Archive for January, 2009

Game 38: Raps vs. Celtics - Pre-game

There really couldn’t be a better time for the Raptors to have a back-to-back against the Celtics. Right now, things are about as bad for Boston as they have been in a long time and while they are still 29-9, they have lost four straight and 7 of their last 9.

It is strange, but all of a sudden, the Celtics are not able to score and are having a series of defensive lapses that are creating opportunities for the teams they have faced. Cleveland took Boston to the woodshed the other night, leaving the Celtics wondering what has been going on and possibly grateful that they are entering a home-and-home with the Raptors, whom they have dominated for a while now.

What also bodes well for the Raptors is that they have been able to build some confidence of late, winning games that they are supposed to win and also pulling off a few surprises. The Raptors have to be thinking that if they can beat the Rockets and Magic, then they have a good chance over a Boston team that has been having its share of problems.

It will be interesting to see if Andrea is able to keep things going, because he is going to be facing a some more strength on D in this game and he might get bumped a bit when he tries to attack the basket. Here’s hoping that Boston’s D doesn’t act as any sort of deterrent for Bargs and force him to start taking jump shot after jump shot.

The last time out, JO was in form, showing how he could attack the Celtics. Whether or not the Raptors come out with the same game plan this time is a good guess for anyone, but it seemed to work early for the Raptors last time out. If they can figure out how to maintain that level of effectiveness on offense, they will be more than happy. If it starts to get into a jump-shot competition, this game might be that much more difficult.

Kevin Garnett’s antics of late have been getting a lot more annoying and you have to think that it is only a matter of time before he either gets thrown out for a couple of T’s. His taunting is a little much and even though the refs have been conveniently looking the other way when he plays, at some point, you would hope that the long arm of the Commish is able to provide a quick reminder of the league’s rules.

3 in the Key

1. Attack early. It worked last time out off the start of the game.

2. Keep feeding the beasts. Andrea and Bosh have been working well together. We can only help that the PG combo has been paying attention too.

3. Don’t let KG or Pierce hype themselves up and get into a game that they might not be. Don’t even give them the time of day, it will help keep things more civil.

Game 37: Raps vs. Grizzlies - Post-game

Even though the Raptors won this game by 21 points, it certainly wasn’t easy and they certainly didn’t look sharp for extended periods of the game. If Bargs didn’t hit those back-to-back 3’s in the third quarter, I don’t know if the Raptors would have been able to withstand another mental breakdown of blowing a double digit lead to a bad team.

The Raptors were sloppy for a good portion of the night, turning the ball over 13 times (still less than the Grizzlies’ 14), with most of those coming early in the game. Once they were able to get better control of what they were doing on the offensive end, things seemed a little more under control, but some poor decisions and players leaving their feet often left Raptor players on the wrong end of the ball.

While these are the teams that the Raptors should be beating, we should also recognize that the Raptors are still a little short on the bench. The Raptors are playing it smart with Jose’s hamstring and overall, they are getting steady play from the PGs. The Raptors should not have to even worry about resting guys like Jose when they are playing teams like the Grizzlies. Not that the Raptors are a top flight team, but they are good enough that they should be able to beat the Grizzlies without their starting PG.

I am starting to wonder if there is more to the story with JO than we are being led to believe. I am finding it difficult to believe that he has been out this long with a swollen knee, especially when we have not heard of any significant structural damage. If JO was on the move, the Raptors would be showcasing him, not keeping him on the injured list. If he was seriously injured, we also would have heard more by now. Is there something else going on with JO? I am sure all of the conspiracy theorists will be salivating at the idea, but something here really just doesn’t seem like it makes sense.

So now with the Raptors having some momentum and the Celtics looking like the wheels have fallen off (with another loss at Cleveland tonight), the next two games should be pretty interesting. I wonder if Jose tries to force himself back into one of those two games…I guess we will have to wait and see.

Game 37: Raps vs. Grizzlies - Pre-game

The Raptors came up with a nice game against the Wizards Wednesday night, but almost blowing a giant lead (again) and some careless play has to be a concern when the bench is so short. It sounds like JO and Calderon may still be out of the lineup, but Jamario Moon is supposed to be back, which should help fill some of the void.

The good thing for the Raptors is that the Grizz have some definite problems scoring, which isn’t tough to imagine considering the lineup they are fielding right now. There’s some good young talent there and that talent has shown flashes of greatness at times, but this team isn’t even close to being ready to win.

Even better for the Raptors, is the fact that the Grizzlies are a worse rebounding team than the Raptors are. Actually, nobody is worse at rebounding than the Grizz. The Raptors will need to exploit this and get as many second chance points as they possibly can. This is actually a game where the Raptors may feel a little more free to take a few outside shots, since (hopefully) they have a better chance at grabbing the board than usual, but sticking with what has been successful lately wouldn’t hurt either. Andrea has been doing a good job of deciding when to go to the rim or to pull up and take a jumper and has caused some problems for the opposition trying to guard him. When he puts the ball on the floor, but then pulls back for a jumper, the amount of room he is creating for himself is extraordinary. Let’s hope he continues his excellent play of late.

There hasn’t been much talk about OJ Mayo around the league, but the guy is pretty nice to watch. He doesn’t look like a rookie, because he knows what his strengths are and he isn’t shy to give up the ball. His ability to know where his teammates are on the floor is a talent that shouldn’t go unnoticed.

3 in the Key

1. Limit the turnovers. Turnovers have been a bit of a problem lately for the Raptors; they cannot afford to let the Grizzlies stay in the game because of poor execution.

2. Get ahead early. For young teams, it’s demoralizing to come to the end of the first quarter and be down by double digits. True, they have the energy to come back, but do they have the toughness?

3. Second chance points. The Raptors will need to pick up a few easy ones by getting good positioning.

Game 36: Raps vs. Wizards - Pre-game

The Raptors tend to always have interesting games against the Wizards. I’m not sure what it is about them, but the games always seem to be very entertaining. With the Raptors playing their strange win/loss basketball right now and the Wizards coming off a road loss at Orlando (where they shot just under 40%), it just seems to have the makings of another one of those games. You would think that something special would happen in a game featuring teams named the Magic and the Wizards, but no, a pretty dull affair.

Make no mistake about it, the Wizards are having a rough season. You could make the argument that they have had a tough schedule so far, but then again, so have the Raptors. The Wizards just don’t have the lineup to compete on a nightly basis and if they think that Mine James is the answer (nice 1:1 turnover ratio against the Magic in a loss), then they have another thing coming.

Even though the Wizards are struggling, they still have Jamison and Butler, two of my favourite guys to watch play. Jamison is tough to handle on the offensive end since his shooting game has developed and he has the ability to pick up rebounds with ease. He has great positioning, which makes those rebounds easier to come by and I’m not sure how many guys are as good at following their own shots as he is. His D can be a little suspect at times, but I think it has improved over the past couple of years.

Caron Butler is just a tough dude. At 6′7″, he rebounds like a guy much bigger than that, a testament not only to knowing how to position himself, but also just due to his toughness. He will get in there and mix it up with somebody if he has to in order to pick up a rebound. He has that same mentality on the offensive end as he will attack anybody, not shying away from the big boys in the lane. If there is one area that could be a chink in his armour, it is that sometimes he will get a little shot happy. Then again, when you look at who he is surrounded by, you can see where he is coming from.

3 in the Key

1. Push the ball upcourt as quickly as possible. The Wizards are going to be tired coming off of the loss in Orlando and some of their players (like Andray Blatche) are out of shape, even after playing summer league.

2. Get on the boards. Between Jamison, Butler and Blatche, rebounding is going to be tough. The Raptors will have to be strong on the boards in order to limit second chance points.

3. Controlled PG play. Yes, it remains a point again. Solomon will need to keep himself under control if the Raptors are going to come out of DC with a win.

Game 35: Raps vs. Bucks - Post-game

Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you, the classic letdown after a big win (or in this case, a couple of big wins). A timeless script, one that has been used across the ages, one that transcends generations, the hero slaying the beast, only to walk into his next quest and well…disappoint. January 5, 2009 version? Raptors vs. Bucks.

It’s not that the Raptors went out and stunk up the joint, because they didn’t. They actually led for most of the game and were showing some impressive fast break points, pushing the ball up the court when the opportunity presented itself. They also used some long passes upcourt to catch the Bucks not getting back on D. Andrea came out with another solid performance and Bosh was attacking the basket and getting to the line. It all looked like a perfect recipe to keep the New Year perfect. But alas, sometimes, you just run into some bad luck.

Yes, bad luck. It wasn’t the only thing that factored into the Raptors loss last night, but really, when you have Lucky Luke Ridnour jacking 3’s and suddenly making them when he hasn’t hit anything all night and shoots 3’s at a percentage below the “Moon Line”, that’s not a shot a shot you’re going to mind him taking. There were also some questionable calls down the stretch that added to the poor luck.

But let’s be real. While there was definitely some bad luck last night, you can’t let a guy like Charlie V suddenly come to life and start outrebounding you. Also, while Michael Redd is their best player and kicks the legs out when taking shots, that still doesn’t mean that you can’t get up on him and get a hand in his face. Too many times, he had uncontested shots. Make him put it on the floor and then get tough inside if you have to. If a star is going to beat you, at least make him show you all the parts of his game.

From the point guard side, while Wil Solomon had a nice night distributing the ball, one has to wonder why the dude just kept shooting when he CLEARLY didn’t have it last night. 2-13? The Raptors come down the stretch needing a bucket and Wil Solomon jacks up another shot? This is what I was talking about in the pre-game where I said that Wil had to keep playing within himself. The funny thing is, you have Solomon, who isn’t afraid to shoot the ball at any time, but then on the other hand, you have Roko, who looks a little tentative in taking shots. There were a few times where Roko had some open looks, but decided to pull it back down and dish. Not necessarily a bad attribute for a PG, but he is going to have to gain a little bit more confidence in his game. That will come with time, he’s young.

Now off to Washington…where the Raptors should be able to put things back in the W column…

Game 35: Raps vs. Bucks - Pre-game

The Raptors have started 2009 with some impressive play, with wins over Houston and Orlando, two of the better teams in the league.  They have also done it with a short bench, which makes those wins even more inspiring for a team who could use a little inspiration.  One would almost think that Chris Bosh got a late Christmas present when he said that he wished the slate could just be wiped clean.  Well, it was wiped clean as far as the Raptors record in 2009 goes, so let’s just stick with that and say thanks to Santa.

But now here comes the real test.  After picking up big wins at home over teams that are essentially superior to the Raptors, the key is to avoid the classic situation of a road loss to a team not even close to as good as the two teams they just beat.  We have all seen it before, the letdown after an impressive win, which is quite possible with the Bucks, who have been improving of late, despite a loss to the Bobcats Saturday night (after beating them on Friday in a strange back-to-back).

While there are plenty of players we could focus on who are playing well lately for the Bucks, one player who has been fun to watch this year is the rookie, Luc Mbah a Moute.  Averaging just over 8 points and 6 rebounds per game, Mbah a Moute is active on offense and on D, using his energy to get up and down the court and create scoring opportunities.  Just another young player to watch.

Andrea Bargnani has had a good run handling the big men lately (well, Yao moreso than D12, but you can’t really complain with the overall job he did on Howard…he just ran into foul trouble) and it is up in the air whether or not he will have to face Andrew Bogut this time out.  Bogut has been having continuous back problems and was originally slated to get back into the lineup last week, but when more spasms flared up Saturday, he was once again listed as inactive.  This is good news for Bargnani, because while he has done a good job with the big men, Bogut can get a little rough and it might be a tough go for Bargs to have to deal with those three players in a row (Yao, Howard, Bogut).  That being said, Dan Gadzuric will be in the C position if Bogut can`t go and it`s not like he`s any sort of lightweight either.  He doesn`t have Bogut`s talent, but he certainly has the elbows.

3 in the Key

1. Use the momentum to get out to a good start.  With big wins against the Rockets and Magic, the Raptors need to come out in this game and make sure they don`t fall behind early on the road.  Winning big games is great for your confidence, but if you then go out on the road and get taken to the woodshed in the first quarter, those wins at home don`t mean as much.

2. Effective PG play.  The Raptors had good outings from Solomon and Ukic in the win over the Magic and that same sort of controlled PG play will be important for another Raptors win to happen.  Solomon will have to remember not to get over-confident and start forcing shots and he will also have to let some calls go, realizing that he is on the road…and that he`s Wil Solomon.  Ukic will also need to play within himself and use his recent performance as a confidence boost.

3. Stick to the game plan.   More than once in the Raptors win over the Magic, we could hear JT shouting, “JUST RUN THE PLAY“ and with good reason.  Once the Raptors PGs started listening to him, that backdoor screen became a key to the game.  Who knew…listening to your coach has benefits.

Game 34: Raps vs. Magic - Post-game

There were a lot of things that you could have been impressed by in today’s game against the Magic, but the thing that I was most impressed by was the composure of the Raptors in the 4th quarter.  It wasn’t so long ago that when the Raptors gave up a double-digit lead, things would have completely fallen apart down the stretch and I would be on here writing about the Raptors not being able to step on a team’s neck.  Well, I wouldn’t say that they stepped on the Magic’s neck to secure the win, but they certainly didn’t let them off the ground.

In the pre-game, I touched on fouling Howard, but making sure that he wasn’t able to follow through and complete any 3-point plays.  The Raptors were great at this today, putting Dwight on the line in the 4th quarter and making sure that when they did, he was essentially just going there to get one point, because he lived up to his reputation from the line.  I will take him going 60% from the line instead of throwing down dunk after dunk, especially when at the other end, the Raptors were able to get to the line and convert on both shots.  It doesn’t sound like much, but eventually, it adds up.

While the Raptors really weren’t able to handle Howard on D today, they were smart in going at him and getting him into early foul trouble.  Let’s not forget, he dropped 39 today while sitting for quite a long stretch in the first half due to foul trouble.  One can only imagine what he would have done if he had been on the court for that additional time.

The guard play today was fantastic, with Roko and Wil playing within themselves and taking the opportunities that were given to them.  When Wil was able to create some space and defenders didn’t respect his ability to shoot, he took the open jumper.  Roko also went to the basket when defenders were too close on him, using his speed to get to the glass for a couple of lay-ins.  Of course, we can’t forget the runner he hit with the game on the line, which honestly, I don’t think many people thought was going to go in (I know I didn’t).

What I loved about Roko’s game today was highlighted a couple of times by Matt and Leo today: his ability to take instruction from AP and then effectively follow instructions.  People talk a lot about rookie mistakes that are made in games, but the one mistake that is made most often is when hot-shot rookies don’t listen to the advice they are given.  By listening to AP, Roko was able to effectively manage the offense, getting people where he wanted them and then running plays.  For example, the backdoor screen was used over and over and the Magic either weren’t able to defend it or didn’t recognize it, but I will go with them not being able to defend it, because I guarantee SVG was all over them about it.  This is what I was talking about in the RF message board last week regarding Jose and managing the offense.  When you are the PG, you are the one in control and if you don’t like where somebody is or where they are setting up, it is up to you to get them the hell out of there and over to where you want them.

Nice game from the Raptors, now let’s hope they can keep this going and avoid a letdown on the road to a Milwaukee team that has been playing better of late (well, other than a loss to the Bobcats).

Game 34: Raps vs. Magic - Pre-game

We are going to get an interesting look at the Raptors on Sunday, with no JO in the lineup to help guard Dwight Howard, but also without Jose Calderon, who is out with a hamstring.  The Raptors are starting to get a little beaten up throughout the lineup and their depth might start to become a problem (if it hasn’t already) as you can only handle so many injuries before you start running out of healthy bodies to put on the floor.

The thing about guarding Howard is that it is hardly ever a one-on-one situation and by this, I don’t mean that teams are constantly double teaming him.  What I mean is that while one guy is defending him when he has the ball, that player will need help from his teammates on any misses, as getting D12 to take a bad shot is one thing, but then stopping him from getting the rebound is another.  When other players are putting up shots, it will be a tough task to box Howard out, but if that actually happens, then the other Raptors are going to have to get on the boards and not let another Magic player get the rebound otherwise all of that work is essentially wasted.

The thing that makes the Magic tough is that they have Howard as a virtual double-double lock inside, but they also have some good shooters (such as Hedo) sitting outside just waiting for the opportunity to let it fly.  While this is usually where the problem is limited, for some reason, the Raptors have also allowed Hedo to walk down the lane repeatedly, laying in easy points.  I can live with Dwight Howard scoring points inside, but there’s no excuse for Hedo Turkoglu doing the Charleston down the lane.  He’s not quick enough to beat anybody off the dribble and it’s not like he’s an aggressive beast, so shut that down.

With Andrea and Jake assuming most of the responsibility of handling Howard, you can only think that it will be about 9-10 minutes before Jake slaps him with an intentional unintentional foul.  We can expect Andrea to play some straight up defence, getting the arms up (and occasionally reaching), but we should hope that Jake will try to get in Dwight’s head, playing him as rough as he can.  It’s not like Dwight is going to hurt the Raptors from the line, but they also have to make sure that if they are going to foul him, they make sure that he isn’t able to follow through and go for an old fashioned 3-point play.

Chris Bosh tends to have good outings against the Magic (unless it’s the playoffs…then, er…not as good).  There have been a lot of unwarranted questions and discussion about his clutch decisions, but the fact is, without the way Bosh plays most nights, the Raptors wouldn’t even be in those few clutch situations that become available.  Raptor fans need to appreciate what he brings to the table on a consistent basis and hope that he was one of those outstanding afternoons against the Magic.

3 in the Key

1. Don’t solely concentrate on D12. The Magic have a legit sharpshooter (Turkoglu) and a guy who can slash and dunk on anybody (Lewis), so they can’t sleep on those two guys or it will be lights out.

2. Get Solomon to play within himself. With Jose out, the Raptors are going to need some steady play from PG.  While I do like the fact that Solomon will attack the basket and look to create scoring opportunities, it’s only worthwhile if he isn’t trying to do too much and forcing shots.

3. Bargs need to stay out of foul trouble.  Andrea had a big night shutting down Yao on Friday and he will be in another tough spot Sunday afternoon.  If he starts reaching on D12, he is going to run into early foul trouble, which will leave the Raptors very shorthanded.

Welcome to Hell BABY!

 

Tracy McGrady’s comments after the game where he was bitching about not getting enough touches and crying about how his needing to be more of a facilitator is hurting his point production was just brutal.  He made being “more of a Point Forward” sound like a disease.  I can just see him visiting kids in the hospital and telling them, “I really feel for you not being able to get out of this wheelchair baby, but man, you know, I have to try to be more of a Point Forward, and I don’t see anybody coming around to cheer ME up”.  Sadly I think it’s far too common for far too many “superstars” in this league.  Honestly it makes me lose interest in the game overall.  

On the flipside though, it makes me feel some love for the Raps win or lose.  Since McGrady and Carter left town, there has been an emphasis on the team over the individual that makes it easy to keep pulling for them.  I really thought the addition of Jermaine O’Neal would add to the mix quite well.  He said all the right things about being physical and making sacrifices in order to win.  He had the experience on a winning team.  Numbers meant nothing.  And in the first handful of games, all of that looked to be true.  But then JO brought up his frustration at not being able to get any blocked shots, and he told tales of staying up until 4am watching himself on DVD with the aim of curing his troubles on offense.  His new point of emphasis (namely himself) brought on his being repeatedly fed in the post against Boston.  He had some nice “breakout” success in the first half, and crowed about simply being unstoppable.  Then he didn’t even get started much in the half that followed, and the overall collapse of the team in that game was the start of the descent that would lead to a coach’s firing and a record that is going to be hard to recover from the rest of the way.

Now without a doubt, JO got things going for himself, and it’s hard to criticize his effort when it often looked like he was the only one supplying any effort.  That’s not where I want to go here.  I think too much blame was directed towards effort, and not enough to a lack of chemistry.  My concern is with the veteran’s inability to bring everyone else along so that we could see their efforts make some much needed impact.  I did not see him trying to build an identity for this team that everyone could contribute to, and that is what an experienced veteran ought to do.  Instead I saw him try to shape the identity of the team to suit him better, and that’s just not what I expected from a guy who knows what is needed for a team to win.  Look at what a good veteran  like Mike Bibby has been able to do for Atlanta, without needing everyone to think of him as the Bibby of old.  And if JO can come back and actually lead on defense without too much concern for anything else but team success, owning the kind of space that Bargnani and Voshkul did last night, then all the better.  But I wonder if there’s much room for him anymore now that the team has managed to start building an identity without him.  I fear that his headspace is a bit like T-Mac’s, maybe just fractionally, and maybe it’s all just in my head, but even catching just a hint of how T-Mac betrays the spirit of the game makes me die a little.

This also applies to any trade for that wing player.  A lot of those guys are a bit too much like McGrady in their approach.  The league changed the rules to help keep us from seeing guys playing on their own little islands, but unfortunately it’s still what too many players want for themselves.  Whoever we get, if we ever get anybody, has to be a team-first guy far above and beyond the level of talent they might bring.  Maybe that leaves us never being able to take that next step.  If it does then I’m alright with that.  But I remember teams in Utah that did not display oodles of talent in a number of positions, including the wings.  It’s all about making the pieces fit, and I can actually see a scenario now, just hours after hitting rock bottom as a fan of this team, where pieces might just come together.  The goal for the rest of the season has to be making the most out of what works in terms of personnel, and trying to figure out what to do with what doesn’t.  Give the most burn to all the guys making it look easier to roll the big rock up that hill, and anybody envisioning, even for a moment, waiting alone at the top so he can hold it up like Atlas once the rest of the team struggles all that much more to get it there, needs to have their role limited.

Remember when Chris Bosh sat on the bench healing up for 12 games two seasons ago?  Remember how he saw what worked for the team when he wasn’t on the floor, and how he worked to come back in a way that would add to that and not get in the way?  I hope we can get some more help for him, and yet not take away from that approach.  If not, this team will not just fall back to the early part of that 47-win season, but to much drearier times that had Bosh himself holding back the tears.  And if they can find a couple of workmanlike players willing to make sacrifices as much as they talk about them, and help build an identity for this team that works for each of the parts, then they have a chance to make that jump to the next level.  That’s the one bit of justice that keeps me loving the game.  It’s not the inability to bring together all the talent in the world that holds teams back so much.  Actually the pattern I see forming over and over, is with the McGrady’s of this league getting anywhere outside of shoe commercials no matter what pieces they have around them.  Forget about the talent, and I suppose the experience as well, if it comes with eyes a little blind to the needs of teammates as well as the need for teammates.

Game 33: Raps vs. Rockets - Post-game

A few things we talked about in the pre-game actually happened (T-Mac pulling a disappearing act as he occasionally does, Artest shooting bricks, Rafer not being able to move properly), which all contributed to the Raptors win tonight, but the real factor was Andrea being able to shut down Yao.  With JO out, I was a little worried about Andrea being able to handle Yao, because while Andrea has made defensive strides this season compared to last, guarding Yao is a completely different story.

Andrea played Yao tough, getting up on him and just generally making life uncomfortable for him.  There was always a hand in his face and when you combine that with Jake “All 6″ Voskuhl coming in to rough Yao up a bit more, it just wasn’t something that Yao looked like he wanted any part of.

The general mood and mindset of the Rockets coming into this game wasn’t good.  When you have all of your stars making comments in the paper about how poorly your team is playing, that doesn’t bode well for upcoming games.  You could almost hear the defeat in their voices and read it in their words.  Like Chris Bosh said, The only thing that has to change is our mentality coming into the games.  The Rockets didnèt have the right mindset coming into this game and were pretty much done before the tipoff.  A lot of the time, it does not matter who you have on the court or how you have been playing of late, what matters is how you prepare for and attack the game at hand.

The Raptors are going to have to do something about their backup guard situation.  While Wil Solomon had a nice game tonight, I just cannot see him as a long term solution for Jose Calderon, whose hamstring problems are most likely going to continue throughout the season.  Once you have a strain, it is likely to come up again and again during the season, because you just do not have the time to a) get the proper therapy; b) get the right muscle strength ratio between the hamstring and quadricep; c) get the right workout in place, which would need to include a lot of Yoga.  Yeah, I said it.  Yoga.  For hamstring injuries, it is an essential part of rehab.

There have been constant reports that BC is open and available for trades and at this point, if he is looking to do something to make the team better for this season, I might avoid looking at dealing a ton of talent in something big, instead looking for a deal that could get the Raptors a seasoned vet who can keep things running smoothly while Jose is out.  If the Raptors were more comfortable with their PG situation, they would be able to take more time with Jose and get him back into action completely healthy.

Anyway, a nice win for the Raptors.  As we mentioned in the pre-game, the Rockets were ripe for the picking and the Raptors capitalized.  Hopefully this will be the injection of confidence they needed.

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