Amidst all the Vince Carter hoopla, the Toronto Raptors have a game to play tonight.
And it's kind of important.
I called the Dinos' win over the Washington Wizards some weeks back, "passing the litmus test," as both Toronto and Washington were jockeying for a top spot in the Eastern Conference playoff race, and Toronto was in the middle of a very successful streak of basketball.
Tonight's game I'm also going to refer to as a litmus test of sorts, but for the opposite reason. Toronto has been suddenly playing terrible basketball at both ends of the court, losing games to teams frankly, they should not be losing to, and at this rate appear to be in danger of conceding their Atlantic Division lead to the hard-charging Brooklyn Nets. (Currently only two games back of Toronto.) The drawbridge needs to go up tonight and considering their opponent is the Dallas Mavericks, the very team Toronto kicked off their surprising win streak against around Christmas time, it's indeed a good test of just where this team is currently at.
Here are our three keys to a Toronto win:
1) Ratchet up the D. One of the reasons Toronto did vault up the Eastern Conference standings in the wake of Rudy Gay's trade was the club's defense. At one point last week the team was top 5 in the NBA in terms of defensive efficiency but of late, the club has looked positively Globetrotteresque in their ability/desire to stop other clubs. Giving up big leads to the Lakers last weekend was a pretty rough Exhibit A, but Exhibit B, giving up 26 first quarter points to the offensively challenged Charlotte Bobcats was even more damning. Against a very good offensive club in the Mavericks (sixth in offensive efficiency currently), Toronto has to do a much better job on D.
2) Get Amir and Big Val Involved Early and Often. A lot has been made about the struggles of Toronto's starting big men over the past few games, and indeed, the two haven't contributed much in recent matches. However they also haven't gotten a lot of looks in the flow of the game and some of this falls on Toronto's guard play. When Toronto's offense is rolling, players like DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry are attacking the hoop creating offensive rebound and dump pass opportunities for Johnson, and Lowry is also using Valanciunas in various pick-and-roll scenarios. This hasn't happened as much of late with DeRozan electing to pull up for tightly defended jump-shots, and Lowry upping his long-range attempts as he tries valiantly to keep his club in games. Tonight the emphasis needs to be on good ball movement and forays to the rim once more, which should not only benefit primary offensive options like DeRozan, but tertiary ones like Johnson and Valanciunas.
3) Set the alarm clocks. Is this team tired? That was a question I asked myself watching the replay of the Charlotte game where the club attempted some...questionable shots, especially in the first half. I'm not going to go as far as saying they were of the lazy variety, but often they had the "I'm too tired to drive, I'll just shoot it" feeling to them.
The Raps can't afford to get behind early to a team like Dallas so they need to come out with a lot more energy than they did in Charlotte and for portions of the Lakers match.