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3 In the Key: Toronto Raptors Game Day Preview vs. Houston

Vicious D looks at today's game and is quite envious of the Houston Rockets who are extremely good despite not having their two best players.  The Raptors will be in it tough today if they don't play like a team.

Oh hey. 

If the last two Raptors games gave you a migraine, I don't blame you.  I'm starting to think I'm a sadist as this will be the third game that I'll be attending in this young year.  In all honesty, I usually make it a rule to go to games in the second half of the season after the Christmas break, just to make sure the team has started to hit their stride.  The Raptors, after having a flash of "let's play defense" for two games against weaker opponents, have now lost against two fairly good teams who have exposed the Raptors' "improved defense" for what it is: a paper tiger.

Now you might say, "ok, the Raptors were down Jose Calderon and Andrea Bargnani as both weren't 100%".  Ok, but our opponents today are the Houston Rockets.  They're a team that has been arguably down at least one of their two best players for what seems like an eternity, and yet, they remain competitive, focused to win, and have depth in spades.

So much so that they could even cast off Pops Mensah-Bonsu without even batting an eye.

However, it's not like we were all gun-ho about all the moves that were made.  It was back in the middle of the summer when most of the Raptors' Nation was in awe of Colangelo's Great Canadian Raptors Makeover Part Deux. Bryan Colangelo decided to let Pops walk, go for Hedo Turkoglu, fill his rosters with a coveted European and signed Jarrett Jack.  At this point, while most of the Raptors nation was marveling at the moves, Franchise and Howland were both grumbling.  We had one of our Raptors HQ meetings where I posed the situation and question:

Bryan Colangelo for all his flaws, has always been a good GM because he's left himself flexibility to get out from players that have underperformed.  He's always seemed to have expiring contracts that he could trade away and get something back for.  Now let's say this team is merely good at best, and at worst, terrible.  Who can he trade away and change?  Besides Chris Bosh, just about everyone is locked up for the next 3-4 years at least.  That's starting and backup point guard, starting small forward, starting center.  That doesn't exactly allow you make changes if you need to.

And so here we are, a team that will need to play extremely hard just to get a mediocre defensive effort.  A team that has to rely on a high powered offense, which by the way, isn't all that high powered having lost in every good ol' fashioned shootout with just about every team out there this young season. 

Yup, that almost just screams at Chris Bosh to stay.

But back to Houston.  The Rockets are a team that have managed to stay relatively consistent thanks to some veteran leaders, some smart drafting, and keeping their roster full of athletes who have good basketball IQ.  In fact, you could even argue that the Rockets are a much more dangerous team without T-Mac than with.  Coming into today's game having won two in a row, having beaten both L.A. and Cleveland, the Rockets are a team that wins thanks to true balance throughout their roster.  They are the well-oiled machine to the Raptors' own greasy mess, so our boys will have a tough time.  To keep things competitive so that we can see a rare Sunday win, the Raptors will need to:

1) Minimalize the Loss of Calderon
Everyone's taken shots at the Spaniard this year.  I've always defended Calderon over the years for his abilities, and he's been one of the players on this team who actually stands up for himself and his team.  Those who wanted Jarrett Jack to start will now have a healthy dose of Jack for a while.  The question is just how the bench will respond.  We've long proposed to have a lot more Belinelli instead of Banks since he's comfortable with the ball and quick enough to defend against most point guards, but the trickle down effect should also mean that Sonny Weems will get more play time. 

On the other hand, a lot of people have mentioned that this will maybe give Turkoglu more minutes handling the ball, but I'm not convinced that the reason the Turk has struggled has been because he doesn't have the ball enough.  In any case, the Raptors have lost a leader, a guy who has been a fairly good shooter, and one of the hearts of this edition of the Raptors. 

How the Raptors will overcome that will need to start today.

2) Team Play
The only way the Raptors will play good defense against the Rockets is if they communicate and act like a team.   One of the reasons for the Rockets' success is that different players have stepped up over the course of the season to make big plays.  The tough part about playing a team like the Rockets is that anyone can be a potential threat.  So the Raptors will need to be organized on defense, they'll need players to have personal responsibility while they're defending their man, and they'll need to communicate.  Otherwise, the Rockets will find that one or two weak spots and the whole defensive scheme will fall apart.

3) No Sleep For the Bench
In Friday's game against Philadelphia, the Rockets had six players in double figures.   Their top scorer?  Carl Landry off the bench.  The Rockets are a team that are unabashed about playing their bench.  With players who can get double digit nights when needed, and consistent rebounding that doesn't seem to drop off, the Rockets' bench has always seemed to be an X-Factor.  Kyle Lowry and Chase Budinger are both ready to come in and steady the shop along with Landry when the starters aren't getting it done.  It's allowed this Rocket team to weather storms and pull out some close victories.  

Outside of last Saturday's win, the Raptors have lost on every single weekend game so far this season.  This win won't be easy to come by, especially since the Raptors will need to make adjustments to compensate for the injured Calderon.  But the Raptors have traditionally been fairly strong against the Rockets at home.  Here's hoping the Raptors figure it out and manage to pull out a much needed quality win.