After matching up with one of the most dominant big men of the last 10 years in Tim Duncan the Raptors head to Orlando to play the league's most dominant big man for the ten 10 - Dwight Howard.
The Raps are on a major slide - can they get back on track against the Magic? And what's all this about Alexis Ajinca?
The schedule makers are not making things easy on the Toronto Raptors rights now. Having faced the Hornets and Spurs on the road, the Raptors are now in Orlando to face a team having won eight in a row at home.
Yup, the Raps face the Ottoman who has now comfortably settled back in with his old mates.
For as much credit as Bryan Colangelo has gotten for fixing his past mistakes, Otis Smith has not been shy to do the same.
Looking at a team that was under-performing at the start of the season, the GM of Magic did some significant wheeling and dealing and the results have been positive - albeit not overwhelming. The Magic are 7-3 in their last ten, Dwight Howard has had some unbelievable performances and as this team continues to gel they will definitely be a force in the Eastern Conference playoffs.
In this week's "Blogging With the Enemy" feature, I took some time to talk to Evan Dunlap from SB Nation's Orlando Magic Blog, "Pinstriped Post," about the moves made by Otis Smith. Here was his take:
1. RaptorsHQ: Give us your take on the return of Hedo Turkoglu. He was disliked by almost all Raptors fans during his time here. Were you happy to see him come back to the team where he has had the most success?
Evan Dunlap: Initially I was skeptical about Turk's return. Yeah, he had some good moments here, and won Most Improved in 2008, but I thought the national media and the rest of the league tended to overrate him on the basis of a few good playoff games, while ignoring some of his more boneheaded mistakes.
But he's proven to be a pretty solid addition. He maintained his hot shooting, for the most part, from his days in Toronto and Phoenix. The difference in Orlando is, uh, "ball." Stan Van Gundy trusts him to make plays, especially in pick-and-roll situations, so he's able to rack up the assists. The Magic have never had anyone who can deliver the ball to Dwight Howard in better position than Hedo can.
With that said, it's very clear he sort of dogged it in Toronto and Phoenix. While some of the blame rests with those teams for not using his skills--why clubs employing Jose Calderon and Steve Nash traded for him remains a mystery to me--Hedo has to take a lot of the heat for just not giving his best effort there. Wednesday night against Philadelphia, for example, he dove on the floor to recover a loose ball. I doubt that's a play he made very often in Toronto or Phoenix.
It's been a plus acquisition so far, though his defense is pretty suspect, and I'm leery about the length of his contract. But for his ability to knock down open shots off the catch, and initiate the offense, and get the ball to Dwight? Good pickup. Lots of long-term questions, but a good pickup.
2. RHQ: How do you think all of the recent trade activity has impacted the Magic's championship aspirations? Are they a better team today than at the beginning of the season?
ED: It's hard to tell if they're better, necessarily; this team started 15-4 before illness spread through it, starting the downward spiral which resulted in Otis Smith making those deals. But I will say this: offensively, this team has far more options, and they're far more efficient, than at any other time during Van Gundy's tenure. Seven of the eight players in Orlando's rotation boast True Shooting marks above the league average, with Ryan Anderson, Dwight Howard, J.J. Redick, and Jason Richardson all flirting with the elite 60-percent mark. Spread four shooters around Howard inside, and you're going to force defenses to make some very difficult choices.
Defense is the bigger concern, as you might expect from a team that just shipped Mickael Pietrus and Marcin Gortat away. Can Orlando get enough stops to give its potent offense gain enough separation from opponents? I'm not exactly sure. Defense takes longer to install than offense, which is why Van Gundy said the night of the trades he'd try to be patient with the newcomers.
Gilbert Arenas is another issue. He's the lone Magic rotation player with sub-average efficiency statistics, he's not defending, and he doesn't move too well. All these problems are related, I believe. Once he gains enough confidence in himself, and strength in his left knee, his play will improve. But as it is, Van Gundy's having to ride Jameer Nelson pretty hard because Arenas keeps throwing silly passes and taking awful shots off the dribble.
The easy solution would be to have him drive to the basket more often, but he can't really push off to gain enough speed, so he's often off-balance, and ambling, on his forays to the rim. It's kind of a mess. One hopes he improves, and in a hurry, as he has three years and $60 million remaining on his contract after this season, and at present, he's not giving the Magic anything a replacement-level point guard could in similar minutes.
Overall, though, I like the offensive improvements and I think they're better equipped to hang with Boston, Miami, and the other teams atop the East. Their ceiling, their potential, is higher than it was. Van Gundy now has to maximize that potential, and the players have to execute what he draws up, on both ends of the floor.
3. RHQ: What are the keys to a Magic victory against the Raptors?
ED: Toronto's not exactly a great team, but that didn't stop it from knocking off the Magic, in Orlando, earlier this season. DeMar DeRozan and Andrea Bargnani combined for 53 points in that game, so they have to be the Magic's highest priorities on defense. And it's not as though the two of them lit it up from the outside in that game, going 1-of-4 from beyond the arc between them. DeRozan got free for jumpers off the dribble, while Bargnani scored just about whenever, and however, he liked. DeRozan also worked his way to the foul line, going 10-of-12. It's incumbent on Richardson and Redick to keep the high-flying USC product in front of them, conceding the open jumper off the catch rather than letting him drive to the rim.
Of the 10 Magic players who saw action against Toronto in November, only four are guaranteed to play tonight: Howard, Nelson, Brandon Bass, and Redick. Toronto has one of the worst defenses in the league, so scoring on it shouldn't be too difficult provided that Orlando actually executes its offense. That means crisp entry passes to Howard, making the extra pass around the perimeter, and running a steady diet of screen-and-rolls from the top to scramble the Raptors' D. Nelson, who scored 23 in defeat in the last outing, is important here. I don't think Toronto has anyone who can stay in front of him--it's not Calderon, and Jerryd Bayless has never impressed me defensively--so he has to keep attacking the basket for easy scores.
The more minutes Howard plays, the better, so he has to avoid foul trouble. The best way for him to do that is not to give chicken wings to the Raptors' post players as he fights for position. Too often, he already has a defender sealed under the rim and is preparing to catch, turn, and dunk, but he gets whistled for an offensive foul for needlessly shoving the defender into the basket stanchion. I don't want to label Bargnani a flopper--that's too easy, and often unfair, a designation to give, especially to European players--but I do think he's smart enough to sell contact like that if given the chance. So Dwight needs to keep his hands to himself.
If Redick and Anderson can manage to drain four or five three-pointers between them off the bench, Orlando will be in excellent shape.
A big thanks to Evan for the answers to our queries, and it's interesting that he too was skeptic about the "Ottoman" acquisition at first.
However it now looks like the Magic not only look reloaded on the offensive side of the ball having acquired Jason Richardson and Gilbert Arenas, but they are also playing great defense, ranked 6th in the league for opponents points allowed.
Ahhh defense. Poor defence continues to plague the Toronto Raptors and the results have been telling. In the NBA.com mid-season report cards the Raptors received a failing grade for their defense and, as they smartly point out, "when you lack talent you have to get guys to defend."
Isn't that the Toronto Raptors season in a nut-shell for you? As nice as it has been to see DeMar DeRozan start to show some real talent on the offensive end and for Bargnani to continue to develop his vast offensive repertoire, the results won't get any better if the team, collectively, can't play even average defensive basketball.
So how do the Raptors fix this?
Even if you are secretly enjoying the losses and the increased chance at a high lottery pick, another young talent is not the answer for what truly ails the Raptors.
That's why all this Alexis Ajinca talk is very interesting.
There's still nothing official, but late yesterday afternoon ESPN.com broke the story that the Dallas Mavericks would be picking up Peja Stojakovic, released yesterday by Toronto, as soon as he cleared waivers. However to make room for him on the roster, and in a separate transaction, the Mavs would be sending center Alexis Ajinca to the Dinos.
Ajinca, meanwhile, will be dealt to the Raptors along with cash considerations and a 2013 second-round pick that Toronto had sent to Dallas in last year's draft. In return, Dallas will receive the rights to 2007 second-round pick Georgios Printezis (who plays in Spain and is no longer considered an NBA prospect) and create a salary-cap exception equal to Ajinca's $1.5 million salary.
If indeed this deal goes through today, it's a nice little under-the-radar move for Toronto. Franchise, an Ajinca fan, sent me this little blurb on the whole situation in fact.
It's hard not to like this move if indeed it goes down. It's a bit of a "mini-OKC" type deal, the ones their team made a few seasons ago when they took advantage of clubs that were strapped for cash or roster space and allowed them to collect assets. Toronto gives up Printezis, essentially a wasted second-rounder, and tiny bit of cash via salary exception, and gets an interesting prospect in Ajinca, and a second-round pick in 2013. Second round picks from the likes of solid teams like the Mavericks can sometimes be a bit useless, but the fact that it's in 2013 is intriguing. Dallas has an older club and by then may have fallen off a bit. As well, the hope is that by 2013, the Raptors are back in the playoff mix, so any additional opportunities at cheap talent would be a nice bonus.
Ajinca though obviously is the main piece of this proposal, and as the Toronto Sun's Ryan Wolstat and I discussed yesterday via twitter, is a player the Dinos have been interested in quite some time. In fact Assistant GM Maurizio Gherardini took a big liking to both Ajinca and Serge Ibaka during the 2008 draft, so it's not a big surprise that he's still on TO's radar. He was one of those "workout wonders" so to speak, players who were off the radar a bit in terms of draft talk, but who physically were quite impressive, and who did a bang-up job in their pre-draft evaluations, spurring major interest suddenly. Wolstat and I both remembered Gherardini making comments to the effect of Ajinca being a very intriguing player, and it's not hard to see why.
He's a legit 7-footer with a great wingspan, and while he's been extremely inconsistent so far in the NBA, has shown flashes. I remember watching a Mavericks game earlier this season in which the beat-up Mavs, sans Tyson Chandler, were struggling to hang with the Golden State Warriors. However Ajinca turned the game around, grabbing six rebounds and blocking three shots in nine minutes, helping his club to the eventual victory.
Considering Toronto's defensive and rebounding woes, this move seems like a pretty savvy one therefore, although yes, Triano would have to find playing time for the Frenchman, something he's been unable to even do for Joey Dorsey right now.
As well, with the roster at 15 right now, Sundiata Gaines would likely be let go to make room for his arrival, and therefore fans may be waiting a few days for this move to actually happen.
Want more Ajinca?
Check out this workout video, a classic for the "workout wonders" out there:
In any event, the Ajinca move would likely be made to eventually help improve the defensive issues that have plagued this club, ones that have not been corrected by coaching. The Raptors were terrible on the defensive end last season and despite adding PJ Carlesimo the results have been just as bad. So provided Triano and staff are going no-where, where do you look?
The answer is the Raps need to find some veteran help - and fast. They need to find a veteran who can command some respect and help teach/force these guy players to play defence (which cleary excludes the released Peja Stojakovic) - and the sooner the better. There is no question the Raptors have some movable pieces with the trade deadline approaching. It would be nice to see Colangelo put something together where the Raps can truly help address their obvious need, without adding significant salary or in fact, major wins.
Until then, expect a lot more of the same from this group.
With that here are tonight's three keys:
1. Hear the Critics: This comment is directed at Il Mago. There has been lots of criticism about his play as of late, in particular defensively. If Andrea Bargnani comes out with less than 100% effort on this evening Dwight Howard may eat him alive. Bargnani's strength defensively is one-on-one defense and if matched-up with D-12 he is going to have to hold his own. Although Bargs is needed on the offensive end of the court, dropping 30 on the Magic is going to be for not if Howard has his way in the paint.
2. Eliminate Howard: The other means to limit Howards effectiveness is to get him into foul trouble. That role lies with the wing players like DeRozan and Bayless. Jump shots are all fine and good when they are falling but taking it to Howard's body will be much more helpful in terms of securing a W. DeRozan needs to keep attacking and be willing to invite contact. If Raps have a chance he will need to visit the free-throw line at least 10 times.
3. Play all 48 minutes: Against the Spurs the Raptors played high intensity basketball for about half the game which inevitably led to another L. The Dino's need to someone managed to put forth a strong effort for 48 minutes. Is this too much to ask from a bunch of young and talented professional basketball players? I would hope not. Triano, no matter how unlikely he is to do it, has to find it within himself to get tougher on his players and not shy away from pulling a guy and sticking him on the bench if the effort is not there. I, like many of you, want a team that plays hard and is scrappy. Lately we have not seen enough of that.