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

Dirk has been nearly unstoppable this season...the task of slowing him down falls on TO tonight....

Dirk has been nearly unstoppable this season...the task of slowing him down falls on TO tonight....

In my preview of Friday night’s match against Phoenix, I mentioned that I thought this three-game mini-road trip would be a good litmus test for this new-look Raptors team.

The game against Phoenix would help determine how effective the Raptors’ running game could be when the opponent is continuously pounding the ball down low in the paint due to its huge size advantage.

The match against Houston would help determine whether or not the Dinos could still get out and run against one of the best defensive teams in the league.

And tonight’s game, well that would purely be an indication of how far the Raps have to go, as the Mavericks sans Jason Terry continue to fight for their playoff lives. Toronto of course should be demonstrating that same "fight" however that wasn’t the case by the time the fourth quarter was half-way over Friday night.

The hope is that the Raps find a way to get some of that fight back as upcoming games against Dallas, Houston, Miami and Utah all look like obvious losses on paper. (Especially with the way Dwyane Wade has been playing of late.) It’s that mental toughness that has been absent all season and without it, this team will be hard-pressed to hit the 30 win mark, something that seems surreal now based on the expectations that were laid out to start the season.

A yes, the 2000-10 season, one which Chris Bosh described to the Toronto Star this morning as "very trying."

If I’m Jay Triano and his staff though, I know this, and want to use it as motivation through these final 22 games. How do the Raptors want to be remembered this season - as the league’s most disappointing team?

Or how about one which overcame a number of injuries and adversity to play teams tough through the final quarter of the season, making them a good bet to jump back into the East’s elite with a few additional off-season additions?

I’d think the latter and that’s why I’m hoping the Raptors come out with a bang tonight. Dallas of course has Dirk Nowitzki, Jason Kidd and Josh Howard but after that, things drop off quickly minus Mr. Terry. "The Jet" has been a Raptor-killer over the years so it’s huge for Dallas not to have him at their disposal tonight.

That being said, this is still going to be a tough win but if Toronto is going to do it, here’s what they’ll need to focus on:

1) Make Dirk carry the team

Dirk has been an MVP candidate for the Mavs this year, perhaps even more-so than the year he actually won the MVP trophy. He’s averaging 25 points a game, 8 rebounds, shooting 90 per cent from the line, 47 per cent from the field and 38 per cent from beyond the arc. Oh…and he’s almost single-handily keeping Dallas afloat in the West.

I can live with Dirk putting up 35 tonight, especially if he’s just hot and making those ridiculous contested fade-away jumpers of his. However what I don’t want is to see guys like Brandon Bass and JJ Barea going off. If Toronto can play their style and make Dirk a scorer and not a creator, then that bodes well for a W.

2) Attack the interior –

Erick Dampier is a holdover from the era of lumbering big men but he shouldn’t be much of a match for Andrea Bargnani. Bargs is much more mobile, and hopefully Andrea can drag him out on the perimeter to negate his shot-blocking abilities. This will open the lane up for Toronto’s wings, and Bosh himself, who presents a tough-match-up for the slower Nowitzki.

It will be really interesting in fact to see if Bargs and Dirk face-off as more and more, Andrea is becoming his doppelganger (something’s Chad Ford strangely acknowledge in his Friday draft column.) Bargs needs to stay out of foul trouble himself if he’s to be at his most efficient however I’m not too concerned about that this evening. Unlike Shaq, Dampier isn’t a huge offensive threat so I don’t expect to see Dallas running post-up sets for him all night looking to back Andrea down.

Some foul trouble on Dampier wouldn’t hurt either as Patrick O’Bryant’s twin, Ryan Hollins, is Dampier’s current back-up…

3) Hit the glass –

While the Mavericks aren’t the biggest team in the league, they are one of the best rebounding clubs posting the 10th highest rebounding rate. This, much like Shaq was on Friday night, is a major concern for me this evening. Offensive rebounds lead to open looks for Nowitzki and slashes to cup by Josh Howard and that’s when things could get really ugly. It’s extremely important then that Toronto has all hands on deck in regards to rebounding as even Barea and Kidd are excellent rebounders for their size and positions. If Toronto can corral the majority of errant shots, that gives them the fuel to fire their transition game and keeps Jason Kidd, lethal on the fast-break, from getting his team on the run for easy baskets.