3 In the Key: Toronto Raptors Game Day Preview vs. Atlanta

The Raptors come home sweet home to fellow Eastern Conference rivals, the Atlanta Hawks.  Can the Raptors mount some sort of defensive effort against one of the most athletic teams in the NBA?  Vicious D takes a closer look at changes that need to be considered to pull the Raptors out of their tailspin.

Grasping at straws.

That's how most people look at this Raptors team as it goes into a tailspin.  With Bosh visibly frustrated, the team losing all of its developed chemistry, and changes coming that should have been made days ago, the Raptors are clearly trying to get out of the wrong head space. 

And a good portion of that blame has to go to Jay Triano.

I don't put blame on coaches too often, but there are several things that coaches are ultimately in charge of that determine the fate of their teams. That's of course their line-ups and their overall philosophies.  With regards to Coach Triano, it's now mid-March and he has finally decided to change up his starting lineup when most statistical analysis has shown the Raptors to have weaknesses in handling first and third quarter pressure.  It's mid-March and we are still seeing Jose Calderon and Jarrett Jack play extended minutes together as it's a look that the Raptors' coaching staff  "like", despite the two of them being clearly over-matched on the defensive end.  It's mid-March and the Raptors still haven't found a way to maximize what they get out of their biggest free agent signing of the summer.

It's mid-March and the Raptors are still giving up about 115 points per game in the nine losses they've incurred in the past 10 games.

This, my friends, is reactive coaching at its deadliest.

Which brings me to a point I made before the Raptors went out on this road trip.  When looking back, the past week and a bit was going to be a pivotal point in this Raptors season.  Going 0-4 now brings the Raptors up against two highly athletic teams who have made mince meat out of our Raptors so far this season.  And tonight, the Raptors first face their conference rivals, the Atlanta Hawks.

Unless the Raptors find some new way to have defensive accountability, this one could be over quick.

Which is why for our three keys today, I'm going to focus on three players that Jay Triano should look to in order to get a different defensive look.  These are players who Triano should look towards to get an extra defensive spark when the team seems lackadaisical.  They're players who have somehow become undervalued and forgotten in recent days.  It's where the Raptors have to look towards in order to really shake things up if they hope to turn things around before it's too late. 

1) Marco Belinelli
Guess who has the second most steals on this Raptors team?  Guess who has the highest production of steals per minutes played?  Belinelli, who's been riding the pine pretty hard in recent days, is the second behind Jarrett Jack despite playing only an average of 18 minutes per game this year.  Some may question his wild shots and inability to buy a bucket some games, but if you're asking for pure defensive effort and more possessions, the Raptors should be giving Belinelli a lot  more leeway.  Just simply tell him to cut down a little on the offense and let him wreck some more havoc out there. 

2) Marcus Banks
If both Jose Calderon and Jarrett Jack are going to give similar efforts on defense, the Raptors should send a message that it simply won't be tolerated.  Personal accountability is something that the Raptors have struggled with all season as both point guards have relied on their bigger brothers to bail them out.  While Banks may stagnate the offense at times, there's also no denying that his wider frame and tenaciousness have created a different look for the opposition.  

If the coaching staff are serious about sending a message to everyone, it means that no player can be sacred and that Banks should at least be an option that the staff should entertain.

3) Rasho Nesterovic
There are already rumblings that Amir Johnson's minutes will increase and Reggie Evans's will be eaten up as a result.  I don't have a problem with this at all, as Johnson has proven to be a very capable player on both sides of the court, despite his propensity to attract fouls.  However, I don't believe that his minutes will come at the expense of Andrea Bargnani, and while I like Johnson's game at the PF, he's less suited to battle against the centers of the league. 

Rasho Nesterovic, on the other hand, has filled in admirably in sporadic minutes.  He's even been able to be an efficient scorer and has come into games prepared for spurts.  It's therefore very puzzling to me why our big Slovenian friend continues to be underused despite Bargnani's much documented troubles in the past month.  Players like Nesterovic exist because if the team is losing direction, he can be a steadying presence with his veteran leadership and abilities. 

I realize that the players I've pointed out are quite against conventional thinking.  At the same time, conventional thinking has brought the Raptors back down below .500 and has completely stalled their defensive effort.  If conventional thinking fails, then there has to be a drastic change to really shake things up in this group.  Otherwise, any subtle changes will amount only to just shuffling the deck chairs on the Titanic.

In my mind, there should be only one thought:

"Win by any means."

Otherwise, we'll really see what it means to be a Raptors fan in angst at the end of the season.

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