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3 In the Key – Toronto Raptors Game Day Preview vs. Oklahoma City

I Still Believe.  Lately both of these guys have been taking their lumps...

I Still Believe. Lately both of these guys have been taking their lumps...

After watching some fans just about lose their mind thanks to this mini losing streak, and Toronto themselves finding various ways to squander several different substantial leads, our Raptors find themselves up against a team within a city that by all rights should not be in the NBA.

I mean, really, the Oklahoma City Thunder?

The whole Clay Bennett situation and mess that forced one of the NBA's best and storied franchises out of Seattle reminds us that teams can always be worse, and situations can always get uglier.

But the way the Raptors are playing right now, the Thunder will be a good distraction. It's a winnable game for sure, but even this match up may be a tough game.

After all, the Raptors lost to the Supersonics LAST YEAR when Kevin Durant and his team managed to pull together to beat Toronto for one night.

It was due to that loss last year on the Sonic's home court that I started to think about where the Raptors were heading in the season. What made the Raptors an Atlantic Division Champion was that like all other good teams, they didn't lose to the bottom feeders or sub .500 teams, or heck, even those that were lower than they were in the divisional standings. They did a great job winning each and every game against teams that were in the "bottom half" of the NBA and looked to be competitive against top teams in order to give themselves a chance at a win.

The Raptors, right now, are not there.

And while I've been saying it constantly for the last two weeks that the Raptors need to work a lot more on the offensive end than the defensive end, we've only seen it really in the past two games why that's needed. For all that Matt Devlin and Jack Armstrong talk about getting offense through defense, this team is sparked to work harder and move faster by making the energetic plays on the offensive end. That's the reality and this team will not turn the corner unless it figures out what "energy on the offensive end" means and how to attain it consistently. However, since cutting hard and being in constant motion are offensive elements that rely on hustle and energy, the Raptors are often reluctant or too drained to enforce this policy. Instead, we are left with a team that can go cold quickly because of a reliance on outside shots. Nevertheless, it's hustle that we saw in that win in Jersey and energy in that win against the Pacers. If the Raptors fall back to their old ways and abandon their just-newly acquired game plan, there's little hope that this team will find that identity that we've been calling for.

So it's no real surprise that we find our team and our fan base at odds with each other.

Trust, is a fragile thing.

Trust between the philosophy of coaches and the players, between players and management, between management and the fans, and finally between the players and the fans seems to be wearing thin lately. But that trust is not something that anyone takes lightly. I don't believe for one second that Colangelo isn't doing something right now to try and make the team better. He is clearly not satisfied and that drives a man such as him to find a way to win. We often forget that Colangelo himself sets standards that are as high as our own, if not higher. Barely squeaking into the playoffs is not part of his plan. It's why I've been personally very strict about this team even in wins against Miami. But patience is needed. I'd much rather have a GM who is willing to make moves when they are there rather than force change. And as we all know, it takes two (or three) to make this trade thing dance.

And Bosh? Bosh wants to win as badly as everyone else. Here's a man who's tasted gold at the olympics and has come home to a team that completely depended on him to just remain competitive.

When it comes down to it, this team just doesn't play with the same hustle that championship teams have because we don't have that one key play maker who just can turn the game around thanks to a well-timed basket. You don't merely replace guys like Morris Peterson, or Jorge Garbajosa with relatively inexperienced players such as Jamario Moon and Joey Graham. It's for that same reason that guys like Shane Battier are so revered. Perhaps that's why Colangelo's reluctant to make a move because everything looks like a lateral move right now, and he knows that he and the fans will not be satisfied with merely the appearance of change.

At the heart of the matter, in my opinion, is Jermaine O'Neal. Yes, Jermaine O'Neal is a good player, who has shown many signs of leadership that this team lacks, but he's a $21 million dollar player. Nesterovic was $8 million. Nesterovic was a bargain big at that price. Just look around the league and you'll see guys like Samuel Dalembert and Andrew Bogut take in paycheques that almost double Nesterovic's. Heck, O'Neal's contract is even 50% higher than Chris Bosh's! So with O'Neal as our highest paid player, we need to ask the question:

Is he our best player?

If not, are we simply in a similar situation that we were at with Jalen Rose several years ago? At some point, business and the salary cap has to play a factor. While many scribes like Doug Smith initially talked about the trade in terms of "if the experiement does fail, at least the Raptors can jettison the huge contract in a year to get back some great players," that's not always the reality is it? Unfortunately, I nor our fan base would have the patience to wait out another mediocre year.

But in the end, these are things that are for management to worry about.

Instead let's talk about tonight's match-up. At the end of the day, the Raptors just need to focus on the court and show up, and punish the Supersonics for being in Oklahoma. To do so, they'll have to:

1) Move -

Looking back at what I learned about the Raptors from two wins last week is that they need to move. It's funny to be saying it yet again, but hustle doesn't come from doing nothing. If the shot's gone up and you're waiting to do something, go block a person out. It's pretty simple. Too often, the Raptors merely just watch a shot get chucked up by EITHER team, and they just stand in the middle of nowhere waiting to see if the ball bounces right in front of them. So if your body isn't boxing out someone, move.

Offensively, same deal. If your man is on you, and you don't have the ball, go out there and throw a screen or cut through some people to free yourself up. That's how the Raptors managed to get some nice looks against Jersey and Indiana, and against the "Supersonics", they'll need to re-establish those principles.

2) Collison Collision -

Readers who have read my work on Hoops Addict know that I've suggested that Nick Collison would be a good fit for the Raptors, but with the "Sonics" without the services of Chris Wilcox, the Raptors will have to make sure that they don't allow Nick Collison to become a factor in this game. The Raptors will also have to look to contain guys like Russell Westbrook (2.0 offensive rebounds per game) and Joe Smith (who averages 7.0 rebounds per game in his career against the Raptors) in order to make sure they are not out rebounded yet again.

Oh yeah, this guy named Durant is averaging 9 rebounds per game over the past 6 days.

3) Screens -

Ok, the Raptors might be tired and have looked lethargic. What's the best course of action? Set screens. Set lots of them. You don't need to move to set a screen, and more importantly, it wears down your opponents. Want to make Kapono and Parker's life a little easier? Run Durant through a bunch of screens on the offensive end. We saw the Raptors set some pretty hard screens when they put their mind to it, and perhaps the best player to do so is Jermaine O'Neal. It's about time now for guys like Bargnani and Hump to come in and do the same.

All in all, this can and should be a winnable game for our boys. It's a game that we need to win by playing the game that got us huge wins against marginal teams like the Pacers and the Nets. And the Oklahoma "Steal-a-Franchise" are about as marginal as it gets.

Otherwise, if we start losing to the bottom feeders, we'll really see our fans lose their minds.

And that trust may soon be strained to a breaking point.

Vicious D