Is Jose Calderon the heart of the Raptors?
The one guy that I've focused on as my favourite player over the past three years, Jose Calderon has come back for a second game to energize the Raptors. Plays are better, people are smiling, and when things aren't working, Calderon is the first person the cameras seem to focus on, showing some kind of emotion on the court. For many fans, he has become a welcome relief from the messy play of Ukic and Solomon, and has reminded us yet again why the Raptors signed him to a large contract.
But I was wondering if the Raptors could take that same emotion they showed in Chicago and bring it into the ACC yesterday evening.
For some reason, the Raptors just didn't come out and jump all over the Kings. Toronto had to use this game to begin to exert their will on a bad team and just put them away. However, they just couldn't begin the game with passion. And as good as Calderon is, he can't be the only one playing with passion.
Of course, when you have refs calling horrible plays on you, there's not a lot you can do but ride it out. Both Bargnani and Bosh got hip checked trying to drive the baseline. What should have been a routine foul was instead called as two turnovers as both players stepped out of bounds. Toss in a few additional non-calls for a bunch of Bosh drives to the hoop, and the Raptors never seemed to get any traction in the first half.
Nevertheless, with Calderon setting the pace by driving to the basket for the hoop and foul, the Raptors would rely on their offense to carry them through the half, one that displayed some pretty ugly perimeter defense. Allowing the Kings to shoot uncontested shots for most of the half, the Raptors gave the green light to players such as Kevin Martin, Brad Miller, John Salmons, and Francisco Garcia. Rotations seemed always to be a step behind, and Toronto was once again helping too much on a non-factor such as Beno Udrih.
At the same time, the Raptors got lazy on offense against one of the worst bad defensive teams in the league. That's code for "settled for jump shots".
It was during this bad stretch that this thought occurred to me. In all my time following the Raptors, I've never figured out why Chris Bosh continues to try and make dribble and spin moves in the post. Perhaps the weakest area of his game, Bosh has always been a player that simply turns it over in traffic. He has a reputation for doing it and when he does get open, he's often taking an off balance jumper. It's just asking a power forward to do too much. In fact, I'd much rather give the ball to Bargnani to attempt break down the defense. In his time as a starter without Calderon, it's been most refreshing to see that Bargnani has been able to break down opponents. Andrea routinely tests out his defender at the beginning of the game, which is a very important reason why he's scored over 15 points in his last 15 games. Without having Calderon creating for him, Andrea Bargnani has had to step it up himself and become the initiator of the offense. With Calderon back, Bargnani is now another offensive weapon who is willing to be in constant motion and test opposing offenses.
It's for this reason that the Raptors have had more success at scoring lately.
However, going into halftime, the Raptors had just too much trouble stopping the Kings from making runs of their own. If Jermaine O'Neal was on the floor, attacking the interior, Brad Miller was on the outside bombing the Raptors from 3-point range. It wasn't until the third quarter that the Raptors figured out how to turn things around. Until then, the Kings continually found ways to make the Raptors look soft. On picks and rolls between Udrih and Miller, the Raptors continually got lost and allowed Miller to get to the basket uncontested. When Triano finally had enough of John Salmons' abuse of Jamario Moon on the dribble drive, Joey Graham was inserted and the tempo changed.
Sparking a run, the Raptors caused back-to-back turnovers for some sweet transition finishes, with first Graham causing a turnover that led into a Bosh slam and then a Calderon steal which led to a Parker dunk. On the defensive end, Graham's use of his feet to cut off Salmons allowed the Raptors to play man-to-man defense without much help. Graham muscled and shuffled against Salmons, throwing the Kings' last offensive weapon out of sync, and the Raps never looked back. The Kings just completely collapsed in the second half as the Raptors held Sacto below 35% for the half.
However, I really want to focus on Bargnani's play for the night. You see, I've really liked Bargnani's smarts in the post lately. Defensively, he's been good at cutting off lanes for slashers. In the second, he did just that when Beno Udrih tried to cut to the basket for a layup after a short two-man game with Brad Miller. It's plays such as these that don't show up on score sheets that really illustrate his growth this year.
Bargnani's screen and roll with Calderon has also been a revelation. Thanks to his increased movement in Calderon's absence, Jose's now able to find Bargs cutting in the lane for some easy and sweet baskets. And if Andrea didn't score, he got to the line instead, something that's been a major factor in the Raptors' last two victories. And perhaps most surprisingly, I've also noticed Bargnani's screens have gotten progressively better. He's much more involved in stopping his man for just a second longer, allowing his teammate to get that much more open.
And of course, Garcia's punk move on Bargnani showed that while our big Italian friend hasn't developed a reputation for being a tough character, he at least didn't back down and made sure Garcia wouldn't get away with it.
So in the end, the Raptors beat up on a team that's one of the worst in the NBA.
Is it a win that we should be celebrating? I'm not sure it has proven anything, but at least the Raptors are beating the opponents they should be beating, which was even difficult a week ago. What I find most encouraging is that the Raptors are routinely getting over 100 points per game. No matter how much we talk about defence, I always found it disturbing how hard it was for the Raptors to get over that mark this season. In fact, prior to these last two games, the Raptors had only hit the 100 point plateau five times for the month of January, including an overtime loss in Boston. No matter how much we want to focus on defense, the Raptors are still primarily an offense-based team that needs Calderon to bring the flow and additional efficient perimeter scoring. With only two more games in January, the Raptors will need every point they can get to return to .500 for the month. This week presents another series of winnable games, ones Toronto must take advantage of before Sunday's rematch with Orlando.
No we're not in the playoffs yet and there's still much to be done.
But it's a beginning.