For a moment, it felt like I hit a time slip.
A month and a half ago, I had the "pleasure" of covering the Toronto Raptors at the Quicken Loans Arena. The Raptors were completely dominated by the Cavs, were trotting out a lineup that had three bigs, and were missing one Jose Manuel Calderon from their line up.
Yesterday, it was reported that Jose was not feeling 100% and with Triano apparently giving up on Jamario Moon, trotted out our "big" lineup to start the game once again.
So you can imagine just how thrilled I was that the Raptors made as many shots as the Cavaliers made 3-pointers in the first quarter, or that LeBron scored more points than the Raptors combined.
Oh, and when all was said and done, that's three games in a row now that the Raptors have failed to score at least 95 points.
No matter how much we talk about defense, scoring below 100s points consistently, let alone 95 points, is going to make it very hard for you to win in the NBA.
To start off, this three big experiment has just got to stop. Every time I've seen it, Bargnani has looked lost on defense, so unless the Raptors figure out to move Bosh to the SF position, it's just not going to work. Bargnani's defensive energy just isn't in the game when he's a small forward because he's never sure whether he's supposed to guard the perimeter or drop down to the middle to help the interior.
On offense, it's just as bad as we saw all three bigs clump over to one side of the floor, or Bargnani camp out at the 3-point line with little option but to shoot or drive a couple steps.
And that's exactly what happened.
The Raptors looked out of sync early, shots just refused to go down, and on the other end, they didn't help matters.
They allowed Wally Szczerbiak to take three open 3's to start the game and as was the theme in Sunday's loss, the Raptors continually allowed outside shooters to get their open looks, specifically from beyond the arc. However, that's not to say the Raptors' interior defense was much better. I can understand the strategy if there's an actual trade-off where the Raptors completely protect the interior. But even with three 7-footers on the court, the Cavs attacked the inside without much resistance after the Szczerbiak 3's. LeBron and company simply did as they wished as they shredded the Raptors' paper tiger defense.
Bosh, however, was hot early from the outside. All the same shots he missed against the Magic seemed to go down very easily against the Cavs. But with the Raptors still looking disorganized defensively, there just was little chance.
You can't blame Bosh, or any of the other Raptors that showed up though. With players like Jamario Moon hoisting up early 3's as soon as they entered the game, the Raptors received little support from their maddeningly inferior wings. I'd like to get mad at Calderon too for his poor shooting night, but our resident point guard still managed to grab rebounds and run the offense despite his injuries. However, Kapono was largely ineffective as well, and when the Raptors needed some offensive support and couldn't get it from their offensive specialist, you just have to wonder what the Raptors can do to improve their situation.
However, the momentum never completely swung out of the Raptors' favour. Jermaine O'Neal attacked the Cleveland defenders on the inside all night, drew fouls on both ends of the court, and was the only person to show a back-to-the-basket game. Joey Graham, perhaps the surprise star of the night, continued to give the Raptors some offensive rebounding as well as some much needed size. When the Raptors finally turned the corner in the third, it was Graham who put the brakes on LeBron's night. By playing some tough one-on-one defense and not letting LeBron have much space, the Raptors' 2.5 million dollar small forward more than held his own. Factor in an OK night from Bargnani, and the Raptors managed to draw close for a while.
But while the Raptors took a few possessions from Cleveland, they could never execute on enough to really make the game close. Whenever the Raptors would close in, Cleveland would exploit lapses in the Raptors' defensive mentality. It should have been expected as the Cavaliers would not give up their home undefeated streak without a fight. In spite of the fact that the crowd was taken out of the game thanks to a stifling defensive third quarter, the Cavs found ways to score in the fourth. The Raptors, on the other hand, kept attacking the Cleveland interior attempting to draw fouls. Whenever the Raptors got away from that strategy, they ran into trouble and in the end, it was the death of them.
In fact, games like this are a microcosm for the entire season. The Raptors would make up some ground in the standings by having a small streak of wins, only to drop another five or six in a row thanks to lapses in their mentality.
And while I want to complain about the refs, to be fair, having the referees favour the opposition is nothing new for the Raptors. All through the night, the refs gave LeBron the "superstar calls" that he deserves. However, the referees also refused to give O'Neal calls when he attempted to draw an early charge on LeBron, and again when he tried to draw a charge on Ilgauskas. And don't get me started on how many times the Raptors were fouled on jumpers.
But let's face it. This game was over early.
The Raptors could never bring the game back within reach. The Raptors simply are not good enough defensively to dig themselves out of these kinds of early holes. In fact, I'd go as far to say that the Raptors should focus on making things easier for themselves offensively because they rely on far too many jump shots with way too little movement. We can talk all we want about improving defense and making a stand to get our offense going, but it's just not that easy if you only score 83 points. Offense is easier to fix and the Raptors should be able to at least make a game out of most games if they can score.
About the most interesting aspect of the night had to be Jack Armstrong's running commentary on Stephen A. Smith in the second quarter. Jack held nothing back as he proceeded to blast Smith about his credibility and responsibility as an NBA personality. Moments like these really make you appreciate Jack as a commentator and we're lucky to have someone of his caliber in the organization.
Unfortunately, there's just simply no time to rest as the Lakers will waltz into the ACC.
Usually, I'd talk about strategies to combat the Lakers, but honestly, the Raptors need to have a really great shooting night coupled with a Lakers collapse to get a win. Today, I'm going to take a little different approach and talk about three hopes I have for the game to change the mentality of the Raptors.
1) Bench Moon -
This game might not be ideal to do this since Kobe needs an athlete to guard him, but it's gotta happen soon. I've always disliked how Sam used to use practice to gauge everyone's on-court time and have wished that Triano would figure out that Moon simply cannot play in this league from his actual on-court performance.
But here's why I want to bench Moon: I don't believe that Moon will be anywhere near this team next year, other than as a possible third string player. If that's the case, there's no point in trying to continually start him to try and get lessons through his head. I'd much rather try to set plays for Kapono so that he can get back on track as far as his shooting is concerned. Heck, you might get a few teams to take a look at Kapono and make a move to see if the Raptors will give him up. But nothing can happen until Moon's minutes disappear.
2) Develop Roko -
Is Roko our future? Then why is he getting so little time on the floor even when the Raptors have trouble getting any kind of spark going for quarters on end? I understand the urgency to win now and Roko is still very much a raw player on this team. Nevertheless, the Raptors should be using every opportunity that they can muster to develop their future talent. It can't be a stilted process, especially this season. That's why Andrea Bargnani had such a tough time as he never could find consistency in the first few months he was with the Raptors. That's why Joey Graham finally put together a string of good games when Jorge Garbajosa went down with an injury two years ago. If you're down twenty and you've used up Anthony Parker and Jose Calderon, what's the harm in putting Roko in the game for a short while? Yes, it might tick off Bosh because he's not as experienced, but let's think about next year a little bit.
3) K.I.S.S (Offense Edition) -
We all know what that acronym means, but lately the Raptors have pulled further and further away from their strengths. I mean, when was the last time you saw Anthony Parker take four or five corner threes? How about a Chris Bosh pick and roll? I've wondered about these "bread and butter" plays for a while. We at the HQ have lamented over the fact that we are sick of seeing "horns up" all the time, but occasionally? It may still be a good idea every once in a while. Right now, the team gets into these bad habits where the ball refuses to swing around the perimeter and the players merely make one or two passes before hoisting up a contested shot. Even with the personnel the Raptors currently have, they can still run people off of screens to create space. There can still be movement away from the ball. We just see too little of the small things that make offensive sets easier for teams.
A few posts ago, I talked about needing to ask serious questions about this team's future if the Raptors lost either of those two winnable games before this tough stretch. In the end, they managed to split the decision, but only just barely. Milwaukee crushed the Raptors and ever since, the team has not put together a string of good games. We're now mired in a 3-game losing streak that has once again already wiped out the mini win streak we had preceding it. Those questions that I asked have answers now and for me, we are lucky enough that we are in a position to make changes.
We have core parts that are useful on this team.
We have contracts that can be traded to free up room to shore up major deficiencies.
We have some young prospects that might be able to become consistent contributors in the right environment.
It's about time we started planning for the future.