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3 in the Key - Game-Day Preview vs. Rockets

Home sweet home.  The Raptors make it back from their recent string of back-to-backs with a 2-2 record, which bodes well as the Raptors will now come into a nice little home stand over the next few weeks.  First up are the Houston Rockets who are also beginning the season with a paltry three wins.

I'm pretty torn about this recent road trip.

On the one hand, the Raptors came out and played their butts off against the Magic and Heat and came out with a split.  Yet, in their second back to back, the Raptors were stagnant, lethargic and were able to barely come out with a split on the tail end.

As a Raptor fan, it's gotta leave you scratching your head.

However, maybe it's not too confusing.  It was back at a Jack Astor's a couple weekends ago where we had our Raptors HQ meeting, and both Ray Bala and Howland both asked me at various times of the night what I thought was needed to improve this Raptors team.

Without hesitation, I said a few key injuries.

There's been a tendency in the Colangelo era to hesitate to play certain younger energy role players, especially since Jay Triano took over.  Remember, it was last year that Sonny Weems finally got the burn we were asking for after Hedo Turkoglu went down with an injury.

And lo and behold, a couple injuries/illnesses later, Jay Triano was forced to change up his lineup and we got a little more youth and explosiveness in exchange for methodical and experienced players.  Guys like Julian Wright and Joey Dorsey came in and played up to the competition in Florida.  They also brought in a hunger to show off what they were capable of.

Maybe even more importantly, Jay Triano was forced to move Weems into the starting lineup in place of an injured Linas Kleiza. 

A couple days later, some people recover from sickness and injuries and the Raptors start losing some of their edge and aggressiveness against Washington and the 76ers.

Now granted, we had a pretty small sample size to work with, but at the same time, it has got to give you pause for thought.

When the Raptors played guys like Wright and Dorsey, the Dinos really reminded me of the Hawks of several years ago; raw to a fault at times, but still working hard and creating excitement by forcing the play to their opponents.  Young and exuberant, our team was full of energy throughout the entire playing roster with our point guards providing the steady hand to guide everyone.

And to me, it's giving me pause and causing me to revisit a question I posed earlier in the season.

After all, what's the overall goal of this year's Raptors?

If it's to secure wins, I'm not sure the Raptors would have won against the Magic had both David Andersen and Linas Kleiza.  I certainly am not sure they really added anything to the Wizards or 76ers games.

If it's for player development, then the Raptors certainly aren't doing that since Julian Wright and Joey Dorsey are the younger, more untapped resources of talent who have a larger upside.

If it's to play with aggression and a chip on their shoulder, I think this Raptors team was far more aggressive with Wright and Dorsey in the lineup than without.

Once again though, the sample size is just too small for me to fully advocate a change.  Nevertheless, there has to be some thought that goes into the notion of player development in a rebuilding phase like we've having in Toronto.  There has to be at least a little consideration for what the Raptors did without Andersen and Kleiza in the lineup because heck, it was entertaining basketball.  If Triano is going to be true to his pre-season words that he wants this team to be known as a fighter, I'm sure he's considering lineup changes if things continue to be stagnant.

Against Houston though, the Raptors have an opponent that matches them with their need to play "team ball". 

Without Yao Ming or Aaron Brooks, and Chase Budinger listed as a possible return for tonight's game, the Raptors will be facing a Rockets team that has struggled of late and started off with a 3-8 record coming off a tough loss against the Thunder on Wednesday.  The Rockets therefore are hungry for a win having lost their last two games and still trying to get their team firing on all cylinders.  Here are the keys to a Raptors victory:

1) Win the Possession Battle - The Raptors are not exactly a top percentage shooting team.  Currently, they sit 24th in the NBA with a 44.5% shooting percentage while they have allowed their opponents to shoot at a 47.9% shooting percentage.  Houston isn't fairing that much better at 19th but they are holding their opponents to a lower shooting percentage (45.2%). 

For our Raptors to come out on top, it's going to mean that they need more possessions and it's going to come in a few ways.  First, they have to take care of the ball.  It's been pretty ugly as the worst three turnover culprits are Jarrett Jack, Andrea Bargnani, and a surprising Linas Kleiza.  All three players touch the ball a lot and end up wasting valuable possessions that that have been fought for with tenacious defense and key rebounding.  The Rockets are a more experienced team than the 76ers and the Raptors cannot expect the Rockets to bail out our home team with sloppy play on their end.

2) Key in on Kevin Martin - I know Luis Scola is going to get his points for the Rockets having shot over 50% from the field so far in the season.  However, Kevin Martin has been pretty inconsistent over his career.  As a volume shooter and a person with a tendency to cough up the ball (2nd on the team with 2.8 TOs per game this year) the Raptors need to stick to him. 

Sagging off of Kevin Martin can't be allowed as he's a fairly effective 3-point shooter and the Raptors definitely need to keep Martin from chewing them up from the charity stripe.  It's therefore going to be extremely important to get DeMar DeRozan to buy into keeping a tight hold on Martin and Jay Triano should not be gun shy about putting Weems or Julian Wright in for DeRozan if he allows Martin to get away with murder.

3) Team Play vs Team Play - Let's face it.  We shouldn't be expecting a heck of a lot of nights where Sonny Weems and Andrea Bargnani combine for over half of the Raptors points.  It'd be sheer folly to expect that kind of production on a nightly basis.  The Raptors really need consistent production from about 4-5 players in order to win most games and it's basically the same on Houston's side. 

The key therefore has to be how both teams establish their rhythms and how each team can disrupt the other team's rhythm by forcing turnovers and contesting shots.  With essential glue guys like Shane Battier and Luis Scola, the Raptors may have their hands full as Houston's been at it a lot longer than they have. 

However, the Raptors themselves have managed to surprise a lot of teams by being the hungry fighter looking to prove something.    They've been better than Houston in rebounding differential and steals differential which can bode well for them if they remain aggressive.  At home, I'm expecting no less than a complete team effort, the likes of which we haven't seen since Saturday's loss in Miami.

While Houston isn't a top tiered team in the NBA without Yao Ming, they are still a dangerous team which has the potential to surprise people.  Thing is, the Raptors are also trying to forge a similar identity. 

This upcoming home stand is going tell us a lot about the Raptors as we'll see if they can continue to build an identity and if they can continue to show the same energy that was displayed for the majority of this season.  Otherwise, I fully expect wholesale changes to be coming. 

Because while Toronto fans hate losing, they really can't stand a team that doesn't show any fight in them.