Monday, December 19, 2011

Celtics edge Raptors in pre-season opener

TORONTO — At both ends of the Air Canada Centre floor, the big block letters that spelled out “Raptors” are gone. They have been replaced by smaller slanted letters that look awful in the arena, but pop out on television to form “digital billboards.”

“We thought we’d experiment with it this year,” Toronto Raptors president and general manager Bryan Colangelo said before his team lost 76-75 in the first of two pre-season games with the Boston Celtics.

Sure, why limit the experimenting to the on-court product?

The Raptors figure to be a big mess of an experiment this year. Throw a bunch of stuff at the wall — zone defence, three-guard lineups, meaningful minutes for unproven young players — and see what sticks. The debut, in the spirit of most pre-season basketball, was typically inconclusive.

New head coach Dwane Casey has focused on defence in training camp, a sage approach given the team’s historically awful woes on that end of the floor over the past few seasons, and it showed as the Raptors’ offence was abysmal.

Toronto failed to get organized far too often and wound up shooting just 38 per cent with 21 turnovers. Reserves Jerryd Bayless and Leandro Barbosa owned four of those turnovers apiece. James Johnson matched that total in just 10 minutes of action.

“Even with those turnovers, we lost the game by one,” point guard Jose Calderon said. “That’s why we’re concentrating on the other part. I think we’ll take care of the offence and the turnovers in these days that are coming.”

“I said (Saturday) we might throw it up in the stands,” Casey said. “We did that 21 times.”

The Raptors, however, managed to hold Boston to just 39-per-cent shooting. Boston did not have Paul Pierce because of a heel injury, but that still has to be encouraging for Casey, who has called changing the team’s defensive culture job No. 1.

Casey started Canadian Jamaal Magloire at centre, as the coach is trying to keep Andrea Bargnani out of the centre spot. Casey said the centre spot would likely be filled on a rotating basis by Magloire, Aaron Gray and Amir Johnson. With nearly 20 minutes, Johnson logged the most time of those three.

The signs on defence were encouraging; Casey called the results “fantastic.”

“We had to come (from) so far behind defensively,” Casey said. “I was really pleased. I was happy about today’s performance.”

And, in an overwhelmingly positive season debut, Bargnani had 16 points and nine rebounds in 32 minutes. Boston power forward and bully Kevin Garnett clapped his hands in the sixth-year big man’s face, and Bargnani snapped back at the future Hall of Famer.

Bargnani said he did not even notice Garnett, long an agitator of the Raptors, saying anything to him. It is hard to know if that was honesty or Bargnani playing coy.

“I was impressed with (Bargnani). He hit the boards,” Casey said. “Overall, I was pleased with his effort. I thought he competed. He got out and impacted the ball on his pick-and-roll coverages. He came back and got some in-the-traffic rebounds, which we’ve been on him about.”

Ultimately, the Raptors staged a comeback on the strength of a run against five Celtics scrubs, but gave up a rebound and a layup to someone named Greg Stiemsma to lose the game. With a chance to win it, the Raptors ran a busted play, with DeMar DeRozan and Bargnani both missing chances to win it.

Casey said multiple players were not in the right spots.

It was kind of emblematic of the afternoon.

“Coming into this game, we accomplished what we wanted to accomplish: to step up our effort defensively and have a competitive spirit on the defence,” Casey said. “Now we have to turn around and have an offensive spirit, too. I know that will be easier for us (to fix) than the other way around.”

National Post

© Copyright (c) National Post, Photograph by: Mike Cassese, REUTERS


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