With a 101 to 82 loss in their rematch with the Celtics yesterday, the Raptors dropped to two wins and five losses in pre-season play. Franchise recaps the game, wondering if it may take more than a season for the club's true potential to begin to emerge...
Pre-season is a strange beast.
Remember in the classic movie Swingers, when Jon Favreau's character admits that going to bars that are hidden away in LA without any sort of sign is a "speak-easy kind of thing;" that it's like being able to show a girl that you're cool because you can find the place?
Yesterday, we attended our first game of the season via media access, as per readers' voting last month, and Howland and I quickly realized that it's sort of the "cool" thing to do amongst players and coaches; to quickly dismiss the importance of pre-season.
Take Doc Rivers for instance.
Prior to the game he joked with the media concerning his "excitement level" for the afternoon's showdown, and remarked that had he still been playing, he probably would have been cut for his performance to date, based on his lack of enthusiasm for the games being played.
And post-game, when some of the Boston media asked him specifically about some of the rotations he failed to utilize for long stretches (namely going big with Marquis Daniels as the starting point guard), Rivers intimated that due to the success some of these schemes had in limited minutes on Sunday afternoon, he quickly went away from them, not willing to tip his hand for the regular season as after all, this was only pre-season.
So here's my question then; starting opening night against the Cavs, do we see a Raptors' team that suddenly looks to be playoff contending team in the East? Because right now, in my mind you can use all the "it's only pre-season" excuses you want, but this squad still has a long ways to go.
Of course as mentioned, you wouldn't know that by talking to the players. Take the quick chat I had with Jose Calderon in the locker room post-game:
Franchise: Give me an idea of how things felt out there today, are you seeing improvement in the team now that you're starting to get a few key pieces healthy and together on the court for long stretches?
Jose Calderon: Yeah, I think we're doing good, I think we'll be ok. We were competing like a regular team for almost three quarters, and after they were no more then 10 points ahead going into the last quarter so we were right there, we just need to clean it a little, it's tough. I think we're going in the right direction, everybody's trying to get focussed and help each other...it's good, we'll be alright.
F: What do you think about playing Boston twice, it kind of gives you a good sense of the level you need to get to because of course these guys have been playing together now for a couple of years obviously...
JC: Yeah, that's the big advantage they have, they've been playing together for a while. But we'll be ok, we're getting better every day and we're competing for most part of the game against these teams and I like what I saw. All my teammates are working hard and we've got 10 days to clean all that stuff up and be ready for the 28th.
F: What's the main thing the coaches have had you working on now in practice; is it on the offensive side of things, the defensive end...?
JC: Everything (laughs), it's pre-season so we're working on everything still.
F: Do you feel that the team's chemistry though keeps improving from your vantage point?
JC: Yeah...every night, every guy is getting a little better, I think everybody's trying to know each other and I think we're doing the right thing.
F: Speaking of teammates, who's the one player who has surprised you the most so far, who's sort of jumped out to you?
JC: No, I think everyone's playing good, nobody's surprised me more than another...I know the guys and everybody's playing good and everyone's trying to get better. It's a really good team, Boston, and they've been playing for a while and, that's the only difference right now.
F: And how about you, yourself, how do you feel about your play so far?
JC: Good, same thing, like the team. Every day a little better you know, and getting ready for the 28th. I think I'm doing ok and everyone's doing a good job.
So from that talk, it seems that all's well in Raptorland right, and the team is just waiting for the 28th to hit the switch.
However for those who witnessed yesterday afternoon's match, you know that this isn't the case and there are still a great many things to be worked out.
Defensively, the team is still struggling with rotations. Yes, the Celtics are a well-oiled machine in terms of their sets, but much like against Houston previously in pre-season play, yesterday revealed far too many examples of wide open shots on the perimeter, and lay-ups in the paint.
As well, while Toronto won the rebounding battle yesterday with a 38 to 37 edge on the boards, this team simply isn't programmed to clean the glass. If you watch closely you'll see that more times then not, when Toronto takes a shot, immediately after its release, four Raptors are headed back the other direction with only one trying to secure an offensive rebound. It's sometimes a similar situation at the defensive end, something that just can't happen if this team expects to try for a 50 win plateau eventually. Andrea is the biggest issue in this respect as while he played some solid man-to-man defense at times, he's still doing too much standing around on the perimeter when his teammates head to the rim. As an agile 7-footer, he needs to be crashing the glass.
On the other side of the ball, you don't need to go much further than the club's 16 assists to 21 turnovers yesterday. To say things were sloppy would be an understatement but again, hopefully with time this will get cleaned up as players get to know both each other's on-court styles, and Coach Triano's system.
However there's one thing that stood out more than any statistic or single series of plays during yesterday's game; this is a very young team.
Howland noted this at one point and from then I couldn't help but notice that outside of Hedo, and arguably Reggie Evans, the key players on this team aren't very old. This is something I think fans tend to forget as Bosh and Calderon are seemingly elder statesmen in Raptorland. You tend to look past the fact that these two are hardly Karl Malone and John Stockton - they've only really been playing major roles for this team as a duo for the past two seasons with last one being Jose's first full-time starting gig.
And I think that's a very important point here. Yes, it's going to take some time for this team to develop on-court chemistry, but it's also going to take some time for the individual players, many of whom figure to be key pieces, to mature. At times yesterday Triano trotted out a line-up at times of Bargs, DeRozan, Weems, Jack and Amir Johnson, the average age being what, 24?
Constrast that to the Raptors' opponents yesterday, an already veteran team who in the off-season went out to get even more veteran help in the form of Rasheed Wallace, and to a lessor extent, Marquis Daniels.
Think that doesn't make a difference?
Doc Rivers post-game stated that fitting Rasheed into his team's sets was a breeze, mostly because he had played in the league for so long that he knew what pretty much every team ran.
Rivers: "When we were running through one drill with Rasheed, he'd say "oh yeah, that's the one where Paul pops up here...etc, etc." Many times Sheed would know the play better then some of our own guys!"
That's an advantage not only on the defensive end of the court in terms of being able to anticipate what the opponent is going to do, but on offense as well as players end up spending less time learning sets in practice, and more time on fine-tuning the execution of said techniques.
For Toronto, I like many of the pieces Bryan Colangelo brought over in the off-season.
However after watching yesterday's game, I'm fully resigned to the fact that this is a complete work in progress. When someone like Sonny Weems is the sixth man off your bench, we're not talking about just a month or two to get things down. No, I think we're talking about a full season here for players to get comfortable not only in their roles, but in the league itself.
Does this mean I've lowered my 42 win expectation level for this club?
No, not at all.
I just think that provided Colangelo can keep the core of this new group together, the real rewards will be reaped not this season, but the next.