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

RaptorsHQ sets up tonight's match, a tough one on the road against the well-balanced Denver Nuggets...

I'm a big believer in "balance = success" in the NBA.

To me the best teams in the league have that perfect mix of O and D, and a variation of players who perform all types of functions on the court; from scoring to getting loose balls.

When the Denver Nuggets acquired Chauncey Billups last season from the Detroit Pistons, I felt that they cemented a fairly balanced group; one capable of scoring with the Lakers of the league, yet being able to bang with the Celtics as well.

And, while the team didn't make the NBA Finals, it did make it to the Western Conference's Big Dance before bowing out to the eventual NBA Champs, the Lakers.

This year, Denver already has raced out to a Northwest Division-leading 7 and 3 record, and that's in the absence of some key pieces.  The team looks just as strong as last year, if not stronger in some ways, and it's that balance that leads the charge.  Check the resume:

-Pass-first point guard who anchors the team's D?  Check - see Mr. Billups.

-Scoring wing who creates mismatches on offense?  Check - see Mr. Anthony.

-New-school athletic big-man?  Check - see Mr. Nene.

-Rugged rebounder and defender who does the dirty work?  Check - see Mr. Martin.

-Wing who can create his own shot and hit clutch baskets?  Check - see JR Smith.

Add in a bench that features a shot-blocker (Chris Andersen), a hustle and garbage man (Renaldo Balkman), a shut-down defender (Arron Afflalo - who actually starts at the moment with JR Smith coming off the bench), a seasoned playoff-tested back-up point guard (Anthony Carter) and a lightning quick sparkplug (Ty Lawson) and you've got a pretty solid group.

And that's not even counting Joey Graham!

The point here is that this Nuggets team in my eyes is one of the most deadly in the league, showcasing a unique blend of depth, athletic ability, defensive feistiness, and offensive effeciency.  And the stats bear this out.

Denver is fifth in the league in offensive efficiency, sixth in "true-shooting percentage," and yet despite playing at the league's fifth-fastest pace, have one of the top point differentials in the league, scoring on average 106 points and limiting opponents to 100.

No, the Nuggets haven't quite hit the same defensive stride as last season, but it's still early and coach George Karl is still tweaking the roster with players returning from injury and suspension.

To me, tonight's game will be Toronto toughest of the year, and for them to get the W, they need to excel in three areas:

1)  Rebounding.

We've been through the Raps' rebounding issues all season and sans Reggie Evans, it's hard to say that things will change in this fashion overnight.

However interestingly enough, the Nuggets statistically rank right alongside Toronto in this department, despite the likes of Nene, Martin and Andersen.

The Nuggets like to score so it's imperative that the Dinos not allow second-chance looks tonight.  I'm hoping to see solid close-outs, and in particular, bodies on the Denver wings who have the athletic ability to cause havoc on the glass.


2)  The Small Forward Match-Up.

There's another 2003 draft class alumnist besides Chris Bosh who's making an early-season MVP-type run; Carmelo Anthony.  Melo is averaging a shade under 30 points a game, shooting nearly 45 per cent from the field, 36 per cent from long-range, and over 85 per cent from the line.  Oh, and toss in 6 rebounds and and nearly 3 assists a game on top of that.

Not too shabby.

It sounds like Hedo Turkoglu, despite continuing hip issues, will play, so it will be up to him to contain Anthony.  I'm not expecting a shut-down performance here, but Toronto can't let Melo go off thus opening things up for the rest of Denver's explosive offense.  With Antoine Wright a question mark again, the onus will really by on Turk to keep Melo somewhat in check, and it will be interesting to see who else Jay Triano rolls out in a stopper role, and what the Raps' defensive plan for Anthony will be should Wright be unable to go.

Additionally, while Melo has been playing at an all-world level, he and his teammates at times still fall victim to what a scout last night described to me as a "type F personality," that is to say they can become easily frustrated and allow their emotions to get the best of them, especially in tight games.  Hedo might not be an all-defensive team member, but he's got that bit of Vlade Divac in him that hopefully he uses to give Anthony a rough go tonight.

And hopefully his Raptor' teammates follow suit.


3)  Bench Play.

With JR Smith back from suspension, and Ty Lawson making NBA GM's regret passing on him already, the Nuggets feature some very explosive offensive options off the pine.  The challenge for Toronto tonight much like against Phoenix on Sunday, will be to match Denver's subs' energy level when they enter the game to ensure this one stays close.  Players like Amir Johnson and Marco Belinelli will likely be counted on again to give the club a shot in the arm, and whichever team's bench does a better job dictating tempo and intensity, could end up being the deciding factor in a W or an L.

And after all, the last thing Raptors' fans want to see is a replay of this, only with Lawson finishing on top of two Dinos en route to a blowout Toronto loss.