This is it.
Last game of the pre-season.
Last chance to use the old "oh, these games don't count" excuse.
The Raptors take on the Minnesota Timberwolves tonight to conclude their pre-season experience; one which has been met with mixed reviews.
On one hand, there's the record of course, an unpleasant two wins and five losses. On the other, the hope that the real goal of the pre-season has been realized, that is to say, the team has used these past few weeks to learn Jay Triano's offensive and defensive schemes, while acclimatizing themselves to each other on and off the court.
The reality is that until we start seeing some real action, no one really knows just how the latter has gone, and so as fans, we're stuck with looking at the former. And unfortunately as some have recently pointed out, so far team's pre-season records seem to be a good indication of how they'll do come regular season. The hope is that the Raptors are the exception to this rule.
And why not?
After all, the Denver Nuggets, a team expected to challenge for a top spot in the West, would miss the playoffs based on their current 3 and 4 record.
And in the East, the Miami Heat have equalled Toronto's record of futility as well. I don't think anyone's expecting them to finish second last in the conference (barring a major injury to Dwyane Wade of course.)
So let's put pre-season records aside and forget that tonight represents the battle of the 2 and 5 teams. Yes, Minny sits in the West's basement with the exact same record, although it could be argued that they haven't faced the same level of competition as Toronto. Instead, here are the three key points the HQ team is going to be keeping an eye on this evening:
One of the biggest areas of concern for most fans going into the season is the big D. The Raptors in the past few seasons have struggled in this area, and so far this pre-season hasn't given much reason for optimism. With Antoine Wright back at last, and considering the offensive woes of their opponent, I'm expecting to see Toronto finally show some ability in this area this evening. That means making Al Jefferson work extra hard for baskets, and keeping players like Ryan Gomes and Damien Wilkins from getting easy looks on the perimeter.
Oooh, we're hitting all the basics aren't we? The sad thing is the Dinos have only won the battle of the boards twice in pre-season play, once in their win over Washington and then last Sunday (however only 38 to 37) in their loss to Boston. Along with defence, this is probably the area that the team needs to focus on the most come regular season. The offence should get their eventually, there's too much talent for that not to happen, but this team needs to learn to become a much better rebounding team. For individuals, especially those not predisposed to the boardwork like Andrea Bargnani, that means fighting the urge to stand around when a shot goes up and instead, making it second nature to crash the glass. And on a team level, it means understanding where the rebounding threats are on the court at all times, and ensuring they don't get to loose balls.
To put it plainly, there's no way Toronto shouldn't lose the rebounding fight this evening. Kevin Love, one of the league's best rebounders already, is on the shelf for Minny due to injury, and outside of Gomes and Jefferson, there's just not a lot of rebounding muscle.
3) Cohesive Play.
Not only is there a lack of rebounding prowess on Minny, there's simply a lack of talent and Toronto should be able to win this game without too much trouble. In my estimate, the Timberwolves are going to be fighting it out with the Jersey's and Sacto's for the league's worst record this year, and that's with Kevin Love.
So instead of worrying about match-ups (unless for some twisted reason you're pumped to see the Corey Brewer- Sonny Weems, or Oleksiy Pecherov-Andrea Bargnani contests), let's see this Raptor squad start to put some of the pieces together out there. Fast-breaks, good ball rotation, nice cuts to the hoop...all those things that have been trademarks of the Raps' offence in years past when things were going well. I'm suddenly expecting to see a blur of 3-man weaves tonight for easy looks, but it would be nice in the team's final match to start showing some signs that they're on the right track.
And again, especially considering their opponent.
No excuses, it's time to see this Raptor team make like Big Daddy Kane, and get the job done.