The Raptors are not doing so well, there's lots of calls for the head of Sam Mitchell, and we've got quite a few injuries at a couple critical positions.
Count your lucky stars that the Raptors play the Bobcats tonight.
Over the last few days, I've quietly mulled the situation the Raptors find themselves in. Not quite deep enough to absorb injuries, capped-out thanks to the O'Neal deal, lacking the necessary basketball IQ, and not quite talented enough to pull off surprise wins, there are just no simple solutions. The thoughts that have lately popped into my mind are how the positives get overshadowed by the negatives, and certainly I've shown those negative thoughts here.
More so than any other stat, it's most concerning to see that the Raptors are getting consistent career play from their All-Star, a rehabilitated former All-Star center, and some surprising play from their Reborn Rookie and are still unable to match middle to top tier teams in the East. Perhaps even more disturbing is just how many minutes are being tossed on Bosh in the need of pulling out wins against even the lower tiered teams in the East. The optimist will see these as signs that the Raptors just need time to get the rest of the group clicking. The pessimist will look at this situation and say that the Raptors are getting huge production, but can't even capitalize on the improved performances of a couple of their top players.
Which is why a win against the Bobcats just needs to happen.
We've all seen the schedule by now.
A difficult Hawks team on Friday, followed by a West Coast swing without a fully healthy Jose Calderon, and possibly a missing Jermaine O'Neal. O'Neal is going to again give it a go tonight, but who knows with what results. What we have here folks, is a situation where a prolonged losing streak may just force Bryan Colangelo's hand for change.
A loss today, could indeed send the team reeling.
But that's why games against the Heat and, heck, against the Bobcats earlier this year make this game so difficult to predict. Do you look at the Raptors pulling out wins against both teams? Or do you look at the Raptors struggling to find themselves and beat these teams, even with a full roster? After all, it took a quarter of complete shut down defense in order for the Raptors to finally pull out a win against the 'Cats.
In the end, the Raptors need to win, and win convincingly if only to boost their psyche for the upcoming games. It means that the Raptors have to show that they don't need 40 minute nights from Bosh and Calderon to get a win, and more importantly, the Raptors must not allow the Bobcats to overtake the momentum from them.
Is it possible?
The Raptors, and specifically, Chris Bosh, sound pretty ticked off, so there's ample reason for the Raptors to come out early and jump all over the 'Cats. However, they'll have to watch out for a few things:
1) Prevent Dribble Penetration -
During the last game, the Raptors let the Bobcats get inside through dribble penetration for about 3 quarters and almost paid the price for it in the end. This game, there's gotta be some kind of determination to make the Bobcats an outside shooting team. Statistically, Charlotte's field goal percentage is ranked 5th last in the league at 43% and if the Raptors can implement a strategy according to their scouting reports, they should have a pretty easy time. Turning the Bobcats into a jump shooting team is no easy task with the Raptors' lack of back court speed, but the Raptors need to keep their cool and not bail out the Bobcast with fouls on blow-bys. The other night, the Bobcats just completely carved up the 76ers interior as Philly seemed to keep playing tight against the likes of Felton and Augustin. So for the Raptors, it's a must that these two are contained and Mitchell may need to go small to counter. In addition, if help is given, let's try not to leave Matt Carroll open.
2) Rotations -
How Sam chooses to manage his minutes will be vitally important. If the Raptors are without the benefit of Jermaine O'Neal, they will have to make sure they stay out of foul trouble and communicate on defense. (Something they've not always done this year even with a presence like O'Neal in the game.) It will also be interesting to see what Sam's starting line-up will consist of if O'Neal is a no-go to start.
Do you punch Bargnani back into the front line and hope that Graham and Moon can hold down the SF position? I'd say yes, for at least this game, as I think Kapono, Graham and Moon can handle their men at the SF position (although it becomes trickier if indeed Jason Richardson plays.) However, the biggest question will come at the Point Guard/Shooting Guard positions. Should the Bobcats start to use the speed of Felton and Augustin, our back court will need to remain fresh to keep up with them. For all my criticisms of Will Solomon, a few minutes at the backup SG position may be needed to keep up with the speed of Felton and Augustin. This is especially true if Moon is rendered ineffective due to lackluster defense, not to mention continually biting on every pump fake.
3) When in Doubt, Execute on Offense -
Blowing double digit leads against Miami and New Jersey was the first indication to me that things were not all right. You don't blow leads in the manner the Raptors did, as long as you continue to execute your offensive sets. Yes, teams can get hot, but for some reason, the Raptors just simple create more pressurized situations for themselves when ball movement grinds to a hault. Suddenly, every shot is contested and points become extremely hard to come by because the ball just isn't moving from side to side. Then, the Raptors start to try for ridiculous cross court passes which are easily intercepted because of the lack of athleticism of the team and because it's just 100 times harder to throw an accurate cross court pass.
All of these bad habits can be easily avoided so long as the team remembers how they became successful. It'll be up to Bosh and Bargnani to lead the starters, but more importantly, Ukic and Kapono to keep the ball moving when the subs come into the game. We've seen Kapono with some good passing ability in the first few games of the season when playing with Ukic. And Ukic is not shy about making the play that leads to the play that leads to the bucket.
As Franchise and I talked about yesterday, this is a game that has us worried. The Raptors, if they win, still have a lot of hurdles to overcome within the next month. The culture of winning that we've seen a couple years ago is starting to dissipate. And if the Raptors lose, there's just no telling how shattered the confidence of the team will be.
Optimists will point out that two years ago, the Raptors found themselves with an even worse record, only to put together an amazing run. Unfortunately, the Raptors aren't nearly as deep right now, and perhaps not even as talented. Two years later, the Raptors still are trying to find suitable replacements for both Jorge Garbajosa and Morris Peterson, players that were experienced and had some abilities to play lockdown defense at the 3-position. It was also at about this point in the season that the Raptors overcame the loss of Chris Bosh and beat such teams as the Orlando Magic in Orlando and pulled off overtime wins against the Trailblazers and Clippers on their West Coast trip.
It might seem unfathomable, but the loss of Jermaine O'Neal with this current roster, may be much more difficult to overcome compared to the loss of Chris Bosh during that previous magical season.