Courtside: Raptors-Sonics Report
I suppose I should have seen this coming. Maybe I was too excited by back-to-back dramatic victories and five wins over the past six games. Or maybe I was just drunk.
On the surface, Toronto should have been able to emerge from Em City victorious last night. After all, the Raptors were playing their most inspired basketball in recent memory and Seattle had not only dropped six straight, but were going to be without Rashard Lewis, one of its top players, and indeed one of the most underrated players in the game. How could Toronto lose?
What I failed to factor in (probably because of the euphoria of recent Raptor events and too much Christmas cheer) was that this was our fourth game in five nights to wrap up yet another tough Western swing. Of course, who expected a slumping Sonics team to come out with such life, mostly thanks to the return of their superstar, Ray Allen? Allen had been out nine games with a bone contusion in his ankle, didn’t show a hint of rust and, that, combined with some incredibly weak perimeter defense on the part of Toronto, spelled doom on this night as the Sonics came away 110-97 victors.
Seattle decided to shake things up in an effort to snap its season-worst losing skid against the first-place Raptors (damn, even if it’s the Titanic Division, that sounds sweet), as embattled coach Bob Hill tinkered with his lineup. Injuries and ineffectiveness have forced his hand, so he deciced to sit Damien Wilkins, who had been starting for Allen, and insert Earl Watson at the two guard spot. Allen shifted over to small forward for the injured Lewis (out two months after having surgery Friday to repair an injured tendon in his right hand), while Danny Fortson (also back from an extended injury absence) got the start at centre for Andreas Glyniadakis.
The smaller lineup worked against the Raptors, who we must remember are still the possessors of a losing record (12-16) regardless of their lofty perch in the standings.
Allen was money right from the opening tip, and wound up with 28 points on 9-of-15 shooting with six boards and five assists. The dude was absolutely blazing from downtown, draining five of six.
- Andrea Bargnani hit the game-winning bucket with four seconds to go in OT Friday night, but early foul trouble and cold shooting negated his contributions off the bench on Saturday.
- T.J. Ford has absolutely strapped the Raptors to his back on this trip. In the absence of Chris Bosh (knee), Ford hit the buzzer beater to beat the Clippers on Wednesday, had 23 points and 10 assists and was absolutely dominant in overtime in Friday’s win, and did his thing again last night. He shot 9-of-15 from the field for a team-high 24 points (16 in the second half) with nine assists and three steals. How about 2-for-2 from beyond the arc? If Ford adds an outside touch to his game, he will truly ascend to elite status among floor generals.
- Luke Ridnour, coming off a big 21-point, nine-assist performance in Wedneday’s loss against Dallas, did his part again last night, with 18 points and two steals. His reads in transition are phenomenal.
- Chris Wilcox continued his maddeningly inconsistent play. After going off for 18 points with nine boards Wednesday, he shot just 4-of-12 from the field for a mere 12 points and five rebounds last night. In his defense, Wilcox got beat up pretty bad last game, as an errant elbow found its way into his face, causing a split lip and a jaw that required X-rays. Still, his inability to duplicate his breakout play down the stretch after getting dealt to Seattle last year (play, that incidentally earned him a sweet contract), has definitely been a factor in the Sonics’ early-season woes this year. I’ll give him this: he shows nice footwork underneath the basket. I definitely think he can be a serious player, but he’s got to bring it every night.
- Even with the loss last night, a 2-2 Western swing has to qualify as a fantastic road trip for Toronto. Losing to Phoenix is no shame, considering how hot the Suns have been, and last night’s effort was impressive given how physically demanding this trip has been (not to mention how hard it must be to get up for that final game before the holiday break).
- Allen was the man, but six Sonics were in double figures, so this wasn’t simply a case of ‘stop Allen and stop the Sonics.’ For one night, anyways, this look like an inspired team that was actually interested in saving their coach’s job (rumored to be in major jeopardy after plenty of losing and controversy as Hill and some of the Sonics have sniped at each other through the media).
- For a good part of the night, it seemed like a morgue in Key Arena. There were only 14,611 fans in attendance as Seattle continues to struggle with sparse attendance with the future home of the club still up in the air.
- How bad are the Sonics going to miss Lewis? He is having a career year, with personal bests across the board at 21.9 points, almost seven boards and 2.4 assists per game.
- Is the tempermental and injury-prone Fortson the answer at centre for Seattle? This has been an absolute sore spot for the Sonics after projected starter Robert Swift tore his ACL in preseason and was forced to undergo season-ending surgery. Since then it’s been a revolving door at the starting centre position: Mouhamed Sene, Johan Petro, Wilcox, Petro again, Nick Collison, Glyniadakis, Collison again, Glyniadakis again and now Fortson, back from an 18-game absence because of a sore right knee. In just his second start for Seattle in two and a half seasons and 93 games, Fortson came out strong with six boards in the opening quarter. He wound up playing 14 minutes, and pulling down nine rebounds. The 30-year-old Fortson is nothing if not a wide body, combining with Wilcox to form an intimidatingly large frontcourt (from an east-west perspective, at least). However, if Hill thought Collison was undersized at centre at 6’9″, Fortson is just 6’8″. Yes, he makes up for it with his aggression and rebounding prowess, but Fortson is just a shell of the player he was earlier in a career that’s been ravaged by injuries.
- Collison was given a chance at the job, and he’s a strong defender, and while he’s shown modest improvements in his offensive game, he has yet to display the kind of game he had as a Jayhawk. I keep waiting for the breakout, but no sign yet.
- Allen continued to impress as a tremendous open court player, nailing his first four shots as ther Sonics grab an early 20-10 lead. This is what Seattle has missed in his absence — good starts. But how do you leave such a gifted catch and shoot man open like Toronto did early on?
- Raptors fans could get the ultimate Christmas present this year as Bosh is hoping to return Wednesday against Minnesota. The weird thing is, the team is playing so well right now that getting Bosh back in will actually require an adjustment period. He’s missed nine games, but the team has really grown up quick, going 5-4 without their main man.
- You could definitely see the effect of four games in five nights on the Raps in the opening quarter. All that was missing were the oxygen masks.
- Fred Jones, especially huge in the first half, had another big game with 19 points, as he’s starting to roll on this trip and has clearly shaken off the calf injury. He’s a decent fantasy pickup right now considering the offense he’s providing off the bench.
- How sweet was it to see Jose Calderon back on Friday after last weekend’s scary episode? Last night, he did his thing by dropping a season-high 10 dimes.
- Toronto surrendered 36 points in the opening quarter as Seattle drained 16-of-25 (64 per cent) from the field to take a 14-point lead. Like I said, lethargic. Toronto was guilty of hoisting a lot of quick shots and it took the Raptors until 3:50 left in the quarter before getting back-to-back buckets. They also failed to get to the line once. For the Sonics, those 36 points represented their best quarter all season.
- By halftime, the lead has been whittled down to 64-55 Seattle, but it’s still the most points the Sonics have had at halftime this year. Nice D, guys.
- Jorge Garbajosa was hustling all night, making a great save in the second quarter. After that play, the team showed him some love and gave him the rock and he promptly sunk the jumper. The Raptors are leaning on Garbo lately; he’s played 84 minutes over the past two.
- We had a Lenny Wilkins sighting. He’s now the vice chairman of the Sonics’ ownership group and is doing radio work for the team. How long until he replaces Hill as the head coach? Hill, by the way, scares the bejeezus out of me. His head always looks like it’s seconds away from exploding.
- Every time the Raps made a run, Seattle had an answer. Toronto trailed by 16 in the first half but got back within 64-59 early in the third quarter. The Sonics called time, regrouped, and went on a 10-0 run keyed by two 3-pointers by Allen. Just like that, the lead was back to 15.
- Joey Graham looked aggressive taking it to the hoop on one play. Unfortunately, that was a rare sight from him on this night. He needs to play that way more consistently or he will lose his lose PT. With Bosh expected back Wednesday, Graham will likely head back to the bench anyways. But if he wants some minutes with the second unit, he better step up. He’s just been too invisible on this trip.
- Nothing like get thrown back into the fire. What? You missed nine games, Allen? Tough luck…now get out there and play 41 minutes. To his credit, if he was tired it didn’t show, and that’s something that usually manifests itself in missed shots.
- Toronto is shooting 51.1 per cent at the half. Sweet, eh? The only problem is the Sonics are at 60.5 per cent.
- Both of Ford’s treys came in the final 30 seconds of the third quarter, pulling Toronto to within 84-81 heading into the final stanza.
- Speaking of outside shooting, the Sonics were on fire, nailing 7-of-12. Inability to play perimeter defense is a sure sign of a tired team. Allen’s trey (off the glass…come on!) with just over seven to play was a backbreaker, making it 95-87. Calderon was alll over Allen on that shot, but he did what pure shooters do and found a way to sink it. But when Allen set up Collison for a dunk to make it 97-88 with under six to play, it was over. The Raps couldn’t get any closer than eight points over the final five minutes. Big fourth quarter play has been sadly lacking in Emerald City this year.
- The guy is an unsung hero, so let’s give Rasho Nesterovic some love. He looked solid again. Try 12 points, seven boards, three blocks and an assist. His improved play of late has been one of the biggest factors in this Raptor run.
- If you like defense, this was not a game for you. The Sonics finally cooled off a bit late in the third, but Toronto missed several open looks at that time before Ford’s flourish to end the quarter. The final five minutes or so of the third represented the Raptors’ best chance to really take control of this game.
- For Seattle to consistently find production to replace Lewis it’s going to have to be a group effort. Last night it was Collison (15), Watson (12) and Petro (10), but this is going to be a rough stretch for the Sonics without their number two man.
- The Raps are still shooting over 50 per cent heading into the fourth. Nothing wrong with the offense on this night.
- Petro is looking very good off the bench. I’m not sure why Seattle is so reticent to hand the starting centre job to the Eiffel Tower on a more permanent basis. There’s talk the Sonics are interested in disgruntled Bull P.J. Brown.
- Remember the Raptors’ last Western swing? They stunk it up at 0-5 and it was not pretty. Comparing the two road trips really shows the progression this team is making.
- It is just me or has Morris Peterson disappeared from the rotation? He has only played 46 minutes in the past three games, and sat the entire fourth quarter last night after playing 10 minutes in the first half. Obviously Jones’ solid play is a factor here, but what’s up with that?
- Penny Hardaway worked out for the Sonics Monday and reportedly was very impressive, but there’s still no word on whether they plan to sign him. If so, Seattle will likely wait until January 5, when teams can start issuing 10-day contracts.
- Mickael Gelabale has been getting plenty of burn off the Sonic bench lately. I’m impressed by his quickness. He also managed to fill the stat sheet last night with six points, nine rebounds, two assists, a steal and a block. Sleeper alert.
- Last time the Raps were first in the Atlantic? November 25, 2003, when their stellar 6-7 record had them atop the division.
- In the fourth quarter, Toronto stopped driving to the hoop, settling for long bombs and they weren’t sinking them like they did Friday. That hurt and resulted in the team’s FG percentage slipping to 46.5 per cent for the game.
- With under 90 seconds to play, Seattle has a 13-6 edge in second chance points.
- The Raps never led in this game as Seattle had a big edge from the line (19-of-21, 90.5 per cent) and on the glass (45 rebounds, +11).
Alright, so here we are, at the X-Mas break, just past the one-third mark of the season. You can’t help but be stoked by how well things have gone considering Toronto has played 18 out of its first 28 on the road, the most in the league. Now, it’s home sweet home for five of the next six and 11 of the next 16. The Raps have a real opportunity to actually build up a lead in the Atlantic with this run over the next month.