I first met Andris Biedrins six years ago as a teenager fresh off his 11th overall selection by the Golden State Warriors at the 2004 NBA draft. We were at Club Deep in New York City and the youngster was hanging out with one of his little Latvian buddies, scurrying around the hip hop venue like the discoverer of a new world. I remember thinking, as I watched him double-dutch his way into the culture, that the kid might not be long for the NBA.
That Biedrins had skills was evident but they were extremely raw and back then the transition from European and North American wasn’t as well-travelled, especially for a teenager. The Warriors themselves were a running NBA joke and I figured the seven-footer would bounce from that franchise after a season or two and Darko Milicic his way through the rest of his rookie contract, possibly journeyman his way through a short NBA career, then head back to Europe for bigger pay for play and a respectable Latvian legacy. Seven years later Biedrins is still in the NBA and still with the Warriors, standing as the only constant in the stop and go progress of a franchise that has slowly started to shed the image of being an unsalvagable loser.
“It’s been a long, long time and a lot of good times and a lot of bad times,” Biedrins recently told SWAY Sports. “I‘m just happy I’m still here. I love this team and the team loves me.”
Biedrins is referring to the young core that suddenly surrounds him in Oakland. With Monta Ellis and Stephon Curry making up one of the deadliest backcourts in the NBA and newly acquired power forward David Lee adding all-star potential to the front court the Warriors are on the come up. A 6-2 start to this season surprised many considering the amount of change the franchise has undergone since last season. The purchase of the team for an estimated $450M by new owners Joe Lacob and Mandalay Entertainment CEO Peter Guber promises a better building plan than that of the wildly unpredictable and drama-filled roller-coaster of the Chris Cohan regime and the sale also signalled the end of the Don Nelson era.
Nelson’s second go-round with the team (after being previously fired by Cohan in the mid 1990’s, whom he also sued) was pock-marked with inconsistencies, peaking with the team’s historical first round upset of the top-seeded Dallas Mavericks in 2007. That series victory was supposed to be the start of a successful run for the Warriors but the next year the team narrowly missed the playoffs and slid back into the dark and off the map. Nelson clashed with his charges at an alarming rate, eventually jettisoning most of the players that had toppled Dallas. Biedrins survived and continued to improve his game amid the chaos.
“I had to hang in there and like you said, good things happen,” said Biedrins. “After something bad, good things will come. I think this is it and so we are ready for this.”
Over the first five years of his career Biedrins’ numbers improved steadily in both points and rebounds, topping in 2008-09 with 11.9 points and 11.2 rebounds per game. He is also a career 60% shooter from the field, an impressive number thrown into doubt by many who consider it a safe statistic from a player who has been unable to develop an offence away from the paint.
Then last season he appeared in just 33 games due to a lower back injury and his contributions nose-dived. So did his confidence and assertion. His absence wasn’t the only reason the Warriors went 26-56 on the season but the dependability Biedrins has typically brought to the table is notable. He talked openly to the Latvian media about the possibility of moving on from the Warriors – frustrated by the team’s lack of chemistry and his insistence that they didn’t look out for his best interests after his back went out. He was also convinced that Nelson did not respect his game. With Nelson now gone and a new energy surrounding the team, Biedrins prefers to focus on the positives.
“I had a long summer as you know,” said Biedrins, whose rebounding and points per game have returned to more becoming numbers. “I was doing my rehab and preparing for the season and it went really well. We have new team, new coaches new owner… a lot of things changed but everything is looking really well. All the guys are happy to be here and play together and I think that’s a big part of why we had (that) big start so we just need to keep it up.”
They haven’t. At the time of this writing the Warriors were 8-15 on the season and in the midst of a conference worst six-game slide but unlike years past there isn’t the finger pointing and coach/player flare ups that derailed previous campaigns. New head coach Keith Smart points quickly to the reason why.
“They all came into town very early,” said Smart. “First time we had that many guys – 13 guys in town no later than the 12th when we got ready for September. Then you saw how they developed chemistry along the way.
“The good teams do that, they bond first before the coaches get a hold of them and that’s what we kind of established with our guys. As preseason moved on I kept the starting five together all the way through preseason. I wasn’t trying to look for a guy to plug into the rotation, I stayed with our starting lineup because I knew I needed to develop that chemistry fast, I had to get it going right away and then sort out who would be the guys coming off the bench. Surprising yes, but not uncommon when you look at all the good teams and what they try to do early on.”
One of those new players was Lee whose addition was unanimously approved by the Warriors’ returning core. For Biedrins it was a move long overdue.
“First couple of practices I realized that it’s real easy to play with him,” said Biedrins, the Warriors’ longest tenured player. “Now we’re playing together really well. it’s feeling like we’ve played many years together. It’s really easy to communicate, he’s always a willing helper like I am and it’s easy to help each other. He always has my back and I always have his back. It’s just great to have him here. I’ve been waiting for a guy like that for a long time.”
The Warriors guards love it too.
“When you have that frontline behind us we kind of rely on them to kind of protect the rim and everybody gang rebounds and we’re off to the races,” said second-year pro Curry. “That’s when we’re at our best. It is nice to have a tough lineup out there (that’s) tall and athletic. David controls the glass when he’s in there and so does Dre (Andris) when he’s healthy so it’s a good look.”
Lee is a veteran of losing teams having played with the previously sour New York Knicks. They traded him to the Warriors in the off season to pave the way for Amar’e Stoudemire as the new power forward, even though Lee played out of position at the centre spot during much of his Knicks tenure. With Biedrins entrenched in the middle he doesn’t have to do that for the Warriors and his arrival has helped further define roles for the roster. He hopes it will also help to define the future.
“We needed to get off to a good start for the confidence of this franchise because there has been a lot of losing here,” said Lee who was sideline for eight games in late November after a laceration in his left arm got infected and needed to be drained. The Warriors went just 1-7 while he was away and need him to regain their early season form, something that is still a work in progress. “From the start that’s what I tried to do, just try to bring a positive attitude and hopefully make us realize that we’ve got a lot of new faces and so the losing that’s happened in the past doesn’t have to happen again.”
With Lee barely into the first year of his new 6-year, $80M deal and Biedrins’ $62M contract not due to expire until the 2013-14 season there will be more time to fuse and at 27 and 24 years of age respectively, the prime years are clearly ahead of this duo. It’s early but so far Smart has liked what he has seen.
“One thing they have done with each other is both have gone to the glass to rebound so when one may have been a little light rebounding the other one has picked up slack,” noted Smart, co-signing on Curry’s observation. “Thats a luxury to have to guys that can still function offensively as well but also can help you defensively to get the glass.”
It’s been a long journey for Biedrins and he’s come a long way from that dark and crowded groupie-love disco that served as one of his first forays into North American life. He may not have become the out-of-nowhere all-star type the Warriors were hoping for when they picked him up all as a teenager but he is still young enough to make a run at a new era, old enough to appreciate the art of starting over and veteran enough to recognize the improved talent that now surrounds him. In any case, he’s far from the one and done NBAer I thought he might become when I sat in that New York city club all those years ago and couldn’t make heads or tails of the kid. He smiles with bemusement at the pessimistic recollections of a mistaken journalist.
“I still feel young but it’s my seventh season now and the time is running by so fast and young guys are coming in,” explains Biedrins. “It’s so weird that so many guys on the team are younger than me. It’s pretty cool. It’s good that I can give them so much advice like I had in my first three years like the veterans were to me so I’m willing to help. Just talk to them and help them out.”
At the podium for a Basketball Canada press conference at the Air Canada Centre the Senior Men’s team managing director Maurizio Gherardini and head coach Leo Rautins sit patiently. They are there to push Canada’s ever-evolving warm up schedule that will include China and a set versus France at the ACC as preparation for their appearance at the upcoming FIBA World Basketball Championship in Turkey this summer. The internationally renowned Gherardini has helped engineer this as part of a new committee designed to improve Basketball Canada’s programs and global presence. Both he and Rautins have substantial name power on the Canadian hoops scene, but right now they are listening to the man they flank in front of the gathered media. They are listening to Jermaine Anderson.
“Growing up in the Downsview park area, now to have a chance to play where the Toronto Raptors play, is definitely a blessing,” says Anderson. His voice creaks but doesn’t crack.
“It’s been six long years and you can hear it in my voice. I sound timid but at the same time I’m excited.”
Anderson is talking about the long and winding road of the Canadian Men’s basketball program, one he has traveled unflinchingly as a player for over half the decade. It has, in most ways, been a journey back to respectability after the program peaked with a seventh place finish at the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney, Australia. Since then the celebrated Jay Triano has been replaced by Rautins as bench boss and the hoops hero of those Olympic games – NBA icon Steve Nash – has all but retired from international competition. The Canadians have not even played in a FIBA World Championship since 2002.
“Rock kind of exemplifies what our team is about,” Rautins told the assembly in reference to Anderson. The nick “Rock” was bestowed upon the 6-2 guard because of his chiseled frame and cool demeanor in the crunch. Both have been developed over time and Rautins has seen and, at times, guided the growth.
“He came in and he’s developed every year and gotten better to become one of the premier point guards that is going to be out there playing this summer.”
At 27 years of age Anderson will be entering the prime of his career in 2010, one that has taken him through Germany, Poland and in 2009-10 to Croatia. Like many of his Team Canada mates the European leagues provide both a living and the international experience to help battle the world competition. Last season with Cedevita Zagreb Anderson was their standout guard, leading the team in assists and serving as a solid scorer and defender. His shot selection is a big selling point and his physical conditioning allows him to stay frenetic on both sides of the ball.
“When you’re playing against the best in the world there is no choice but to get better,” explains Anderson. “When you’re playing against USA, Greece, Turkey… it just helps you. For us, going over there, learning the European game and then coming back over does wonders when playing in the summertime.”
A two-guard for most of his career, Anderson was persuaded by Rautins to play the point position for a Canadian squad that was lacking floor leadership along with speed and strength in the backcourt. There was also a lack of available talent at the position. From that generalship Anderson has not only begun to emerge as the point guard the coaching staff envisioned but also as the heart and soul of a team he can now call his own.
“We put so much into it as individuals and as a team and it’s such an honor to play for your country,” says Anderson. “For me, I give so much of myself during the summers – working out, doing yoga, lifting and running – while I should be resting. My teammates do the same thing. Hopefully we can shock the world.”
The first surprise came when Canada defeated the Dominican Republic at the 2009 FIBA Americas Championship in Puerto Rico to secure their spot in Turkey. Beating a Dominican team that featured NBA bigs like Al Horford, Francisco Garcia and Charlie Villanueva to snag the last ticket for the World championships provided the kind of swagger that can only be provided by success.
“We lost the Uruguay game and we felt that we were done and thought that we had lost our opportunity,” Anderson recalls. “(Then) we beat a team nobody thought we could beat and one that was definitely more talented than us on paper. Hopefully that gives us confidence going into the (FIBA) world championship.”
Anderson was the truth in that game, connecting on five of his eight three-point attempts and finishing with 21 points. Just as big were his five assists and play in the crunch alongside Syracuse schooled shooting guard Andy Rautins. It was the type of game-saving point guard performance not seen since the days of Nash and unfairly, Anderson has had to listen to observers and talking heads pine for the return of “Captain Canada” while he reconfigured his own game to replace him. His spot-clinching performance in Puerto Rico at least slowed the critics.
“Everybody said we couldn’t do anything without Steve,” says Anderson. “To have some success without having Steve here, it’s more for the younger guys. You can be successful as an individual or as a country without having a guy like Steve Nash on the team. We don’t have any superstars, we just have a bunch of guys that work hard and we believe in the system that the coaching staff draws up for us and we go out there and try to execute it. Right now it’s gotten us to Turkey.”
The next step will be tricky. Despite Anderson’s confidence in his band of generation “next-ers” he admits that the addition of some big league talent wouldn’t hurt. Canada fields one of the youngest teams on the circuit and adding veteran experience is vital to their underdog shot of earning at spot in London for the 2012 Olympics. Miami heat forward Joel Anthony has been a regular while San Antonio Spurs forward Matt Bonner is in the process of becoming a Canadian citizen and could eventually play. Long time hold out and NBA veteran Jamaal Magloire remains a long shot. Anderson however, sends a call of caution.
“None of those guys are Steve,” he warns. “The guys we have – Joel and hopefully Bonner’s going to play – are guys that buy into the system. They don’t say, ‘Well, because I’m an NBA guy I’m going to do this or my own thing’. They’re just like everybody else. When you have guys like that who believe and work hard it helps us.”
When Anderson talks about belief he isn’t referring to Sacramento Kings center Samuel Dalembert. When his attitude began to rub teammates and coaches the wrong way (the word “entitlement” has been the polite description) Rautins booted Dalembert out of the program in the middle of the FIBA 2008 qualifying tournament in Greece.
“It’s disappointing for sure,” said coach Rautins at the time. “But I think you have to have players who are a 100% committed to it.
“If not, it’s not going to happen for us.”
Canada failed to make the cut for the Beijing Olympics that summer and the loss of Dalembert was noticeable. Despite the disappointment the more important message of team unity had been sent and was a powerful motivational tool in Puerto Rico. Anderson in particular, has carried that message well.
“When you look at him from the outside he seems quiet but he is very passionate,” says Rautins moments after leaving the podium. “He’s been through a lot. For years it was like: “You don’t have Steve? Well, who do you have?” Here’s a guy who wasn’t a natural point guard. We had to develop him into a point guard and he is at a point now where he can play with anybody. He’s had this tremendous commitment to playing for Canada even when people weren’t necessarily supporting him. It was a great moment (when) he stepped up as big as anybody in the biggest game, which tells you what he’s all about.
“It’s been fun to see the growth.”
Look beyond the well-honed physique and the stone cold clutch play and the tag “Rock” has come to mean so much more for Anderson. He may never be the most talented or naturally gifted player on the court but his approach ensures that nobody will be working harder and few will be more prepared when called upon to perform. The name “Rock” has now mostly come to represent the piece of foundation that Anderson’s game, sacrifices and attitude have contributed to the national program, helping to give it something new and fresh to stand on heading into the world championship.
“I don’t think a lot of people expect us to do anything at this tournament but I think we’re going to shock a lot of people,” Anderson spouts confidently. “It’s going to be a great tournament for us.”
After Wednesday night’s 113-87 loss to the visiting Utah Jazz reserve guard Antoine Wright faced the media in front of his locker. His spoke carefully, perhaps in part bewildered by the performance his slowly but surely slipping Toronto Raptors squad had just put on. It was an effort devoid of any urgency whatsoever. It was written all over his face and if any Raptors could look each other in the eye after the loss, it would have been like looking in the mirror, which is the first place Wright suggests they look.
“The way we played tonight was piss-poor,” said Wright with no need to emphasize.
And he wasn’t asked to. The proof was in the pudding almost from the get-go when the Jazz executed on both ends of the floor without much resistance from the hometown representatives. The Raptors have been accused of being over-confident at times this season, particularly during their high point in January and February when they were winning against some good teams only to falter against lesser opponents. They’ve tempered that glow recently but at least there was an edge to that dampened trait. Starts are concerning now and third quarters are iffy again. Key forward Hedo Turkoglu continues to dip in and out of the line up for various reasons. At least one starter has been changed. The uncertainty all of that brings seems to have helped to suck the life out of the team. It’s as if they don’t believe they should be in this situation instead of finding a way out of their new reality.
“It’s a bit of a letdown,” said Wright of the team’s recent efforts at home, which have include blowout losses versus the Oklahoma Thunder and Jazz by an average of 25 points. “We’re playing for so much and to have all this at stake and still be worrying about trying to guys up for games is frustrating. I know it’s frustrating to out fans.”
The fans at the Air Canada Centre have been just as Jekyl and Hyde as the team they are paying big bucks to see. As many rounds of boos have hung in the air as cheers, though these days the booing comes quick and often. The solution to the fan discontent is to win of course but nobody on the team has been able to come up with a consistent formula. The franchise made itself over in the off-season and held a close door meeting early on which helped to immediately turn around their November/December losing ways. The improvements were thought to be a turning point but instead a month later the team is in a dogfight just to make the playoffs and old habits are back. They currently hold a weak 2.5 game over the Chicago Bulls who have shown signs of improvement after stars Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah returned from injuries this week.
One of the biggest problems with this Raptors team as they attack the stretch drive is the lack of a locker room general, a spot usually best played by the team’s best talent. As Chris Bosh goes so do the Raptors but since returning to action from an ankle injury a few weeks ago the all-star’s impact has been less than the stellar play that had him just outside the MVP conversation for most of the season. That was before Toronto lost nine of 10 games between February 24 and March 14, a collapse bookended by losses to the Portland Trailblazers. Bosh, a leader in free throw attempts for the better part of this campaign, has seen his trips to the line drop without his trademark aggressiveness. He sits at sixth in the league with 8.5 attempts per game but it is a long way of from the 10 or 11 he was getting before the ankle injury. In his first game back against Philadelphia he didn’t even make a charity stripe appearance. In a comeback win versus the Atlanta Hawks last week he didn’t get there until the dying minutes of the game. That lack of aggression has spread to his teammates, even for a shooting team like the Raps.
“To lose like this is disheartening but we have to have a short memory and we’ve got to get over it,” continued Wright.
Can they beat the demons (Does Deron Williams racking up more assists than the entire Raptors team count as a demon?)? That is the question chasing the Raptors and much of the answer will come in the form of their bench production… and youth. With kids like Sonny Weems, Amir Johnson and DeMar DeRozan seeing their first major professional minutes as steady parts of a rotation lack of experience is a concern.
“Some of the younger guys don’t understand the intensity you have to have at this end of the season,” said Wright who last year started for a contending Dallas Mavericks team. “It’s not about coach “taking me out” or about “Aw, I’m not getting my shots” at this point in the season. it’s about playing and getting to the second season and giving yourself a chance. You can’t look forward to that moment unless you lay the groundwork for today.”
Wright is one of the more honest locker room voices in the league but it is the core pieces like Bosh, Turkoglu and Calderon that must step into those roles. Bosh stating that he feels as though he is doing enough won’t sit well with brass and mates looking for more. On a team with its share of inexperienced postseason players a lot of the talk seems to be coming from the supporting parts instead of the main cogs that have been to the postseason with this franchise and others. That won’t work in the crunch, when it really matters and when life or death is the only choice. It is simply too late in the season to be questioning motivation, searching for new player configurations on the floor and identifying an unquestionable leader. If that’s the case, it’s already too late.
The return of Chris Bosh was supposed to set things right for a team that had become passive in his absence. Yet in his comeback story against the lowly Philadelphia 76ers Bosh came out slow and, not surprisingly, the rest of his team followed accordingly in a 114-101 loss at the Air Canada Centre. Neither squad took over the game but the 76ers started just well enough and finished just strong enough to seal the deal and send the Raptors to a costly loss, one that kick-started their current three-game slide. The team is now just 3-7 in their last 10 contests and as a collective has shown decidedly less spark of late.
“I guess we felt we had an easy game,” said forward Antoine Wright following the loss against Philadelphia. “You can’t expect to win games just coming into them like that. We have to do a better job of getting our minds ready for the games.”
Reading between the lines one might conclude that an air of over-confidence may have gripped the team. When February began nearly the entire team saw it as a soft spot in the schedule. Their most recent loss to the Kings had all the makings of a sure win, before the squad unwound drastically in the third quarter after building a first half lead. It was a bad sign out of the halftime recharge and uninspired defense allowed the Kings easy buckets in transition. The result
“We have to do everything different,” said center Andrea Bargnani before leaving on the western journey. “Every single thing.”
In the midst of a four-game west coast road trip that takes them through California to face the Los Angeles Lakers, Sacramento Kings and Golden State Warriors and then into Portland to face the Trailblazers, the Toronto Raptors – at 10-21 on the road – will need to rediscover their edge. The have already lost the first two games of the swing – a heartbreaking, last second loss to the Lakers and a horrific stomping at the hands of the Kings. Take a look at the contenders for the fifth through eighth seeds and the Raptors’ timing for a lapse could not have been, well, more untimely. Easy? Focus? Uninspired? Change everything? Not things a team wants to hear (or admit) during the last quarter of their schedule with a playoff berth at stake.
The Charlotte Bobcats have won five straight games and have gone from ninth seed to sixth in the span of a week. The Milwaukee Bucks have also won five in a row to claim the fifth seed once thought to be a lock for Toronto. The Miami Heat have dipped in and out of the postseason picture for the past two weeks but have now won two straight matches to place themselves back in the mix, leaving the Raptors hanging on to the eighth seed. While just 2.5 games separates all of the above-mentioned the ninth place Chicago Bulls, despite having lost seven straight games, are only two games behind the Raptors and the final playoff position. Expect the musical chairs to continue until the final day of the campaign, a scramble Raptors did not believe they would be a part of three weeks ago.
With two games remaining on their current tour – a date with the dandy Golden State Warriors and resilient Portland Trailblazers – and a follow-up mini home stand against the Atlanta Hawks and Oklahoma Thunder looming – the circumstances leave little room for error. Missed opportunities to create space in February and early March, particularly with the Bulls in a terrible slump, place them in a reality that demands a quick turnaround.
A case can be made for this team to slide either way.
The Raptors’ two big stars, Bosh and off-season addition Hedo Turkoglu, have been disappointing of late. In the three games since returning from a seven game, injury-induced absence Bosh is averaging just 16 points on 19 of 52 shooting from the floor. His rebounding numbers have also fallen to just eight per night and he has visted the charity stripe just nine times total. With Turkoglu continuing a season-long funk the supporting cast has been put through the grinder. Covering reasonably well for early-season injuries to forward Reggie Evans and, to a lesser extent, Wright seems to be catching up. Reserves Sonny Weems and Amir Johnson have been good but they cannot save this team. The slow progression of Turkoglu’s impact has also been costly. The pine crew have been unable to fill the holes as of late with their big names struggling, so much so that talk of a line up change has been whispered and could happen before the team returns to the ACC on Wednesday for their game versus the Hawks.
‘Face the music’ said Toronto Raptor Antoine Wright for any attentive ear to hear in the locker room after Tuesday night’s crushing 106-102 home loss to the up-but-mostly-down Washington Wizards. It was the fourth defeat in a row for the Raptors and not everybody was anxious to stand up in front of the microphones. The comment was clearly meant for Hedo Turkoglu, the struggling Raps forward who had disappeared into the back bowels of the change room. His extraction required from behind the scenes required team personnel and no doubt a sigh or two. After another night of watching an opportunity to perform in the clutch vanish and with it a possible victory, the Raptors’ prize off-season acquisition was taking an uncommon amount of time returning to his stall to engage with the usual throng of media waiting… and waiting. Only when the impatient mob shifted its mass over to an always-ready Jarrett Jack did Turkoglu emerge; prompted, stirred but not quite rattled by the mounting losses.
“Tomorrow’s a new game,” said Turkoglu of the losing ways. “I can’t really think about it much. If I do what happens? It becomes tomorrow again. I know what I did bad and I should take my time… those kind of situations you just learn from and move on.”
The Raptors provided yet another bizarre box score in that the ways in which it continues to lose games vary, the strongest sign the team just cannot pull it all together. They are good some nights on fixing the flaws of a previous outing only to spring a leak on the other side of the ball. Against the Wizards the Jekyll and Hyde act was blatant. With a 50-43 rebounding edge the Raptors coughed up 17 turnovers and after dominating with points in the paint through the first three quarters the squad allowed the Wizards’ bigs and board-crashers to own the offensive key with 16 points down low in the last Q. the three-point shot they so desperately rely on has left them (7 for 28 versus Washington). Right now they are running out of fingers and toes to plug the holes.
“It’s always rough however the turnovers go,” said Jack. “What’s been killing us is a lot of live ball turnovers, which equates into transition baskets and that’s when it really hurts you. Not to say turnovers are a good thing but if you are going to have a turnover you would rather have a dead ball when the ball goes out of bounds and you are able to set up your defense and they don’t have numbers.”
What should be of some concern is Turkoglu response to an inquiry about possible frustrations he might feel after not being able to make more crunch time plays, something he has built a career on and the biggest reason he was pursued by Toronto last summer.
“We haven’t been in that situation yet,” said Turkoglu of his lack of crunch time success in Toronto. “It can’t be just my situation. As a team we have never been in that situation. One I know I missed against Phoenix and (Washington) was the second one out of 20 games. I know in my life I’ve hit many shots and I’ve missed shots too. As a team we cannot just rely on a last second shot to win or lose. We’ve got to pull ourselves together and try to do a better job before we get into that situation.”
Bingo! Performing in the clutch doesn’t necessarily mean performing well in the last two or three minutes of the game. It also account for crucial moments – game changing plays and momentum that define wins and losses. These plays can take place in any quarter of the game, though the second half and impact to start the third and fourth are critical. Waiting to pull one out of the hat isn’t clutch. Turkoglu and the rest of the Raptors have been in plenty of situations like the one he describes. What they haven’t done on most nights is execute.
After a strong show by Chris Bosh in the second quarter – an 18-point effort – he mostly disappeared after that, mustering just four more points the rest of the way under the manners of Washington forwards Brendan Haywood and Antawn Jamison. Bargnani stalled at key points defensively (at one point he had to be substituted in the crunch) and while the guard play was solid offensively, the perimeter defense was giving and the Wizards attacked the paint relentlessly when they went off in the final frame.
“Fourth quarters are when you really need to make it a little bit more difficult for your opponent,” said Jamison. “You’ve got to throw something at them and you’ve got to get some buckets in the basket.
“They kind of got a read on what we were doing but that’s when you’ve got to attack and be more aggressive.”
A night later versus the Atlanta Hawks the Raptors got shellacked in a beat down reminiscent of the one that got Sam Mitchell fired from the job around the same time last season. Triano isn’t facing that firing squad just yet but the running theme under both bench bosses is undeniable; The Raptors shrink when push comes to shove and for all the obvious talent they have struggled to put together a cohesive for the past three seasons, this one included. Versus the Hawks Toronto was in tough and seemed to still be sputtering from their loss against Washington the night before. By halftime in the ATL the Hawks had dropped 75 points on the visitors and dismissed them with a 145-115 final.
That would be another 100 plus point game as well, running the current consecutive streak to 11 in that department, making it their 15th of the season with 13 of those being losses. If alarm bells are ringing in the expected deafening proportions nobody connected to the team has cracked just yet. The problem may lie within the combination of the starting line up, a collection that despite starting off games well offensively sets very little tone on the defensive end. Teams such as Boston and Phoenix have tested Toronto’s physical and mental mettle this season and with no growth to be seen from it a change could be the best thing. The Hawks had nine players reach double-digit scoring on Wednesday. There is no significantly above average defender in starters Turkoglu, Bargnani, Jose Calderon and DeMar DeRozan and Bosh is a good – not great – defender. Alas the reserves haven’t exactly proved invaluable as defensive prowlers, particularly at the swingman slot where Wright, Marco Belinelli and seldom-used Sonny Weems haven’t been the answer. Head coach Jay Triano downplayed the possibility of a shake-up on the horizon, though a mini one started in Atlanta with Weems seemingly being given a shot at the sparkplug role Wright was supposed to supply from the bench. Wright was a healthy DNP in Georgia.
“I don’t think so,” said Triano if he considered a lineup change in the wake of the loss to Washington. His reply took a hearty pause. “I mean we didn’t get off to a bad start. I don’t know if it’s our starting line up.
Still, with the afore-mentioned lack of options on the roster as-is and defender Reggie Evans still more of a question mark than not heading further into December. Outside of a lineup change roster movement possibilities might be worth mentioning. Why put off the inevitable until a February drop-dead date? Until that option becomes real team must continue to adapt and perhaps the biggest test of that ability will come during their current three-game road trip when the play the Wizards again. With a 2-8 road mark the Raptors are at an early-season crossroads, nearing that quarter-season mark where teams start to round into what they are more or less. Not even riding out the heat in the showers while the media hordes loiter at your locker can change that. If a move, either to the line-up, the combinations or the roster itself aren’t made soon, the only music the Raptors will be facing is to the chin and Turkoglu, like the rest of the team, is getting a glimpse into what life will be like if they continue to live under a blanket just as invisible as their defense.
Two games into the 2009 NBA Final and the story with the biggest impact has been the return of Jameer Nelson. The All-Star point guard returned to these playoffs after a four-month layoff, just in time for Game 1 of the Final where he played 23 minutes including the entire second quarter. Independently there were positive and productive signs for Nelson but team-wise, an ultimately inferior result as his Orlando Magic lost 100-75 to the Los Angeles Lakers. Which might beg the question; who runs this team anyway? Was Nelson’s importance so heavy for the Magic’s ultimate success that three rounds of increasingly impressive wins could not outweigh it?
Before Nelson’s official comebackance it seemed the players were blowing the trumpets at his return while coaches and management downplayed it all the way. Hard to believe that one man’s decision went into making the call that could potentially – and has – drastically changed the series. There are the doctors and trainers and therapists and coaches and general manager and of course, Nelson himself. It’s been reported that Nelson spoke with both replacement starter Rafer Alston and reserve point guard Anthony Johnson to gauge their comfort level regarding a possible return. Both reportedly welcomed it. Convinced? GM Otis Smith accepted it. Head coach Stan Van Gundy pushed and backed it.
And it has backfired.
The fluidity with which the Magic has played with in the biggest games of their postseason has gone missing. The Game 6 first round series clincher versus Philadelphia in Round 1 without a suspended Dwight Howard, the homecourt grabbing Game 1 win over Cleveland in Round 3 and the Round 2, Game 7 win in Boston come to mind. Suddenly open shots have turned into ugly dares and confidence has waned. Something is off in the chemistry, despite an impressive overtime battle in Game 2. If not for 18 points from forward Rashard Lewis in the second quarter the Magic would have been blown out before the half. After shooting under 30 percent from the field in their Game 1 loss the Magic shot a more respectable 41 percent but ultimately just as ineffective. Center Dwight Howard has been a mute, totaling six field goals on six for 16 shooting for a series total of 29 points.
Sure the bigs on the Lakers are using all kinds of length to disrupt Howard from getting the ball in the post, but the fact that they shrink on him so much means Orlando shooters have a second more to fire away. Missing their shots is a product of hesitancy and rhythm. J.J. Redick, another guard that has cut into available backcourt minutes this series, has been a victim of this. Nelson’s return can’t help but contribute to that look in some way. He handles the rock, dribbles plenty and controls tempo – but not too well at the moment. When he’s out there the Magic look out of sync. After 23 minutes of burn in Game 1 Nelson was checked to a more understandable 16 minutes and change in Game 2. He started the first three minutes of the fourth quarter in Game 1 when Van Gundy inexplicably played him in the final frame despite a 29-point deficit. Nelson was also strangely re-inserted into that game with just over four minutes remaining with the Magic on the wrong side of an 89-65 score. Johnson never got off the bench.
In Game 2 Nelson was managed more conservatively and played in just four minutes of the fourth and not at all in the overtime period. The Magic, until Gasol’s seven-point OT outburst that sealed a 101-96 Lakers victory, had looked more comfortable and assertive. In fact, Nelson played just seven second half minutes. Yet Alston did not play in the fourth Q either and by the time he got back in the game midway through OT he was cold and ineffective. So much for dynamic guard play. Seems outside of Mikael Pietrus the backcourt rotation has gotten straight loopy.
Alston, by the way, is 3 for 17 from the field since his minutes have become a guessing game in the championship series. He has just one steal and a total of six assists over 50 minutes after averaging nearly 13 points, four assists and two steals in the first three rounds. Van Gundy’s insistence on “sticking by” Nelson may have worn off some but the damage may have already been done. This isn’t to say the Nelson is the cause for the hole the Magic finds itself in. Nor is he, or Van Gundy for that matter, responsible for missed easy looks and. Van Gundy’s tactical resume improved in Game 2 but the trick will be to repeat the performance.
Is that where Miami Heat president Pat Riley saw the crack in the armor? When Riley fired Van Gundy as head coach of the Heat midway through the 2006 season it was because Riley felt that Van Gundy had reached his peak with the team, and would not be capable of navigating the favored Heat to a title. Riley took over as bench boss and the Heat went on to capture the NBA title. That left Van Gundy with a bit of a perception to shake and he has in many ways with his job coaching the Magic to the second best record in the eastern conference and through a tough postseason hit list. Still, he’ll have to make some tougher decisions that stick if he is to totally shed the tag applied by Riley and the firing.
Chemistry is tricky and there are some players who are so good that there is no dispute as to whether or not they will play coming off an injury if they send the word. Players whose absences leave holes so large that any chance of their return is salivate over. Players so good that their returns are essential. With the way the Magic had adapted to life without their starting point guard, and despite the All-Star year he had, Nelson is not one of those players. Not in this scenario.
“We love having him back,” Alston told Florida Today. “He symbolizes so much of what this organization is about. But it’s difficult brining a guy in for the Finals. There’s not much wiggle room for error.”
The decision to alter the complexion of the roster so significantly and so late in the postseason was unnecessary. The Magic would have been better served leaving Nelson out for Game 1 to see if the gritty play and winning ways could continue without him. He’s much better shooter than Alston and point guard pressure is the fastest way to get to the Lakers, but that is all dependant on if Nelson is ready to apply that type of pressure. So far the answer is no.
Chemistry and confidence are fragile things, especially when talking about a collective, like a basketball team. The Magic had a bubbling confidence and swagger heading into the NBA Final but the Lakers’ aggressiveness and length, particularly in the paint, has been tough for Howard and the Magic to counter. Shooting has been streaky at best and while the Magic showed signs of life in the hustle department the defensive lapse at the end of Game 2’s overtime was discouraging for one of the NBA’s top defensive squads.
Who’s responsible for the above-mentioned warts? In part or whole the tag can be applied to many, but none more directly than Van Gundy. There is a more general drawback that speaks to the core of the team. That they have been unable to make a quick mental adjustment to a major line-up change at arguably the most difficult position on the floor. The mental management has not been there and at this point, the resolve should be concrete. Role definition is just as critical. The aches that ail the Magic in this series are plentiful and while the majority of it has been brought on by the Lakers themselves, making the decision to bring back Nelson one of the few obstacles the Magic could have controlled.
They didn’t and how do you go back? Now it’s out of hand. Now it’s looking more like subtraction by addition.
Count Toronto Raptors forward Pops Mensah-Bonsu as a believer. With the international game still flourishing the next wave could very well come from Great Britain and their national basketball team program. If you haven’t noticed the Brits could have four NBA players on their roster as they try to make the necessary moves and improvements to compete seriously at the 2012 summer Olympics to be held in London, England.
Chicago Bulls teammates Luol Deng and Ben Gordon, Golden State Warriors guard Kelenna Azubuike and Mensah-Bonsu will all suit up for Queen and Co. as the British continue to piece together a respectable national hoops squad. In England the sport has seen steady growth along grassroots development, and while its polled interest and television numbers are still uninspiring, the culture is expanding. Last October a the Miami Heat did preseason battle with the New Jersey Nets in London, England’s 02 Arena and drew nearly 19 000. Next October the NBA will mark their third straight preseason in the United Kingdom when Deng and Gordon lead the Bulls into the 02 to take on the Utah Jazz. It’s all about globalizing on the business and playing field but for the players it’s about something else too.
“Gaining some respect,” is the quick answer from Mensah-Bonsu. “We’re a fairly new team as far as the international scene is concerned and we’re trying to establish ourselves. You’ve got teams like Spain, Italy, France… some of these teams have been together since these guys have been young. We’re new. I’ve never played with Ben Gordon before; I’ve never played with Kelenna Azubuike before.
“(With) Luol and all of us together, it’s a new team. It’s a very talented at the same time but we’ve got to establish that chemistry and hopefully we can put some of that talent to good use.”
While the four have become U.S. staples, they all pledge allegiance to the British flag when it comes to hoops. Mensah-Bonsu and Deng have already participated in the program together and Deng and Gordon are teammates with the Chicago Bulls, but whenever Gordon and Azubuike show up to train with the team in England it will be the first time the Brits have has so much NBA power in one sitting.
“I get to play on a national team with three or four NBA players,” said Mensah-Bonsu. “Not a lot of players can say that and not a lot of national teams can say that too. It’s something to look forward to.”
The NBA loves to sow its seed and the rising popularity of basketball in England is a good ride to hitch. They would also like to strengthen their presence in England to capitalize on the Olympics in ’12 after seeing the popularity and red carpet treatment they received at the Beijing Olympics. Their influence can be seen – in part – on the resurgence of the national program, which lay dormant for nearly a decade and a half before Deng’s stardom helped to resurrect it. They’ve also qualified to take part in Eurobasket, their first ever invite to the tournament’s historic existence. It certifies in many ways the efforts spent rebuilding the program and that the plan is working by attracting some of the nation’s top athletes, wherever they reside.
“Last year only me and Luol played (and) I wasn’t an NBA player last year,” said Deng. “But now we can say we can say ‘we’ve got three or four NBA players on the team’. Definitely, we’re going to be able to more than compete. We should raise some eyebrows too.”
1. NO RIGHT ANSWER: So the Allen Iverson experiment ended as most predicted it would in Detroit – the Pistons finally relenting and admitting that in their system A.I. was a bench player, perhaps the most expensive in the league. His first foray from the pine resulted in him questioning his role and openly suggesting that he would rather retire than end his career as a bencher. By the time he had returned from a back injury last week Richard Hamilton was already re-inserted as the permanent starting two guard. Iverson had lost his job. The countdown to a blow-up between he and the Pistons’ coaching staff was on. But something happened that was both surprising yet not unexpected… all at once. The team pre-empted that potential attack by announcing that A.I. would not be returning this season due to lingering back aches, a smokescreen if there ever was one. Want to make a bet that A.I. won’t be on the bench come playoff time, you know, in support of his teammates? There are a handful of teams in the NBA whose make-up fits Iverson’s ball-hungry hands style of player but the Pistons were never one of them. They simply aren’t built that way and never will be as long as Tayshaun Prince, Rasheed Wallace and Hamilton are the core (which may not last beyond this season). Think Charlotte Bobcats, Los Angeles Clippers or even Houston where a) there isn’t a dominant collection of scorers making up for the lack of a true superstar or b) scoring fast and furiously is still a coveted trait. In the end though, if he ever wants a crack at the championship ring that has eluded him for his entire career he’ll have to swallow the franchise player tag and take a back seat to somebody. It wasn’t that Iverson couldn’t handle being a reserve in Detroit; it was that whether as a starter or reserve he could not defer enough to the other resident stars to make it work. His ability to do just that, wherever he lands next season, will go a long way in determining whether The Answer, in his final years in the NBA, becomes more of a problem than his famous moniker suggests…
2. BIRDMAN FOR 6th MAN: Who’s with me? Chris Anderson for 6th Man of the Year? Laughing? Well before you get into full belly roll mode remember that it was just last January that Anderson was reinstated by the NBA Players Association after completing a two-year suspension having to do with positive drug tests. He came back with the New Orleans Hornets at that point last season and this season returned to the Denver Nuggets, his first NBA team back in 2001-02. In a mere 20 minutes per game he is second only to 35 minute-a-night center Dwight Howard in blocks with 2.39 swats per game to Howard’s 2.95. Of the top 10 shot-blockers this season those minutes represent the fewest of any. The Nuggets are also better than the Dallas Mavericks and Utah Jazz, which feature Sixth Man candidates Jason Terry and Paul Millsap respectively. And while there is a better chance of an A.C. Green sighting at the Playboy Mansion than there is of Anderson actually winning this award, there is no denying the impact he has had on the Nuggets’ fortunes this season. He also snags 6.5 points on a selective 55% field goal shooting to go with six rebounds. Not blow-your-mind numbers by any stretch but they are career-highs across the board and very often what Anderson brings to the table cannot be measured in statistics. Too bad that is exactly how the 6th Man Award (and most others) is measured. But hear this: If the Nuggets finally get over the hump and get out of the first round of the playoffs for the first time in the Carmelo Anthony era, Anderson will have lots to do with it.
3. WHOSE HOUSE?: Yao’s House! And if you’ve been listening to this corner over the past two seasons you would know that it has always been the stance around here. Simply put, Yao Ming is too steady, too good and too damn big to take a backseat to anybody; especially a no-first-round winning All-Star who reached his peak three years ago and has never led any of his teams anywhere. Yes, that is the common knock on Tracy McGrady and yes, big men like Yao rarely reach the promised land on their own without big time guard play, but… the Houston Rockets have shown over the last two seasons that they can be a better team without McGrady than with him. In fact, the only difference between Iverson in Detroit and McGrady in Houston is that T-Mac has history in H-town and therefore, it becomes a bit more of a game to demote him. He also has another year (and $23M) left on his now-bloated contract and with his injury history I’m not convinced enough teams will bite were he to be dangled in a trade, not for what GM Daryl Morey would want. Like Iverson, his franchise player days are numbered and on a team as deep as the Rockets his value looks worse. Like Iverson, he may have become more important to somebody’s cap situation than their floor plan, you dig? On the other hand, Yao’s value is high and every guard and dynamic scorer wants to play with a dominant big man. There is no downside and Yao is the selling point. With micro-fracture surgery on the horizon for McGrady, and a likely end to his once-blistering moves, the switch to make Yao the face of the Rockets has been hastened. His 19.6 PPG, 9.9 RPG and nearly two blocks per game helps and his impact cannot be denied. He’s kept the Rockets in the top four of the Western Conference this season with or without McGrady, and that might be enough to get Rick Adelman Coach of the Year, something T-Mac has never been able to do for anybody.
4. ROSE VS. MAYO: Despite what you heard this isn’t the two-horse race everybody thought it was going to be. In fact, this may turn out to be one of the best rookie classes ever after all the “experts” pegged it as weak prior to last June’s draft. Yes, Clippers’ guard Eric Gordon had some big outings that briefly put him into the conversation and count the NBA TAKE FIVE crew as believers in the Brook Lopez era in New Jersey, but this Rookie of the Year race is a three player competition now and for the first time in a while winning may actually have something to do with it. How else can you separate the pack of Oklahoma’s Russell Westbrook, Chicago’s Derrick Rose and Memphis’ O.J. Mayo? Westbrook made a strong case in the second half of the season that has put him near the finish line with Rose and Mayo. Here’s your statistical breakdown.
ROSE: 16.7 PPG, 6.2 APG, 3.9 RPG
MAYO: 16.6 PPG, 6.2 APG, 3.9 RPG
WESTBROOK: 15.5 PPG, 4.8 RPG, 5.1 APG
Crude, we know. And way too close to call based on that. So consider strongly that Rose is the only one out of the top ten rated rookies not named Michael Beasley to have his team in the playoff picture. He has also become Chicago’s best player. At the same time I can’t help but think of how good Westbrook is for the NBA and how beautiful the music he and Kevin Durant will make for many years together for the Thunder will be. Westbrook leads all three with eight double-doubles but Rose leads all with a 16.7 player efficiency rating, second only to the Nets’ Lopez. He also has the lowest turnover rate of the three but falls far behind them in steals and defensively in general. Still, Westbrook, like Mayo, plays on a terrible team long gone from postseason talks. Not that Chicago’s record is impressive (they’ll be one of only two teams in the playoffs with a sub-.500 record) but the influence of a playoff appearance could give Rose a big leap over his draft mates on the NBA learning curve. All three will be stars and for now the only thing really separating them is W’s. Rose it is.
5. UP OR DOWN?: Not that there is a whole lot of blame-laying going on in Toronto, the entire NBA knows there are too many nice guys in the locker room for that drama. Then again, that’s exactly why they the top contender as the most disappointing team in the league. No killers… and the question on if franchise player Chris Bosh will become one is legit. Even with a six-game winning streak that bridged March to April when Bosh finally put together a string of clutch performances, not to mention some impressive first quarter performances that led to a couple of blowout wins, the question hasn’t fully been answered. The Raptors have more than enough young and impressive building blocks (Bosh, Jose Calderon, Andrea Bargnani), the required three-point specialist in Jason Kapono and a GM in Bryan Colangelo that was supposed to fix some early season problems. Thing is, none of them were on top of their game this season, except for maybe Bargnani who rebounded from a terrible second year and seems back on track development-wise. And even though Colangelo basically undid all of his moves from last summer, most notably trading away center Jermaine O’Neal (whom he acquired from Indiana for T.J. Ford last off-season) to Miami for Shawn Marion, it came way too late for a serious turnaround to happen. Considering that Sam Mitchell was fired all the way back at the start of December and the Marion trade wasn’t completed until after the All-Star break, that type of inaction is inexcusable for a GM who spent the year preaching a commitment to making the postseason, and started the year by saying this was the best team he had ever assembled in Toronto. Instead the Raptors will miss the playoffs for the first time in three years and interim head coach Jay Triano has to wear it. Not sure if the tease of a six-game winning streak will be enough to keep Marion around, but the impending free agent has proved invaluable as a source of energy and rebounding and was the biggest reason Toronto gelled late. If he doesn’t stick or Colangelo can’t resign him, the $17M coming off the books when his salary expires at seasons end (along with more savings from four other ending contracts) will be substantial enough to add some firepower and depth. But given the Raptors lack of veteran star power they might be better of trying to retain the former All-Star. With six other free agents to-be on the roster, and two others under threat of team options for next season, the Raptors have mad space to fill, money to spend and exactly zero excuses heading into next season.