Here is a viewpoint that most Raptors fans will hate: Sunday's game against Orlando was a good game for the Toronto Raptors.
I have a feeling that is going to need a bit of explanation.
In terms of pure basketball, the Raptors were average to poor over the course of the game. Their perimeter containment and coverage of the three-point line was unacceptably bad and the 14 offensive rebounds allowed was a serious blemish that begins at (but is not restricted to) starting centre Andrea Bargnani.
However, for these first few weeks of the season measuring the Raptors by pure basketball standards is unnecessarily myopic. They are a club trying to integrate several new players and ideologies and some amount of perspective has to be afforded to that end. Should that reality excuse the putrid first half of Sunday's game? No, it shouldn't, and if that effort carried through for the whole game there would be little positive to cull from this loss (which was the situation after the Memphis loss on Friday). However, what came after that awful first push allowed for a critical reexamination and will benefit the team down the road regardless of the L in record books.
Basically, this game provided several relevant items for the coaching staff to digest as it relates to on-court combinations and rotation patters, and it also offered several teaching points for the next couple of practices. Both are invaluable tools for a team looking to carve out an identity early in the season and could help make things better down the road.
One point of emphasis, for instance, is how Marco Belinelli seems to be a player that is better suited to playing minutes when his team is up rather than when they're down. Against Cleveland last week, Belinelli came in and helped balloon a lead by being relaxed and in attack-mode, mentally ensconced in the security of a five-point lead when he checked into the game. He was mixing up his offense, going both one-on-one while also allowing his teammates to set him up, and he seemed to generate confidence from the team's pre-existing advantage. Against Orlando, he entered the game down seven and looked far less composed in his court time. He got a turnover (traveling) trying to go one-on-one and he later missed a bad pull-up jumper, which led to substitution seven seconds later. He was not to return.
Along those same lines, Amir Johnson was given a shot in this game to make an impact late in the second quarter and, unlike Belinelli, he did so by providing the kind of defense and energy that the team had lacked for the better part of the game to that point. He was liberally inserted back into the game for the rest of the afternoon and he was generally a positive asset when given the minutes on the court. In the absence of Reggie Evans, Johnson will be required to fire up the team's second unit, and on Sunday he had the team's best +/- at games' end (+4).
The one truly disconcerting roster quirk, though, was the continued slump of Jose Calderon. While his missed shots and low assist totals are noteworthy but expected to abate, he's being absolutely torched on defense, as Jameer Nelson's 30 points comes after a 10-and-10 outing by Mike Conley, whose low point total belies a penetration attack that initiated much of what made Memphis so effective against Toronto. Jose's defense has made it hard to keep him in games, especially down the stretch (he played sparingly in the fourth against Orlando), because he isn't burning teams back at the other end of the floor. Even when his offense returns, though, is it really going to be enough to offset such poor defensive skills over the course of a whole season? That will be an issue to focus on as the schedule grinds on.
Outside of simple player-to-player efforts, though, was the marked difference in the way the team opened the game and the way they played for most of the rest of the contest. This team was playing at a languid pace to start the game offensively, with several players simply standing around and holding the ball and too often attacking one-on-one. The guards were content to walk the ball up the court in transition and that, too, led to an overall lack of urgency in the team's attack. When the Raptors started closing their 22-point deficit, however, the pace of the game quickened significantly and the team's ability to catch up to Orlando will be a great tool for Jay Triano and his staff to use as a reminder of why he wants the team to play with some zip at the offensive end.
The turnovers that will and do result from guys trying to make plays are far more acceptable than the botched offensive possessions where the team simply came up lame for lack of effort. Over time the turnovers will subside as the teams gains familiarity, but the offensive intensity has to stay high even while they try to get there. The team isn't going to learn how to play alongside each other if they aren't forceful in trying to involve each other in the game.
Another teaching point will be the rotations on defense and on the glass. Toronto actually held the Magic to 44% shooting on the night, 10% BELOW what Toronto shot. However, Orlando was able to dominate most of the game because the Raptors allowed the Magic to shoot 53% from three (17-32 on the night). If the Raptors had played smarter and with more juice as it pertained to closing out on shooters, their defensive effort would have had a much larger impact in the game as a whole (at least a larger positive impact). Instead, they betrayed themselves by playing defense for 80% of a possession only to give up when the ball was kicked-out to the outside shooters.
Resident defensive guru Marc Iavaroni will be able to break down the tape for the team, though, and show them where each has to be on which rotations. The Raps were killed by Memphis when they allowed 52 points in the paint, and while Orlando only managed 28 in that category (good), they made up for it with 51 from behind the arc (bad). Defense is hard and it takes more commitment than most teams are willing to offer, but if the Raptors are serious about being a relevant team this year, they are going to have to extend their defense from the paint to the arc, with the same focus and intensity afforded to both.
One last point; Andrea Bargnani can now be seen routinely in the paint on defense NOT boxing out his man or attempting to corral a rebound. Memphis had 18 offensive rebounds and, as mentioned, Orlando grabbed 14. In those games, Bargnani not only averaged a paltry five boards, he was responsible for his team not securing several others with his refusal to put a body on his man. At this point everyone and their mother knows Bargnani isn't going to be a double-digit rebounder this season, but if he won't help his team out by getting between his man and the ball then, as with Calderon's perimeter defense, it's going to be hard to keep him in the game. Efforts like that are simply too prone to undermining the hard work done by teammates to be allowed to continue, so that will be the other big issue to keep an eye on over the next few weeks.
All in all, the Raptors were given an opportunity with their early win against Cleveland, followed by games against Memphis and an injury riddled Orlando Magic club, to give themselves a cushion of wins in this 'team development' phase of the season and they blew it. However, if - IF - they can manage a win against the 1-2 Detroit Pistons on Wednesday, then they'll go into their tough West Coast trip with a 2-and-2 record that would pretty much resemble what most would have expected before the season tipped off. All they have to do now is show that these last two losses have taught them something and actually earn that win in Detroit. Tune in to TSN2 on Wednesday to see how they are in that effort.