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

The Raptors better be ready to mix it up with Scola and the Rockets tonight...

The Raptors better be ready to mix it up with Scola and the Rockets tonight...

I’m still upset about James Singleton.

Singleton of course was the player who grabbed 16 rebounds against Toronto on Sunday night and was a key reason his team walked away with the home victory.

Singleton’s performance was yet another example of a little-known player dominating the Raptors in some capacity this season. Louis Admunson helped Shaq out last Friday night in the same manner, and we’ve seen this time and time again, as one of our readers alluded to yesterday.

Why it that?

Why does Toronto not only end up being a historical footnote for the likes of Jason Kidd, but also for the Tarence Kinsey’s of the league?

Equally frustrating, why doesn’t Toronto have guys like this on their roster?

Singleton in fact was a player that Howland and I lobbied hard for while he was still a member of the Clippers, and two other Dallas players, JJ Barea and Brandon Bass, have been HQ favourites since they began their fight to stay in the league. Both could have been available as well to the Raptors yet as fans we’re stuck game after game, watching these types out-hustle and out-play our own crew.

Tonight’s match-up against Houston offers a similar possibility.

The Rockets have managed to snare under-appreciated players like Von Wafer, Chuck Hayes and Carl Landry, not to mention the likes of Aaron Brooks and Luis Scola. These players have kept Houston in the playoff mix in the tough West even though stars Tracy McGrady and Yao Ming have been less than dependable health-wise.

The Raptors on the other hand haven’t been able to find players like this the past few seasons. Jamario Moon aside, and maybe you could argue that Carlos Delfino fit this mould last year, the Raps have come up empty in regards to these types and while not stars, it’s players like these that help clubs through injuries, and give boosts of energy on nights when the starters just aren’t bringing it.

Toronto has been much-maligned this season again for their lack of toughness and I really believe that besides addressing some of the major deficiencies in the starting line-up, this should be top priority as well on Bryan Colangelo’s "To Do" list. Just listening to Singleton’s post-game chat with the media tells you all you need to know about the former Murray State product who went undrafted, and had to find his way to the NBA via Europe and various developmental leagues. He simply exudes a confidence and swagger, something again, that this Dino club doesn’t exactly have in spades.

Perhaps that’s why it’s crucial to get Shawn Marion back in the line-up tonight against Houston.

The Rockets are one of the top defensive teams in the league, and boast a toughness and swagger now that most everyone is healthy, that Toronto is going to have to match if they want to consider salvaging this road trip with a win this evening. With Ron Artest and Shane Battier back, and the likes of Hayes, Landry, Joey Dorsey and Scola constantly rotating in and out beside Yao Ming, the Raptors are going to have their work cut out for them.

And don’t think that because Tracy McGrady is out for the season that things are going to be any easier. In this week’s edition of "Blogging with the Enemy," I spoke with Anup Shah of "Rockets Buzz" about McGrady’s absence and he confirmed something I’d suspected for a while:

1) RaptorsHQ: Let’s start this off with the obvious – T-Mac. Do you think this team is actually better without him in the line-up? (Or at least on the roster in terms of future planning?) I mean, were you hoping he’d be gone after the trade deadline?

Rockets Buzz: Yes. Plain and simple.

Before he went out (before that he was always down, just not out) we had no idea what was going to happen. How do you expect a team to function when your top scorer is always a game-time decision? So yes, T-Mac officially being gone is the best thing to happen to the Rockets at this point. They move the ball better, play more like a team. T-Mac has this effect (which I don't know if Raptors fans ever got a chance to see) but when he has the ball, everyone stands around and watches.

As far as him being gone after the trade deadline, there's a mixed feeling about him in Houston. As for me, yes, I wanted him out. I can't wait for him anymore. It's like pursuing a girl who can't decide if she wants to be with you or not. I just couldn't put up with it.

2) Now that McGrady is out for the season and Alston is in Orlando, how far do you think this club can advance in the playoffs realistically?

Rockets Buzz: The one on one standing around game is gone. Rafer and T-Mac were the best at creating their own shots, but now this team creates for each other. Artest (for the most part) has mellowed down a bit, Yao's the most unselfish player in the game (the guy took only seven shots Sunday even though Minnesota was without Al Jefferson) and Aaron Brooks looks like he could stick around for a while. All we need now is a third scorer.

Second round, maybe Western Conference Finals if we're lucky. I think we've got more of the team pieces and the defensive prowess to get past either the Blazers or Hornets in round one.

3) Keys to tonight’s game; what do the Rockets need to do to ensure a W at home?

Rockets Buzz: Stop Bosh. Obviously. The Rockets can (for the most part) keep the Kobes and Lebrons under control with the Battier-Artest combo, but big men are a different story. If Yao gets into foul trouble, the next best option is our undersized forward combo of Luis Scola, Carl Landry and Chuck Hayes.

Keep the rest of the Raptors under control. There were five guys who scored in double figures against the Mavs Sunday and Shawn Marion only played six minutes. There's a lot of options on this team so it's all going to come down to the team defense.

Lastly, run the offense through YAO. Seven shots, 17 points last game. Imagine if he could get up 20 shots a game.

A big thanks to Anup for that breakdown and it seems logical than that our three keys touch on some of these points, only in reverse, and to switch things up, we’re going to focus on two Raptors with similar tasks for each key:

1) Bosh and Bargnani –

Against Dallas, Bargs struggled at times, while Bosh was fantastic early on, but didn’t get much help. Unfortunately both settled for jump shots periodically instead of attacking the hoop, something the Raptors can’t afford tonight against such a solid defensive team as the Rockets. Andrea played Yao Ming quite well in their last match-up and it’s paramount that he not only do a good job defensively again, but also look to attack the less-mobile 7-footer from the get-go. Even though he shot a poor percentage on Sunday, Andrea made some moves that had you hitting the rewind on your PVR’s. His blow-bye on Dirk late in the game was especially impressive and 7-footers just shouldn’t be that quick or explosive. I think Andrea is just starting to understand how lethal he can be in this manner and tonight represents as good an opportunity as any to get some more practice in.

Bosh has the task of facing the tough-as-nails Scola on the other hand but again, it’s the Raptors that should have the quickness advantage here. I’m expecting to see the two Dino "bigs" get to the line at least 15 times tonight. Anything less than that and the Raptors are wasting a major match-up advantage.

2) Marion and Graham –

Joey Graham came into the game Sunday night and had an immediate impact, grabbing boards in traffic for put-backs, getting out on the break, and generally using his athleticism to create match-up problems for the Mavericks. Unfortunately, he was the lone Raptor to be able to do this and it wasn’t nearly enough.

With Shawn Marion hopefully back this evening (it sounds like he’s a go) this should give Toronto someone to keep up with Ron Artest, and help Joey out in the athleticism department. It’s too bad Marion wasn’t able to play Sunday night as I think his style of play would have kept TO in the game and kept guys like Singleton off the glass. Houston is another solid rebounding club and I have the distinct feeling that the Dinos are going to need a heavy dose of the Matrix effect tonight.

3) Calderon and Ukic –

I know Jose hasn’t been 100 per cent this year. But lately, regardless of his lingering injury issues, he just hasn’t played that well.

On Sunday night he was sloppy with the ball, and didn’t look to push the pace as much as I thought he should have. I actually preferred the way Roko controlled the game even though he forced the issue a bit too much at times.

Tonight I’m hoping Jose rebounds and brings his A game. He’ll be matched up with the quicker Aaron Brooks, which may cause some defensive breakdowns, but unlike facing Jason Kidd and Antoine Wright (both of whom looked to post Jose up early and often), Calderon will have the size advantage and hopefully Jay Triano takes this into consideration when laying out tonight’s game-plan.

Houston, much like Dallas, is fighting for its playoff lives in the uber-competitive West and now that Utah is healthy and rolling, and Phoenix seems to be figuring things out, they’re going to come out hungry for a win at home.

If Toronto can’t match the Rockets’ intensity and physicality early on, this could be another match is over on the scoreboard before the fourth quarter gets halfway through…