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

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The future of Miami??

The future of Miami??

A game against the league’s worst team couldn’t have come at a better time could it?

With weekend matches against the Cavs and Nuggets looming, and after dropping five straight on the road, Toronto could use a solid win.

The Miami Heat are currently sitting with a 12 and 54 record and have shelved Dwyane Wade for the season kicking off "Tank-fest ’08." Does it guarantee Miami a shot at Mr. Beasley? Well no, but considering the dearth of talent on this club at present, none of the other top draft options would look too bad either in Miami black and red.

For Toronto, this game simply needs to end in a Raptors’ W.

Between horrific defensive performances, sub-par play from key players and the never-ending hurricane of drama that is TJ Ford, Toronto needs to start coming together again to get ready for the playoffs.

We touched on this yesterday but the Raptors suddenly find themselves fighting for their playoff lives.

Washington is getting healthier by the day (Gilbert Arenas recently had an MRI and his left knee is coming along), Philadelphia has won 15 of their last 19 games, and you still can’t even count out teams like Atlanta and Chicago, both of whom Toronto still has to play once more.

And really, if Toronto can’t beat Miami even without a 100 per cent healthy Chris Bosh or Andrea Bargnani (Bosh has posted on his site that he’ll be playing tonight but no word on Bargs as of yet), then getting out of the first round of the playoffs will be the least of this team’s worries.

There was a lot of doom and gloom talk after the latest road trip and some of it was quite understandable. Bosh or no Bosh, the team’s defence was lackadaisical at best and players like Bargnani and Calderon did little to step up their respective games.

However there were some positive signs that this team can hopefully build on.

Let’s take a look at 3.

1) Rasho Nesterovic’s steady contribution: Without Bosh, Rasho slid back into the starting line-up on the recent road trip and didn’t appear to miss a beat. He did a great job on the glass and aside from a penchant for missing gimme’s at times near the rim, did an excellent job offensively as well. I still think he should be this team’s starter at the 5, especially since Bargs’ game hasn’t benefited much from the starting nod, but perhaps we’ll see some changes come playoff time. Nesterovic just seems better suited for playing alongside Bosh and is a much more natural center. Without Chris though, Rasho got some much needed crunch time minutes, ones that should serve him well come late April.

2) Jason Kapono’s re-emergence: I’m not sure why the light suddenly went on again, but Kap-One looks much more like the player Toronto thought they signed as a free-agent last summer. He’s moving much better without the ball, finishing his long and mid-range shots and even doing some creating off the dribble. His effectiveness should only increase with the return of CB4, something I recently discussed with Steve Weinman of Celticsblog, who had inquired about Kapono’s lack of production, especially from 3-point range. I explained that while we at the HQ thought Mitchell should be doing more to get Kapono involved offensively, the move of Jose into the starting line-up, the lack of CB4 and Jason’s porous defense had all been factors in Kap-One’s underachievement.

3) TJ Ford’s breakdown: While Ford’s outburst might have come at the worst time for Toronto during their match against Utah, in retrospect, maybe it came at the right time during the season. In many ways, Ford has nowhere to go but up now in terms of his play and as the saying goes, "better now than later." Imagine if this little psychotic break came during the first round of the playoffs?

In fact the whole Ford incident got me wondering if as Raptors’ fans, we should have seen this coming or if this was an isolated incident born out of frustration. I asked Brett from The Bratwurst to give us his take having watched Ford during his first few seasons in the league:


The Bratwurst: TJ Ford is a pretty perplexing guy to figure out. I always felt he got a bit of a bad rap in Milwaukee, and was stuck in a system that wasn't so good for him while being a little slow to blossom because of the injuries.

-- By dominating from the beginning of his career, Chris Paul has made life tough on lots of point guards. Paul is the only one since Magic Johnson to become a superstar from day one, and that has totally obscured the fact that it normally takes point guards anywhere from 1-5 years to reach their peak.

Since Ford missed 1 1/2 years with the Bucks, he's only played 3 1/2 seasons now. He still could have a real leap left in his game, but that's the problem with point guards -- sometimes you have to wait until they are 27 years old to find out.

-- Last year I felt that the improvements on Ford's statistics were more a factor of him being on a better team with more athletic team-mates rather than him playing much better. I don't mean that as a knock on Ford -- I mean that he was better in Milwaukee than he got credit for. Last year the only part of his game that really improved statistically was his assist rate, and I think a big part of that was having quicker team-mates instead of him doing anything differently. This year however, Ford has definitely been better overall. If you go by per-minute numbers (and he hadn't been hurt) he should have been an all-star this year.

-- I always felt Ford got a bad rap defensively because at his size he can't help but get made to look bad a couple of times a game. But he tries hard, can stay in front of some tough covers, and gets his share of steals.

-- It's always fun to read message boards about Ford. Someone will say that he shoots too much and goes 1-on-5 and the next person will say he doesn't shoot enough. He's a tough player to figure out, and most posters don't really know what they are talking about but instead look at a couple of bad plays and just second-guess him. So he doesn't have the floor vision of Jason Kidd. So what? Ford is a high-pressure player whose helter-skelter style will sometimes look spectacular and sometimes look awful. That's who he is. Even the biggest Ford basher among the Raptor fans has to admit that sometimes he can be unstoppable. Sometimes Ford is the best player on the floor. Not many players can do that, and only the LeBron's and MJ's can do it every night.

-- I think that the Raptors fan-base should save themselves the energy of debating Calderon vs. Ford because I think the Raps are keeping both of them unless Calderon gets a ridiculous offer from someone (like Seattle). With Ford's neck problem cropping up again this year, I don't think many GM's would offer anything of value for him even if he is playing like an all-star this year. Not only is there the risk of something horrible happening to him, but what if he tries to change his game to lessen his injury risk and can't do it effectively? Even though TJ is a far superior player to Mo Williams right now would the Bucks swap the two? Because of the injury risk, absolutely not.

Here's the bottom line:

The Bucks with TJ: two years, two playoff appearances

The Bucks with TJ injured: one year, no playoffs

The Bucks post-TJ: two years, no playoffs

The Raptors with TJ: two years, two playoffs

It would be nice if instead of complaining about TJ's streakiness, Raptors fans would realize what they have: an embarrassment of riches at the point guard spot.


TJ Ford - Whether in Milwaukee or Toronto the paradox continues...
TJ Ford - Whether in Milwaukee or Toronto the paradox continues...

Sort of puts things in perspective doesn’t it?

I was watching highlights of old games last night while waiting for the NIT to begin and realized that it was only a few years ago that Raptors’ fans were dealing with Milt Palacio and the revolving door of back-up point guards like Omar Cook and Rick Brunson.

(Shudder.)

And really, as much as TJ has been a problem lately, the team needs him playing at the top of his game to reach their potential so there’s not much we as fans can do but hope he turns the corner starting tonight.

Also from Brett’s thoughts on TJ Ford, I found it interesting that he touched on how most point guards take longer in the league to take that next step. We saw it with Steve Nash, Tony Parker, Chauncey Billups and various other members of the NBA elite at the 1. Not everyone comes into the league a Chris Paul, Jason Kidd or even a Deron Williams.

And with that I turn back to Rafer Alston.

Houston’s incredible win streak was snapped last night by the Celtics in a defensive struggle but it’s been interesting to see Alston’s development this season. I’m not sure if it is the result of a new coach, new system, his off-season wake-up calls, or just reaching a certain level of maturity at last but Alston has been a key reason for Houston’s success this year.

I’m guessing it’s a combination of factors including playing on a team that has found the right mix of talent and chemistry. It’s easy to look at the Rockets, especially minus Yao Ming, and say that they aren’t favoured in the West the way teams like the Mavericks, Spurs, Suns or Lakers are but a lot of that has to do with star power. Shane Battier, Luis Scola, Chuck Hayes and the aforementioned Alston don’t raise too many eyebrows compared to their other Western Conference brethren (and ironically, T-Mac may now be underrated compared to the Kobes and Carmellos of the wild west) but this squad is getting it done and Rafer is helping to lead the way.

So can TJ do the same?

There’s no question he can, but first Ford needs to let go of his ego a bit and accept that he’s coming off the bench for the rest of the season. He also needs to realize that his actions on the court, from what appears to be a "sour grapes" demeanour to his tendencies to play too much one-on-five, reverberate on to his team-mates. Michael Grange touched on this as well this morning via Leo Rautins on his new Team Canada blog.

However once TJ realizes he needs to set aside these problems, or channel his ego and competitive juices in a different manner (like harassing J-Will and Marcus Banks tonight) then hopefully he can become that strategic assassin much like Houston’s Alston has become.

Can TJ and the Raptors channel some team play from Rafer and the Rockets?

Can TJ and the Raptors channel some team play from Rafer and the Rockets?

In fact this entire Raptors’ team should look to the Rockets for inspiration. Houston individually isn’t the most talented in the West, but one that plays as a unit better than most and does a great job executing both on offense and defense.

The Raptors need to do this tonight so let’s get to our three keys:

1) Get off to a good start. Not much surprise that this is the first key. The Raps did this against the Jazz but more as a result of Utah’s horrid shooting display than Toronto’s spectacular defense. Toronto has the chance tonight though to really put the clamps down on Miami, a team with a terrific six and 26 record on the road, and start rebuilding some playoff momentum. Bosh’s return at the ACC should fuel a Toronto team that’s been looking for an emotional boost and I expect the Dinos to come out gangbusters.

2) Team play. We’ve witnessed a lot of "these few guys played well" over the last five games but have not seen a complete team effort probably since Toronto last played Miami. Here’s hoping for a repeat tonight as players like Delfino and Bargnani (assuming he plays) need to get back to playing consistent basketball to really give this club a lift. There’s no better time than tonight for this to happen as Miami is currently relying on fringe D-Leaguers like Bobby Jones, Chris Quinn, Joel Anthony, Earl Barron and Daequan Cook for most of their minutes. If the Raps can’t take advantage of these types, I’ll be left wondering who the real lottery bound team is.

3) Sam Mitchell. As much as TJ Ford needs to check his ego at the door a bit for the rest of the season, Mitchell needs to do a much better job of using Ford in strategic fashions. That means a quick hook if the one-on-five TJ starts to emerge, and a complete benching if he’s unable to control his emotions. Mitchell also needs to make sure Bosh doesn’t have to play too many minutes tonight and ensures that CB4 works himself back in slowly.

Also, I’m curious to see who gets the starting nod tonight at the 5. In my opinion Rasho deserves the spot with his recent consistent play, but who knows what Sam decides to do. Most likely, Andrea, if his nose is ok, will be back to tip things off but if he continues to struggle, and the Raptors need to get wins, I’m not sure Mitchell won’t shake things up a bit.

A final note: For all who haven’t joined yet but wish to do so, keep in mind that you have only about 24 hours to join the HQ’s NCAA pool!

Head to Yahoo.com’s fantasy tournament pick’em site,

http://tournament.fantasysports.yahoo.com/t1

click on "join a group," enter the group ID 85910 with a password of beasley and make your picks. We’ll be discussing some of the "players to watch" in the tourney from a Raptors’ standpoint in our recap tomorrow morning.

FRANCHISE