Ok I’m starting to get excited now.
It took me a while…but now I’m starting to feel the playoff hype seep into my blood.
And not just because our beloved Toronto Raptors are making their fifth playoff appearance in franchise history…but also because of some of the dynamite match-ups that are locked-in for the first round, especially in the West.
I mean Phoenix and San Antonio in the first round? Are you kidding me?
And even in the East – I can’t wait to see Lebron’s woefully inept offensive club take on Caron Butler’s woefully inept defensive squad. Sort of a tale of two cities with plenty of trash talk to go around.
And what about the Raptors, ready to play the role of underdogs against Orlando…can this squad put their regular season firmly in the rear-view mirror?
This is going to be a pivotal series for Toronto, one that is much more important than last year’s in fact. Last year, Toronto was one of the feel-good stories of the year in the NBA, a club that shot to the top of the Atlantic and surprised many by racking up 47 wins. The playoffs was a nice desert to top things off and while the Raptors were the higher seeded team in their match-up, it was a brand new experience for the majority of the team…and it showed as they were ousted in six by the Nets.
However the playoffs were viewed by the majority as the capper to a great season, not a disappointing first round exit, and it was expected that the team would build on this and return even deeper and more hungry this year.
Well so far this season, that hasn’t materialized.
Therefore, a series that looked prior to the season to be a stepping-stone to greater things, suddenly has become an evaluation session.
If the Raptors get by the Magic, perhaps all is not "for naught," and management will simply keep building towards the free-agent frenzy summer of 2009.
Should Toronto fail miserably against Orlando to cap off what was at best an inconsistent season, then all of a sudden it might be time for Bryan Colangelo and his crew to re-examine their original blueprints.
So with this in mind, we here at RaptorsHQ have six questions we’d like to see answered as the first round unfolds:
1) Will the real Toronto Raptors team please stand up? Who knows which Toronto team is going to show up on Sunday – is it the gritty bunch that grinded out wins against San Antonio and killed Boston with a salvo of long-range missiles? Or is it the moribund crew that slogged through the final month and a half of the season? The latter isn’t going to stand a chance against the Magic while the former, could indeed make things quite interesting.
The problem is, as fans, we don’t have much of an idea as to which version of the Raptors we’ll see…and we’re all hoping it’s not the last incarnation of the club from March and April.
From my perspective, it’s going to take a lot more toughness, tenacity and urgency from this group than they’ve displayed most of the season. Orlando isn’t a particularly "tough" team either so if Toronto can somehow summon the spirit of Charles Oakley (or get Garbo to fire everyone up before the games), than this should prove to be a huge advantage over an inexperienced Magic club.
To further illustrate this point, I turn things over to Fire Sam Mitchell.com, who did this superb breakdown of each player on the Raptors in terms of their current intensity levels:
Last year against New Jersey, Toronto came off soft at times and guys like Bargnani, Moon, Delfino and Kapono are going to need to take things to at least the CB4 level of intensity if they want to knock off the Magic.
In addition, besides showing some fight again, the club needs to rediscover its offensive firepower. Here’s a strange thought but can Toronto actually score enough in this series to win? The Raptors of last year were an offensive juggernaut. Sure their defense was a bit Nugget-esque, but on most nights they could put up enough points on the scoreboard to end up on top. This year, Toronto’s still averaging about 100 points a game but over the past month and a half, the results haven’t been as good. The Magic averaged about 104 points a game on the season, so if the Raptors keep up their morbid 30.7 per cent 3-point shooting from April, this series is going to be over faster than you can say JJ Redick. This club was constructed to be a deadly long-range shooting team and it’s going to be key for the Raptors to use Bosh to suck in the defense, and then make the Magic pay by hitting outside shots.
Can Andrea put the regular season behind him?
2) Can Andrea Bargnani step up on the big stage?
Here’s our next big question mark. Andrea’s disappointing season has been dissected time and time again so let’s see just how he comes out of the gate on Sunday. Sam Mitchell is going to have some major decisions to make as if Bargs struggles from the get-go, this won’t be the time to play around and hope to "get him some experience." That was last year, and this year during the regular season. Mitchell seems to understand now that Toronto simply needs to win, hence the re-insertion of Rasho Nesterovic into the starting line-up late in the season. So what might be much to Colangelo and Gherardini’s dismay, I fully expect Sam to give Andrea a permanent ride on the pine if he rails to rebound, guard his position, and attack the basket. Andrea actually did a decent job defensively against Hedo Turkoglu during the regular season and I that these two are really the X Factors in the series. If Bargs can start pumping in 15 to 18 points a game off the bench, this could give the Magic’s thin bunch of back-ups fits…not to mention some more grey hairs for Magic coach Stan Van Gundy. However if Hedo starts using his size to bully his way to the basket, and starts canning ridiculous shots from long distance...
3) Can Toronto’s bench be an advantage in the series?
Continuing with the Andrea theme, his bench-mates need to give Toronto productive minutes in this series. This is an area that on paper looks to be a big advantage for the Raptors. Carlos Delfino, Jason Kapono, Jose Calderon, the aforementioned Bargnani and even Kris Humphries when playing to their strengths overshadow the likes of Keith Boggans, Keyon Dooling, JJ Redick, Carlos Arroyo, Brian Cook and Adonal Foyle for the Magic. However as we know, Toronto’s depth hasn’t been all that it was cracked up to be this year and it’s crucial that the Raptors get a balanced attack from both their starters and their bench.
4) Can Toronto keep Orlando’s long-range shooting in check?
Maybe some people feel that containing Dwight Howard is a key. Or that Toronto needs to do a number on the boards. But I don’t think either of these two points is as important as the Raptors’ ability to defend the 3-point line. The Magic shot almost as well on the season as the Raps from downtown and Orlando gets up more 3’s than anyone in the league besides Golden State. The Magic averaged an amazing 25 3-point shots a game this year while Toronto, as good as they shot, took only about 18. That’s a huge difference and for a team that really struggles to defend against the 3, I’m worried that this will be the difference in the series. If we start seeing lax rotations, ineffective double-teams on Howard, or penetration by Hedo and others, it just opens things up for Orlando to bomb away. Considering they hit on almost 39 per cent of these long-range attempts (nearly the same as Toronto), the Raptors can’t afford to give the Magic open looks.
And as previously discussed, Toronto needs to fire back. Unfortunately as mentioned on T Jose Caldeford recently, the Raps five big long-range gunners are shooting a collective 33.9 per cent from beyond the arc since the All-Star break as opposed to 45.1 per cent prior to it. That folks is a huge difference and a major concern for me heading into this series.
5) Can CB4 carry the weight?
Therefore if Toronto’s shots aren’t falling, it will be up to Chris Bosh to get the job done. Last year he was stymied by some very effective New Jersey defense and it will be interesting to see what Orlando throws at him this year. After Orlando’s last loss to Toronto during the season, Magic coach Stan Van Gundy lauded Bosh’s work and was upset with himself having waited so long in the game to use double-teams and other defensive strategies to thwart Chris. Therefore I expect Van Gundy to try some innovative sets (perhaps even a box and 1 if the other Raptors are struggling to score?) to get Bosh out of his comfort zone and into jump shot mode. For Toronto though, CB4 needs to make quick moves with the ball as soon as he receives it and needs to attack the rim early and often. He can’t wait for his team-mates to get the job done and needs to be both a scorer and a creator. Bosh has a lot to prove in this series and I believe that as he goes, so will the Raptors.
6) Which point guard gets the call in the crunch?
Finally, what looks to be the hot-button topic of the series from a Raptors’ perspective. As one of our readers mentioned yesterday, Mitchell has indeed tip-toed around this subject and has at times played both Ford and Calderon during fourth quarters. He may continue to do that against Orlando if the Magic go small with Nelson or Arroyo in the back-court with Dooling. However at some point Mitchell is going to have to make some decisions. Right now I think he’ll take the "it depends on the situation" approach and has no one player in mind to finish games. If the Raptors need scoring, he’ll probably go with TJ. If Toronto needs more offensive continuity and ball movement, Mitchell goes with Jose.
Neither point guard has blown me away with their play recently so I think for the time being, it’s not a bad idea to see how the game unfolds in terms of making a decision. No, it’s not ideal, but this is what you get when you are still tweaking starting line-ups with only a handful of games left in the season.
So who wins this series?
Right now, based on the way Toronto has played to finish the season, I think Orlando does in five games. I worry that the Raptors will struggle to score points when their second unit is in the game, and have too many defensive lapses against the Magic’s sharp-shooters. I also worry about Mitchell’s coaching and lack of set rotations. The Magic won over 50 games this season for a reason – this is a good team. Meanwhile, we’re left to judge the Raptors based on Toronto’s body of work over the past month and half, which is simply not that impressive. Realistically right now, a lot of things need to go right for Toronto to win.
That being said, I do think Toronto can win this series.
If the Raps can D-up on the perimeter, force Dwight Howard away from the basket so he’s not getting easy dunks and put-backs, get an excellent series from Chris Bosh and the bench in terms of offence, and play with some grit urgency, I think Toronto can easily move on. Bosh, Toronto’s depth and point guard play are all advantages that the Dinos should be able to take advantage of in order to advance.
For me, I think watching that first quarter of Game 1 will be a great indicator of how this series will go.
Now I just need to make it through until the Sunday tip-off.