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

Toronto takes on the Matrix' former team while rumours of his impending arrival swirl...

Toronto takes on the Matrix' former team while rumours of his impending arrival swirl...

A loss this afternoon to the Phoenix Suns would put the Toronto Raptors’ record at 16 and 26.

Just for discussion sake, the 2004-05 version of these same Raptors, yes, a team that boasted a starting line-up of Rafer Alston, Morris Peterson, Jalen Rose, Chris Bosh and Rafael Araujo and which finished with 33 wins on the season, they actually found themselves with an 18 and 24 record at this same point in the season.

And the 2005-06 club, one which featured Mike James and a roster almost completely void of talent, they were only two games behind and sat with a 14 and 28 record at this time.

Which I think is what makes this season so frustrating.

This team is obviously more talented than either of these previous incarnations however has struggled as much or more so far this season.

Yes, injuries have taken their toll but this is a team which features more fourth quarter comebacks that fall short, and more fourth quarter or second half choke jobs than I care to remember.

And while the talent level obviously needs to be improved, it’s frustrating to not see this club at least toiling around the .500 mark and fighting for a final playoff spot. After Friday night’s putrid loss to the Pacers, that last spot is looking further and further away and suddenly there doesn’t seem to be much light at the end of the tunnel.

Howland in his preview Friday looked at two camps with Camp A being the optimistic one featuring the belief that it’s still not too late for this team to get it together. I was in that camp up until Toronto’s loss to the Bulls as even though this still looked like a .500 club to me, I couldn’t fathom them being worse than the Heat and Nets record-wise when all was said and done.

However with the recent losses to Milwaukee, Chicago and Indiana, there’s been a steady stream of folks vacating camp A and heading for camp B, which now appears to have a new camp counselor – Bryan Colangelo.

BC, adamant earlier this season in his stance that this was a good team and one that just needed some time, seems to have backed off from that stance and is reportedly involved in heavy trade talks with the Miami Heat. The whispers that continue to grow in volume are that Miami would send Shawn Marion and Marcus Banks to Toronto for Jermaine O’Neal in a deal that would keep both team’s salary situations intact, and address important needs for both clubs.

For Toronto, obviously the hope would be that Marion would finally give the Raptors some help at the 3 spot, both on the defensive side and offensively. The Raps have been killed all season again by opposing wings and Marion’s defense and athleticism would be a welcome addition. Banks would be a salary throw-in but he might even be an upgrade over Will Solomon (which is somewhat of a scary statement.)

For the Heat, Michael Beasley’s improved play of late and the team’s desperate need for a legit 5-man makes Marion more expendable although ESPN.com this morning is reporting that GM Pat Riley wants to see Jermaine in a few more games before pulling the trigger on such a deal. He’s looking at several options for the Heat and if isn’t convinced of JO’s health, may look to move on one of these instead.

So how does the HQ feel about such a deal?

Both Howland and I would give the thumbs up on it without a doubt. Andrea Bargnani’s play has made O’Neal somewhat expendable, although a healthy JO willing to come off the bench would still be a huge defensive boost to this club, and Marion would represent a huge upgrade over Toronto’s current crop of 3’s. However Howland is more keen on this then I, as my hope would be for Colangelo to turn O’Neal’s deal into a few additional pieces that would be sticking around for next season, something there’s no guarantee Marion will do. That’s why I’d love one of the variations of the Portland trade I’d proposed, which by acquiring Raef LaFrentz’s expiring contract, would still give TO plenty of room to work with next summer under the salary cap.

However one way or another, I really believe that it’s this summer, not next that Colangelo now needs to make a splash if he wants to keep Bosh. The club needs major help and if he can make a trade to get momentum going again and finish the season off on a high note, then add some quality talent this off-season via the draft and free-agency, then he’s done all he can to set the club up for a successful 2009-2010 season.

Of course more wins is the key here both to end this season, and for the next and that’s why regardless of trade talk, the Raptors need to get back to their play over a week ago against clubs like Orlando and Houston.

This afternoon’s match features a tough Phoenix Suns team and

1) RaptorsHQ: The top question of course is about fellow Canadian Steve Nash. Do you think he'll bolt when his contract expires? And actually, do you think Phoenix will even entertain the notion of keeping him at that point considering his age etc?

Bright Side of the Sun: It was 70 degrees in Phoenix today. And sunny. I think it was -62 in Toronto. What would you do?

Honestly, I kind of don't care at this point. He's not going anywhere this year and when you are lead by aging stars like Nash and Shaq and Hill you just take it one season at a time. The Suns are good this year and should be focused on improving the team and going into the playoff's playing well.

I'll leave the 2010 speculation to Spike Lee.

2) RaptorsHQ: Talk to us a bit about Shaq this year. He's sat out a few matches, but between his free-throw shooting and offensive rebirth, is this version of Shaq as good or better than the title-winning version in Miami? Can he take this team as presently past his nemesis Kobe and the Lakers?

Bright Side of the Sun: Turns out that the fountain of youth wasn't in Florida after all but in fact as the ancient Native American's always knew is the juice from the barrel cactus flower. That and a decent training staff (which the Indian's also understood) is the difference from Miami.

Is he better than in Miami? Probably. Maybe. But there's no doubt that he's surrounded by better players. That Miami team won in a year in which the general level of play was down all over. Right now, there are so many good teams out there...Well, at least out West here.

Sure, the Suns can beat the Lakers in a 7 game series. It's just highly unlikely given how deep Los Angeles is and how well they are playing. I do think that there's a very good chance that the Suns can be right there as the 2nd or 3rd best team in the West and best case would lose to LA in the WCF.

3) RaptorsHQ: Keys to Sunday's game. What does Phoenix have to do to get the W?

Bright Side of the Sun: Well, I can't say I follow the Raps that close so as far as specific matchups and schemes I'm not going to give you much of an answer. I do know that Shaq will likely not play Sunday since he will play Friday and the Suns are in Boston on Monday. Amare has not been playing well at all lately so assuming the Raps don't just fold then it will take a solid effort by him along with staying true to the inside out game.

Even without Shaq the Suns are able to get mismatches in the paint with JRich, Hill and Barnes and used that to control tempo and get high % shots.

That worked against Denver in the first half then they proceeded to shoot themselves out of the game by launching (and missing 3's) which lead to long rebounds and fast break points. Of course, the Raps aren't nearly as good as Denver so we might get away with that too.

The Suns are playing well with improving defense and much more consistent effort each night. Offensively, there are so many weapons that it is very, very hard to hold the Suns to under 100 even on a poor shooting night.

A big thanks to Stan for that.

One things’ for certain, one Marion deal isn’t going to replace the sub-par performances of the likes of Moon and Kapono of late so starting this afternoon against Phoenix, the team needs to get back to tough interior defence, getting out in transition and attacking, and taking better care of the ball...incidentally, our three keys:

1) Keep Phoenix out of the paint.

This could prove to be a monumental task if Shaquille O’Neal plays this afternoon. Between he and Amare, the club boasts one of the most physically imposing front-lines in the league. As Phoenix Stan mentioned, even if O'Neal is a no-go, add in the athletic scoring of Jason Richardson and Grant Hill and suddenly the "points in the paint" category looms large as a key. Up until recently however, Jay Triano’s team had done a superb job of limiting scoring on the interior and made giants like Yao Ming and Dwight Howard work for everything they got while being unable to get the rest of their team involved. This is huge this afternoon for the Raps as if the Suns start dominating inside and on the glass, it’s going to be extremely tough to come away with a W.

Bargs might have to do a lot of the heavy lifting for Triano this afternoon against the Suns.

Bargs might have to do a lot of the heavy lifting for Triano this afternoon against the Suns.

2) Stay aggressive.

One of the most disappointing things about the recent losses to Chicago and Indiana was the team’s effort early on. In both games Toronto swarmed back to nearly get the win, but as fans, you had to ask yourself where that effort and intensity was early on when the team needed it most? This has been a trend far too often this season and it’s therefore important the club starts strong this afternoon. It also means not settling for contested jumpers but getting out on the break and attacking a Suns team that has lost their last two.

3) Take care of the ball.

Turnovers were a major problem for the Dinos on Friday night and have generally been an issue since Jose Calderon went down with his hamstring injury. Jose tried to give it a go in practice yesterday so I’m guessing he’ll be a game-time decision this afternoon. If he can’t go, I do not want to see Anthony Parker having to play the 1 again. Yes, Solomon and Roko are essentially two third-stringers who have been thrown into a starters role but both simply need to play better. No forcing the issue, no playing outside of your means; just keep things simple and execute. If they can’t do this, there’s some guy named Steve Nash who’s going to take advantage of every Raptor miscue and that might find fans switching over to the NFL playoffs much sooner than they hoped.

FRANCHISE