Maybe yesterday's result should have been expected.
After all, while the Toronto Raptors were coming off a very nice win Friday night, defeating the mighty OKC Thunder, this is still a young and inconsistent team we're talking about, and it showed in yesterday afternoon's 116 to 99 thrashing at the hands of the New York Knicks.
The Knicks were simply the better team on the afternoon, running a vintage Mike D'Antoni offense that was predicated on Toronto stopping Amar'e Stoudemire, and when this DID happen, a rarity on the afternoon, the Knicks wings were licking their chops around the perimeter, ready to let fly.
Let fly they did, to the tune of 12 three-pointers made, wreaking havoc on the Raps and never really allowing Toronto to get within striking distance.
Oh the Raptors did close the lead, getting within 7 at one point, but it never really seemed like they were a threat to take the lead.
Not when the club missed 10 of 11 shots during one stretch, or hit only 11 of 22 free throws. It's pretty hard to win games with numbers like that.
In addition, to me this was another game of "talent wins," especially when the less-talented team isn't playing as a cohesive unit to start. When the Knicks needed to close things out, their true stud, Amar'e Stoudemire played the role of Mariano Rivera, scoring 15 points in the fourth quarter. Combining that with Shawne Williams 14, and these two Knicks outscored the Raptors themselves in the game's final Q.
Again...pretty hard to win with stats like that.
Post-game, Jay Triano had this to say about his team's overall performance:
"To beat a team like this, we need to have our guys playing a lot better than they did today. You can go through the list and see who didn't play well for us. When your list is that long you're not going to beat the better teams, and this is one of the best teams in the NBA right now."
If you watched the game, you're probably finding yourself nodding in agreement for two reasons.
For one, with the exception of Amir Johnson and Jerryd Bayless, who we'll discuss in a minute, this was pretty much a terrible game across the roster.
Toronto's wings were horrid as DeMar DeRozan was fairly invisible and Sonny Weems looked to be playing for a contract, not a win, Jose Calderon was a team-high -25 on the afternoon and failed to keep Knicks' point guard Raymond Felton in check to any degree, Andrea Bargnani regressed to his "satisfied to take jump shots" ways, even though the match-ups dictated a huge advantage for him down low on the afternoon, and 3 bench points from anyone not named Jerryd Bayless ain't getting many W's.
Secondly, the Knicks are certainly a much-improved team from even a month ago. The team looked lost on offence and still non-existent defensively when the clubs first met on opening night. Now, D'Antoni has done an incredible job of getting the right mix of players into the game; the "right" players meaning those that fit with what he's trying to achieve on the court. There's a reason guys like Bill Walker and Anthony Randolph aren't getting any PT, and Timofey Mozgov (who Blake Griffin-ized DeMar DeRozan on a dunk yesterday) have been taken out of the starting unit. This team wants to force you to deal with Amar'e, and if you aren't willing to take your chances with him one-on-one, then you're going to pay by leaving guys like Felton, Landry Fields, Williams, Wilson Chandler, Danilo Gallinari and Toney Douglas open.
Hell, even Andy Rautins fits this mould and he played nary a minute yesterday.
It's a lesson at some point Jay Triano needs to learn.
Yesterday he was thoroughly out-coached from the jump as the Knicks rushed out to a 21 to 10 lead, a lead the Dinos never recovered from.
With Wilson Chandler playing the 4, the Knicks could use his athleticism, length and strength to keep Bargs in check, and it would force bigs like Andrea or Amir to constantly be running out to the perimeter on D.
We saw this late in the game too as Shawne Williams bagged 3 after uncontested 3 from the Mo Pete corner, Toronto's big men helplessly plodding towards them like a Diplodocus chasing a true Raptor.
Why not fight fire with fire Jay?
Yesterday was a perfect case of "when Andrea's offence isn't going, he's shutting it down," so why not put Julian Wright at the 4, a similar long-and-athletic type, who you can be sure would have busted his ass to get out on Chandler. Wright was drafted in the same year as Chandler, was the higher rated prospect, and you can be sure would have relished a chance to go Kansas vs. DePaul against his former sparring partner.
The same could be said for Sonny Weems at the 3.
Weems had a very good overall game on Friday night, but has been pretty weak overall the last few contests, forcing shots, making poor decisions with the ball, and generally looking much more "D League" than Young Gun.
And let's not even talk about Linas Kleiza suffice to say that he's 8 of 21 over the past four games, and a human turnover. Kleiza's not a bad player per se, but he's just not a great fit for this fast-break group on most nights. Yet Triano continues to give him minutes that frankly could be better put to use elsewhere. And to compound things, even yesterday when Kleiza should have had the advantage in the low-post, he was content to shoot jump shots.
However for all the frustrating things yesterday, there were two very big positives to take into tonight's game versus the Indiana Pacers; the play of Amir Johnson and Jerryd Bayless. Amir did struggle defending Amar'e, but had a break-out game finishing with 22 points and 16 rebounds. It's pretty hard to overstate how impressive his play was. Amir was EVERYWHERE, had 8 offensive rebounds, blocked two shots, grabbed 3 steals, and hit 10 of his 14 shots. That folks is pretty hard to top. Yes, this only confirms our thoughts that he should have been starting besides Bargs since day one, but let's just hope this means he's there to stay, regardless of what happens with Evans upon his return.
And what can you say about Mr. Bayless?
The man who supposedly couldn't shoot drained five 3's yesterday, hit on 8 of his 16 shots, and still doled out 6 assists while pulling down 7 rebounds. Many times he, the smallest guy on the court, was grabbing rebounds from 2 or 3 Knicks, and was the only reason the Raps kept this match reasonably close for the bulk of the game.
In a season like this, you take those little pluses and hope to build on them for the next game...
...which happens to be tonight against the Indiana Pacers.
Here are our 3 keys:
1) More Bargs. I've been trying to climb back on the Andrea bandwagon but yesterday was admittedly tough to watch. Nary a trip to the foul line and jump shot after jump shot when even showed that he could score in close when he posted up. But of his team-high 19 shots, only about 3 of those came on post-ups, something he can't do tonight against the Pacers. Roy Hibbert has been a legit candidate for Most Improved Player and is one of the league's best shot-blockers. Bargs is going to have to go right at him and another athletic front-court player, Josh McRoberts if the J isn't going. As one of our commenters noted, this team goes as does Andrea of late, so he needs to set the tone early and help carry this team on his back.
2) Earth to the Wings. I'm not going to pull any punches here but outside of the OKC and Washington wins, I haven't been terribly impressed with Mr. DeRozan and Mr. Weems. Lately Sonny looks like he's more interested in his salary next year than anything else and DeMar is just kinda "there."
Not good enough, especially when Danny Granger awaits tonight. These two have to at least equal his offensive output if they're not able to keep him in check. The Pacers play a similar "inside-out" style as the Knicks too, surrounding their perimeter with gunners like Mike Dunleavy Jr. and Brandon Rush so DD and SW need to get their heads in the game from the get-go.
3) Better Game Plan. This leads to my final key. I'm not even going to get into any Pacers stats for this "3 in the key" because frankly, the Raptors shot themselves in the foot plenty yesterday with errors they made and that can't happen again tonight.
This starts with Jay Triano though. He can't be scared to pull starters, any starter, if things aren't working.
Jose can't stay in front of Collison? Bring in Bayless early.
Amir getting pushed around by Hibbert? Try Joey Dorsey.
Perimeter defence looking like the Washington Generals? Get guys like Wright in.
This season is all about getting the most out of the talent that's on the roster and Triano needs to stop worrying about salaries and names on jerseys. As D Stance noted yesterday, the Knicks didn't roll out Andy Rautins, even in garbage time, just because he's a Canadian kid. They want to win games and Rautins isn't contributing enough yet.
I'm hoping to see Jay take a page from this playbook and get the club back in the win column tonight, and a good start thanks to a better overall game plan would go a long ways towards ensuring this occurs.