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Tip-In: Learning Curve, Utah beats Toronto 125-108

In game two of the four game swing, the Raptors faced a more seasoned, more talented, and more prepared Jazz team.  The HQ's Vicious D looks at how Utah "educated" the Raptors and what the Raptors can take from their lessons.

Gather around.

Mr. Jerry Sloan is about to teach our young Raptors a lesson.

Yes, in the walloping the Raptors took last night against the Jazz, there was a lot to talk about.  Toronto after all, got buried early by 19 points, came back in the second before letting things up before halftime, came back yet again in the third to make a game of it, before the Jazz put the Dinos completely away in the fourth.

While I was at work yesterday, before the game even got started, I was talking with a bunch of my co-workers about dreading to write the follow up to last night's Jazz game.  The Jazz seemed to be the kind of team that would have no real problem taking apart the Raptors.  After all, Utah had won 10 straight right?  Well coached, having two very strong point guards, and an unselfish system that has been in place for many years, the Jazz are a team that play like the Raptors...well, only better and with more talent. 

I mean, outside of Deron Williams, is there anyone on the Jazz team who is going to be an All Star? 

Granted, guys like C.J. Miles and Al Jefferson may get some considerations, and AK47 and Paul Millsap are extremely solid in their roles, but the Jazz are a team who know how to play as a complete unit every night.  They're a team with some pretty super-charged role-players and they're a team with a real system which has taken years to develop.

In that way, last night's game was a perfect example of what the Raptors have to look towards to get their wins.

For one, the Jazz forced nine steals, the same as the Raps, but they also turned the ball over less.  To the Raptors, this was just killer as they need every extra possession they can get each game.  They are a team that strives on aggression and forcing turnovers so they can use their speed and athleticism in open-court situations and steals are a pretty good indicator if a team is being aggressive on defense.  After all, the Raptors are a team prone to dry spells in their O.

Which leads us to lesson two.

The Jazz showed what it really means to share the ball and get everyone involved.  No one player on their team seemed to "stick" to the ball unlike our own players such as Leandro Barbosa, Andrea Bargnani, and Sonny Weems to name a few.  In fact, most Raptors are guilty of this "lapse".  It is almost as though our teams forget what got them back into the game in the first place.   Yes, I do realize that it was guys like Bargnani and Weems who got on hot streaks to get us back on the scoreboard, but how they did it was in a team effort.  Bargnani got rolling by posting up deep on Andrei Kirilenko in the 3rd, and Weems got to the line multiple times.  However, both players also ended up killing our offensive flow by taking ill-advised jumpers later on, something that the Jazz managed to avoid. 

And a lot of that has to do with Deron Williams.

With his draw-and-kick moves out to wide open 3-point shooters like C.J. Miles, timely back door cut passes to his teammates and some strong moves to the basket, Williams was a force who was two rebounds away from a triple double and a monster +23 for the night in the +/- category. 

Now granted, I don't expect Jose Calderon or Jarrett Jack to be of the same caliber, but at the same time, it continues to underline the importance of having a strong point guard on a team where you don't have a heckuva lot of dominant players.  DeMar DeRozan may bloom into that player one day if he keeps up with his growth, but for now, the pressure is on our point guards to dictate the tone and to get our players on the same page.

Speaking of DeRozan, his growth and continued work has been one of the highlights for me in this opening week.  His commitment to drawing fouls and learning how to play effective defense has shown to me that he's trying his hardest to become that effective shooting guard that we need.

Nevertheless, it is his and the entire team's inconsistency which will be the most difficult issue to overcome.  While playing against the bottom-feeders of the East gave our boys some confidence, this western road trip can easily go 0-4, especially considering the teams the Raps have yet to play.   Yet, there's a lot that the Raptors can do towards showing that they're growing on this West Coast trip and will be stronger when they return to the ACC.

For one, they have to show that they're willing to play hard defense against tough opponents for more than a couple minutes a game.  Allowing both the Kings and the Jazz to score well above 100 points is going to make it extremely hard for our Dinos to be competitive.

For another, the second unit has to figure out their role.  Guys like Amir Johnson, Sonny Weems, and Leando Barbosa have to find themselves and show off the abilities that make them useful rotation players.  Earlier, in pre-season, our secondary unit was often the unit which set the tone and pace when the starters were lagging.  They were the team who got the crowd excited and pushed the tempo.  Instead, that's just no longer the case (Amir played five minutes!) and our second unit has to rediscover themselves. 

Overall, I'm not surprised that the Raptors are 0-2 on this West Coast swing so far. 

Perhaps it's the pessimist within which led me to believe that the Raptors would have trouble out West, but regardless, my hope was that in spite of any struggles, the team would be able to keep growing as a unit in the face of tough adversity.  You'd have to say that so far, we've had two very harsh lessons.  Until the players themselves figure out what they have to do, Jay Triano will need to keep pressing the whole "fighter" identity to this team over and over.  (And we might hear more fiery post-games like this...)

Because building habits and an identity is never easy.

But it's essential the team keeps developing one for not only later in this season, but in the years to come as new, young talent keeps being injected into the roster.