Enemy: Toronto Raptors
Coach: Dwane Casey
Potential Starting 5: Kyle Lowry, Demar Derozan, Landry Fields, Andrea Bargnani, Jonas Valancuinias
Other Key Players: Jose Calderon, Terrence Ross, Linas Kleiza, Amir Johnson, Ed Davis
Threats: Depth, Ability to stretch the floor, Competent floor generals
Grizzlies 2011-12 Record vs.: 1-1
The Toronto Raptors are always an interesting benchmark in comparing and contrasting our teams, as we broke into the league together in 1995. Coincidentally, our franchise histories (basketball-wise) are near identical. The Raptors have been to the NBA playoffs a total of five times in their history, breaking out of the first round only once. For us, the result has been the same. Even further, the lone time in which the Raptors advanced, they were eliminated just one game shy of the Eastern Conference Finals… sound like a franchise we know? While there is not too much significance to be drawn through all of this within our purposes, it’s an interesting note for those keeping score. Obviously we are to be more focused on today’s result in this preview, so where exactly do the Raptors stand right now? Truth is, they’re probably asking the very same question to themselves right now. The Raptors were quite frankly not very good last season. They won a meager 34.8% of their games. Contrary to what their record indicates, however, the Raptors were a team that gave strong fight to any given opponent on any given night. They managed to muster very close games against Miami, Boston, Chicago, and most notably, the LA Lakers, losing on a rare 5-second inbound violation call. What this tells us is that while the Raptors surely struggled to close games, they are not that far off from being a competitive team. I’m not going as far as to say that they’re on the verge of becoming playoff contenders, but they are at least on the road to respectability as an opponent. The offseason was standing on a foundation of efforts to sign Canadian star, Steve Nash, or overnight sensation, Jeremy Lin, but it did not entirely fall to pieces when both dreams failed to come into fruition. Instead, the brass in Toronto did what they could with the options in front of them, by dipping into the draft, pre-obtained draft rights, free agency, and the trade market. Via these options, they ended up notably hauling in Terrence Ross, Jonas Valanciunas, Landry Fields, and of course, Grizzly-assassin, Kyle Lowry, respectively.
Looking at the point guard position, one can note a remarkable degree of point guard depth. The rotation of floor generals, boasting Lowry, Jose Calderon, and the also newly-signed John Lucas III, is one of the strongest in the league. Between his stay on our roster, and his reign as our nemesis as a member of the Rockets, we have seen the type of damage Lowry can do at the helm. He entered the league as a nuisance of a defender, and has systematically evolved his offensive game to the point where he is a real force to be reckoned with. Calderon stays on the roster, and will continue to provide exactly what the Raptors have come to expect of him in recent years. He is a timely shooter and a very heady passer, which is something any team would be happy to have coming off their bench. Finally, when he’s not getting jumped over and dunked on, Lucas will provide a competent injury replacement for the others; something that recent history has been perfectly clear to show that the Raptors will need. The team’s wing unit does not quite tell the most interesting story, as it boasts four very solid, but unspectacular options. Demar Derozan is an athletic freak that may or may not take a leap as a scorer and Linas Kleiza is a heady and effective offensive player. The additions of Fields, who saw his role diminished midway through a very productive stint in New York, and Ross, who figures to be somewhat of a more athletic version of Quincy Pondexter (in my convoluted evaluation), stabilize this group with a good deal of depth, but not so much promise to be a game-changer. That, the Raptors hope, will come from the bigs. As Andrea Bargnani has shown over the years that he is not much of a stable rock for the team, despite offering a unique skillset for a seven footer, the franchise’s fortunes figure to rest in the hands of much hyped newcomer, Jonas Valanciunas. His projection as an offensively-efficient, high-energy defender is something that Toronto has not had on their side in a long, long time, and would be a very welcome addition next to Bargnani. There is some fear associated with the leg injury that he is carrying with him into training camp, but the team is confident that he will be at full strength when the season rolls around. The Raptors big rotation smooths out with Ed Davis and Amir Johnson looking to prove that they belong, and Quincy Acy and Dominic McGuire figuring to pick up the “grind” minutes.
Now normally when assessing an opponent, I wouldn’t equate their depth at a position to work in our favor. This matchup is unique in that sense, as the Raptors strong depth at the point guard spot is what enabled us to introduce a layer of substance to ours. Jerryd Bayless ended up being the odd man out in Toronto, but should serve us very well in matchups like this one. Last season, a contest against a team with strong backup guards scared the heck out of me, because it meant that the heat would be on Mike Conley to essentially outplay not one but two or more guys at his position. Additionally, the Raptors played two games against us last season, both of which went down to the wire. Again, under normal circumstances, this would stand out to me, but again, I counter with the answer of Jerryd Bayless, who really hurt us as the Raptors top performer in both. However, Kyle Lowry is still Kyle Lowry, and if Valanciunas is the real deal, and Bargnani and Kleiza’s jumpers are on, stretching Zbo out of the paint, and keeping Rudy busy around the arc, the Raptors could still pose a threat to us. Since this is conditional on such a number of factors, I’m not going to put my money on it. We may be better-equipped to face them than we were last year, but the Raptors are still not the easy put-away that we would like to write them off as.