Franchise along with Vicious D and two HQ readers, took in this one live last night courtesy of MGD. What he saw was a Raptors' team that could end up surprising the league when all is said and done...
It's funny but with last night's well-executed 111 to 99 win over the OK City Thunder, the Toronto Raptors now strangely find themselves in 8th place in the Eastern Conference, and only two and a half games behind the sixth place Knicks, a team the Raps play twice in the next few days.
In other words, while it's still only about a fifth of the way into the season, it's not impossible that the Toronto Raptors end up in a fight to the finish for a playoff spot in the East.
And frankly, barring further injuries and trades, I think this will happen.
"Wait though Franchise, are you flip-flopping here? Didn't you in the pre-season say that the Raps would win 30, and then after the home-opening loss to the Knicks, cut that in half to 15?"
Yes, indeed I said both so let me explain.
Before the season began, I took a good long look at the Raptors' line-up and thought that minus about 10-12 wins from Bosh, and factoring in the loss of Antoine Wright and even Marco Belinelli, that put the Raps at about 25 wins. However I also expected Jose Calderon to return to a certain level of play, guys like DeRozan, Weems and Johnson to take another step forward, Linas Kleiza to be a boost, and in the end by various views, some statistical, some anecdotal, the team as a whole would be able to put together 30 victories.
However that assumption was based on not only the above beliefs, but also that Jay Triano would get the right mix of players going at various parts of games (ie playing Kleiza at the 4, not having Weems and Johnson strapped to the bench, etc, etc.)
Early in the season, this wasn't happening.
Triano kept rolling out guys like Kleiza and David Andersen to my frustration and as a result, I saw a team that would be lucky to get to 20 W's, more likely to fall in the 15 range. They simply weren't taking advantage of their strengths.
A few things have changed however over the course of the season's first quarter.
First, slowly but surely, Triano has realized who the truly valuable players on the club are.
Weems is now starting along with DeRozan, Amir is getting major minutes (and now starting thanks to the Evans' injury), David Andersen is gone, and Kleiza has been reduced to an 8th or 9th man, and when he does get in the game, it's at the 4 spot.
Yes, it's unfortunate that injuries dictated a good chunk of these line-up changes, but at least Triano has recognized their success and has stuck with them.
Second, the lights went on for Andrea Bargnani.
For a solid few weeks now Bargs for the most part has been playing at a level never seen before by Raptors' fans. Sure, he's always been able to fill up the basket, but he's done it at a much more efficient level of late, and has had a certain confidence and swagger to his game that previously has been lacking. He's getting to the line, attacking in the paint, posting up, hitting mid-range and turn-around j's, and of course, dropping the odd long-range bomb. He just isn't settling any more and last night's game was a perfect example of this. He established the post-up and inside game early, stretched things out with a few mid-range j's, and by the end of the match had 26 points on 11 of 20 shooting.
Oh, and about that rebounding.
In all honesty I expected Bargs' productivity to fall off a cliff minus the rebounding monster known as Reggie Evans.
However that hasn't happened and last night, against some long and gangly OKC defenders he pulled down 12, a good many of these in traffic and not simply the classic Bargs "oh look at this, the rebound just happened to fall into my hands!" types.
His production has taken the team to another level and has helped open things up for his teammates, which brings me to my third point.
Players like Calderon, Weems, and DeRozan have all improved as the season's gone on. I'll point again to last night's affair as the perfect example.
Calderon was simply brilliant. He had but 8 points, but hit these early forcing Russell Westbrook to get up on him and play both ends of the court. That allowed more breathing room for guys like Weems, DeRozan and Johnson, and Jose found them quite often, finishing with 15 assists in the match. Jose also did a great job defensively on Westbrook, who just couldn't seem to get it going. Westbrook finished with a respectable 20 and 7 but it was hardly the performance most fans expected.
And Weems, DeRozan and co? Weems and DeRozan continued their great Summer League chemistry on the court together and last night might have been a nice glimpse of the future; DeRozan the 20 point scoring threat, Sonny Weems, the fill all categories and finish with the team's highest +/- guy.
Throw in a little Ed Davis, who contributes at both ends the minute he checks into a game, Jerryd Bayless, a tough as nails competitor who did an outstanding job keeping Westbrook and Maynor in front of him, and it's tough not to like a lot of this team's young pieces, something that couldn't be said even a year ago.
"But wait Franchise, this is all great, but 30 wins isn't going to get the Raps into the playoffs!"
Solid point, and it brings me to my final observation from the early NBA season.
There are some REALLY bad teams in the Eastern Conference.
Part of my 30 win equation was because I expected clubs like Washington, New Jersey, Milwaukee and Indiana to take a step forward, and Cleveland and Charlotte to remain quite competitive, thus making it tough for the Dinos to crack that 30 win plateau.
Aside from Indiana, and maybe Jersey simply because they were sooooo bad last year, this hasn't happened. Philly, Washington, Cleveland, Detroit....none of those four I believe to be as good as Toronto. As well, Milwaukee is struggling with key injuries, and to me both Charlotte and New York are overrated, New York especially.
That's 7-8 teams right there so once you do the math, you realize it's not that hard to anticipate a possible playoff spot for TO.
That of course raises the question, "is making the playoffs though good for the club long-term?"
I'd still at this point rather a top 3 pick in the upcoming draft, assuming there's no lock-out, however I think the real important thing here is that Triangelo finally has a mix of players with the necessary attributes needed to win NBA games.
As Vicious D and I sat at the ACC last night with our two MGD contest winners, we remarked that it hadn't been since the days of Keon Clark and Antonio Davis that we'd seen a Raptors' team with so many rebounding and shot-blocking factors, not to mention true athletes, not just jump shooters. At times last night OKC must have thought they were playing themselves as a line-up of Bayless, Barbosa, Weems, Ed Davis and Amir Johnson was about as quick and athletic as anything they could throw out there.
Am I printing the Atlantic Division banner?
No way, this team still has a long ways to go and I'm sure there will be plenty of games like their November 16th debacle in Washington.
But for the first time in years, I'm seeing some nice little things brewing for the Dinos and combined with some of the other atrocities in their conference, fans might be treated to one of the more surprising seasons in club history.