I had a feeling it was going to be a good night when I rushed home from work to find my new edition of ESPN, the mag, on my doorstep, the cover featuring all things NBA.
And not only that, but after surfing through the channels in preparation for the Raptors/76ers game, I noticed that suddenly there was an explosion of basketball on TV.
Regardless of the early snowfall in Toronto, for basketball fans, it was the beginning of spring.
For Raptors fans in particular, last night was particularly sweet of course.
Not only did Toronto put on an incredibly impressive display in their victory over the 76ers, but they also, first quarter aside, looked like the team many of us thought they could be – one to be reckoned with league-wide.
So with that, let’s chat a bit about the game shall we?
Lacing Them Up:
It’s hard to know where to start this breakdown.
Do you discuss the terrific tag-team of O’Neal and Bosh?
How about the shooting of Jason Kapono?
The point guard play at both the starter and back-up?
Or even the energy from Joey Graham off the bench?
Last night’s game showcased one of the more complete efforts I’ve seen from a Raptor squad for quite some time and even though we’re talking "Game 1" here, it’s hard not to be a LITTLE excited about this group.
Yes Toronto was spotty at best on the glass, especially early on, but the execution on defense and offense was like scotch pouring onto the rocks at times.
Indeed it was that good.
Toronto used an incredibly efficient combination of inside-outside play to eventually subdue the 76ers in their 95-84 win, therefore spoiling Elton Brand’s Sixer debut.
But more importantly, I felt like this game was a statement game, and not just a "we’re ready for any team in the league" type statement. I also felt it was the team making a statement to themselves that "this year is going to be different;" "this year, we’re going to take the ball strong to the hoop, defend as a unit and get tougher mentally when the game is on the line."
It was only game one of 82, but I thought we as fans saw examples of all of those thoughts manifested last night in the win.
A Numbers Game:
It wasn’t tough to figure out before the season began what Toronto’s strengths should be this year; long-range shooting and rebounding. Well the rebounding didn’t quite work out the way the Dinos planned last night but the shooting certainly did.
Toronto hit almost 63 per cent of its long-range shots finishing 10 of 16. This was a back-breaker for a Philly team that hit only five of 20, and shot only 34.5 per cent from the field overall.
On the flip side, Toronto was crushed on the glass by Philly, 56 to 33. However Toronto’s interior defense was solid enough that on many of the offensive rebounds that they gave up, Philadelphia had a tough time converting and instead, got blocked or missed open looks.
Sammy D and Brown are definitely going to be a handful for teams on the glass (Dalembert had nine offensive rebounds himself!) but the bottom line here is that Toronto needs to do a much better job putting a body on someone. At times I felt that Bosh and JO early on were simply miscommunicating on assignments but as the game went on, others like Bargnani and Moon were far too often jumping at the ball, instead of keeping their man from getting to it first.
The other number that I think is worth noting is the difference between these two teams in terms of turnovers on the evening. The Raptors had only nine while Philly coughed it up 17 times.
This speaks volumes about not only Toronto’s point-guard play, but also the degree of execution on offense for the Raptors.
The Turning Point:
The second quarter was the start of the end for Philly in this one.
Early on Toronto looked nervous and had a tough time getting open shots to drop. Philadelphia on the other hand was hitting their j’s, and even when they were missing, they were storming the boards to get second chances.
In the second quarter this changed as the jitters seemed to depart.
Suddenly Jason Kapono was splashing triples, Chris Bosh and Jermaine O’Neal were bowling their way to the basket, and the defence clamped down on the 76ers.
The catalyst for this spurt – how about our good friend Joey Graham?
I couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw Joey come off the pine and on his first play, spin past a defender and lightly kiss the ball off the glass for two!
And if that wasn’t enough, a few plays later he aggressively attacked the basket, missed the lay-up but then stayed with the rebound twice until he dropped the pill into the peach basket.
He only played nine minutes, but it’s these sort of nine minutes that Toronto is really going to need all season.
Hot: The Toronto Raptors – It’s hard to single out any one individual here so we’re going to collectively give props in this first game. Offensively the Raptors showed off some of Sam’s new plays including some nice "high-low" feeds and back-door cuts that were absent in preseason.
However it’s on the defensive end of the court that I really want to focus. The Raptors at times swarmed Philly on the interior and with the exception of a few missteps in transition D, even managed to keep up front of the more athletic Philly back-court.
Even Sam Mitchell, a coach generally reluctant to heap on much praise in post-game interviews, went to great lengths after this one to extol the virtues of his team’s D. In fact, he singled out the usually sieveish Jason Kapono for the work he did:
"Jason Kapono's defence was good," said Mitchell. "It was a luxury for us to be able to keep him on the floor. He did his job. That's something he's worked on, his defence.
"He was guarding some quick guys. He ... was just keeping guys in front of him."
It’s this defence that fans expected yet didn’t catch much of during the preseason.
Speaking of Mitchell, I’m grouping both him and Matt Devlin into the collective "hot" ranking.
Mitchell kept his rotation tight (although Adams and Solomon were both MIA with injuries) and did a good job of playing players in the correct situations. He used Roko as much as he could to give Jose a break (and a nice job by Roko as an aside) and let Bosh and O’Neal finish the game strong.
And with Sherman Hamilton relegated now to Courtsurfing on the Score (how could they not have retained "the baller?"), I felt Devlin really shone and I can’t wait to get him paired up with Jack.
Cold: Andrea Bargnani – Well, it can’t ALL be good this morning. While some in the media are talking about Andrea’s performance as being a positive one (five rebounds and two blocks) I say take another look at the game. Perhaps last night Toronto got enough offensive from other players that Bargs didn’t have to score but that’s going to be an exception I’m afraid. I thought Andrea did a terrible job for the most part blocking out his man, was invisible offensively, and had me off my couch yelling at the TV on one occasion.
With Bosh and Jose on the bench, Ukic was looking to initiate the Toronto offense. O’Neal was on the opposite elbow and therefore Roko dribbled to the corner to feed a posting-up Andrea. However this resulted in one of the most feeble post-up attempts I’ve ever seen and after a few seconds of effort, Andrea slunk back behind his man, leaving Roko trapped in the corner with no one to feed the ball to. The offense stopped and the Raptors were forced to heave up a shot at the shot-clock buzzer.
Bargnani has to understand that when Bosh and Jose are off the court, the burden is going to be on him to provide the scoring along with JO. I’m not saying he has to score 20 points a night, or even 10. But he at least has to THREATEN to score so that the opposing team reacts thus opening up avenues for his Raptor-mates.
Luke-warm: Philadelphia – Last night verified something I had wondered about after the announcement of the Elton Brand signing. Health issues aside, I really wondered how well Brand fit with Philly, as part of the reason for the 76ers success was the speed at which they played. Last night the team just didn’t quite look right and while Brand and Dalembert were fairly solid overall, players like Thaddeus Young, Louis Williams, Andre Miller and Andre Iguoldala were rendered fairly ineffective.
This isn’t a team built right now for half-court play as they don’t have the shooters to complement their "bigs."
Contrast that to Toronto, which was already one of the slower-paced teams in the league. Adding O’Neal probably wasn’t going to change Toronto’s style much. Instead it was more of a "can he mesh with Bosh and stay healthy" type scenario.
I think Philly will figure it out as the season goes on but I do think that for the first while players are going to have to reevaluate their roles to a certain degree.
Up next for Toronto (sounds great to say that) is Golden State on Friday night. The Warriors are a bizarre NBA team right now with a myriad of injuries and distractions; from Al Harrington wanting to be traded to Monta Ellis’ mo-ped incident. Harrington is an interesting player in fact that might be a good fit as a sixth man in Toronto. He’s not a superb rebounder, but he’s a sweet-shooting big-man who can block shots and provide mismatches against other bigs.
Oh wait – isn’t that what we have Andrea Bargnani for?
However acquiring Harrington would be tricky and Andrea would most certainly have to be sent to G State to get salaries to work out, not to mention that Big Al is in the last year of his contract.
But let’s end things on a final note about last night’s win.
I think above everything else, I was really impressed with the swagger this team had. I remember O’Neal at Media Day repeating over and over that while this was among the best cast of players he’d ever been with, they all had to believe that was the case.
Last night sure looked like everyone believed.
Even the nice-guys like Parker, Calderon and Moon were getting into it, yelling instructions and encouraging team-mates. And there was Bosh through it all, leading the troops with a fire and intensity that has been steadily building in him over these past few years. I thought he was going to take poor Joey’s head off congratulating him after Joey’s tough work in the paint.
This group looked a lot tighter than I expected this early and barring injury, I think what we saw last night will be a pretty good blueprint for the season.
As for Philly, the 76er/Raptor games should be a joy to watch all season even if it takes some time to get things together as mentioned.
And hey, they’ve got a World Series to tide them over till then…