The worldbeaters that ate up the Suns last week are going to face some different challenges against the Celtics, that might put that 50 point differential in perspective fast. In any case, we are going to have a chance to see where this team is actually progressing in the obvious process of defining roles and creating a cohesive identity - a process that could take the entire season. One pre-season game offers no real indication of that process. It did give some indication that everyone buys into the need to work together in order to have a chance to overachieve. They all came out of the gate with some good intensity, and all looked to be headed in the right direction. Game two might very well offer some hurdles that they did not face against the Suns, and that is going to offer a clearer picture as to how they need to approach games when they count for something.
For starters, they are going to get a look at perimeter players that are a little harder to disrupt with pressure defenses. The Suns threw a whole assortment of guards and wings out there, with JRich playing only six minutes, and the lack of cohesion involved with all of that team’s new was pretty clear. So that made for pretty easy work when it came to getting results from some of the Raptors new defensive schemes. I’m going to be very eager to see how things go against a team that can execute comfortably while taking advantage of some speed, shooting and toughness on the perimeter. If the Raptors can get some good points off of defense and yet still lose to the Celtics, then it’s going to feel better than a 50-point win to me, because it will be a much clearer indication of how the right approach is at least getting some realistic results.
The next reality check will involve size. The last time out they faced a tired-looking Robin Lopez, and a Hedo that might just be proving to the world that he is near the end of his career. That was enough to make a guy like David Andersen look pretty good. He looked like he might have learned a few things from Scola while he was in Houston, or maybe from fellow Aussie Andrew Bogut. If his level of engagement and quick feet on defense can continue to be a factor, then he might fill a role that makes it easier to place other pieces around. But it’s one thing to play big and provide energy against what the Suns offered, and another thing to make that stuff count when he encounters much more size, and a Big Baby that can easily provide the energy and intensity that was missing from the Suns lineup last week.
On the same note, we’ll get to see if Andrea Bargnani can look as comfortable on the defensive end as he did last week. Again - size is going to be something that provides a litmus test. Andrea does not always show a willingness to stay involved in the paint when a lot of physical contact is required. If he gets through the game against Boston without looking like a spectator too often, then it has to be chalked up as a very good sign going forward, and again be a much more meaningful achievement than the huge blowout win that preceded it.
If the Raptors are going to overachieve, as they need to, then it is going to start and finish on the defensive end. They are going to have to show that they can consistently stop the ball at the point of attack, and disrupt opposing offenses, while some of the guys like Andersen, Evan, Johnson, and eventually Davis make up for size disadvantages with quickness, toughness and athleticism. That means that past weak links like Calderon on the perimeter, and Bargnani under the basket, need to at least limit the amount of exposure that the rest of the team would have to make up for. If guys like Calderon and Bargnani can actually prove to be somewhat effective with whatever group of guys they happen to have on the floor with them, then it’s going to make it a lot easier to do more than just preach accountability.
And if that happens, then I would almost expect this team to overachieve. Much of the credit would have to go to PJ Carlesimo’s influence on the culture of this team. Here’s hoping that he has been able to bring some of what was practiced in San Antonio over the last decade, in keeping this team grounded in reality, and moving forward in creating a solid defensive identity throughout the entire lineup. If a guy like Bargnani could actually flourish where he once floundered, then it’s going to be hard to look past the influence of Carlesimo. Bedwetters have Suzanne Somers. Baby Seals have Bridget Bardot. Maybe Andrea has one PJ Carlesimo.
But of course that’s getting way out ahead of the curve already. I still expect this to be a bit of a long season. But if it looks like the team is taking some positive steps towards amounting to more than the sum of its parts on the defensive end, throughout the lineup, then they’ll have greatly exceeded my expectations already, since I just didn’t think it would really be possible with the current personnel. The game in Boston will offer a hint as to where the possibilities lie, and we’ll go from there.
One final note: I’ll be interested to see if the coaching staff all wear matching ties again. Will it be the same blue stripes? If not, then how many sets of matching ties are in play? And will they be working on the side as a new wave cover band? Please let there be a set of skinny leather ties, and an encore performance of Angst in My Pants.