Archive for October, 2008

5 Teams in 5 Days – New Jersey Nets

Sometimes, there are situations where before you have even started doing anything, you know it just isn’t going to end well. You know what you have to do and you think you know how to do it, but then when it comes down to putting things into action, it just doesn’t happen. It’s like seeing a beautiful girl across the bar, knowing that you HAVE to talk to her, knowing that you HAVE to succeed, but then you’re left trying to save face in front of your boys when she shoots you down before you even say a word.

The Nets are going to have to do a lot of face-saving this season for their fans. They’re going to have to try to save more face than Michael Jackson’s surgeons. When you take a look at their lineup, it isn’t something that will strike fear into any team in the league. Let’s take a look at who their starting five might be.

Yi Jianlian – There has been so much hype about Yi, but from what I saw last year, this guy makes Bargnani look like a modern day Laimbeer. To put it short, the dude doesn’t like contact. He’s fairly athletic and can shoot a bit, but all you have to do is bump him around a bit and he shuts things down. Don’t be fooled by him pulling in 5 rebounds per game, because most of those are floaters that rimmed far out to the safe zone where he was hiding.

Brook Lopez – Okay, I’m not completely sure he will start at centre for the Nets, but who else do they have to play there? Guys who will bring answers of either “Who?” or “Oh hell no.” Josh Boone? Stromile Swift? Sean Williams? So I think the Nets will go with the rookie Lopez and see if he sinks or swims. Problem is, when you’re in the swamp, sometimes you can’t tell the difference.

Bobby Simmons – Bobby Simmons has been everything you can expect a player coming out of DePaul to be. Average. There’s a reason why in 6 seasons, he has played for the Wiz, the Clips, the Bucks and now in his 7th season, is moving on to the Nets. He’s a guy who will always have a job in the NBA, because he isn’t really going to hurt you and he can contribute a bit, plus he isn’t going to break the bank on payroll.

Devin Harris – Also knows as Two Face. There are some games where Devin Harris looks like he is going to be one of the leagues best PGs, but then the next game, he will go into hiding and/or make some of the most curious decisions you will ever see. While he puts up pretty good numbers (14.8 and 5.8), I think he should really be noted more for his defensive game, because he does have the ability to shut down the other team’s PG when they’re trying to get some dribble penetration.

Vince Carter – Oh yes, good old Vince. Let’s see how long this season goes before his mythical injuries start showing up more frequently or he starts saying that he isn’t going to dunk anymore. You see, life works in circles and when you try to run from a problem, it will eventually catch you wherever you are. Vince is back as the best player on a bad team and we all know how he deals with adversity.

There was a lot of hype when Lawrence Frank took over the Nets and seemed to have them turned around, but this season, depending on how they do before the break, he could be on the hot seat. I don’t think it would be a smart decision, he seems to come into games with a pretty good game plan, but we all know that when things start heading south, the first guy they look to axe is the coach. Is Frank going to hook his wagon to Vince and hope that he can pull out some close games for them? Hopefully he shows that he is smart and stays away from this plan, because it could be one for disaster.

The Nets essentially have had too much change in the wrong direction in one season to do anything significant this year (other than lose a lot). They’ll keep some games close because of some of the athleticism they have actually picked up, but as we all know with Jamario Moon, athleticism only gets you so far.

How They Match Up Against the Raptors

Since Vince headed to Jersey, he has had a knack of having some big games against the Raptors, but he has also had a few stinkers, which pretty much sums up most of his career. The person that I think will have more of an effect on how the Raptors do against the Nets this season is a player who isn’t even there anymore: Richard Jefferson. Jefferson used to create all sorts of matchup problems for the Raptors and while he would sometimes sulk and start crying to refs about fouls that weren’t called, when he did decide to play, he created a lot of problems for the Raptors. I can’t see Bobby Simmons and Yi Jianlian doing much to get around Bosh and O’Neal, so it will be up to them to stop them on the other end and I can’t really see that happening either. The Raptors should be able to handle the Nets pretty easily this season.

5 Teams in 5 days – Boston Celtics

5 days until the Raptors kick into action, so what better time to take a look at the Atlantic Division and what the season could hold in store? Each day, I will take a quick look at what the Raptors are up against, culminating in a Raptors preview the day before the season opener. Since it is in the wee hours right now, I am going to consider this Friday’s post.

Last year, before the season started, I remember some local blogger who kept referring to the Boston Celtics as the World Champion Boston Celtics. While I am quite sure that this certain blogger was being completely facetious, let’s also leave the door open a tiny bit to allow him to look like he had some kind of idea what he was talking about and was actually taking the Celtics to win it all. Yeah, let’s leave him that…that would be nice…and we’re nice people here at RF.

So now, of course, the logical question to ask is, “Can the Celtics repeat?” Of course, they are going to be good, but I just don’t see them repeating this season for a few reasons. The first thing that actually bothered me about the Celtics last season in the playoffs was their complete inability to win on the road. Sure, you can work some fairy dust once going through the playoffs looking like stars at home and chumps on the road, but if they show up in the playoffs looking like that on the road again, they can’t assume that they aren’t going to be tripped up at least once at home. You play for home court advantage and the Celtics used every bit of that advantage last year, but asking for that to happen twice is a little too much.

Second, I think some people last year didn’t appreciate how much James Posey meant to the Celtics in the playoff drive. You wouldn’t think that a guy who has spent time in a few different cities over 9 years would be an important cog in the system, but last year during the playoffs, he shot almost 40% from behind the arc, played some good D and managed to pull down a few rebounds a game. He was able to get up and down the court, getting back on D to establish the team defence that Doc Rivers placed so much emphasis on. Losing Posey also means that there may be some minutes shifted around for the Celtics and if this means any sort of increase in time for any of the Big 3, that can’t be viewed as a good thing. The Celtics were a little lucky to get through last year with no major injuries to the Big 3 (other than that “injury”…and subsequent miraculous rehab by Paul Pierce) and if the minutes go up while the age goes up, that’s a recipe for disaster.

Third, at some point, the Celtics are going to need more minutes from guys like Big Baby Davis and unless there’s a glazed ham at the other end of the court, this guy isn’t going to get down there in a rush. Davis has the ability, but I’m not sure if he really has the desire and when you come off a championship season as a young player, you might start to think you are entitled to a shot every season.

How They Match Up Against the Raptors

The Raptors actually played the Celtics well last season, but failed down the stretch as they were unable to contain the Big 3 and mental lapses started to compound. With the way the blood seemed to rush away from the Raptors’ brains late in games against the Celtics, you would have thought that the Celtics Dance Pack was workin’ it naked. Defensively, things should be a little more interesting with O’Neal and Bosh patrolling the floor, which may lead to the Celtics looking to dial in from long distance if KG is tired late. Without Posey in to offer some additional shooting off the bench late in games, the Raptors may be able to pull out a few tough wins.

Playing with Matches

So far in this season that is yet to begin, I am extremely excited to see Bargnani play inside the arc so much. It gives him a chance to rediscover his natural advantages. And those are the very things that he struggled with last season. I have loved to be able to hear the sound of his shots snapping the twine in some of these pre-season affairs, with the crowd noise hushed enough to allow for such audible wonders to stand out like whispers in heaven. Compare that sound with all of the horrible clangers off of rims last season. I’d say that those shots bore a resemblance to a Pinto crashing into the side of a dumpster. No more of that. I have too many fond boyhood memories of slumping down behind dumpsters and setting full rolls of caps on fire, smoking things for the first time, or seeing pictures of Cheryl Tiegs in that fishnet swimsuit. Sorry Andrea, but there’s just no place for a fiery Pinto in those memories.

And it’s not even about the shots. The shots are just the obvious difference. It all actually stems from just being comfortable inside the arc. Some of that has to come from the extra body mass. Il Mago no longer looks like he wants to make himself disappear as he approaches the paint. He’s got a real glide to his movements now, not that I want to compare him to Clyde Drexler, but he does float through the lane like an oil tanker upon the sea. He’s got weight behind his movement. He’s got a double-hull to guide him through to the rim with a bit of grace and certitude. And there’s a nice payoff at the end.

Now don’t forget that this kid was a guard not that long ago. It’s understandable that he wanted to make use of his natural talent to drive. It was something he did nicely in Italy. That quick first step and one dribble, and he went from that three-point threat behind the arc, to an easy lay-in. It’s what made him such a nice prospect as an all-around talent. But there was one thing that got lost in the translation once he got to the NBA. There was no problem adjusting his long-distance shot to the arc that spreads out a fair distance farther from the basket than it does in Europe. He could launch away and had his initial success doing just that. But that move that he likes to make from there was a different thing altogether.

He surely realised that his quick first step was a little less of an advantage over here where there is a little more athleticism. But the extra distance also meant that single dribble was not going to be enough unless he really lunged forward and then hopefully found the net while somewhat under control without a defender waiting to take the charge. The refs looked for him to start his move before that one dribble and constantly called him for the travel. And defenders looked for the spot in the lane where he was going to be fully committed too early. He became a turnover machine.

Now he tried playing more inside the arc and finding good shots for himself as last season wore on. But it was like he was playing naked. He rushed everything, and appeared at times to just want someone to wrap a blanket around him and give him a hot cocoa. When he did get a shot off, it was while he was avoiding the style of play that he knew and loved. And those shots – well they just sounded so awful. I’m sure his various ailments did not help. But those are now all gone, and his extra muscle has allowed him to play like a big with the awareness of a guard, instead of like a guard with the awkwardness of a big.

Andrea Bargnani appears to be comfortable again. He’s playing his all-around game without the need to over-compensate for the different court and the faster and stronger defenders. Inside the arc, he can use that one dribble to do so much more, and all under control. And he is learning to translate that into the ability to assert himself on both ends of the court. It is safe once again for young boys to hang out behind dumpsters, and feel like they own a little piece of the world. By the end of the season, that feeling might grow all the more inside of them, while watching Andrea find his game. Even old guys like myself are going to feel like they’re playing with matches all over again.

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Filling in the Blanks

I’m having a hard time with the few glimpses of players and the constant jawing. I’d be happy to know that the Raptors were all hidden away from all other life-forms. I would like to have them feel completely unwilling to share any basketball court with any other team by the time they come out of their confinement. I would like to see their actions when it is time to see them in action. But instead I get oceans of words about things that are still basically in the abstract.

And of course I can’t resist those words. All the talk is delicious. It is all at least saying that the wait is almost over. But if I had my preference, I could enjoy the wait in silence. I just want every one of them directing their thoughts towards what matters. I want them doing that intensely. I want their brains to be toughened up as much as every other muscle. Think of what a Joey Graham could amount to then! Well, maybe not.

It is too hard not to suspect that all of the post-scrimmage vows, and hows, and who’s, and poo-poos are just getting in the way of what really matters. Of course, that’s being over-reactive, but I still have the sense that whatever might be distilled each day in training, gets a little watered-down when the microphones swarm in at the end, over-exerting a phallic primacy that just reeks of an overlying impotence . Shouldn’t every Raptor, right down to the guy that does the laundry, be meditating while listening to recordings of tree-frogs, and sipping green tea infused with Gatorade? I mean for a week anyways – just lose all the face time. Would it kill them? Or us?

Why can’t we just cut the media out of the picture? Especially when we can all hear all there is to here while they are preparing for real if we all just put our own ears to the gym door. You just have to know how to use all the features in Google Earth. Go to 45º23’08.83” N, 75º41’34.73” W. Swoop down towards the horizon so that you can see the side of the building. You’ll find a blurry door up close. Hold a drinking glass to your ear, and press it up to the door on your computer screen, and listen in. I’ve been doing it all week, and it’s almost as good as being there. I guess since the camp in Ottawa is all but done, your chance to try this yourself at home will have to wait for another year, and you’ll just have to rely on filling in all the blanks left by the traditional media coverage.

It’s just as well, since you have to sit through a lot of names yelled out, some hoots and howls, and basic muttering before you get something worthwhile. It’s a bit like watching Raptors TV. But just like with that vaunted broadcaster, it is worth it all in the end, when you manage to get your screen-saver deactivated, and you finally get gems like this: “Y’all gotta understand now, gosh darnit, what it’s going to take to make this team a real success. We have got to establish a strong identity, and each and every one of us has the perfect opportunity to help make that happen by following the lead of Chris and Jermaine. Now those are the guys that are going to get to be in all the big interviews, and have their pictures in the paper, and there are a few other guys that are going to get their chances to take the big shots. But that don’t mean a thing when it comes to the identity of this team, dag nabbit. None of that stuff is any more important to establishing this team’s identity than the kinds of things that some of you guys just looking for a few extra minutes can do. Again – you just have to follow what Jermaine and Chris are looking to do, and I’m talking about the defensive end of the court. Now last season we just couldn’t afford the luxury of relying on an anchoring of our defense like we can now. Right off the bat we had to look at dealing with Garbo’s toughness needing to be replaced. And then with Chris and TJ getting hurt, I mean I’m proud of how hard we fought, but it was really a disservice to some of you as players the way you all had to play outside of your normal, everyday roles. And it was a disservice to those guys who would have loved the chance to play outside of their roles and try to do more, and I just had to put some limits in place somewhere. There was just going to be a ceiling in place regarding our success. All because we could not establish an identity. We ended up being a little something different every night. And I’ll tell you that being able to rely on defense like we can this season, would have made all the difference in the world.”

“This season we can all really play a part by staying within our roles. And you guys that want to play more minutes need to look no further than helping a guy like Jermaine on the defensive end. You look at guys like Bruce Bowen or Raja Bell, and they were in the same sort of situation, and now they are recognized for being invaluable components. If some of you guys can take it upon yourselves to use our anchors inside, and then make life even more miserable for opposing teams on the perimeter and in transition, then it’s going to mean that we can all run more, we can all play more freely and relaxed on offense, we can keep some of our big weapons fresh and healthy throughout a marathon of a season, and I will be the first to give you all the credit in the world motherfugbug. Not only that – but you will be here and winning for as long as you are physically able. That’s where you’re longterm stability lies, and again I’m sorry that last season so many of our guys ended up working to fill holes instead of using their abilities to really help each other. I hope we can all accept that there were some circumstances that we could only go so far in overcoming, and now we can all come together and actually make our own circumstances. We can start now, looking towards creating a team that can overcome so much more, and not seeing any of those limits we faced before. OK? Let’s go.

”OK – so maybe they don’t need meditation as long as they have Sam’s incantations. We’ll be able to judge that, and whether you can believe my technical wizardry, once they finally put their plans into action. Let’s go indeed.

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