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3 In the Key – Toronto Raptors Game-Day Preview vs. Pistons

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The Detroit Pistons have been the cream of the NBA crop for the past few years now. Even when they haven’t won it all, they’ve been dominant during the regular season and through most of the playoffs. The talk of the league up until recently has been the Boston Celtics and the Pistons thrived on this by playing the role of sleeper, reeling off victory after victory.
However the past week hasn’t exactly been the greatest in Pistons’ history. The team is two and two in their past four games and thanks to a close win over the Bobcats, avoided going one and three. I asked Jesse Murphy of Pistons Nation about this when we spoke via email yesterday:

RaptorsHQ: So the Pistons were crusing along until their loss to the Celtics, a hard-fought match. Since then, they've been lambasted by the Mavericks and Knicks and really, were saved from going 1 and 3 in that stretch by some horrendous refereeing to pull one out against the Bobcats. What gives? Is the team simply borred and really only getting up to play against the San Antonio's and Boston's of the league? Or are you seeing issues with the team's offensive execution?

PistonsNation: Well, first off I don't think refereeing won us the Charlotte game. It wasn't our finest moment but it was a fair win – that was basket interference.

Right now the offense is stagnant. We're settling for long perimeter shots, that aren't falling, and not trying to establish the paint. I’ve always made the analogy with football whereas you set up the pass with the run the same way you sent up the perimeter game with your inside game.

Once you establish the paint you can spread the opposition's defense for the long ball.

The one red flag that has come up for me personally is the Pistons inability to handle big bodies that was brought to life via Glen Davis of the Celtics setting up shop in the lane in the 4th quarter of that Celtics game. It again reared its ugly head last night vs. NY's Curry/Randolph combo. In the past we've always had guy like Elden Campbell or Dale Davis who specialized in neutralizing mass down low. I think Joe might want to see what's out there in that type of player by the time the trade deadline gets here.

Other than that I'm not too worried. This is one of the premier teams in the NBA. It's a vet group that has from time-to-time let the dog days of January/February get the best of them. They just need to battle through the complacency and be ready to make that run at the Larry O'Brien.

I’m still not sure about the offensive goaltending call so had to give Jesse some grief about that, but some interesting points in regards to the Pistons handling other teams’ "bigs."

The Raptors don’t have the luxury of an Eddie Curry or a Zach Randolph of course but they do have Andrea Bargnani, my first key...

1. The Il Mago factor. Andrea’s struggles have replaced the TJ-Jose debate in terms of being the hot-button topic of the moment for Raptors’ fans...and rightfully so. To say the Big Soph has struggled would be an understatement and many fans are already calling for a mulligan on his draft as Brandon Roy is apparently the now-correct choice. This logic I still have a hard time understanding for several reasons, many which I’ve voiced on the site already. But one of our readers put it quite well in this post:

"...the talk about Bargnani over Roy is a little silly. If you'll recall, the consensus EVERYWHERE was that Roy wouldn't go higher than 4 or 5. It's not like any other team would have taken Roy with the first overall pick either. Any other team would have taken Bargnani, Aldridge or Thomas first, if only to later trade the pick for something of more use to them, since they were the consensus top three picks. For God's sake, it was considered a total tossup whether Brandon Roy or Randy Foye would be the best guard to come out of that draft. If that doesn't prove the draft is a crapshoot, I don't know what does.

And anyways, Roy is a year and a half older than Bargnani, I mean he's from the same graduating class as Bosh and Carmelo! He played four years of college ball, the last couple as the go-to option for a highly ranked team. He isn't being asked to adjust his game or his life very much at all. Compare that with Bargnani, who has had to move to a new country, learn a new language, learn a new position, and all the while everyone is telling him something different he should do, or shouldn't do. Not to mention big men always take longer to develop. It is too early to say the Raps should have taken him over Bargnani, their situations right now are apples and oranges.

I couldn’t have said it better myself.

The other thing I keep thinking is that while Roy may indeed be the best player from this draft crop at present, I worry about his style of play. It’s quite reminiscent of Dwyane Wade…yes that same Wade who may not be a factor for the rest of the year due to off-season surgery.

So here is my take on Andrea - FORGET ABOUT HIM.

It’s the same thing Toronto needs to start doing with TJ Ford. Yes, the team would be much more dangerous if they had all hands on deck and everyone playing at the top of their games. But they don’t, that’s the reality of things. Counting Andrea’s relative no-show, Toronto is missing three key pieces from last year.

However the Raptors still have a solid group and when they are playing as unit and being aggressive, as we’ve seen for the majority of the past few games, they can compete with just about any team in the league. In this way, anything they get from Andrea will be a bonus, and likewise from TJ when he eventually returns. Unlike last year, teams are now scouting for Andrea and as many have mentioned, he’s trying to do too many things to justify his start at the 5. Last year all he had to do was come in and shoot, something he’s quite good at for a seven-footer.

Therefore getting back to tonight’s game, I’m hoping that Sam Mitchell lets Andrea play through some of his foul trouble (assuming he doesn’t pick up four or five in the first quarter.) Offensively he can help open things up for CB4 and co. and on the boards, well, just put a body on someone and let Jamario clean things up. I'm not expecting huge things tonight, but the kid has the demeanor to bounce back and just needs to get back to his forte - scoring the ball. If you remember last year, once he was doing that, the other elements of his game started to come around as well.

Bargnani could be a big factor tonight...if he just plays to his strengths...

Bargnani could be a big factor tonight...if he just plays to his strengths...

3. Bench Play. Yikes, do we even need to get into this? We saw how much better Toronto can be when they at least get something from their second unit (ie Delfino on Sunday) and with Detroit’s depth, this is a must again tonight. I’m just not sure how that’s going to happen however considering the malaise at the back-up point guard spot. Is there a D-League alternative? The NBDL is having its annual showcase this week and Maurizio Gherardini and scouting director Jim Kelly are representing the Raptors. Can Toronto find another diamond in the rough there, someone who could fill the spot until TJ’s return? Hmmm...perhaps retaining Darrick Martin wasn’t such a great plan after all.

So with their momentum and the Pistons’ recent struggles, can the Raptors pull this one out? Heading into games against Sacramento, Atlanta and Philly, it would certainly be a great bridge into these next three games against lesser clubs. I do think it will be another closely contested match however much-like my thoughts against Portland, I think Toronto will come up just short in the end. According to today,

"The Pistons have an eight-game win streak at home against the Raptors. The last time the Raptors won in Detroit was in April, 2003.

Vince Carter, Rafer Alston and reserve Pistons guard Lindsey Hunter were all a part of that Raptors team led by Lenny Wilkins. Danny Manning was even playing for the Pistons and ESPN's very own Rick Carlisle was the Pistons coach."

Man that seems like ages ago now.

Let’s hope I’m wrong and that Toronto starts a streak of its own tonight.