It is the midway point in the NBA season (the second half of the season starts tonight) and the Toronto Raptors are right where most pundits had put them in the season previews: competitive in the Eastern Conference, but probably not a threat to the big three (Cleveland, Boston, and Orlando).
The big three have since been joined by the Atlanta Hawks, who have graduated to a top echelon team. The Hawks took the experience from last year’s playoff loss to Boston and have exploded this season with the star performances of Josh Smith, Al Horford and sixth man of the year contender Jamal Crawford.
Unfortunately, Toronto hasn’t stepped up the same way Atlanta did when they lost to Orlando in the playoffs last season. Although the Raptors have gotten great performances from Chris Bosh, Andrea Bargnani and their sixth man Jarret Jack, it is still much easier for fans in Toronto to focus on the negatives (the Maple Leafs, Blue Jays and Argonauts haven’t really given them a lot to cheer about lately either).
After playing for most of the last decade under defensive-minded coaches Kevin O’Neil and Sam Mitchell, Jay Triano’s squad would rather score buckets than protect their own this season. The Raptors are starting to look like the Denver Nuggets teams circa the mid-1990s: they can score more than the other team, and defense be damned!
The Raptors are surrendering a mind-boggling 104 points per game. For the Raptors to make a deep run in the playoffs this season, they are going to need to find a defensive stopper somewhere on the roster or in a trade before the deadline on Thursday.
Maybe a shut-down defender, someone like Bruce Bowen or Ron Artest, isn’t on the roster at the moment. But the Raptors should be able to improve in one defensive category in the second half of the season with some good old-fashioned hard work: rebounding the basketball.
The Raptors boast a big, athletic front line with Bosh, Bargnani, and Hedo Turkoglu, but are constantly being out-rebounded on both the offensive and defensive glass. By cutting down on those second chance points and getting a few more themselves, they should be able to cut down the points against per game and increase their own scoring.
Rebounding is a skill that has the ability to win games, especially on the road. Since the Raptors have not been winning the battle on the boards, they have been predictably poor on the road this season with a current record of 9-17. Although this isn’t as bad as Milwaukee or the Nets, it still is not very good.
They have lost some games they should have won against weaker teams or teams that were devastated by injury. Playing well on the road is a mental aspect of the game that Coach Triano must work on with the team if they want to avoid a tough first round playoff match up.
Although the Raptors could be in for a tough first round playoff match up against Atlanta, Orlando, or Boston, this could be the best situation for the prized free agent acquisition from last summer, Hedo Turkoglu.
Turkoglu had a fantastic playoff run last year for Orlando. He propelled his team to the finals by hitting big shots and making the most of his dominating center Dwight Howard. He then signed a big contract with the Raptors in the offseason and fans expected the same things they saw in June.
Unfortunately, Turkoglu has lost some of his big shot mojo somewhere between Orlando and Toronto; maybe it got stuck at customs. Other than hitting his two free throws at the end of the game versus the Lakers a few Sunday’s ago, Hedo has come up short too many times this season.
Turkoglu needs to become the dominating late-game threat, hitting his patented step back jump shot, that he was in Orlando. If he can do that, the Raptors might get enough accomplished in the second half of the season to get an easier first round playoff opponent. In turn, this would improve their chances to get on a run and challenge for the Eastern Conference crown.
Although the Raptors have had some struggles with defense, rebounding, and Turkoglu’s shooting, there have also been lots of positives from the first half. These are the things that the Raptors need to continue to rely on for a potentially successful playoff run and maybe a chance to keep Chris Bosh in free agency this summer.
Speaking of Chris Bosh, Toronto’s All-Star has had an outstanding first half of the season. Bosh knew coming into the season that this was a make-or-break campaign in terms of a new contract, and he has delivered. Currently second in the league (behind Dwight Howard) in double-doubles, Bosh has controlled games with his energy, been more aggressive on the offensive end (driving to the basket), and played a bigger role on defense (bailing out Bargnani and Calderon consistently).
Even though he lacks some defensive chops, the former first overall pick Andrea Bargnani has developed his offensive game this season, so much so that the work on his own end doesn’t matter any more. Bargnani causes matchup problems because of his size and athleticism for opposing centers and power forwards.
Another standout this season for the Raptors has been Jarret Jack. He has shown outstanding leadership and made a contribution coming off the bench behind starting point guard Jose Calderon and for a number of games during Calderon’s injury. Calderon plays better when his is being pushed, and Jack has certainly pushed the envelope this year.
Amir Johnson has provided energy off the bench and some solid defense. Unfortunately for him, he could see his minutes reduced with the return of Reggie Evans. Evans had missed the entire season and will hopefully be a Charles Oakley-type when he returns shortly.
The rotation that Coach Triano has been using in the last month or so has been very effective. The Raptors aren’t going nearly as deep into their bench as they have in the past, and this has worked nicely. With the addition of Evans to the lineup, Coach Triano will have to adjust that rotation and hopefully everyone can fall into place quickly so the good play can continue.
The one guy who has accepted his role in the rotation is the first round draft pick from this year, DeMar DeRozan. Drafted ninth overall (one spot ahead of Brandon Jennings... oops), DeRozan had started the first 45 games for the Raptors until a sprained ankle sidelined him. Although he doesn’t play many crunch time minutes, and only averages eight points per game, he has been playing better lately (averaged 13.6 points on 52 percent shooting in three games this week). He also had a nice performance in the All-Star dunk contest, which will hopefully boost his confidence in the second half of the season.
The Raptors have played well in spots this year: an opening night win versus the Cleveland Cavaliers, a recent win at home against the L.A. Lakers, not to mention the six game win streak to close out 2009. They also had a stretch where they won nine of 10 games, including matchups against the Spurs and Magic.
For the Raptors to have a successful second half (lets say .550 ball or better), they have to continue to win multiple games in a row, beat the teams in their own conference (Pistons, Knicks, Pacers) and win some more games on the road. If they can accomplish this, it may mean a happier June for Raps fans and a tougher decision for Chris Bosh come July.