Normally, three straight wins this season would be reason for celebration here at RaptorsHQ.
We’ve watched the Raps struggle all season with injuries, and the team hasn’t been able to put together any sort of consistent effort even when healthy.
So after a third-straight shellacking of an inferior opponent, you’d think that we’d all be walking around with smiles on our faces, even if it’s the end of the season essentially.
Well, besides the smile brought on by Jessica, our lovely waitress at Harbour Sports last night, that’s not the case. And even a win tomorrow evening against the Bulls won’t change that as Toronto finds itself in a bit of a "damned if you do, damned if you don’t" type situation. Let me explain.
For a season that started with so much hope, anticipation and promise, this is arguably the worst season in Raptors’ history.
Oh sure, there have been editions of the Dinos with fewer wins, but all have had less talent.
This version of the club was expected to at the very least compete again for a playoff spot in the East but instead, the team struggled all season and is now competing for a high lottery pick; something that with each late-season win, is becoming less and less of an option as well. A week or so ago the Raps looked to have at worst a shot at the seventh overall selection but now suddenly, is a win or two away from dropping to 10th or 11th as the Knicks, Pacers and Nets continue to flounder.
In addition, with the NCAA tournament providing numerous disappointments in terms of team and individual performances (yes, a big thank you to all who brought up Duke’s loss yesterday in the comments section), suddenly many of the top options in what was already expected to be a mediocre draft, are sounding like they’d to return to school. Steph Curry is the most recent example of this and while I still expect him to declare when all is said and done, it’s concerning as a Raps fan to hear these sort of whispers. This club needs a major infusion of cheap, young talent and the draft was looking to be a good boost in that respect. Now…who knows.
However this isn’t to say I wanted Toronto club to tank the season.
But I did want to see Jay Triano find as many minutes as he could going forward for the likes of Roko Ukic, Patrick O’Bryant, Nathan Jawai and Pops Mensah-Bonsu. If that meant losing games so be it; the idea wasn’t to play these kids SO the team would lose, but sometimes that’s a necessary by-product of allowing players to learn on the job. In addition, from Bryan Colangelo’s perspective, it’s essential for him to get a good read on his team going into perhaps the most important summer in Raptors’ history. That means being able to not only see if the chemistry from the starters works, but getting an idea of what the aforementioned youngsters can do.
The problem is that I’m not exactly sure how he’s going to do that now.
The schedule currently is so weak that seeing the Dinos beat up on clubs like the Clippers, Thunder and Bucks hardly tells you much and yet Jay Triano continues to insist upon relying heavily on his top six or seven players.
Things were a bit better last night against OK City, but I’d still love to see Roko Ukic, who terrorized the Thunder all evening, essentially split minutes with Jose at this point in time, and for other guys like Nathan Jawai, who wasn’t even dressed, to get a little burn.
I mean, it wasn’t like Oklahoma put up much resistance last night. Toronto started off with an extremely strong first quarter, and never took their collective feet off the gas pedal until the W was in the books. Almost every Raptor played very well, with Andrea Bargnani continuing to impress in terms of his own development. Last night the "Big Rook" could be seen controlling the offence and looking more and more like a future number one option for the team offensively. He re-posted Bosh on mismatches, looked for his own post-up opportunities down low, and nailed "nail in the coffin" 3’s whenever the Thunder tried to make things interesting.
As a result, Kevin Durant and co. just couldn’t seem to get it going and the result was a 112 to 96 loss.
Looking at the upcoming schedule, it’s quite possible that as fans, we’re going to see many more of these type of games. Chicago on Sunday, which we’ll get to in a second, should give Toronto a better test, but the Raps’ final 10 matches are against clubs with mostly sub .500 records. This includes two against the Wizards and Knicks, and another match-up with Indiana and Chicago. Even a final home game against Philly is hardly the same as playing the Celtics, leaving Orlando and Atlanta as the two real barometers.
The idea of course was to even be able to stay in the thick of the playoff race until this stretch, and use it to jump into a top 8 spot.
As we all know, that never occurred so instead, we’re left with Rod Black asking questions to Shawn Marion like "how have the last three wins affected your decision about playing for the Raptors next year…"
From the game itself last night, there isn’t a ton to discuss.
I thought the most interesting thing was watching Kevin Durant, a player who looks to be an unstoppable force once he puts even a LITTLE meat on his bones. He’s extremely talented and as Howland described him last night from up close, "a freak of nature" which led to the following post-game exchange:
Howland: "Kevin Durant’s arms make me feel uncomfortable."
Me: "Why because of their length?"
Howland: "Yeah, when he’s standing beside Joey Graham, he’s much taller than Joey and yet his arms are STILL hanging below Graham’s!"
Howland: "The only thing that makes me more uncomfortable are his legs…"
Undeniably, Durant is a very unique specimen. He’s so long that coupled with his great handle and ridiculous athleticism, it’s virtually impossible to block his shot or keep him from getting to the rim. I thought AP did a decent job last night but Durant still dropped 18 points by getting to the line 11 times on his own and making nine of his shots there.
As we’ve discussed before, the Ok City franchise has a bright future with some nice young pieces in place alongside Durant in Green and Westbrook. And Sam Presti has done a good job so far complementing these three with some underrated vets like Collison and Krstic. Another solid draft and some free-agent acquisitions and suddenly this is Portland Part II.
Toronto’s next opponent, the Chicago Bulls, have a few nice young pieces as well albeit not as talented as the Oklahoma triumvirate. Derrick Rose and co. meet the Raptors tomorrow late afternoon at the ACC in a match that should provide a lot more entertainment than the past three.
The Bulls have suddenly passed the Pistons in the playoff race and continue to try and hold off the Bobcats. Therefore this game is a big one for them, a must win if you will so late in the season.
Here are our three keys:
1) Go young –
The match-up I’m most excited about Sunday? No, not Bosh vs. Noah or Marion vs. Salmons, but Ukic vs. Rose. Roko had 10 assists last night and got into the lane with ease. He also did a solid job defensively and kept Russell Westbrook from disrupting the Dino’s defensive execution. Tomorrow, my hope is that Triano lets Ukic run wild. One of the key decisions Bryan Colangelo is going to have to make this off-season is what to do behind Jose. The lack of an established second option at the point guard position really hurt the Raps this year so does BC go and find a veteran? Or can Roko carry the weight now? It’s games like this on Sunday that could go a long way in making that decision for the Raptors’ GM.
Besides that, how about a little NCAA match-up between Bradley and PITT aka Patrick O’Bryant and Aaron Gray? As previously mentioned, I’d like to see Toronto’s fringe players get as much run as possible so even if that means loads of O’Bryant, Douby and Jawai, sign me up.
2) Run, run, run –
Our next two keys have more to do with recent observations than anything else. Lately, Toronto has been a lot more effective employing their up-tempo, motion style of offense. I think there are several reasons for this, from players growing accustomed to getting out on the break, to the health of Jose Calderon, however it’s been key in the past three wins. The Raps have been looking to push the ball at every occasion and have managed to create havoc for opponents in the process. I’ll be looking to see more of this on Sunday against a Bulls club that at times struggles in both the open court, and in half-court sets.
3) Move the ball –
Finally, Toronto’s ball-movement in their recent victories has been supreme. The Raps have consistently looked for the open man, driven into gaps to create space, and in the process, exposed their opponents’ defensive schemes. Granted, we’re talking about the Clippers, Bucks and Thunder here, but it was still a promising thing to see. Jose Calderon has been the catalyst, picking his spots in regards to attacking the basket versus knocking down long-range jumpers to keep defences on their toes. The Bulls have better individual defenders than Toronto’s previous three opponents so again, this should be a better test of the Raptors’ capabilities.
Should Toronto pass this test again by a wide margin, I’m still not sure what is says about the current squad. Does this mean this is a good core group moving forward and that the likes of Marion and Parker should be retained? Hardly. If anything, I think it speaks volumes as to the mediocrity of the conference Toronto resides in. which in turn tells you how disjointed the Raps were earlier this season considering their pitiful record.
Sure, a fourth straight W would be interesting, but it would also be extremely frustrating for a fan base that will cry "too little to late."