Archive for November, 2009

Groundhog Basketball

I’m frustrated. Seriously. I find it really tough to watch an entire Raptors game now because it feels like I am watching the same game every game. The Raptors come out and compete for the first half, then tank the third, forget how to play defense and before you know it, the game is out of reach and there are more wild shots being taken than at a stagette.
The Raptors right now remind me of a girl you date for a while, then get tired of, so you move on. Then you see them a year later and they look amazing, totally revamped, so you try to work it again. Then you realize that even though she looks better, she still does all the stuff you used to hate and you’re just frustrated again. Hello Raptors. Same old problems. Can’t play D, don’t really like to rebound, can’t put together 4 consistent quarters, take a lot of questionable shots. The players may have changed, but the results are the same.
I don’t think Raptor fans can possibly discuss what to do with the team anymore. I mean, we have talked about coaching, enthusiasm, heart, playing to your strengths, etc. How long until the Raptors are able to put something together? How is it possible to make that many changes to a team and have the same sort of results? I would naturally think that there would be an adjustment period when you bring in that many new players, but I mean, how long does it take guys to gel? How tired can Hedo be? People have been using that excuse since the summer. Oh, Hedo’s tired. He played a lot of ball for the national team, plus the playoffs last year, etc. Yeah, he’s also a professional athlete. It’s not like he was just sitting on the couch and all of a sudden was called into basketball action for his country. How tired can a guy be?
Anyway, I’m still watching, but there are a lot more beers going down when I do. Well, at least I’m funnier by the end of a game (or at least that’s what I tell myself…and any waitress who will listen).

I Still Like This Team

To me it looked like they responded pretty nicely to the bad loss, when they played against the Celtics last night. Of course I didn’t catch a lot of the game. I saw most of the second quarter, and then some of the fourth. I never saw Bargnani on the floor, and only a few minutes with Calderon on the floor.

Rasho looked terrific. He’s old and big and slow right? So why can’t we see more of our other unathletic guys at least show what a little bit of energy can do? It makes such a difference.

And that group in the second quarter, with Jack and Beli in the backcourt, and Amir, Bosh and Hedo up front was so nice to watch. It looked like a good idea for a change-up to the starting lineup. I mean it worked right? They competed on both ends. No obvious weaknesses to exploit with ease.

That’s a team that I can still like. That’s a team that can build some momentum from game to game. That’s a team that can develop good habits and start rolling downhill a bit. They are starting to get concerned about how some players lack the right focus going into games, and the overall culture. How about getting guys on the floor that demonstrate how the right focus can be put to use? How about worrying less about everybody getting their share of minutes, and just getting guys out there to get the job done? I understand Triano’s need to carry out a long-term vision, but he is going to have to alter the picture he had in his mind to start the season. Reality has not matched up. His lack of action only allows for the culture of the team to corrode.

So what are we waiting for? How much of this team’s clear talent upgrades must continuously go to waste, and why? If there are not some clear answers soon, I plan on watching second quarters exclusively, or at the very least, avoiding third quarters altogether.

Pacing Out an Identity

The Raptors have survived a pretty rigorous schedule so far, and with some bumps and bruises, slumping shooters and a need to just become more familiar with each other, I would say they more than stayed afloat. There were losses, some hard to take, a couple hard to watch, but learning does come more from losing than winning.

What I think they might be learning the most, is what pace suits them best. They have started most of their games pushing the ball and the pace quite a lot. They enjoyed great success looking for early offense, and the early offense in return has brought nice dividends like more than just Bosh going to the free throw line, and a good number of assists piling up. That in itself should be enough to improve this team’s record over the past two seasons, but it hasn’t been quite as easy as that.

With the fast pace to start games, the team has quite often failed to run back the other direction well enough to defend any team capable of mounting their own attack in transition. This doesn’t always lead to quite the same offensive prowess the Raptors have demonstrated, but there are too many fouls given up, or second chance points allowed thanks to poor defensive positioning with defenders broken down before they can even get set, and scrambling rather than recovering.

So great offensive starts have brought only slim margins, and starts with poor shooting has brought big holes early, all thanks to poor transition defense which mucks up the whole idea of covering for one or two weaker defenders through solid team defense. If the team isn’t able to get set defensively, then they are generally in trouble. Mike Holmes would look at the whole concept of defending the “house” and just shake his head.

Then I look at what has generally transpired as games move along. The pace usually slows down some, with a little bit more reliance on isos and playmaking than attacking early in the shot clock. At the same time the defense is able to get back and get set and get some stops. Sometimes it appears to just be the result of better defenders being subbed in off the bench. But I think it’s more than that. They play at a less tiring pace and have more left in their legs and lungs to get back and put up some good resistance defending as a team. So whatever weaker defenders that might remain on the floor, are helped by more than just one or two stronger defenders coming into the game.

From there I noticed that third quarters have generally been complete opposites of the first quarters, with starters looking stiff and sluggish in both directions, and too much reliance on trying to grind it out with isos. You watch these guys motoring in the early minutes of games, and you can almost start to read gauges on each of them plummeting to E. That doesn’t leave much left to bring them home. In the early losses they just had nothing left at all, and their defense was miserable for a good three quarters. In some games the bench has helped to keep them competing to the end, and more recently they look like they could almost play complete games mixing up the pace and concentrating on getting back in transition. They’ve shown lately that they can have enough left to get stops at the end of games when it matters most. Some of that is probably due to finding a pace that uses up a little less energy early on, and some of it is likely due to getting into better and better gameshape as they push through a very tough early schedule.

Now I’m imagining how they might look once the schedule lightens up a bit, they get some hurt bodies feeling good, and they maintain the conditioning that is starting to show signs of developing. If this team can play at a high pace, and have enough left in the tank to get back and not get abused in transition, for a good part of every game, then they are going to start to see the kinds of results that I was hoping for. Barring that possibility for whatever reason, then they have to put more energy into defending in transition, than they do in pushing the ball up the court for early offense. That’s what worked for them pretty well in Phoenix, and it is also what they lacked in losses to teams that could exploit them otherwise. They are going to need to pick their spots to fire up the jets, and always leave themselves more than fumes to run back and work on D. It’s how they need to look for wins on the road, and likely what they will need to do come playoff time. In any case it is nice to see that they can play different styles, in high and low gears, and make the best use of the depth they have. They’ll give themselves a chance in every game if they can expend their energy properly: if they’ve learned anything so far, I would hope that is one of the big lessons. It has allowed an identity to take a shaky hold so far. I’ll be watching the speedometer and the fuel gauge to see how well that identity firms up from here. I’d love to see them rolling downhill by the time February arrives.

How Do You Solve a Problem Like Andrea?

OK – right up front I have to admit – Andrea’s not the singular problem. Nor is he at times a problem at all. He is however, at one point or another in every game thus far, an extremely visible seven feet of soft defense that cannot be missed.

I probably don’t need to go over any litany of errors. The road, more than anything has not been kind to him. He was standing, off to one side of the backboard, stuck in mud, while Bonner took his awkward dribble all the way from the arc for an embarrassing dunk. He failed to close out on Frye in Phoenix on more than one occasion. He was found standing under the net, and actually behind the backboard, all alone as a spectator, in the games against the Clippers and the Nuggets. And against Utah he just looked extremely lazy when it came to controlling any space and offering some resistance. The man can defend. He can be physical and he can rebound. We’ve seen it. But he does seem incapable of doing all that for a complete game, and when he is looked upon to provide some help defense, then he too often is found taking a breather. It’s as though he finds himself on the weak side, and therefore decides he can just be weak.

And that is going to be where this team stands or falls this season. They are looking to improve based upon their team defense. They cannot afford to have Bargnani be anything but a consistent presence at the very least. They want to protect “the house” right? So what is happening when he puts himself all alone behind the backboard? Is he making sure nobody crawls through the basement window? The team could easily weather the lapses, if it were not for the fact that they need to weather lapses from the perimeter as well. When you have Jose giving his man miles to operate freely, and Bargnani taking a bit of a snooze on rotations, then your team isn’t going to have a fair shot at winning, no matter how many other aspects are going right.

Those moments of minimal resistance, and worse – the times where he just watches – would have to make Sam Mitchell happy to be getting paid not to have to find a fix. Andrea worked out with Moses Malone over the summer? Those moments of invisibility must make him want to not get the word out about that while he muffles his own bewildered guffaws.

Last night, back at home, Andrea played a big part in getting a lead and stretching it out in the first half. To me the biggest difference between his play on the road, and his play at home, is the amount of hustle. And in the first half last night he stayed alert and followed shots instead of standing and watching his man follow the shots and gain position for rebounds. He helped out on the perimeter and quickly rotated back to his guy. And he provided some help down low, coming over from the weak side to provide a fairly commanding presence. That made up for some problems on the perimeter. And it all came with a little bit of hustle.

In the second half, Miami directed their attention toward scoring in the paint, and unfortunately over a short stretch, Andrea played much smaller than his actual size. He was moving slowly and not assuming any kind of defensive position. He was controlling about as much space as Jose, which was about the circumference of an atom. And you just can’t have three other guys scrambling to make up the difference and then get the rebounds as well. Andrea was in full spectator mode again, and that is just like a big green light for any opposing offense. Miami has trouble scoring much more than 80 points in a game, and last night they dropped 64 in the second half. That green light needs to at least turn to amber, and in a hurry.

And yet Bargnani played more minutes than anyone else. To his credit he found some hustle again in the fourth quarter and made his mark on both ends of the court again. I loved how he followed after a Heat shot that was rolling off the rim and tapped it into the mass of collapsing Raptors. That is what team defense and protecting the house is meant to allow for. So there is plenty of hope. This team has not played more than stretches of solid two-way basketball all season long. But there have been promising signs of being able to do so all the same. If Bargnani can be sure to simply hustle for 38 out of 39 minutes then there is not going to be any discussion of him being anything but a strength to this team. If he just can’t make that happen, then Reggie Evans and Amir Johnson are going to have to carry this team at the expense of Bargnani’s minutes, especially on the road where the defense becomes that much more crucial.

So forget the Penne pasta. What’s the meal tonight? Kraft Dinner. And tommorow night, and every night until Christmas. Feed this guy Kraft Dinner until he turns orange. Then at least his head will look like a second basketball and cause confusion, even if he fails to still develop the required hunger full time.

This is a guy that still needs to define himself, and in the process he is such a big part of how this team becomes defined. It’s fair to say that wasn’t going to happen in the first few weeks of the season, but the next few weeks are going be important if they hope to gain the kind of momentum that they are going to need to solidify their identity before going into the playoffs. And of course a lack of momentum could make it tough for them to make the playoffs at all. At this point there’s just no reason for Bargnani to not bring the required energy for full games, and I expect that will be where the team really turns the corner. He is going to be a problem that needs solving for opposing sides on both ends of the floor, rather than a player too easily neutralized or too easily exploited. I’m ready to toss off the negatives I’ve seen so far and mark it up to progressing towards where I see him going, habitually remaining an active presence. Forget the numbers, just stay alert and active as a habit and I’m happy. And I fully expect that to become a habit that opposing teams will grow averse to and want to avoid, as much as Maria Rainer did in regard to the habit meant for her head.

Complete nights from this guy helps to cover for mistakes made by the starters and helps the bench do more than tread water. It gives everyone a chance to find their niche, and it allows all the talent to fit together cohesively. In that way, he has a similar role to that of Shawn Marion’s at the tail end of last season. He benefited from Marion’s energy and athleticism then, and he needs to supply energy and size to control some of the same amount of space for the rest of the team now. Granted there’s some measure of foolish hoping in my feelings that his energy and hustle will steadily increase, and without a doubt, too many letdowns from Bargnani will leave me and many others put off in a bigbig seven foot of blech way. If Bargnani fails this season, then you have to think both starting bigs will be gone, and that leaves a massive hole to fill in the future. And I’m just not ready to bemoan this team’s fate just yet. Looking forward I can still see Bargnani climbing every mountain rather than leading the whole team off a cliff. I mean – at this point there is still plenty of room for hope-filled musicals, and the alternative is just a little too ugly to bear.

Rollercoaster of Love

So far it’s been all ups and downs. And I’m ok with that. The downside has been mostly all about finding a way to lose while shooting sixty percent. Just a week ago I was ready to see some wholesale changes – starting lineup, player trades, fire the coach. It was like being halfway up the steep incline of the first part of a rollercoaster, when the gears are pulling up all that weight in a herky-jerky fashion, and you start to wonder if you’re going to make it to the to top. There just seemed to be too many holes to fill defensively. Bosh was doing a good job of doing what he could, but when he stepped out to disrupt the perimeter, he would not be around the net for the rebound. When he stayed at home with his man, he still needed to battle against Bargnani’s guy half the time, and then the perimeter would tend to break down too easily leaving both bigs exposed. That’s not to say that certain lineups weren’t proving effective. It was just disappointing to see too many weaknesses exposed.

Well they must have all gone to Magic Mountain while in LA. The game against the Clippers encapsulated the season thus far, all within the 48 minute allotment. A first quarter of confused defenders, and what looked like too many spectators. But then suddenly the team seemed to make it to the top of that first climb, and the real fun has now officially begun. What were spectators before, now seem to have some sense of rotations and proper help. There is good contesting on the perimeter and containment of penetration. At least there is enough of all of that to allow them to really compete throughout a game.

Phoenix provided further evidence of positive growth, although the ride of choice might have become the tilt-a-whirl, with Steve Nash making everyone look a little dizzy at times. Belinelli ended up behind his man a little too often, and was seen literally running in circles on one occasion. But the overall energy allowed for all the switching to work pretty well. Nash did a masterful job of finding people late in the clock when everything looked shut down. If I was that guy in the crowd with a Raptors jersey over a lime green golf shirt, I might not come home. Watching Nash on a game by game basis would be better than an entire winter of golfing, or anything really.

That was a great game, and a terrible loss all the same. If Hedo’s toe had not been on the line for a three-rather-than-a-two-point shot, had Jose not followed that up with a bad foul on Nash to allow him to add another point, had Bargnani or Bosh been a little stronger finishing in close, or had any of the shooters really caught fire a bit, then that one turns out so much better.

But what a nice measuring stick. The Clippers game is one we’ve all seen our side come out on the wrong side of – big lead, and embarrassing loss at the end. And the Suns game is one that in the past, they would have needed all of those details I listed to go just right in order to change the outcome, not just one as was the case. And they can still see further improvement on defense over time. A week ago I didn’t like the idea of Reggie Evans needing to fix everything himself. Now that isn’t what they are faced with – he can actually come in and help solidify what the team is slowly building.

I’m still enjoying the ride, and I’m happy with the way Triano is allowing the team’s personality to grow organically. He is gaining as much of an understanding of the players as they are gaining an understanding of what he is looking for, and that could be just what they need for a long season with so many new guys. They are just starting to get an idea of what this team is, and more importantly, what it could be. I’m looking forward to a stretch of the season where it’s all downhill, in a good way, in terms of potential energy being wholly converted to kinetic energy. When that happens I’m going to be screaming like a valley girl on crack.

Cognitive Dissonance

My brain hurts a little. I saw Jay Triano talk about how this team needed to be a top 6 defensive team. I heard all the players signing on to that aspiration. Through the entire off-season, through training camp, pre-season, and into the season, there was nothing but talking about improving in that area. How does that translate into becoming an offensive powerhouse that can’t win, because they appear to refuse to defend at this point?

Maybe they should have done away with all the talk, and simply overpaid for Marion’s services. They had a known quantity of hustle, energy and a strong defensive presence that complimented Bosh and Bargnani on both ends. It might be hard to see how he could be overpaid if he was still here. But they made their choices, and certainly the frontcourt they have now is a force offensively. The question is whether it is ever going to work on both ends enough to win the amount of games their talent level would dictate. They made the decision to part ways with Marion and add overall depth. Now they need to make some decisions as to how that depth can look a little less shallow.

Triano went with an 11-man rotation against the Spurs. If Reggie Evans was able to play, I don’t doubt that he would have fingered 12 guys for playing time. The problem is that he needs a solid 8 that are willing to play defense every minute they are out on the court. Please Jay – find those 8 guys. It’s time to use the bench with a purpose. Yes – it takes time for the defensive principles to become second-nature. Yes – it takes time for all the new guys to gel. But it seems like decisions are being avoided in the hopes of lucking into some chemistry. Even then – when the team is rolling a little bit against Detroit, Triano was ready to throw the developing chemistry to the wind so that everyone could get their minutes in. It was his player, Antoine Wright, that made the decision for him – to stick with what was working. And I can live with the Jack-Calderon backcourt, but it’s starting to seem like a way to not make another decision about which guy gets some of the most meaningful minutes. The bench needs to be a place that 8 guys find their way off of, and another couple get some chances along the way, and it all has to be about what they show when they are on the floor. I’m missing the point of seeing the bench as a destination for guys that become spectators while on the court, to sit and watch off the court for a while.

If I see a glassy-eyed Bargnani become a spectator while his guy simply walks in front of him and casually allows the ball to fall into his hands unchallenged, then I’m not sure what kind of decisions I’ll be capable of as a fan. I mean I don’t need them to be a top-tier defensive team. If they could be close to middling it would make a great difference. They’ve shown enough promise at times. They just look as though they refuse to carry through with it often enough, with a guy like Bargnani proving to be all too revealing in that respect. Without the scrappy they are nothing but scrap, and it’s going to mean scrapping one plan or another along the way.

Decisions await Colangelo as well. Maybe, Bargnani and Turkoglu just aren’t going to work any better than Bosh and O’Neal did, in terms of netting W’s. Maybe Triano’s idea of defending the house is just a house of cards that has already collapsed and will never offer the proper rotations or weakside help. Maybe the coach needs one more personnel move to be made to have any kind of success with his ideas. Maybe the GM will find a way to replace Shawn Marion. Or maybe he’s right to defer such questions until Evans returns, but it makes me antsy as hell.

Colangelo is talking now about everything they are learning in the early stretch of this season. It’s time for everyone to take those lessons to heart by now. They are too obvious to ignore. Decisions decisions. Everyone in that organization has to decide if they are going to do something about it. There’s less and less time left for avoidance if they want to make way for the ample time they have to really make this thing work.

WYS is not necessarily WYG

I have to stay positive. It’s too easy to see the negatives and conclude that in spite of all the changes, the same bad habits will continue to sink this team. It’s also a little crazy to even think in terms of habits at this point.

The first two weeks of the season are like pre-season with something of a regular rotation developing, and of course real wins and losses. You look at this team and it’s not hard to see that they are still figuring each other out, and still learning the system. On top of that, a couple guys like Bosh and Turkoglu are still rounding into game shape. So for me it is entirely possible to see a whole lot of things improve.

To some extent I did see some growth last night already. Maybe the worst thing Triano has done so far, was suggesting that their defense was too scattered against Cleveland in spite of the successes they had that night. Onward from there to two games where the aggression was lost, and as Jarrett Jack suggested, there was too much thinking and not enough playing instinctively. Jay has to have some faith in all the drills and teaching gaining steady impact, but over time. They can’t lose the aggression, as scattered as that might make them at times. Now the good signs from that first game have returned, but there was still a few too many minutes of general passivity out there from a number of individuals, and that means just about anybody not named Wright. I’m not going to suggest that all the passivity stemmed from too much thinking, but it’s not far-fetched to figure that still being in the early stages of learning the defensive system does play a role in limiting the level of play that otherwise might be expected once it all becomes more second-nature. Adding to the problem of over-thinking, was the way they planned a defensive strategy against Orlando that was a little too cute, assuming that with their usual three-point threats missing, they could get by with just keeping Howard occupied. Take away that and there just hasn’t been the glaring weaknesses that plagued them last season when overall confusion was the greatest limit to executing defensively, until Marion’s talents could be implemented at the end of the schedule. If anything the role definition that they gained throughout that final month, has only been strengthened so far in this new season, as much as they do miss Marion. If they just keep playing the games their identity is going to develop to the point where they are playing “their” game.

So let’s look at all the aspects that have an obvious chance to solidify in positive ways to help form this team’s identity.

First off, Jose is going to shoot better than he has so far. He might have to accept a role off the bench to make that a reality, or he might have to get Wright starting next to him, but it’s hard to see the possibility of him losing his shooting touch altogether. In the past few seasons the way this team played was altered too much to better suit Jose. This season it’s going to be the other way around, and Jose will be all the better for it himself. He’s looked much more comfortable playing alongside Wright in the middle of games, and alongside Jack to end games, than he has alongside DeRozan to start games. So some kind of tough decisions need to be made to the starting lineup, if that trend continues, but I’m confident they will be made.

Another given is Bosh rounding into game shape. We’ve seen this all before. He comes back from injury and has difficulty with his touch around the basket. He’s been getting the calls, but if he can start getting the baskets with some of the tough finishes at the rim, as he always has while in solid game shape, then the team is going to be able to control games to a greater degree.

Next, I have to imaging that DeRozan is going to contribute more and more. It’s going to be gradual, and the scoring is not going to be a necessity, but the energy and hustle has already been on display in short bursts. If he can collect the loose balls and keep opposing teams a little afraid of his athleticism in general, then he is going to certainly help more than he hurts this team. If by the end of the season, he can be a guy that defends the speedy guards to some extent, particularly in transition, then he’ll solve all kinds of problems.

One other easy choice is the return of Reggie Evans. Bosh and Bargnani both did a pretty nice job on switches where they kept up with the small lineup last night. And they also did a nice job of showing hard and then quickly recovering back to their man. All of that good foot speed from the bigs allowed them to stay big against a small lineup from the Pistons. And when Reggie comes back, the ability to disrupt plays from the point of attack will become further magnified. And even when plays succeed, and guards stroll into the paint, he will find ways to make them pay a price. Right now there is a little bit of a premium on fouls from the bigs. But with Reggie’s allotment of minutes thrown into the mix, there won’t be great worries about picking up fouls. So the aggressive defense should be there throughout games.

Now I don’t know – maybe even with all of that taken into account they will struggle more than they assert their will. Maybe the upcoming schedule with bring about surmounting problems before the easy solutions can take hold. I’ll start to worry and fret if and when that happens. But for now I’ve seen three games that have entertained me more than most of last year’s scheduled affairs, with the Memphis game even being pretty good, as irksome as it was to lose to the Grizz. There is some fight in this team, win or lose, build a lead or lose a lead. They are showing the ability to get to the line like they haven’t in years. And they are converting defensive stops to offensive opportunities like they have not been capable of in some time. They might just prove to have some good habits soon enough. Let’s give them another couple of weeks?