This is the start of a seven game homestand: Bucks, Celtics, Lakers, Knicks, Spurs, Bobcats, and Pistons. Let’s pretend we’re in a playoff race and view this as a chance to make up some ground. The Raptors are three games out of a playoff spot behind the 8th seeded Bucks, who they play tonight. Between the eighth seed and the Raptors also lie the Knicks, Cavs, and Nets. The favorites in this pack have to be the Knicks based on sheer talent, or perceived talent, not to mention the likelihood that they’ll be making a move at the deadline to rectify their standing (Nash?).

The playoffs were set a distant target by Casey in the pre-season, and that’s where they are right now: distant. There aren’t any expectations to make them, but I do hope the Raptors stay within a shout of it as it’ll give the team something to aim at and make for more competitive basketball. If the record rapidly deteriorates in this homestand, the Raptors will officially bow out of this chase and make way for the lowest form of garbage time (of course, you might argue that’s already started). What I’m saying is that to give this season a tinge of interest, the Raptors need to stay close.

The Bucks are in a familiar position as the Raptors, as in their contemplating blowing things up because their current roster isn’t going to get them anywhere in particular. For some teams sneaking into the playoffs as an eighth seed might be seen as a sign of progress (e.g., the Raptors), for others like the Bucks, it’s a disappointment because their roster was put together to compete at a higher level. After their return to the playoffs under Brandon Jennings in 2009-10, last season’s 35 wins were a disappointment, and this year’s acquisitions of Stephen Jackson, and Mike Dunleavy for Corey Maggette, and John Salmons, have basically resulted in no impact. The fans are calling Scott Skiles a great coach while calling for his head at the same time.

Brandon Jennings is having the third season that we expected DeMar DeRozan to have, i.e., he’s improving in areas where he was deemed to be weak: a 4% increase in shooting percentage, a 4% increase in 3-pt percentage, all the while upping his scoring by 3.7 without sacrificing efficiency, and in fact, increasing both TS% and eFG% significantly. It’s no wonder that he’s being bandied about as a potential All-Star. If he does make the team, he’ll only be the second guy behind Blake Griffin to make it there from the 2009 draft, where the Raptors passed up on him for DeRozan.

For this game, I expect Ersan Ilyasova to have a massive outing which I hope Linas Kleiza can counter. I can also see Jerryd Bayless try and go toe-to-toe with Brandon Jennings, often deviating from Dwane Casey’s loosely defined offensive game plan. With the Bucks starting Livingston and Jennings in the backcourt, if there ever was a game to have Bayless and Calderon start again, this would be it. The DeRozan matchup has him up against either Delfino or Mbah a Moute, two players that you hope DeRozan can outplay but as we’ve learned this season, isn’t likely.

A stat that caught my eye was defensive rebounding and the remarkable improvement the Raptors have shown in the category this season. The Raptors are 5th in the league in taking care of the defensive glass – they collect 75.7% of available defensive boards. Last year they were 25th and the year before that, 23rd. This is quite a significant jump and could be attributed to a slower pace where players aren’t leaking in transition and instead sticking around to see the possession through, or simply a better collective emphasis on rebounding.

The rise in Bargnani’s defensive rebounding rate is the most astonishing – he’s collecting 18% of defensive rebounds available, which is a 4.1% increase from last year. No other Raptors player comes even close to matching this increase. Once you collect little defensive stats like opponent field goal percentage and others, and put them together, it’s clear that the defensive side of the game isn’t the concern it used to be. Now it’s a matter of filling out the offensive talent without mightily compromising the defense, and what’s gone totally shit for the Raptors this season is that players who were expected to contribute in that area have taken a step back: DeMar DeRozan, Ed Davis, and even Amir Johnson.

You might not think much of the PER stat, but it remains a decent indicator of a player’s offensive abilities, and across these three players we’ve seen a combined 11.1 dip in PER! Those are three players we expected to make forward offensive progress, say 9 PER collectively, and have let us down big time! That’s a net 20 PER difference which equates to one damn good player. This could be the difference between the lottery and the forward progress that the playoffs were seen as.

Now, the question becomes is this dip momentary or a sign of things to come. For Ed Davis, it’s too early to tell since he’s only played 91 games in his career. For Amir Johnson, it’s something that I feel can be corrected if he isn’t banging with centers beyond his weight level, and asked to play a reserve role suited for him. For DeRozan, it’s a legitimate concern with the hope being the dip in productivity isn’t because of him flattening, but system adjustments.

Make sure you vote for DeRozan’s book thingy. Not to end on a sad note, but Sonny Weems has disowned us.

So, a Wednesday game at the ACC. Might just head out.

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