If we ignore the historically horrific shooting performance from Rudy Gay in Houston, the last two games for the Raptors have been largely positive. They took a heavily favoured Houston Rockets team into overtime - mainly thanks to some great defense - and on Wednesday night they rolled into Memphis and and ran last season's Western Conference finalists out of their own gym.
Which all means that the Raps won that Rudy Gay trade, right?...no?...okay.
But really, until this team can put together a long stretch of solid performances - another 10 games or so of this would be nice - I, like every other sane Raptors fan, remain entirely unconvinced by this group, and wouldn't so much as blink if Masai Ujiri traded away half the roster tomorrow. In the meantime, however, it's only fair to give some credit where credit's due, and acknowledge that the team has played some solid basketball - defensively, at least - over the last two games.
(A chance that Ujiri won't blow this team up? Probably not, Lloyd)
But the Raptors will have a chance to string together two straight wins for the first time this season when the 3-3, Chicago Bulls hit the ACC tonight. Derrick Rose missed practice yesterday for the Bulls and will be a game time decision after tweaking his hamstring on Monday night. It was February 2011 the last time Rose played in Toronto. Let's hope he plays tonight.
I've seen Rose live, in-person, just once - at the ACC during the 2009-10 season. Rose was in his a second season in the league and he would, of course, go on to win the MVP the following year. Considering how the last few seasons have gone for the Raptors, this game was reasonably meaningful - both teams were gunning for the 8th seed and the right to be swept by LeBron's Cleveland Cavaliers; so yeah, for a Raptors game in April, very meaningful. Aside from a bizarre 6-19-9 stat-line from Hedo Turkoglu (yep, this was the mercifully brief Hedo-era in Toronto) my biggest takeaway - as banal as it sounds now - was that Derrick Rose was a legitimate superstar. He demonstrated star quality in his rookie season, of course, but seeing him in person in his second year, absolutely dominating the Raptors in the biggest game of that season for both teams, just sort of hammered it home for me.
As a fan of the NBA, it's great to have him back.
After an 18 month absence, however, Rose has had a rough start to the season. He's understandably still trying to shake off the cobwebs after such a long absence, and his fantastic play in the pre-season was probably deceptive given how different an actual regular season NBA game is (remember, the Raps went 6-1 in the pre-season). Through 6 games Rose is shooting just 33% from the floor (36% on 2-pointers), averaging a career high in turnovers (4.2), and is posting a PER of 6.74 - that's just behind the corpse of Steve Nash, and tied with Aaron Gray (note: Aaron Gray isn't good at basketball).
All of that probably should've been prefaced with a hearty "SMALL SAMPLE SIZE ALERT!" , but those numbers are a testament to how difficult it is, even for the greatest of players, to get back into their groove after a long layoff. But Rose will eventually find his said groove. He's moving like the old Derrick Rose, at least, and he hasn't lost that lightning-quick first-step.
Here are 3 keys for the Raptors tonight:
Good Ball Movement
This should be a key to the entire season, rather than simply just this game, but moving the ball is of particular importance against a team that plays defense as well in the half-court as the Bulls do. As expected from a team coached by Drill Sergeant Thibodeau, the Bulls rank near the top of the league in defense so far this season - they're holding teams to 94.2 points per 100 possessions, which is good enough for 3rd in the NBA.
The best way to undo a solid defensive team is through great ball movement (if you watched Melo play hero-ball against the Bulls earlier this season, you'll know that doesn't work against them) and unfortunately that hasn't exactly been the Raptors' forte this season. The Raptors rank bottom of the league is assists per game, and although they moved the ball better against the Grizzlies, they (referring mainly to Gay and DeRozan) will need to continue moving the ball - and moving without the ball - if the team are to build off that win.
Keep Rose Out of the Paint (Assuming that he plays)
As solid as the Bulls have been defensively, they've really struggled from an offensive stand-point. They're currently 26th in the NBA on offense efficiency; and as mentioned, Rose has really struggled, particularly, as Rob Mahoney writes, knocking down his patented pull-up jumper. And despite the off-season acquistion of Mike Dunleavy jr., the Bulls have really struggled with the 3-ball - shooting just 26% as a team. The Raptors would do well to make the Bulls beat them from the outside, as opposed to giving up decent looks in the paint.
Defensively the Raps - Terrence Ross in particular - did a really solid job guarding James Harden on Monday night. Whoever's tasked with the job of guarding Rose tonight needs to do their best to stay in-front of him and minimize his penetration in the lane; penetration that would open up looks for Carlos Boozer and Joakim Noah, and easier outside shots for their struggling perimeter guys.
Dominate the Glass
Through 9 games the Raptors, as a team, are out-rebounding the opposition by 4.5 boards per game - a differential that's good enough for 3rd in the NBA. They're also in the upper-echelon of the league as far as offensive rebounding goes, which has allowed their offense to stay above water, despite the brutal inefficiency of Gay and DeRozan. The Bulls, as expected, are also one of the best rebounding teams in the league, and Joakim Noah, in particular, is adept at keeping possessions alive with his work on the glass. The Bulls can struggle to generate offense in the half-court otherwise, so keeping Noah off the offensive glass, and winning the rebounding battle in general, will be a big key to tonight's game.