The Toronto Raptors open up their 2008-09 campaign tonight in Philadelphia against a Sixers team that they have a lot in common with.
Both are coming off first round exits in last years playoffs, where the Sixers were bounced by the Pistons in six games and the Raps were unceremoniously dismissed in five contests by the Magic.
Both teams added an all-star caliber big man over the summer - Jermaine O'Neal in Toronto and Elton Brand in Philly, respectively - that they hope will elevate their teams to the Eastern Conference's elusive upper tier.
Both those aforementioned big men will be trying to get their careers back on track after deliberating knee injuries kept them out of most of the 2007-08 season.
Tonight will be a good test for both squads, and while the season is still in it's preliminary stages, it may give us some insight on how the Atlantic division will shake down as we proceed through the year.
Raptors: Jermaine O'Neal
A healthy Jermaine O'Neal provides the type of low post presence and defensive intensity that the Raptors have been sorely missing for years. No one is quite sure what we'll see from JO this season, but no one can argue that he's not an upgrade over the Nesterovic/Bargnani combo from last season.
Sixers: Samuel Dalembert.
Dalembert is one of the better shot blockers in the league but has an offensive game that often has the co-ordination a new born baby goat. Luckily for the Sixers, they have enough firepower surrounding Dalembert that he won't be relied on to score besides the odd dunk or putback.
Both players are great defensively but O'Neals prowess on the offensive side give the Dino's the edge at the five spot.
Raptors: Chris Bosh.
Coming off a summer that saw him win a gold medal in Beijing while beating out good buddy Dwight Howard for crunch time minutes in the process will serve as a huge boost of Confidence for CB4. It's becoming increasingly hard to nitpick Bosh's game, as he's added an outside shot to compliment his work on the block.
The chemistry between Bosh and O'Neal is still a work in progress however, and may take a few weeks to fine tune. Bosh has never played with another big who demands the rock like O'Neal, something that both will need time to adjust to.
Sixers: Elton Brand.
The Sixers are relying on Brand to provide the frontcourt consistency that he's not only become known for, but that the Sixers desperately were missing from their roster last season. After playing in only six games last year, Brand should return to top form and establish himself as one of the biggest double-double threats in the East.
Anyone watching tonight's contest will be treated to a marquee match up of two of the Conference's best big men. Hobbled by injuries and playing in Clipperlandfor the last few seasons, Brand often flies under the radar. 2008 may serve as vindication for Brand, who is surrounded by more talent than he ever has in his career.
Raptors: Jamario Moon.
Jamario Moon has beaten out Jason Kapono and Joey Graham for the starting nod to begin the season. Moon emerged out of relative obscurity last season to become one of the league's more exciting players, but will he take a step back this season? His reliance on a shaky jumpshotand poor defensive positioning often draws the ire of Sam Mitchell, but at times he also brings many of the intangibles you need to win games. Which Moon will we see tonight?
Sixers: Thaddeus Young.
A popular pick for this seasons "Most Improved Player" award, Young has the type of potential that NBA brass drool over. After starting only 22 games for Philly last year, he's getting a crack as the full time starter for the Sixers at the three spot. Much like his counterpart Moon, Young is highly athletic but struggles with consistency at times. But at the tender age of 20, Young's learning curve is off the charts. I'd bank on him becoming a big time NBA player sooner rather than later.
It's pretty close, but Young has an advanced offensive game and shoots a fantastic percentage from the field. Both players have the ability to play great during stretches, as well as come up with plays that ignite their team and the crowd however, so the small forward will be a crucial position in tonight's meeting.
Raptors: Anthony Parker.
AP does all the things that a coach loves. Plays defense, takes good shots, and serves as a leader in the locker room. But in order for the Raptors to truly take off this year, they'll need a little bit more than that from Parker. He should get more open looks with defenses keying on the Dino's twin towers, it's on Parker to knock them down.
Sixers: Andre Iguodala
The definition of a "stat line stuffer". Iguodalaexploits above the rim often overshadow the development of his entire game, but make no mistakes, this is guy on the cusp of stardom. He's not a pure scorer, but the presence of Brand should ease the pressure for Iguodala and allow him to do more slashing - an area where he excels.
Parker is solid, but he doesn't possess the type of game-changing abilities that Iguodala does.
Raptors: Jose Calderon.
With TJ Ford in Indiana, the keys for the Raps have been firmly planted in the hands of Calderon. Despite being subjected to the point guard carousel last year in the T-Dot, Calderon posted outstanding numbers last season. The growing sentiment is that he'll make the leap to the top tier of point guards now that he's been given the opportunity to start every night.
Sixers: Andre Miller.
Surrounded by a slew of capable finishers and entering the final year of his contract, Miller seems primed to have a good season. Miller is capable of getting his own offense, but his value to this team will ultimately be decided by his ability to distribute.
Yes, I'm one of those who thinks Calderon takes it to the next level this season. Calderon rarely turns it over and dishes out assists at a breakneck pace. Miller may outscore Calderon in tonight's game, but in terms of game control and leadership... I like Jose.
Raptors: Jason Kapono, Roko Ukic, Andreas Bargnani, Joey Graham, Hassan Adams, Kris Humphries.
Kapono should get minutes with Bosh & O'Neal, as Mitchell will try to take advantage of double-teams to get Kap-One open shots. Bargnani can be great one night and then stink the joint out the next. Ukic is unproven, and could very well struggle in his debut. Graham, Adams and Humphries are prototypical bench players who can provide a shot in the arm for Toronto during a lull.
Sixers: Willie Green, Louis Williams, Mareese Speights, Theo Ratliff, Reggie Evans, Kareem Rush.
Philly brings a pair of young gunners off the pine in Willie Green and Louis Williams, who can light it up with the best of them when they're on. Reggie Evans and Theo Ratliff are role players at this point in their careers, but they play a physical game and both clean the glass well. Rookie Mareese Speights has showed glimpses of greatness during the summer league/preseason, but will probably take some seasoning before he's a regular rotation player.
If Andreas Bargnani plays to his potential tonight, the advantage can quickly flip over to the Raptors side. But if you've watched any Raptors games in the past two years, you understand that predicting the behavior of Bargnani is a frustrating process.
Raptors: Sam Mitchell.
I wouldn't say that Mitchell is on the hot seat just yet... Let's say luke warm? The trade for O'Neal shows that they want to win now and after taking a step back last season, don't expect a ton of patience from GM Bryan Colangelo or the Raptors faithful. I have no doubt that Mitchell has the respect of his players however, and I have full confidence that they'll be ready to go tonight.
Sixers: Mo Cheeks.
Cheeks led a Sixers team to the playoffs last season when most experts had them landing in the lottery. Cheeks will have a much more talented roster at his disposal this season, and if he's able to work his magic again this season, the Sixers have to be considered the sleeper of the East.
I believe the Sixers and Raptors will match up very closely, with Brand and Bosh playing to a stalemate and the edge in some categories (point guard, small forward, bench) being razor thin.
The difference in games like this often comes down to home court advantage, and I expect that to be the case tonight. The Philly crowd, which is not the most hospitable group of people at the best of times, should be extra wired tonight with the possibility of a World Series victory only a few hours away.
WINNER: Philadelphia 97 Toronto 92.
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