If the schedule is a world champion boxer, the Raptors took a few big shots in the first round, dug into the canvas, and then used their best weapon to try and stop the momentum building up against them.
Unfortunately, that world champion boxer is about to unload a world of hurt on the Raptors.
Going into tonight, the Raptors have faced a myriad of challenges and misfiring parts within the first 14 games of the season.
The beginning of the year saw Jermaine O'Neal struggling to carve his niche before finding his way, and then getting sidelined with injuries.
The point guard position has been in flux thanks to a hamstring injury that continues to bother Jose Calderon, and the misplaced trust in Will Solomon's ability to figure out the position. The result? Calderon has had to force himself to come back early and to continue to play extended minutes on a bad leg.
Toss in AP's inconsistent shooting, and the confusing mire of Gramoopono which may, or may not be figuring itself out, and the Raptors head into a stretch of games trying to get all parts moving in the same direction.
So far, the main constants have to be Chris Bosh's outstanding overall play, and Andrea Bargnani's renewed defense.
However in my eyes at least, there seems to be a feeling that the rotations are finally straightening out in the way that we at the HQ and other fans have been clamoring for. Joey Graham is now obtaining the opportunities to get the minutes he's been missing since two years ago, Bargnani has started to extended his streak of good offensive games, and Roko Ukic is now the back up point guard who actually plays like a point guard and seems to be improving drastically on his defensive game.
Put in a recovered Jermaine O'Neal and things might not be as bad as we once thought.
But against the Hawks, the Raptors will find themselves tested. The Hawks are a dangerous team, and although they've fallen somewhat back down to earth after their hot start, (like they have every year) the plodding Raptors still need to approach this game with caution against a deadly foe. It's therefore essential that they accomplish these three keys if they hope to win:
1) Minutes -
Against a fast, young team, Sam Mitchell is going to have to try and get his guys enough rest so that they can finish down the stretch. Having appropriate relief for Parker and Calderon will be vitally important as Bibby and Johnson have the ability to both penetrate and shoot the outside shot. It's not going to be a walk in the park, and there's no simple strategy unlike in the Bobcats game. When it comes down to it, Parker and Calderon, as well as their backups Ukic and Kapono/Moon will have to play strong defense that leads them into a contested shot. If Michell balances the minutes, he should be able to get more high level production from his starters.
Also, I'm looking for a lot of Andrea Bargnani in this game. Besides being an offensive threat, he'll be needed both at the post and at the 3-position to make sure Marvin Williams and Ronald Murray don't go off for big nights. So staying out of foul trouble for both him and Graham is essential in making sure that the Raptors' rotation doesn't get thrown out of wack.
2) Combat Athleticism by... -
Roughing up the Hawks. Sure, it might not be in the Raptor's natural nature, but this is a Hawks team that handed them their first embarassing loss and has been the source of much drama over the past couple of years. I'm hoping Kris Humphries (and Jermaine O'Neal if he plays - he's listed as Day-to-Day at this point) will throw his body around and make sure that guys like Joe Johnson and Al Horford take a beating in the paint. The Raptors have to start sending a message that coming into the paint may get you points, but there will be consequences. It's something that they haven't shown much of, but there's no better team to start making an example of than the Hawks.
The other way the Raptors can limit the Hawks is by getting them into a foul trouble.
Although Jermaine O'Neal won't be playing, the Hawks missing out on Josh Smith due to high ankle sprain is also a pretty significant loss. However, Marvin Williams is another athletic beast, so the best way the Raptors can take advantage of the situation is to draw fouls and draw them early. Unfortunately, outside of Bosh and O'Neal, that doesn't happen nearly often enough. It's why Bargnani's production and getting to the line is so important to this team. In his day, Butch Carter always emphasized the importance about racking up fouls and making foul shots because it meant that you got to play less minutes against their starters, and you could rest your team more every time they went to the line.
With only Bosh getting to the line consistently now, it means it's just that much tougher for the Raptors because they have to face the opposition's starters for practically the entire game. Graham, a good free throw shooter, along with Bargnani, need to be used more in this vein, but it takes experience to draw fouls consistently. Guys like Al Horford should be extremely susceptible to pump fakes and most of the Hawks' team is young, so the best way to combat that youth is by being crafty.
3) Watch Out for Johnson -
Oh, Joe Johnson loves playing against the Raptors. In his career, he's shot 4% higher and averaged 2 points more against Toronto than his regular career stats. He's made shots from all over the court and just happens to turn it on for at least one quarter where he just can't miss a shot no matter what Toronto does to counter him. Sure, he's also had quarters where he's missed many shots, but it'll be up to Toronto to limit his chances once he starts to catch fire. That means recognizing when he has the hot hand and to start doubling him early and trapping hard so that he has no room.
The other idea is to put Johnson through a thorough workout by setting picks on him on many offensive plays. It'll mean that Parker, Moon, and Kapono should get lots of screens in order to make sure Johnson tires himself out over the course of the game. Bosh and Bargnani will have to make sure their picks are extra solid and in position in order to make Johnson work on both ends of the court.
Without a doubt, this game will be a tough challenge, but the Raptors are playing at home, and have a little momentum thanks to the Bobcats game. It will be a while before our team returns home, so it's best to make this game count because it might be a long, long road trip up ahead.