The Playoffs Arrive - What's Ahead? (RaptorsHQ Playoff Preview II)

One of the best match-ups to watch early...

One of the best match-ups to watch early...

NBA Playoffs 2008 styles.

Here it is folks.

I can honestly say that I have never been so pumped for playoff ball before. Not only is the West going to be ridiculous (and require some late nights!) but there are some great match-ups in the East as well.

The West is going to be a battle and the first round match-ups are pretty unprecedented. Can you believe that one of either the Suns or Spurs will be out in the first round? Think about that for a second. Did you ever think that the Hawks could be playing just as long as the team from San Antonio? This is definitely the match-up in the West that I will be watching the most. Steve Kerr essentially put his job security on the line when he dealt for Shaq and it was for match-ups like this. Can the Suns put a damper on Duncan & Co?

Meanwhile the PG battle in the New Orleans and Dallas series will be awesome. Chris Paul is becoming my favourite player in the league and he represents all that is good with NBA ball. On the flip side Kidd is the exact opposite. This could also be a very exciting series.

The most intriguing match-up out East to me is clearly the Washington-Cleveland series. Over the past few seasons a lot of bad blood has built-up between these two franchises. It will be interesting to see how much support Lebron gets from his teammates while on the flip side, how much will Gilbert play? Will Stevenson completely disappear, making his "over-rated" statement about Lebron the defining moment of his career? No matter what happens, as a fan of basketball you have to be excited. I mean like just bought your first car excited.

Of course the match-up we will all be watching will be the Raps-Magic series. After all of the wishing and hoping by the folks close to this team, their dream scenario has come to fruition. The question is now whether that dream is likely to become a nightmare.

Let’s look at this Orlando squad and see what we can learn about them from their breakthrough season where they had 50+ wins and won the Southeast Division handily.

Offense

There is no denying that this Orlando team can score. Evidence? How about being the most potent offensive team in the Eastern Conference averaging just over 104 points a game? In fact, Orlando is in the top 10 in both FG% and 3PT% in the league. Clearly the FG% is buoyed by Dwight Howard and his near 60% from the floor, but what is also clear is that the Magic have a solid inside-out game.

Keith Bogans, Hedo Turkoglu and Rashard Lewis are all in the top-10 for three pointers made and the latter two shoot 40%. These guys can shoot the lights out and more importantly can make opposing defences pay when they choose to double Howard. It’s really a simple offensive strategy for the Magic and the Raps will have to pick their poison. Is the focus on stopping Howard or is the approach one of letting Howard get his while putting the clamps on the outside shooters?

Hopefully Howard shoots a lot of this from the line.

Hopefully Howard shoots a lot of this from the line.

Defence

To put it bluntly, the Magic are pretty mediocre on the defensive end. Stan Van Gundy’s boys give up 99 points per game, are less than stellar on the glass and in fact average fewer blocks per game then the Raptors. As individuals, the roster is filled with average defenders and the scheme used by the Orlando staff has done nothing to improve them as a unit.

The Raps should definitely be able to score in this series but with Orlando the approach seems to be one of challenging their opponent to score more than they can. Not an easy task. Howard is a presence in the middle on the defensive end but is still susceptible to picking up a bad foul here and there. Can the Raps wings get into the paint forcing Howard to foul early?

Overall

From a statistical standpoint this Orlando team is good, but not great. Their biggest weakness is on the defensive end and in the playoffs it is all about exposing the other team’s weaknesses. It’s a team who relies heavily on their All-Star, and his ability to stay in the game is the key to everything they do. Given Howard’s skill sets Van Gundy is using him perfectly. If he doesn’t get an easy look inside they simply kick it out, shoot a three and know that Howard, if there is a miss, is more than likely to get the offensive board.

This team can definitely be beaten. The question is, are the Raps the team to do it? One way to look at a series is to evaluate the match-ups. So the HQ has looked at the match-ups for the starting fives in this series.

PG

Everyone by now knows that this is the biggest advantage the Raps have…sort of. There were a handful of times this season when both Ford and Calderon were in a groove, but as the season wore on it seemed like one of them was off their game. Scoop Jackson of ESPN.com's page 2, talks a bit about this in a recent article, an interesting look into the dynamics between the two.

Scoop does concede that the biggest culprit in the eyes of Raptors fans has been of course, TJ Ford. His poor play led to a re-insertion into the starting line-up and the results as of late have been mixed. Calderon’s play has fallen recently (despite the insane Assist-TO ration). Jose is having a more difficult time finding his offense as the number of pick and rolls he runs with Bosh during a game has declined. That being said Ford has played much better as of late. If only they could both get on track at the same time.

The thing is, even though the PG play has been somewhat sporadic, it would have to be even worse in this series for the Raps not to have an advantage here. Look, I loved Jameer Nelson in college but he hasn’t improved all that much since his rookie year in the league. As a result the Magic were not exactly eager to offer him an extension at the first opportunity that arose.

I would argue that Nelson is a very average PG and will likely remain a very average PG throughout his career. The biggest advantage the Raps have here is speed. Ford and Calderon should be looking to get by Nelson and into the paint every chance they get. This should get Orlando's defense to collapse leaving the Dino shooters with open looks...and Lord knows in these upcoming shootouts Toronto is going to need the 3 ball.

And on the other side of things, Orlando's point guards just don't have the ability to penetrate the way many other teams in the playoffs do. That in itself is huge, as Toronto has struggled all year with containing point guard penetration.

Advantage: Toronto

SG

The starting match-up is Antony Parker vs. Keith Bogans or Maurice Evans. Not exactly the match-up the world has been waiting to see. Here’s the thing with this match-up, initially I feel like Parker has the advantage, but the more I think about it I’m not so sure. It really all boils down to which AP shows up this post-season. Is it going to be the scoring, slashing AP or one that disappears for huge stretches at a time? For the Raps sake it had better be the former.

Call me crazy but out of all the match-ups on the floor this is the one I think matters the most. For the Raps to have a chance AP needs to dominate this match-up. Offensively he needs to mix it up, make Bogans or Evans work, and tire him out. On the defensive end Parker has quite the task. It’s not that Bogans is a lethal offensive force by any stretch but he is a long range threat. And Evans is a physical player who can get to the rim. In a series where we are bound to see some double teams creating the need for fast rotations, much of the pressure will be on Parker. Can he rotate in time to the open shooter? Can he get a hand in the face of guys like Bogans and Hedo? It’s a tough task but he needs to rise to the challenge. A non-existent AP simply is not an option.

Advantage: Even

SF

Well as many of you know I have been far from impressed with Jamario Moon’s play as of late. I don’t expect that to change now in the second season. In fact, I expect a huge series from Hedo. The former King has been an absolute monster for the Magic this year and really is the second fiddle despite this team having dropped mad loot on Rashard Lewis. His offensive game has developed to such a level where there is very little he can’t do. Clearly he can shoot, but he can take you off the bounce, has a decent mid-range game, can get on the blocks and is also a really good creator. I had him on my fantasy squad this year and he was quadruple threat in terms of points, assists, 3’s and rebounds.

Contrast this to Jamario Moon. He is not much of an offensive force, despite his athleticism, his strength defensively is on the help side while his on the ball D is far from noteworthy and he is a fairly easy defend for opposing players. Some have argued that Moon's shot-blocking will affect Hedo but I just don't buy it. He's just not strong or big enough. Most of Moon's blocks come from off-the ball help, and his on-the-ball blocks are usually ones he times so as to catch the trajectory at the right moment. However time and time again this year, we saw Moon jump to block shots, but be pushed under the rim by the stronger player resulting in a score. It happened against the Bulls in Toronto's last game and I think if Hedo takes Moon to the rim and shields the ball with his body, there's not much Jamario will be able to do.

Perhaps most importantly however, Moon is extremely inexperienced. Remember last week when Hubie Brown reamed him out for not dunking with two hands and then calling him out for not understanding the importance of the Detroit game? You can’t hold the inexperience against Moon and I guarantee we hear about his story 1000 times during this series (not trying to discount, just heard it 1000 times already), it’s just that I don’t think he quite gets it and when he is matched-up against someone that is going to play a huge role in determining the outcome of the series that’s a bad thing.

Advantage: Orlando

Howland thinks seeing plays like this is the key to a Raps victory.

Howland thinks seeing plays like this is the key to a Raps victory.

PF

Now the "PF match-up". On paper the match-up is Lewis vs. Bosh. Two very different games and based on traditional PF play, one that heavily favours Bosh. That being said Bosh had better not pull another Harry Houdini these playoffs and disappear under the pressure. Can the Big Bosh Man continue his extremely high level of play as of late? I for one, think so. Bosh has a year of playoff experience under his belt and his willingness to stick his neck out there and call out everyone from teammates to fans shows to me that he believes great things are ahead if everyone is on the same page.

It will be interesting to see how the Magic defend Chris because Rashard Lewis can’t do it on his own. Lewis has never been a guy willing to get down and dirty in the paint and the Raps need to take advantage. Chris needs to get down on the blocks. We all know CB4 can be effective from the elbow but there is an opportunity for him to get easier looks within 6-8 feet. He needs to attack the paint and force the Magic defense to react. Last year against New Jersey, Bosh was too often reacting to whatever defense was thrown at him.

Of course Lewis is no slouch. He is a fantastic shooter and has a good all around offensive game. If Bosh is asked to guard him he can expect to spend a lot of time closer to the arc then the rim. This could prove problematic as asking guys like CB4 to guard their man from the 3-point line usually spells "foul". In addition, as the team's best rebounder, Toronto needs CB4 around the rim to help against the behemoth known as Dwight Howard.

If there is any PF in the league that can match-up with Lewis however it is Bosh.

Advantage: Toronto

C

Had we looked at the Rasho-Howard match-up a few months ago there is no question that this would have been a huge advantage for Orlando. As of late however, Rasho has been playing out of his mind and continues to prove his worth to this Toronto squad. In the playoffs where things begin to slow down, his value only increases.

If Rasho can keep playing at a high level on the offensive end, showing off his hook shot, jumper, and soft touch, things suddenly get a whole lot tougher for Howard. Rasho is perhaps the one guy who can defend Dwight one-on-one but you have to believe Rasho is going to find himself in foul trouble on more than one occasion in this series. I will be really interested, given Rasho’s recent offensive outburst, to see if Rasho can turn the tables and get Howard into early foul trouble himself.

I’m skeptical though. Howard is a monster. He seems to get 25 and 15 without breaking a sweat and to think you are going to deny him positioning is simply wrong. There are few people in the world, let alone the league, who have the same body, quickness, power and agility as #12. That being said the Raps have done a pretty decent job in spurts against this guy.
Nevertheless, this is a clear advantage for the Magic.

Advantage: Orlando

All that being said, given the Raps play as of late no matter how I spin it I can’t help but believe the Magic are going to pull it out. It’s not that I don’t think the Raps have a fighting chance, but this is a series where the offense needs to be running perfectly and guys like Bargnani in particular are having a really tough time finding their shot. Toronto is simply not a team that can rely on their defence and second chance points to win games when their shots are not falling.

Nevertheless I think there are three keys to a Raps win.

Keys to the Series

Three-Point Shooting – I believe at the end of the series this will be the most telling statistic. Who gets hot and stays hot? Both teams rely heavily on the three-ball and the one to find a groove early and often will likely pull it out. It you like offensive basketball this is the series for you, and in addition to whoever keeps hitting shots, whichever team can guard their respective 3 point lines the best, probably comes out on top.

Free-Throw Shooting – Overnight the Raps are not suddenly going to become a team of Corey Maggettes. Other than CB4, they barely get to the line even though if they did, they would have a distinct advantage as the team on a whole shoots a high percentage from the charity stripe. On the other hand FT% is the Magic’s Achilles heel. The Raps simply have to take advantage of this. If the Raps can manage to keep games close going into the final frame I like their chances. Am I suggesting a Hack-A-Howard approach? Not quite, but there is no good reason the Raps should allow Howard to score ANY easy hoops late. The strategy must be one of using up team fouls to make Howard earn his keep on the line. I would like to see guys like Primoz and Hump get spot minutes at certain times to at least serve some resistance against the man-child and allow Rasho to remain effective on the offensive end.

Wing Play – Someone who plays the 2/3 position on the Raps absolutely must step up. The Magic have great wing players and the Raps have to respond to a high level of play in kind. Can the Raps make Hedo, Lewis and others play defence on the other end of the floor? Can Jamario Moon be relied on to force bad shots? I for one believe that Colangelo has some serious decisions to make this off-season when it comes to the Raptors wing players and I think this series will go a long way to determining who is staying and who is going.

Enjoy the opening day of playoffs everyone and GO RAPS!

Howland

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