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3 in the Key – Toronto Raptors Playoff Preview vs. Magic

The Raptors preparation last match left Keith Bogans feeling like he was back at KU...

The Raptors preparation last match left Keith Bogans feeling like he was back at KU...

Are the Toronto Raptors dead in the water?

It’s funny, but after their game one loss, that was the main tone around the work water coolers when discussing the Dinos.

And it’s hard for me to go against this feeling in many ways, mostly because I picked the Magic to win this series in five games.

However a bad loss to start a series shouldn’t mean the end of the world. After being upset by the 76ers on Sunday night, I doubt Detroit feels that they are down for the count. And Toronto, for all their defensive deficiencies, still can put points on the board and create mismatches in several areas – all things that can get them back in this series.

The key though is for them to actually go out and do it.

For all the pre and post-game talk about "adjusting to this," and "doing more of this," the bottom line is that Raptors’ fans have witnessed a team that hasn’t performed up to their abilities over the past two months. The club has been more of one resembling that last sliver of soap in the shower; a team swirling aimlessly and threatening to go down the drain at any minute.

It’s one thing to be in a series and simply be over-matched (as is the current situation facing the Atlanta Hawks versus the Boston Celtics.)

It’s entirely another to simply not meet your opponent head-on with a similar level of preparedness and competitive spirit.

And I think that’s what really worries me more than anything else in this series.

Here we have two very similar teams; both built on a dominant inside presence flanked by some of the best long-range shooters in the league.

However one team came out and shot the ball like they WERE the best shooters in the league, the other, Toronto, seemed to be learning what a basketball was for the first time.

Be it lack of confidence or lack of preparation, the Raptors looked like they could use a hearty dose of both on Sunday. If the Orlando Magic represented the kids who took the CFA prep class all year, the Raptors were much more like my former roommate the Big Chill, doing tequila shots at a party the night before his exam.

Don’t get me wrong, it was a fun party.

But you can’t expect to pass the test or make it past the first round if you’re not prepared and confident that you know your stuff.

So here’s my Sam Mitchell rant.

As fans, it should really be frustrating that our club looks to be the least-prepared of all the teams in the playoffs. That’s what the entire season was for, preparing for this stage of the NBA schedule. Instead we’re left with a club that has some nice pieces, but that after 83 games, still hasn’t figured out how to make them work cohesively. And a large chunk of the blame for this "non-cohesion" has to fall in the lap of Sam Mitchell.

Regardless of changing line-ups at the last minute, something that may not have been such a "last minute move" one of our reader’s noted via Eric Smith’s blog, Mitchell just isn’t inspiring a lot of confidence based on his team’s play. I can’t think of a single occasion this year when he designed an effective counter to something the other team is doing.

Contrast that with Mo Cheeks, who matter-of-factly stated that his 76ers planned to guard Rasheed Wallace with Samuel Dalembert, enticing the Pistons to focus on that mismatch. Sheed got his, but it took the rest of the Pistons out of rhythm. Detroit isn’t a team that has one single player who can break you down off the bounce, they rely on a cohesive starting five that executes their offence through a series of cuts, rotations and ball movements. With the ball going into the post and Rasheed trying to take advantage of the mismatch, that movement stopped. Stats don’t lie and if you want to see just how effective Mo Cheeks’ game-plan was, check the shooting percentages for the rest of the Pistons starting five.

Of course Detroit will make adjustments for game two but the point here is that I’ve yet to see Mitchell pour the proverbial salt on his opponents' exposed wounds. And considering how similar Toronto and Orlando are in terms of style of play, it makes it that much more crucial for Sam to do a better job of exposing Orlando’s weaknesses than Orlando does of exposing those of his own club.

But this doesn’t all fall on Mitchell. I liked the move to put Andrea on Hedo (although like Howland said post-game, it probably should have come in the first quarter instead of suddenly sitting Moon on the bench to start the game) and I still do for the rest of the series. However Bargnani has to show that he’s more of an offensive threat than Jamario Moon tonight and that has nothing to do with Sam. I think I’d prefer to have Toronto go big at the 3, 4 and 5 positions to help out against Dwight but besides getting the correct match-ups, this team needs to show a lot more confidence in its own abilities.

The problem is, that lack of confidence has been present for almost two months now, and it’s extremely hard from a psychological stand-point to just turn up the confidence level at this point in time...especially if you’re rolling into the playoffs having beaten only lottery bound teams and having lost many more games than you’ve won over the past while.

So here are my three keys for tonight, starting with the confidence issue:

1) Back to Square One. The word post-practice yesterday was that the Raptors spent a good deal of time working on some of the on-court issues they failed to deal with in Sunday afternoon’s match. I’m hoping though that the team spent a good deal of time in the video room as well; not looking solely at footage from recent matches versus the Magic though, but looking at some of the great moments from the team, this season and last. This team had a winning mentality last year, and somehow they need to recapture that feeling. Really, the team is not that much different in terms of personnel this season so Sam Mitchell and co. need to press upon the players just how good they can be. Show some key winning moments at the end of close games, show some dunks, blocked shots, forced shot clock violations due to tough D and get this team inspired to perform.

This also means trying to forget this past season and Game 1 and start fresh. Do what you do best both as individuals and as a team! That means TJ getting into the paint and creating havoc with his herky-jerky style, Bosh burning defenders for not guarding him away from the basket, Jose turning the corner to hit open shots, attack the rim or find open shooters, Jason Kapono coming off of screens for open looks, etc, etc. Orlando is not unbeatable, Toronto just needs to remember how potent they can be.

Do the Raptors need a team of sports psychologists on staff right now?

Do the Raptors need a team of sports psychologists on staff right now?

2) CB4 Time. The next key tonight for me is Chris Bosh. Bosh played hard on Sunday, and was perfect from the free-throw line, but he needs to take things to another level tonight. Sam Mitchell and his staff need to get Bosh in better positions to score the ball but Bosh needs to put this club on his shoulders right now. (Especially since he's taken back the blame he seemed to lay on Mitchell and his staff.) He’s by far the team’s best player, and a superior performance could set the tone for the rest of the Raptors. You saw Lebron James do it again last night if you watched game two of the Cavs-Wizards series, and Tim Duncan, Chris Paul, Deron Williams and Steve Nash have all done the same thing recently. Even the much-maligned Tracy McGrady did all he could to try and draw his Rockets even with the Jazz last night. Bosh hasn’t shown that he can take over games in the post-season yet and tonight would be a great time to start.

3) Play Smart. One of the most infuriating things about this Toronto Raptors club is their decision making at times. Whether it’s unnecessary double-teams, lack of understanding of in-game situations, or simply not following the scouting report when guarding certain players, Toronto just doesn’t always get it. Viewers saw far too many examples of this again on Sunday and I’m sure these aren’t things that Sam Mitchell has never mentioned in practice. So let’s start seeing some focus, especially on the defensive end! If Toronto can keep Jameer Nelson on the perimeter shooting jumpers instead of in the paint finding open shooters, that’s a huge first step. And keeping Hedo in a shooting role instead of a facilitator is a big step two. Some board-work on Howard as step three would be nice but even some smart play in those first two areas will go a long way towards a win.

It’s Game 2 tonight, Magic versus Raptors and nope, they ain't dead yet.

But we’ll find out in about 10 hours whether the 06-07 Raptors showed up, or if this year’s version is still in the driver’s seat…