Gameday: Raptors vs Scum of the Earth

The Raptors are in Boston tonight and the only question for this game is whether we’ll beat that ungodly team by 55 or 65.

The Raptors don’t have a true rivalry in effect right now. It’s partially because this franchise is missing two key ingredients of any rivalry: being in existence long enough to develop one, and being good enough for anybody to care. If you had to pick some candidates for a rivalry you’d probably lean towards the Knicks, there’s some playoff history there, the Camby-Oakley trade, and there’s also geographic proximity. The Nets with Vince Carter were always interesting, but it was only because of Carter and nothing more. Before Carter got there and since he left, nobody quite cares if we play the Nets, in fact the NBA outright shipped two matchups against the Nets across the Atlantic to London. Philly might also pop-up in the discussion but one playoff loss does not a rivalry make, just think of the Magic as an example.

In recent years, Boston is the team that has managed to draw the attention of Raptors fans. The Bosh-Garnett matchup was always something to look forward to, and then there was the whole Garnett/Calderon taunting incident, and one can’t also forget that they went from being absolutely crap to NBA champs in a year. As Raptors fans, that had to sting. Before the year Boston won the title, the Raptors had won 3 out of 4 from them, and in the last game in Boston which we lost, Gerald Green went out of his way to throw it down on the break with seconds on the clock when he could’ve honorably dribbled the clock out. It was from that moment which my hate for them caught fire.

Since then, the Raptors have lost 12 of 13 regular season matchups and three pre-season games. Tonight in Boston at 6PM, the Raptors try to break this long string of losing against a team that’s 2-0 in pre-season. From the little that can be gleamed from pre-season games, tonight’s matchups should provide a good test in a couple respects:

Defending against Rondo: He gives everybody trouble, but for the Raptors this particular breed of point guard is the reason why the defense is ranked 30th in the league. Stopping Rondo and what Rondo can create has always been a challenge for the Raptors guards, specifically Calderon. Rondo played 18 and 21 minutes in the two games thus far and seeing how well our point guard combination can stick with him in one-on-one and high-screen situations could foreshadow their defense to come. He’s likely to only play 20 minutes, so there’s not much time to see how Triano will approach playing a guard such as Rondo. Ball-denial might not work since Boston has good ball-handlers and gambling in the passing lanes against Rondo is a big risk, so it’ll come down to doing the basics, which is keeping him in front of you.

I’m sure Triano’s not going to put Calderon and Jack under the pressure of dealing with Rondo on their own and he’s likely to use some of the same tools that were successful against Phoenix:

Hit guys, make them give it up and not get it back. A guy like Nash, a guy who controls the game, if you can double-team him, make him give it up, we did that two or three times, Robin Lopez had the ball and had to initiate the offence. That’s not what they want to do. We’re taking the ball out of one of the best players, then make him work the whole game to get it back just so they can run the play. We’re not really pressing, we’re not playing 94 feet, but we’re trying to be strategic with where we are and how we do things.

Garnett’s versatility: All power forward’s that have come into the league over the last five years look up to Kevin Garnett as a model of consistency and someone to emulate. As much as I loathe Garnett and wish that somebody would knock the fake thug out of him, he has performed since moving to New England. Garnett is a good measuring stick to see how far Amir Johnson’s intelligence on defense has come along, the latter had a poor showing in Vancouver but we’re willing to look past that as long as he displays some sort of thought to his defending tonight. It’s the small stuff with him, keeping your arms straight instead of leaning when defending a fade or up-and-under, staying still when trying to pick up a charge, opting to go for the contest instead of the block on help defense, establishing a better defensive position instead of trying to make up for it using your athleticism, and so on. It’ll be interesting watching Johnson react when Garnett is used as a trapper at half-court, or as a pick-setter for Rondo, or in the post when Garnett’s on the isolation. The versatility of Garnett means that Johnson will be put in a variety of defensive situations, and analyzing him in those situations can tell us whether he’s picked up something new this summer.

Johnson’s focus for the game is the offensive side of the ball:

We’re not worried about them, we’re worried about what we can do against the big men. We obviously know we’re quicker than their big men so once we get on the floor, we’re definitely going to try to run, get Shaq to run. Outrun everything. Figure out a ways that we can stop them defensively.

Countering the intelligence of Pierce and Allen: Paul Pierce could be slowest small forward in the league but the way he manages to get to the rim would make you think otherwise. The word crafty has never been more appropriate than when it is used in describing Pierce, a defender has to be completely in tune with what Pierce is trying to do if he has a chance of stopping him. From the head-fakes at the three-point line to the shoulder-fakes at the elbow, from the pivot-spin to the step-back, Pierce has mastered the art of creating space in the mid-range area. This would be a good test for DeRozan or Weems on two accounts: how well they can anticipate Pierce’s trickery, and whether they can use their youth and athleticism to hurt him on defense. On paper, the latter should be possible but will it come to fruition is the question. As for Allen, he’s always a great barometer of how well one can negotiate screens. Not since Reggie Miller has been there a player that is as good at screen usage as Allen, Rip Hamilton comes close but not really.

There’s also the Bargnani/Shaq matchup which will highlight Shaq’s age and Bargnani’s post-defense. It’s always been a wish of mine to see Bargnani tear Shaq up, but it’s only really happened once – last year’s season opener.

Jarrett Jack reminded us of reality in light of the Raptors’ blowout of Phoenix:

We can get it up and down the floor, being able to sustain it over an 82-game period is very, very tough. I was talking to Reggie, I was just saying it’s the first game, we’re 40 minutes into a 6-month season. Everybody can’t really be high-fiving and thining, ‘we’re about to win the East’. Let’s just settle down and with us being so young, we can get just ahead of ourselves.

Veteran talk from a veteran player. This year more than ever, Jack has to be the voice of reason and a pillar of consistency, not even so much with his play but by his demeanor, body-language and persona in the locker-room. There will be some very tough nights this season and it’s during those dark times that a personality like Jack will be counted on the most. It’s very easy for young players to lose their concentration and confidence, start second-guessing and doubting, and lose their way when things aren’t so bright. It’s going to be the responsibility of players like Jack, Calderon, Evans and even Kleiza to make sure spirits and heads stay high on those grueling West coast trips when the whole season seems lost.

This is a topic that I never thought of much but since we’ve failed on this account the last couple years, let’s talk about what song the Raptors should use. Here’s my pick – Ecstasy of Gold, the crescendo part around 1:25.

The live chat starts at 6PM, there is no local TV for the game but since it’s being broadcast in New England, there is going to be a stream. Check the chat for it.

Enjoy your Thanksgiving weekend.

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