Ladies and Gentlemen, we are officially half-way through the Toronto Raptors' 2013-14 season.
With so many ups and downs -- and a narrative that seems to change day by day -- it's hard to believe that the Raps still have 41 games left in which to exhilarate/please/nauseate/disappoint/torture the fan-base. We're not getting off the emotional roller coaster anytime soon.
Boding well for a good second-half to the season (in theory) is the fact that the Raps have played a tougher schedule than any other team in the Eastern Conference. Casey's boys have already played road games against the Thunder, Spurs, Rockets, Warriors, Mavericks, and Suns -- all currently top-8 teams in the West -- as well as two games against both the Pacers and Heat.
However, over the last week or so the Raps have lost games to the Celtics, Lakers, and Bobcats; teams that, at the time of writing, have a combined record of 50 and 80. In other words, you can't take anything for granted. No matter how crap the opposition, if the Raps play like crap, they're going to lose. Simple as that.
On Wednesday night, after another brutally slow start, the team re-discovered their defensive identity (and got a monster game from DeMar DeRozan), in a comeback win against the Mavericks. And it'll be vital tonight, against a lowly Eastern Conference team, the Philadelphia 76ers, that the Raps not take their foot off the gas pedal.
As far as the big picture goes, a top-4 seed -- and the home playoff series that usually comes with it -- is not exactly looking like a sure thing. The Bulls -- tanking, be damned! -- have been playing inspired basketball of late, and the Brooklyn Nets have tossed aside their walking sticks,
swallowed their Cialis , and are actually looking like a playoff team.
It's a good time to string together some wins.
The Raps' opponent tonight are definitely looking at the big picture. After surprising everyone (and terrifying G.M. Sam Hinkie) by starting the year 3-0, the 76ers have fallen back down to earth, currently languishing at 14-28 -- although they did beat those awful Knicks on Wednesday night. The team is set up perfectly for the 2014 draft -- possessing their own (likely high) first-round pick and a first round pick from the New Orleans Pelicans; a pick that is top-5 protected, but could still fall within the top-10, considering the Pellies' recent form.
Add two talented players to a team that already possesses Rookie of the Year candidate, Michael Carter-Williams, and the raw, but potentially explosive, Nerlens Noel; and the Sixers appear to be set up for a bright future.
Before the draft festivities, however, the Sixers' front-office will have to decide who from the current team is worth investing in going forward, and who they should cut ties with. Evan Turner, Thaddeus Young, and Spencer Hawes are all having solid seasons, but all could fetch a decent return by the February 20th trade deadline. Trade two of those guys and the Sixers could give the Bucks a run for their money in Tankapalooza 2014.
Incidentally, the 76ers provide a great illustration of why people should use points per possession, as opposed to points per game, in judging a team's offensive and defensive proficiency. The Sixers rank 14th in points scored per game (101.4) but actually rank a pitiful 29th in offensive efficiency (97.3 points per 100 possessions). The fact that they play at the fastest pace in the NBA, generating more possessions, really skews those points per game numbers.
Here are 3 keys for the Raps tonight:
Start playing from the opening tip
I'm not sure whether the starters were napping prior to the start of the last two games, but they've opened proceedings against the Bobcats and Mavericks as if they're still half asleep. Against Charlotte they dug themselves a 30 point hole that they couldn't quite climb out of; and although they were able to come back from a 21 point deficit against Dallas, you're playing with fire if you keep starting games like you're running through molasses.
Continued contributions from the bench
The bench unit has been great over the last two games. Against the Bobcats it was Chuck Hayes who slowed down Big Al and inspired the almost-comeback; and on Wednesday night Greivis Vasquez (or 'Gravy', as William Lou over at Raptors Republic is now calling him) was a big part of the turnaround.
I took a quick glance at the box-score from the Sixers' game against New York, and I'll be honest: other than Lavoy Allen, I don't recognize their bench guys. Elliot Williams? Dewayne Dedmon? Yeah, me neither. If the Raps get a solid effort from their starters, and more of the same from bench guys like Hayes, Vasquez, and Patrick Patterson, they should have enough firepower to beat..umm...Hollis Thompson and company.
More of the good Jonas
A big key to the Raps win over the Mavericks was the 4th quarter play of Jonas Valanciunas. The big Lithuanian had 5 points and 5 rebounds in the final quarter, after cutting a fairly anonymous figure for, let's be honest, the last couple of weeks. Jonas has had some issues on defense this season (that could be the subject of another article) and will be tested against a pick-n-pop specialist like Hawes. But if Jonas can be assertive at the offensive end -- crashing the boards, posting up and calling for the ball, and setting hard screens -- he should be able to have a big impact against an undersized Sixers team.