Posted Mar 21 2010 12:28PM
EAST RUTHERFORD, NJ -- With less then four weeks to go in the season and fighting for one of the last two playoff spots in the Eastern Conference, this is not the time for the Raptors to have reverted to the way they were playing in November.
That was an ugly time for Toronto. After 20 games, they were 7-13 and in 11th place in the East. They had a top-five offense, but were allowing 115.2 points per 100 possessions on the other end of the floor, which put their defense on a level somewhere between "atrocious" and "worst ever."
A players-only meeting and a couple of tweaks to their defensive schemes turned things around at that point, and the Raptors won 22 of their 32 games heading into the All-Star break. They didn't exactly turn into the 2008 Celtics, but they were the 18th best defensive team in the league during that stretch, allowing 105.4 points per 100 possessions, good enough to get by with a highly potent offense.
But when the Raptors returned from the break, it was like they were starting the season over again. They won a couple of games over the Nets and Wizards to peak at seven games over .500, comfortably in fifth place in the East. But the cracks showed, and since then, the leaks have sprung.
Over the last 13 games, the Raptors have gone 3-10, and their defense has been just as bad as it was back in November, allowing 114.8 points per 100 possessions. They've slipped back down to eighth place, and if it weren't for injuries to Chicago's Joakim Noah and Derrick Rose, they would probably be lottery bound right now.
A trip to Secaucus on May 18 may still be their destiny. The Raptors are currently 2 ½ games ahead of the Bulls for eighth, but both Noah and Rose made their returns for the Bulls on Saturday and Chicago's remaining schedule is slightly easier (they play the Nets twice more and have just five road games remaining) than Toronto's.
The Raptors' recent struggles will do nothing to quiet any speculation that Chris Bosh will want to leave Toronto this summer via free agency. The All-Star went on a post-game rant after last Saturday's 124-112 loss at Golden State, lamenting his team's inability to practice what they preach.
"For some reason, we just don't like to secure leads and win basketball games," Bosh said. "That's the only thing I can think of. We come out here, we talk about it. We have a billion meetings, but we can talk all we want. Unless we do something about it really doesn't matter."
Grit and toughness are certainly lacking in Toronto. A starting lineup of Jose Calderon, DeMar DeRozan, Hedo Turkoglu, Bosh and Andrea Bargnani just doesn't have the collective DNA to be a very good defensive team. And as Bosh weighs his options this summer, he might come to the realization that, as a finesse power forward, he's a better fit with a team that isn't so soft at the other four positions.
At this point, the Raptors have pretty much clinched the Worst Defensive Team in the League title for the 2009-10 season. The question is: Does that devalue Bosh in the free agent market? Can he be nearly on the same level as LeBron James and Dwyane Wade if he can't make an impact on both ends of the floor?
Bosh may have the best numbers of any power forward in the league, but he's not nearly the defensive anchor that Kevin Garnett and Tim Duncan are, even though he just celebrated his 26th birthday and those two are both in the twilight of their careers.
The Raptors ranked 12th defensively in 2006-07, when they won the franchise's only division title. So it's not like Bosh has never been on a good defensive team. This may just be a case of an average defender being surrounded by a bunch of really bad ones. And with so many teams clearing cap space in order to make a free agency splash this summer, someone is going to give Bosh a max contract no matter how bad the Raptors have been defensively this season.
They'll just have to make sure that they have the right system and the right players around him. And they can look at this season's Raptors for an example of what doesn't work.
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