The propensity for the Raptors to fold in big games has almost become the norm rather than the exception. We at the HQ have talked enough about "must win" situations for about the past month now that we have to look at last night's 108-102 loss as not all that surprising. For example, I didn't expect the Raptors would be able to slow down Dwyane Wade after he's been on his roll for the past week. Last night's game makes it the fourth game in a row that Wade has scored at least 35 points in a game. I'm also sure that few are surprised that the Miami roll players managed contribute against the Raptors.
However, there were at least a few storylines to follow for this game. There's of course the Canadian factor on the Miami Heat and the overall playoff race picture. Toss in the big trade that happened a few weeks ago that was supposed to to change the playing style of both teams, and the Raptors had plenty to get excited about in this game.
But should we be surprised that the game started out slow and that the Raptors looked to be mired in quicksand for most of the game?
After an extremely poor start, the Raptors got a long talk from Jay Triano to pick up the intensity. The Raptors, lucky to only be down by six considering how many shots they missed within the first five minutes of the game, came back to take the lead after the first quarter. Toronto primarily had to thank Andrea Bargnani for his continued abuse of Michael Beasley's porous defense in the first quarter.
It's nice that the Raptors made a game of it and didn't just capitulate in the first quarter, but last night was far from ideal. For one thing, Dwyane Wade started off in the game hitting just about every shot imaginable in his arsenal. For another, the Raptors just seemed to be locked in a half court offense with very few fast break points throughout the game. Other than Bosh and Bargnani, the only other two elements fans could get excited for were the play of Anthony Parker and Pops Mensah-Bonsu.
It might have only been one game, but Pops first play was a hustle play that saw him chase down a rebound in traffic. He also attacked the rim (unsuccessfully) on his first play on the offensive end, and in the second half, Pops' put-back on a Bosh miss and dunk in transition were plays that simply energized the Raptors. It's plays like these that the Raptors have been missing since Kris Humphries broke his leg. At the very least, if Pops can be a cheap replacement for Hump, the Raptors have to be glad the Spurs let him go. If Pops can string together a series of good games, the Raptors may have found a good third/fourth big for the remainder of the season.
Anthony Parker, on the other hand, gave the Raptors some much needed steadiness. Yes, he was clearly outmatched by Dwyane Wade, but he still managed to be a factor in the game with four steals and his ability to run the point. Coming down the stretch, the Raptors will have to seriously consider what exactly their goals should be. I can't blame the Raptors for putting Parker in the game at crunch time as it gave the Raptors their best opportunity to take the game. Calderon, especially, was off his game today as his hamstring just seemed to be bothering him the entire game. Toss in some pretty ineffective minutes from Ukic and Banks, and the Raptors had little choice but to once again run Anthony Parker ragged at two positions. The Raptors will have to continue to use Parker until it's clear that they have given up on the season.
And Bosh and Bargnani? Well, Bosh attempted to at least keep himself in the range of Dwyane Wade's unbelievable night. Andrea Bargnani on the other hand, poured in 23 points of his own to compliment Bosh's 34.
But that's only telling half the story.
The other prevailing story has to be the play of Marion, Moon, and O'Neal. Three guys that were essentially traded for one another, and three guys who had little impact on the game. Sure, O'Neal and Moon made some plays in the game, which is more than could be said about a very lackadasial Shawn Marion, but they certainly were not game changers. Perhaps that was the tipping scale. The Raptors needed Marion to step up his game and be that extra punch, but the Raptors simply couldn't get anything out of the small forward position for most of the night. The Heat, on the other hand, at least got some blocked shots out of Jermaine O'Neal despite his poor shooting night.
Oh and Dwyane Wade was unstoppable.
Showing a dizzying array of moves, Wade eclipsed our own Chris Bosh as far as points were concerned, but what won't show up as much on the stats is just how much Wade's dribble penetration hurt the Raptors psychologically. It was Wade's work that allowed Daequan Cook and Mario Chalmers to launch from the outside. It was also Wade's penetration that caused the Raptors to pull their bigs away from Beasley and Haslem in the final stretch which allowed the Heat to score in the Raptors' interior.
However, all this is moot as in the end, the Raptors were undone by themselves. Costly errors within the final two minutes of the game destroyed the Raptors' chances at a come back. A turnover by Kapono, and another by Shawn Marion were indicative of the Raptors' inability to close out games over the course of the season. The Raptors simply keep shooting themselves in the foot when the game was on the line.
If you want to look at the positives, the Raptors are at least playing with some heart. They came back and made a game of it even when down by 15 in the final quarter. But good effort without a win just doesn't help the Raptors at this point. At this point of the season, we shouldn't be asking questions so much as implementing strategy and exerting our will on opponents, but that's just how shot the season has become. Teams like Utah don't ask those questions even when they lose Carlos Boozer for an extended time, which is why I'm not sure there's much hope in winning against the Jazz on Sunday. Coming off their 10th consecutive win, the Jazz will be licking their chops at the thought of a disorganized Raptors team. If the Raptors have any hope of winning, they'll have to:
1) Shut Down Calderon.
Look, I love Calderon. As the only guy whose jersey is residing in my closet, Calderon has been a champ just for trying to go out and fight for his team everyday. He has that "Jorge Garbajosa" mentality of having to play and fight for his team to win. But at some point, you have to think about the future. Heck, even for the immediate future, it's probably a better idea to start Anthony Parker and have him backed up by Ukic and Banks. Let's face it. Calderon would have his hands full with Deron Williams even on his good days. But with a strained hamstring? The task is near impossible.
2) Marion, Bosh, and Bargnani vs Kirlenko, Boozer, and Okur
Want to know Boozer's totals for the last two games? How about 9 and 16 last night. Not impressed? How about 20 and 17 the game before? The Raptors have to find a way to shut down Carlos Boozer. My money is to put Bosh on the guy as they worked together during the Olympics. Okur? Well, Bargnani is going to have to do his thing and think like Okur; guard the three point line and force Okur out of the paint. I realize that Bargnani has traditionally struggled against Utah's bigs, but that just can't happen if the Raptors hope to win. Marion, on the other hand, is going to have to give his teammates a little help. I'd love it if Pops Mensah-Bonsu repeats his performance from the other night, but I'm still in a wait-and-see approach. Therefore, Marion has to do better and at least show some defensive intensity to help Bosh and Bargnani on the glass and with protecting the paint.
3) Foul Trouble
As in "Stay out of--" and "Put the other team in--". Okur and Boozer are both prone to foul trouble, so the Raptors should not be afraid of stepping their game up to draw fouls on the Jazz bigs. The Raptors missed a golden opportunity to take the Heat completely out of the game by continually pounding the Heat interior. However, the only way the Raptors can open up some space is to put both Okur and Boozer in some foul trouble so that the Jazz have to use their bench against the Raptors. On the other end, Bargnani cannot pick up fouls or the Raptors will have to rely on both Mensah-Bonsu and Voskuhl to take care of the interior. If that's the case, then Deron Williams will have a field day against the Raptors.
Sunday's game won't be an easy one for sure. Me? I've got tickets with my buddies so I'll be watching it live. Here's hoping that the Raptors make a game of it. And if they don't, here's hoping that they at least get us free pizza.