The week that is ahead offers the Raptors some hope as we arrive in Los Angeles to play the Clippers tonight before having a few days off before Christmas to re-group, then they play the Kings and the Trail Blazers on Friday and Saturday before finishing this 6 game road trip against the Warriors on the 29th. With the Mavericks, the Spurs and the Hornets behind this trip, the return home will bring the Rockets, the Magic and the Nuggets to town. This week appears to be our best chance to record a much needed victory, especially one or two on the road, and maybe 3.
The Clippers come into the game tonight with an 8 – 19 record after a week in which they went 2 – 2 with victories against the Thunder and the Pacers and losses to the Bulls and the Bucks. The Clippers are lead by Zach Randolph who is averaging 22 points and 11 rebounds a game and Marcus Camby who is averaging 11 points and 12 rebounds per game. With Baron Davis and Al Thornton averaging 18 and 17 points per game and Eric Gordon averaging 9.1 points per game, even with Chris Kaman out, this team has a solid front court with a very active back court and will provide Jermaine O’Neal and Chris Bosh and Jamario Moon fits at both ends of the floor. Tonight I look for Jose Calderon and Jason Kapono to carry the game as our guard play will have to step up and provide some consistent scoring as our front court will be challenged all night by two very good defensive forwards. I look for the tempo to be calculated and to not be pushed as this team would love to get Baron Davis in a running game against our much slower back court. Turnovers will be critical and we will need to work hard to take advantage of every rebound we can acquire as they will be looking to control the game on the boards against one of the weakest rebounding teams in the league. I think the Raptors can pull this one off, but they will have to desire and attack every ball and every rebound and out hustle this Clippers team at both ends of the floor.
On Boxing Day, the Raptors head up the highway to Sacramento to take on the struggling Kings. Tonight they play the Spurs in San Antonio where Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili and Tim Duncan will be ready to play this Kings team who are 7 – 19 and last in their division. With a starting lineup missing two key players in Kevin Martin and Beno Udrih, the Kings will send Brad Miller, Spencer Hawes or Mikki Moore, John Salmons or Francisco Garcia and Bobby Jackson to the floor. This should be a game that Jermaine O’Neal and Chris Bosh could do a lot of damage in the front court with Andrea Bargnani adding some out side scoring from the 4 position, the Kings are just a bit too thin to compete with our active front including the new kid, Jake Voskuhl who looked good in the short time on the floor scoring 4 points over Tim Duncan. Jamario Moon and Jason Kapono I think will have a lot of opportunities to showcase their games should they chose to step up and play. Salmons will be a good match up for Jamario and Kapono will be a valued outside shot should the Raptors stay inside the flow of the offense. Jamario Moon and Jose Calderon should be able to push the ball, but I think Roko Ukic and Will Solomon with Joey Graham will push the tempo on this team that is a bit thin due to injuries.
Saturday finds the Raptors playing in Portland to play the Trail Blazers. Since they beat the Raptors on December 7th, the Trail Blazers are just 2 – 3 with wins against the Kings and the Suns and losses against the Magic, the Jazz and the Clippers. This week they are busy with a back to back starting in Denver tonight then facing the Nuggets in Portland tomorrow and then hosting the Mavericks on Christmas Day. At 17 – 10, they are tied with the Nuggets for 1st in the Northwest division with the Jazz behind with a 17 – 12 record. The Trail Blazers will be a very tough match up for the Raptors, and the memory of the 1 point loss looms large still. The lineup for the Trail Blazers has been solid all season with Greg Oden, Brandon Roy, LeMarcus Aldridge, Steve Blake and Nicolas Batum with Travis Outlaw and Rudy Fernandez both averaging 10+ points a game and have been starters at various points in the season, this team is balanced and deadly in the open floor. Being the 5th game of the 6 game road trip, I suspect the Raptors will be ready to get home as they will have been away for nearly 2 weeks, which is not a bad thing at this point in their up and down season. Against the Trail Blazers, our perimeter defense will need to be at top form to keep the ball out of the hands of their shooters. That has been a struggle all season but it can be done. We will need balance on offense with our shooters needing to turn in good games to pull this team out from the paint and force them to open some room up for our guys up front. It worked the first game had Blake not hit that Vince Carter like shot over Anthony Parker for the win.
With a few days of rest and some valuable practice time before Christmas, this week should allow the team to do some coming together under coach Jay Triano. Since December 3rd, the Raptors have had little time to practice and have shown a more willing attitude on the floor. That will have to continue to grow as the new year brings some tough games early in January. January 11th and 12th offer us a home and home with the Celtics, with 2 games against the Bulls and one against the Pistons, the Suns, the Nets and the Bucks twice. A couple of wins before the end of 2008 would be a great way to ring in the new year and perhaps offer a stimulus to turn this season around.