That was fine game last night. Not because of the win. Nor due to the nature of the win. I mean that was all good. But I can remember Jermaine Jackson leading a couple other ten-day contracts in some battles. And there was Lamond Murray lighting up the Spurs at around this time of the year. What sets last night’s game apart from so many others, is that the approach was so different than so many others over the last few years.
Down there in Dallas, the Raptors played a style that limited possessions, and relied heavily on defense, in order to find the equalizer that could make up for the talent differential. It worked like a charm, and beyond that, it just plain looked like a basketball game. And it flew in the face of the re-invention of the game that seems to be Bryan Colangelo’s favored mode of thought. We have seen decent teams, and bad teams alike, crumble under the weight of running, and rushing offense, and floor balance for transition defense be damned. The running game needs to come out of an integrated whole, and not applied to a mix of players with no clearly defined roles, simply as a means of trying to hide the lack of an integrated whole. There are no freaks of nature on the Raptors that are going to be able to use a quick-paced game for the advantage of the team over the long haul, but there just might be some basketball players. We’ve only been allowed to see them perform that way when the bench has been shortened due to injuries. And those short-handed nights have usually worked out quite well.
Last night offered one of the starkest contrasts to the regular gameplans. The night before, the team had shown a distinct inability to do much of anything offensively. Forget about being patient enough to find a second or third option - they couldn’t find a first option. Rushing their early offense lead to turning the ball over in a hurry, much like in many other games over the last 3 years, but perhaps it had never been quite so clear just how little chance this team was giving itself. There had been some nice comeback wins where tired opponents withered late after exploiting so many giveaways and so many fastbreak opportunities. The Raptors have been able to find their equalizer in those games, with some added pressure as games wore on, and by making use of a bench so deep that it extends right through the starting lineup. Think back to Ali’s rope-a-dope. He was no longer as fast as lightning. He didn’t have the footwork any longer. So he let his opponents tire themselves out by hammering away on his body, until he once again held the advantages that he had enjoyed as a young man, relatively speaking. The Raptors had on occasion been able to reduce the opposing team to something less than or equal to a bunch of second-stringers, and to their credit, put up the fight to get some results.
But this team is not going to be able to withstand a season of kidney punches landed in endless flurries. I don’t know if any team would. PJ Carlesimo came onto the telecast at the half in the game against Memphis, and said that the defense wasn’t so much of a problem when they forced the Grizzlies to play in the halfcourt, so they were going to have to try to do that more often. Somewhere, not too far deep inside him, he had to know that was only going to happen if they gave up on the ridiculous offensive gameplan that gave the opposing team more easy chances going the other way than it did good shots for the Raptors. And surely he couldn’t have been alone with that realization. Surely the players themselves knew as much, even as easily seduced as they might be to the idea of quickening the pace.
And the next night we saw an abandoning of good ship Getashotoffquick. We saw plays run. Some of them worked, without requiring pure, blind aggression from each individual, but instead through finding teammates and teammates ensuring they were in the right spots. When plays did not work, they were able to defend in transition, and then further at the point of attack, and finally they contested shots and altered shots. And off of some of the other team’s broken plays, they were able to run and score on legitimate fast break opportunities. There are ways to play the game in spite of a deficit of overall talent. It’s not going to translate into a great number of wins, but it will assuredly point any team in the right direction. And we saw that in Dallas. Jerryd displayed heart and desire in controlling how this game was played. He should have a couple more d’s added to the end of his name as his reward, and hopefully have his name all over a few more wins like this one. When he went down and Barbosa took over, there were not the usual turnovers from Leandro. His speed fit into this grind-out game better than it would have had they all been racing up and down all night long. He found an advantage, and then made it possible for all five guys to take advantage of it, and that hadn’t happened so often before. It was basketball. You know - that team sport. It was not Colangelo’s “exciting brand of basketball” as he and Triano had envisioned. But it was basketball. And if you love the game, then what is more exciting?
Now the question remains as to whether it was an actual shift in plans, or just something they needed to do while shorthanded? If we see this team go back to poorly defined roles in which each guy plays on an island that no Herve would want to inhabit, with possessions multiplied rather than limited, then there have to be some serious questions about what is being built here. Are they putting together a team for fans that love the game? Or are they trying to do whatever they can just to engage fans that might happen to like the game, by offering regular doses of adrenaline that have little to do with future success?