A lot of "experts" picked the Toronto Raptors to be one of the worst teams in the league this year, or at least in the Eastern Conference.
Some of that has to do with the departure of the likes of Chris Bosh and even Hedo Turkoglu, but a big portion has to do with the fact that simply put, the East got better.
The Knicks didn't land any of the vaunted 3, but they did convince Amar'e Stoudemire to take his "all offence" act to Broadway, and they got a decent point guard in Raymond Felton to run the show.
The Nets failed in their quest to grab the same trio as well, but grabbed Derrick Favors via the draft, and added some much needed help via Troy Murphy, Travis Outlaw and others.
The Celtics of course got Shaq and Jermaine O'Neal, bringing their total of "you should have retired five years ago" players to about 8 (because I'm sure Kevin Willis and Mario Ellie are hiding on that roster somewhere),
And the 76ers grabbed rookie sensation Evan Turner as well a coach who should be able to coax a lot more out of Elton Brand this season.
Oh right...that's just the upgrades in Toronto's own division...
Outside of the Atlantic, a number of teams beefed up as well including tonight's opponent for the Dinos, the Chicago Bulls. You know about Rose, Deng and Noah, but add in the acquisition of Carlos Boozer, Ronnie Brewer, Kyle Korver and even Omer Asik, and the development of rookies Taj Gibson and James Johnson and you've got a pretty interesting club.
It's just too bad Chicago put its faith in Boozer, a player who's been playing under a storm cloud of bad karma since he duped one-time Cavs owner Gordan Gund and fled for the highest bidder. The bad luck has followed him to the windy city as a few weeks ago Boozer stumbled over a gym bag in his front doorway, fell, and broke his hand while trying to break his fall.
Seriously, if that doesn't tell you that you need to go see a voodoo priestess, what does?
Now, admittedly the Raptors probably wouldn't have seen much of Boozer in the pre-season anyways, but tonight's match now has a decidedly different look and feel minus the Booze.
So let's start there with the first key:
1) Can we get someone in the post please? Here's something that's stood out like a Birdman neck tattoo so far through two games; the Raptors have zero post presence. Sure, Kleiza has had a few attempts and Andrea and Amir have thrown around some hook shots, but seriously, the biggest post-up factor so far for Toronto? How about Sonny Weems! In the first game Weems repeatedly posted up with mixed results, and against Boston he did the same, with better results against smaller defenders like Rajon Rondo and Delonte West.
While I love what Weems has been trying to do, at some point this team needs someone who can draw in traffic consistently in that vicinity. I'm not talking about a Bosh-type, but without any inside presence, it's going to be pretty easy to D up this group in the half-court. It's great to talk ball movement etc, etc, but if there' s no realistic offensive option to throw it into the post to (and no, Reggie Evans does not count in this capacity) then defences just aren't going to react, and will continue to hug the perimeter, something Boston essentially did Sunday night. When that happens, we see the type of shots that we did against the C's, and the percentages that follow.
Without Boozer down low, Toronto has an opportunity to take get the upper hand at this spot on the floor. Taj Gibson is an excellent defender in the post, and a high-percentage offensive marksman, but he's more of a garbage-man. And while Toronto will have its hands full with Noah, something we'll discuss in a minute, he's not exactly a pure scorer in that area either.
Advantage Toronto then?
Well, if the Raps can run some plays where Andrea's not simply involved in screen-and-rolls at the top of the 3 point line, that would be a start. I counted at least five of these Sunday night, and it's something Triano's gotta change. I understand it on mismatches, but against Boston, far too often Andrea was simply handing off the ball, then standing around the perimeter. I'm not faulting him for this, but it kills his value on the court both as an offensive option, and as a rebounder as he's now way too far away from the hoop.
Therefore some quality minutes from Andrea and Amir down low would go a long ways towards a Raptors' W and I think the winner of the "points in the paint" category takes this match.
2) Floor burns are for winners. Maybe Andrea doesn't know where his offence is coming from. Maybe Amir is trying to find his way.
Whatever the case, as long as the effort is there at both ends, the rest should come.
The problem is, the effort hasn't been there, at least not consistently.
We've discussed Andrea at length already but you could argue that Amir has made some lazy plays at times too so far. And against the gritty Bulls frontcourt players, that's certainly not going to get it done.
This is a huge key for tonight as without Boozer, the Bulls may have to rely on the scrappy play of Noah and co. and so it'll be up to the Raptors to respond to this challenge. It's a great test for Andrea to be sure, even if he and Noah only play 20 or so minutes each, and it's in these small pre-season battles that I feel we'll get some solid hints of what to expect in the season to come.
The same is true of Amir and if either isn't getting the job done, I'm hoping Triano gives them the quick hook and looks to Dorsey or even Alabi and Kleiza.
3) Mr. Rose. This might be the most obvious key of the bunch, but without Carlos Boozer, it's even more pertinent. Whether it's Jose Calderon, Jarrett Jack, Leandro Barbosa or Marcus Banks, the Raptors have to stay in front of Rose as best as possible tonight. Allowing him into the lane is akin to death as besides being an excellent passer, Rose's athleticism allows him to score in traffic or finish at the rim.
However from the perimeter, Rose is not nearly the same threat. His long-range game has improved, but it's still nowhere near a Deron Williams level and I'm sure the Raptors would be happy to let him toss up 3's or long 2's all night.
Can they do it?
Well, that depends first on the D of Jack, Calderon and co. as mentioned, but let's not forget Toronto's interior; if Rose gets passed the first line of defence, the help crew needs to be ready. Boston's commentators called out Bargnani numerous times Sunday night for allowing easy passing angles on Rajon Rondo's penetrations and this can't happen with Rose tonight. The same is true for Amir Johnson or even Linas Kleiza. In fact, it wouldn't hurt for Kleiza, Evans and Dorsey to lay the wood on Rose early if he gets into the lane, to let him know what to expect the rest of the night.
I'd like to see Toronto stick Sonny Weems or Barbosa on Rose in fact; Weems for his D, Barbosa to give Rose a taste of his own medicine at the other end of the court.
This one isn't on TV tonight either unfortunately, so back we go to one of the following links here or here, which hopefully will get it done.
As well, a few of us are away on work so while we'll set up the liveblog, there might not be much of an HQ presence...but all that probably means is more Andrea love!