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Game-Day Preview - Raptors vs. Rockets

It’s the day after.

The day after what you ask?

The day after Franchise’s beloved Blue Devils got beat by VCU in the first round of NCAA action. He’s still drowning his sorrows with his buddy Jack Daniels so I’m taking over this edition of the Game Day Preview.

So let’s talk Raps shall we?

This team has rebounded exceptionally well after losing three games in a row and they are now on a different kind of streak...a winning one. There is lots of credit to go around starting with TJ Ford who is playing arguably his best basketball as a pro.

Together with Andrea Bargnani, who continues to shoulder more and more of the offensive load, this team is demonstrating that it never gets too high and never gets too low. A perfect combination for the playoff stretch and the playoffs themselves.

In fact if you look at the Eastern Conference playoff picture right now, Toronto may be the dark-horse club. Let’s look at the definition (brought to you my Wikipedia):

usually in a sporting context - who could win, due to their being an 'aura' of mystery/unpredictability surrounding them, despite all logic pointing against this happening.

Well that could pretty much sums up the Raptors’ season thus far - unpredictable, despite all logic. Look back at your feelings about this team heading into the season, the new players, the youth, and the lack of NBA inexperience. Now look at where this team is today. In all reality the Raps have blown expectations out of the water, continue to surprise, and one doesn’t know what to expect in terms of how far this team can go. Even now as the Raps sit on top of the Atlantic division there is very little talk about them in the media regarding the post-season. The focus lies on teams like Detroit, Cleveland and now with the resurgence of Shaq, the Miami Heat.

So no-one expects the Raps to make noise in the playoffs, at least the greater media on both sides of the border. Of course if the team continues to follow the trend they have set this season, that of exceeding expectations, then who is to say they can’t cause ruckus when the play-offs roll around...just like say VCU in this year’s tourney?

(Ok, last shot at Franchise, go Kansas.)

The Raps season has really been all about surprises from Bargnani’s ROY candidacy and the play of Jose Calderon in solidifying the point to Garbo being a real X-factor as the playoffs approach and the importance of Anthony Parker.

So let’s say it now. The Raps are the dark-horse in this years Eastern Conference playoffs.

On the flip side I would argue the dark-horse in the West is Houston. Well to be more specific, a healthy Houston Rockets squad.

There has been very little pub about this team as the focus has been primarily the usual suspects. Dallas, Phoenix and San Antonio. All of these teams deserve the press they get, but Houston much like the Raps, are the wild-card as the playoffs approach.

If you look at most teams that have won an NBA Championship over the past 12 years or so, (save for Detroit) the teams all have one thing in common. They have two legitimate stars. The Bulls had Jordan and Pippen. The Lakers had Shaq and Kobe, and last year’s Heat was of course Shaq and Wade. So now as the Rockets get some chemistry back with a healthy squad, who is to say that T-Mac and the Great Wall of China, Yao Ming, can’t make a run? With those other Western powerhouses it would be very surprising to see the Rockets go deep into the playoffs but that is exactly what makes them a dark-horse.

So how do the Raptors beat this team?

Well to switch things up, we thought we’d look at three key players for tonight’s match against .

1) Anthony Parker: Guess who’ll get the number one job of chasing T-Mac around this evening? Yep - Mr. Parker. AP was of course MIA due to his ankle injury last time these teams played in Toronto’s 106 to 90 route. Houston was missing Yao Ming as well and therefore with the exception of Jose Calderon, who is day-to-day, both teams will be at full strength. Parker will need to contain McGrady as much as possible but more than anything, AP has to try and keep T-Mac from getting his teammates involved. Just like their last match when McGrady had 22 points yet took 20 shots to get them and went to the line only once, the Raptors need to keep T-Mac on the perimeter and that job will fall mostly in Parker’s hands. If you watch AP, one of the things that makes him such a good defensive player besides his length and quickness is his ability to anticipate. When getting caught on a screen, Parker will usually predict correctly in terms of which way the offensive player is going to cut towards the basket and adjust. That’s one of the reasons you see him taking so many charges off those sort of plays. If Parker’s ankle is ok enough to allow him to be effective on the defensive end, and if he’s draining shots from long range, this gives Toronto a big advantage. And to take the parallel between Toronto and Houston one step further, Franchise made the argument earlier this year that Parker is a cheaper version of Shane Battier and so far this looks to be a very good comparison.

2) Rasho: There was a point in the season when Rasho was getting a lot of love. Bosh was hurt and the Slovenian was holding down the fort in the paint. Little has been said about Rasho since and his minutes have been inconsistent but much of what he does is not reflected in the box score. Nesterovic will mix it up with other big men, play tough D and move the basketball. The Raps need all three from him as he faces the 7’6" monster Ming tonight. If he can bang with the giant and use his body on the defensive end, while drawing Ming out on the offensive end with his 12 foot jump shot, then Rasho will have done a great job. How Rasho defends Ming will be key. Raps centres of the past were successful when fronting the big man. Rasho on the other hand has never really played defense on other 5’s by denying the pass. I expect Rasho to throw his weight around, hold his ground and wait for the double team to come. Expect Mitchell to keep Nesterovic on the court more than usual provided he can stay out of foul trouble. The Rockets presented problems on the glass for Toronto last time these teams met even without Ming so the entire squad must do a number in on the boards.

3) Bosh: Maybe this seems like an obvious pick but considering Bosh’s peformance last time these teams met, Raptor fans will want to see more a dominant CB4, especially since Houston has Ming back in action. As we’ve seen lately, Toronto’s offence runs much smoother when Bosh is dominating inside and with Juan Howard likely manning the defensive assignments against CB4, Bosh should be able to have his way.

Tonight’s match should represent a good test for the Raptors and we’ll see which dark-horse squad comes out on top. If Toronto can keep Houston confined to the perimeter like they did last time, win number 37 looks quite promising and would leave them approximately 10 victories away from clinching the Atlantic Division.

Now if you’ll excuse me...I’ve gotta check Franchise into AA.