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3 In the Key: Toronto Raptors Game Day Preview vs. Utah

Two wins in a row, and all is still not right in Raptorland.  With the Raptors putting away the teams that they absolutely had to, they now embark on a series of games against the West, starting with the Utah Jazz.

I've been often called by my colleagues as the most optimistic of the Raptors HQ writers, but even with the past few wins, I'm having a hard time feeling too good about this team.  Barely pulling out wins against the Timberwolves and the Nets in the final month of the season is not my idea of getting into the playoffs with momentum.

And it certainly isn't a great message to send to their top off season signing priority.

While it's still too early to say what Chris Bosh will decide, the past month and a half are not the ideal situation to show Bosh that he can compete with the top teams in the league while he's a Raptor.

A few of our readers have mentioned that the Raptors are right now at the bottom of the playoff picture and they just need a little improvement to bring them up to the next level of the playoff picture. (3rd, 4th, or 5th place in the conference.)  Of course, this all depends on Bosh re-signing in the summer.

But let's just say he does, and the Raptors have another 3-4 years to build around Bosh.  What then? Where, pray tell, will this improvement come from? 

Chemistry?  Are the Raptors playing better now that they have months on their belt? For all that talk about how this team has worked things out and was firing on all cylinders during the All Star break, they have yet to show any of that same chemistry and togetherness from before the break.  That's maybe good enough for a mid-to-bottom level playoff contender, but it's not the mark of a champion team.

Free Agency?  If Bosh bolts, the Raptors will still only have limited cap space thanks to the way the salary cap and luxury tax are structured and you're going to have a big hole to fill. If he does, you've got to find someone to lead, motivate, and be the top scorer and rebounder on the team.  Motivating someone from the free agency class to take on that responsibility in Toronto would be a monumental task and would be another chemistry-building exercise.  But for our scenario, he stays, and we'll have the chase to sign someone, which brings us to...

The MLE?  I'm not sure MLSE is going to give the green light to go into luxury tax territory if this team is going to go into merely 3rd, 4th, or 5th spot.  They want to see this team in that area, then give the green light to sign a player that puts them into luxury tax territory.  If Bosh, however, does leave, the Raptors will also in effect lose the MLE unless they find a way to sign and trade Bosh the same way they did with Turkoglu a year ago.

Trades?  Who are you going to trade?  Marcus Banks?  He'll only bring you back a player worth 4 mil or so.  A 4 mil player is not going to change the face of this team.  Reggie Evans?  His 5 million is looking more and more bloated.  And let's not even talk about the fact that the Raptors will need to re-sign Amir Johnson and Antoine Wright after this year, two of their better defensive players.

The point is, the core group of Bargnani, Jack, Turkoglu and Calderon are all signed up for at least 3 more years.  These are the guys that are playing the most minutes and if the Raptors are going to make any significant changes, it has to come from these four.  These four are the ones we have to focus on every night because we're going to be seeing their collective faces for a long time unless Colangelo finds his next "miracle trade".

And that's the issue with this team right now.  Instead of proving and showing that they have improved, we are left hoping things will get better.

Hope is not how the Utah Jazz have built themselves into a consistent playoff pest.

It's no surprise that the Jazz are once again in the thick of the Western Conference.  Sitting just behind the Nuggets for their division and fourth overall in their conference, the Jazz are already sitting at 46 wins, a mark that the Raptors will be extremely hard pressed to match.  How do the Jazz remain perennial contenders in the league?  It's quite simple.  It starts with their coach and it's here where we'll start our 3 keys:

1) Jerry Sloan
Everything begins with Jerry Sloan.  Coach Sloan is a veteran of the NBA who has been through wars against Phil Jackson, Gregg Popovich, and the best the NBA has to offer.  Being a veteran coach means that his teams never feel over confident after a big win like the Jazz had on Monday against the Celtics.  In start contrast, the Raptors frequently find themselves riding the opposite ends of the spectrum on a nightly basis.    Jay Triano cannot hope to match Coach Sloan in every area, but he can definitely assist the Raptors by fostering the correct rotations and making the right plays out of timeouts.  For Triano, it'll be about minimizing his own mistakes.

2) It's about free throws
In their two wins against the the Nets and the Timberwolves, they hit 50% and 49% of their shots respectively.  Yet, the Raptors only scored 100 points against the former, and 106 points against the latter.  Meanwhile, the Jazz hit 51% of their shots against Boston and score 110 points.  Why?  Because they went to the line 31 times, while the Raptors only went to the line 14 (!!) times against the Nets and 24 times against the Timberwolves.

Once again displaying how anemic they are at getting to the line, the Raptors simply insist on getting points the hard way.  It also doesn't help that the three people best at getting to the line on a per minute basis (not named Bosh) are Reggie Evans, DeMar DeRozan, and Marco Belinelli.  That's right, the three best players at getting to the line besides Bosh all have some issues that prevent them from playing extended minutes.  

And just for the heck of it, I'll also point out that Marco Belinelli has the most steals per minute out of all the regulars.  It just might help, considering that the Raptors are now last in the league in steals.

3) Laziness kills
As shocking as Bargnani's admission of guilt to his rebounding woes may be to some, it's at least refreshing that he would admit as much to his own fault unlike others on this team.  Lazy passes, not coming to meet the ball, not cutting the lanes hard even though the ball might not get in your hands, not keeping your man in front of you, and more are all part of a laundry list of items where this team could use more effort.  Everyone on this team has been guilty of it and it has driven me crazy the past month and a half.  Something as simple as meeting the ball when a pass is made when the game is on the line is not something that has to be taught, and it's not something that Jay Triano can push his players into doing either.  It has to come from within, with a need to make things run perfectly down the stretch.

Instead, those plays turn into back breakers for our team.

For the Jazz, they have many capable runners on their team, all of whom will be extremely active on the defensive end.  Watching the Jazz execute their offense and defense can be a thing of beauty as every player is attentive to details.  That's why the Jazz are first in assists and field goal percentage in the league, and are third overall in assist-to-turnover ratio. 

The Raptors have to be committed into doing the little things, otherwise they will never become one of the better teams of the NBA, let alone beat the Utah Jazz.