3 In the Key – Toronto Raptors Game-Day Preview vs. Milwaukee

The Raptors need to keep Bogut and company off the glass tonight...

The Raptors need to keep Bogut and company off the glass tonight...

34 and 67.

That’s the combined record of the next three teams that the Toronto Raptors will be facing, with the 16 and 19 Milwaukee Bucks, the best of the trio facing off against the Raps tonight.

If there was ever a week where the Raptors need a clean sweep, this was it.

The Dinos of course are coming off two impressive wins; the first Friday night over a disenfranchised Houston Rockets team and the second, over a tough Magic Squad that at the time boasted the league’s fourth best overall record. The wins got them six games under .500 and unbelievably, only a game and a half out of the eighth spot in the East which is currently being occupied by…

…yes, these same Milwaukee Bucks.

It’s a bit bizarre isn’t it?

As Raptors fans we’ve been lamenting the team’s play for the majority of the season, and yet here they are, knocking on the playoffs door and looking at their first string of three consecutive "should win" games.

Granted, "should win" is different from "guaranteed win" as those ball fans glued to their TV sets yesterday saw. (Especially for those of you with a sports-pack.) The Celtics lost to the Knicks, the Mavericks lost to the Grizzlies, the Cavs lost to Wizards (although Washington did EVERYTHING in their power to give the game away), the Magic of course got upset by the Raps and the Pistons beat a Clippers squad missing Baron Davis, Ricky Davis and Zach Randolph by only a single point.

Oh…and the biggest upset of them all?

Boston College knocking off a North Carolina squad that looked primed to go undefeated into the NCAA tournament.

So while Toronto on paper, even without Jose and JO at 100 per cent, should be able to take these matches, they’re going to need to come out with the fight they displayed yesterday afternoon in order to climb three games under .500.

Before we get into the keys then for tonight’s match against Milwaukee, a few notes from yesterday’s game that I wanted to add.

First off, Anthony Parker was unreal. Everyone is going to talk about his scoring and great shooting percentages, but it’s the little things he does too that are so important. I had to catch the Game in an Hour version but the advantage was that it allowed me to examine some of the finer nuances of the game and Parker’s afternoon was full of them. From guiding Roko and essentially being the second point-guard on the floor, to making great use of cuts and screens, AP was simply awesome and without him it would have been loss number 21.

I also thought that Toronto’s other wings, especially Moon and Graham, looked incredibly focused. They could be seen communicating on the court and during time-out situations and the entire team just had this energy that I hadn’t seen since…well perhaps their first win of the season over Golden State. If the Raptors can get that sort of wing play on a regular basis it makes such a huge difference. Suddenly Bosh doesn’t need to score 40 and can save himself for making big plays when it counts, like his free-throws and rebounds in traffic yesterday in the game’s final minutes. This point can’t be understated; if Bosh gets help on the offensive end it just makes his all-around game that much more effective.

Which made Bryan Colangelo’s half-time comments about a former Toronto wing, Carlos Delfino, that much more interesting.

Colangelo, in a half-time interview, almost out of nowhere mentioned that he and Raptors’ management had been in touch with Delfino’s agent and that there were some discussions about Carlos returning to the Raptors from Russia. Apparently a combination of Delfino not being completely content with his situation, and the current economic circumstances in that part of the world were factoring into this, as well as the fact that Toronto still holds his rights.

Do I like the idea of Delfino returning?

Absolutely, and with only 14 occupied roster spots there would be room for the former Dino.

Financially I’m not quite sure how things would work but perhaps Delfino is willing to take a pay cut to return to the league and to a team he’s familiar with, not to mention one he’d probably have an increased role on.

It also could pave the way for Colangelo to make some trades. He vehemently denied in his interview that he was trying desperately to move everyone but Bosh and Calderon, something the media lately has been whispering, and he confirmed for the thousandth time that CB4 wasn’t going anywhere. However if Delfino comes on board, perhaps then it makes some of the other wings on Toronto more easy to let go. Let’s face it, unless Delfino has suddenly transformed into Manu Ginobili, he’s not the total answer either. Athletically he’s an improvement and his defence and ball handling should be a big boost off the bench, but at times last year he was just as maddingly inconsistent as Moon, Graham, Kapono and Parker. With the trade deadline only about six weeks away though, perhaps BC can start to look at those teams who have been having some issues (I still think Houston would be a good target as I mentioned Saturday in the comments) and put together a package of some kind.

As an aside - how frustrating would that be for Sam Mitchell, to see BC finally make a deal to get the 3 he needs AFTER he's gone. I can't wait to see what he has to say if the deal does go down considering he's now on NBA TV. Anyone else see this? How uncomfortable does he look?

Another option might be to simply pick up a discarded free agent as this Wednesday marks the date upon which teams need to decide whether to keep players who are not on guaranteed contracts. Some of the interesting names for the Raptors (assuming they're not retained) include:

-CJ Watson, DeMarcus Nelson and Anthony Morrow of Golden State
-Von Wafer of Houston
-Shaun Livingston of Miami
-Austin Croshere of Milwaukee
-Malik Hairston of San Antonio

Anyways, a deal of some sort might be especially valuable if indeed the last two games have been "corner turners." Then maybe some fine-tuning gets the Dinos rolling and into the hunt for not just a final playoff spot, but perhaps one of the seeds even higher than eight.

After watching an unhealthy dose of college basketball this weekend I’m starting to think that that would be ideal. On Saturday I updated our top five prospect list and realized that most of the prospects I’m enamored with will fall between the ranges of 10 to 20 in all probability. I’m not a big fan of a lot of the "top" picks right now and indeed this looks like a draft light on franchise talent, but one that could offer up some great role players for savvy GM’s.

Case in point. Yesterday CBS showcased a gangbuster game pitting Louisville against their fierce rivals, Kentucky. One of our top 5 prospects, Earl Clark, was on display and while he didn’t have his best game, you could easily see why scouts are so high on him. However the game featured a number of other interesting draft options, from athletic yet undersized power-forward Patrick Patterson, to lightning quick point-guard Jodie Meeks, to do-it-all forward Terence Williams, an HQ favourite since last season. My top option for the Raps based on where I think the team will be drafting continues to be Tennessee forward Tyler Smith, who had another great game on Saturday, but the main point here is that by the time the draft rolls around, I’d rather see Toronto with a playoff spot and a lower pick than one of the estimated "top options." (Well…unless they somehow can snag Greg Monroe.)

To get that playoff spot?

Well let’s start with a win tonight over the Bucks. Here are our 3 Keys:

1) Attack, attack, attack –

Milwaukee has been a nice surprise this year. They’re not exactly running away with the East, or even their division, but at three games under .500, have been keeping pace and are in the playoff hunt, something many thought impossible prior to the season. One of the keys of course has been Scott Skiles’ increased defensive focus, something that has resonated throughout his club and which has the Bucks ranked fifth in the league in defensive efficiency. Additions like Richard Jefferson and Luc Richard Mbah a Moute have helped in this regard and the Bucks are giving up only 96 points per game.

Always calm, Skiles has these Bucks playing their best defence in years...

Always calm, Skiles has these Bucks playing their best defence in years...

Therefore it’s imperative tonight that Toronto approach the match with the same vigor as yesterday’s contest. Anthony Parker was extremely aggressive, and Joey Graham, while having a tough shooting night, refused to settle for jumpers and attacked the basket time after time. Milwaukee is coming off a loss to the Charlotte Bobcats were the Cats shot 33 free-throws to clinch the victory. Hopefully Jay Triano has his troops take note.

On the other side of the ball, the Raptors need to keep Milwaukee out of the paint. The team has been surprisingly bad from beyond the 3-point arc so far this season so hopefully we’ll see Jay Triano’s "pack the paint" philosophy to ensure that the Bucks don’t get to the rim and are forced to settle for long-range bombs. Therefore the attack, attack, attack, mentality works here as well; I’m hoping to see Toronto aggressively staying in front of their men and grinding Milwaukee’s offence to a halt.

2) All Hands On Deck…or On Glass –

Another reason the Bucks have been much improved this year is their rebounding. Milwaukee currently sports the league’s fourth-best rebounding rate grabbing an average of 43 a game. Toronto’s rebounding issues have been well-documented this season but mysteriously sans-JO in the past two games, the club has responded, outrebounding two of the league’s premier window cleaners in Orlando and Houston. Andrea Bargnani is still no Darrell Dawkins but he’s been effective, and Jamario Moon and the wings have done a good job as well. Milwaukee sports some deadly gunners in Redd, Villanueva and the aforementioned Jefferson so it’s crucial that the Dinos prevent second-chance points and easy looks.

3) Use Watcha Got –

This final point here is more ambiguous as at the time of typing this, I’m not exactly sure who Toronto is going to have to work with tonight. I’m guessing the club will be without Jermaine O’Neal and Jose Calderon so that means another yeoman’s effort from the tandem of Solomon and Ukic will be necessary, in addition to another big game from Bargs. It also means even if Parker doesn’t put up close to yesterday’s offensive numbers, other guys are going to have to help out. The Bucks as mentioned are too good a defensive team to just rely on Bosh or stand around and shoot jumpers. If Solomon starts he needs to get motion early on and mix things up offensively taking note of mismatches. The same is true for Roko. Prince Luc gave Bosh all he could handle last time these clubs matched up so I expect Bosh to come out that much more aggressive. With Andrew Bogut lurking on the double team, it will be up to Andrea to take advantage and attempt to lure the big-man away from the basket, allowing Bosh more room to operate.

Most important of all, as was the case yesterday, Toronto needs to use the fact that they are undermanned to get maximum effort out of every individual on the court. This is a game that Toronto should be able to win, even without two of their starters, and a victory would set things up nicely for Wednesday’s match against Washington.

FRANCHISE

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