Thursday, October 18, 2012

Half way home - a look at the Toronto Raptors Preseason

Posted by Mike Masaya

For a lot NBA fans the preseason is the appetizer for the main course that is the regular season. For teams like the reigning champions Miami Heat, Western Conference champs Oklahoma City Thunder and newly stacked Los Angeles Lakers, it means even less, and serves more as a warm up than anything else. For the Toronto Raptors and their fans on the other hand, this 2012 preseason holds a lot more meaning than usual.

With what appears to be the first team in a while capable of returning to the playoffs since 2008 when they lost in 5 games to the Orlando Magic, this Raptors squad should be able to live up to those expectations. This preseason also has great value for the team as it allows 5th overall pick Jonas Valanciunas who spent a year overseas after being drafted in 2011, to find some type of chemistry with a Raptors team that has a slew of new players coming from a number different teams and playing styles. Add to that a new system being implemented by coach Dwane Casey, and you can see why the Raptors have to use every preseason game as an opportunity to get on the same page and evaluate their progress.

With 3 of 6 preseason games scheduled for the Raptors already in the books, they currently have a 2-1 record. Both wins made possible by shooting 44.7%, averaging 40.5 rebounds and shooting 75% from the free throw line. Any longtime Raptors fan will gladly tell you 75% from the free throw line is a welcome sight considering both games were won by an average of 5 points, which last year would have likely been 5 point losses.

Even with just 2 wins to pull stats from, the Raptors are showing clear signs of having a huge advantage over a lot of teams when it comes to depth at the Forward, Center and Guard positions. Between starting point guard Kyle Lowry’s career 14.3 ppg and his backups Jose Calderon and Jon Lucas III, chipped in together to averaged a combined 20.5 ppg and 10.2 ast so far this preseason. These numbers are even more comforting based on the fact that they were on the court for only about 20 minutes a piece.

On the defensive end, I was really impressed… alright, I was giddy. Watching Andrea Bargnani slide over to help Jonas and Jonas return the favor during last night’s win against the Washington Wizards. One of the things that did not show up in the box score was how quick driving players got rid of the ball or had their shots drastically changed by the 2 towering players under the basket. This is something that will have to continue with Amir and Davis on the floor for continued success defensively.

There is plenty more I can say about the Raptors depth, different lineups that work best and even how well the players are adapting to coach Dwane Casey’s Pound the Rock philosophy. The truth however remains that there are still 3 preseason games left and 82 regular season games to go before the jury is out. All signs are pointing to the best season in a while, and although I don’t want to get too excited, at least there’s a reason to be.

Last but definitely not least, DeMar Derozan has shown he is now determined, more than ever to drive to the basket after relying heavily on his jump shot over the past few seasons. During his career Derozan has averaged about 4 free throws per game, and after 3 preseason games he is up to 6, a step in the right direction.

Looking at the Raptors forwards and centres proves again that regardless of rotation, there will always be a solid player on the court. With Jonas Valanciunas, Andrea Bargnani, Amir Johnson and Ed Davis all playing well to start the preseason, if coach Casey manages their minutes right, they will make a huge impact on both the offensive and defensive ends. So far this preseason Jonas Valanciunas is shooting 58%, Amir 66.5% and Ed Davis is shooting 59.5% over the last 2 games, most of which are coming from points inside the paint. Something the Raptors have been missing since the departure of Chris Bosh and am sure they are glad to have back in the mix.

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