After two straight wins, the Toronto Raptors have now lost two straight, both in slightly ugly fashion. The team tries to get back on the right track tonight with a rematch against the Knicks...
As of this morning, the Toronto Raptors sit a fraction out of 8th place in the Eastern Conference.
The standings are:
5. Miami Heat
The Raps, with an identical 8 and 13 record as the 'Cats, are 0 and 1 against Charlotte this season, hence the 9th ranking as opposed to being tied for 8th or even ahead.
Yesterday in the comments section I noted that it seemed that teams in the East could probably start to be "tiered" to a certain degree so that five tiers would present themselves when all was said and done.
In the first tier, the Celtics and Magic, clearly the cream of the Eastern crop.
There's of course a chance a healthy Bulls and Heat join them, but right now, they seemed to be a tier below that.
The Hawks, minus Joe Johnson, I felt would inhabit a tier 3 to themselves.
In the fourth tier, two teams, the Knicks and the Pacers. I was skeptical earlier in the season of the Knicks, but having seen them recently, they look to be a true playoff team in the East, and are still missing a few important pieces like Ronny Turiaf and Kelenna Azubuike.
Finally, the fifth tier.
And right now, it's anybody's game.
If the Milwaukee Bucks can get healthy then I actually expect we'll see them in that third tier with the Hawks when all is said and done, and then the East's playoff spots will be pretty locked-up. But should they continue to struggle, then really, that 8th spot is anybody's for the taking.
Philly? Detroit? Cleveland? New Jersey? Charlotte? Washington? And yes Toronto?
These are not good teams.
Just take a look at this hilarious montage put together by NBA Playbook.com from last Friday's Nets vs. Bobcats match if you don't think so...
My point is that while some tend to view this season's coverage of the Raptors as about as bi-polar as it comes, the reality is that Toronto may simply make the playoffs based on how being the "lesser of the leasts" so to speak. I'm sure from here on out they'll win some big games, like the recent W's against Boston and OKC, and yet they'll drop some matches they also should easily have won. But it's quite possible that again this season, fans find themselves in the unenviable position of having to decide between a possible first round thrashing at the hands of the Celtics, and a low lottery pick.
No shot at the top 5?
I don't think so and here's why.
Barring a major slide, improvements via trade by some of the other Eastern Conferences bottom-feeders, or a rash of Dino-injuries, teams like Washington, Cleveland and Philly look to be set for the very bottom.
As well, even a bottom finish doesn't guarantee you a top 3 spot, look at the Nets last year.
Compound these notes with the fact that the West is guaranteed to produce a few top 3 options (Sacto and Minny look like good bets) simply because they play against much tougher competition on a nightly basis, and unfortunately I think Toronto ends up drafting right around where it drafted last year, in that 10 to 13 range.
It's a bit of a strange thought actually, especially considering the loss of Chris Bosh etc, but a bit like the Jays divisional woes, the Raps to me this year look to be a victim of their surroundings.
One of the teams that is influencing said surroundings is the New York Knicks, Toronto's opponent again this evening. And as our interns point out this morning, while NYC is ahead of TO in the standings, let's not confuse this club with the Magic or C's yet. I asked each to fire me over a stat about the Knickerbockers that they found interesting, and here are their submissions:
New York Knicks fans have a lot to be pleased about, comfortably sitting in the 6th seat in the Eastern Conference and currently riding a 5-game winning streak. The Knicks are road warriors winning 7 consecutive games away from home, but their winning ways haven't carried over to the Garden. The New York Knicks are at a dismal 4-5, and they are the only playoff ranked team in the NBA with a less than .500 home record.
Danilo Gallinari is the team's worst offender in their home game woes. On the road, Gallo is averaging 17 PPG and shooting 43 per cent from behind the arc, but at MSG he's averaging 13 PPG and is shooting less than 30 percent from the three-point line. His numbers on the road are eerily close to those in the wins vs. losses. Gallo has only hit on 11 three pointers at home, but he is still ranked 8th in Three Point Field Goals Made in the league (44). If the Raptors want to snap their mini two game slump they have to make sure Gallinari doesn't get hot. It's a task easier said than done.
Home Games: 12.6 PPG 27 3P%
Losses: 11.7 PPG 19 3P%
Road Games: 16.8 PPG 43 3P%
Wins: 17.4 PPG 48 3P%
Despite their 13-9 record, the New York Knicks' season can be compared to the strange case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Winners of 10 of their last 11 games, it is a mystery as to why the Knicks, who were considered to be a playoff bound team going into the season, are only four games over the five hundred mark. The 11 different teams that the Knicks have beaten combine for a meagre winning percentage of .359, with a less than impressive 80-143 combined record.
While it appears that they have feasted on the weak (the only teams with winning records that they have beaten are Chicago and New Orleans), Amare and co. have also fallen victim to their apparently weaker foes, as teams that they have lost too combine for a paltry .467 winning percentage and herald a mediocre 85-97 combined record. This is the Knicks' most telling stat of the season for two reasons. On one hand, the Knicks have only played five teams with a winning record all-season, and despite their incredibly easy schedule, they have only managed to win 13 games. For a team that many people believe will go deep into the playoffs, one has to ask them self a simple question. What happens when they start playing competitive teams like the Spurs, the Magic or the Lakers?
If the 2006-07 Suns were a Mac, then the 2010-11 Knicks are a PC. This year's Knicks are a typical D'Antoni team: near the top of the league offensively but defensively challenged. While their 13-9 record is auspicious, it should be taken with a grain of salt. New York has been the recipient of an early Christmas gift from David Stern and the NBA schedulers. So far, the Knicks' opponents have the league's worst winning percentage at .415. The teams that have beaten the Knicks have allowed a combined 100.1 points (around the league average), Toronto's average currently stands at 103.8. The key to defeating the Knicks for the first time in three tries for the Dinos will be holding their ground defensively, and especially containing the red-hot Amar'e.
51 three pointers have been attempted by the Knicks in their last 2 games against the Raptors, both Toronto losses.
It is no secret that D'antoni's team have fallen in love with the triple, but they become ruthlessly effective when the Raptors wing players are late on their close outs. Amare Stoudemire is a beast and against the Raptors front court he is sure to have a great game. When he starts to command double-teams, it only creates more open looks for his teammates, and in order to win this game the Raptors need to limit the amount of quality shots the supporting cast gets. It might just become a case of letting Stoudemire get his, and focusing on completely shutting out the supporting cast. And more than anything, this game is about pride. After getting spanked on their home floor twice by the Knicks and outworked by the Pacers, this contest screams statement game.
2010-11 New York Knicks: 1.31 point/shot (league lead at 1.32)
2004-05 Phoenix Suns: 1.29 (regular season), 1.32 (postseason)
2005-06 Phoenix Suns: 1.24 (regular season), 1.29 (postseason)
So far in this young 2010-2011 regular season, the Knicks have enjoyed similar success offensively to that of previous D'Antoni-coached teams. The Knicks are tied for third in the NBA with 1.31 point/shot, a figure that bodes well for Mike D'Antoni-coached teams. Indeed, his Phoenix Suns enjoyed a remarkable season in 2004-05 when they lost to the San Antonio Spurs, 4-1, in the Western Conference Finals. For that postseason, the Suns had 1.32 point/shot. Who knows what could have happened for this team had Joe Johnson not been injured during the playoffs. The following year, Stoudemire suffered a knee injury and nobody believed the Suns could reach the Western Conference Finals once again, but they did. Then again, the team scored 1.29 point/shot during the postseason.
D'Antoni seems to fully believe that basketball, most of all, is about scoring points; he preaches to his players to make more baskets than the opposition on any given night. This recipe has yet to lead anyone to an NBA Championship, but D'Antoni has led previous teams on the cusp of the NBA Finals two years in a row. For that, I believe the Knicks are on the right track for trying to emulate the 2004-05 Phoenix Suns.
Some really interesting metrics from our prospective new HQ team members, and I think it's pretty easy to follow them into tonight's "3 keys."
1) Defend the perimeter: Toronto has gotten shelled from downtown in their past two games as both Indiana and New York let fly from long range. The Raps seemed helpless to counter this strategy and simply wilted under the long-range barrage. As well, both clubs were able to create said open opportunities via defensive breakdowns around perimeter as Toronto was forced to collapse on guys like Raymond Felton, thus opening up easy looks for 3-point shooters.
It's pretty clear therefore what the first key is. Toronto can't afford to try and trade long-range buckets with the Knicks as they're currently the second worst 3-point shooting team in the league right now so this isn't about "first to 150 wins." If Toronto can't run the Knicks off the 3-point line or force contested looks, it's going to be a very long night once again.
2) Amar'e Stoudemire: Amar'e of course throttled Toronto on Sunday in the Raps' loss, and was perhaps the sole reason New York put on such a dominant performance. With so much of the Raptors' defensive energy placed on stopping him, it allowed Amar'e teammates way too many open looks on the perimeter. As a result, guys like Shawne Williams looked like Ray Allen and the Knicks never looked back. As one of our intern finalists noted above, Toronto may simply have to let Amar'e "get his," and concentrate on keeping the rest of the Knicks out of the scoring party.
3) Match-ups: There have been some rumblings recently about another change to the starting line-up, with Sonny Weems perhaps coming out in favour of another option. While I'm not sure that's necessarily the answer, it's easy to see why it would happen. Weems just couldn't seem to understand the concept of "going over" screens against Indiana and was burned time and time again by guys like Brandon Rush who were left with nothing but open look after open look from deep.
However my concern extends beyond Sonny to Amir and Andrea. Last time they played the Knicks, Toronto got in a huge hole early because Amir wasn't physical enough to get Amar'e away from his sweet spots, and Andrea not fast enough to run out and challenge Wilson Chandler on the perimeter.
I'm hoping therefore that tonight Triano puts Bargs on Stoudemire. Let Amar'e contend with Andrea's outside game on D, and have the more physical Bargnani body Amar'e around on the night. Amir can then use his length and quicks to get out on Chandler, and hopefully this will mean less "help" rotations from Toronto's wings.
As well, how about using guys like Julian Wright, similar types to Chandler, in order to fight fire with fire?
Mike D'Antoni got the best of Jay Triano last time these clubs met and I'm looking for some payback tonight.