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Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Not Pretty, but Effective: Raptors Grind Out Win at Indiana

Toronto trailed 30-19 after a sluggish first quarter but rallied to post a 102-98 win at Indiana. Chris Bosh had 24 points, 10 rebounds, four assists and two blocked shots, while Carlos Delfino added 23 points, largely the result of his 6-7 shooting from three point range. Anthony Parker only scored eight points but he contributed a career-high 11 rebounds, while T.J. Ford produced 16 points, seven assists and five rebounds in a reserve role. Danny Granger led the Pacers with 20 points and 10 rebounds, while Marquis Daniels also had 20 points. Mike Dunleavy and Troy Murphy scored 17 points apiece; Murphy also tied his career-high with seven assists.

When you don't quite have the personnel to match up with the other team, one thing that you can try is to go with a different kind of lineup to catch your opponent by surprise--and that is exactly what Indiana Coach Jim O'Brien did by using a small lineup of Travis Diener, Kareem Rush, Danny Granger, Mike Dunleavy and Troy Murphy to start the game. Bosh admitted that this move caught the Raptors off guard: "We made a game plan based on their usual starting five with Jeff Foster in the lineup. We had to change that up very fast. We just knew that they were going to try to run us out of the building because we were coming in on the second game of a back to back." This reminded me of the Chris Palmer-coached Cleveland Browns of a few years ago. Palmer would come up with a good script for the opening drive and the Browns would sometimes take an early lead--but over the course of an entire game all of their talent deficiencies got exposed in a way that no amount of coaching could possibly disguise or alleviate. O'Brien did the best he could to come up with a strategy to give the Pacers a chance to win and his players did the best that they could to execute the strategy; the bottom line is that they just are not good enough (though they obviously are not nearly as bad as Palmer's Browns were).

Toronto tried to take advantage of Indiana's small starting lineup by force feeding the ball to Bosh in the post but he shot just 2-9 from the field in the first quarter while committing two turnovers. Both Bosh and Toronto Coach Sam Mitchell complained several times that the smaller Pacers were holding on to Bosh prior to him catching the ball and then fouling him when he shot and from my vantage point courtside that did seem to be the case (check out the Notes from Courtside for more details about this). The Raptors committed seven turnovers in the first quarter.

In the second quarter, Toronto settled down and the Pacers went ice cold, shooting just 6-22 (.273) from the field. The Raptors opened the quarter with a 10-0 run and led 54-46 at halftime. The Pacers fought back strongly in the third quarter, led by Daniels (eight points on 3-4 shooting), Granger (seven points) and Murphy (seven points). Indiana briefly regained the lead and the score was tied at 77 going into the final 12 minutes. Daniels shot 5-5 from the field and scored 12 points in the final stanza, often posting up the smaller Ford, but that was not quite enough to counter the efforts of Delfino (seven points), Ford (six points, three assists) and Parker (six points). Indiana led for less than a minute during the fourth quarter as the Raptors maintained a small but durable advantage. After Kareem Rush missed a three pointer that could have tied the score at 101 with 10.9 seconds left, Parker split a pair of free throws to seal the win.

After the game, Mitchell said, "It wasn't pretty. We had some guys who were tired and rightfully so...We just gutted this one out." He noted that his bench players were very productive, scoring 36 points in the first half alone. "We came out slowly and that is to be expected sometimes in back to backs. Our bench came in and gave us unbelievable minutes and got us back in the game."

"We really competed our hearts out in the second half," O'Brien said. "We played a good basketball team, never gave up and it was a disappointing basketball game." That may sound like coach-speak but I had exactly the same thoughts watching the game: the Pacers really competed very hard but they were just outgunned by a superior team; they simply could not quite match up with Toronto even though the Raptors were obviously not quite in peak form because of the back to back situation. The Pacers simply have to add more talent to the roster, whether that comes in the form of the healthy return of Jermaine O'Neal and Jamaal Tinsley or it comes during the offseason via trades and/or the draft.

*****************************
Notes From Courtside:

In his pregame standup, Coach O'Brien talked about the pressure that Toronto puts on opposing defenses: "They're the number one three point shooting team in the league...Calderon and T.J. Ford use pick and rolls on 80-90% of their possessions to free them up to get inside or to roll somebody else inside or to isolate Bosh 10 feet away from the basket. Against all teams, whether teams are defending us or we are defending against the Boston Celtics or Toronto Raptors, we just cannot allow deep penetration. The more deep penetration that they have, the more that draws your people inside and puts you into a scramble mode on the perimeter. A real key for us is right at the point of the pick and roll: we have to get that ballhandler under control with our big guy and then our guard has to really bust it to make sure that he gets back in front of the guy so that he can prevent his man from penetrating so that everybody can match up and hopefully be set to play against the three point shooters."

He also explained how important it is for an offensive team to be able to attack the paint and, conversely, for a defensive team to be able to prevent such attacks: "I think that every NBA game that is played is all about controlling the middle. You have big men who post up, you want to post them up deep (in the paint) to draw a double team. When you have (a healthy) Jermaine O'Neal, you try to draw a double team and then go inside out. Our whole objective (defensively) is to stop penetration and stop deep post ups. When we do that well, we give ourselves a good chance of winning. Doing that well and talking about it and getting it done are things that we deal with daily. The whole practice today was about that: controlling the paint and being in the position where your rotations are crisp to get out to the three point shooters."

If some of those concepts sound familiar, it may be because O'Brien mentioned them to me when I interviewed him for my Chess and Basketball article: "In both basketball and chess the middle must be controlled. In our sport, it’s the three second paint—defensively we want to control that by keeping the ball out of the middle and offensively we want to control it by making sure that we get the ball into the middle. I have never won a chess game—or have not won very many times--when I didn’t control the middle of the board."

***

After the game, I talked one on one with Bosh about his difficult first quarter:

Q: "In the first quarter, did you feel like the Pacers were getting away with holding you and kind of roughing you up?"

A: "I'm used to that. It's all in a day's work."

Q: "It didn't seem like anything more than usual?"

A: "I've been there before. I know that initially it is going to be physical, so I just try to gauge and see where it is going and after that I can adjust my game to it."

Q: "How did you adjust to it? Obviously, later in the game you were very effective."

A: "Just by being stronger with the basketball. That's pretty much it. There were a couple times I had some slips in the second half but as long as I am strong with the basketball, make decisions and take my time then I think that I am effective."

Q: "So, if you feel like certain things are not going to be called fouls then you just bull your way through and just work through it?"

A: "Oh yeah. Exactly. You see what happens initially in a game so you know what's a foul and what's not a foul. You adjust to it."

Q: "Can you use that also on defense? Do you figure that if they are not calling it when it is being done to me then I can get away with it at the other end of the court?"

A: "It depends. If you have fouls to give then you can play a little bit freely but I got one early so I had to back off a little bit."

***

The official attendance at Conseco Fieldhouse was just 10,468, several thousand people short of capacity and a far cry from the way that the Fieldhouse used to always be packed. This is the legacy of the "Malice at the Palace" brawl several years ago as well as the off-court problems that many Pacers have had in recent years. The sad thing is that the fan support is so meager even though the two Pacers who got in the most trouble--Ron Artest and Stephen Jackson--have since moved on to other teams and the current squad plays hard and plays an entertaining, wide open style of basketball featuring the running game and a lot of three point shots. Sure, the Pacers do not have a great record but this is O'Brien's first season as their head coach and he has had to patch together lineups on most nights because he has often been without the services of his best inside player (Jermaine O'Neal) and most experienced point guard (Jamaal Tinsley). Still, Larry Bird and the rest of the front office face a real uphill battle to win back the support of the community.

***

Chris Bosh has four 40 point games this year, which ties Vince Carter's franchise record for most 40 point games in a single season. Bosh's five career 40 point games rank second in Raptors history to Carter's 13.

***

Only seven NBA teams have shot better than .400 from three point range for an entire season but the Raptors seem likely to become the eighth. In fact, they are on pace to post the second best single season three point shooting percentage since the NBA began using the trey in 1979-80 and they have a shot (no pun intended) of breaking the mark set by the 1995-96 Charlotte Hornets (.428).

Jason Kapono plays a big part in their long range bombing. The two-time defending Three Point Shootout champion also ranks first in NBA history in career three point field goal percentage with a .467 mark, leading Steve Kerr (.454), Hubert Davis (.441), Drazen Petrovic (.437) and Tim Legler (.431). Kapono scored nine point against Indiana but did not attempt any three pointers.

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posted by David Friedman @ 2:13 AM

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