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Game One Playoff Preview - Raptors vs. Nets

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Howland last night described it as one of the three most anticipated professional sporting events in his lifetime.

Franchise could barely sleep last night and doesn’t anticipate getting much shut-eye this evening.

Yes, this is what fans have been waiting for, for a lonnnnnnnnnnng time.

Around noon tomorrow, the NBA’s second season kicks off and the Raptors are finally going to be part of it. Having come off a highly successful year (embarrassing confetti display at Fanapaloosa aside) the Raps are looking to take their winning ways into a wide open Eastern Conference playoffs.

Yet as wide-open as it may be, hurdles there are many. Already many experts are calling for an upset including four of the five resident "experts" at ESPN.com and with the Nets late season surge and superior playoff experience, that’s not much of a surprise to us here. (As an aside, how about the photo of Bosh on the ESPN series page? Does CB4 not look exactly like a Velociraptor from Jurassic Park ready to chew up Mikki Moore and co.? We just had to use the pic in this preview...)

So with the team from the swamp (including pond scum number 15) coming to the Big Smoke, let’s break this baby down with our series’ keys:

1. Turn Vince into a Jump Shooter - Why not start with the guy that is going to get all of the attention and all of the hatred from Toronto’s fans, everyone’s favourite villain, Vince Carter. Already it’s rumoured that some of the folks on the Real GM boards are going to be passing out FUVC shirts outside the ACC so make no mistake, Vince can talk all he wants about things "being in the past" for him, but obviously his past sins have cast long shadows here in Toronto.

In fact it’s these fans that may provide the first blow to VC. He seemed rattled in his past two appearances at the ACC and it remains to be seen whether he can feed off the crowd’s negativity, or get swallowed up in it.

Fan reaction aside, it’s going to be imperative for Toronto to keep Vince from getting to the rim. The Raps have had some success this year when they've been able to turn star wings into "shooters" as opposed to "drivers" (think Joe Johnson, T-Mac and Paul Pierce) as against all three, the Raps made their respective team-mates beat them by using quick double teams. This forced the likes of Johnson, T-Mac and P-squared to force their shots or make bad passes.

Furthermore, Toronto needs to be as physical as possible with Vince and set the tone early for the rest of the series. It has been well documented that Vince has traditionally shied away from contact and will take some ridiculous jumpers but be forewarned, in the past two seasons with New Jersey, Vince has actually has averaged close to 10 foul shots a game. If VC starts getting to the rim and being awarded free-throws, it’s going to be much tougher for Toronto’s defensive plans. Besides his three-point shooting, perhaps the area in which Vince has improved the most is his passing and therefore even if he’s not drawing contact, his ability to penetrate and dish could open up easy looks for the likes of Bostjan Nachbar and Eddie House who will be camped-out on the perimeter. Therefore the Raptors perimeter defence really needs to come through this series. Anthony Parker, Joey Graham, Juan Dixon, and Mo Pete (provided he’s healthy enough to go) all need to try and keep Vince outside of the painted area as much as possible and make quick rotations off of double-teams. Letting Vince get easy dunks and get to the rim to build up confidence would be the equivalent of putting Superman in a tub of kryptonite for the Raptors.

2. Jason Kidd vs. the Raps PG's - This is one of the biggest things we'll be looking at in this series. Yes, at face value TJ Ford should be able to use his speed and get around the older Kidd at will. However Kidd is still one of the league’s craftiest defenders and it’s going to be imperative that both TJ and Jose attack offensively and keep Kidd on his toes. On the other end of the court, we expect to see A LOT of isolation and post-up plays for Kidd, especially when TJ's defending him. Beside Vince’s scoring ability, this is maybe the area of the game that scares us the most. Kidd is one of the league’s best passers and by double-teaming him it leaves the likes of Carter and Jefferson wide-open on the perimeter. On top of this, Kidd has one of the best back to the basket games for a point-guard in the league so TJ and Jose are going to have to try and prevent him from catching the ball deep.

The associated issue with this is that Ford tends to play defence with his hands too much and if gets caught reaching around on entry passes, it’s going to spell early foul trouble for the former Texas product. Is the answer fronting Kidd on post-ups? We’re not sure it’s going to completely rectify the situation, but it’s perhaps the proverbial "lesser of all evils." If the ball gets behind Ford or Calderon to Kidd, Toronto’s front-court has to be ready to bring quick double-teams forcing Kidd to give the ball up. This would perhaps leave an open man inside but we’d much rather that than having one of Toronto’s wings double leaving Carter or RJ open on the perimeter to bomb away.

Finally, what Ford can’t do is take personal offense if Kidd does start getting some easy hoops early. If TJ begins taking this match-up personally it could easily disrupt the Raps offensive attack. Let’s be clear - the one-on-five mentality that Ford has exhibited at times this year when confronted with a tough match-up cannot make an appearance in this series. As soon as Ford starts over-dribbling and trying to do too much, then he becomes a liability on both ends of the floor. It sounds like TJ is well aware of this though so here at the HQ we’re hoping that perhaps TJ’s best defence against Kidd is a solid offensive attack through penetration and getting out on the break.

3. Bench play - Another doozy. At face value the Raps look to have this category on lockdown but the Nets have been better as of late. Josh Boone is really starting to click with Jason Kidd on pick and rolls and if he, Nachbar, Marcus Williams and Eddie House can bring their A games, it will put that much more pressure on Toronto's subs.

So from the Raptors’ crew, what are we expecting? Jose Calderon should get lots of time in this series and much of what we discussed with TJ applies to him too. We’d like to see some scrappy play from the likes of Juan Dixon on top of some timely scoring. We’d also like to see Kris Humphries getting after it on the glass and providing Toronto with some key offensive rebounds. Humphries really could be an X factor in this series as the Nets, while rugged, don’t have much in terms of size up front. It still sounds like Mo Pete is not 100 per cent but hopefully he can contribute as well. His defence on Vince Carter in the past has been solid and hopefully Toronto can grab a solid win in game one to give Peterson a bit more time to recover.

Of course, the biggest factor of them all from the bench could be Bargnani. If Il Mago can get up to speed quickly in this series it gives Toronto a major advantage. His size and shooting is a match-up nightmare for the Nets but it’s going to be interesting to see how Sam Mitchell uses the rookie early on.

We’re not expecting to see much of Luke Jackson, Pape Sow et al but each can contribute in key situations and the strength of Toronto’s bench we feel gives the Raptors a major advantage in this series. Yes, it would have been nicer to see a healthy Mo Pete and a less rusty Bargs for all hands on deck, not to mention a healthy Garbajosa, but the current crew can certainly still get the job done.

4. Joey Graham - Our X factor of this series. Let’s get it out of the way now shall we? "Paging Good Joey, Paging Good Joey, you are wanted at the ACC this Saturday at 12:30." Watching Graham grow over the past few weeks into a competitive and effective player has been a breath of fresh air. As much as he has shown confidence is his mid-range game he has also settled in defensively. To us here at the HQ, Joey has to show both, immediately and consistently to help solidify the Raps chances of moving on to the second round.

Offensively, Graham has done some really nice things. On a number of occasions as of late when the Raps’ offence has been stagnant or ineffective against the zone, it has been Graham who has taken it upon himself to get to the hoop and create. He has not forced the issue and has shown a variety of moves both inside and outside the painted area. Graham won’t be a primary offensive weapon but in the flow of the offence he can be very effective. Be it Jefferson or Carter who draws the assignment of guarding Graham, Joey needs to be aggressive and get to the rim. We can’t overstate the importance of this. If Grahm can get his man into foul trouble this gives Toronto a major advantage. It should also wear the likes of Vince and RJ down. If VC or Jefferson is allowed to dog it on the defensive end that spells trouble with a capital T. Joey doesn’t need to score 15-20 a game...he just needs to exhibit some "controlled aggression" and make people guard him.

While on the topic of guarding, Joey definitely has to be at his defensive best this series. He has been much better as of late, the Chicago game against Deng as an example, but the game gets tougher when you play an offence led by J Kidd. Graham has to be ready to run, needs to stay down, and needs to be quick on the rotations.

Jefferson, Carter and Kidd form New Jersey’s big three but truthfully it’s been mostly Carter (and even Nachbar) that have led the Nets’ offensive attack lately. If KiloGraham shows up for this series it gives Toronto some serious scoring from four of their five starting spots, something that we don’t feel New Jersey can overcome.

5. Chris Bosh - Last, but certainly not least, we get to Toronto’s All-Star and franchise player. CB4 needs to continue his ascension in this league by leading the Raptors past New Jersey, it’s as simple as that. The Nets have played him quite physically and have had success limiting his offence with double and triple teams so it's imperative that Bosh be aggressive from the jump without forcing the issue. If New Jersey slows Bosh down it has a severe "trickle-down" effect on the rest of the team and the offence can slow to a halt. Just like Toronto will be keyed in on limiting Vince Carter, the Nets will be doing the same thing with Bosh. A dominant Bosh scoring from inside and out, getting put-backs in traffic and finding open team-mates for easy 3’s spells doom for the Nets and therefore we anticipate Jersey coach Lawrence Frank pulling out his massive playbook for all sorts of defensive schemes. Like Joey Graham, this series could be a career-definer for Bosh and here at the HQ we expect to see him rise to meet the challenge.

6. The Coaching Battle - Everyone is focussing in on the lack of Toronto’s playoff experience but what’s got us really jittery is Lawrence Frank versus Sam Mitchell. Frank has coached in the playoffs before with some success and we feel is one of the best minds in the game, especially in terms of making in-game adjustments. Mitchell had a great year and is a leading coach of the year candidate but this will be a really good test for the young coach.

-Can he counter Frank’s defensive schemes?
-How does he dole out minutes with this deep squad?
-Can he successfully work Andrea back into the line-up without sacrificing team success?
-Will he be willing to give TJ the quick hook if Jason Kidd is abusing him defensively?

Yes, there are quite a few things to ponder.

Most pressing for us is if Mitchell can get his troops up for tomorrow’s game. Considering the buzz around this series there should be no need to but the Raps have played lacklustre and meaningless ball the past few games and New Jersey is coming off a big win over a tough Chicago team. Toronto needs to come out and set the tone early in this one with the fans rocking behind them. If the Dynos come out flat and fail to execute, all fingers will be pointing directly at the man in the pimped-out suits holding the clip board.

7. Home-court advantage - Our final key is an easy one, the Nets have none. We’re not convinced the swamp fill even be full for New Jersey’s games so forget any advantage the Nets have in this regard. We’re expecting a sea of red ala the Flames for this series and one seriously rowdy crowd. The Raptors have been one of the league’s best squads at home this season and we expect it to continue in these playoffs.

Final predictions then? Howland and Franchise both expect to see Toronto win, Franchise in six and Howland in seven and a win tomorrow gets things off in the right direction. In fact if you think about it, things have gone almost perfectly this season for the club and its fans. A playoff birth, a division title, individual accolades, a Leaf-less NHL playoffs and now a series against the fans’ Public Enemy number one and his team, something that is already putting the team back in the eyes of the dominant US sports media.

Now is the time to capitalize on this exposure and this club is completely capable of making a major run.

Let the madness begin.

THE HQ