The Raptors' game vs. the Hawks this evening starts a promising January for the squad. If the Raps hope to notch a few more W's in the win column, then the NBA schedule makers may have dealt them a decent hand with future games against bottom dwelling squads like the Hawks, Knicks, Bobcats, Magic and Rockets upcoming. The Raptors collectively appear to have a lot more confidence in each other as of late, and this was especially true in their 16 point comeback against Indiana. If the Raptors can continue their recent play, then reversal of fortunes is indeed quite possible.
However, to continue this run, the Raptors will have to avoid the sudden injury bug that's struck the club. While Joey Graham's knee seems ok to go tonight, Jose Calderon will be sitting this one out. With his heel still bothering him, Calderon wants to be cautious about his return as it's believed he came back too early after injuring it earlier in December.
This means that Mike James will need to continue his torrid pace and put on a similar exposition as Friday night's 19 point and 10 assist night in the games that come. James has stated he prefers to play the point position so he can have the ball in his hands. While we here at RaptorsHQ have been a fan of Space Mountain this season (see this Friday's Team Grades for more details), we do wish Calderon a speedy return.
Another player many Raptor fans are clamoring for a return of, is Pape Sow. Sow has been dominant in his NBDL stint with the Arkansas Rimrockers and looks like a perfect candidate for a call-up to the bigs. Many are citing his great numbers, especially on the glass, as a key reason for this and arguing that perhaps maligned center Rafael Araujo should be sent down in his stead.
RaptorsHQ would like to remind fans however that this is not such a cut-and dry situation as some sports writers' have suggested. Sow is not actually 6-10 (probably closer to 6-8) and is simply not much of a shot blocker. Therefore in the NBA, it's doubtful he'll play much of the center spot except in certain cases when the Raptors wish to play small for matchup purposes. Sow might be much better suited guarding 3's and some smaller and quicker 4's where his quickness and athleticsm would be more effective. These are positions Araujo would never man and in light of this it's no foregone conclusion that a swap will occur. Sending Araujo down leaves the Raps a bit thin at center no matter what you think of him as a player. Araujo is still quite useful when guarding slower and bigger 5's as we've seen this year (Alonzo Mourning, Greg Ostertag etc) and unless Loren Woods suddenly adds 83 pounds, this switch might not make sense long-term. Perhaps a stint of seasoning would be the best idea on a temp basis with Aaron Williams logging Hoffa's time at center. Pape could then come in and get some time here and there so the Raptors' brass can evaluate his play at this level and gauge improvements.
The most promising thing in terms of improvements from the games I've seen is the development of Sow's offence. While Sow has always been a ferocious rebounder and defender, his offense was simply raw and he lacked many of the fundamental post moves that even most NBA rookies display. However after watching him post 27 points on the Austin Toros using a series of ball fakes, drives, up and unders and spin moves, it's clear that Pape is progressing quite nicely in this area. He also had 24 rebounds in this game and was quite dominant even matched up against former lottery pick Marcus Fizer. Pape went 5 for 7 from the free throw line and shot 11 for 21 from the field showing that his shooting touch has improved as well.
As huge Pape fans here at the HQ we're hoping to see him up with the club soon. One Raptor scout at the game apparently envisioned a lineup of Bosh, CV Smooth and Pape in the near future forming one of the league's most versatile and athletic frontcourts. This scenario is especially intriguing and if Pape can continue to develop it makes Jalen Rose and perhaps Eric Williams that much more expendable.
And speaking of Pape, ESPN.com's Marc Stein has always been a huge fan and the Raptor's find themselves finally out of the bottom spot on this week's edition of his power rankings.
And in the last edition of NBA.com's rookie rankings, all 3 of the Raptors' rooks are now seated in the top 10 for the rookie of the year race. Not bad Mr. Babcock.
For the third time this season, the Toronto Raptors face the Atlanta Hawks. While the Hawks sport the league's worst overall record, they have given the Raptors all they can handle in the last two contests. Toronto has emerged victorious from both but not without a few lucky breaks (Joe Johnson stepping out of bounds etc.) With Jose Calderon out of the lineup it's going to be imperative to get good minutes out of both Mike James and Darrick Martin and Jalen Rose may even see some time at the point. The Raptors have always had an advantage over the Hawks at this position as Tyronn Lue and Royal Ivey simply aren't on the same level as Calderon and James. Mr. Space Mountain James has to be aggressive going to the basket and do a good job of kicking out to find the Raptors' 3 point shooters. He also has to continuously feed Chris Bosh to force Al Harrington and the Atlanta frontcourt into foul problems. Harrington and Joe Johnson have been almost unstoppable against Toronto and the Raptors have to do a better job defensively on them. Morris Peterson will probably have the job of shadowing Johnson and it would be great to get some solid contributions from Eric Williams and Joey Graham for this task as well. Williams may in fact be playing double duty and play some 4 guarding Harrington. CV Smooth will be asked to matchup with Harrington for most of the game in all likelyhood and the key to this matchup will be for Charlie to stay out of foul trouble. After such an impressive game against Indiana the Raptors need Villanueva to continue this play and be a force on the glass. And speaking of the glass, the Raptors centers be it Bosh, Araujo or even Villanueva, have to do a number on ZaZa Pachulia of the Hawks, one of the league's better offensive rebounders. As long as Toronto can win the battle inside and limit Atlanta's slashers, this should be a winnable game.