It's amazing how quickly a season can turn. Only a little over a week ago the Raptors were riding high, sitting seven games above .500 and looking primed to make a run at the coveted fourth slot in the Eastern Conference - ensuring them home-court advantage in the first round of the Playoffs.
Today, things don't look so bright. The team has lost five of their last seven games, three of their top players (Chris Bosh, Hedo Turkoglu and Jose Calderon) have missed time recently because of injuries and rookie DeMar DeRozan has slammed into the rookie wall - and hard.
Recent losses to Oklahoma City and Houston were particularly galling since the games were essentially over by mid-third quarter and while the Raptors failed to reach 100-points in either game, they let their opponents average 117.5 points, hardly the way a team wants to head into the final stretch of the season. Where the fourth seed once looked obtainable, now preventing a fall from fifth is priority number one.
The most bandied about excuse for the regrettable performances has been the fact that Chris Bosh has been absent for the last six contests. Surely, if any team lost their marquee player their level of competitiveness would decrease. Perhaps that's true, but what is ailing the Raptors isn't exactly as superficial as that.
Think of it this way: When the Raptors squad was assembled this summer the general sentiment was that the starting five was high on offense, but low on defense, whereas the reserve crew was strong on defense, but light on offense. For the better part of the season that arrangement has worked for Toronto, as lineups were mixed-and-matched throughout contests in an attempt to corral the best of both units en route to Raptor victories. Against particularly potent teams the Raptors would close-out games with their starting crew augmented by Antoine Wright on the wing in place of the rookie DeRozan. On the whole the Raptors could count on Chris Bosh, Andrea Bargnani, Hedo Turkoglu, Jarrett Jack and Jose Calderon to provide the points while Wright, Amir Johnson, Sonny Weems and even Marcus Banks were called on to provide the stops. When it has worked, it has worked really well for Toronto.
Of late though, that relationship has broken down in several areas, and none are particularly encouraging heading into a playoff push. A few can be easily attributed to the loss of Bosh.
First there are the defensive breakdowns. Going back to the above roster makeup, one could reasonably assume that taking out guys like Bosh, Calderon and Turkoglu would, while lessening their opportunities on offense, bring a higher level of defense to the team. The reasoning being that is that the more minutes the athletic and high-I.Q. defenders spend on the court the more trouble the opposing teams should have scoring. Of course, what has actually happened is that since Bosh went down the Raptors have allowed 30 or more points to be scored in the first quarter five times (of a possible six, New Jersey being the one team that couldn't manage that total), setting a horrid defensive tone right from the outset of games. When coach Jay Triano has gone to his reserve unit little has changed. The last three opponents that the Raptors have faced have shot over 51% from the floor, not surprising since they have been met with little to no resistance in penetration or after passing sequences and given the fact that no one has stepped up to help establish a tougher defensive tone.
The reason this is worrisome is that when the Playoffs roll around and each possession becomes a crucial moment in the game, it's these players that are going to be called on to make stops and stay focused for every second of game time they get. Their lack of focus or intensity of late has been galling and ill-timed, and it must be alarming for a coaching staff looking to pare down their rotations in anticipation of the post-season.
That brings us to our next point, which concerns those very rotations. Obviously losing a big-minute guy like Bosh is unfortunate and will require creative roster adjustments to compensate for the loss, but Reggie Evans simply isn't the answer. While the Raptors staff and management spent much of the time Evans was injured singing his praises, no one could have expected how much faith they had in the rugged big man. He has been eating into the minutes of the ultra-productive Amir Johnson (a nonsensical approach given how well Johnson has performed in Evans' absence this season) while also becoming something of an - and I can't believe I'm saying this - offensive focus at times during games. This is an absolutely laughable thought considering that Reggie Evans ranks as one of the WORST offensive options the Raptors organization has EVER employed. The man is actually shooting a career-low from the floor in his brief time this season, while shooting a career-low from the line as well, and yet when he comes into games he is given an inordinate amount of freedom to shoot the ball. In fact, in the last four games (all losses), Reggie is shooting 58% more shots per game than his career-average. Remember… he is shooting career-lows from the floor and from the line.
Some excuse this trend because Reggie has been getting to the line 5.5 times per game over the last four. However, when a guy is shooting 45% from the line in that same span, how is that really benefitting the team? More to the point, how is it benefitting a team that has guys like Bargnani, Turkoglu, Jack, Calderon and even Weems to shoot the ball? This is poor offensive management by the coaching staff, the team's point guards and Evans himself, who should at this point in his career know better than to go after his own offense so vociferously. The man is a rebounder and rugged energy guy first, last and always; this 'Evans as offensive option' thing has got to end as soon as humanly possible.
Although, in fairness to Evans, it isn't like the rest of the uninjured troops are exactly lighting things up on the offensive end. Since the All-Star break, Andrea Bargnani especially has seen his production taper somewhat, a very disquieting fact considering that he should be the number one option when Bosh isn't on the floor. The reason why this is especially alarming is that, as was mentioned here last week, the Raptors have been knocked out of the post-season in their last two trips specifically because Bosh received no meaningful offensive help when teams swarmed him on defense. This year it looked as though Bargnani may be able to ease his load, but for the last few weeks Bargnani has looked tentative with his shot, he's been shying away from contact on drives and post-ups and he's floating around the three-point line as much as he did in the earliest parts of this season. While no one expects him to step into Bosh's shoes and replicate his numbers in his absence, having one's points-per-game DROP in that instance (from 17.4 to 16.3) is inexcusable for a $50-million player, as is seeing one's rebounding drop from 6.2 per game down to 5.0. While Calderon has seen his production slip of late, too, Bargnani's slide, in Bosh's absence, appears that much more troubling in terms of its implications for the upcoming Playoffs.
However, as quickly as things have devolved for the Raptors, things can bounce back just as fast. Bosh is expected back for Toronto's matchup against the Knicks on Friday, and if Calderon and Hedo join him it would give the Raptors a rare game with a fully-healthy roster. The team would love nothing more than to look back at these last four losses as the wake-up call that got them re-focused and primed for their post-season run. However, until they right their ship this latest swoon must also be treated as a serious indictment of the club's mental state heading into that same stretch. One need look back only as far as 2008 for what a weak run-up to the post-season can do to the Raptors.