We’ll get Jermaine O’Neal’s situation out of the way first this morning as seeing Hump start in his place to start the second quarter last night was an obvious sign of concern for fans.
According to reports, he was suffering from a sore right hamstring (tightness was the actual term used) and therefore decided as it was preseason in Edmonton, to sit the second half out.
The good news therefore is that this had nothing to do with his left knee, and also O’Neal told reporters that he’d be fine for practice today.
The bad news is that without O’Neal, the Raptors looked much more like a lottery-bound club then one expecting to compete for the Eastern Conference crown.
So let’s start this recap of last night's debacle on the defensive end, where Toronto was almost invisible last night.
The Nuggets shot over 53 per cent from the field in the win, and prior to removing the likes of Carmello Anthony and Nene, were hitting upwards of 60 per cent. And while the absence of JO opened up some pretty wide lanes to the basket in the second half, even in the first with O’Neal taking charges, things weren’t much better.
The problem is that so far this preseason we’ve seen the exact problems defensively that as fans we’ve seen for the past few seasons; horrific 3-point defense and an inability to contain players on the perimeter.
My thinking during the off-season was that with O’Neal in the paint, this lack of perimeter D wouldn’t be such a concern because opposing wings would have two 7-footers waiting for them if they got into the lane.
Right now though is that not only is Toronto getting beat on the outside, but the Raptors’ own wings aren’t even doing a good enough job forcing their match-ups towards O’Neal and Bosh, so we’re seeing a myriad of uncontested drives AND 3-point shots.
Last night was a perfect example as Dahntay Jones, Carmello Anthony, Smush Parker and JR Smith got wherever they wanted on the court, and Smith and Parker also hit five of eight 3-point attempts! I can't even imagine the result had Iverson, Martin and Kleiza been playing...
On the offensive end, Toronto wasn’t much better.
The team still looks fairly out of sync, even regarding the first unit, and the bright spots have been few and far between. Toronto shot almost 46 per cent but struggled early on again shooting in the 30’s and missing numerous open looks.
So now what? Can we as fans take the sum of the Raptors’ up-and-down preseason play and extrapolate to the regular season?
I have to say that right now I have no idea.
At times the team in preseason looked like they could be a real factor in the East and at others, you had to wonder if Bryan Colangelo shouldn’t start paying immediate attention to next year’s draft crop.
To me right now, this is a .500 team; the starters are good enough (if healthy) to gain and hold leads while the bench looks not only thin, but completely unsettled and able to let opponents back into matches. Contrary to the last two seasons, I've been left with a slightly uneasy feeling about this club, and my hope is that once Mitchell trims the rotation, things will start to straighten out.
Therefore I think the bottom line after a quite a-propos 4-4 record in October, is that this is going to take some time, and Sam Mitchell is just going to have to use what he’s got to determine what works best.
So on that note, we take a look at what’s been working over the preseason, and what’s simply been not:
Chris Bosh – There’s not much to say here. Bosh almost seems bored at times and looks in at least mid-season form already. He’s ready to go and has at times looked great next to JO.
Jermaine O’Neal – I’d hardly say he’s been Bosh but as the preseason has gone on (up to last night’s injury), he’s shown that he will be a difference maker for this team. As he and CB4 get more comfortable with each other, they could be a dominant tandem.
Anthony Parker – Parker has also looked to be ready to go and while he’s still not the "slasher" this team needs, nor will ever be, he’s a solid contributor most nights and will be relied on heavily again this year at the 2.
Jose Calderon – Calderon really hadn’t shown much of what he’s capable of up until last night when he almost single-handily brought the Raptors back even with Denver. He seems ready to go as well so the question is simply "how much is this guy going to have to play?"
Joey Graham – Yep, it’s almost unreal that he’s in this category but Joey was one of Toronto’s best players over the past 3 games. He only scored 3 points last night and only saw 13 minutes of playing time but his defence, energy and aggressiveness have been a welcome sight.
The other thing I want to mention here is just how much smarter Joey’s looked in terms of basketball IQ. He made one play last night that really summed this up; a drive past his man and a ball fake to draw in a second defender finished by a clever little dump pass to an open Kris Humphries. Easy 2 for the Raps, and a play that I could never in a million years see Joey making last year or prior.
Can he carry this over to the regular season? That’s of course the million dollar question for Joey.
Jamario Moon – Moon did a few nice things last night to make up for another woeful shooting display but he’s just not being the difference maker that he was last year. His defence has been suspect at best (letting Carmello score off an inbounds play with 2 on the clock last night was a perfect example), his shot selection has caused plenty of head-scratching, and he looks way too tentative. We’ll talk about this some more in a second but right now, both Hassan Adams and Joey Graham look much more hungry.
Kris Humphries – Hump started out the preseason in fine form but since then has regressed to his "head-down, forced shots" ways. I’m not really sure what to do with Hump to tell you the truth, because he’s just not proving to be an effective enough scoring option to let him play "his way," and he’s also not moving bodies around enough as a Reggie Evans type. Would I deal him straight up for Joey Dorsey at this point (salaries aside?) – You bet.
The back-up point guard spot – We’ve been over this a million times so no need to drone on and on. Roko actually showed some nice touches last night and I do think he’ll be a solid player at some point. However when Mateen Cleaves and Smush Parker are lighting you up and dunking on you like last night, this probably isn’t a good thing come regular season.
The rest of the team has been sometimes working, sometimes not with the prime example being Andrea Bargnani.
Last night he led the team with 19 points and seven rebounds and even threw in 3 blocks. But for those who watched the match, you know those were what I call "empty stats."
As often as he scored, he also got scored on and the problem with Bargs is that when he’s not scoring, he’s really not doing much of anything. Yes he did some nice work in the post on a few occasions but I wanted to scream at the Sherman Hamilton "he’s matched up with Nick Fazekas for God’s sake!" And for someone who’s supposed to be such a deadly shooter, Bargs is averaging about two airballs a game.
I think Bargs will have a decent season statistically, but I’m really starting to wonder if he’s not the second coming of Glenn, "Big Dog," Robinson, another former first overall pick who while a solid statistical player, didn’t do much to help his team win games.
It's hard to believe but Joey Graham was one of the few consistent Raptors in pre-season...
On a final note, there’s one more thing that I think shone through this preseason; this team is not nearly athletic or tough enough, even with the addition of O'Neal. Last night a Nuggets bench of rookie James Mays, Ruben Patterson and Chris "Birdman" Anderson, manhandled the Raptors reserves. In fact I worry that the reason Hassan Adams and Joey Graham have stood out to the degree that they have is because they are really the lone two Raptors’ who have shown some athletic ability at times (last night Joey’s put-back dunk was a great example.)
There’s simply no reason guys like Mays and Anderson should be having their way with the stronger Kris Humphries and Toronto as a team needs to either get more aggressive to counter athletic clubs, or BC needs some help to address this.
Even offensively this team is still playing too soft.
Kris Humphries settling for jump shots when open lanes to the basket exist, Moon trying delicate reverse lay-ups instead of jams, even Bosh at times looking for his jumper too often instead of taking an aging Juwan Howard to the rim; these were all examples from just last night.
However in spite of these flaws, there’s no denying that this Raptors’ team can be good.
Just between the group of Jose, CB4 and JO, there’s enough fire-power to cause problems for most teams in the league. Add in the scoring of Bargs and some contributions from Graham, Parker, Kapono and others and Mitchell does have some nice pieces to work with...he just needs to figure out how to use them to everyone's benefit.
On a final note, I’ve been waiting to post this piece this morning as the much-discussed Raptors’ schedule was supposed to be released. Well, it’s 10:30 AM now and still no dice.
Like the Raptors this season, guess the schedule too is leaving fans in "wait and see" mode.