It’s time to play for keeps.
It’s time to role out those "mystery plays" that were only worked on in practice.
It’s time to get our first true sense of the 2008-2009 Toronto Raptors.
For us at the HQ tonight represents a variety of things. First, we can finally breathe a collective sigh of relief that the slow days of summer and early fall have passed us by and we have not put our readership into a deep coma never to be awoken. Second, and perhaps more importantly, it’s represents the beginning of another year of blogging. In blogging circles we are now a little long in the tooth we admit, but we are still pumped to see what lies ahead.
ESPN recently put out their Power Rankings (there is also a new blogger power rankings with all our favourite blogs here) and the Raps are slotted in the 12 spot. I would peg the Raptors around this number as well but I find it perplexing that the 76ers are getting more love. If people are going to be sceptical about JO’s knees then you have to be equally as sceptical about Elton Brand’s Achilles.
Of course it is all the question marks surrounding JO that makes him want to quiet the doubters and there is no better chance then against the other big name to join the Eastern Conference, the aforementioned Elton Brand.
Now that JO has had the opportunity to get his legs underneath him it will be interesting to see just how much time the newest Raptors gets. It’s against teams like the 76ers, who feature a strong front-court, when JO’s presence is most needed. That being said I for one don’t expect a big spike in his minutes as compared to the pre-season. O’Neal hasn’t played a game with any significant meaning in an extended period of time and I expect there to be some rust and serious "shorts grabbing" once he goes over the 24 minute mark. It’s going to be a slow process for JO to be at full form, whatever that might be. The team has to protect it’s $44 million dollar investment. The exact same analysis can be applied to Elton Brand. One thing I will definitely be looking for is whether O’Neal is still rocking the brace. There are some rumours that he could try and go without it now that the regular season is upon us.
Of course during the pre-season the health of the Toronto Raptors was an issue and that remains the case. There were times in training camp when the Raps couldn’t even hold a full scrimmage and injuries continue to be of concern. A few of the players continue to be a little beat-up and on a whole Coach Mitchell feels like a B grade would be an accurate measurement of this team’s health. All things considered that’s pretty solid considering some other teams are dealing with much bigger injury issues like the Warriors and Wizards...and now the Blazers again with Greg Oden.
On thing that a "B" grade tells us is that we should see Mr. Mitchell’s expected rotation for this coming season. There are no significant injuries that would prevent him from getting this team into a groove and establishing roles early. Much of the discussion on the site has centered around the lack of depth on this squad, in particular at the PG position. Tonight we should get a sense of just how concerning this lack of depth truly is. If guys like Calderon and Bosh play 36 plus minutes then suddenly the concern shifts from lack of depth to lack of rest.
There are a lot of questions that will start to be answered starting tonight but in terms of seeing the Dinos grab their first W of the season here are the three keys:
1. Paint Play – Both of these teams will now rely heavily on having their big men create easy opportunities for others or to score themselves. It’s Bosh-JO-Bargnani vs. Brand-Dalembert-Evans. It’s an intriguing to say the least. Whatever fearsome threesome exerts their will against the other make for an easy W. Right now I like the Raptors chances. This of course will be a key for the Raptors all season long. In games where the Raptors front-court is not dominant there simply isn’t enough talent on this team to help carry the load. I do know it would be quite an early statement to the rest of the league if Bosh, JO and Bargs bring their A game and put a whipping on the Sixers.
2. The Rest – Of course one likely result is that the front-court match-ups end up being a draw which will put enormous pressure on the rest of the team to elevate their game. A lot of this will boil down to the wing play and whether the Raps swing men, by committee it appears, can help neutralize one Andre Iguodala. Iggy looks to be back playing second fiddle which is really where he belongs. It also makes him more dangerous when teams can’t focus solely on Lebron Lite. Amongst Moon, who is apparently going to start tonight, and Graham, should one of them step up and have themselves a game that will go a long way in grabbing that starting SF position for good.
3. Second and Fourth Quarter Starts – When Mitchell does need to turn to his bench and give his main guys a rest it will be essential for the bench guys to maintain a high level of play. Against a deep 76ers squad this is a tough order. Players like Louis Williams, Willie Green, and even the old Raptor himself Donyell Marshall, are players who can suddenly catch fire. For the Raps I will be interested to see when Kapono gets his minutes and who is running the point at that time. For the Raps bench to get the spark it can from Kapono he needs someone to set the table for him. Solid play from Kapono, when the usual suspects are resting, is an absolute key to victory. If the Raps can’t maintain a high level of play early in the second and fourth quarters they may be staring at a deficit too large to surmount once the buzzer sounds.