Each time we preview games here at the HQ, we reference three keys for a Raptors’ victory.
Sometimes these are pretty self-evident (like rebound the basketball) and other times it’s more a matter of formulating hypotheses what the opposing team will likely do in the match-up.
However for anyone who has watched Toronto play this year, and has followed the NBA at all, my third key yesterday, "Keep Shaq in Check," was a gimme.
Here we had a Toronto Raptors team that has struggled for years in terms of protecting the paint, and now without Jermaine O’Neal, were left with the monumental task of trying to stop Shaquille O’Neal.
For those who caught the game via Justin.TV as I did, or Game in an Hour, you saw that that didn’t go so well.
O’Neal completely destroyed the Raptors with 45 points en route to a 133 to 113 Phoenix win, putting up his highest point total since he was a member of the LA Lakers. Toronto simply had no answer and in some respects, the Dinos are lucky Shaq didn’t score more as he was given very little resistance all night. There’s simply no way to stop someone of his size and strength when he’s that close to the basket and time and time again last night, that was the case. Dunks, put-backs, drop-steps, they were all on full display and O’Neal ended up hitting an incredible 20 of his 25 shot attempts.
But the fun didn’t stop there for the Raps.
O’Neal had a huge night but as a whole, Phoenix scored a ridiculous 90 points in the paint (to only 36 by Toronto) and with Bosh and Bargs in foul trouble thanks to their attempts at slowly down the Big Shaqtus, the Suns had too much room to operate down low.
The frustrating thing for Raptors’ fans is that TO actually was actually neck-and-neck with the Suns until the fourth quarter. Toronto executed on offense even when they were having their troubles stopping Shaq, but as the fouls piled up and O’Neal became more and more dominant, it seemed like the Dinos lost their willingness to fight back.
That’s when things got ugly in the fourth quarter, and you could tell after about two minutes of the final session this one was over. Phoenix wins the Colangelo bowl even without Nash or Amare, giving them 11 straight wins over Toronto.
With the illusion of the playoffs hopefully fading away for all now, here at the HQ we’re going to start looking at each of these remaining games as learning opportunities. At the conclusion of each match, we’re going to pick one key learning to discuss that hopefully Bryan Colangelo has taken note of as well and from last night’s game I think it’s pretty obvious; this team needs help inside.
Jake Voskuhl plays with pride and passion but neither he nor Nathan Jawai are going to be able to effectively deal with the Shaqs and Dwight Howards of the league. And to have Chris Bosh try and stop them going forward is just ridiculous as well.
Unfortunately Jay Triano just didn’t have any other options last night (and no, Patrick O’Bryant doesn’t count) as even Joey Graham, who sometimes gets used in these defensive situations, was unavailable due to injury.
Would drafting am imposing shot-blocker like Thabeet or a low-post monster like Blair help?
Probably, but the reality here is that Colangelo needs an experienced big, one who can at least discourage opposing teams from pounding the ball down low in half-court sets all game. Of course former Raptor Rasho Nesterovic comes to mind but even a cheaper option like ZaZa Pachulia or some other rugged, even if undersized, 4 like Eduardo Najera would be a huge boost at this point.
If Toronto wants to run next season that’s fine, but they need to have an option off the bench for when the track meet turns into a rugby match. Even with Marion (who had a team-high 27 points to go with his 11 rebounds) this club still echoes the word "soft" and last night was a prime example.
Exhibit A was Shaq playing Godzilla to the thousands of fleeing Japanese (aka the Raptors.)
Exhibit B was a bionic Grant Hill dunking on Andrea Bargnani on the fast break.
Exhibit C was perpetual D-Leaguer and hussle-master Louis Amundson putting up 20 and 10...
...we could probably keep going.
In any event, up next for the Toronto Raptors is the Dallas Mavericks, a much better defensive team and while lacking the size and strength down low, pose a different set of match-up challenges.
We’ll be breaking that one down Sunday morning but for now, I think we’ll give Toronto a day off so their Shaq-sized bruises can heal.