Archive for February, 2010

Confidence


If you’ve seen the greatest of all Elvis movies, and surely you have, then you’ll know of the song Confidence. It comes in the pivotal moment of Clambake where Elvis needs to sing a song, and some ugly kid needs help in being convinced to slide down a slide in the playgorund. So Elvis sings:

with a C and an O and an N and a F and an I and a D and an “ents” - put ‘em all together and you’ve got confidence!

The song owes much to Sinatra’s High Hopes as imagined by a von Trapps tribute act, with instrumental interludes of children’s songs as though interpreted by Aaron Copeland, thrown in for good measure. It’s truly beautiful. To top everything off, Elvis takes a basketball with rainbow-colored panels, and sinks a one-handed shot like he was a pre-gun-toting Agent Zero. The video should be played in the Raptors locker room before every game. Just for the heck of it.

Confidence is what has been on display as of late, more than just high hopes, and it’s getting the job done. It is one of the key elements of team play that has been lacking over the last couple of seasons. It’s the sort of thing that made it particularly hard for Chris Bosh to carry the team very far. At the same time it might have taken his dedication to improving his strength, as much as the overhaul of the roster, to make all those letters fit together. When he got more immense, the team found more con-fi-dence. That means getting stops when absolutely necessary, and making clutch shots to get the job done at the end. When it comes to owning fourth quarters this team is doing it on both ends of the court. Jack and Wright are nailing threes, Bosh and Hedo are getting to the line, offensive boards are there to be grabbed, and Bargnani is providing weak side help and swatting the shots of opponents. In the last 25 games, they have only been outscored 5 times, and have allowed more than 25 points in fourth quarters only seven times. None of that stuff is cheesy enough to be in Clambake, but it’s pretty good all the same.

Where does it come from? Having some legs to finish games. Where they ran into trouble in the past, they often ran up a pretty good score for themselves early on, but didn’t always have enough eft to run back so well, then found themselves unable to get back in transition at all in second halves, and just had no way to respond on either end in fourth quarters. Now they are running much more sensibly. No more running down the court in unison just to hurry up and run a half-court offense. Instead they have one guy leaking out at the right times, a rebounder getting the outlet pass off in a hurry, and a fairly effort-free fast break with actual scoring involved. When the leakouts aren’t there to be exploited and they decide to run off a rebound or turnover, they run with the clear intent of scoring on the break, whether they have numbers or not. No more running like mad just to pull up behind the arc and assess what kind of coverage the opposing team managed to put together, and then rushing plays to take advantage of the slightest mismatch. A break on it’s own puts the defender on their heels and provides enough of a mismatch to at least try to exploit. They do still need to get better at finishing in those instances, since missed layups in those cases almost always lead to easy transition points the other way. But I’d say the overall effectiveness with less energy expended, is better than when they would pull up on breaks and rush passes that would lead to turnovers. And the overall effect is fresher legs to defend in the fourth quarter, even in back-to-back games.

Teams that sense they can get stops tend to be better at making big shots in the clutch. There’s less choking, because there is a fallback position in working to get a stop on the other end. D’Antoni’s teams in Phoenix maybe didn’t need that fallback position to have some success, but it was still something they could have used in the playoffs over the years, when some uncharacteristic choking on shots could be seen on display. Colangelo’s early support of Triano seemed to be based on the idea of bringing D’Antoni’s don’t-worry-be-happy environment into play here. Thankfully he has stepped back from that and now credits the coaches taking a position of “being there for the players” while also “getting on them” and holding them accountable, as a big part of the turnaround. I would say that the stubborn position taken by Triano with regards to any changes early on, fell by the wayside at the same time. Stuff that wasn’t working simply wasn’t working - accountability went both ways.

I like to think that Alvin Williams provides much of the accountability that flows in both directions. His words at the fateful meeting of December 4 have been noted by Antoine Wright. Alvin’s career began for real when Lenny Wilkens showed confidence in the tough-minded point guard, and that confidence was properly built upon. Maybe he was the perfect guy to have in the room to bridge multiple gaps and give everyone a sense of what was needed to create a team that gives itself a chance to win with what looks like confidence - that thing that had been missing for too long.

Now there are false hopes that lead olympians to cry when they fail to make medals materialize, and there is false confidence that leads a team to fail to take care of all of the details now and again. That false confidence is part of what happened against Memphis. Everything was going to script, but they had relied too heavily on Bosh’s scoring throughout, and then thought that they had done enough to win down the stretch when 34 seconds were still there to tick off on the clock. That game needs to stay in the heads of the players and the coaches, because taking care of all the details is going to be a necessary friend of confidence as the schedule gets a little tougher right about now. They have responded well to the Memphis loss, and found that confidence, and staying in games mentally right to the end, can carry them even without Chris Bosh. Now they need to put everything together to win at a good clip over the final stretch, and try to secure home court for the playoffs.

In the meantime if you haven’t seen Clambake, check out the Confidence song here -
watch?v=F3fpmxQHKhk

Post-Valentine Heart


At the time of writing this, I’m getting anticipatory feelings about real basketball action resuming, and thinking about what the Raptors need to finish the season strong. And I think it’s going to come down to heart. As simple as that. Well, actually finding a consistent three-point threat woudn’t hurt. But heart is going to be a big part of the equation.

What does that entail exactly? It’s hard to say. Those damn Yankees needed miles and miles and miles of it. What kind of tremendous poetic imagery is that? They don’t write songs like that anymore. It makes me think of a terrible mess of roadkill though, so I guess it’s a good thing they don’t. But what better way to describe the impact of heart? It’s a tough one, and although I’m tempted to drink some Sprite in order to come up with flourishes that would make a Jack Kerouac sit in the center of his own universe and cry at the beauty of it all, I suspect the Sprite trick works about as well as the dunk contest ended up.

We know it when we see it. It was mostly heart that allowed us to think that the Houston Rockets could take down the Lakers and anybody else, as if they still had the same not-to-be-underestimated hearts of the champion Rockets of the previous decade. It was heart that allowed Paul Pierce to win the three-point shooting contest, and it was heart that couldn’t keep him from proclaiming to be one of the best shooters in history (or maybe the Sprite worked for him). It was heart that had Reggie Evans working all winter in the pool with his mammoth water-wings. And now it is the stuff that this team needs to make their current hot streak something more.

Some heart was gained when Chris Bosh recognized that he is not allowed to have any off-games, or the excuses that trail behind every one of those. That was a big part of what took him to another level - heart and some extra pounds of muscle - and now there are signs that the team is following along the same lines. Some heart was gained when Jarrett Jack moved into the starting lineup and found a role where he could mesh and lead on both ends of the court. Some heart was gained when Antoine Wright didn’t push for minutes when he wasn’t healthy enough to be effective, and then worked hard to get his shot working once he could be effective (and those threes are going to be as big as the injection of heart). Some heart was gained when Andrea Bargnani pumped his fist and celebrated with a team that no longer stood a little bit apart from him. You can feel it in the air. There is a living, breathing heart to this team.

Teams without heart do not win games before and after Christmas, or before and after the All-Star break. This team needs to beat Memphis to take care of all of those situations and demonstrate to themselves that there are absolutely no games that they will let slip away. Before now, it was a case of not being able to afford to lose such games. Now they are six games above the .500 mark that they worked to reach for so long. There could be a sense of satisfaction and a sense of some leeway gained. But they need to show the heart that they have gained instead.

Then they need to look at the teams ahead of them, and like Houston last season, simply not allow themselves to think they will lose against the elite. If Hedo’s heart is in it like it seldom has so far, and a few other role players evolve into consistently effective pieces, then they will have every right to put their accumulated heart on display. And going into the playoffs in such a state will mean everything to what is finally decided between Bosh and Colangelo, whether they win or lose. The proper display of heart will mean everything this time around. Fine-tuning it into the heart of a champion would be the next task at hand. Are you ready to supply a little oxygen?

Boshtown


Chris Bosh makes it a homecoming while enjoying the All-Star weekend in Dallas. But with what he’s been saying of late, it seems that his heart lies back here in Toronto. He’s been talking about recruiting other players, and letting them know what the city has to offer, and he doesn’t appear to see that as a major challenge. Of course winning would help that whole process along nicely. So let’s hope that continues to happen, and the current culture around the whole team takes root enough to lure in some more talent into Bosh’s long, welcoming arms.

But how does Bosh get past the perceived notion that he’s in the Great White North where all that really matters is hockey and curling? How does he get over not being in the USA himself? Hears how he puts things in a pretty nice perspective -

“It is a hockey town, but they know what basketball is. They cheer when the ball goes in, and when we win they cheer even more. It’s a pretty simple game. People follow basketball all over the world. So for people who say its a hockey town, its getting a little old.”

What really screams out at me in those words, is his expressing a basketball connection to the rest of the world. He’s travelled all over the world as a basketball player over the last few years. There’s been a training camp in Italy and Spain, Team USA commitments in China, Japan, a trip to Jose Calderon’s camp in Spain. He’s seen the world, and maybe feels that much more connected to the world while in Toronto, even while being a little less connected to the US.

And he’s reached a stage where he’s confident enough that he can look past any sense of being a little isolated from regular US media attention. He wants a team built around him, and not to have to defer to someone else when it comes to making players better. He can do that here while putting out his DVDs, and with some more winning, getting plenty of attention south of the border.

But winning is going to be the most important part of the puzzle. He can’t just be Chris Bosh and make everything golden. He needs to be Chris Bosh of a Toronto Raptor team that accomplishes something, and looks to continue to cash in on a promising future right here. Jay Triano needs to demonstrate that his relationship with Bosh is important enough to making that happen, to the point where Bosh feels that not only can he make him a better player, but that he can make it possible to make everyone around him progressively better, while real stability over the next four years provides consistent gains year after year. Bosh has seen how hard sudden change can be for any free agent, and he has seen how teams like Atlanta, Orlando, Denver and Utah have grown in a fairly stable environment over time.

A deal still has to be done, along with the winning, so I don’t want to get ahead of myself as a fan, or have Chris Bosh get ahead of himself as a player. It’s just that this is the first time in 15 years where I have felt some degree of confidence that this team can reach a level where winning gets a little easier and the hard work can be applied to some really lofty goals. And if Bosh feels anything like that, then maybe he realizes what kind of a chance he has to help build something that lasts, and to stand as a pillar of a successful NBA team. I like how grounded he has been, and how able to weather all the ups and downs he has become. For him to go somewhere else and defer to a Wade or a Lebron or whoever, would just be a shame. It feels like his time is coming while the US media has suggested for so long that he’s in danger of wasting time on a bad team, or as a franchise player that can’t quite fill such a role. If he keeps on working he can show the US media that this game belongs to the whole world, and that he can define his role in that world quite aptly.

The Message


Mr. Colangelo put together a little message that was sent out to all the major media outlets last week. He said something a little different from “it’s like a jungle sometimes, it makes me wonder how I keep from going under”, although he did point out that he was close to going there early in the season when the schedule was tough. But pointing at the tough schedule “wasn’t an excuse, it was a reality” Keepin’ it real Bryan. Keepin’ it real fo sho. And what a great way to make excuses without making excuses.

The biggest part of his message had to be this line: “I’m talking about not only a tweak, but in a big deal, we’re going to be a buyer, not a seller.”

My question is - who is this message directed at? Is it a message meant be heard loud and clear by all the pushers and pimps, those being the sad GM’s of teams in financial hardship? Is he meaning to make them very aware that the Raptors are ready to look at offers even if Bosh is off the table? Or is the message meant mainly for Chris Bosh himself? Is this supposed to keep him feeling a sense of affirmation in the process of a team being built here, no matter what Colangelo is able to get done in the upcoming few days? Is it actually just all about putting a spin on any moves that might get made, so the hardcore fans can feel less of a shock when a favorite player heads the other way in a big deal? Is he just making sure there is no panic over interpretations regarding whether he’s given up on signing Bosh or adding to the core any further when a significant piece or pieces leave town? And then looking at how he brings it all into a context that equates with what Brian Burke did with the Leafs, is his main purpose to let the hockey fans of this town know that their team has been attended to and will not be asked to suffer while the basketball side of operations makes their gains?

All of the above? Probably. It’s reminiscent of how Shakespeare threw in the odd lewd joke, a little action, a few hints at what the Queen might have liked to think served her political agenda, all wrapped up in poetics and a greater awareness of the human condition. So there’s a little something for everyone. All he needs is a video with the Furious Five and he’s really got something there. Maybe that comes when something actually happens. And that’s the final question. Does anything actually happen? Or do we get told about realities again?

It’s kinda put me on edge. Bryan’s put some nice thoughts out there that sound like a vague promise, and he’s covered all the bases in terms of how the actions that are to follow get perceived. So what happens? Will he be solving the riddle of two point guards playing 25 minutes each a night? Will he be sending Turkoglu to a welcoming Adelman who lacks playmakers aside from the speedy Brooks, or to an Eddie Jordan that might like the chance to use Hedo in a Princeton offense that he has been forced to abandon? Was the fresh display of energy in Madison Square Garden the result of Hedo auditioning for someone he would rather play for, with a role big enough to suit his ego? Will the smallish expiring contracts bring anything back this way?

I’m just trying not to lose my head over it all, and hoping above all, that if something gets done, it serves defensive priorities above all else. But he didn’t exactly offer any hints in that direction. If that’s not to be the case, then I’m personally fine with standing pat right now.

Palindrome: the day before the day after


So I wake up and see that it’s 0102 2010. Same backwards and forwards. All those twenties and tens are nice to look at huh? I vaguely recall something about 2010 that had everyone’s interest for so long, but it’s not quite taking shape. Oh it’s there in my memory bank, but it’s not taking shape in reality as so many suggested for so long. 2010 is all about the twenties and the tens and little else, with 10 wins being the nicest of them all to look at.

With this palindrome day being followed up with Groundhog Day, I just have to applaud the backwards and forwards consistency of Chris Bosh. When Tim Duncan retires, I hope that Charles Barkley will be able to continue using the term to describe CB4. And I hope that he can still call him a Toronto Raptor, and that 10 win months keep piling up. This Groundhog Day is one that can be repeated over and over, gladly, from my vantage point. As long as he leads this team to the strong showing that seems all but apparent before the break, and continues to help the team improve right into the playoffs, then I think Chris Bosh and the Toronto Raptors have a good starting point to make the backwards/forwards equation of BC+CB equal continued success.

Meet the new Bosh - not the same as the old Bosh, even though the numbers, all those twenties and tens, are pretty similar. The added strength we’ve seen this season allows him to make better use of both hands while finishing at the rim, provide a sturdier inside presence on defense (that was him, on a so-so night, making a big impact with Kobe and maybe hurting him enough to impact that last shot), and stay in control without expending a ton of extra energy. He has more than one or two gears now. It’s not all about working his ass off just to get knocked to the ground. It’s not about making a million moves before losing his balance or letting the ball slip away. That improved center of gravity means everything, and it has become most noticeable in how deftly he controls rebounds with either hand. On offensive boards that usually means two points, and maybe a freethrow as well. On the defensive end, it means quick outlets to start the break and convert on stops. He is effecting the flow of games positively this season and it all starts with his steady base, where before he was all too often sprawled out in a heap.

And it looks like he is going to be able to maintain that strength through the season and beyond, and then hopefully add to it a bit again in the offseason. He has not been going to the line as much lately, but the whistles have not been blowing all that much in general in recent games either. Instead of the freethrows, we are seeing the assists go up. So those touches that once brought foul calls, are getting more touches and scoring chances for his teammates. And that goes hand in hand with what looks like an improved understanding of what it takes to win. It’s become quite evident that he needs to make the players around him better just as consistently as he can get his own numbers. That’s where his value lies, and if he continues to get the results here, then it has to look good for the results to continue on past 2010. He’s seen how difficult it can be to adjust to new surroundings. He need look no further than the guy across the locker room muttering BALL. The stability that his new strength has brought to his game can be turned into some stability right here, where a true team can be allowed to flourish. There are still guys here, including himself, with room to grow further, and so far the new winning environment is making that happen. If that continues to develop, and MLSE spends enough of the MLE, then whereas he might not attain the overall greatness of Duncan’s groundhog day resume, let’s at least call him “the day after” and head into the spring on good terms year after year.

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