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Staring At The Playoffs

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The Toronto Raptors resume their quest for continued improvement tonight against the Memphis Grizzlies. This game of course comes in the wake of another interesting All-Star weekend's conclusion which as an aside, is sort of a surreal experience to watch.

Here they are, many of the NBA's brightest stars on display for the public, either participating in various athletic feats or dressed immaculately taking in the performances of their peers and enjoying the comraderie of fellow millionaires.

When you step back and think about it, "sporting" events such as these really are slightly mind boggling.

Fans have taken it for granted that the All-Star Game itself will be a high-scoring, high-turnover run and gun affair with little defence played. Mixed in with this will be a series of aerial acrobatics that seem to get ramped up each year.

Perhaps no better example of this is the NBA's dunk competition. Years ago, fans thrilled at the mere site of basketball players who were able to jump high enough to slam a basketball through the net.

Now?

Players have to vault other human beings to impress judges and fans alike. I mean, think about that for a second! It's not good enough to spin in the air, switch hands with the ball and then dunk it. No, now we need to jump over other players! (Or former ones in the case of Nate Robinson's Saturday night display.) I don't know about you but I can't wait for the 2022 dunk contest when Shawn Kemp's sons Jamir, Jamar and Jaman are competing against each other for the dunk title by hurdling a giraffe...

But I digress.

A win tonight would put the Raptors right back to where I now think they should be...in the playoff hunt.

Playoffs you say? The team is still five and half games out of the eighth spot and faces tough games against Memphis, Dallas, Miami and New Jersey in four of its next five games! It's possible that the team if anything, drops right out of sight after this stretch is it not?

While I maintain that it is still quite unlikely the Raptors grab that last spot, I do think that Toronto has to start locking in on it down the stretch run. After great performances by both of the team's All-Stars in CB4 and Charlie Villanueva, I'm looking for the team's confidence to be at an all time high and stealing two of their next four games is not out of the question.

This team can score with anyone in the league...so if it can somehow find a way to tighten its defence, even slightly, than anything is possible.

Besides this, I guess you could say this HQ writer has had a bit of an epiphany on the subject of playoffs over the All-Star break. The college players this year, after maybe the top 3 picks, probably aren't going to be franchise players. So, while I'd love for us to have a shot at Rudy Gay or LaMarcus Aldridge in the upcoming draft, the Raptors simply aren't going to be "bad enough" to fight for that top spot record-wise. And with that in mind, this team should go for broke.

If you look at the standings, the eighth place team in the East, the 76ers, has only the 16th best record overall. Outstanding trades and lottery ball bounces aside, they therefore would have not only the last playoff spot, but would also have the 15th pick of the draft. If Toronto grabbed this last spot they would lose their draft pick to the Bobcats (via Lamond Murray trade with Cavs) but would give MLSE some of the playoff revenue it so badly lusts after and would still have two second round picks who, in this draft, could turn out to be better than most of the mid-first-round selections.

Looking at it another way, "tanking" the season really isn't an option in my mind. Even the top picks are question marks at this point. Gay's been playing extrememly well lately and his size and athleticsm at the 3 is intriguing. However he still isn't as dominant as he should be in crunch time, something many scouts invariably saw in UConn's loss to Villanova last weekend. And while Aldridge has more of the size that the Raptors need and Chris Bosh is a huge fan of his, he's not a pure center and many wonder if he's got the body to add the requisite size to play the 5 in the NBA. The last thing we need is a rehash of last year's "drafting the same position" situation.

And what of Adam Morrison, the pornstached forward from Gonzaga? He has been a dynamite college player...but is he the second coming of Christian Laettner going from college star to mediocre NBA player? (And, yes, it pains me to type that as a Duke fan.)

Finally who REALLY knows if Bargnani is Nowitzki or Skita version 2.0?

I feel the reality of the situation lies somewhere in between. Of the teams ahead of Toronto, I feel the Bulls and Wizards are still better clubs. So are the 76ers if they can ever get it together defensively. Realistically therefore, I feel that Toronto will be picking around its location from last year, between sixth and tenth and thus takign a run at the playoffs amounts really to a no-lose situation. There is some talent in the upcoming draft but none which I think will be significantly different from the sixth to the tenth pick. If the Toronto falls short of the playoffs, there will be quality players available at each of those spots. Sure there will be favourites as the draft approaches, (more on this later in the week) but think about it:

Can't get J.J. Redick at ten because he's been taken...hmmm...how about Rodney Carney or Ronnie Brewer?

They're gone too? Shelden Williams could certainly help us out...and maybe we take a flyer on an athletic point guard for the future a la Rajon Rondo or Mardy Collins?

Bottom line here is that this team needs to start putting some wins on the board. Hearing all the talk around All-Star break of how losing Bosh could mean the death of this franchise made me sick to my stomach and a good run towards that last spot would go a long ways to quell this situation and give Bosh another reason to stick around. Yes we can pay him more than any other team. But after spending a weekend talking to the league's best, most of who play on winning clubs, Bosh is going to be more fired up than ever to get wins and see this club's continual improvement. Perhaps Wayne Embry and Sam Mitchell realize that too and it wouldn't be that surprising than to see Antonio Davis continue to log heavy minutes and perhaps Eric Williams to permanently supplant Joey Graham off the bench in effort to bolster the team's record. If adding these two players to Sam Mitchell's main rotation makes the Raptors a 34 win team instead of a 28 win one and based on this year's draft crop, I truly believe there's no harm done.

If Toronto does fall short they should be able to pick up a nice piece for the future via the draft lottery regardless of where they pick. If the team somehow sneaks in, then attendance invariably gets a shot in the arm, the team becomes somewhat of a "feel-good story" based in it's horrendous start to the season, a young team's confidence builds and the team still has some draft options.

Playoffs with only 20 current wins? Hey, if the HQ can get referenced in SI, anything truly is possible...

FRANCHISE