Can we petition the NBA league office to have them re-start the season beginning January 1, 2009? After a brutal schedule in the first third of the season the Raptors are now in the midst of easily their easiest month of competition thus far. The schedule makers have set out a much more appealing slate of games in terms of wins and loss to start 2009 including games against the Kings, Pacers, Wizards and tonight's match-up the Memphis Grizzlies.
Of course if these were all guaranteed wins then the teams wouldn't have to play the games would they?
Having started the new year on the right foot, Andrea Bargnani in particular, the Raptors will be looking to continue to build off their recent successes against teams like Orlando, Houston and the Wizards before heading into what is arguably the biggest two games of the season with a back-to-back home-and-home series beginning Sunday against a Boston Celtics team that is reeling right now.
In reality this game against the Grizz is much more than beating a team you should beat, but also building confidence and preparing for what lies ahead. The next three games will really determine whether the Raps are going to climb out of the hole they have created for themselves and whether they can battle back into contention. If the Raps lose to the Grizzlies and then get swept by Boston they will be a whopping 9 games under .500 and if that happens it will take a small miracle to save this season. On the flip side if the Raps can go 2-1 then the team can really start feeling better about itself as it will have gone 5-2 to start off 2009 and possibly getting back to .500 won't be totally out of the question.
Of course before the Boston match-up the Raps really need to take care of business against the Grizzlies at home.
Make no mistake about it, this Memphis team, despite it's less than stellar record, has talent. Rudy Gay, OJ Mayo and Kyle Lowry are all young players who can go off offensively on any given night and Marc Gasol has been a pleasant surprise up front.
Despite so few wins this season the Grizz have managed to beat the Mavs, Magic and Rockets. This team has the talent to win, but like most young teams, they have not learned how to win on a consistent basis, in particular on the road where the Grizzlies are one of the worst road teams in the league having won just twice away from the FedEx Forum.
Nevertheless this game could still be a challenge for the Raps. As witnessed against the Wizards, these shorthanded Raptors don't have enough fire-power to blow a team out regardless of how poorly their opponents are playing. The Raps have also had a tendency to let teams get back into games. This could prove to be very detrimental against a young group of players hungry for any win they can find, which leads us to our three keys for this Friday night affair:
1.Hot Start - Any time a team has a bad record on the road the first key for the home team is to get off to a hot start and this match-up is no different. The Raps absolutely must jump on the Grizzlies right away and it should be the Bosh/Bargnani combo leading the way. As mentioned the Grizzlies have a solid back-court but outside of Gasol are thin up-front. Bosh and Bargnani must quickly establish dominance over the likes of Arthur and Warrick. If the Raps can get out to a solid early lead the Grizz will be forced to look to the three ball which is a weakness on this squad. If the Raps do manage to get out to a hot start they must continue to be aggressive on both the offensive and defensive end when the Grizz undoubtedly make their run.
2.Third Options- As much as the focus defensively will be on Gay and Mayo, keep an eye on the likes of Warrick and Lowry. Mayo and Gay will get their shots and can fill it up, but the Raps need to ensure that no-one else for the Grizz get's hot with both Warrick and Lowry being prime candidate. Both Lowry and Warrick are talented offensively but are equally as inconsistent. On the flip side the Raps will need someone like Joey Graham or Anthony Parker to step it up on the offensive end which will not only alleviate the burden on Bosh and Bargnani but force the Grizzlies scorers to spend energy on the defensive end.
3.The Home Crowd - I for one have been very disappointed with the crowds at Raptors games this year. One moment fans are chanting "MVP" when CB4 is at the line and the next they are booing the team off the floor. Neither the boo's nor the MVP chant are deserved and frankly it's a bit embarrassing as it makes a well informed fan base look stupid. This is one of those games where the fans will be key. Should the Raps get up on the Grizz the fans need to push the team to keep the pedal to the metal when Memphis undoubtedly makes a run. Further, if the Raps do fall behind the fans can't turn on the home team, doing so could be crippling given the match-ups ahead. For those attending the game please keep this in mind.