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3 in the Key – Toronto Raptors Game-Day Preview vs. Bucks

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"We gotta rebound the ball better...that's something we looked at last night, but we gotta rebound better."

Wise words from Raptors' coach Sam Mitchell heading into tonight's game against the Bucks.

Milwaukee is coming off a win last night over the injury-depleted Indiana Pacers while the Raptors of course, had the day to pratice and prepare after their big win over the Celtics.

We'll get to our 3 keys in a minute but first, a little double feature as we have game-day takes from our two favourite Bucks' bloggers, Frank from Brewhoop.com and Brett from The Bratwurst.com.

1) RaptorsHQ: We had the Bucks pegged as the final team of 8 to make the playoffs in the East and figured they'd be a nice surprise when healthy. The season started out that way but now looks to be headed towards another lottery
trip. What happened?

Brewhoop: The Bucks have been bad defensively for years, but there was some optimism at the start of the year given Larry Krystkowiak's big emphasis on it heading into training camp. Unfortunately, simply working on it hasn't
changed the results; the Bucks' guards don't stop penetration and even with Andrew Bogut stepping up as a presence in the middle they don't make up for a lack of great individual defenders with good team defense.

Given it's the Eastern conference they might still be able to overcome that, but they've also regressed offensively, spending much of the year trying to figure out their offensive identity. Many people think of the Bucks as a team with enough scorers/shooters, but there has been very little offensive consistency from anyone outside of Redd and Williams. In trying to be a better defensive team they've abandoned a more up-tempo style for a halfcourt game but it hasn't helped on either end. Amazingly, they've won only three games by double-digits all year (the Raptors game in Milwaukee being their biggest win all year) and seem incapable of closing teams out.

This month the coaching staff made a point of involving Bogut more, and he's had easily the best month of his career. Many fans have been clamoring for this for some time, but it's been difficult getting Bogut to take a more central role given a) he's previously been prone to losing confidence and b) the guards haven't been all that dedicated to keeping him involved.

The team is fairly young and Krystkowiak has been learning on the job this year. I think most Bucks fans are kind of resigning themselves to this being another development year, as they will need to get on a serious roll in the season's second half to separate themselves from the glut of teams gunning for the eight spot. They have a home-heavy schedule from here on out, but they'll need to up their game notably if they want a chance at getting destroyed by the Celtics in the first round.

The Bratwurst: What has gone wrong with the Bucks? Two problems: the coaching and the roster.

Larry Krystkowiak came into the season preaching a mantra of "defense and hard work" while proclaiming that effort in practice would translate to playing time in the games. That rah-rah stuff may work in college where the coach is responsible for his players getting their scholarships in the first place, but this is a perfect example of why college coaches never succeed in the NBA. Professional coaches have to understand who their players are: adults with guaranteed contracts that have already maximized their talents in order to get where they are. NBA players can’t just change their games at the drop of a hat and remain effective, the coach has to be able to take the players he is handed and figure out how to use their strengths to maximize the teams’ potential – you can’t just coach "your system" and make the players fit that mold, unless you are Jerry Sloan, Larry Brown or Greg Popovich. Larry Krystkowiak has been a huge flop in this regard. He hasn’t gotten any significant improvement in the teams’ defense, their offense is worse, and he hasn’t been imaginative enough to try new lineups when the situation has called for them.

Basically, Krystkowiak has taken a team of athletic, offensively-gifted, defensively-challenged players and told them to slow the game down and make defense a priority. The net result is that they are getting outscored by a larger per-game margin this season than they were in the injury-riddled 06-07 season.

I can’t believe that I’m writing this, but the team has had trouble coping with the loss of Desmond Mason. Once Mason got hurt the only backup small forward that Krystkowiak trusted was Bobby Simmons, who was coming off a season lost to a foot injury (Awvee Storey is on the roster, but hasn’t cracked the rotation). Simmons has been awful, either because of injury or possibly a rumored-but-not-confirmed personal issue (his poorest play coincided with his return from a three-game personal leave.) That has forced Krystkowiak to use Michael Redd and Charlie Bell at small forward, which is a major problem. Redd isn’t strong or athletic enough to guard small forwards and the physicality of the position has hampered his offense, while Bell is only 6’3" and is too small to defend forwards. Additionally, Bell suffered through an incredible shooting slump for most of the season which only recently ended. Basically, the loss of Mason has severely weakened the small forward position, and because the Bucks only have four guards on the roster, losing Mason has hurt the backcourt as well.

The Bucks do have talent. Andrew Bogut is getting better by the game (I believe that he is now the 6th best true center in the league) and Yi Jianlian is clearly a keeper. Michael Redd has not had his best season by any stretch, but he has shown a much more well-rounded game than in the past (although he is slumping right now with a thigh bruise). Mo Williams has improved over last season, and is clearly worth his new contract (although he may miss the game with a sprained finger). The Bucks have pieces to build around – they just need a small forward to fill in the gap and coaching that takes their strengths into account.

2) RaptorsHQ: You probably know the situation with TJ in Toronto and how he's been great when healthy but how is our old buddy CV Smooth doing in Milwaukee? Do you feel Villanueva is regressing or is he simply not being used
effectively?

Brewhoop: Charlie's had a rough go of it. Last year he had a great first week, then suffered a shoulder injury in Atlanta and was in and out of the lineup all year before finally having season-ending surgery. I thought he would claim the starting PF spot out of camp this year but Yi Jianlian simply outworked him, especially defensively. CV certainly has the skills to be a great sixth man, but he hasn't appeared comfortable with the lack of consistent minutes.

CV hasn't pouted but he also hasn't given Krystkowiak the consistency on both ends needed to win the starting job. I think CV is similar to many young players who get by on offensive talent in high school and college, but never have to develop the defensive intensity and focus to be a great NBA player. He scored well (albeit not terribly efficiently) on a relatively
poor Raptors squad as a rookie, and maybe thought that he would get by on being a big-time scorer. Now he's having to deal with no longer being the anointed PF of the future and it's been a tough adjustment. Given the presence of Yi and the Bucks' lack of other trading chips, it stands to reason he would be a key piece of any deal the Bucks make before the deadline. Otherwise I'd have to guess he'll be shopped hard this summer.

The Bratwurst: I get the feeling that Villanueva will be somewhere else next season. And that’s too bad.

I feel for Charlie V – he spends the entire summer rehabbing his shoulder, only to find that he’s lost the starting job to a guy who he had probably never even heard of before the draft (Yi). And then he gets to hear Krystkowiak’s "don’t practice hard, don’t play" line. Villanueva already has a reputation as a lazy practice player, so by losing his starting job that makes it sound like CV is dogging it in practice, whether or not that’s true.

As a player, he really hasn’t developed much since his season with the Raptors. Of course, a large part of that can be attributed to the injuries (dislocated elbow and shoulder surgery). He still has a great midrange game, handles the ball exceptionally well for a big man, and is a pretty effective rebounder. Every so often he’ll throw down a highlight dunk. However, his shoulder might not be 100% (or maybe his effort level is down from being screwed over in the rotations). He has had a disconcerting drop off in his blocks and steals totals, as the combination of his blocks, steals and assists don’t equal his turnovers. Not many players do that. I think he might be afraid to reach in with his repaired shoulder. He still takes a few too many 3’s, and has his problems on defense. He hasn’t really regressed; he just hasn’t had much of a chance to improve.

To make matters worse, Krystkowiak has totally dropped the ball on a great opportunity – once Mason got hurt and it became clear that Simmons couldn’t handle the small forward job full-time, Villanueva should have been installed as the Bucks’ small forward, defense be dammed. They have a great opportunity to create some incredible mismatches and rack up highlights – a team has probably never had three athletic seven-footers like Bogut, Yi and CV at the same time. But Krystkowiak is simply not imaginative enough to do this. Instead, a few nights ago Villanueva got 18 minutes while Redd went the whole game getting pounded at small forward and Royal Ivey played 42. It’s simply mind-boggling. I have created a statistical measure, called IPM, (updated weekly at our blog) and according to it Villanueva is clearly the Bucks’ fifth best player. Yet he doesn’t play nearly enough even as the season is slipping away.

Meanwhile, this team needs some retooling, but since Bogut, Yi, Williams and Redd aren’t going anywhere that makes Villanueva the only tradable asset the Bucks have who would garner much value around the league. Gadzuric, Simmons and Bell have brutal contracts that make them almost impossible to deal, while Villanueva is still a relative bargain for a couple more seasons. I will be a little surprised if he is still on the team next year.

It’s a shame about TJ’s neck problem returning. I know that if it was me in his shoes, I’d be about ready to retire after a couple of incidents like that, and I hope he comes back at full strength and as the picture of health.

3) RaptorsHQ: Thoughts on tonight's game. The Bucks throttled the Raps early in the season, how do you see tonight's match shaping up?

Brewhoop: Arguably the Bucks' best game of the year came against the Raptors in November, but I wouldn't bet on a repeat performance. Of late the Bucks have played well in first halves against good teams but have struggled to play the full 48 minutes, and they've been brutal on the road all year. The Bucks can only hope to carry over some of the momentum from the Indiana win while hoping that the Raps suffer some letdown after the Celtics game.

Bogut's probably the key guy from the Milwaukee perspective--if the Raptors start Bargnani/Bosh then he has to use his size to do a lot of damage on the block while not getting torched by Bosh on the other end. Though he's generally a very good passer, Bogut is still learning the ropes of being a go-to option so if the Raptors double he'll need to find open guys on the
perimeter. Guys like Simmons and Bell then need to produce, as the Bucks will have a hard time winning if only Redd/Mo/Bogut show up (which has been all too frequent).

The Bratwurst: If Larry Krystkowiak’s coaching has had a signature this season it is in his teams’ complete inability to be competitive on the road against quality opponents. This is also the Bucks’ fourth game in five nights against mostly-top competition (having already played New Orleans, Phoenix and Indiana this week), so the deck seems to be stacked in favor of Toronto.

The Bucks have been blown out by every single good team they have faced on the road with the exception of an overtime loss at Portland (before anyone knew they were good) and a 5 point loss at the Lakers in which the Bucks trailed by 14 with 3 minutes remaining. The rest or the road results are littered with losses by 20 at Denver, 22 at Boston, 30 at Golden State and 45 at Detroit.

The Bucks have done a good job recently of being competitive early in games, but a series of brutal third quarters have doomed them time and time again. They have lost 6 of 8 and the playoffs are now the longest of long shots – at some point the teams’ effort level is going to wane.

Keep an eye on Andrew Bogut – his game has become something to appreciate. He’s not flashy but is becoming very effective, and his defense has been much stronger than his soft reputation would lend you to believe. Bogut has also been stuffing the box scores recently, posting 7 straight double-doubles with four 20/10 games in that stretch, plus averaging three assists and two blocks (a streak that ended last night against Indiana). Now that I mention that, I’m sure the four-games-in-five-nights will catch up to him and he will lay an egg on Friday.

Yi Jianlian seems to be hitting the rookie wall, as his very consistent rookie season has given way to a bit of a slump, but he’s also worth watching. He’s very athletic for his size and has been a much better defender than expected. He knows what he’s doing on the court.

In these teams’ first meeting Chris Bosh got in early foul trouble and was a non-factor, and the Bucks nearly set a team record by shooting 60%. I can’t see either of those things happening again.

If the Raptors don’t win by double digits tonight I’d be pretty surprised.

Thanks to both Frank and Brett for some great insight going into tonight's game.

To me this match has all the makings of a trap game.

Toronto coming off a big win, Bucks struggling and playing their fifth game in four nights and trying to cope with various injuries.

On paper it looks like a Raptors W but I sincerely hope Toronto learned from the first time these teams met. As much as the Raps lit up the C's from long-range on Wednesday night, Milwaukee is more than capable of doing the same - which brings us to our first key.

The Raptors need to shut down Redd tonight...

The Raptors need to shut down Redd tonight...

2) Make the Bucks get to the rim. Last night against Indiana, Milwaukee did get to the free-throw line 19 times but most of these came in the second half. With Mo Williams a question mark and no Desmond Mason, a player who killed the Raps the first time they met with his athletic ability, Milwaukee might become overly reliant on their outside shooting as they simply don't have a lot of "slashers" in their line-up at present. As long as the Raps can stay at home on the Bucks' gunners this plays right into Toronto's hands considering their problems in the "points scored in the paint" category. Bogut is capable of a 20/20 night every time he steps on the floor and as both Bucks' bloggers alluded to, he's just starting to realize that potential. This will be an important match-up for Toronto as if he gets going early, it will open things up for the rest of the team. However if the Raps can put the clamps down and force the rest of the wings to try and score in the paint, this should bode well for a Toronto win.

3) Rebound, rebound, rebound. Last time these teams met the Raptors had issues rebounding the basketball which kept leading to quick outlets and transition baskets for the Bucks. Toronto apparently spent lots of practice time yesterday reviewing their rebounding woes from Wednesday via video so let's hope they return to their "gang rebounding" mentality. Milwaukee has players like Simmons and Redd who rebound well at their respective positions so this has to be a complete team effort by the Dinos. Losing this statistical category could mean big problems for Toronto as I simply don't expect them to hit on 70 per cent of their long-range attempts again tonight.

Above everything though, I just hope the Raptors come ready to play tonight. They've been searching for some consistency all season and need to start winning the "should-win" type games like tonight's. The Bucks aren't about to roll over however and we've seen that any team can win on any given night. Therefore the Raps need to bring the energy early and put this one out of reach.

Bargs vs. Yi Round II tonight...

Bargs vs. Yi Round II tonight...

The game also pits the two top contestants for third on the rookie of the year voting ballot as both Moon and Yi have had solid years. Yi however looks to be hitting the rookie wall and while both he and Moon will be participants at the All-Star weekend, I expect Moon to have more of an overall impact on the game tonight.

Speaking of All-Stars, the NBA announced its starters yesterday for this year's affair.

I'm all for fan voting but seeing players like Jason Kidd, Dwyane Wade and Carmelo Anthony voted in as starters despite injury-filled or sub-par seasons makes me scratch my head.

But my noggin' got a much bigger rub last night in regards to hearing ESPN.com's Chris Broussard discuss his "most improved player" candidates on Hoops on RaptorsTV.

Broussard decided that Calderon didn't warrant a mention because (get this) his team really hadn't improved that much and in fact was slightly disappointing. He then went on to discuss how Hedo Turkoglu and LaMarcus Aldridge would be his two top picks because their respective teams were having such good surprise seasons.

Correct me if I'm wrong Chris, but isn't it most improved PLAYER? I'm not sure Jose would be my pick necessarily but why does record factor into this? It's not the MVP race! What about the Chris Kaman's and Rudy Gay's of the league, both players who took major steps in terms of development?

I'm not saying I don't think that either Aldridge or Hedo are decent choices, but to say that the team has almost been worse under Jose is ridiculous. He can't control Andrea's play or injury issues, what does that have to do with his OWN improvement?

A little frustrated by the US basketball media are we Franchise?

Yes, and it doesn't stop there. My next mini rant is aimed at Reggie Miller and the folks at TNT. During another collosal failure by the Nets last night against the Warriors, Miller and co. kept remarking that Vince seems to have lost his explosiveness and simply can't do the things you used to do in terms of aerial acts.

Right.

As Raptor fans, we've seen this movie before.

It got so bad that at the start of the third quarter the TNT camera folks were cueing up old footage of Vince's dunk contest wins and pairing them up with in-game footage of him passing on taking the ball to the rim.

I felt like screaming.

However I saved my lungs and simply switched back to Law and Order (which Bravo is currently running from the very beginning.)

Sorry Reggie, but it's not that Vince can't dunk anymore, it's that he simply doesn't care to. Watching him float listlessly around the court evoked memories of his last few seasons in Toronto and it's unbelievable that most of the US media thinks "he just can't play like that anymore."

Maddening.

But hey, the Raptors sit well ahead of the Nets and have a chance to increase that lead tonight against the Bucks - let's hope they don't waste it.

FRANCHISE