Blow the whole damn thing up.
If you saw last night’s game against the Chicago Bulls, even if it was the abridged "Game in an Hour" version via Raptors TV, it’s quite possible that you expressed these sentiments at some point during the contest.
I don’t blame you.
After watching the Toronto Raptors go almost toe-to-toe with the defending champion Boston Celtics on Monday night, only hours after a heroic comeback against the same champs, you had to expect a lot more than the effort that was put forth against the Bulls. Here was a club in disarray as Howland put it yesterday, one that has struggled with injuries and chemistry issues all year, and one that had recently been beaten by the seven victory Oklahoma City Thunder. Yet it was also a team that out-worked Toronto early on in this affair, and one that used some beautiful passing and offensive spacing to simply obliterate the Raptors offensively.
Prior to last night’s game, I caught legendary coach Bob Knight on ESPN discussing spacing in college ball, and how my own Duke Blue Devils were the top college team in the nation at committing to this theorem on the offensive end. Knight walked through various video examples of Duke creating space for teammates allowing room to operate, and the resulting offensive efficiencies derived from these decisions.
Watching Chicago last night perform surgery on Toronto’s defense by creating said spacing brought me back to Coack Knight’s early breakdown, and how it really all starts from the application of a simple principle – knowing your players’ strengths.
That’s exactly what the Bulls did in their victory last night as players like Derrick Rose and Luol Deng were featured constantly in mismatches while others such as Andres Nocioni and Kirk Hinrich were given openings to fire away from long-range.
Time after time, the Bulls forced bigger Raptor defenders like Chris Bosh and Andrea Bargnani onto the explosive Rose who would get to the hoop at will, or simply force rotations and find the open man. In fact, even though Rose had a monster game (25 points and 10 assists), the entire Bulls team looked for the open teammate all night and finished with an astounding 33 assists on 40 made field goals!
It’s tough to be more efficient than that.
Bulls’ coach Vinny Del Negro had his players cycling the rock from side-to-side and had I not been a Raptors’ fan, it would have been a thing of beauty to behold from a basketball purist’s standpoint. Many have knocked Del Negro for the job he’s done so far this season, myself included, but last night you saw perhaps just why he was Bulls’ management’s final selection. It wasn’t very complex offensive orchestration, it was simply taking advantage of Derrick Rose’s advantage over anyone who tried to contain him, and then going from there. Del Negro said as much post-game and admitted that this was something they were really able to do now with some healthy bodies back (Deng, Hinrich, etc.)
Yet even with all of this praise for the Bulls’ O-Game, Toronto still was within a blocked Chris Bosh jumper with less than 10 seconds to play in terms of tying the game and sending it to OT.
Toronto was down early in this one, fought back, and then rode a career game from Andrea Bargnani and a hot third quarter from Chris Bosh to even take the lead.
However down the stretch, the Bulls were the tougher and more determined team, and unlike the recent loss to the Bucks, it’s hard to argue that Toronto let this one slip away; the truth is that they never really deserved to be in it from the jump. As much as the Boston games showed just how good this team can be, last night’s loss to Chicago was a perfect example of why this club desperately still needs to plug a number of holes talent-wise, and again needs a major dose of grit and stoutness.
And if you come out with as little energy or attitude as the Dinos did yesterday evening, it’s hard to say that you should be a playoff team.
Look at it this way.
The Raptors reach the mid-point of their season Friday night against the Pacers in game number 41. Yes they’ve played a tough schedule and have battled key injuries, but they also only have 16 wins to show for.
Bryan Colangelo pre-season talked about this being the best Raptors’ team he’s had and yet the club is essentially on pace to win 32 games – not exactly top of the pops is it?
Maybe things would have been a lot different had the Raps had the services of O’Neal and Calderon for more of these matches and perhaps if they return healthy in the next few days (something that’s been alluded to although you won’t catch me holding my breath) the team can still make a run. Even last night against an undersized Bulls team I’m confident O’Neal would have made a huge difference. Maybe then Luol Deng wouldn’t have grabbed three straight offensive rebounds while the rest of the Raptors stood and watched in awe (one of the most frustrating sequences I’ve seen all season as an aside.)
And while Rose might have eaten Jose for breakfast, perhaps the offence would have been more efficient on Toronto’s side as well and players like Graham, Kapono, and Hump would have gotten some easier looks.
That’s a lot of conjecture however and the fact of the matter is that those two weren’t present last night or for various other matches and Toronto is stuck with the current batch of healthy players. This has unfortunately left Raptor fans viewing a team with some nice offensive flair at times, but very little substance in terms of grit and determination.
Jamario Moon is probably the player who best sums up this Raptors’ club in a nutshell. Here is a player blessed with all the athletic talent in the world but one who attempts some of the most ridiculous circus shots in order to avoid contact. He’s a player who looks from afar like someone who would be a deadly weapon in transition…that is until you saw him staring at the ball, head down like a 3rd Grader, while dribbling on the break. In fact, he’s a player who’s become quite adept at using his length and quickness to create space in order to shoot a jump shot.
He’s a walking contradiction and he’s not the only one like this on Toronto. In fact it was hard for me not to look across the floor at various Bulls (Deng, Nocioni, Thomas etc) and imagine them in a Raptors jersey. These two teams have what each other needs to a certain extent and I’m sure if you could combine them and keep the top 12 guys, you’d have a heck of an NBA squad.
I’m not sure how many players you’d keep from the Raptors’ bench though in this "combo-squad."
Again last night they essentially brought nothing to the table and left me wondering what a stat like "total bench points" would look like for the Dinos so far this season compared to other clubs. I think it’s safe to say that Toronto would be near the bottom of the league.
However as tempting as it is to completely eviscerate this team after last night’s morose performance, there were some bright spots during the loss.
The Solar Flare?
Well that had to be Andrea Bargnani who pumped in a game-high 31 points, grabbed 10 boards, including 3 on the offensive glass, and got to the line 10 times making nine. If you were skeptical about the Dirk comparisons and the big kid’s future, last night was all you needed to see. The best part about Andrea’s performance was that he only made two 3’s in this 31 with the rest a complete mix of inside and outside, mid-range and around the basket. And yet even in this 31 you could see that he’s quite capable of more once his low-post game becomes more refined.
And maybe that’s why this loss was even more disheartening.
To get a combined 54 points from your two "bigs," an efficient 15 from your starting shooting guard and yet still lose really hurts. It speaks volumes too I think of your club’s defence, and execution as well in key moments.
And while it won’t show up on the stat sheet, I think this game also gave yet another example of the unfortunate malaise that’s plagued this club for years; a lack of consistent effort. I’ve argued for a while now that the club needs an injection of talent but in addition, it needs players who go full-out for 48 minutes. How else can you explain the fact that the Bulls had all 12 of their offensive rebounds in the first half and once Jay Triano addressed this to start the second, Chicago got nary a peep at a second-chance for the rest of the match?
That folks is effort and desire and on this night, much like many others, the Dinos didn’t bring for a sustained period of time.
Chicago did, and they were lead by a future star whose "grit and persistence cup" runneth over.
All you needed to do was look at the play Rose made with 3 minutes left in the game. Rose helped dissuade a Will Solomon lay-up attempt at one end and then jogged up the court looking for the pass. As soon as he got it, he exploded into a sprint to the rim, laying it in. On the replay, you could see in Rose’s eyes how badly he wanted the pass and that he knew he could score.
It’s a look rarely seen on the faces of the Raps, and its absence probably does a better job than any stat of explaining why this team has only 16 notches in the W category this season.