A group of Tin-Men looking for their hearts. Or Scarecrows looking for their brains. Or Lions looking for some courage. Whatever Oz denizen best represented the Raptors last night, none found their sought-after quality by the end of the game like in the classic L. Frank Baum tale. In what has become a staple of the Raptors season, the team was presented with a must-win game and they simply refused to show up for it in any way, shape or form. Once again they faced a depleted opponent (due to a trade in various stages of finality) and it was the Raps that looked lacking for options. In what has been an increasingly dismal season, the Toronto Raptors insist on finding new depths to bury themselves under.
There was so much bad to comment on, from the irritating to the unnerving, that it's hard to figure out where to begin. Does one start at how ill-placed the organization's faith in Anthony Parker is, since he has become an absolute defensive sieve who only shows up offensively about once in every four games? Or should one start by discussing how Jason Kapono is off on some island playing completely for himself, holding the entire offence hostage whenever he touches the ball? Or perhaps it's the fact that the team still has no clue defensively about how to run shooters off of the three-point line, or the fact that even though shooters were left wide open the paths to the basket were also completely unguarded for anyone who wanted to walk down for an easy layup.
Yes, the tales of misery last night were many. However, if any one element dominated the MSG massacre, it was the basic lack of basketball intelligence displayed on the court for the entire 48 minutes of game time.
First, Jose Calderon once again simply refused to push the ball. He'd walk it up on makes and misses, refusing to outlet to running teammates and refusing to penetrate beyond the three-point arc without waiting for a screen. He systematically killed any offensive rhythm this team could have hoped to achieve early in the game with his too-deliberate passing game, allowing defences to set up long before the offence was initiated. Plus, again he never looked to attack the basket, even though New York had only one block all game in 93 shot attempts against. It wasn't as though anyone was going to stop Calderon if he would venture into the paint, but still he resisted and the offence suffered as a result.
Second, you had the Raptors' famous one-pass-and-shoot offence for much of the game. That's where one guy catches the ball, and despite the Raptors having no one-on-one talents outside of Bosh, tries to take his guy one-on-one. Of course, it would be a lot easier to move the ball around (and, thusly, to move the defence around) to get better shots if the rest of the team would actually move to get open. Instead, one player catches the ball and EVERYONE ELSE STANDS PERFECTLY STILL, as if making any sudden movements might scare the ball-handler away.
NBA offence depends of penetration and movement, and the Raptors appeared wholly unwilling or unable to execute that concept for the entire 48 minutes of game-time against the Knicks...The Knicks! Not the Celtics, or the Cavaliers, or the Lakers, or the Spurs - but the Knicks. This is the team that sits third from the bottom in opponent's field goal percentage (.478), above only Sacramento and Washington, and still the Raptors looked flummoxed as to how to score against them all game long. They refused to commit to even the most basic tenets of basketball offence despite playing in one of their most important games all year against one of the NBA's worst defensive outfits.
The only things that kept this game tape from being burned at the end of the night were the efforts put in by Shawn Marion and Andrea Bargnani. Marion refused to stop working all game despite being routinely let down on defensive rotations by his teammates, and he culled 12 rebounds and scored 14 points as a result. While his energy and activity did little to inspire his running mates, it was nice to see that he hasn't yet been sucked into the malaise clearly gripping the rest of the squad.
Bargnani, too, kept working, even if he could have worked a lot harder to get closer to the basket to take advantage of his size against the Knicks' micro-bigs. Still, he managed 18 points, 6 boards and 4 blocks, bouncing back from a dreadful 5-14, 11-point night against the Cavs on Wednesday. It's nice to see that even when his team is struggling he's not allowing himself to fade into the background like would so often happen last year. Bargnani's development and maturity have truly been the lone bright spots in this otherwise forgettable year.
That said, those bright spots are very dim, indeed, when placed beside the world of darkness engulfing the rest this team. As the lost season winds down in the next seven weeks, the only curiousity left surrounding this club is trying to figure out who might still be affiliated with the Raptors' organization seven months from now when the '09-'10 season gets ready to kick off.
Fortunately or not, depending on your outlook, there are still seven weeks left before that game can really kick in. Let's see if this team can muster any lust for redemption on Sunday afternoon against the Knicks with Larry Hughes and Chris Wilcox ready to go.
History would not encourage that kind of optimism, even though the pressures of "importance" on a game like that have pretty much completely evaporated. As sad as it is to say, the increasing irrelevance of the upcoming schedule will probably make for better basketball output by the men in red and white. Take that for what you will.