Toronto Raptors Seek To Rediscover Chemistry – Gut Check Time

While December 8, 2013 may not hold any historical reference, it does hold a special significance for this current Raptors squad. On this date, a little more than 16 months ago the infamous trade that sent Rudy Gay packing occurred. It’s also the day Kobe Bryant stepped on the Staples Center Court for the first time since his Achilles tendon injury. The short-handed Raptors led by Amir Johnson (who scored a career high 32 points) beat the Lakers.

At the time the Raptors were 6-12.

From this date forward the Raptors went 42- 22 in what I coined the magical season. Highlighting this period, Toronto never lost 3 games in a row, were one of two teams who didn’t suffer a 20 point loss and became known as fourth quarter defensive specialists. Moreover, the playoff starved fan base was witnessing games in May and demonstrating their enthusiasm not just inside the ACC but outside in Jurassic Park and even took over the opponents’ arena.

When the Raptors jumped out to a quick start this season, seemingly picking up where they left off the team and fans were riding high. Almost a year after that game in Los Angeles, on December 30th, the Raptors played perhaps their best game of this season in Portland, albeit losing a heart breaker in overtime. From this point forward something changed. The Raptors have had glimpses here and there since then, but they never fully resembled the 2013-14 squad you instinctively knew would be in every game regardless of the score entering that final frame.

Sure, there have been injuries and personnel changes, but the essence of last year’s team has been AWOL since the loss in Portland.

Entering tonight, the Raptors are in as close to a must win as they’ll get. The Raptors do boast the best Eastern Conference road record over the past two seasons (shared with Chicago) with 44 road victories so it’s not a situation that will unnerve their confidence. However, a third consecutive loss would no doubt induce Wizard fans to show up with brooms on Sunday. For athletes of professional sports and a team who took such pride in their on and off court chemistry this has to be beyond humbling.

Yet, players and coaching staff comments regarding why the team is down 0-2, why they didn’t play with a sense of urgency, didn’t bring enough energy or were playing too comfortable is disconcerting. This is the playoffs after all.

Certainly, they can’t be saying they weren’t prepared for Washington are they? Or weren’t aware of the position they were putting themselves in by losing back to back games on their home court (in the manner they did) right?

Was this an admission they had underestimated the Wizards and were playing with a view beyond this series or weren’t properly prepared? Or is this simply as some pundits have highlighted over the past few days, a matter of a team with far greater talent on its roster beating us?

If its motivation the squad is seeking there are countless articles, tweets, and interviews Casey and his staff can choose from:

Agent zero (Gilbert Arenas) has been spouting off for over a month now regarding both Toronto and Chicago as if he’s expecting to pull on a jersey and run out of that tunnel himself. Most analysts, national media and even knowledgeable fans have declared the series over given the 93.9% success rate of teams who go up 2-0 to start a series.

Perhaps the greater concern is the Washington players’ statements and actions which have been allowed to garner additional media coverage simply because they are winning. We expect it from Paul Pierce its part of his game. And whether you like the “Truth” or despise him, the fact is his comments were masterful, as it obviously got the Raptors focusing on something other than the product on the floor.

But, for the young Bradley Beal to be waving goodbye and curiously spouting off about Toronto “thinking that we’re some punks” (excuse me, but where exactly is he drawing this from? Even Pierce denied this was the case when asked post game). However, it should serve as more than ample inspiration to do exactly that.

From my perspective, at least if Casey is going to continue utilizing Psycho T in his starting line-up then why not have him send a statement early, similar to how Matt Barnes has played his enforcer role for the Clippers. If he’s only going to play in the first quarter then let’s see a hard foul the first time Beal tries to go baseline.

I’m not suggesting he try to injure anyone, but a hard legal foul to set the tone might go a long way to remind Washington (and maybe even the Raptors themselves) of what the Wizards should expect moving forward. In fact, the one player I don’t mind seeing foul out is Hansbrough. Especially if it comes courtesy of doling out 6-hard fouls on the Wizards’guards to send that message.  

Of note: for all his bravado (admittedly deserved so far) even Beal might know the We The North faithful is expected to descend on Washington in droves.

We can break down the stats, pull up film clips and discuss the factors why Washington appears poised to book tickets to Atlanta or we can point out one simple fact. These Raptors became successful (even facing more talented teams) because they played as a team and their chemistry ostensibly gave them an edge. They played with a chip on their shoulder knowing they were underestimated and they took to the court with an attitude of “I’ll make you respect me”.

They’ve extolled on this chemistry, and in fairness, unlike many teams we don’t hear of locker room issues in Toronto. But, given that fact the team knows a loss Friday will equate to them handing Masai Ujiri the flint to ignite the dynamite, tonight is their opportunity to respond.

So, if this team truly is as close as they say (and we’ve seen) that should be enough motivation on its own. Further, the fan base who has traveled around the league to overtake arenas in support has earned the privilege of witnessing their very best effort.

Honestly, we could care less what other people say about us. You know if it’s fans, the critics, reporters, analysts, it doesn’t matter. Had we worried about that, we wouldn’t be in the position we are now. Especially last year where everyone was doubting us, and we were able to turn things around. So, with us we understand we’re pretty much playing with our backs against the wall. Game 3, is basically a game that we have to have, plain and simple, black and white. We cannot lose Game 3, and we are all on the same page. We all understand that and we all know we all have to bring our “A” Game and focus.Patrick Patterson

Don’t get me wrong, I actually expect the Raptors, and more specifically Kyle Lowry to put forth exactly that this evening. Notably, the last time Lowry had back to back games with less than double digit scoring it was March 18th (the last game he played prior to sitting out initially for rest) and March 24 (the game he tried to return in Detroit and played 10 minutes). It was the only time this season that anomaly occurred.

Regardless of the future coaching situation, the injuries, the whistles or the talent across from them, what needs to be present tonight is no question regarding effort, desire, urgency or focus. As much as this series may well be over, a win tonight would at least salvage some pride for this squad and more importantly showcase to the fans they aren’t just getting lip service. Besides, just like the old sports adage goes … you take it one game at a time and you never know what can happen. It is after all the Wizards, who we have had a long history of battles against (Mo Pete hail Mary anyone?)

So, as the Raptors take to the court at the Verizon Center tonight, there should be one goal and one goal only – to bring their very best and earn back some respect: from the media, from the supportive fan base and perhaps most importantly for themselves.

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