You know what joy is?
Joy is listening to Matt Devlin talk about the team and the league in a pre-game show.
Joy is watching a battle between my recently-recovered, off season acquisition vs. your recently-recovered, off season acquisition.
There are just lots of reasons why last night's match-up was compelling for both Raptors and 76ers fans, even as a rematch.
Starting out strong defensively, the Raptors managed to create lots of opportunities for themselves by being aggressive on the defensive side, forcing the 76ers into jump shots.
Problem was, no one on the floor could make a shot.
Anthony Parker went 0-for-4, missing three wide-open 3-pointers. Exacerbating things was the inability of the Raptors to expose the 76ers when they double teamed their players. The Raptors just could not find the open man easily. The 76ers then found their legs and began to mount a lead on the Raptors.
Then Calderon goes down with a tweaked hamstring muscle.
What a lovely beginning.
Slowly though, the Raptors begun to claw back in the 2nd. Bargnani's aggressive and smart defense combined with Jermaine O'Neal anchoring the middle allowed the Raptors to get their rhythm back and they began by attacking the basket. It's a telling sign Andrea especially managed to play aggressive, yet smart defense and even managed to play near the rim and expose the 76er's poor box outs on a number of occasions. Showing everyone more and more of his ability to change the game, Bargnani's continued growth defensively seems to save the Raptors time and time again, turning momentum around. Blocking Evans and Brand while rebounding in traffic is enough to bring a tear to my eye!
It was that intensity that brought the Raptors back to within six at the half.
The 3rd quarter came by and I thought there was a problem with my feed. Things started out exactly like the 1st, with little ability to finish on the offensive end, and a lack of aggression defensively. Calderon, with only one good leg to stand on, was just simply unable to accelerate and dictate the tempo like he usually is able to. Needing help from his teammates, he turned to Bosh and O'Neal to keep pounding the interior of the Philadelphia defense, and Bosh in particular began to rack up the fouls against both Speights and Dalembert. However, once Elton Brand began to shoot hot from the floor, exposing O'Neal off the bounce and hitting just about every shot in sight, things got out of hand again for Toronto.
This brings to mind a question I had lingering after the game.
Why wasn't Bargnani inserted earlier to counter Brand? Against Elton in the 2nd quarter, Bargnani was effective with his quickness and length where Jermaine O'Neal was a better force under the basket and in the paint. Bargnani managed to stay close to Brand in the 2nd quarter, forcing him to dribble. And when Brand passed on his shot, Bargnani was able to double team players correctly and shift aggressively to cut off driving 76ers. In fact, in the 4th quarter, Bargnani did exactly this so you have to ask why Mitchell didn't turn to him earlier. Calderon, having enough in the 3rd, finally shut it down for the night.
Enter: Will Solomon.
Tossing the ball into the post and ready to shoot from the outside, Solomon was looked upon to hold the fort down while Calderon was unavailable. Showing his shooting touch finally, Solomon was able to provide a little bit of an offensive spark. Unfortunately, while he showed moments of ability as a shooting guard, Solomon still had lots of difficulty making proper and accurate decisions to get his teammates shot opportunities. Emphasizing this point was when Roko Ukic came into the game and recognized exactly where the ball needed to go to do the most damage against the 76ers. Finding Bargnani ready to drive along with Chris Bosh on a simple pick and roll play, he began to expose the Philly defense. And while he still has lots of trouble communicating on defense, he played like a point guard who was actively looking for teammates.
Unfortunately, the Raptors needed stops as well and Solomon is clearly the better alternative at this point.
And yet while he's usually proven to be the better defensive alternative, against Andre Miller and Lou Williams, he was ineffective here as well. Often getting caught on screens and not able to check his defender properly by allowing most of them room to dribble-penetrate, Solomon also showed how shaky our backup point guard position is at this time.
In the end, the Raptors just didn't play smart down the stretch. Refusing to keep the 76ers in front of them and forcing them into jump shots, while making costly mistakes on the offensive end, the Raptors simply looked out of sync without Jose Calderon to lead the team (see our 19 assists to Philly's 30).
I'm not ready to worry though. Jose spoke after the game to reporters about feeling way better and while he'll have an MRI today, the general thought is that it's just a sore hamstring - no tear.
And talking with Franchise last night, made me aware of how we differ on the direction of this team. He still contends that the Raptors need to find a secondary point guard, while I still believe that with a few months of time and experience for Ukic, he can emerge as a player we can depend on, on a nightly basis. Tonight just emphasized who truly is the real backup point guard in my mind and just how much development and experience we have to keep giving him.
That's why I'm not ready to panic until January.
Fundamentally though, we have to wonder about the emerging identity of this team. We know that defensively, this Raptor team is better at being a presence and at times, can completely shut down a team. It's partially why teams shoot a low percentage, and why there are just so many rebounds being grabbed by the opposition. However, for entire stretches, that defense simply disappears, and there's no explanation for it other than a lack of communication, and not using scouting reports to their fullest advantage. The team still has trouble defending transition baskets, but is very adept at attacking the middle; something that's been lacking for a long time.
O'Neal and Bosh in particular, managed to rack up lots of fouls on the Philly interior presence, but this team still can't capitalize on this advantage. The team simply has too many shooters and not enough people willing to take advantage of the weakened interior of opposing teams. Instead, the Raptors continue to depend on the jump shot and that, my friends, is always an inconsistent proposition. Heck, even with Bargnani as hot as he was and willing to post up and drive, the Raptors still collectively decided to go for the jumper. As Sam Mitchell is fond of saying, sometimes you make the baskets, sometimes you don't.
And against Philadelphia, the Raptors simply didn't.
And until we find an alternative way to win when we don't, we won't become a top-tier team.