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

Franchise is ready to see TJ on a new team next year...but for now just wants the Raptors to start winning...

Franchise is ready to see TJ on a new team next year...but for now just wants the Raptors to start winning...

"It's the playoffs, you don't want to struggle but the reality is, I am struggling…I've just got to find a way to get through it."

That was a quote from our good friend TJ Ford post-practice yesterday; a completely honest self-evaluation from a player who hasn’t always been able to critique himself accordingly.

And while it’s good to hear that TJ acknowledges his on-court struggles, I just don’t care anymore.

I tried to look at both sides of the fence with Ford in many a past article, but his play this series has put the final nail in the proverbial coffin for me concerning his time with the Raptors…and here’s why.

In the past, I chastised Ford for his MeJ-esque play at times and his demeanour on the court. However I also understood that as a supremely competitive player, and one who played with a slight chip on his shoulder his whole career (inevitable for a player his size), Ford was going to try and do too much at times. The good and bad usually balanced out in the past and often I saw more good than bad in his play. Yes he settled for a fade-away jumper early in the shot clock…but there he was on the next play, getting into the passing lane, stealing the ball, racing down court and drawing a key foul. As a great free-throw shooter, he was the one player besides Chris Bosh who Raptors’ fans could count on to put points on the board with the clock stopped. It was this uber-competitive nature that made him go right back at a player who had beaten him on a previous possession, and that fiery nature keyed many a victory in the absence of Chris Bosh both last season, and earlier in this one.

However that fire has gone out.

So far this series, time and time again I’ve witnessed a much less-talented player in Jameer Nelson, get around Ford at will while TJ seems to simply be content to be on the floor. Nelson is a bulldog no doubt, and another player who’s had to play with a chip his whole career due to his size, but there’s no way he should be dominating Ford the way he has been. Nelson is scoring at will over Ford, and on the other side of things, TJ has been completely held in check offensively by Jameer.

It’s just not what I expected.

I expected to see Ford darting in and out of traffic creating chaos for Nelson. And if Ford got beat defensively, I expected on the next possession to see TJ’s competitiveness kick in so that he would be all over Nelson like Jack Armstrong on a pint of Guiness.

But that hasn’t been the case. I could always have some level of understanding if Ford's on-court errors were the result of his desire to win games...but when that drive has been replaced with complacency, I can no longer attempt to explain his play.

Ford just looks to have lost that desire to compete and that has to be a huge concern for both Sam Mitchell and Bryan Colangelo going forward.

It’s way too early to talk off-season transactions of course (although Howland did suggest an interesting Ford to the Blazers idea when I spoke to him last night) but we can talk line-up changes and right now, Jose needs to be the starting point guard for this team.

Mitchell has admitted there will be some line-up changes tonight but he’s kept his cards close to his chest once again. It’s assumed that he’ll trot out Anthony Parker, Jason Kapono, Andrea Bargnani and Chris Bosh and probably TJ Ford. Ford of course hardly deserves the starting nod, but Mitchell knows that if he brings Ford off the bench, a role that Ford’s made clear doesn’t suit him, it could spell even more trouble for the Raps. To that point Mitchell stated yesterday after practice:

"Jose has proven he can come off the bench and give us something," Mitchell said. "If we do that [sit Ford] and Jose struggles, where do I go?"

It’s clear though that Toronto simply can not afford another horrendous first quarter, especially at home, and if Nelson starts getting into the paint early, I expect we’ll see Ford get the quick hook.

What really frustrates me is that if we had Ford playing at the top of his game, this would probably be a much different series. His ability to get to the line and draw fouls is something this team really misses and it could have been a huge advantage in a tight fourth quarter in game two.

Chris Bosh admitted that he took the jump shot on the last play because he didn’t get the call on the previous play but you have to wonder had Ford been throwing himself around in the paint, and had Anthony Parker been more aggressive, perhaps that would have caused the referees to loosen their whistles up. After all, time and time again we’ve seen in the league how a team’s style of play can dictate the way the game is called. In a recent chat Memphis Grizzlies forward Rudy Gay stated that he hated playing against Utah because "they force the refs to make calls." This is something Toronto needs to do a lot more of.

And was I a fan of the last play? Yes and no. Who knows what Mitchell drew up but you do have to get your best player involved on the last shot, even as a decoy of sorts. I would have preferred for Bosh to take it to the rim but as one of our readers noted, it’s extremely tough for a power forward to create his own shot in that situation. There have been plenty of times where I’ve seen someone like Tim Duncan or KG resorting to a jumper under a similar set of circumstances. The difference is, as another reader noted, with CB4 being Toronto’s best rebounder, perhaps running a play for the white-hot Jason Kapono or Jose Calderon earlier in the clock with Bosh crashing the boards might have worked better.

Enough crying over spilt milk though, let’s turn to tonight, a must-win game for the Raptors.

If Toronto wins tonight, I think all of a sudden we have a new lease on life and the series. The confidence that was lacking suddenly goes up a few notches, Orlando is forced to play again in the mad-house ACC on Saturday without any momentum, and perhaps the Raptors will have figured the Magic out.

However if Toronto loses this one, I’d say she’s over.

So let’s take a look at three keys to tonight’s game:

1) Get off to a better start. This is the most obvious key to the game. If Toronto had even kept things within about 8 to 10 points in games one and two, we might be looking at a completely different series right now. Sam Mitchell knows this, and that’s precisely why he’s been switching his starting line-up to try and find SOME combination that starts the game with some aggression. Regardless of who gets the call, they need to feed of the rabid Raps’ fans tonight and bring the intensity from the tip. Chris Bosh can’t do it alone either, this needs to be a complete effort from the starting five, and then that must be followed up by the bench group.

A big deficit for Toronto early on will negate a huge chunk of the home-court advantage, not to mention the momentum from their surge late in Game 2.

2) Stop dribble penetration. Another fairly obvious one and something the team seemed to do a better job of in the second half of game two. Everyone has been all over Dwight Howard’s performances and while the numbers have been impressive, for those who have watched the series they know that Howard hasn’t been the main issue for Toronto. A lot of his damage has been off of blown rotations, easy put-backs etc. I remember one Tim Duncanesque post move from him so far in this series. However with Toronto increasingly looking to go small, they need to keep Howard, Turkoglu and Lewis off the glass. I worry about starting small for this reason but hopefully Toronto will be able to mix and match players using their depth to take advantage of the Magic over the course of the game. While Moon has been an offensive dud, he did grab some key rebounds in traffic in the last game and I’m hoping Mitchell inserts him strategically to help out in that department. Now undersized, the Raps will need to contain players like Turkoglu and Lewis on both the perimeter and in the post.

Forget Dwight Howard, it's the Magic's size on the wings and perimeter skills that worries Franchise...

Forget Dwight Howard, it's the Magic's size on the wings and perimeter skills that worries Franchise...

3) Focus. The final key tonight I think will be focus. Which team can keep their composure in an increasingly physical setting and limit mental mistakes? Even though Toronto played much better on Tuesday night, they still had way too many mental errors at key moments. A few examples included Jason Kapono not paying attention and getting a pass from Ford off the head, Carlos Delfino carrying the ball on a post-up attempt, and even Bosh not calling time-out while falling out of bounds late in the game. For a team that has hardly played up to its potential, the margin of error tonight is incredibly small. I’m not saying we need a perfect game, but Toronto does need to execute much better than they have the past few months.

I actually think Toronto takes tonight’s game in a close-fought battle. I expect the team to come out fired up and match Orlando’s intensity with the home-crowd cheering them on.

And perhaps TJ decides to show some fight against Nelson for the first time this series as well. Then maybe the endless slew of media slights against Ford will calm down. It’s clear that unlike Nelson, Ford isn’t using them as motivational tools in this series so having to read the latest anti-Ford editorial (especially from those who used be staunch defenders of the Ford-way) is getting a slight bit tiresome.

Right now the Raptors have enough issues to deal with besides the constant swirl of TJ talk.

Right now, the Raptors need to get back in this series, TJ or not.