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

Can Toronto keep the Big Shaqtus in check tonight?

Can Toronto keep the Big Shaqtus in check tonight?

After the great discussion yesterday’s salary-cap piece brought about, one main point has become clear regarding Raptors fans; no one is in exact agreement about what Bryan Colangelo should do this off-season.

Some think Parker, Graham, Delfino and Marion should all go, some want one or more pieces to return.

Others want a complete overhaul from coach to franchise player while others still think this team when healthy is still a pretty good squad.

I think one interesting point that keeps popping up however is fans’ affinity for seeing Steve Nash in a Raptors’ uniform. And while Captain Canada is one of my favourite players of all-time and still a joy to watch, I confess that I don’t get it.

I mean if Nash is talking about taking a major pay-cut to come and be Jose Calderon’s back-up so be it, but does that really make any sense? Wouldn’t Nash essentially be Jose part II at that stage of his career, and therefore defensively the Dinos would be blitzed all night long at the starting point of attack?

Would you then move Jose? (Remember, Jose Calderon and his defensive woes are on the books for another four years.) What about Roko if he continues to develop?

As I said, I love Nash, but at present I just don’t understand how he would fit in with this team’s long-term growth.

Then again as most mentioned yesterday, what exactly IS this team’s long-term plan?

Again, that’s something I think all fans can agree on – who knows.

However give Bryan Colangelo credit for one thing; he’s certainly made the season more interesting all of a sudden. With JO lumbering around the paint, it was extremely difficult to know just what to make of this club and frankly from a fan’s perspective, extremely tough to care as the losses piled up. Was the twin tower experiment a failure? I suppose so at face value but neither O’Neal, nor Bosh were healthy for a long enough period to really say that with 100 per cent certainty. I also don’t think Colangelo envisioned the sudden and rapid development of Andrea Bargnani, which made the O’Neal acquisition suddenly appear all for naught; nor did he foresee the lackluster play coming from the supporting troops around Bosh and O’Neal.

What was evident though was that something wasn’t right with this team and a change had to be made.

Now whether that change in the end will be good for the team in the long run is another story, but for now, I want to concentrate on a simple fact; the acquisition of Shawn Marion and the new style of play has made the club infinitely more entertaining to watch.

Last Friday’s blowout loss to the Knicks aside, the past two games have showcased a club with a much more free-flowing offence. Defensively there is still a lot of work to be done of course but lost in the shuffle of theories regarding the off-season Bosh and Marion’s future with the team, and the upcoming draft is that for all of Toronto’s dismal performances this season, the Matrix trade has rejuvenated some interest in the club.

All interest?

Um…I’d venture a guess and say probably not. I mean, the team is still on pace for a measly 32 wins this season.

However I find myself excited about the prospect of watching this team take on the triumvirate of Phoenix, Houston and Dallas before returning to face old pals Jermaine O’Neal and Jamario Moon as members of the Miami Heat.

Phoenix of course has struggled mightily this year and looked ready to move almost everything but the kitchen sink before the trade deadline. Without Steve Nash (who injured his ankle recently) the Suns were humbled last night by the Los Angeles Lakers, giving up 70 points at the half! Defensively of course Nash may not have helped to cut that number down by much but his presence definitely would have helped Phoenix keep the score a bit closer.

In fact minus Nash and Amare Stoudemire, suddenly tonight’s game is another litmus test for a Toronto Raptors’ club that still harbors playoff aspirations and here are our three keys:

1) Execute, execute, execute –

While I think the playoffs died with the pre-All-Star break loss to the Bucks, it’s still very important for this team to play its best down the stretch. Why? Simply because if playing its best means winning only nine or 10 of its remaining 23, then it should give Bryan Colangelo a good idea in regards to the changes he needs to make in the off-season. If they reel off 14 or more wins from this remaining schedule, that’s another story. Minus the current Joey Graham injury (he’s reportedly day-to-day), this club is finally relatively healthy and it’s over these remaining matches that Toronto needs to foster some sort of identity, and give Dinos’ management an idea of what they have to work with going forward.

Let’s face it, Toronto hardly beat the Celtics and Lakers in their past two wins so playing a group of clubs in the upper echelon of the NBA’s power rankings should provide a good barometer. No, Phoenix sans Nash and Amare is hardly a championship contending club and maybe not even a playoff squad in the West, but in the East you get the feeling that the Suns would be right there fighting for a fifth or sixth seed. So baby steps here. A win would be another positive regarding the team’s current make-up and something to build on going into much tougher contests with Dallas and Houston.

To that end, if the Raptors do want to get the W tonight, they need to execute, especially on offense. Without Nash last night, the Suns looked discombobulated and had a tough time taking advantage of key match-up advantages like Shaq on…well anybody. We’ll discuss the Big Shaqtus more in a minute but my point here is that I expect to see Toronto come out and attack from the get-go and look to push the ball at all times tonight. This isn’t the Phoenix team that Marion once played for so I’m not worried about the Raptors getting caught up in a running game. I WANT this team to get caught up in a running game because a) management needs to see for the rest of this season if Toronto has a roster that can play in this fashion and b) I don’t think the Suns themselves are as equipped for this style anymore now that Shaq is around, which I believe gives Toronto a distinct advantage. With essentially two days off since their last win over Minny, there’s no reason the Dinos shouldn’t come out well-prepared tonight.

2) Pressure at the point of attack –

Taking the first key one step further, if Nash is indeed a no-go tonight as expected, then suddenly that leaves Leandro Barbosa and Alando Tucker to run the show for the Suns. Last night both scored well, but neither are pure offensive orchestrators, or at least certainly not in the same league as Steve Nash. Therefore I’m hoping Jay Triano has his team focused tonight on putting pressure on the Phoenix ball-handlers in attempt to make their jobs that much more difficult. Combined with the fact that new coach Alvin Gentry has only a handful of games under his belt with which to instill his tactics and philosophies, forcing the Suns’ point-guards into tough decisions should lead to turnovers, and fast-break baskets the other way for the Raps.

Yes, both Tucker and Barbosa have the athleticism and quickness to get by Jose Calderon (although the way Jose has defended lately, I probably could get by him with ease myself) but hopefully with the likes of Parker and Marion hedging on screens or stepping out for hard traps, Toronto can grind Phoenix’s offence to a halt much like the Lake Show did last night.

3) Keep Shaq in check –

The real worry for me tonight is Shaquille O’Neal. He only had SEVEN touches last night against his former team and was therefore quite ineffective. Toronto struggles with size in the paint so point number two is connected directly to point number 3 – if Toronto can frustrate Phoenix’s offensive sets and prevent easy looks for Shaq, this could easily be a third straight Raptors’ victory.

The other key part of this will be the play of Chris Bosh and Andrea Bargnani. Bosh should be able to have a huge night, even in his rusty state, because without Stoudemire, Phoenix has been playing the likes of Matt Barnes, Jason Richardson and Louis "I got punched in the face by Z-Bo," Amundson at the 4. If he is aggressive from the get-go it puts that much more pressure on Shaq to help out perhaps getting him in foul trouble, or at least opening things up for Andrea inside. Bargs though needs to help draw Shaq away from the hoop as well. The last place O’Neal wants to be (besides spending a Sunday at the movies with Kobe Bryant) is out near the 3-point line guarding Il Mago. We’ve seen a much more explosive and mobile Andrea the past two contests and if he can continue that tonight, O’Neal and co will be in big trouble.

Tonight of course marks the return of Shawn Marion to Phoenix, and a few other minor subplots of course (yes, the one year anniversary of that stupid consecutive 3-point record.)

But above all of that, I’m curious to see how this Toronto team plays against a club that in their prime, were the originators of the style Bryan Colangelo is now hoping his current squad emulates.