Coming home and putting together a solid effort against the Hawks, the Raptors now face part two of their athletic gauntlet. Oklahoma City comes into the ACC looking to put a quick stop to the Raptors' winning ways.
It's odd being a Raptors fan sometimes.
Being a blogger who is constantly taking a look at the Raptors, you get asked quite a few things. For example, at work, people will consistently come up to me and ask me "What's up with the Raptors?"
And it's not usually in a positive sense.
To those people, I normally have to talk about this player is injured, or that player is the wrong fit, or how the coaching staff has been making crazy mistakes. At those points, you almost start to feel like a PR guy for the Raptors, trying to explain away certain "difficulties" that the team is having. Sure, the times are easier for a fan when the team wins a game that few people were expecting them to win, but the prevailing sense that I'm getting from many Torontonians is that the Raptors are simply irrelevant. Maybe even more so after the excellence of the Canadian Olympics.
I mean, if there was a time for the Raptors to make a real dent in the general conscience of the casual sports fan, this year would be a prime opportunity.
Which brings us to tonight's opponent, the Oklahoma City Thunder.
The last time the Raptors played the Thunder, it was on a Sunday evening in February where the Thunder absolutely smacked the Raptors from start to finish. It was a national broadcast which showed the Raptors at some of their worst in the season where a faster, more energetic, and more athletic team took the day.
It was also just a few hours after Sidney Crosby score his miracle goal.
So on the one hand, there were very few sports fans that saw the absolute slaughter of the Thunder, but for those of us die hards who stuck around, it was definitely a buzz kill to the day's celebrations. Today's game will find a smaller audience on TSN, but will most likely be a far more entertaining affair. The Raptors will undoubtedly look to extend their play from the other night, but they can ill afford the lapses they had in the middle part of the game. In order to pull out the win, we'll need to see the Raptors give consistent effort in these three areas:
1) Be competitive at the line
The Thunder are still ranked amongst the top in free throws made and overall percentage, so it goes without saying that the Raptors need to be extremely aware of how the Thunder score their points. In their last outing, Kevin Durant, Jeff Green, Russell Westbrook, and James Harden were all efficient and effective at getting to the line. As a matter of fact, the Thunder got to the line nine more times than the Raptors. This was partly due to the absence of Chris Bosh, but with Bosh playing without a lot of his physicality, the Raptors will have to pull together to make sure the battle at the free throw line isn't lost. And even with James Harden out with an injury, the Raptors will still be hard pressed to keep things competitive.
2) Personal accountability
There hasn't been much personal accountability on the defensive end. We will, of course, see it in spurts, but the Raptors have seldom put an all-out effort from start to finish. Amongst the worst are the Raptors' point guards, who were absolutely crushed by Russell Westbrook the last time out. Mercilessly attacking the Raptors at the point, the Thunder just bullied their way into the lane like neither point guard was there. They set up most of their offense through Westbrook and if the Raptors do not take care of him, the Thunder will just trample the Raptors.
However, it doesn't stop with just Jarrett Jack and Jose Calderon. Here's a stat that may surprise you. The biggest difference in PER on the Raptors at each position against their opponents isn't at point guard, it's at the small forward position. The Raptors absolutely must find a way to make Durant into a jump shooter and live with the consequences. Otherwise Hedo Turkoglu will be chewed up and spit out like yesterday's gum.
3) Take care of the ball
A prime reason why the Raptors beat the Hawks the other night was how well they took care of the ball. With only four turnovers in the night, the Raptors managed to keep possessions and make the most of them throughout the game. Against the Thunder, they will have to do much of the same. The differential in turnovers last time against the Thunder was -7, with the Raptors committing 18 turnovers for the game. With the Thunder able to run out as a pack, turning the ball over was almost as good as giving the Thunder free points. The Raptors cannot afford to make sloppy mistakes against such an athletic team.