Lacing Them Up –
Toronto is only down one game in the series but there’s lots of reason to be concerned if you’re a Raptors’ fan.
And instead of our usual format for recaps, let’s get right down to identifying these concerns and how Toronto needs to address them if they hope to win a game in this series.
1) Defending the 3 Point Line: In my preview of this series, I identified this as my biggest concern from a Raptors’ perspective. Unfortunately, I made off like Cleo the Psychic as the Magic nailed nine of their first 11 three-pointers and essentially sunk Toronto before the first quarter was over. Yes, some of the shots were simply great shots but others were wide-open looks created by Orlando’s ability to beat players off the dribble.
2) Perimeter Defence: Tied closely to the first point, Toronto put on a defensive display yesterday that was closer to varsity than NBA. Rotations were atrocious, players were confused on screens, and most egregious, the Raptors’ point guards did a horrendous job of preventing penetration. If Toronto wants to have any chance in this series, they need to do a much better job of stopping the ball at the point of attack. Jameer Nelson is a good player, but the Raptors’ defence made him look like Chris Paul today.
3) Point Guard Play: We’ve discussed Toronto’s point guard issues on the defensive end of the court, but offensively, both TJ and Jose barely made their presence felt either. They combined for 14 points on four of 20 shooting, and just didn’t look to attack the Magic. Jose was the better of the two, and Ford really needs to decide if he wants to help lead this team or not. The team desperately could use a dose of his penetration abilities as right now, the Magic point guards aren’t having to work defensively in the least bit.
4) Toughness: Making waves the past 24 hours is the back-and-forth "discussion" between one of our favorite people on the planet, Stephen A. Smith, and Chris Bosh. It all started when Smith shot off his mouth about the Raptors lacking toughness and compared Chris Bosh to Manute Bol. Bosh then responded, calling Smith "classless," and Smith has since apologized on his website.
Regardless of Smith’s ridiculous comments towards Bosh, he’s right in that Toronto is just too soft to be a solid playoff team right now. They’ve been pushed around most of the season, and yesterday against the Magic it continued. And besides the lack of physical stoutness, Toronto’s mental tenacity is just not what it should be for matches of this magnitude. Orlando came out confident, and this confidence shone through in both their offensive execution, and their long-range shooting.
5) Team Identity: All of these points are really interlinked in some way and they lead to this; at a time when teams like Philadelphia, Boston and Orlando are playing the way they have all season, and executing the way they know best, the Raptors are still trying to figure out who they are. I watched every game of the first round so far and of the 16 teams competing, the Raptors looked the least prepared by a long shot. Even Atlanta, who struggled to score against the Celtics last night, played to their strengths but are simply in over their heads against a formidable Boston club. Yet here we have our beloved Raptors, still juggling line-ups and trying to find combinations that work. As one of our readers put it best:
"The regular season, I don’t care what Mitchell says, is important in developing team awareness and confidence and the Raps simply do not have it. The Raps should be a finely tuned offensive force but instead they are in a state of discovery. The playoff is not a time for discovery."
I couldn’t agree more and the sudden re-discovery of Jason Kapono, and the bizarre insertion of Andrea Bargnani into the starting line-up were prime examples of this yesterday. Don’t get me wrong, I actually thought Andrea held his own defensively and was one of the few Raptors who played with any grit yesterday, but now what happens with Jamario Moon? And by playing Bargs at the 3, is this further fuel for the "Andrea is not a center and never will be" fire? Now Mitchell has backed himself into a corner in several ways. If he goes back to Moon, and Moon struggles, Mitchell will take the heat for not starting him in game 1, or not sticking with Andrea. And what happens with the point guard situation? As another of our readers stated yesterday:
"Sam is in a bind now: Starting TJ will bring more of the same. Starting Calderon will invite chaos."
Add in the fact that Mitchell blew calling a time-out to try and stem Orlando’s 10-0 run while Toronto was only down by five and you’ve got some serious heat. Enough that the "Sam won’t last if the Raptors lose in the first round" articles have already started at your local Toronto Sun.
However even with all of the issues we’ve mentioned, it’s not all doom and gloom.
The Raptors shot under 40 per cent from the field, allowed the Magic to shoot over 53 per cent, were out-rebounded 42 to 37 and after giving up a team record 43 points in the first quarter, still managed to cut Orlando’s lead to only five.
The key though, as we’ve been discussing all year, is that the Raptors need to start setting the tone in games from the tip-off. It’s unlikely the Magic will come out and hit nine of their first 11 three pointers again Tuesday night (although with Toronto’s defense, you never know) and the same goes for Dwight Howard hitting nine of 11 free-throws. But if Toronto keeps digging huge holes on the scoreboard to start games, this one is going to be over very quickly.
And let’s end this with some discussion about the aforementioned Howard.
Yes he was a beast in this one with 25 points, 22 rebounds and five blocks. However I didn’t think he was the reason the Raptors’ lost. No, it was Toronto’s porous defence and lack of aggression and confidence that did them in early.
Make no mistake, Howard is going to get his in this series.
But it’s the other players that Toronto needs to do a better job of keeping in check. Keyon Dooling, Jameer Nelson and Maurice Evans can’t be allowed to score 48 points again on Tuesday night, and Sam Mitchell and co. need to do a better job making sure the right players are in the game at key moments defensively.
For instance, Anthony Parker is a solid defensive player, but please no more AP on Hedo. You realize when these two are matched up, just how much of a size advantage Turkoglu has on Parker and he torched Anthony time and time again late in the game.
I like the Bargnani match-up on Hedo for defensive reasons, but Andrea needs to get a lot more aggressive offensively in order to wear Turkoglu down at the other end.
Moving On –
I’m sure there will be more fall-out from Game 1 later today.
Besides the "we need to play better" type of comments, what really must be concerning as a Raptors’ fan, are comments like this from Chris Bosh:
"We were trying to implement too many new plays, we weren't doing the things that got us here," Chris Bosh said. "We were trying to run too many new sets. We anticipated them shutting down every play we had without running them."
That comment reeks of being unprepared and also hints that CB4 was none too pleased about the last second changes by Mitchell and co.
Bosh himself though has a lot of work to do in this series as while he was 13 of 13 from the free-throw line, Rashard Lewis was able to take him out of the game far too easily. Bosh was four of 11 from the field and seemed almost surprised when he discovered he had so little space to operate on the block.
This in itself is bewildering considering that the New Jersey Nets played him the same way last year.
We’ll find out in game two if Mitchell and his staff can find ways to get CB4 more touches in close to the rim, and perhaps Toronto bounces back by correcting yesterday’s errors.
However considering the way Toronto finished the season, and yesterday's dismal peroformance, it’s admittedly pretty hard to see the glass as being half full right about now.