The Last Moral Victory

Title: The Last Moral Victory
Date: January 8, 2014
Original Source: Raptors Republic
Synopsis: This post-game broke down the Raptors’ Jan. 7 loss to the Pacers.

The Toronto Raptors finished up a pretty difficult stretch of schedule on Tuesday night, facing difficult circumstances on the road against the Indiana Pacers.

They arrived at 3 p.m. for a 7 p.m. tip after an extra two nights in Miami. Sleep schedules, practice schedules and game-day routines were sacrificed (and if you think those are small, take a circuitous route to work tomorrow and forego your morning coffee). It was anything but an ideal situation in which to try and slay the proverbial Goliath, for the second time in a week no less.

Six days after toppling the defensive behemoth, the Raptors fell 86-79 in a game that was at times ugly but never anything but entertaining. The past 15 games have been quite an experience for Raptors fans, flipping the script entirely from a tank-focused, blow-the-team-up attitude to a galvanized fanbase ready for a winning team.

No, the Raptors didn’t escape with a victory on Tuesday, nor did they in their Sunday visit to Miami. Make no mistake, though, losing two road games to Miami and Indiana – a combined 55-18 overall and 33-4 at home – by a combined 12 points is a major moral victory. They are confrontations lost but experience and confidence gained, and they’ve also shown that, even when not at their finest, this is a team that can compete with the best teams this league has to offer.

There is honor in that, insomuch as there is honor in regular season sporting events, and these two losses hardly hurt the 10-5 post-trade record. Statistically speaking, narrow road losses to elite teams portend future success. Morally speaking, this team is likely even more confident it “can hang” and – learned earlier – they can pull out tight games.

Before we get into some specifics, go check out Zarar’s quick reaction, which has pretty much all the detail you need.

Allow me two “key moments” if you will, moments that mattered little in the micro (individual plays, no big deal right?) but had a much more macro feel.

First, the game started out with Amir Johnson airballing a three and Roy Hibbert stripping the rebound from Jonas Valanciunas. If there was ever a bad omen to kick off a game, and an indication that Johnson and Valanciunas would struggle and Hibbert would be a force, this was it. All three of those things ended up being true.

Johnson would remain damn-near invisible for the night, missing a few easy buckets and losing his man on rebounds, uncharacteristic mistakes to be sure. He guarded David West well in one-on-one situations, but everything else seemed too complicated in this one. Everyone has bad days, and he’s been a house afire lately, so give him a pass.

Valanciunas, however, shirked in the Hibbert rematch. A few days after largely impressing, he let Hibbert’s physicality and the referee’s whistle get deep inside his head. Four turnovers are understandable and have come to be expected – and I really liked that Dwane Casey let him work through the struggles for 32 minutes, an absolute necessity as this team grows – but it was a bad, bad game. He’s getting the short end of the stick fairly often in post battles, but he’s a sophomore and, one would guess, developing a reputation as someone all too willing to let the ref know how he feels about that.

The other “key” was when, in the second quarter ,Kyle Lowry was fouled on a 3-point attempt and subsequently missed all three free throws. For a 78.7 percent career free throw shooter, this would be expected as a result less than one out of 100 times (assuming they are “independent” events and a binomial distribution, which is probably not 100 percent accurate but almost certainly 95 percent accurate).

I might be taking a bit of a journalistic liberty here, but I think that’s a pretty sound metaphor for the game the Raptors played here. They did the things that should lead to success – terrific defense, great effort, bench contributions, guys doing things beyond scoring if that wasn’t working – but the execution just wasn’t where it needed to be. Call it legs, credit Indiana or just chalk it up as a bad game, but shooting 37 percent (5-of-16 on threes) won’t cut it, even if you do a lot of other things well.

I thought Lowry had another excellent game, by the way, and at some point soon I may just re-post this ode to him I wrote at the beginning of last season. It’s actually hard at this point to remember Lowry as a “bad teammate,” especially when there’s no louder cheerleader from the bench and absolutely nobody who wants to win each possession more than him.

It’s probably a bit repetitive with the quick react from Big Z, but allow me a few notes on a couple of others as well.

DeMar DeRozan – Shot’s not falling? Get to the line. That’s a pretty simple formula for efficiency when the jumper dries up, and he also added six assists which is now becoming more the norm than anomaly (he’s averaging 4.5 assists since the Gay trade, having never averaged more than 2.5 before). On one play, he drew extra attention driving into the paint and hit 2-Pat with a perfect pass for an open corner three. His vision off the bounce has improved a great deal, something I’m hoping to talk to him about sometime soon.

Terrence Ross – One of our biggest criticisms of DeRozan in prior years was not being able to contribute if the shot wasn’t dropping. Ross went one-for-eight on Tuesday, so what’d he do? Impressed with his defense yet again, broke a few dishes in Paul George’s kitchen and grabbed eight boards and three steals. Shots won’t always fall, but if Ross can consistently contribute in other ways, they won’t always need to.

Patrick Patterson – 2-Pat has been a nice treat so far, a great addition to the bench unit. Will I ever get over the fact that he looks 40 years old? Probably not.

Greivis Vasquez – All I’m asking is for some patience with him. The jumper’s not falling, there appears to be an ankle issue, and he’s just better than this. He’s not a starting caliber point guard, mind you, but he’s better than this.

If you’re wondering why I’ve fragmented this post, it’s because I’m currently at 1,300 words and haven’t broken down a single play, something I (we?) normally like to include in post-games. However, with a pre-game bumping this at approximately noon, I’m going to forego that part of the analysis and pocket those for something on Thursday, perhaps.

If there are any plays in particular you found to be highlights or lowlights, pass them on to me on twitter (I’m bad for not reading comments).

With that “moral victory” of narrow defeat on anything but their best day to one of the league’s best team behind us, rest assured the moral victory claim is at its end.

Over the next several weeks, the schedule turns far more favorable. Five of the next six are at home, with only one of those coming against a winning opponent, and not until a west coast trip that begins Jan. 31 do the Raptors have any sustained adversity on the schedule (and even that five-gamer has non-back-to-back dates with Utah and Sacramento).

If this team is what we have started to believe they are – the third or fourth best team in the Eastern Conference, and a serious threat for the second round of the playoffs (in a non-evisceration, at that) – the time to strike is now. There is no greater value to be taken from a road loss in Boston or a home date with Orlando, no matter the circumstance.

It’s been a terrific 10-5 stretch, one that has reaffirmed the faith of many in fun, effort-driven, team basketball. The league has noticed that the Raptors may be for real, and these guys genuinely seem to trust and believe in each other.

Tight road losses to Miami and Indiana are worthy of a good ol’ ass-smoke blowing. Now it’s time to ride that moral high and put a collective foot on some throats.

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