CHICAGO | The Raptors served up a haphazard performance in Tuesday's 109-90 loss to the Bulls, the kind of effort better left in the preseason. On the other side, the Bulls' offense looked fantastic, better than it did at any time last season under former head coach Vinny Del Negro. However, as center Joakim Noah pointed out after the game, a lot of the first and second offensive options popped open for Chicago in that game, options that may not be as easy to come by when the bell rings for real in a couple of weeks.
Before I get to the hard-hitting analysis that you've come to know and love, I'd like to pass along an amusing sequence from my game-covering experience at the United Center, at the middle of which is Omer Asik, the rookie seven-footer from Turkey.
During the postgame media access, Asik was dressed and sitting on the chair in front of his locker. I followed a couple of beat writers over to his corner, hoping he might have something to say about the game, his best showing to date. I hadn't tried to interview him yet, but I'd heard that he doesn't feel his English is good enough to conduct an interview. Indeed, he smiled politely and acted like he was trying to understand our questions. Mostly, he just smiled and nodded. At some point somebody said something like, "Everything OK?" Asik smiled and nodded, then said, "Yes." So there's your Omer Asik quote.
Then Derrick Rose, who on a nightly basis faces the unsavory task of getting dressed with a scrum of microphone-and-recorder-bearing media types circled around him, finished zipping up his pants and started talking about the game. Someone asked if there was a language barrier between he and Asik out on the court.
"No," Rose said. "He knows how to speak English, unless he doesn't want to talk to you, then he'll act like he don't know what you said. His English is fine."
Rose stopped and scanned his audience with his eyes and smiled.
"I hope I didn't just give him up," said Rose.
A little later, I had settled onto a barstool at Konak, a watering hole near my apartment on the North Side that I frequent on occasion, especially after games because their kitchen stays open late. Most of the employees at the place are Turkish, and I was relating my anecdote to the bartender, Tuba. (Yep, just like the instrument.) She doesn't know much about basketball--she's wild about the Chicago Bears for some reason--but she was curious enough to ask me to write down Asik's name. So I scribbled 'Omer Asik' on a napkin.
Tuba laughed and said, "He's got a nice name. Asik means 'lover' in Turkish."
Once Asik fesses up to knowing English a little better than he lets on, I'm looking forward to asking him about that little tidbit--within earshot of his teammates, of course.
My takeaways from Tuesday's game:
1. Miss Bosh much?
The Bulls absolutely pounded the Raptors on the glass. At the risk on inciting a John Gasaway-led riot, I'll just quote the rebound margin: 44-22. The Raptors were in the bottom quarter of the league in rebounding last season and then lost Chris Bosh, whose ability off the defensive glass is something Toronto is going to miss. Raptors coach Jay Triano was in experimental mode on Tuesday and started a lineup Julian Wright, Amir Johnson, David Anderson, Leandro Barbosa and Jose Calderon. That quintet had eight total rebounds in over 100 combined minutes. The starters were outrebounded 14-8 by Chicago's Joakim Noah, and were matched by reserve Bulls center Omer Asik. None of this bodes well for a team that has been emphasizing increased physicality and aggressiveness during the preseason.
"They were much more aggressive and worked a lot harder on the boards than we did," said Raptors coach Jay Triano. "It's something we're going to have to get a lot better at for sure.
"We're trying to be more aggressive on the defensive end of the floor. We didn't force a lot of misses early. We were very slow coming out of the gate. We had a different group in to start, maybe that was it. We practiced harder than we played against the Bulls. It's a good learning tool for us. We've got to get a lot more intensity in how we defend and how we rebound."
The Raptors were the league's worst defensive team last season. Even if they improve this season, they've got a long way to go just to reach average. As such, it's essential that they finish possessions when they actually do force opponents to miss a shot. That's were Andrea Bargnani comes in, or doesn't, as the case may be. Bargnani may never be a good offensive rebounder because he plays so much on the perimeter, but he can and should be an above-average defensive rebounder. On Tuesday, Bargnani managed three defensive boards in nearly 26 minutes, and didn't retrieve any misses on the offensive end.
2. Raptors' future star wing may not be who you think it will be.
Okay, it's a stretch to call Sonny Weems a future star, but he is really an impressive athlete. He gets up and down the floor, can leap out of the arena and looks increasingly fluid with his midrange jumper. Weems was 6-of-9 from the floor in the game, with all of his misses coming on his three three-point attempts. Weems has all the tools and could make an impressive wing partner for DeMar DeRozan, the presumed future star wing of the Raptors. It's really hard to see at the moment how DeRozan is any better than Weems.
3. Bumbling Bargnani.
It's not just that Andrea Bargnani is in a shooting slump. And boy is he in a shooting slump. Bargnani shot 3-of-9 on Tuesday, and that was his best performance of his three preseason outings. Overall, Bargnani is 5-of-26 from the field. But, as I say, it's not just the shooting. Bargnani just doesn't seem like a factor on the court, not any significant impactful sort of way. The Raptors' season will largely be about finding out if Bargnani can become a legitimate No. 1 option for an NBA team. It's only preseason, but the tea leaves are telling an ugly tale.
"He scored a couple more buckets," said Triano. "He got it going a little bit. It's not just Andrea, everybody's got to pick up their level of intensity if we're going to be competitive."
Which is all fine, but I get the feeling Triano is trying not to pile on Bargnani right now, which is probably the right approach to take. I thought that the comments by Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau were more interesting. He's referring to having Joakim Noah guard Bargnani in a big Bulls lineup.
"The one thing we want to continue to do is get a look at Joakim at the four," said Thibodeau. "We want to make sure he's comfortable at the four. Defensively, I thought this was a great game for him because the defensive responsibilities he had on Bargnani. (Against Bargnani) you have to be able to do more than one thing—go from pick-and-roll coverage, to shrinking, to closing back out and being up on his shots. I thought (Noah) did a good job of that."
What I get from all that is that the Bulls were primarily concerned with bottling Bargnani when the Raptors had the ball. It speaks well of his offensive arsenal, but also speaks to the challenge of being the top option in an NBA first unit*. You often hear how Bargnani's defense is passable if he's paired with a rim-protecting center, which may be true. You nevertheless hear a lot about Bargnani's perceived deficiencies on the boards and on the defensive end, and those items have been areas of emphasis in his preseason work. Just as important for this season is that Bargnani has got to learn how to function as Toronto's top offensive option and the focus of the opponent's defensive game plan.
(* - Despite everything I've written here, I actually think Linas Kleiza will emerge as the Raptors' top scorer this season. That's the subject of a separate feature on which I am working.)
4. Playing big.
With Carlos Boozer out with a broken hand, the Bulls have been experimenting with a big lineup at times featuring Asik and Noah, with the latter playing power forward. The early returns have been terrific. Noah actually played 40 minutes on Tuesday. Thibodeau was caught off guard by Triano's bizarre starting group and kept Noah in against Toronto's second unit, which on that night featured Bargnani.
"You want (Noah) to get his minutes at five, so he's in there with the starters in that group," Thibodeau said. "He probably wouldn't have played as much ... I was anticipating Bargnani starting, and I wanted to get a look at him guarding a range-shooting four. To me, that's the big test when you ask if he can play the four. He probably played a few more minutes than I would have liked, but I wanted to see that matchup.
As outlined in the Thibodeau quote under the Bargnani item, Thibodeau was pleased with Noah's ability to defend out on the floor. He had to be even more pleased with Asik, who has been exponentially more aggressive and confident in each of Chicago's four preseason games, an assessment with which Thibodeau agreed.
"Basically, that's what we're seeing in practice," Thibodeau said. "From the start of each practice, he gets better and better. I think he's getting more comfortable in the games. We love his size, his toughness. He plays smart, physical, he's on the boards, he sets great picks ... he does all the things that help the team play better."
Noah, during an 11-minute postgame soliloquy on topics ranging from the role of sports writers to the history of point guards finishing in the paint to the value of preseason, praised his new frontcourt mate and suggested that Asik's sudden rise is going to help the Bulls survive Boozer's absence during a rough portion of their early-season schedule.
"He's doing a lot of things that can really help our team," said Noah "He's very good at closing down the middle. I think his best asset is that he wants to work and wants to get better.
"You can't teach that size he has. That's a big body, and he can really move for his size. He puts in a lot of extra work before and after practice. He's hungry to become a big-time player in this league. As long as he stays humble and hungry and driven, he's going to be real scary."
Asik had nine points and eight rebounds in 19:42 on the floor and blocked three shots. Noah is right about how well he moves and I've been particularly impressed with how active he is on the offensive glass. I had been concerned that Boozer's absence might thrust Asik into a role for which he's not ready, but it looks like he's going to be able to contribute right off the bat as a 15-20 minute player.
5. You're not going f***ing bowling.
That line is from an old comedy routine, but I can't remember who did it. The gag was that Jack Nicholson was playing Alice from "The Honeymooners." It pertains to Raptors forward Julian Wright, who is playing for a contract this season after an underachieving start to his career in New Orleans. Wright was in the first unit for Toronto, but took just one shot--a successful three-pointer--in 14 minutes. Wright continues to struggle to find his niche as an NBA player. Where Wright stands out is in the bowling alley. There was an ESPN writer on hand working on a Julian Wright bowling feature, which reminded me that we did something similar at the KC Star when Wright was at Kansas. The guy loves to bowl and is really good at it. So if Wright never does gain a foothold competing against the Luol Dengs of the world, maybe he'll fare better going up against the Big Lebowski.
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