3 in the Key - Raptors' Game-Day Preview vs. Clippers

The Raps may have lost 16 of their last 17 games and looking for a W this evening, but as the HQ's Sean Tepper points out, all eyes will be on a certain Mr. Griffin...

What's more embarrassing?

Losing 16 of your last 17 games or losing to the 9-45 Cleveland Cavaliers in overtime?

The answer has to be the former, because let's face it; the Toronto Raptors could very well have taken the Clippers' spot and been the team that ended the Cavaliers' historic losing streak.

Friday night's 102-96 home loss to the Portland Trailblazers marked the Dinos' 40th loss of the season, and has helped improve their chances of landing the number one overall draft pick in June's entry draft.

And who knows, that pick may be able to secure a difference-making rookie - like Blake Griffin.

The Los Angeles Clippers or "the Blakers" as they are referred to by ESPN columnist Bill Simmons, travel to the great white north having lost to possibly one of the only teams in the NBA that is worse-off than the Dinos.  

Tonight`s matchup is certainly a winnable one, as the Clippers are coming off of a tough loss and have had trouble winning on the road all season, as indicated by their dismal 4-19 away record.

However despite their unimpressive 20-33 record, Clippers fans have a lot to be happy about this season: Randy Foye has been averaging 16.7 points per game in the last 10 games that he has filled in for the injured Eric Gordon, rookie phenom Blake Griffin is emerging into one the league's elite forwards, Eric Gordon pre-injury looked like a future All-Star, DeAndre Jordan has been a steal as a second-round pick, and Baron Davis is returning to his old Charlotte/ New Orleans Hornets form.

Although he was plagued by inconsistency earlier in the season, Davis has been doing a better job of earning his $13 million salary as of late. Since Jan. 1, Davis has been averaging 16.6 points per game in addition to averaging 7.6 assists; a huge improvement over the 8.6 points and the 6.8 assists he was averaging before the New Year.

But unlike Davis, Griffin needs no introduction as you have probably seen one of his many highlight reel dunks on the latest edition of Sportscentre. The only things that you need to know about the former Oklahoma Sooner is that he is averaging a monster 22.8 points and 12.6 rebounds per game, and is widely considered one of the NBA's up and coming superstars.

Meanwhile, Raptors fans have very little to be cheering about this season.

In part thanks to their many injuries and heralding a roster comprised of glorified sixth men and solid bench players, the Raptors have been unable to do anything significant this season.  They have been unable to play timely defence, provide tough matchups for other teams, and unlike Los Angeles, there is no sure-fire stud with which they can hope to build a franchise around.

In addition, Toronto is allowing opponents to shoot an astonishing 48.5 per cent, and is giving up 104.7 points per game; both Portland and San Antonio recently shot better than 54.0 per cent from the field in fact.

And from an individual perspective, Amir Johnson, who was beginning to show off the potential that earned him a substantial contract this past off-season, may be a no-go again tonight, as he continues to struggle with injuries.

You could go as far as arguing that Amir is a perfect metaphor for the Raptors` season; just when the team appears to be taking a stride in the right direction, injuries set them two steps back.

In any event, here are the keys to tonight`s very winnable match-up.

Defend the Paint. Contain Griffin: In their last game against Cleveland, the Blakers managed to dominate the inside game as they scored almost half of their 119 points in the paint.  Unfortunately for Toronto, the Raptors` biggest weakness all season has been protecting the paint. Too many times this year the Dinos have allowed teams to manhandle them down low, something that simply can't occur tonight.  You can argue this defensive incompetence began with the injury to Reggie Evans in early November, but regardless, TO needs to figure out a way to put an end to it as again on Friday night LaMarcus Aldridge scored the majority of his 37 points in the paint. With Amir Johnson`s status for today`s game very much up in the air, the Dinos` will have to rely heavily on the duo of Ed Davis and Joey Dorsey to contain Griffin. As Franchise noted in his post yesterday, the Raps simply have to stop making it "so easy" for opponents in this area.

Do the Little Things Correctly: This key has no hidden messages and no strings attached. It means exactly what it says. Like every other game that they have played over the course of the season, the Raptors cannot hope to win this match if they decide to play sloppy basketball. That means making the extra pass on offense, minimizing the amount of hurried shots that they take, and not turning over the ball on defence. Like in football, the turnover battle is an essential aspect to winning as the team that is able to protect the ball, is generally the team that is able to capitalize on their offensive opportunities while limiting the other team`s chances at putting up points. If the Dinos can be careful with what they do with the ball and properly execute their play at both ends of the court, then they should be able to go toe to toe with the Clippers.

We've seen the highlights of players like Griffin, Aminu and DeAndre Jordan...if Toronto isn't focussed this evening, the Clippers have the athleticism and personnel to turn this one into a blow-out very quickly.

Battle of the Rookies:  As noted, if Amir can't go, Raptors' head coach Jay Triano may once again call upon Ed Davis to do the heavy lifting on D.  This no doubt means guarding Blake Griffin. While Davis has been one of the lone bright spots for the Raps of late, guarding Griffin will be no easy task for the young rookie out of North Carolina. Even if Amir Johnson does end up playing, this match-up will still be the most important one to watch out for, and will likely dictate whether or not the Raptors head into Wednesday night`s matchup against the Miami Heat with a W or an L. We saw DeJuan Blair obliterate the Raps inside recently...

...one shudders to think then what Blake might do tonight...

SEAN TEPPER

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