Stifling defence wilts Raps

KEN FIDLIN, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 8:48 AM ET

Nobody can deny the strides the Raptors have made this year. With eight new players, few expected this team would make much of an impression, yet they have opened some eyes by playing selfless, passionate basketball more nights than not.

This is becoming an easy team to like. They work hard. There are no prima donnas. They play for each other. And they never give up. That's why they're leading the NBA's Atlantic Division, such as it is.

Those are all admirable qualities and, as 2006 turns into 2007, the Raps have passed their first-term exams with honours but the course load only gets tougher from here on in.

As the season goes along and the better teams start fine-tuning their games, looking toward the playoffs, Toronto is going to face the kind of adversity the Chicago Bulls threw in their faces last evening.

It's called defence. Stifling, smothering, oppressive defence. The Raptors had better learn some of it.

The missing component was there in great abundance last night but, unfortunately for Toronto, it all belonged to the Bulls, who flashed a little playoff-style defence, as well as some other-world shooting accuracy, at the young and largely inexperienced Raptors.

It started early with relentless pressure on Toronto guard T.J. Ford by Kirk Hinrich, his opposite number and Ford coughed the ball up four times in the first three minutes and by the end of the evening, Chicago had forced 19 turnovers, leading to 25 of their 107 points in a game they won by 10.

And while Hinrich was causing havoc out on the perimeter, Ben Wallace was reaffirming that the painted wood is all his. Though his numbers were not all that impressive, his mere presence kept the Raptors at bay most of the evening as they settled for outside looks, rather than go through big Ben's front door. Toronto jacked up 26 three-point attempts -- and made nine. The Bulls were a tad more efficient, making eight of 14 three-pointers.

At the end of the game, Toronto had shot 41 per cent, while the Bulls were flashing a gaudy 60 per cent.

Luol Deng, who injured his right wrist in his team's last game, almost didn't play last night for Chicago but his inclusion was a game-time decision. Good call. He scored 25 points, 19 in the second half.

"I think I'd better go out and hurt my wrist," said Parker. "He shot 11 for 16."

It was a bit ironic that if the season ended today, the Raptors would be playing the Bulls in the playoffs and, while Toronto hung tough against them, it's fairly clear which team can bring the kind of defensive intensity that will decide any playoff series.

"They try to pressure you, full court, take some time off the clock, try to bother you and take you out of your comfort zone," Parker said. "But I think they didn't do anything unexpected. And that puts a lot of it on us."

It certainly does. Simply put, the Raps have to get better on the defensive end. They cannot allow any team to shoot 60 per cent. And, when they're facing a good defensive club, they have to be able to adapt their approach.

"When things aren't going well, we need to take a little extra time, make the extra pass and once we get in the rhythm we can be a little more aggressive," Parker said.

Ford still managed 20 points, 15 of them in the fourth quarter but it was during the early moments of the game that the Bulls grabbed the upper hand because of Hinrich's dogged harassment.

Joey Graham was one bright spot for Toronto, largely because of his willingness to challenge Wallace inside. He was rewarded with 17 points, one more than rookie Andrea Bargnani, who came off the bench and nailed three three-pointers in a row late in the first quarter to help get Toronto back in the game, however briefly.


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