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Tip-In, Toronto Raptors Post-Game: Pick Your Poison - The TJ Ford Situation

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Lacing Them Up –

As soon as the fourth quarter ended last night, I could feel the venom coming.

I knew the comment section on our site would light up with anti-TJ posts, and I figured this morning the web and blogosphere would be ripe with "trade Ford" posts.

This isn’t going to be one of them.

That’s not to say I wasn’t absolutely incredulous concerning his complete lack of "point guard" play last night, but I think this might be a good opportunity to look at both sides of the coin.

I’ve always liked TJ Ford, have always been in favour of the Ford for Villanueva trade, and always thought he could become a top tier point guard in the NBA. Early this season, he really looked to be making the necessary adjustments to his game so that he could take that next step in his development too and had it not been for his unfortunate injury situation, appeared to be the one on track for an All-Star like season.

But since his return from injury, things admittedly seem to have regressed.

Instead of the player we saw earlier this year, one who bobbed and weaved through traffic finding team-mates who didn’t appear to be open, and who took advantage of his scoring opportunities when presented, we’ve seen one who looks much more concerned with trying to play one on one with the player guarding him.

If this was an episode of Law and Order, I’d be Jack McCoy offering into the record, footage from the fourth quarter of last night’s game as People’s Exhibit A.

Frankly it was a bit surreal.

When Ford came in and started attacking Arroyo, getting to the rim, I thought this was a smart decision. After all, Anthony Parker was the only player with the semblance of a consistent offensive game last night besides Jose Calderon, so someone had to start scoring! The Raptors had done a solid job defensively through three quarters on a powerful offensive club but just weren’t hitting enough shots to keep pace. So hey, if Ford could burst past Carlos Arroyo at will, why not do it each time until the Magic made adjustments?

But here’s the thing that started to get concerning; after the first few blitzes by TJ, the Magic tried to adjust and trap, but TJ was still looking to get his own shot off. Once, twice, three times…it started to get not just ugly, but downright embarrassing! How can your point guard take nine shots in a row without looking to pass once? Especially when for every basket he scored, TJ would also be just as likely to make a terrible decision and turn the ball over.

And it didn’t help that on a couple of occasions, the refs bailed TJ’s questionable shot selection out by calling fouls on Arroyo or not calling travels on Ford.

It was about this time that Howland called.

I knew exactly what he was about to say, hell I was feeling "slightly" annoyed by this display myself.

Me: "Hey…pretty sure I know what you’re about to say!"

Howland: "Trade him – I’d deal him for Duhon straight up if I could."

The point here is that it’s quite easy to have a knee-jerk reaction to last night’s debacle.

Despite having major scoring issues, the team had played Dwight Howard well through three quarters, and had even gotten him an extended seat on Stan Van Gundy’s bench due to foul trouble. Anthony Parker played an amazing all-around game, and Jose looked sharper than he’s been in weeks. In fact at one point, Toronto had fought to be one point up on the Magic in the third quarter, quite a feat for a team shooting such a poor percentage and missing its best player.

So seeing TJ come in and play with what seemed like such disregard for the final outcome, really burns fans. Considering the way Dwight turned things up in the fourth quarter, and Sam Mitchell’s bizarre line-up decisions (more on that later) Ford or no Ford, I’m almost positive this would still have been a loss for Toronto. It’s just that it really was pushed out of reach during TJ’s time on the court in the game’s later stages.

If you’re Bryan Colangelo today, you really have something to think about.

Is Ford really the answer here in Toronto?

Earlier this year I would have said yes, and combined with Jose Calderon we were set for years to come.

But now, I’m admittedly not so sure.

Watching TJ play last night, I started wondering if Ford thinks he’s better than he actually is.

Consider this for a moment.

Any other player Ford’s size or smaller playing a similar position, needs to rely on at least one of three things in my opinion to be a successful NBA player.

-They need to be able to play a sort of controlled recklessness and have no fear about getting to the rim. (Example – Allen Iverson.)

-They need to be a great scorer, able to hurt players who don’t close out on them defensively. (Example – Iverson and Ben Gordon.)

-Or they need to simply be a true floor general, a great passing point guard who plays hard on every possession, especially on defence even if undersized. (Avery Johnson.)

TJ might not be able to play his Iverson-esque style of old anymore...

TJ might not be able to play his Iverson-esque style of old anymore...

The reason the Orlando Magic have had point guard problems all season is because none of their "1’s," excel in any of these departments.

Now let’s look at TJ. Is he great in any of these categories?

I say no…not any more.

Prior to his injury, I think Ford did have an Iverson type of recklessness around the rim and that, combined with his blistering speed and solid passing abilities, made him very effective. But right now, we’re not getting this combination. Last night on one occasion, Ford blew by the Magic in the half-court only to brick his lay-up attempt and to me, it looked like this was because he was trying to avoid contact at the rim.

And after what he’s been through, do you really blame him?

I don’t, but the bottom line is that if Ford has been reduced to taking up and under leaning buzzer-beating scoop shots, like he did at the end of the third quarter last night, it’s not in the team’s best interest.

That’s why it irked me to no end when Chuck Swirsky exclaimed: "Onions baby onions!" after TJ hit the shot.

Sorry Chuck, that’s not bravery, that’s ridiculous desperation.

So what to do?

Do you look to trade Ford this off-season?

Jose has been great, but he definitely needs someone to help him with the load, not to mention that teams probably won’t want to pay full value for TJ considering his injury woes.

Perhaps if you are the Legomaster, you look around to see what the interest is, but understanding that by trading Ford, you need to bring in someone else who can effectively back up Jose, and give Toronto a different look offensively when running the show.

And to me, that’s what will make trading Ford so hard for BC.

If you look at these two, Jose and TJ, they really do complement each other quite well. Ford is the aggressive, risk-taking, herky-jerky, chip-on-his shoulder having attacker while Jose is the disciplined, smooth-shooting, controlled play-maker.

Together they are nearly the ultimate nightmare for opposing teams to defend against when both are firing on all cylinders.

But as we’ve seen lately, when they’re not, it can get ugly fast. And I think partly because of TJ’s demeanour and style of play, he’s a much easier target for criticism than his running mate.

It really is pick your poison with Ford, and something that is extremely difficult to control. You want him to be aggressive and in attack mode, especially on nights like last evening when Andrea Bargnani, the supposed main option offensively, can’t throw a bucket of water in the ocean. But you don’t want him to get too aggressive to the point where he starts dribbling into the trees forcing bad shots, or what was most egregious, dropping a no-look bounce-pass on the break to…no one in particular.

So for me, this falls on Sam Mitchell.

Post-game, the usually "I won’t say anything bad about my players" Mitchell did mention that he needs to talk to TJ about getting his other team-mates involved, and I fully expect a more controlled version of Ford tonight against Miami.

But I’m just not sure it’s something Toronto is going to be able to control long-term.

Ford reminds me a bit of nuclear fusion – a great concept but at this point, impossible to harness the benefits without living with the negative consequences.

If Mitchell can rein Ford in so that we only get the occasional Mike James-esque play, I can live with that. What I can’t live with is displays like last night’s.

At some point I think Ford needs to face the facts considering the type of player he now is. He is no longer the number one option at Texas who could score at will simply because he was faster and more explosive than anyone else. Likewise, he’s no longer the player who can careen into the paint looking to draw contact, he has to make adjustments to his game.

And considering his competitiveness and pride, I’m sure that will be no easy task.

But for the benefit of the Raptors going forward, I think Jose needs to be the starting point guard, the one who gets everyone involved early and sets the tone. And TJ needs to be the one off the bench, the one who comes in with speed and energy, who pushes the pace and lends his grit and scoring to a second unit of spot-up shooters.

He can still be extremely valuable to this team, but unless he starts playing to his current strengths, and not those of yesterday, I’m not sure he and Jose can effectively co-exist, and BC may have no other option than to look for a trade.

-----------------------------------------------

The Raptors cap off their three-game road trip in Miami tonight and just like I was watching the rebounding situation last night, a vast improvement, I’ll be watching TJ Ford as well tonight.

He's the first part of our "three keys:"

1) Point guard play – If any of this stretch of games should be a win, it’s this one. Since obtaining the Matrix, the Miami Heat have only won two games and still look like a fragment of their former selves. Key injuries continue to affect the club as Dorrell Wright is out for the season, and the Raptors need a solid performance tonight to get a win. It starts with play at the point, an area in which Toronto should enjoy a significant advantage. Neither Marcus Banks nor Jason Williams can stay with Jose or TJ and both need to turn in solid performances in the absence of Chris Bosh. As previously mentioned, I expect to see a much more controlled example of Ford tonight, and if he and Jose can get it going offensively, it would be a huge lift for a struggling team.

Sam Mitchell isn't exactly in Franchise's good books right now...

Sam Mitchell isn't exactly in Franchise's good books right now...

2) Coaching - If I hadn’t written a five page lecture on TJ Ford today, I would have written one on Sam Mitchell. Many readers will remember that it took me a while to warm up to Sam, but last season I really thought he improved and did a great job of using and meshing his newfound talent. This year though, things have been the complete opposite. Besides his surly demeanour in regards to the media, my biggest issue with Sam his been some of his coaching decisions. Let’s look at last night’s game for example.

Why on earth did Mitchell have a line-up of Kapono, Delfino, Parker, TJ and Bargnani on the floor with about six minutes to go and Toronto still within striking distance of the Magic?

I can understand Parker and Delfino – Parker was having maybe his best all-around game of the season and Delfino’s attacking and rebounding skills were needed. And maybe even Ford I could understand a bit as Sam never seems to have a quick enough hook with TJ. But Bargs? He was two of 11 on the night offensively and was obviously no match for Howard inside. Why wasn’t Rasho playing instead? However more irritating than any of the other personnel decisions was having Jason Kapono on the floor. IMMEDIATELY once he subbed in, Hedo Turkoglu blew by him twice for easy baskets and the lead was the Magic’s for good. Contrast that with watching Colorado and Kansas State last night after Toronto’s loss. Former Nuggets coach Jeff Bzdelik kept Colorado in the game against a much more talented Kansas club by using some great inverted offensive sets where the bigs would play small, and the smalls would post-up and thus play "big." Considering Bargnani’s perimeter preferences I’d love to see Mitchell incorporate some more tactics like this in the Raptors’ playbook, at least until Bargs develops some semblance of a post-game. (It’s either that, or BC places a call to Denver to try and woo Bzdelik away from the Buffaloes.)

Another example. I noticed on a few occasions that Rashard Lewis initiated the pick-and-roll with Dwight Howard for the Magic. Toronto doubled off on Howard, leaving Lewis at the top of the key to drain the jumper. Why not use Jason Kapono in a similar manner? Kap-one is a decent passer so why not try and get him more involved in a set like that? Pat Riley has had a rough year coaching the Heat but if Mitchell keeps making curious line-up decisions like he did last night, Riley will enjoying a nice margarita and a laugh when this one is all done.

3) The intangibles - Perimeter defence on Wade. Boxing out Marion. Contesting 3-point shots from Jason Williams. For Toronto to get a win tonight, even over this decrepit club, they need to pull out all the stops. Last night against Orlando the Raps had some fight in them early and kept it close. But with erratic play from Ford and Bargs, the rest of the team needs to play almost perfectly to grab a W. Without CB4, the margin of error is simply that much smaller and everyone needs to be extremely focussed. The Heat will be licking their chops to see a Raptor team probably low on confidence right now so there are no two ways about it; if the Dinos want to avoid going home losers of four in a row, the entire team needs to step it up tonight.

FRANCHISE