So, after the first 3 games of the 2008-09 season, we find the Raptors at 3-0 tied with the Lakers and the Rockets and the Hornets with the same record. I know it is early and that we beat “weaker” teams in the 76ers and the Warriors and the Bucks, but it is still a good start to a year that was to see them fall down the Eastern Conference standings with the rise of the Hawks and the 76ers and the recovery of the Bulls. This was the season that the Cavaliers were to dominate the East with LeBron James over-powering every team he played. So far, we see in the East that the Raptors are 3 – 0 and the Hawks are 2 – 0 as are the Pistons, who were supposed to be too old to compete!
I think one thing we are seeing this year is a general upgrade in the over-all play of all the teams! I have seen a trend toward tough interior defense and forcing teams to shoot outside. That has been the formula the Raptors have used so far this year. The game against the Warriors showed us that this team can run with teams and wear them down even with an 8 man rotation, this team does not lose a lot with the “second unit” on the floor. Well, the second unit has at times shown us Andrea Bargnani, who is scored 19 against the Warriors, but is averaging 5 rebounds a game and a little better than 2 blocks a game off the bench! It was his play in the 4th quarter of the Warriors game that helped tie the game with a couple key blocks. He did the same in the Bucks game! Should he continue to score and get closer to 10 or 11 points per game off the bench, this team will be very hard to match up with. Sam Mitchell has become fond of sticking either Jermaine 0’Neal or Chris Bosh in with the rest of the second wave with Joey Graham or Jason Kapono and Roko Ukic who has quickly become a solid presence on the floor. These minutes he can play and develop his calm steady play will only help this team in the spring as Jose Calderon can keep his legs fresh! The play of Jamario Moon and Anthony Parker has been welcomed to say the least. It is good to see Jamario not drift when he is not scoring and has been rewarded with 10 points, 2 assists, 2 blocks and about 2 steals a game. Anthony Parker has been playing some of the best ball he has played in a Raptors uniform dropping 14 points per game and averaging 2 rebounds, 2 assists and nearly 4 steals a game. Against the tough inside game of the Bucks on a night when Jermaine could not get moving, Calderon and Parker combined for 36 points and 12 assists. The margin of victory was 4 points and the Jose and Anthony out scored Michael Redd and Ramon Sessions by 5!!!
This team so far this season has focused on team defense! Sam and Chris Bosh have committed themselves to this style and we saw in the overtime win against the very short benched and very tired Warriors that this style can and will wear opponents down! A 6 – 0 run to start the OT with 3 steals by the Raptors sealed the win!
This week, we face the 2 – 0 Detroit Pistons who are coming off a 117 – 100 win over the Wizards and the not too surprising Atlanta Hawks who are 2 – 0 after beating the Magic in Orlando and the 76ers at home. The Hawks play the Hornets on Wednesday night and that should be a fun game to watch with Chris Paul, Tyson Chandler and David West hosting them. The Hawks offer Joe Johnson averaging 30 points a game, Mike Bibby and Josh Smith averaging 15 each. Al Horford is young and should be a very active presence underneath giving our front court all they can handle!
The Pistons bring their starting 5 of the past 4 or 5 seasons I think of Rasheed Wallace, Richard Hamilton, Tayshaun Prince, Chauncey Billups and Antonio MacDyess or Jason Maxiell. Walter Hermann I think is playing good right now, but I think they will present Rodney Stuckey, Arron Afflalo and Kwame Browne and suddenly, the team that is too old is 10 or 11 deep! I would love to see the Raptors win both of these games and they could, but they will have to play spectacular team defense and NOT turn the ball over 19 times!
So far this year, the Raptors have played steady ball control ball. That has proven very successful. This week we shall see how committed this team is to the team game at both ends of the floor! After the Hawks, we will see the Bobcats, the Celtics and the 76ers again, this time at home. This young season starts with some critical divisional games and so far they are on top with the Hawks. This next week will be very much a litmus test for the conference.
Here are my thoughts on the play of the team so far!
Chris Bosh – averaging 42 minutes, 26 points, 10 rebounds and almost 4 assists per game! I am beginning to agree with the MVP threads I have seen on these boards! He has played unselfish ball leading the team in all aspects of the game. He has made some tough plays on defense, has distributed to the open man after he gets the ball where he wanted it keeping his team mates playing at both ends, he has played well when on the floor with the so-called second line which is a term I am beginning to look to replace! His intensity at both ends has allowed Jermaine O’Neal room to move again. Over all, Bosh’s play should be considered among the elite in the league.
Jermaine O’Neal – averaging 11 points and 7 rebounds as well as 3 assists a game. He has brought a breath of life to this front court by creating 2 double team options low. He is struggling a bit on offense, but he has averaged 2 blocks a game and is a defensive force to be sought when entering the key. He has provided the presence we were looking for to off-set Chris Bosh in the front court and he has given us a very tough interior defense that has allowed the team to tighten up outside which killed them last year!
Jose Calderon – Jose has become a solid point guard in this league! I would consider him a top 10 guard at this point as he does not focus on his own scoring, but as we saw against the Bucks, can step up as he needs to! I believe that we shall see this team rewarded by making him the starting PG! His steady demeanor on the floor has a calming effect on everyone out there. He leads with his heart and his team responds very well to his leadership! With Roko Ukic off the bench giving him some solid minutes of play while he rests, this team looks very good at the #1 spot! Averaging 19 points and 9.7 assists, he is off to a flying start. As he continues to score, teams will not be able to collapse or they will pay the price!
Anthony Parker – Jose’s back-court mate is off to a great start averaging 14 points and 2 assists and 2.3 rebounds and 3.33 steals. A very solid option off the wing as he is often guarding the other teams top scorer, he has acquitted himself well not letting anyone out play him so far this season! Whether he is on the starting rotation or the other rotation, he continues to play consistent intense defense and has been a pest to the 3 back-courts we have faced this season.
Jamario Moon – I feel he still can be a major contribution to this team, but he will have to figure out how to offer at least 15 points a game to stay in this lineup with Jason Kapono on the bench waiting! He is exciting to watch, but seems unable to consistently finish but when he does just let the ball fly, he can score in this league! He is still young mentally though at 28, the experiment has shown flashes of brilliance and some signs of concern. When he is firing from outside, this team can go on deep runs as he has stepped up his defense this year but needs to become way more active on the glass!
Andrea Bargnani – Is this the same kid who wore #7 last season? Where did he get the tough from? What a joy to watch him score 19 against a quick strong Warriors team, only to see him vanish against the Bucks! If he can continue to play solid defense, then the Raptors can find scoring, but if he can find a way to drop 10 a night, this team would be very hard to match to 8 or 9 players. I would love to see him grab 5 or 6 boards a night and keep his head in the game in the paint. That would allow that step out game he has to flourish.
This week should show us a bit more of the heart of this team! the games will be against 3 teams expected to be at or near the top of the Eastern Conference! Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce will give this team all they can handle! enjoy the games!