Coming off a win against a miserable Cavaliers team the Raps now face their Atlantic Division foe the Boston Celtics - the same Boston Celtics leading the Eastern Conference and having just beat the San Antonio Spurs.
With the Holidays and New Years now in the rear view mirror we are now in the heart of winter which means more couch time, more basketball viewing and hopefully more to cheer for as a Raptors fan.
The start of 2011 has gone pretty much according to plan for the Raptors having lost to superior teams in Boston and Chicago while beating the lowly Cavaliers (albeit in a back-to-back).
If things continue to go according to plan you can expect another L tonight in Boston as the Raptors meet up with the Celtics for the fourth and final time this season.
The Raptors and Celtics are teams that simply reside in two completely different regions of the NBA world. The Raptors are young, inexperienced and developing talent in hopes of becoming what the Celtics are today - a veteran team with oodles of talent and their focus squarely on the NBA Finals. Perhaps the only thing these two teams have in common is that the injury bug has both squads the past few weeks.
Both teams seem to be on the mend however as they each recently saw the return of their respective point guards and the results were positive. Jose Calderon was an essential part of the Raptors win over Cleveland while Rondo returned to Boston's line-up and had a huge game against the Spurs. It's the match-up of the point guards that is our first key to tonight's game (see below).
Having Calderon back in the line-up was a sight for sore eyes. With it still being unclear whether Bayless can polay tonight, outside of Calderon the Raptors essentially have no other true ball handlers on the roster. This is a major difference between this season and last when the Raptors could have, at a minimum, trotted out the likes of Marcus Banksor even played Hedo as a point-forward.
With Ronald Dupreenow having been released and Solomon Alabi being sent to the D-League you have to wonder if Bryan Colangelo isn't looking to sure up the PG position either through a trade or with a free-agent. Chris Duhon anyone?
Back to tonight....
To get a better feel on what is happening with the Celtics we reached out to CelticsBlog (one of original and best blogs on SB Nation) for our weekly edition of Blogging With the Enemy.
RHQ: Compare this year's Celtics to the team last year and the team that won the Championship. Is this year's Celtics squad a championship calibre team when healthy?
CelticsBlog: There's actually a lot in that question and I'm not exactly sure where to begin but the best I can do to summarize would be to say that this year's squad just has a different kind of feel to it, unique to either of the other two years mentioned. The title team was maniacal in their focused determination. They had lightening in a bottle and they knew it wouldn't last so they pushed with all their might. Last year was kind of the polar opposite. They had been there and done that and knew that they could get back there if they could stay healthy so they kind of put things on auto-pilot for the 2nd half of the year. Turns out they were able to flip the switch and almost got another title out of it. This year is somewhere in between. They don't want to get worn down but they know they can't get away with what they pulled last year with the increase in competition. Luckily they have more depth this year so they can weather some of the injury storms better and could/should be well positioned after the All Star break when some help returns in the form of Kendrick Perkins and Delonte West.
RHQ: What has Shaq brought to the team and what to you envision his role will be when Perkins come back?
CelticsBlog: Shaq has brought a surprising amount of gas left in the proverbial tank. You can't teach ginormous and you still can't move him off the block. He has accepted his diminished role on the team but he steps up when he's needed - in particular in Perkins' absence. I don't think anyone expects Perk back at 100% this year so I think that he'll be eased back into the lineup unless something happens to the O'Neal brothers.
RHQ: What are the keys to another Celtics win over the Raptors on Friday?
CelticsBlog: No offense to the Raptors or their fans, but the only way the C's lose to the Toronto is if they beat themselves. There's just too much talent on this team when they are reasonably healthy. Garnett is important to our long term plans but if we can beat the league best Spurs without him then the Raps should be easy pickings. And there-in lies the danger. This team is guilty of not always getting "up" for the games that don't have a playoff feel so they let teams like this hang around or even hold a lead for 3 quarters. Thus far they have more often than not closed things out in the 4th quarter but you can only play that game so many times before getting burned.
I couldn't agree more with the analysis on the Raps chances of winning this game. Unless the Celtics shoot themselves in the foot countless time a W here is unexpected. Of course if it was as easy as this they wouldn't play the games would they?
Here are tonight's three key's:
1. PG Play: Rondo is back and looking 100% which is bad news for the Raptors. Bayless continues to be hampered by the ankle and we all know Jose has historically struggled against the far quicker Rajon Rondo. Are the Raptors going to be able to provide any resistance to the Celtics offensive attack tonight? As much as we harp on the Raptors lack of interior defense the wing players have not been much better. Look, we all know bad things happen when point guards can make their way into the paint at will and it will be Triano's job to figure out some way of at least slowing down the Celtics point guard. Can the Raptors afford to sacrifice Calderon's ball handling skills to allow for a playing like Julian Wright to come in and try and put the clamps down on Rondo? That's the unenviable dilemma facing Triano and his staff tonight. Seems like a damned if you do damned if you don't situation to me.
2. Share the Rock: The Cavaliers game was far different from the Bulls game earlier this week when the Raptors looked like "a team" of guys interested in doing nothing but going 1-5 against their opponent. Sharing and moving the basketball on the offensive end is absolutely imperative should the Raps hope to be in this game at the end. The Celtics defense is smothering and the Raps cannot make it easier for them. Ball movement and finding mismatches when the time arrives (think Bargnani vs. O'Neal) will be key. The Raptors have to find better shots then the last time these two teams met (37.8%).
3. Make the Hustle Play: The Raptors can't simply sit back and hope the veteran Celtics don't show up in this game (far-fetched given it is in Boston). Toronto has to create extra scoring opportunities, possessions and simply out hustle the Celtics to have a chance. The energy has to be there right away and all night long - even when facing a deficit. The good news for Raptors fans? The Raptors seems to produce on Friday night games having covered the spread in 8 of their last 11 Friday night games. If the Raps come out flat like they have on occasion this season channels will be changed well before the end of the first half.