3 in the Key - Game-Day Preview vs Magic

Andrea Bargnani needs to undergo this kind of rigorous training... The same that Reggie Evans went through in Philadelphia... (courtesy of STARZ ENTERTAINMENT)

The Raptors head back down to the States for their annual back-to-back against Florida's finest.  First up are a hungry and powerful Orlando Magic team who have a man-beast by the name of "Howard".

Forgive me, but I've been watching a lot of Spartacus: Blood and Sand this week.

Bloody, violent, and sexual, the TV show is definitely not for kids and is certainly geared towards men...er adults. 

It's also perhaps the most adrenaline-pumping, testosterone-infused show on TV.

And it's a show that I hope every Raptor watches to get fired up for their games.

After an abysmal road trip and an unsuccessful home stand, there has been a lot of uneasiness about the Raptors and how they have lost.  Raps fans have lots to be concerned about.  Is this the best that they can do?  Do we have enough talent?  How can we create a better starting unit?  Who should finish games?

When will Raptors HQ stop bringing up Andrea Bargnani?

However, I've always thought that the first month of Raptors games would be a wash.

I mean, even with a more talented club in previous years, the Raptors have had some pretty flat years out of the gate.

Take 2006-2007 for instance.

The Raptors started out far worse with arguably a much more seasoned bunch of players.  They got things together, won a few games but still looked shaky.  Bosh goes down with an injury as the Raptors hit a road trip and finally come together to play as a team.  Chris Bosh returns and the Raptors go on one of their longest winning streaks in January and never look back.

This year's cast is younger, with less seasoned players, with fewer "bedrock" players like Morris Peterson, Anthony Parker or Jorge Garbajosa.  There is also definitely no "go to" guy.  There was simply no doubt in my mind that these Raptors would have a tougher go of it than that magical year and they're proving the point themselves.

However, how much angst you currently have about our Dinos really comes down to one thing:

Do you believe the Raptors can play better than they have been, or are they already maxing themselves out and this is the peak for the season?

To me, I simply don't believe that these Raptors are playing their best ball.

This team is still showing a lot of wild swings in games.  They seem to play one solid quarter of basketball to get themselves back into a game.  Defense, while better than last year, is still not where we ideally need it to be, and turnovers are simply killing this club which has traditionally taken care of the ball quite well.  Toronto has to learn the fine line between calculated aggression and recklessness and it's going to take more than a handful of games for us to get the right read on whether this group is going to pull it off.

However, there are more immediate matters that demand our attention. 

The Magic are 5-2 after coming off a loss against the surprising Utah Jazz.  Stan van Gundy tore into his team for lackadaisical play in the 2nd half off the loss, and unfortunately, we should all expect the Magic to try to take out their frustrations on our hometown heroes.  In order to prevail, the Raptors have to do the following:

1) Extend their good play beyond a quarter.  They've shown a little ability to play against the big boys, but not for more than a few minutes and almost never more than for a quarter.  We've seen the small runs that this team puts together and the defensive stops they've managed against the best.  It's now time to start putting some of this work together so that they can give a more complete effort.

2) Get the turnovers under control. The only turnovers I want to see are the pastry kind. The Raptors simply are not that good of a defensive or rebounding unit that they can afford to give up possessions to the other team.  In the preseason, the Raptors managed to keep their turnovers down, generated some extra possessions, and came out on top. 

It starts with our point guards Jose Calderon and Jarrett Jack, who have to make the wise decisions, but it has to be something that every Raptor has to realize.  Every turnover means that they have to redouble their defensive efforts and the Dinos just aren't that experienced or talented to do so.  Their margin of error just shrinks to nothing if they cannot generate more possessions than their opponents.

3) Boarding school.  Do you know who is fourth in rebounding differential in the NBA right now? If you said the Raptors, you're absolutely correct.  However, do you know who is first?  While Toronto sits at a respectable difference of +2.85 rebounds per game, Orlando sits at a monster +7.42 rebounds per game against their opponents.  That means that they generate/take away almost another eight possessions from their opponents just from rebounding.

While it may be too much to ask our front court to go out there and challenge the likes of Dwight Howard, Ryan Andersen, Brandon Bass, and Marcin Gortat, the Raptors cannot allow the Magic to simply walk all over them.  I'm hoping to see Jay Triano use some of his youthful prospects in this game as both Joey Dorsey and Solomon Alabi can give the Raptors some additional strength and length which they may not get from their regular rotations. 

While I'm trying not to hit the panic button just yet, the Raptors may be on thin ice with a lot of fans and there has to be some concern about just how much improvement we've seen from this squad since the beginning of regular season. 

In my opinion, I think the Raps can squeeze more out of this group, and despite whether you're for or against certain trades or moves, Toronto needs to showcase a better product in order to get better returns should they decide to trade away some assets to gain different prospects.  Whether it's in basketball or gladiatorial combat, having a team that fights it out every night increases the value of your assets. 

And it's perhaps it's this lesson that the Raptors need to take away most from Spartacus: Blood and Sand.

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