The Raptors face the Indiana Pacers tonight to close out the "home" part of this season's schedule. The Pacers won the last matchup between these two clubs in a contest that Toronto should have easily won. Neither team played well in that last tilt and the Pacers are in fact in a bit of a tailspin in general and have just come off a loss to the severely undermanned Charlotte Bobcats. The Pacers, injuries aside, have been one of the league's most disappointing clubs and big changes could be underway for the club this offseason. Even connerstone Jermaine O'Neal doesn't sound safe in the yellow and white pinstripes. The Pacers have snuck into the playoffs and could finish as high as the fifth seed or as low as the eighth based on the current records of their competition for playoff positioning. Therefore while the Pacers will likely attempt to give their injury-plagued club some rest before the playoffs begin, the club will also be looking for a win to avoid facing the Detroits and Miamis of the East. Translation - this will be no walk in the park game for Toronto.
To win the Raptors will have to do a number on the boards, something they were unable to do last time these teams met as they allowed Jeff Foster to have a career night. Foster didn't make the trip to Toronto for tonight's game due to injury so the Raptors should be able to compete more effectively on the glass, even without Chris Bosh. Besides dominating the glass, the Raptors will also have to stop the Pacers dribble penetration, something which resulted in easy outside shots for Peja Stojakovic and others last time.
And if one thing is certain in this match, for the Raptors to win, they'll need a nice dose of Mike James. Without Chris Bosh, James has been carrying the club both emotionally and offensively and look for this to continue in tonight's match. While I wrote yesterday on this site that James probably won't be in the Raptors' plans if he's seeking a long-term commitment, it now sounds like James wants a short contract with an option year. In fact it sounds like James wants to do this for the remainder of his playing days as he feels he's just going to get better with age. While this sounds promising in terms of re-signing Space Mountain, James also states that because he's looking for less guaranteed years, he will be looking for a higher dollar amount each year to compensate. What that amount is is anyone's guess right now.
A promising sign for Raptors' fans regardless of James' situation is that Chris Bosh seems more and more intent on re-signing with the Raptors this summer. The re-signing of the first-time All-Star will obviously be GM Bryan Colangelo's number one priority this off-season. CB4 in interviews alluded to the fact that he feels the club is headed in the right direction starting with the organization's hiring of Bryan Colangelo.
Even if the Raptors lose one veteran point guard, there's another who's more than eager to return. Darrick Martin would love to return to the Raps as he enjoys his current role with the club as a mentor and thinks that this club will be on the rise next season.
One of the players Martin of course has been giving tutoring to is Charlie Villanueva. CV Smooth is capping off a strong rookie season for Toronto but lately has been dealing with a mysterious sickness. What Charlie once assumed was a flu that would pass has not, and has been quite draining on the young forward. Nevertheless Villanueva has earned praise from coach Sam Mitchell for playing through his illness to the best of his ability and while his offence hasn't been consistent, Mitchell has been quite pleased with CV Smooth's improved defence. Villanueva will need to be at the top of his game tonight when he'll be matched up at times with another heralded rookie, Danny Granger, whom many thought Toronto would draft at the spot CV Smooth was selected.
And Mitchell isn't the only one beaming at Villanueva's progress. A little over a week ago Sports Illustrated online posted an excellent article on Villanueva's growth not only as a player but also as an individual having to grow up with the mysterious skin disease known as alopecia universalis. The article discusses not only the disease but also Villanueva's development from raw high school prospect to the more seasoned UConn product eventually selected by the Raptors. Best quote from the piece - Charlie stating that if he knew what he knew now back in his college days he'd average 20 points and 20 rebounds a game.
Also from SI a hillarious article giving grades to each NBA team's broadcasters. Chuck and Leo get a B? Sounds about right but I'd give them an A- when Jack is thrown into the mix with a few HELLO's!!
Finally, the Raptors close out the season at the number 26 spot on ESPN.com's Power Rankings. With the fifth-worst record in the league, this is about where Toronto should be too. Unfortunately after seeing some of the mediocrity battling for the final four playoff spots in the Eastern Conference, it's tough not to think about how close Toronto was to making the playoffs even this season. Without that dreadful 1-15 start, the close losses and weak finish due to the injury to Chrish Bosh the Raps would probably have been right there with the Orlando's, Philadelphia's and Chicago's. It's my bet that we'll see Toronto right there next year.