Sunday, January 25, 2015

SPORTS: Jumping to pass, Jumping the Passing Lane

The Toronto Raptors are suffering from scout-itis. What's that you say? Well, let me tell you a story from last century, when I was still young and almost able. That's to set the time. I didn't play in the game in question.

Peel's junior championships came down to a battle between the Bramalea Broncos, who had to go on the road to battle the hated enemy and the Applewood Axemen. It was good guy double blue against the red and blue of badness incarnate, Applewood. My bad left knee, injured by an Axemen still makes me growl. And it's been fourty years of grudge-carrying.

In the practices leading up to the game, Coach Gerry (T. Tough) Thompson decided that the number of games the two teams had played against each other, between league jousts and tournament showdowns, meant it was time to introduce a new wrinkle into the Bronco offence. It was going to be guard Bobby Hamilton driving the middle and dealing off to an open Bronco for an easily makeable shot or a drive for a lay-up. Bobby (I still called him that back then, when we were classmates and still friends) was the high-scoring shooting guard for the junior Broncos, not the point guard. Who was Joe Tucci, if I remember right.

The new wrinkle failed. Bobby couldn't master what was, in effect, the 10-day transition to point guard. He drove, jumped up in the air and could not find a teammate open to pass to, despite being ganged up upon by the Axemen. The game was lost and a lot of people blamed bewildered Bobby Hamilton. I didn't. I knew Coach T was the culprit. It was a stumble in a long career of successes. But it was a mistake.

I learned one lesson that day. You don't jump to make a pass unless you are 101 percent sure you will succeed. Not 100 percent, not CLOSE to 100 percent. You have to make the pass and have it lead to success before even IMAGINING leaving your feet for a pass. It's one of the things that was beaten into my head by coach T. Ironic, hunh?

Return now to the present and the Toronto Raptors. A team with a league-leading number of turnovers during the first few weeks of the season. League-leading as in the fewest. The Raptors crisply passed the ball and hit the open shot. Offence wasn't the problem, even as the team struggled on defence right from the start. The reward was a place atop the Eastern Conference in the NBA and jokes about what was the clinching number for winning the Atlantic Division (still such an utter probability that the stats kings still maintain Toronto's chances at being in the play-offs as 100 percent).

But then the cracks started showing. The Raptors started playing better teams. And the teams they handled so deftly the first time around, started making things difficult in subsequent meetings. Which was surprising. The Raptors had been one of the most stable franchises in the league over the summer. Outside of adding Lou Williams and James Johnson to replace John Salmons and Steve Novak, the core of the active roster was unchanged. Williams became a candidate for the best sixth man award, surpassing even the best of Salmons, and Johnson became the defensive equivalent of Novak's so-so instant offence off the bench. But teams SHOULD have known all about the Raptors. And even the new guys, who are both long-time vets.

What the scouts didn't know then that they know now, is that the Raptors are as emotionally strong as a sheet of paper blowing in the wind. The team did stage several fourth quarter comebacks early, thus hiding the fact that the squad was so capable of building deep holes. But the essence of beating the Raptors is easily definable now. Get them to turn the ball over. On any given turnover, the Raptors rarely have more than one or two players run back. Which has turned into embarrassment more often than should be accepted. Oh, the scouts add, "And play the passing lanes."

Play the passing lanes? THAT got pounded out of me early too. "Gamble with your own money," would chirp the coach. "You've got teammates to apologize too if you're wrong." The result on any gamble was easy to see on Coach T's face. If it was successful, a tight-lipped glare. Unsuccessful meant a seat on the bench beside him. Being beside the coach when he was angry was the worst seat in the joint.

The Raptors don't play good fundamental basketball. Compared to the San Antonio Spurs and even the Atlanta Hawks, few teams do. But is it ever more apparent that the key cogs on the Raptors don't get that fundamental basketball is the way NOT to fall into a hole, to make fourth quarters much, much more manageable.

And the culprits are many, no one more so than the heroes, Kyle Lowry and Lou Williams. Lowry has jumped into the air and delivered more bad bounce passes over the last month than I bet he's done in the last three years, total. It turns out, as you jump in the air and twist your body, calculating where to bounce a pass through a maze of arms and legs is a very, very, very difficult thing to do. It's almost as difficult as forcing up a shot everybody knows is a whistler, a shot with no chance to go in, but one that the shooter hopes prompts the referees to save him. It's bad basketball. And lately it's been losing basketball.

Don't get me wrong. Lowry is entirely worthy of his starting All-Star nod. But the result of alll of his frantic effort in the last month is less than the sum of his individual team-carrying moments. But please Mr. Lowry, only throw those touchdown passes when you know you will connect. Even with two feet on the ground. As for jumping in the air hoping a passing lane opens? Ah, just no. No. NO!

Then there's Williams. He's feasted all year on free throws earned by swiping at carelessly positioned arms while standing just past the three-point line. It's been tweet and three free shots from the charity stripe, except on the few occasions when his defender-instigated shot actually goes through and it becomes a four-point play opportunity. But lately, teams have punished players who defend Williams badly. Pine time. Williams is now facing defenders who stand straight up and force him into his favourite move, a drive left and an unbalanced shot that actually DOES go in a fair amount of time. Still, any properly-coached defensive team merely contests the shot and hopes for the best, which isn't bad. It would be nice if Williams at least tried the odd pass in end of quarter moments. He doesn't. And the other team knows he won't.

The two heroes aren't the only players who have issues caused by good scouting. Neither of the two bigs, Jonas Valanciunas and long-time favourite Amir Johnson have proven themselves capable of dribbling the ball successfully this year. If they don't make a quick, instinctive move, they seem more likely than not to dribble into trouble. And when they do pass, it's immensely predictable where they will pass to. So much so, that as an opposing coach, I would tell my players, "Gamble."

Terrence Ross has a book out on him. The number of cross-court passes he and Greivis Vasquez complete are simply not worth the too-frequent gambles on the part of the Raptors. Indeed, Ross has resembled Bobby Hamilton at times. He jumps and ... hopes for the best. Vasquez is just as bad on the cross-court and combines that with a spin dribble move in contested ball-handling that creates turnovers and two points at a frightening rate.

Consistent decision-making. Poor decision making at that. Taking gambles. The Raptors are missing All-Star DeMar DeRozan badly. The man inhabiting his uniform right now is not All-Star DeMar DeRozan. That guy covered over a lot of problems. And that guy's 20 points a night, calming effect on the team and good fundamentals can't be taken away from the Raptor roster and expect success.

The Raptors put out the effort. Sure, I cringe watching Valanciunas lumber up and down the floor and react at every referee call, innocent or (VERY OFTEN) guilty. And sure, coach Dwane Casey drives me batty not pulling the heroes in the same way as he does T-Ross and JV. And we all know that a few more long-range bombs falling or a return to form of the player formerly known as All-Star DeMar DeRozan will turn things around. The Raptors rarely seem to be missing actual physical effort. The occasional suspects, JV and James Johnson, would be appreciated more if they didn't visibly malinger every so often. But both players are productive and arguably actually deserve more minutes, since the carrot of playing time does not seem to have had a beneficial effect.

And the panacea of just jacking up three point bombs isn't as much of a solution as the Raptors hope. It's also particularly galling on the other four players who are running full tilt to join the half-court offence when all of that running turns out to be wasted.

Coaching to change habits is tough. But that's why they get paid enough for the fine suits and I sit at home, grousing in my pajamas.

Scouts are plaguing the Raptors now. The word is out about their most obvious patterns. And it's time to change that. New players via a trade? Or realizing the futility of just jumping in the air without any idea of what's going to happen next and saying, "NO MORE!"

That look of resignation on Bobby Hamilton's face lingers on, decades later.

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