The Toronto Raptors start their 4 game road swing with a stop at Rafael Araujo's old stomping grounds of Utah. As we'll discuss later in this media watch it will be a good test for the improving Toronto club and the Raptors will need to come out firing on all cylinders, especially if Mike James is still unable to go.
Jose Calderon, who was instrumental in leading Toronto against New York, will be asked to play just as well, and Morris Peterson will probably draw the unenviable task of guarding the Russian Rifle Andrei Kirilenko.
While the Raptors recent play has them enjoying their best run of the season it also raises many questions. For the club's long-term prospects wouldn't it be beneficial for the team to miss the playoffs and keep collecting draft picks? What about making some trades prior to the deadline?
One player who would welcome a deal appears to be Eric Williams. While Eric isn't outwardly demanding a trade ala last season, he is suggesting that his skills are going to waste with the youth movement in full effect here in Toronto. With the play of Jalen Rose of late and Joey Graham looking more comfortable each game, it definitely makes sense to move Eric. However you have to wonder just how much interest Williams would garner due to his lack of playing time and perhaps lingering injury concerns.
Of any of the current Raptors possibly available for trade, it appears that Jalen Rose may in fact be the most attractive option after his offensive explosion on Sunday. Rose of course has been long rumoured to be coveted by the New York Knicks and maybe then it's no coincidence that Rose had his best game of the season Sunday against New York. However with the Knicks looking more and more towards a youth movement themselves, it's no foregone conclusion that Jalen will still end up in Gotham.
The other interesting situation for Rob Babcock is of course at point guard. While Mike James has won many a game for Toronto this year, he still tends to sometimes force the issue and is not a true point guard. Therefore if he remains injured on the Raptors' Western Conference road trip and Jose Calderon continues to excel in the starting role, the "what do we do with Mike" discussions will begin again in earnest. (In fact, we're going to have that discussion here at RaptorsHQ for our first "Jump Ball" discussion of the year on Friday.)
Rumours aside the Raptors play of late has seen them rise on various NBA "Power Rankings" lists. In fact CBS Sportsline's rankings from last week discussed the Raps and their much improved play of late in their weekly power rankings and for the second week in a row on ESPN.com the Raptors hold down the 19th spot.
GAME DAY PREVIEW
The Utah Jazz welcome the Toronto Raptors tonight while they themselves will be coming off an overtime loss to the LA Clippers last night. This loss evened the Jazz's record at 19-19 this season however the team has played its way back into the Western Conference playoff picture as of late. The health of Jazz forwards Andrei Kirilenko and Mehmet Okur have much to do with this improvement and if only Utah could now get Carlos Boozer to enjoy some of this same health restoration.
This will be a difficult matchup and a true test for the Raptors. While Utah is no San Antonio, Jerry Sloan, like Greg Popovich, has his team playing systematic offence and tough defense each and every game. The Raptors defence has tightened up since Gene Keady's arrival but it still has a long way to go. Therefore it will be imperative for the Raptors to run their offence in much the same way they did Sunday against the Knicks; establish Chris Bosh early and let Mo Peterson and Jalen Rose fill it up from the outside. The Raptors are a much more talented team offensively then Utah but rebounding will be a big concern in this game. Okur burned Toronto time and time again in the last matchup between these teams using his size to grab offensive rebounds while drawing his man away from the lane with his three point shooting ability. This spread the court and opened up the game for the Jazz's guards such as Deron Williams who then drove to the basket with relative ease.
If Toronto can use its interior quickness with the likes of Bosh and Villanueva to exploit the plodding Jazz forwards (see Greg Ostertag), the Raptors should be able to negate any rebounding edge for Utah by getting the Jazz forwards in foul trouble. Jose Calderon will have a tough time guarding the much stronger Williams and even (yikes) Milt Palacio, so the Raptors coaching staff must have a gameplan ready for this. The Raptors will also have to be prepared for Kirilenko who does so many little things to affect games for his team. Mo Pete will have to bring his A game offensively to attempt to tire AK47 and the Raptors will HAVE to do a good job rotating defensively to limit open shots for Utah's gunners such as Gordan Giricek.
I actually think a final key point for the Raptors will be the play of Rafael Araujo. With the exception of the recent blowout over the Rockets, I've noticed that when Hoffa stays out of foul trouble, plays tough and scores a few baskets early, it sets the tone for the team. While Eddy Curry scored with great frequency against the Raptors, he had a much harder time when Hoffa was in the game, especially in the third quarter. If Araujo is matched up against Jaron Collins it will be a great opportunity for him to grab some offensive rebounds and get some garbage baskets for Toronto. The same is true when Greg Ostertag is in the game. He'll have a tougher time with Okur but if he can at least keep Okur from getting easy looks and get him to pick up some cheap fouls, that's all we can ask.
Yes another winnable game for Toronto and one in which Raptor fans will be able to look at to see just how far this team still has to go.