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Game-Day Preview vs. Timberwolves - Five Ways to Gauge the Upcoming Season

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Vicious D previews a game that has absolutely no broadcast.  No radio, no TV, no Satellite, and nothing from the Raptors or Timberwolves.  So instead, he takes a look at five points that will go towards determining this year's success or failure.  Watch for these tell-tale signs.

So I'm going to come out and apologize, but we can't very well cover a game that has absolutely no broadcast.  Unless the NBA League Pass puts it up, there's just no way any of us can make it over to Minnesota to catch the game, which means Doug Smith's live blog is just about the only place to catch the action.  However, we will have at least a box score once the final score has been determined. 

That being said, the Timberwolves will be a good test. In particular it will be interesting to "see" (I use that term loosely here) how our own point guards handle the speed and pressure of the likes of Jonny Flynn.  Chris Bosh is slated to return to the lineup for Friday, with a possibility of Antoine Wright as well.  If Chris returns, it will be interesting to see how his strength and reconditioning stack up against two fairly good post players in Kevin Love and Al Jefferson.  However, with Hedo Turkoglu still nowhere to be found (even Michael Grange was left wondering about him), the Raptors may have trouble if they continue to stuggle shooting the rock from the outside.

Oh, and my own take on pre-season so far? The roster is fun to watch and I like the fact that this team has so much depth.  Roster depth is important because if the starters aren't doing their job, the bench players are good enough to change the tempo and possibly the outcome of the game.  So far, almost every player off this bench seems to have enough talent to give us hope on those nights when the starters are off, and that's all you can really hope for from players 6-12.

We always love making predictions and trying to figure out the future of our beloved Raptors especially during the preseason.  The overhaul is now done, pre-season is well under way, and shortly we will get to see the fruits of Bryan Colangelo`s labour.  I`d imagine for Jay Triano, it`s been like getting a whole lot of new toys to play with and seeing how they fit into a new system they're implementing has been a lot of fun.  I'm already glad that Triano is choosing to tough things out and isn't going to change his philosophy. He has the confidence that the system that they're putting in is going to be strong enough against all teams in the NBA.

Nevertheless, there will be some telling signs this season as to how far the Raptors will make it this year and how successful this version of the Raptors will be for the next few years.

5.  The Battle Between DeRozan and Weems

Being a rookie is so difficult without having the added pressure of getting everyone's fried chicken dinner.  After all, DeMar DeRozan is looking at guarding some of the best the league has to offer.  On this 2009-2010 version of the Toronto Raptors, it`s hard not to look at the lineup and say that DeRozan is going to be an integral part of the Raptors going forward.  The question that needs to be answered is how quickly he can establish himself as a solid player.  The Raptors simply cannot afford to have the rookie turn into Jamario Moon from a defensive or offensive standpoint and from all accounts it seems as though DeRozan is at least picking up the defensive philosophy of this team quickly. 

But here's why DeRozan, and to a lesser degree Weems, are going to be so important.  Take away DeRozan and Weems and you have a bunch of players that can play the #2 spot but are undersized (Jack or Douby) or defensive liabilities (Belinelli).  In fact, if it wasn't for Sonny Weems showing his athleticism and defensive ability, I would have placed this point much higher in my list.  The Raptors didn't seem intent on giving Sonny Weems all that much floor time, although through pre-season play he has been a very bright spot on this roster and may have played himself up the rotation.  If the Raptors are forced into playing Weems, the Raptors will have an aggressive player in the game; one that DeRozan needs to learn from.  That being said, DeRozan has shown a larger skill set and the ability to adapt to his surroundings.  He has the potential to be a fairly special player in this league if his growth continues at a steady pace.  However, there is no question that Weems's emergence may push back DeRozan's development schedule.  If DeRozan wants to truly fight for his spot, he's going to have to be more aggressive taking the ball to the rim, work on his free throws and defend better than Weems.  How these two players push each other to become the best athletic shooting guard they can be will be telling to the Raptors' season as a whole and will give this team some much needed (and missing) athletic scoring intensity from the wing positions.

4.  Hedo's Injuries

If you were paying attention during the summer and heard that Hedo Turkoglu was playing winded and tired at the worlds, did thoughts of Jose Calderon's extended playing time with Spain flash through your brain?  When Turkoglu reported to camp with injuries, you could hear the groan come from Me, Howland, and Franchise. 

Turkoglu's presence on this team is one that the Raptors will rely heavily on.  As the major off season signing, Turkoglu will have to work hard to justify his massive contract and show something a little more than what he's previously shown the past couple of years.  Bryan Colangelo equated his signing to the signing of Steve Nash, but at the same time, Nash's conditioning is pretty much unparalleled and Nash has firmly made the commitment of playing for the Phoenix Suns above playing for Basketball Canada.  Nash is also a smaller player so the wear and tear on his body is not going to be quite the same as it is on a 6'10" player.  How long this remains a story over the year is going to determine a lot about whether Colangelo's prized acquisition lives up to Colangelo's expectations.

3.  Chemistry

Closely related to Hedo's health is the team ability to develop chemistry.  It's something we focused on at Media Day and it's something that the team acknowledges as a focal point.  It's here where you truly feel the loss of a "glue guy" like Anthony Parker.  It was reported last year that Parker was the one responsible for organizing most of the team's dinners and events.  This year, the Raptors need him (or a guy like him) more than ever with so many different new faces. Unfrotunately, Parker is now helping Cleveland become a cohesive unit.

Early indications suggest that both Jarrett Jack and Reggie Evans will be this team's glue guys and responsible for  establishing a team mentality for the bigs and smalls respectively.  Looking down the bench a little, Sonny Weems seems to be this year's Uros Slokar, being the jovial end-of-bencher.  However, chemistry on the court is going to come from some heartbreaking losses and a rough schedule.   We, as fans, have to keep perspective and what we should be looking for at the beginning of the season is the ability for the players to hold each other accountable and show improvement.  It's not a question that the Raps are going to lose games but rather how they lose that matters.  On nights where things don't go their way if they go down fighting, it'll show a lot of mental toughness that will help them in the long run.  After all, it's the long run, in particular the playoffs that matter.

2.  Play Against Mid-to-Low Level Conference Teams

I was angry last year.  It was early in the season and the Raptors just kept letting teams like Miami get back into the game even through they had built substantial leads.  Miami at the time was not a team that anyone was going to count as one of the top teams of the East and the Raptors struggled to put them away.  It was at that point that I had serious concerns about the team. 

In order to get 40+ wins, a team has to beat all the lesser talented teams, win their fair share against the average teams and be at least competitive enough with the top teams in the NBA so that they can have a chance of pulling off an upset victory.  Watching the Raptors play against the Mid-to-Low level teams of the East this year will tell us a lot about whether the Raptors are going to finish at a respectable position in the standings.  It was against those lower-tier teams where the Raptors of 2006-2007 thrived which helped them finish at the top of the Atlantic Division standings.  If the Raptors start losing or have trouble against the Knicks and Bobcats like they did last year, it's going to be another long year for us as fans.

1.  An Identity

All through camp and even at media day, the coaches have preached that a defensive philosophy of protecting "the house" will be the main focus.  Coupling that with an up-and-down play style, and you have the makings of an identity.  How quickly we see that identity emerge on the court is going to be interesting since the Raptors will have to play many top-tier teams right at the start of their schedule.  Establishing a running style against the Celtics or Cleveland, for example, is not going to be easy.  These teams have consistently punched the Raptors in the mouth and the Raptors have always been dazed by them, losing their entire focus.  We often saw the Raptors play right down to their competition, attempting to beat their competition at their own game.  If the opposition went small, the Raptors would go small.  If the other team went to a power lineup, the Raptors would attempt a power lineup.  The Raptors seldom dictated the flow of the game and even more rarely the type of basketball played.  The Raps need to commit to a particular brand of basketball. Having a true identity will be a top factor in determining how this season will end.