Courtside: Raptors-Cavs Report
What encouraged me the most was the fact that Toronto was without its top player (Chris Bosh, sore left heel), its point guard (T.J. Ford, sore left hammy) and its top rookie (Andreas Bargnani, sore left ankle), while the Cavs started their regular lineup. Also impressive is the almost immediate chemistry this team is showing despite having to integrate nine new faces into the system. I assumed it would take 20 to 25 games for this club to gel, but from the looks of it, the Raptors are already playing extremely well together.
As for the walking wounded, while none of the Raptors’ injuries are serious (had this been a game that counted, they would have all been out there), if you own Bosh, there is a growing concern over this ailment that’s held him to three exhibition games so far. Coach Sam Mitchell said keeping him out was a precautionary move, but he admitted Bosh is in pain. He said that they’re trying to get Bosh pain free before the season starts, but that he’ll likely play in pain all season. It’s a similar injury to the one that rendered Tim Duncan less than fully effective last year. I think there needs to be a bit of a red flag over this one.
Observations from the game:
- With Ford sitting, Jose Calderon started and Darrick Martin got a chance for some minutes. This also meant extra PT for Morris Peterson, Fred Jones and there was even an extended look at Uros Slokar, thanks to Joey Graham being limited by an upset stomach.
- Again, it’s just preseason, but we’re nearing the end of the exhibition schedule and this game took on much more of a regular season feel. The Raps are playing with passion and giving a fantastic effort, which is great to see, but in a week and a half, when the games count, they are just as likely to look lost.
- LeBron James continues to just get better and better. With the season nearing, his minutes are ratcheting up, and he scored 21 on 9-for-17 shooting in 31 minutes. He had six assists and a rebound, but turned the ball over five times, was 0-for-3 from downtown and dropped in just 3-for-6 from the line. Still, what amazes me is his PPG keeps going up as does his FG percentage. This is a 21-year-old kid who has clearly established himself as the best all-around player in the game, and has the ability to both dominate single-handedly while also raising the level of play of those around him. He has such amazing ball skills, is such a gifted passer, can drain a jumper from almost anywhere and can slash and crash with the best of them. If he doesn’t go first overall in your league, please invite me to join.
- Toronto had serious trouble finishing at first, starting 3-for-16 from the field. The effort was there, though, as the team was crashing the glass with reckless abandon. Kris Humphries and P.J. Tucker add a new dimension to this club in that area.
- Get ready to see a completely different version of Fred Jones this year. Freed from the bonds of the conservative, feed-it-down-low-to-Jermaine O’Neal Pacer offense, Jones is thriving in the Raps’ up-tempo game. He’s driving hard to the hoop instead of playing a perimeter game, and the results are amazing. Yesterday, in 30 minutes, he shot 7-for-14 from the field, nailed both his treys and continued to get a ton of trips to the stripe and finish (6-for-7). He added three boards, three assists and — get this — three blocks. The sight of the 6’2″ Jones skying to make rejections made my mouth water, and forced me to immediately dump J.J. Redick and pick up Jones in the pool. Redick might help me in the second half, but Jones will help now. He is poised for a breakout year.
- Toronto’s first-quarter defense left something to be desired (the Cavs shot 54.5 per cent from the field and scored 18 points in the paint). The team made some good adjustments in the second half, but this will continue to be an issue for the team this season. Despite the massively improved depth and more balanced attack, D remains the key here for a club that allowed opponents to shoot 49.1 per cent last season — worst in the association. If that number is not cut significantly, all these off-season additions will be for naught.
- Zydrunas Ilgauskas got hurt and came out in the second quarter, but he returned in the second half and seemed fine. He was limited to 12 minutes in total, but scored 11, so don’t worry about the 7’3″ Lithuanian. There he was in the later stages, dropping in that patented 12- to 15-foot jump shot he so excels at.
- Martin showed he can still spark the offense coming off the bench. He’s such a tremendously unselfish player. There are much better third-string point guards around with potential upside, but this vet personifies team play.
- The Cavs won 50 games last year, but if they are to take it to the next level and challenge Detroit and Miami for the East, Donyell Marshall will be a key. They need him back bringing consistent double-doubles, offering his outside game and being a post-up presence. He’s looking good lately, getting 19 points and 10 boards on Monday, and adding 17 and nine yesterday. He can obviously help you in threes, but in blocks as well.
- Peterson was struggling with his shot, especially in the early going when he hit just two of his first eight attempts. But once all was said and down, he’d scored 16 points thanks to a pair of three balls, and added four boards and an assist. That’s the thing about Mo Pete — he can look awfully bad sometimes, yet the numbers are there in the end. It’s a level of consistency he did not have until last season.
- Rasho Nesterovic will not be scoring much in this offense — will he even be able to keep pace running up and down the floor? — but he will help this club with his defensive presence. His shot blocking, and more importantly — his ability to alter shots — will make him a factor on D. Nesterovic can drain baseline jumpers, so if he keeps things simple, he’ll get his five or six points a game. He shows a nice touch passing, and his work on the o-glass was impressive. Nesterovic also does the little things, like setting screens, that simply don’t show up on the stat sheet, but are vital to winning teams nonetheless. And he’s never played on a team that didn’t have a winning record.
- Calderon did a good job running the offense and was very crisp with his passing, for the most part (five assists, three turnovers).
- If Marshall and Damon “I’m the best shooter in the NBA” Jones can get back to their ’04-05 three-ball form, it will really spread out opposing defenses and create a lot of space for King James to operate. The pair were brought in last season to beef up Cleveland’s woeful outside game, but they were not up to snuff. Marshall hit 41.6 per cent from downtown two years ago, but dropped to 32.4 per cent in 2005-06, while Jones plummeted from 43.2 per cent to 37.7 last year.
- Slokar, the team’s second rounder last year, looked very impressive in scoring six points and adding seven boards and an assist off the bench. He showed good rebounding skill and is aggressive defensively, both assets that will be valued on this club.
- Anderson Varejao pulled down 13 boards in 23 minutes off the bench. This guy is instant energy when he steps on the court for the Cavs, and even if he doesn’t score much, he has a huge impact with his floor play. Watching that Sideshow Bob ‘do flop around as Varejao moves around the court is a joy. And for a big man, he is extremely mobile.
- In addition to everything else he brought, Fred Jones also showed some nice passing skills. Thanks to his role in the Indy offense, he knows how to drop a dime.
- Speaking of Jones, how serendipitious was it that he wound up in Toronto? If Bonzi Wells hadn’t miscalculated his market value and forced Sacramento’s hands, John Salmons would have never reneged on his Raptor deal and headed off to play for the Kings. And had that not occured, Toronto would have never turned to Jones. This is going to be one of those situations that turns out to be a blessing in disguise.
- As per usual, Toronto’s outside game looks polished (5-for-14 from three-point land), while Cleveland still needs work (5-for-23). Judging from the number of attempts, however, the Cavs are working on it.
- Humphries has impressed every time we’ve seen him. He started for Bosh yesterday and scored 16 points with nine boards and two assists. Talk about hustle…his key loose ball rebound with time running down ensured victory for Toronto. He leaves it on the floor every game.