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3 in the Key - Raptors' Game-Day Preview vs. Spurs

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Four losses in a row and no sign of a break as the Toronto Raptors take on the San Antonio Spurs tonight in SA...

Recently I was reminded of how truly great the San Antonio Spurs franchise has been.

Basketball ran a story a few days ago looking at the most consistent clubs over the past decade, and the Spurs finished on top of their ratings.

Oh, and that's consistently good too.

With a a league-high 71 percent winning percentage and a standard deviation of only 0.057, this means that San Antonio over the last 10 years was simply put, the most consistently good team in the league.

Interestingly, the Raps made Basketball Reference's list as well in terms of consistency.

With a standard deviation of only 0.091, they were the sixth most consistent club over the last decade.

Only with a winning percentage of 0.425, they were the opposite of the San Antonio Spurs as in, "one of the most consistently horrible teams of the decade."

Why do I bring this up?

Well tonight, the last decade's measure of excellence hosts the Toronto Raptors as the Dinos look to end a four-game losing skid.  And considering the Spurs have lost only six games all season, and could actually hit that magical 70 win mark should they not drop a game from here on out, getting a win tonight will undoubtedly be a tough task for the Raptors.

In fact, while doing some back and forth with Dale Dye, aka "Jolly Roger Wilco," from SB Nation's Spurs' blog, Pounding the Rock, I asked him if this current incarnation of the Spurs is the deepest and most superior version of the team since the days of David Robinson.  Here was his take:

The short answer is: no. The teams that made up the should-have-been threepeat from 2005-2007 (please don't make me explain Game 7 against Dallas in '06) were probably the best since Robinson retired. Tim Duncan was in his prime. Tony Parker was adding a jumper to his crazyfast drives. And Manu was at his pre-ankle-injuries best; he would dunk regularly, no one could stay in front of him, and he was always pulling off some crazy pass that was impossible to predict. Not to mention that Bruce Bowen was still with the team then. You just can't quantify what he meant to the team's defense. It's impossible. He brought the tenacity every night and refused to ever give up on a play, even when the man he was guarding had already dropped 40 points on him. We miss him terribly. Turns out that wasn't such a short answer after all.

That said, this year's team is playing exceptionally well. The defense, while starting to show signs, isn't what it used to be, but the offense has been insane. Tops of the league in offensive efficiency and near the top in scoring and a ton of other metrics -- we've never seen a Spurs team play like this. And it's all happening with Duncan pretty much on standby, waiting to see if he's needed, and taking a seat in the fourth if he's not. He's playing just enough to show that he's still got it, but not enough to make us worry about his minutes and whether he'll have enough left for the playoffs. Tony's shown that he's back from last year's injury-riddled season (while it was still 2010, he'd already surpassed his Win Shares total from last year), and Manu's getting the most MVP buzz he's ever received in his career. He doesn't care (and he'll never get it) but it's nice that he's in the discussion.

Which leads us to the bench. The one that Manu's no longer a part of, and the one that has won enough games that Duncan put himself back into a game in the fourth, even though it was already decided, just because he hadn't played in the fourth quarter for four straight games. Gary Neal is a 26 year-old rookie who's been in Europe since college and not only shoots right at 40% on his 3's, but actually can put the ball on the floor, hit a floater, fight for rebounds, work hard on defense, and pass without embarrassing himself. James Anderson is also rookie, out of Oklahoma State, and while he's missed time recovering from a stress fracture, he was shooting lights out and playing good team defense before his injury. He's expected back next month. Antonio McDyess is what he's been for the last 5 years, a great defender and terrific rebounder who doesn't have to have minutes to hit that jumper when it's needed. And then there's Matt Bonner: he of the .514 average from deep. The Red Rocket has actually added a dribble and a floater to his game, so it's not quite a terrifying when he's chased off the three point line. He hardly ever turns it over, and his work on the boards (even against board-hungry Minnesota) has been respectable.

So, while you can wonder about whether the record is fool's gold or the real deal (the atrocious strength of schedule in the early part of the season, and all of the contenders with injured stars that the Spurs have played more recently) it's not a bad conversation to be forced into having.

A big thanks to Dale for his take on this and while perhaps the answer in the end to my query was "no," that doesn't make tonight's match any easier of a W for the Dinos.

To that end, here are our 3 keys:

1.  Score, score and score some more.  Typically the San Antonio Spurs have rolled out one of the league's top defences and have at times, struggled to put enough points on the board, especially when they've had to deal with injuries to gunners like Ginobili and Parker.  However this year it's bizzaro-world for the Spurs.  They've got the top team in the league in terms of offensive efficiency, but are only sixth in terms of defensive efficiency.  I say "only sixth" because of their past success in this regard, and to Dale's point, this mark of "sixth" is a jump from where they were earlier in the season, sitting around 10th.

The Raptors are a fraction out of last place in terms of defensive efficiency but have played better of late in that regard.  The problem is, even by playing "better" (they've held the last 3 clubs to 43% shooting from the field), the club's still a long ways away from being a lock-down defensive unit, so tonight the Raps may have to fight fire with fire and try to go toe-to-toe with SA on offense.  Toronto's only been a middle of the road offensive group though this year compared to years past, so they definitely have their work cut out for them.

2.  Clean the glass.  One of the Raptors' surprising strengths early in the season was their ability to rebound the basketball.  Reggie Evans played a big part in this, but even guys like Amir Johnson and Andrea Bargnani were doing a fairly solid job.

Of late that's not been the case though and you can see a direct correlation between losing the rebounding battle and losing games.  Toronto has been outrebounded by three of their last four opponents and essentially played the Pistons to a draw in this category in the other match.  Oh yes, and all four have been losses.

It's easy to point the finger at Andrea, who's averaging a measly 5.8 boards over that time span, but Toronto's wings need to do a much better job helping out their big-men in this capacity as well.  San Antonio and Toronto have almost the exact same rebounding rate on the season, so this probably comes down to effort tonight so that guys like DeJuan Blair and Matt Bonner don't continue the trend we've seen from guys like Hilton Armstrong and Luke Harangody.

3.  Take care of the ball.  The last thing you want to do to a fire that's burning out of control is throw gasoline on it. The Spurs, as noted, have the league's top offense by various metrics and so tonight, Toronto can't afford to give them extra opportunities.  Some of this comes via the rebounding angle, our second key, but a good chunk will come from Toronto taking care of the ball too.  The Raps are 23rd in the league in terms of TO's, not great, and they simply can't give SA extra looks or this one will be over early.

By contrast, the Spurs have one of the lowest turnover rates in the league so it's doubtful that the Raps will get many of those extra possessions they give up back.  Jose Calderon has been a bit up and down in this capacity of late but the onus will be on guys like Bargnani and Johnson (4 turnovers combined last match) to do a good job inside as well.