside attempts? Would the Raptors have still walked away with the win? Or would the Timberwolves have regrouped only down a few and made this one a lot more interesting in the dying seconds than simply a contest for pizza for the fans. (Which by the way Toronto had a chance to try for but passed up drawing a smattering of boos from the crowd.)
At the centre of my perimeter oriented concerns is Mike James. I think James can be a dominant offensive force and great spark, but do you really want your "point guard" attempting nine 3's? Last night James did just that and was only seven for 19 from the field. Furthermore, on many possessions he simply dribbled out the clock before launching up a shot. The performance reminded me of a more athletic guard in the NBA with a similar penchant for the "3" and one on one play - Baron Davis. In fact you could draw an interesting comparison between Golden State and Toronto...both have the talent to be better than their respective records indicate and both play high-scoring, low defensive-effort type basketball. Golden State has gone from one of the league's most promising clubs last season to a club mired in sub-mediocrity this year who for all their talent, is perhaps the league's most disapointing club.
This comparison scares me but is a great example of how a dominating shoot-first point guard can hurt a club regardless of his or the rest of the club's talent. Look at some of the other underacheiving teams in the league. The Knicks, Kings, Rockets, Blazers, Magic and 76ers should all be better than their current records. Sure the Kings are playing better now with Artest, but if the Raptors had a starting lineup of Shareef, Bibby, Peja, Bonzi Wells and Brad Miller wouldn't you expect a much better return than Kings fans received prior to the Artest trade? And yes the Rockets have had injury woes and the Knicks are the Knicks. But think about it. All these squads rely on non-pass-first type guards and all have disappointed and as a result many have tried to make adjustments. (Steve Blake is now playing more minutes than the much more heralded Sebastian Telfair for Portland, Steve Francis was dealt by Orlando to make-way for Carlos Arroyo and Jameer Nelson etc.)
No, if Toronto wants to keep improving and take the next step the following season I feel that this team needs a point guard who is looking to Bosh first an each possession and than to a secondary option such as Charlie Villanueva before having to hoist something up. Whether this will be a reigned-in James, Jose Calderon or someone else is anyone's guess at this point. But last night, watching James, I just got the feeling that he was playing his own game way too much because right now he "can." His shot is falling, he's getting the attention he's always wanted, and probably deserved considering the effort it's taken him to get to this point, and he's in-line for a big off-season raise. He's simply playing with nothing to lose.
Over the next few games I'll be interested to see whether this trend continues. I'm sure that as long as the Raptors keep winning there won't be much made of this situation but my worry is that this team, and its young talent needs more touches and involvement in games to keep growing and improving.
And right now with the Space Mountain ride in full swing, it's not happening.