Archive for March, 2009

Game 74: Raptors vs. Magic - Pre-game

The Raptors have had a few “statement games” at various points this season and to be honest, the statement that they have repeatedly made is that they are a sub .500 team. So at this point in the season, calling a game a “statement game” might seem a little ridiculous, especially when you have the record the Raptors do, but for Bosh and co., there is still a lot to be said.

The Raptors have maintained all season that when healthy, they are a good team that should be able to contend in the East. The argument has been made multiple times that not many teams would be able to withstand losing their starting PG and centre for extended periods and then playing with those guys injured when they actually did make returns to the lineup. There is some merit in that, but what also needs to be said is that the Raptors didn’t have a deep enough bench to deal with those problems like most other teams in the league did. Every team goes through injuries, some worse than others, so this argument has never completely held water for me.

With the Raptors waiting until the end of the season to secure their first 4-game winning streak, they have the opportunity to make a statement by beating the Magic to continue the streak. If they are able to come out and put a stamp on things against Orlando, then we might all be able to take the “Eastern Contender” talk a little bit more seriously. The Raptors will need to come out against a team that has almost twice as many wins as they do and make it known that when they are healthy, they are a legitimate team. We’ll see.

The thing that will be challenging for the Raptors is that not only are they facing a strong Magic team, they are facing a strong Magic team that has won six in a row and is fighting for playoff positioning with Boston. The Raptors had better not think that this game doesn’t mean anything for the Magic.

Luckily for the Raptors, there is no Jameer Nelson in the picture as he recovers from his shoulder injury, but please, let’s not see Rafer have a career game against Toronto…please?

3 in the Key

1. I’ve seen Dwight Howard do so much complaining on the court lately that he’s starting to look a little like Tim Duncan. Maybe a little psychological work on him (hard fouls, rough D) could get him to lose focus.

2. Attack Rafer. Jose has shown that he can still get that first step on teams to go in for his “layup and then wipeout” play and we all know that Rafer can’t play D. Sounds like a match made in heaven.

3. Rebounds will be key. This game is going to need some Pops. The Raptors can’t afford to have Dwight getting putbacks all night long.

Game 73: Raptors vs. Bulls - Post-game

For a while today, while watching the Raptors, all I could think was, “Okay, who are these guys and what have they done with the Toronto Raptors?” I was waiting for the team to simultaneously tug at the bottom of their necks and then pull off the masks they were wearing, showing that they were a bunch of basketball playing androids. While that didn’t happen, the Raptors did reveal their true selves near the end of the game.

There were some conflicting things about the Raptors down the stretch today. First, we saw them completely fall apart, letting the Bulls back into a game in which they were down by 14 with about 8 minutes to play. The Raptors had some poor shot selection, were slow getting back on D and just looked like a team that thought they were good enough to sit back and put things on cruise control. Memo to the Raptors, there are probably two or three teams in the league good enough to do this…you’re not one of them.

The Raptors also showed how fundamentals can win you games and how not having mastered them can also bring you some easy losses too. Just as Leo started talking about how the Raptors have a lot of guys who are able to sink free throws, Anthony Parker stepped up and rimmed out, giving the Bulls a chance to tie things up without having to go for a three…and God forbid, the way things have gone for the Raptors this season, I was just waiting for somebody to fall into an “and 1″ situation to end the game. That would have been a perfect way to sum up the season for the Raptors. We might have seen Bosh’s head explode.

The conflicting part of tonight’s display by the Raptors is that while they started slowly in OT, they didn’t do what they usually do, which is just crumple up into a ball and roll away. The Raptors actually showed some determination…it almost looked like they believed they were going to win the game. Like they KNEW they had enough talent and drive to pull it out. We saw the Raptors play some nice D and turn that into offense at the other end of the floor. We also saw the Raptors coach get into things, drawing up a nice inbounds play to secure the win. Let’s not gloss over the fact that in the past, we wouldn’t have seen that kind of inbounds pass drawn up, let alone drawn up to seal the game.

So four in a row. In Toronto, this is about as good as dreams come. It’s going to be tough to get number 5 against the Magic, but let’s sit back and see if the Raptors can fool’em to ring in April.

Game 73: Raptors vs. Bulls - Pre-game

Just as the Raptors had things nicely set up for them in trying to get their third win in a row, they are going to face the complete opposite today, as the Bulls are on a tear and after seeing how they played as a team against the Pacers, the Raptors are going to have a few things to worry about today.

In case you have been living under a rock this year, Derrick Rose is legit. He’s second in rookie scoring, first in assists and seems to have a maturity level beyon his years, something the Raptors witnessed first hand earlier this season. But what should be troubling for the Raptors beyond that is the trio that the Bulls have in the backcourt, with Rose, Gordon and Hinrich. While Rose was out with a wrist injury, Hinrich stepped up and showed that the Bulls might have the best triumvirate in the back court as between the three of them, they are able to pass, score and attack the basket when necessary. With the Raptors having some problems playing D against the more talented guard sets this season and not having a deep bench to go to for a stopper, they could be in a little bit of trouble from that position.

Reggie Miller recently said (half jokingly) that Tyrus Thomas should be getting 10 blocks per game and if you watch Thomas play, you can see why he said it. Thomas lives for blocks. You can even see him slow down on some plays so that he will put himself in position to get a block. Sure, this puts him in place to get burned a lot on D, but if he starts to get into one of those grooves, he can end up with 7 in a game like he had the other night.

So for the Raptors to continue this mini win streak that they have going, it’s no secret that they are going to need their bigs to be their bigs. Bosh and Bargnani are going to have to do their thing again, but this game might hang on what Shawn Marion is going to do. The Bulls can get up and down the court and have some of the better young talent in the league, so Shawn isn’t going to beat anybody down the court, but it will be important for him to use his veteran knowledge to know what to do when he gets those breaks. You can suck a lot of young players into foul trouble early if you are able to get them reaching.

Marion’s presence will also be determined on how Jose is able to get him the ball. While we have seen Jose more comfortable lately in pushing the ball up the court (and this has to be related to his health getting better), there have been times where he has been hesitant to get Marion the ball early. If it is there today, the Raptors will need to use it.

3 in the Key

1. Stay aggressive. The Bulls are young and play with a lot of energy…sometimes too much. If the Raptors can get some of the Bulls in early foul trouble, it could make things a lot easier.

2. Guard play. The Raptors will need their guards to show up on both ends of the court today, not just the offensive end.

3. Rebounds. It has been a broken record, but the Raptors are going to need some second chance points in order to stop the Bulls from extending their win streak.

Fully Fetal

So, blow it up? Blow it up real good? Well before Colangelo drops the bomb on this baby of his I hope he considers the possibility of a rebirth. I’m thinking about Slim Pickens riding the A-bomb through the sky like it was a bare-back bronco, at the end of Kubrick’s seminal masterpiece Dr. Strangelove. Slim gleefully depicted the madness of the destruction that was about to occur. But the way he dropped out of the cargo bay like a baby sliding out of the birth canal, spoke to a certain hope for renewal, and the soundtrack music that accompanied the image of the mushroom cloud - We’ll Meet Again as sung by the seminal Vera Lynn - reinforced that sense of duality. (Is there any better way to describe anything other than seminal? If there is I am unaware of it.)

I think Bryan, and all of us really, need to embrace all this baby stuff that seemed to put the final nail in the coffin of the Bosh era, and just go with it. Next season could be…well…very important (see - all the good descriptive terms are duds in comparison). It sounds crazy, but it could be true. Vera Lynn is telling me that we are going to meet up with most of these characters again.

I’ve been waiting for most of two seasons to see this team reach only two benchmarks. I wanted to see a solid winning streak. And I wanted to see them begin to convert good defensive play into good offensive opportunities, instead of merely playing offense until they hit a dry stretch where they needed to defend in order to stave off a big run. Almost two full seasons of choppy waters passed by, in which winning could never be counted on to continue, and defensive stops just brought some respite, a pause, and another chance at missing another shot at the other end, in games that were nothing but a series of shots and never a cohesive two-way whole. But the moment might have arrived. A seed might have been planted. (Yes, seminally. But only metaphorically. Let’s not get carried away into thinking in literal terms as a result of my careless overuse).

I know. This is no time to be happy about a couple of long-awaited benchmarks.They were just suppose to drop as far as they could drop in the standings and be thankful that it was all but over. That seemed the only source of light shining on this season. Ping pong balls. Get lots of them. Put little tails on them and let them swim like little Phelps?. Now they’ve gone and screwed that up as well. They’ve got balls looking around for bongs as much as they?re looking to claim the top talent available.

And yes - I know - these games against nowhere teams at the end of the season mean nothing. Fool’s gold in an empty mine. A witch’s womb filled with sawdust. It just might turn out to be that way. I acknowledge that fully. Chicago will be a pretty good test. As will Orlando. I just think it’s worth watching closely. They won the last three games in the fashion I expected them to handle every game when training camp began. To think that after all of the disappointments, they finally discovered the means, the chemistry, and the identity to carry out what we thought possible so long ago. It is not entirely bad. I’ll take it. If it does in fact take root.

I think it’s possible that Colangelo wanted Marion all along, since last summer anyhow, and that he wanted to do a three-way deal with Miami and Indiana last summer. I think it’s possible that Riley just couldn’t be convinced to pull the trigger while at the same time promising to keep a Marion for O’Neal swap on the table while things played out. That allowed Riley to get the better deal, and it was better for his team to make the change while riding a little wave of success, while coming out of the depths of the east the year before. Colangelo was going to have to suffer the same dip before rising again himself. And if Marion really is his guy, and he pans out in ways that he appears to be able to make good on, then maybe it?s worth the wait, and the Marcus Banks add-on, and less flexibility in the future than we all imagined when JO arrived. As long as there has been some semblance of design in all this then I?m ok with feeling the darkness descend for so long. From a small sense of design some greatness can finally sprout.

The addition of Shawn Marion changes the character and nature of this team. He allows for a certain aggressiveness that entails quickness and smart, instinctual playing as a team with well-defined roles on both ends of the court. With O’Neal, aggressive play was translated into plodding along with little ball movement, a lack of balance, and poorly-defined roles. It certainly helps that Jose is able to defend his own man on two good legs, but he still played far too safe and conservatively while in top notch condition pre-Marion. Now we see a Jose launching long passes, and keeping up with the streaking newcomer. He’s looking a little more like Nash. Bosh’s defense appears revitalized as well, with less of a load to carry on offense and an energy guy he can rely on to supplement his own efforts. Really the whole team has keyed in on the two-way play that Marion thrives on naturally. The game looks easier for everyone. Triano looks like he can coach. Guys like Joey and Roko and Kapono don’t have to shine and overachieve to give this team a chance. And adding a pick and a free agent to what is already here seems more promising than blowing it up. Not to mention that the core of this team is still young and with every possibilty of improving. Bargnani has only just established himself as a guy that can provide consistent numbers and effort. He still has room to become whatever he can figure out from there. Jose is just getting a sense of what playing major minutes all season long entails. And Bosh’s understanding of how to make his team better, too often forgone out of necessity, can become the stuff of true leadership yet. As with all young teams, it was ugly getting to this point, and it’s going to take much more work and commitment. But wouldn’t it be great to see the ugliness pay off?

They will still need to develop a better half-court game to have playoff success in the long-term. And the defense that we’ve seen against weak teams will need to show up against elite teams as well before I can feel certain that they are finally moving forward. And the unknown intentions of Bosh, Marion and even Mensah-Bonsu might make all these thoughts moot. Hell - they might lose by 35 against Chicago and lose every single game left on the schedule. And Colangelo might find himself with an even uglier picture next year. I really don’t want to get ahead of myself. I just want to enjoy a renewed sense of hope.

Rebirth could be upon us, and it might have nothing to do with Bosh’s man-seed or any fertility treatments. And if the losing continues, maybe they can at least change the Best Seat in the House promotion. Maybe they can suspend a clear globe of amniotic fluid beneath the scoreboard. Maybe one lucky winner can slide in wearing a speedo and hook up to a breathing tube and see all the action from the absolute center of center court. And if the game goes south, instead of falling asleep in a seclude recliner, the lucky participant can simply go fetal in full view of everyone in attendance. That could be fun. If things don’t get any better in Raptorland, we could see a whole stadium full of human-sized beakers with thumb-sucking, curled-up fans inside. It could be a whole new trend. We could all walk out of the ACC feeling brand spanking new, and able to wait a little longer for some design to be revealed. Let’s just say that one way or another, this team needs to grab on to the idea of rebirth and go with it.

Game 72: Raptors vs. Thunder - Post-game

Wow, three in a row. I don’t know what to do with myself. I’m knocking back a few Coors Lights, listening to MF Doom (as he was known) and writing this right now, so maybe that’s my celebration. Maybe that’s as far as I should go, because God knows if the Raptors beat the Bulls on Sunday, I’m going to have to find something new to do.

The strange thing about the Raptors when they play the Thunder is that it seems they don’t have as much of a problem guarding Kevin Durant as they do Nick Collison. Collison probably wishes he could play the Raptors every night, because the game sure looks easy for him when he is facing Toronto.

The key for the Raptors was putting this one away early. That’s really the key in any game, but when you are facing a sub .500 team (which honestly, the Raptors are too), it is important to not give that team any hope. You don’t want to have the game come down to the 4th quarter, where you are going to have a young team just hungry for some wins to compete with. That’s the tricky balance with a young team. As easily as you can get them down early and take care of the game, you can also come down to the wire and suddenly find that same team as savage as a rabid dog, looking to take a bite out of the competition.

Much of the early start was due to Bargs, who continued what has been a fine season for him (those of us who never gave up on him can now pat ourselves on the back). He is showing continued development in his game, but what I like the most about his new game and his confidence is that there is a little bit more grit to him now. We’re not talking Bump n’ Thump from back in the day, but he doesn’t hesitate to get a little tough if he has to.

Shawn Marion had one of those games that he should be having more often, where he shuts somebody down on the defensive end and then knocks down a double-double. He gave Durant all kinds of problems tonight, as he was all over him any time he caught the ball. Durant didn’t have a lot of time to breathe, which didn’t allow him to get into any kind of rhythm. That’s the kind of play that has always made me a Marion fan.

So now the Raptors roll into a matchup with the Bulls. I am still not disillusioned enough to be thinking playoffs, but there’s nothing like adding a little bit of excitement to the end of the season.

Game 72: Raptors vs. Thunder - Pre-game

If there was ever a time to apply a cliche like “too little, too late”, this would be that time, but it is nice to see the Raptors actually win a couple of games in a row with the chance to make that three in a row tonight. They couldn’t have asked for a better opponent to face when trying to get that third straight win, but then again, this was also a Thunder team that smacked the Raptors around earlier in the season.

This season, the Raptors haven’t done the greatest job of shutting down star players, unless they have been matched up against Bargnani. So with Kevin Durant coming to town having the kind of season he is having, you would have to hope that the Raptors are able to find some way of shutting the young gun down. Durant is fourth in the league in scoring, averaging 25.9 points per game. You could argue that there aren’t many options on the Thunder, so Durant is going to get his touches, which has resulted in his high average, but to do that would be shortsighted. Durant is making good decisions and his athleticism has allowed him to expose slower players on D. If the Thunder can pick up a couple of players in the next couple of seasons, they could turn into something special if Durant hangs around.

Rebounding has been a problem all season for the Raptors and it could be something that comes to the forefront again tonight. The Thunder do a good job of getting on the offensive glass, so it will be important for the Raptors to set the tone early as far as pulling down some rebounds. Bosh and Bargs will both need to come out sharp in the first quarter to establish dominance.

3 in the Key

1. Jose needs to keep that aggressive style of play going. Whether it is just his health returning to him or not, he looks like a different player in the past couple of games.

2. Limit the second chance points. Pulling down defensive boards will be vital.

3. Don’t let Durant get into a groove or it could be an embarrassing night.

Game 71: Raptors vs. Bucks - Post-game

That pretty much panned out how it was supposed to. The undermanned Bucks got taken care of early against a Raptors team that looked like it actually had a game plan, pushing the ball up the court and realizing that the Bucks had nobody to match up with Bargs.

When you look at the Raptors starting lineup and you look at games like tonight’s, you can’t help but wonder how the Raptors find themselves in the position that they do. Sure, Anthony Parker isn’t a top flight forward, but he isn’t a punk (yet). The Raptors are still getting service out of him. That is what has made this season so frustrating. The Raptors have a good enough lineup to beat the weak teams, beat the .500 teams and at least compete with some of the better teams. I am not looking at things with rose coloured glasses, I know there are some serious gaps in the Raptors lineup, especially with their bench, but I still think that lineup should have more wins than it does.

Tonight we also saw the Jose that we should be seeing more regularly. When Jose is ready to push the ball and get going down the court, he can be much more effective than even he believes. I still think he needs to work a bit on going left, but he does have the ability to get around a lot of guards in the same way they seem to have the ability to get around him on the other end of the court. I’ll take that tradeoff if it means Jose is going to get some help on the defensive end. Give me a PG who has a little more offense in him than defense any day.

The Raptors were finally able to get out from the runaway train that has been Charlie V. Charlie had one of those games that reminded people of why he has that tag that follows him that he just takes nights off every once in a while. He just didn’t look like he was completely into tonight’s game, which is what you get from him sometimes when things don’t go his way. We have seen him turn things on in the second half a few times this year (even in the game where he famously Tweeted at half), but more often than not, when things aren’t going right for CV31, he shuts it down.

So back to back wins. Can the Raptors actually make a mini-statement down the stretch and show people that they aren’t the chumps that they have painted themselves as for a good portion of the season? Will they just be fooling everybody? I guess we will see.

Game 71: Raptors vs. Bucks - Pre-game

I just noticed that somewhere along the line, I skipped a game. We are actually at game 71 in the season. I’m not sure where it happened, it could have been anywhere, but it kind of just sums up the season. Hell, there are a lot of games that I would have liked to have skipped this season, so it’s surprising that we’re not already at game 82 and done as far as my way of counting goes.

Anyway, on to the Bucks. Hopefully, the Raptors will be able to split the season series with the Bucks, who have had Charlie V teaching the Raptors regular lessons on the court. This really could have been one of the better battles of the year, having Charlie V Tweeting against Bosh at halftime, seeing who could tell their fans the most useless information in the most rapid succession of Tweets, but since the Bucks have outlawed that sort of thing, I guess we just have to watch the game.

Without Bogut and Redd, the strategy for the Raptors shouldn’t be that tough, at least not on the defensive end. Shut down Charlie V. Since returning to the starting lineup, Charlie Villanueva has averaged 21.2 points and 7.9 rebounds with nine
double-doubles, a 47.4 FG% (243-513) and a 37.9 3Pt-FG% (53-140) in 30 games. Those are some legit numbers. Those are the kind of numbers the Raptors wished they had coming out of Shawn Marion right now, but unfortunately, the Matrix has not been himself lately, looking like…well, like he’s a Raptor.

It would be nice if the Raptors could pull a win out here and actually make it look like they are capable of stringing a few together, but at this point in the season, it really doesn’t matter a whole lot. There may be a lot of apathetic Raptor fans right now, but can you really blame them? This has been the season from hell (credit Richard Lewis for the “_____ from hell” bit) and as big of a fan as I am, I am also a caring person and I don’t want to see people in misery.

Bargs should be back in the lineup and should be able to have a night against the Bucks. Look for a performance from Il Mago.

3 in the Key

1. It will be interesting to see how Bosh comes back from all of the Baby Mama Drama going on. Will he be able to put it out of his mind or will it bother his concentration?

2. Without Bogut, the Bucks are going to be soft on D and without Redd, they are going to be soft on offense. The Raptors should be able to take advantage at both ends of the court.

3. Apparently, when Jose dunks, the Raptors win. Throw him an ally-oop.

Game 69: Raptors vs. Clippers - Post-game

Well, at least the Raptors aren’t as bad as the Clippers. I guess those are the kind of victories the Raptors are going to have to take from now until the end of the season. It’s nothing to celebrate about, but if you are a Raptor, at least you know there are guys out there who have it worse than you do.

The Raptors were able to use a little bit of speed (although they really should have had more fast break points today, only managing to have 3 more than the Clippers), but even more than the speed, we saw the Raptors actually look like they were outhustling a team today. As I mentioned in the pre-game, the Clippers tend to mail in a lot of games, so sometimes it is tough to tell if a team is playing them well or if they are Mr. Postman for the night. It could have been a little bit of both today. As Mike Dunleavy said, “We shot 38 percent from the field and we got two offensive rebounds. That, to me, says we didn’t battle well enough in the paint.”

The Raptors were without Bargs, who was out with a sore heel, ending his perfect season as far as games played. I guess when you are playing the Clippers and you have anything sore, the coach and training staff make a pretty easy decision as to whether or not you can go.

Okay, was that Jose I saw dunking? Seriously, I turned away for a bit while I was talking to my dad, turned back and swore I saw Jose dunk. Now, having another team rest guys who are slightly sore against you is one thing, but when Jose Calderon starts throwing down dunks on you? Yes, Clippers, you officially suck. Nothing against Jose, but if he’s doing that to you, he is definitely sending a message.

Nice game by Pops again, just out doing his thing, picking up rebounds and getting some putbacks when they are there. I’ve said it a million times…find a niche and be that guy.

So now, once again, let’s see if the Raptors can put together a few wins instead of just breaking up losing streaks. It would be a nice way to finish the season. In these last 12 games, can the Raptors at least win 7?

Game 69: Raptors vs. Clippers - Pre-game

It’s very rare that I am so disgusted that I don’t even write a post game, so after the Raptors dropped their second straight to the Bobcats (a team making an actual playoff push down the stretch), the fact that I couldn’t even get myself to my computer says something.

So now after essentially confirming the fact that they have no desire and very little heart, the Raptors have the Clippers in town today for what we can assume is a basketball game, although from what we have seen lately, it could be nothing more than a scrimmage or a game of pickup. Shirts vs. skins, loser buys the beers, nobody really cares and we all get drunk in the end.

But wait, I forgot, these are the Clippers the Raptors are facing today. They Clippers are just about as hopeless as the Raptors! I mean, the Clip haven’t won a road game in six weeks! Surely that bodes well for the Raptors, doesn’t it? Then again, you could always say that they are due for a road win and who better than the Raptors to face when you are due for any kind of win?

When you take a look back at offseason decisions, you would have to think that Baron Davis wishes he could take a step back. After thinking that Elton Brand was going to be around, he signed with the Clip, only to have Brand head to the other coast in Philly. But even with Camby and Randolph (the latter who has missed a chunk of games since coming over from NY), the Clippers look like a team just going through the motions most nights. If you think the Raptors mail it in some nights, you should see some of the Clippers performances.

The Clippers do have some good young talent, as Al Thornton is fun to watch. He is in second place for second year players in scoring and has led the Clip in scoring 20 times this season. He has been one of the lone bright spots in a season that has been even more disappointing than the Raptors.

When the Clippers have Randolph in the lineup, they are quite a different team, as they are 3-22 without him. For the Clippers, Randolph gives them a little bit more grit, something which they need as Kaman has played much of the season injured and while Thornton is a good player, you can only expect so much from a second year guy. But when you take a look back at that front court, it really isn’t that bad if you could get it healthy.

3 in the Key

1. The Raptors can get to the Clippers by using some speed, so let’s see if they can use matchups to beat Randolph and Kaman, who aren’t the quickest of guys.

2. Don’t get jump shot happy. The Clippers have some guys who can get the arms oustretched for some blocks.

3. Get tough inside. If there was a game where we could see some tough stuff from Pops, this could be it.

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