If there's one thing that sports has taught me, being a fan is a difficult thing.
Over the course of my life I've been a fan of several different sports such as the pre-requisite hockey and our World Champion Blue Jays. Of course, there have been good times and bad, and it's always tough to sit through the bad. In fact, I often lose my connection to the team and move on to other things.
But basketball is different.
I love basketball with all my heart, especially Raptors basketball, and have seen all sorts of teams over the course of the years. Good teams, bad teams, inexperienced teams, veteran teams. No, we've never quite gotten it right, and we've had so many different players pass through. Sometimes, those teams just don't work out because it wasn't the right time.
Heck, greeting the Raptors in the starting line up of the Spurs last night were the familiar faces of Roger Mason Jr. and Matt Bonner!
The Spurs won this game, and beat the Raptors fairly handily by wrestling the lead in the 2nd quarter and never giving it up for the rest of the game, but I find it difficult to lament this loss and get hot-blooded over the whole thing.
Were there mistakes and glaring errors? Sure.
But we're talking about the Former Champion Spurs. Are there things that the Raptors could have done to increase their chances at the win? You bet.
With Jamario sporting a headband, the Raptors intially looked to establish a flow by going inside on the Spurs. But at the same time, it seemed as if the Raptors were playing at half speed. And the Spurs, being a team of prolific shooters, were content to stick to their half-court game and take shots from the outside. The Raptors though, seemed to be determined to take the paint and stuck with their game plan for most of the match until the end of the fourth quarter. Heck, even Kapono drew a foul in the lane in the first.
For most of the game,the Raptors managed to get back on defense and contest most of the Spurs' attempts. The Spurs lack that uber-athletic wing that so many NBA teams possess so this played to Toronto's advantage defensively.
However, weak rebounding from the wings once again reared it's ugly head for the game. Sure, for the first quarter the Raptors managed to get a lead, but that was mostly due to San Antonio's own poor shooting rather than anything the Raptors did.
I've noticed lately that when it comes to rebounding, the Raptors often manage to get themselves into trouble because a lot of their players are bunched together in a similar area rather than spread out boxing their man. Instead of establishing a defensive perimeter to pick up the boards, the Raptors tend to converge to help each other with rebounding because they lack the confidence that a single person can rebound the ball. The worst guy in all of this is Jamario Moon, who continues to just basically find a position between O'Neal and Bosh, and just jump. Yes, there are days when he gets his share of rebounds on both ends of the floor, but it's never from an effort to box out his man, but rather the luck of his positioning and sheer athletic ability. Luck, as we've seen lately, just doesn't cut it.
However, what I really like is watching Ukic drive to the basket. He needs to do that move as often as possible in order to get to the line as much as he can. More so than his jump shot, the Raptors need this part of his game to help their team pile up fouls on opposing teams. And frankly, it's gotta become a point of emphasis for the Raptors. With Jake Voskhul making his debut in the 2nd quarter instead of Kris Humphries, it looked like Triano was trying to giving Calderon and Bosh some extra rest thanks to the back-to-back. Voskhul also demonstrated his ability to be one of the more consistent back-to-the-basket players on our team, which really tells you about the state of our bigs situation.
But with Matt Bonner crashing the offensive glass and subsequently finding Roger Mason Jr. open on the perimeter, the Spurs started to open that familiar insurmountable lead in the second quarter. Triano was forced to juggle his lineups again due to Calderon's upset stomach. Will Solomon was placed in the game in place of Jose Calderon, and proceeded to immediately foul Tony Parker. As is often the case, ball movement seemed to completely disappear with Solomon on the floor. Yes, shots by Anthony Parker and Will Solomon made it through the basket, but the Raptors can ill afford to rely on individual plays to score. Their team just isn't strong enough on an individual level to beat the Spurs, so they had to rely on ball movement to create opportunities and make the team as a whole dangerous, rather than individuals. We saw in the third that the Raptors can rely on cuts and movement without the ball to get good looks and it's a shame this didn't happen in the second quarter consistently, when they gave up the lead.
In the third, it became painfully obvious that Moon has no place in the starting line up. Besides putting up questionable 3's, Moon also has a pattern of losing his man for an open bucket under the basket. Nevertheless, the Raptors started to work a little harder to get the ball into the post. Jermaine O'Neal started to heat up and score in the paint, giving the Raptors some energy. Even though the score still reflected an eight point deficit, there were positives to be taken from O'Neal's game as momentum began to shift. With O'Neal's shoulder looking strained and Calderon looking pale, the Raptors still took the fight to the Spurs thanks to some hustle from Joey Graham and some timely jumpers from Calderon. However, 2nd chance points that lead to 3 pointers absolutely destroyed the Raptors, and as a result, the Raptors seemed to need twice as many possessions to get the same amount of points. That kind of work requirement would kill the Raptors even if they weren't playing the tail end of a back-to-back.
When the Spurs decided put the clamps on in the fourth, the Raptors just could not buy a single bucket as the Spurs clogged the paint. It was at this point that I wondered why the Raptors could not do the same. They have effective three point shooters, and they have guys that can attack the paint in the form of Bosh, O'Neal, and Graham. I just personally don't understand why you can't kick out to guys like Anthony Parker, Jason Kapono, or Jose Calderon.
It's been a while, but to see the Raptors try to go toe to toe and not break down against an elite team in the NBA, is almost heartwarming and enough for me at this point. In fact I'd actually say that some Raptors showed a ton of heart last night. With O'Neal injured, Calderon blowing chunks, the Raptors still got a lot out of both players because of sheer determination. No, I cannot fault the Raptors for this loss because they need to fire all on cylinders to beat a team like the Spurs, but they tossed in an excellent effort considering their situation.
I mean, if San Antonio is going to take 23 three point attempts in the first half, make more shots (nine) than the Raptors attempted (four) from beyond the arc, well then the Raptors can't be too hard on themselves. Yes, second chance shots and opportunities are maddening, but without a trade, I don't forsee a change on this front. Instead, we should focus on areas that the Raptors seem to be fine in and showing signs of life in and build from there. There's just no way that Colangelo can trade away the whole roster, so we have to look at realistic changes.
And those changes have to start from assessing where our team is truly struggling and where our team has a glimmer of hope.