The back-to-back losses against the Boston Celtics were heartbreaking. So much effort, so much determination, yet the team has little to show for its performance. It’s true that there are many positives to take from the last couple of games, but the harsh reality of it all is that the past two losses have essentially wiped out the Raps solid start to 2009. The Raps are now 4 and 6 in their last ten and remain on the outside of the play-off race looking in.
The past two games really had a playoff feel to them. The atmosphere during both games was electric, the game play was physical and both teams really got after it. For the Celtics this type of match-up is a regular occurrence as every other team in the league is looking to knock off the defending champ and make a statement. For the Raps, these types of games are the exception rather than the rule and that is what makes me nervous about tonight’s match-up against a team in turmoil like the Chicago Bulls.
The Bulls, a game and a half up on the Raptors in the standings, are a team searching for an identity and a team with many issues. I mean where do you begin when trying to describe the mess in Chicago? Everyone in the league knows that the Bulls would deal Larry Hughes for the two scoops of raisins in a package of Kellogg’s Raisin Bran but yet can’t find a taker, Ben Gordon is playing for Ben Gordon, the injury bug has taken its toll (re: Luol Deng and Harry Potter who have now returned), Mr. Noah is becoming a prima donna, Tyrus Thomas is more of an enigma than the Andrea Bargnani from two weeks ago, Coach Del Negro seems to be loosing more control by the day and rookie sensation Derrick Rose is being exposed to all of this. The scary part is all of this is just the tip of the ice-berg.
Knowing all of this it’s a little easier being a Toronto Raptors fan. The Raptors franchise has its issues but somehow they pale in comparison to the circus in Chicago. One thing these teams do have in common is that they both lose to the Oklahoma City Thunder, the Bulls loss coming just a few short days ago.
Now losing to the Bulls wouldn’t be the same thing as losing to the Thunder, but it is pretty darn close. The Raps have shown now that they can compete with the best. They have not beaten the best, but they can compete. If the Raps can keep the level of intensity high, then beating the Bulls should not be that difficult of a task. The real question is then, "Can the Raps keep up the intensity?"
I think it would only be natural for the Raps to let their guard down after the past two games and consequently play down to their competition. In some ways I actually expect to the Raps to start off sluggish based on recent history. The reality is playing down to the competition is something the Raps have done a lot all season. It’s also true to say that the elite franchises in the league don’t. Playing down to one’s competition is not in the make-up of the likes of the Cavs, Spurs, Celtics etc. These teams know they are better, play to a certain standard and let the results speak for themselves.
Some have suggested that the Raps have shown that they are ready to turn the corner. I for one think we will get a real sense of whether that is true tonight. If the Raps come out a play like they did the past few games and handle their business on home court with relative ease then yes, perhaps this team is ready to turn the corner and start climbing its way back into contention. If the team struggles and fails to do away with the Bulls however, I think all the "corner turning" conversation should quickly come to an end.
So what do the Raps need to do to ensure there is no Boston hang-over? Here are tonight’s three keys:
1. Rebounding: There is really very little that can be said about the Bulls front-court that would be considered positive. Any time your best player up front is a career journeyman (Gooden) you know there is little to get excited about. If there is one thing the bigs for the Bulls can do however is rebound. Noah, Thomas and even Aaron Gray are all effective rebounders who can create second chance opportunities for players like Ben Gordon. If the Raps want to secure the W they need to limit second chance points and really get after it on the glass. Another solid rebounding performance by Andrea Bagnani would go a long way but the guys I will be watching are Moon and Joey Graham. Moon only had 1 rebound on Monday in 22 minutes of action and Graham only grabbed 3. Both players need to make concerted efforts to get on the glass.
2. Stop Penetration: If you watched the post-game interview with CB4 yesterday he essentially called out Will Solomon for double teaming at the worst imaginable time leaving Paul Pierce wide open for a three. If there is one thing the Raps don’t need to do much of in this game it’s double team in the post. The emphasis for the Raps defensively has to be preventing dribble penetration and focusing on the point of attack aka Derrick Rose. The Raps need to man-up, trap on occasion and force the ball out of Rose’s hands. Help rotations will be key but this should be easier without having to double.
3. Get Physical: The Bulls are slowly getting healthy as Deng and Hinrich are both back and looking to get into the flow once again. The onus will be on the Raps to make both of these guys as uncomfortable as possible and prevent both of them from getting into a groove. The Raps need to play physical with both of these guys. Hard fouls and picks will hopefully force these guys to shy away from contact and take ill-advised jump shots. Neither player is fond of contact if the Raps bring the game to the Bulls the results should be positive.
NOTE: This weeks blogger Power Rankings can be found here.