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3 In the Key – Toronto Raptors' Game Day Preview vs. Nuggets

First Gisele, then Adriana, now Daria?

First Gisele, then Adriana, now Daria?

It’s sort of a gloomy day here in Toronto so thought I’d start things off with some "sunny" thoughts.

Myself, I could particularly use a good dose of positivity.

First I read that Adriana Lima is dating Marko Jaric (actually saw her at the Clips-T-Wolves game last weekend looking somewhat disinterested – although it WAS Clips and T-Wolves so go figure), and of course my favourite supermodel, Gisele, is dating Tom Brady.

Well now this morning I read that Lebron is going to be on the cover of the upcoming Vogue issue with Gisele but not only that, the third member of my supermodel trifecta, Canada’s own Daria Werbowy is in the same Vogue posing with snowboarder Shaun White!

Do I need to start a blog about Nascar North or something?

Or better yet, start practicing my extreme snowmobiling skills??

I mean that’s three strikes!

So in light of this and today’s foggy weather, I thought it might be appropriate to start this game-day preview with some uplifting thoughts from the world of basketball.

1) March Madness is around the corner. Besides the NBA draft and Christmas, this is my favourite time of the year. The conference tourneys are in full swing this week and with some solid games already over the past two days, this year is shaping up to be another solid field of 64. The HQ’s favourite five prospects are listed on our home page but as the tourneys creep on we’ll be updating and discussing on the site.

2) And of course, with March Madness around the corner, that means we are creeping up on the NBA draft as well…in fact, only 104 days to go!

3) And finally, once March Madness ends, that means the NBA playoffs are up next, and this year’s pairings, especially in the West, should prove to be must-see TV. I mean, look at the match-ups if the West playoffs were to start today! We’d have:

Los Angeles and Golden State
Houston and Dallas
Phoenix and San Antonio
And Utah and New Orleans

Are you kidding?

You mean we get to see two of the best offensive clubs in the league face off, a battle between Texas rivals, a rematch of the two clubs many predicted to rep the West in the NBA finals and a whole series to debate Chris Paul vs. Deron Williams? And all in the first round?

Aaah yes, there’s a reason mid March to late April is my favourite time period each year.

Interestingly, Toronto’s opponent tonight, the Denver Nuggets are absent from this list of Western delights. The Nuggs currently find themselves two games back of the eighth and final spot in the West yet have a win more than fourth place Cleveland in the East!

Such is the current state of affairs in the NBA standings and therefore to put it bluntly, Denver needs to win each and every possible game if they wish to participate in the post-season prom. In the East, teams like New Jersey, Washington and hey, even our own Raptors, can probably coast into the playoffs but not in the West…which is why Toronto better be ready this evening.

To get some thoughts on tonight’s match we turn things over to Nick Sclafani AKA The Nugg Doctor in today’s edition of "Blogging with the Enemy."

1. RaptorsHQ: The Nuggets are currently sitting just out of the final playoff spot in the West.

Where do you see the club ending in the standings when all is said and done and is this a team that can go far if they make the playoffs?

The Nugg Doctor: Honestly, I feel the Nuggets have left their fate in the hands of others and will probably not make the post-season this year. It may anger some of the most die-hard Nuggets fans that I would say so with a glimmer of hope still out there, but I just don’t see a team that is this inconsistent making the playoffs, let alone making any big waves. The Western Conference is just uber-competitive this year and the Nuggets may be the odd man out.

2. RaptorsHQ: There was a lot of talk around the trade deadline about acquiring Ron Artest.

What did you think about that and would he have helped this team get to that "next" level?

The Nugg Doctor: At the time of the Artest talks, Linas Kleiza was playing great basketball and I was against a trade. Sacramento wanted LK and Eduardo Najera, who I wouldn’t have been against trading, but the promise of Linas in combination with Artest’s track record made me hesitant. Now, in hindsight and the Nuggets current playoff situation being what it is, I think Denver should have made the move. Two reasons make me say this: First, Denver’s window to win with Allen Iverson may not be long enough for LK’s potential to reach maturation. Second, the Nuggets are a very poor defensive unit. They can sometimes individually play good stretches of D, but the quality stretches of sound team defense have been few and far between for this team. I think Ron Artest’s defensive approach to the game could have brought the defensive end together for the Nuggets, but now I guess we’ll never know.

3. RaptorsHQ: Keys to tonight's game. What do the Nuggets have to do to defend their home court?

The Nugg Doctor: To be perfectly frank with you, if the Nuggets play their game in their house the Raptors are in serious trouble. However, it’s truly been a Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde season for Denver and the team can look different every night. If I had to make a prediction, I would say that whichever team prevails as the winner will do so by at least ten points.

The Nuggets are either just that bad or just that good!

Jamario Moon is going to have his hands full tonight...especially if he's indeed playing on a bad ankle...

Jamario Moon is going to have his hands full tonight...especially if he's indeed playing on a bad ankle...

A big thanks to Nick for his thoughts, and ones I whole-heartedly agree with. The Nuggets remind me of the Raptors in many ways; both teams that when "on" offensively, can beat anyone on any given night. However on other nights, both teams that struggle defensively and fail to perform at a consistent level. The Dinos don’t have the star-power of the Nuggets, but both clubs can absolutely explode on teams offensively.

So let’s look at our three keys to tonight’s game.

1) Control the pace. We had this as a key against Golden State and in the first quarter, Toronto decided to ignore our advice. By trying to run with the Warriors, the Raps got pounded in transition, failed to guard anyone, and were completely ineffective trying to run any semblance of offense. Denver is a similar team, with players like Allen Iverson and JR Smith who have no conscience about firing away so if Toronto (ahem…TJ Ford) gets caught up in going mano-a-mano, this one will be over before half.

2) Play aggressively. I’m not saying Toronto needs to play dirty here, but they need to be much more aggressive at both ends of the court, especially early in the game. For all the criticism thrown at TJ Ford after Wednesday night’s fiasco, early in the game, his team-mates weren’t exactly helping him or Calderon out. For those who might have missed the last two games, guys like Delfino, Moon, Bargs and Kapono were coming off of down-screens, getting passes from Jose and TJ, but not attacking the rim or looking for their own shot. Instead, they were handing the ball back to the point guard at the top of the key with about eight on the shot clock. In that situation, it leaves little choice but for Jose or TJ to go one-on-one or hoist up a bad shot. This has nothing to do with Me J (great nickname by the way) and his "I refuse to even look at my team-mates" play in the fourth quarter, but for the sake of the Raptors’ own offensive execution, especially tonight against a Denver team averaging 107.5 points per game (fourth in the league), the team needs to be in attack mode from the jump.

This pertains to other aspects of the game as well, be it on the defensive end sticking with AI and Melo, or on the glass against fierce rebounders like Najera, Camby and Method Man himself, Kenyon Martin. Toronto needs a complete team effort tonight – anything less and it’s off to Sacto with an 0-3 record on this trip.

3) TJ Ford. Without Chris Bosh, a lot of the team’s play comes down to this guy in many ways. If he gets into the paint early using his quickness it forces opponents to hone in on him and he can use this to his team-mates’ advantage by getting them open looks. If he tries to be a mirror version of AI however, the offence stops, Denver rebounds the ball and gets out in transition for easy baskets.

It’s incredibly frustrating to watch as most of us have noted, and no picnic for TJ’s team-mates either. You could see this from their body language late in the fourth quarter last game and it might as well have been Rafer Alston out there.

In fact, while some compare Ford to Mike James, I think that Alston is better comparison. I always found that Alston thought he was a better player than he actually was in reality, and it showed in his decision making. He’s since matured a lot in Houston but it took him a VERY long time to get the memo. Ford is quite similar in many ways; a suspect long-range shooter, a great ball-handler with an uncanny series of fakes and jukes, a player with a bit of feistiness to his game, and one that could heat up and burn opposing clubs, especially from mid-range with a collection of floaters and fade-aways.

Michael Grange must have had similar thoughts as he posted this very astute observation a few days ago:

"Remember when Rafer Alston used to get burned on defence and then come back and try to burn his guy on offence? You can’t run a basketball team that way. This is T.J.’s thing: when he does something boneheaded --- like dribbling the length of the floor and trapping himself under the basket, spinning around and throwing a wild pass off the back of the backboard. His thing is to come back and try and make up for it right away. You can’t run a team that way."

He’s bang on and going up against AI tonight, perhaps the greatest basketball talent pound for pound in the history of the game, you have to be concerned as a Raptor’s fan.

And what’s with these rumours of TJ starting tonight?

I still like the idea of him playing the first eight minutes or so to set the tone, but I want to see Jose in crunch time, and getting the bulk of p-t. Toronto’s offense is predicated on crisp ball movement, not isolation plays.

Against teams like Golden State and Denver, that only plays into their hands as they have superior one-on-one players.

Yahoo’s Kelly Dwyer noticed the same thing and posted this recently:

"We've been a little iffy on T.J. Ford for a week now, and this game didn't do much to change the line of thinking. Ford scored 12 fourth-quarter points, but the ball was in his hands as a one-point Raptor advantage turned into an 11-point loss in the last six minutes of the fourth quarter. Baron Davis was killing the Raps on the other end with isolation plays, and while Ford wouldn't seem to be hurting the Raptors by trying to answer, consider this:

Don Nelson's teams, and this Warrior team in particular, are isolation teams. The Raptors, with or without Chris Bosh in the lineup, are a ball-movement team that spaces the floor and tries to make the extra pass. Ford's scoring is putting points on the board, but it's making Toronto less dangerous overall.

Ford dominating the ball is fine when the tough shots are going in, but two of his long misses started Warrior breaks that broke the game open, and his teammates (who haven't so much as touched the ball in one or two minutes of game action) are out of sync once Ford actually gives up the rock. These guys are cold, they're expected to bail Ford out, and you can expect what eventually happens."

Not only does Dwyer make some great points about the issues with TJ’s one-on-one play, but also backs up why Jose is so important to this team as he brings out the best in his team-mates.

Let’s not kid ourselves, Toronto has a nice collection of talent that play to their strengths, but Bosh and maybe eventually Bargs aside, this isn’t a scary one-on-one team. Therefore you need a point guard like Jose Calderon or Steve Nash, someone who turns decent complimentary pieces into great players within the system.

The frustrating thing of course is that TJ has the ability to do this, but too often tries to carry the load himself.

I expect Ford to bounce back tonight though, and it will be interesting to see how Mitchell uses both he and Calderon.

Interestingly, as some of our readers have mentioned, a few things have improved with TJ’s recent play, the first being his trade value. Ford looks healthy again and if he can play out the rest of the season without incident, might be a potential trading chip this off-season for BC.

Second, as the losses pile up, so does the chance of a first-round match with Orlando. The Cavs are having offensive and injury woes of their own and the Magic look to be firmly ensconced in the third spot. And with Caron Butler returning to the Wizards last night, and the 76ers continuing their push, it’s no longer out of the question that Toronto could drop down to sixth in the East.

Del just dropped a new album...a perfect reason for the Raptors' Delfino to drop a dunk or two on the Nuggets tonight...

Del just dropped a new album...a perfect reason for the Raptors' Delfino to drop a dunk or two on the Nuggets tonight...

On a final note, as mentioned, we’ve had some great comments on the site about the Ford situation comparing it to everything from the Stockholm syndrome to an alcoholic husband.

The discussion has always been the reason for the site and perhaps by this time tomorrow, there will be a whole new set of points to debate be it TJ, a Raptors’ win, or another of my favourite supermodels being snatched up by athletes.

Right now I’m down to Anna Beatriz Barros and Andi Muise and incidentally, Andi was in Barrie recently for a photo shoot at a local pool.

Any of our readers want to join me to form Barrie's first male synchronized swim team??