The HQ was lucky to attend yesterday afternoon's match via media access and it was a revealing experience. Besides some great interviews and quotes from various players, including the title of this recap, it was indeed an inside look at a team in an early-season crossroads...
It was with extremely light footsteps that I approached Antoine Wright post-game.
He had just asked for two bags of ice for his knees, and sat dejected in his locker, hardly the picture of approachability.
And you could understand why.
More importantly, the club had surrendered well over 100 points yet again to an opponent, and the mood post-game in the Dino's locker was somber to say the least.
In fact, by the time I arrived after some spirited chats with Grant Hill and other Suns, most of the team had cleared out, leaving only Wright, Rasho Nesterovic, Chris Bosh, and Amir Johnson finishing up.
However Wright was indeed my target as I had identified him, having played under superior defensive tacticians like Rick Carlisle and Lawrence Frank, as someone who could really provide some insight on the Raptors' defensive woes.
And he sure did.
When I asked him about Toronto's defensive struggles and what the difference was between this team and the ones he had played for in Jersey and Dallas, he said matter-of-factly:
"We have no defensive identity."
He elaborated on this saying that he felt that there were too many defensive schemes being used presently and that as a result, there was no consistency in regards to how opponents were being guarded.
I then asked if he felt that the Raptors, as a result, didn't know which schemes to turn to at what times, and if it was resulting in general confusion. At this point however he backtracked a bit, saying that he thought players understood, it was more of a matter of consistency.
In any event, it was an extremely interesting series of back-and-forths. Here was a player who was visibly frustrated by his club's performance, and yet one who was making a good point.
What is this team's identity at either end of the court?
To start the season the Raptors looked to be the offensive juggernaut who could play no D. Now even that original identity has been stripped away, leaving a group of players who seem to lack the necessary heart to grit to compete for 48 minutes each and every night.
Again yesterday we saw a team that failed to show much pride when it counted, any semblance of transition defence, and very little defensive intensity the rest of the time. Phoenix shot 51 per cent from the field and cut the Raptors up on the interior, with Steve Nash bobbing and weaving his way to 20 points and 16 assists in only 34 minutes of duty.
My question then, and the question on many Raptors' fans minds this morning, is probably "when can we expect to see this team turn things around?"
The club's lost 7 of their last 9 now, and haven't gotten consistent production from anyone other than Chris Bosh, and one could argue perhaps Amir Johnson.
Bosh had to do the heavy lifting again yesterday and after a poor first quarter, willed his way to 30 points and 17 rebounds. As Howland said to me post-game "I'm just not sure what else he can do."
And it's true. Sure, Bosh is no Lebron, but he'll never be. As Howland and I discussed, putting up 30 and 17, with 7 rebounds being of the offensive variety, is Duncan-esque...if Duncan was playing with a bunch of guys who shot mostly jump shots and did little else. Yesterday Andrea Bargnani had his best game in a week with 24 points and 7 rebounds but outside of a quiet 14 from DeMar DeRozan, most of which came early, the rest of the club struggled. Hedo Turkoglu was 4 of 14, Jose Calderon 1 of 7, and the chucker, Marco Belinelli, 0 for 5. Add on that the team was abysmal from long range (1 of 20), and you've got a nice recipe for yet another loss.
Washington is up next on Tuesday, Atlanta follows on Wednesday, and then the Raps have a rematch with the Wizards on Friday before taking on Chicago Saturday evening. On paper this looks to be an easier run compared to playing the likes of Boston and Phoenix, but three of these upcoming games are on the road, and two of them are the second nights of back-to-backs, an area that has absolutely killed the Dinos so far this season. When you add on the fact that Toronto has been completely incapable of stopping anyone, suddenly even these types of games seem daunting.
And this brings me to Jay Triano.
I'm not going to go as far as to say that the players are starting to tune him out, but there are some worrisome signs for sure. Chris Bosh when speaking to the media that were huddled around his locker post-game looked like he was about to snap, especially in regards to questions surrounding Jay and the team's defensive issues.
And my brief chat with Wright was certainly no definite vote of confidence in the overall game plan.
Post-game Triano laid a good portion of the blame regarding the loss on Toronto's inability to hit the long ball and there's definitely some truth to that. Alvin Gentry in his talk with the media said something similar, noting that like Toronto, Phoenix depends quite a bit on the long-ball and if it's not going down, then they have trouble scoring the ball.
The problem I have with this line of reasoning is that it sounds oddly familiar to that of the last coach who was here.
At some point the players Bryan Colangelo has brought in need to be accountable for what goes on on the court, and if that doesn't start very soon, it's no stretch to say that we could be looking at another trip to the draft lottery, and possibly a quick end to Jay Triano's NBA coaching career - probably unfairly.
I'm not going to go that far as of yet.
But from the past few games, my visit yesterday with the team, and the upcoming schedule, there's no question this team needs to start turning things around asap.
I predicted a 5 and 13 start.
But for some reason this 7 and 11 debut seems a whole lot worse.