Right off the bat let’s just say that this win is nothing to get excited about. The Raps, in desperate need of a W accomplished very little in beating up a Minnesota Timberwolves team missing it’s best player in Al Jefferson.
That being said, they did win, and winning is not something that has come easy as of late. Of course speaking of late, it was only late into the fourth that the Raps did manage to secure the W, which says a lot. I mean it didn’t even look like this Raps team cared to win in the first half.
The first half was absolutely infuriating. Given the Wolves front court featured an undersized, albeit talented, center in Kevin Love and Ryan Gomes, the advantage in this game was clear. With JO and Bargnani on the floor the Raps, the Wolves were not going to have an answer to a full dosage of these seven footers. The game plan should have been a simple one - FEED THE POST. For some inexplicable reason however, no-one in the first half seemed to have come to a similar conclusion.
In fact, had it not been for Joey Graham’s stellar first quarter performance (11 points in the first 12 minutes) I am not sure the Raps would have had any chance to win this game. Other than his willingness to get to the hoop the rest of the Raptors team did what they have done all season, which is settle for jumpers and turn the ball over. To think that without Joey Graham a Wolves team with a roster of no-one of note would have blown out the Raps is astonishing.
By half the only explanations I had for the teams performance was that they either (a) had mailed it in, or (b) have a low basketball IQ. Jump shots in this game were totally unnecessary. Had I been Coach Triano I would have set up a diagram with an extended free-throw line and told the team it was going to be completely unacceptable to shoot the ball from outside that point. In some ways basketball is a complicated game, in others it is very simple. The Raps were not getting the basics right for a good chunk of the night.
Perhaps the biggest culprit for not bringing anything to the table in the first half was O’Neal. Franchise and I were discussing the game at half and we both agreed that JO looked like he had more interest in counting the empty seats in the Target Center then he did playing good basketball. Strangely enough however, it was the same O’Neal that came out in the second half and carried this team to victory. In the fourth quarter the Raps continued to feed the big man in the post and he continued to deliver. He was doing, in essence, what he and the team should have been doing right from the opening tip.
Jermaine O’Neal admitted as much when he was interviewed immediately after the game calling the first half arguably the worst half of basketball he had ever played from an energy standpoint. It was nice to see him acknowledge as much and be accountable for his actions. For as much as there is a strong argument to move JO I believe there are a number of good reasons to keep him around. His professionalism and attitude (shy the constant complaints to the refs) are something this team needs and should BC deal him and not bring back a proven winner and leader, without him I actually believe things could get a whole lot worse. He knows what is required to win basketball games and is willing to do everything he can to get it done. Despite his injuries he continues to put his body in harm’s way, play as much as required (41 plus minutes) and step-up to challenges and all of these characteristics will need to be put on display tonight with the Spurs in town.
Even though the Raps managed the win don’t think for a second that all is well. Even the greatest optimist in the bunch can’t really believe the Raps can steal a win from the almighty Spurs. This is a team that has fought off a number of injuries and is now back into the conversation regarding potential NBA Champions. We caught up with Graydon at Spurs blog 48 Minutes of Hell to discuss the Spurs this season.
1. The Spurs started off slow, but look back in peak form once again. Do you think this team can return to the NBA Finals?
The Spurs have the best chance of beating the Lakers out of anyone in the West but I don't believe we are yet at a place where we could take down LA over the course of 7 games. If everyone remains healthy it would be more competitive than last year's WCFs but I believe we would still lose in 6 or 7. In order to get over that hump we need to improve a few areas.
First, our defense needs to continue to develop. As my coauthor Tim Varner noted recently on 48 Minutes of Hell, this Spurs team is the worst defensive squad of the Popovich era. That being said, we are still one of the better defensive teams in the league. Our interior and perimeter coverage is solid but we are soft in the middle, giving up more points off of 2 point attempts per game than anyone in the league (while simultaneously giving up the fewest points off of "inside shots"). We also need to develop a bit more self-control when it comes to our shot selection. Our guilty pleasure is the 3-point shot. Although we are ranked a respectable 7th in the league in 3-point percentage, we are as prone to shooting droughts as anyone. A more constant focus on penetration and high percentage shots would put us in a better position to topple LA.
2. With the trade deadline around the corner, do you foresee any moves by San Antonio? Is there one area you'd like to see them shore up?
This has been a highly debated topic on 48 Minutes of Hell and in Spurs nation more generally. Some people think we should go after a defensive-minded big to cover the Pau Gasols of this world. Some people think we should shoot the moon and try to acquire a fourth all-star. Some people think either would upset our very carefully crafted cap management and we should merely wait for Finley, Bowen and Thomas to retire, then reload. I am probably in the first camp, although I will say I haven't currently seen a trade scenario I love. Although it would be great to acquire a fourth all-star I think our financial situation is too tenuous to make such an aggressive move. But we do have several tradeable pieces (Ime Udoka, Jacques Vaughn, Kurt Thomas) with which we could acquire another reliable interior presence with which to counter the Lakers twin towers. I guess the general idea is to bring in a younger, more athletic version of what we hoped Kurt Thomas would be last season.
3. What are the keys to a Spurs win Wednesday night against the Raps?
Focus. The Spurs always play up to their competition but have a bad habit of playing down as well (no offense). We have a tendency to relax and let teams that we should beat easily stay in the game. If the big three have their heads in it and we play defense with intensity, than we should be able to walk away with a win. But if we coast, let ourselves off the hook offensively by jacking up outside shots, and Pop starts messing with the rotation a bit too much, the Raptors definitely have enough weapons to take us down.
This is definitely no easy match-up for the Raps. If they do plan on having a glimmer of hope going into the fourth the team will have to focus on the following:
1. Quick Start - We have all seen, witnessed and heard the Raps home crowds turn on its own team as of late. If the Raps can manage a decent start and keep the home town team engaged hopefully the home faithful can be the essential sixth man. The Raps will likely need a sixth man because I am not sure they can beat the Spurs in a straight-up 5 on 5 match-up. If the Raps can manage a decent start and the crowd stays behind these guys there is an outside chance that the players will actually believe a W is possible. The odds are slim, but that’s why they play the game.
2. Close Out - If you watched the Spurs play the Celtics on Sunday you saw former Raptors Matt Bonner and Roger Mason Jr. Light it up. The Raps absolutely must close out on these guys and force them to put the ball on the floor, Bonner in particular. O’Neal absolutely cannot sit back and let the Red Rocket start bombing from the outside. Given how much talent there is on this Spurs team it is probably odd to be reading about the importance of two Raptor give away’s but Coach P. has done an unbelievable job getting the most out of these two guys.
3. More Joey - I think the likelihood of "Good Joey" appearing in this game is quite small given last night’s performance but Raps fans better hope for another stellar performance from this team’s starting three if they are cheering for a W. It’s become fairly easy, early on, to determine what sort of game is in store for Mr. Graham. He either has the energy or he doesn’t. Given the large number of minutes he played last night (JO as well), I wouldn’t bet the farm on a big game.