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

The Raptors may need some lessons from this movie if they hope to win again in the next month.
The Raptors may need some lessons from this movie if they hope to win again in the next month.


The Toronto Raptors welcome the Washington Wizards tonight in an attempt to right a listing ship.  The Raps have been absolutely atrocious on defense, there is a growing discontent amongst the fanbase, and some players seem to be questioning the overall philosophy of this team.  Vicious D takes a step back to look at some of the club's issues, in particular in regards to aggressiveness.

Excuse me as this recap is going to take a little bit of a right turn.

I love Goodfellas.  It's a great anti-godfather movie about the ruthlessness of the mafia and the ability to intimidate.  With some of the best performances from the main actors, the Raptors could use a little Joe Pesci.

After the last game, I was pretty livid that just about every single key that I wrote about was ignored and discarded.  Granted, I don't expect the Raptors to actively read this blog, but at the same time, I don't believe that I'm the only one who saw a problem.  There are just no excuses for how they played.   This team was supposed to be tougher and nastier this year while still not losing their offensive prowess.

Oh, I can hear the laughter now coming from the doubters.

But let's break it down a little.  Colangelo's stated goal at the end of last season was to change the identity of this team and bring in some players tha would be more aggressive, or as he put "had more fight."  Yesterday, Marco Belinelli iterated that the Raptors need to be more aggressive overall, which is something I've been calling for that for the past month.  This should not be a new theme for this team. 

We've questioned the composition of this team multiple times, but I think that a month into the season we can now take a look and really try to analyze the club in terms of its aggressiveness.

In general, there are three categories of Raptor players when it comes to aggression in my books; those that change the tempo of games, there are those that wait for others to change the momentum and they get pulled along for the ride, and there are those that may have a good aggressive game once in a blue moon.  Keep in mind that this list is purely subjective.

Tempo-changing Aggressive Passive

Chris Bosh
Reggie Evans
Sonny Weems
Amir Johnson
Pops Mensah-Bonsu

Marco Belinelli
Andrea Bargnani
Jarrett Jack

Rasho Nesterovic
DeMar DeRozan
Hedo Turkoglu
Patrick O'Bryant
Antoine Wright
Jose Calderon


Now, I recognize that not all these top aggression players are high level scorers and defensive stoppers. After all, measuring aggression can only really be done by seeing the players in actual games and often comes with the "little things" they do.  But the reason why I want to point this out is because the players that seem to bring "it" every single night are largely people that haven't played, or are considered "end of benchers".  Players like Reggie Evans, Sonny Weems and Pops Mensah-Bonsu have been considered high energy players largely because they are enthusiastic about taking the ball to the rim, hound their man on the defensive side, aggressively rebound the basketball and make mistakes at times because they can try to do too much.  (Outisde of Evans of course who hasn't played a single game yet this regular season.) 

In the second tier, there are some players who can turn it on most nights aggressiveness-wise if they want to, but I also believe Belinelli, Bargnani, and Jack have all been misused for a lot of this season.  Jack's decision making ability at times has been a bit questionable, but he does try to take it to the rim more than a few times a game.  He's actually a player who I would say is on the cusp of being in the "passive" category.  Bargnani is most successful when he starts off aggressive in a game by going to the basket often and when he can be found posting up his opposing player.  However, the Raptors go to him far too little and often give him the ball when he posts up at least two feet outside of the key.  And of course, Belinelli has sometimes shot himself out of games and needs to learn when to go to the basket more, but has been perhaps the Raptors' most electrifying passer.

Those in the final tier are a steady presence.  You know what to expect out of these players most nights and they give you effort.  However, they just do not seem to attack enough on either end of the court. 

So out of the entire team, three of our starters can be considered passive players, and two out of four bench players are also passive players.  Two of our most aggressive players do not even get off the bench most nights unless there's an injury, and one of our best energy players hasn't played a single game of regular season ball.

And some wonder why the Raptors fanbase is more than a little concerned.

Unfortunately, the Raptors seemed locked into into a certain rotation and philosophy with Jay Triano on board.  Unwilling to play some of his more aggressive players to change the tempo of the game, the Raptors are often caught flat-footed at the half as the opposition makes adjustments and comes out aggressive against Toronto.  Caught like a deer in headlights, the Raps have little choice but to keep trying to shoot their way back into games, often with little success.  By the time any other aggressive players hit the court, the Dinos are already often down by five or ten points.

I've questioned early in this season just what the goal of this staff and team is.   Are they trying to instill some philosophy in this team and trying to prove a point, or are they actually trying to put the best team on the court to win games.   This team has had all of pre-season and a month of basketball to "teach and learn".  Yes, DeMar DeRozan is one of those projects and his development has sometimes led to the Raptors falling in some fairly deep holes.  But I've noticed that Triano seems stubborn in clinging onto the notion that he must keep re-enforcing certain rotations.  For example, Calderon and Jack continues to be used in just about every single game.  DeMar DeRozan must always get at least five minutes per half, regardless of his play.  Triano has continued to keep at least two starters on the court at any one time rather than trying to build a bench that actually has chemistry with each other.  Oh and Sonny Weems and Pops Mensah-Bonsu?  They're only going to get playing time if it's garbage time or if the Raptors have injuries, regardless of how bad the energy level of the team is. 

At some point, the goals of this team have to change from "teaching" to "winning". 

This season cannot continue like this and unfortunately, I think the only way that this team will get better is through injuries.

Yes, I said it. 

However, there is already precedence this year.  Amir Johnson has been able to get the time on the court in order to show his skills thanks to Reggie Evans's injury.  Looking back on the year so far, I don't believe that Amir Johnson would have gotten the burn necessary had Evans not been injured.  He certainly wouldn't have become comfortable enough to get more aggressive on the court, and he most likely would never develop the chemistry he seems to be having with Marco Belinelli.

There is no other way that Jay Triano is going to try giving the ball more to Marco Belinelli as a sort of a make-shift point guard unless he is forced into using him in such a role.  Sonny Weems has already proven himself in the limited time he's been given as a legitimate alternative to DeMar DeRozan if DeRozan's development is put aside. 

So instead of three keys this morning, against Washington, I want to see 48 keys; as in 48 minutes of aggressiveness.

The Wizards have been arguably the most dissapointing team in the league so far considering Arenas has been healthy and many picked the club to finish top 5 in the East.  There's no better place for Toronto to start getting this ship turned around then tonight.

However to do this, the Raptors will have to at least prove they can stop Washington, sometime, somewhere.  Toronto has only held five teams under 100 points in regulation so far this year.  Five. The only way Dinos can do so is to build on aggressive offense, which seems to fuel their most aggressive defensive stances.  It's when the club gets passive and starts shooting jump shots that the lackluster defense seems to emerge. 

So in order to grab a very important win tonight, Toronto really only needs one key.

And that's aggression.