Chris Bosh: No, He’s Not Leaving the Raptors!

January 30, 2010

by Stephen Brotherston… Through the first two months of the season, there was constant speculation that Chris Bosh was on his way out of Toronto. Speculation that ran rampant, despite Bryan Colangelo’s statements that he intended to re-sign Chris at the end of this season.

But the rumours persisted.

Authors wrote that Bosh would not want to remain in the oft-ignored, frozen wasteland north of the U.S. border, that all players had become frustrated with the hardships of U.S. Customs, and, of course, that Bosh was on his way south to join up with James, Wade, Howard, or Bryant to form the next NBA dynasty.

Of course, these rumors largely ignored logic.

Chris Bosh is part of the class of free agents who are expected to be offered maximum contracts by their current team—contracts worth at least $30 million more than any other suitor is in a position to offer.

The logical expectation should have always been that Chris Bosh is not going anywhere !

In a recent interview with Michael Grange of The Globe and Mail , both Bosh and Bryan Colangelo confirmed the obvious.

When Bosh was asked if he expected to be traded, “I doubt it.”

Asked if he wanted to be dealt, “No, no, no, no.”

When Bryan Colangelo was asked about his intentions with Bosh, “I have no intention to move him, and have absolutely every intention to keep him long term.”

When Colangelo was asked if the Raptors owners, Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment (MLSE), were willing to become a luxury tax-paying team, he replied, “They want to win and they’re committed.”

MLSE was a tax-paying team in the years after the Raptors had their first playoff run with Vince Carter. The Raptors were willing to pay whatever it took to keep that team together and bring in more talent. Just because that didn’t work out as planned is no reason to believe the owners won’t do it again now.

For all those who believed Bosh was going to be traded because the Raptors just were not a good enough team this season, try to remember the 2006-07 Raptors that brought in nine new players and were 22-22 in January after a rough 7-13 start, just like the current team.

Bryan Colangelo and the Raptors management believed that these Raptors could win 50 games ! This season’s roster changes were eerily similar to the changes made by Colangelo in 2006-07, which leads some to believe that the Raptors will bounce back for a 47-win season again.

If one looks around at the major basketball sites now, the rumors of Bosh leaving are drying up as quickly as the Raptors’ scores in games. Media are now focused on players like Amare Stoudemire, Andre Iguodala, and Caron Butler.

One can safely believe Bosh will still be with the Raptors in April and will likely still be with the team for many years to come.

Brothersteve’s Green & Red Raptor Blog

Raps Sneak Out With A Win

January 9, 2010

by Jeremy Visser… Philadelphia took Roy Halladay, so the least they could give us is the Sixers. Actually, we pretty much own them already. The Raps recovered from a rough start and held off a late rally, using a three-point play from Chris Bosh in the waning seconds to come away with a 108-106 road win.

Despite being down 13 early in the third, I had a feeling this one was coming our way in the long run. Sure enough, the Raptors capitalized on Andre Iguodala’s decision to unsuccessfully prove himself a jump shooter and some all-around ugly Sixer basketball in the quarter to swing the momentum going into the fourth, where Bosh and Andrea Bargnani had nice showings to help escape with the win. Bargnani, who finished with 23 points, made a handful of key shots in the quarter and had a clutch block in the final minute with Toronto up two and Philly in transition. Bosh had team-highs of 29 points, nine rebounds and six assists.

All five Philly starters finished in double digits, with LOOOOUU Williams (not to be mistaken with Lou Maxton Graham, producer of Scarsdale Surprise) leading the way with 23 and a washed-up Allen Iverson chipping in 22. Iguodala came up a dime short of a triple-double, finishing with 17 points, 11 boards and nine assists, and Thaddeus Young still managed 18 and 13 despite missing about 28 shots off the front of the rim alone.

It wasn’t easy, but I’ll take any win, especially on the road. After a bit of a defensive hiccup in the first half, the Raps settled down and made life a bit difficult in the final 24 — something they’ve been doing a lot of on this current streak, with was extended to eight wins in nine tonight. They’ll look to keep rolling Sunday at home against Boston in a game I just may be sitting courtside at. Check me out!

Toronto Raptors on Track for a 47-Win Season

December 29, 2009

by Stephen Brotherston… If you believe that Bryan Colangelo has been trying to recreate the 2006-07 version of the Toronto Raptors, then you will have noticed just how closely the 2009-10 Raptors have resembled that earlier version.

In 2006, Bryan Colangelo started the season with only six returning players and in 2009, he did it again.  And with only four returning players destined to see much time in their team’s rotation, both of these reconstructed Raptors teams went through a very rough learning curve.

Players who didn’t know how to play together and coaches who didn’t know who to put on the floor conspired to produced a less than encouraging seven win, 13 loss start to the season each time.

But in 2006, the Raptors went 40-22 to finish out the season tying the Raptors record for wins in a season.  Those 2006 Raptors “gelled” as a team and closed out the season winning 2/3rds of their games.

In reality, “gelling” in 2006 really meant Sam Mitchell figured out that playing Garbajosa at small forward turned a collection of players into a team.  Sure there were other factors, but to “gel” requires coaches to figure things out at least as much as players “getting to know one another.”

This season the new small forward that the Raptors have tied their fortunes to is Hedo Turkoglu.  And like Jorge Garbajosa, Turkoglu does not rely on his superior athleticism at either end of the floor but rather on sound positional play and basketball IQ.

Where Garbajosa is considered to be the more effective defender (although it was almost impossible to figure out how he managed to do it), Turkoglu is a vastly superior offensive player.  And most people would consider Hedo a significant upgrade talent-wise from Garbajosa.

And anyone who has watched Turkoglu over the past few seasons or can even just remember how he played against LeBron, Pierce, and Bryant in last year’s playoffs, will realize Turkoglu can be as good as anybody against the elite wings in the NBA (and no, he isn’t winning any defensive awards).

Just check out the Orlando Magic’s top 10 plays from last season on  NBA video (2008-09, Magic videos).

Of course the measure of how well Turkoglu is “gelling” with his Raptors teammates may be counted in his assist totals more than anything on the defensive end.  And in the last five games, Turkoglu has been averaging 7 assists per game.

This season the Raptors have relied on rookie Head Coach Jay Triano whereas in 2006, the Raptors had the more experienced Sam Mitchell.

And Triano has shown his inexperience.  Sticking with lineups that weren’t working and having to be “saved” by his GM and a players meeting after a five-game losing slide and the embarrassment in Atlanta.

This year’s Raptors should be considered as more talented than the 2006 version and may have actually won games despite some questionable coaching moves earlier this season (reverse also likely to be true).

But Jay Triano has the respect of some of the NBA’s top executives and Bryan Colangelo’s patience with his coach is likely to be rewarded (it would be nice if Triano could figure things out a little faster though).

However, finishing any season winning 65 percent of your games over even a modest stretch is no easy task and likely to be greeted with a measure of disbelief. And some people will look at the Raptors 15-17 record and not be convinced this team can do it.

But this season, the Raptors have gone 8-4 since that 7-13 start and are precisely on track to repeat that remarkable performance.

And with 10 teams in the East at under .500,  the non-elite teams in the East are weak this year.  The  Raptors are currently in sixth place in the East with that 15-17 record.

Plus the 16-12 fiveth place Miami Heat have faced a soft opening schedule with 18 home games and just 10 road dates.  Maybe the Raptors season split with the Magic is reflective of just how close these two teams really are?

There should be little doubt that Raptors opportunity for a strong finish to the 2009-10 season is there for the taking.  And another 47 win season is still within grasp.

Like in 2006-07, Bryan Colangelo is likely to be looking at trades, different players will step up or not, and injury risk is out there!

It will not be a boring 2010 in Raptorland.

Raps Roll, Beat Rockets 101-88

December 14, 2009

by Jeremy Visser…

I’m starting to really, really like Jarrett Jack as a starting point guard. Don’t get me wrong — I still like Jose Calderon, but at this point I’m pretty much down for whatever, as long as the Raptors win some games. They did just that yesterday afternoon, making quick work of an emotional Trevor Ariza and the Rockets, beating them 101-88 at the ACC.

With Calderon sidelined indefinitely, Jack made his fourth consecutive start, scoring 17 points and adding eight boards and eight assists. Toronto jumped all over Houston early, outscoring them 32-17 in the first and carrying a double-digit lead much of the game, frustrating Ariza (who also went 0-of-9) to the point where he attempted to take poor little DeMar DeRozan’s head off with an errant elbow following a steal in the third quarter. It was a dick move, and with apologies to DeRozan, I almost wish it connected so Ariza could be locked away for a fair amount of time. Here’s hoping the commish and friends still find reason enough for a suspension.

Hedo Turkoglu was aggressive early and scored a season-high 23, making a couple key shots in the fourth as well after Houston cut it to a single-digit lead. Chris Bosh also played well, finishing with 27 on 11-of-19. Sonny Weems stepped into the sixth man role, scoring 11 and more importantly taking the minutes of disgraced backup Antoine Wright, who likely still feels as though he’s a premiere NBA small forward despite the demotion. Sorry to say, but you weren’t missed, you chucker.

This win slightly softens the blow from Friday’s romp at the hands of the Hawks, plus makes it four of six overall and improves the Raptors to 11-15 on the season. They’re headed to South Florida for a date with the Heat Tuesday, followed by Superman and the Magic in Orlando the following night.

That’s what I’m saying, guy…

Best Move For The Raptors is Letting Bosh GO!

December 7, 2009

by Robert Seagal… If I could be serious for a moment—and it is hard to be serious or to be taken seriously when you’re a fan of the Toronto Raptors these days—this team is quite possibly the worst-coached Raptors team I have ever seen. Period.

They’re officially the worst defensive team in the past thirty years.

OKay before the two games won… Numbers don’t lie. Per 100 possessions, they surrender 118.3 points. They allow opponents shoot almost 50% from the field. They’ve allowed the Hawks to score the most points in franchise history and have given the Bobcats their most lop-sided victory in their history. We’re just getting started. We’re only a quarter way through the season!

So what is so fundamentally wrong with this team?

For whatever reason, their rotations are bad. They have players who routinely miss their coverages, never help on penetration, seem to have no game plan, lack control on double teams, and worse still is that it remains a team composed primarily of poor individual defenders.

So what exactly happens to an average defender like Hedo Turkoglu when you remove Dwight Howard, replacing him with Chris Bosh? He becomes exactly what he’s been his whole career prior to Orlando—a sub-par defender.

However, to peg this on Turkoglu would be very unfair. The fact is, the entire starting line is average to below average on defense. Players like Bargnani, DeRozan and to some extent Turkoglu are capable of playing respectable defense and certainly do so in short spurts.

Players like Calderon and Bosh, however are just so bad at the other end of the floor that it puts so much strain on the other three to do something they simply can’t. And while we’re on it, why has Jose Calderon spent what seems like the whole season guarding power-forwards?

But this starts a little higher than Calderon and Turkoglu. It starts at the top.

For whatever reason, the past three years has seen a shift in Bosh’s personality from bad to worse. Ironically, his finger is always pointing at someone else much like in the picture. When times are good, he says “I have to keep putting this team on my back”. When times are bad, “WE have to start going out there and showing some pride. Yes I’m mad.”

Bosh needs a reality check. If this team is bad defensively, he’s one of the biggest culprits along with Spanish amigo Jose Calderon. However, if this team is ever stagnant offensively, he has no one to blame but himself.

How often this season have we seen the lineup of Jack, Wright, Belinelli, Amir Johnson and Andrea Bargnani go on huge runs, only to have Bosh step in and muck it up with his predictable isolation moves, untimely 3-pointers, random and unsuccessful flicks at the rim, and awkward fade-aways?

Here are some numbers to crunch. Bosh averages 2.6 assists per game in games won, only one assist for games lost. In games won, Bosh attempts about fifteen field goals per game and in games lost, he attempts over seventeen. There’s a one block differential in games won and lost as well, and Bosh has been twice as likely to shoot a three pointer in games lost.

What we have is a simple, but complex conclusion—get the ball out of Bosh’s hands! The more he’s asked to have the ball in his hands, the worse the team plays.

Usually, the better your star player plays, the better your team plays.

Take for instance Kobe Bryant, who averages 19 points per game in losses and over 30 per game in wins, or Kevin Durant who averages less across almost every category in losses than in wins for the Thunder.

Conversely, Andrea Bargnani averages fewer shot attempts, points, blocks, rebonds, touches, and worse percentages in losses than he does in wins. Lately, we’ve seen a rather disinterested Andrea Bargnani, and I can’t say I blame the guy.

He’s sitting there, easily capable of averaging over twenty-five points per game, being frozen out game after game and still on a losing team. Despite his sacrifices, he watches Bosh audition for the league in some last-ditch attempt to show the world he’s worthy of the maximum contract he so desperately wants next season.

In Bosh, the Raptors have a leader who isn’t one. He doesn’t put the team on his back, he just steps on them. He doesn’t make the players around him better. In fact he’s made almost every player around him worse.

If the Raptors are a lottery team, they might as well do it while developing talented youngsters like DeRozan, Bargnani and Johnson. It might be time to end the Bosh-Jose experiment and let someone else try to mask their defensive woes for the rest of the year.

If the Heat are offering Beasley, the Raptors would be wise to accept the talented scorer. If someone is offering future first rounders, prospects, and expiring contracts, the Raptors would again be wise to accept.

Toronto has to be the first team to realize Bosh’s actual worth. The more he attempts to shoot this team to victory, the further he slips from superstar status, and the closer he gets to super-talented chucker and B-level star statuses.

There truly isn’t a significant difference between players like Granger, Bosh, and other complimentary players playing star-roles while putting up big numbers. True stars make those around them better. The better they play, the better the players on the court with them play.

True stars rise and take their whole team with them. Players like Bosh succeed at the expense of ball movement and the success of everyone around them. What is the difference between Andrea Bargnani and Chris Bosh?

About ten touches and seven points per game.

Whatever Bosh gives you in rebounds, Andrea gives you in better defense, passing and better box-outs. Both are equally capable of leading 7-13 teams. However, starting next year, one will be making almost twice as much as the other.

Let’s hope for the sake of this team’s future that Bryan Colangelo makes sure someone else is writing Bosh’s paychecks very soon.

Smoke Show In Chi-Town, Raptors Win Big!

December 6, 2009

by Jeremy Visser…  Now that’s the type of game I like to watch. The Raptors came out red hot and cruised to a 110-78 win over a lifeless Bulls squad last night in Chicago, their second road win in as many nights and a nice boost before the schedule gets a fair bit easier with three of the next four at home.

Chris Bosh & co. came out of the gate rolling for the second straight night, grabbing a 20-point lead through one quarter that they never came close to relinquishing. Bosh led what was easily the team’s strongest game effort-wise thus far, finishing with 25 points and 12 boards in just 22 minutes before packing it in for good midway through the third. The Raptors out-rebounded Chicago 53-32 and 18-11 on the offensive end.

This one was a coming out party for the entire team — with a huge lead, the bench got plenty of run, with Marco Belinelli (15), Rasho Nesterovic (12) and even the offensively-challenged Antoine Wright (10) all chipping in double digits. Jarrett Jack had nine assists in 32 minutes, carrying the point guard load after Jose Calderon left early in the third with a hip flexor. Also, more love to DeMar DeRozan, who’s looking more and more like an NBA player every time he steps on the court.

The win runs Toronto’s record to 9-13, and with Minnesota at home Tuesday and a road date in Milwaukee on Wednesday, life could get even better. Time to make it count, boys.

That’s what I’m saying, guy…

It’s Only Getting Worse For The Raptors

December 3, 2009

by Jeremy Visser… It’s fitting that the Raptors’ intro song this season is “Hate Me Now”, because I really, really hate this team right about now. The embarrassment continued last night in Atlanta, where the Raptors fell to the Hawks in mind-boggling fashion, 146-115. Yep, you read that right.

Chris Bosh was held scoreless, Andrea Bargnani didn’t grab a board (sadly though, that doesn’t even come as a surprise) and the Raps allowed Atlanta to shoot 59.1% and out-rebound them 51-29. And yeah, those are the same Hawks that Detroit out-boarded 53-27 on Sunday. Some simple mathematics tell me if the Raptors were to face the Pistons, they’d be outdone on the glass about 122-6.

Afterward, Jarrett Jack and Antoine Wright (he of the DNP-CD) felt it necessary to call out Jay Triano, and hey, I can’t really argue with that notion. Don’t get me wrong, I think Triano’s a great coach — well, I mean I think he’d make a great coach…of Brock University. Come on now, this is the NBA. Here’s what Jack had to say, by the way:

Every time something happens it’s always, `It’s okay, it’s all right.’ It’s not all right. Problems go by without attacking them or challenging them or bringing them to the forefront and getting them solved. We can’t keep keep putting them to the back of the bus and just saying, `That’s okay.’ It’s not all right. Everybody can’t walk on eggshells around here and say, `We’re playing good basketball.’ We’re not.

So there you go Jay, it’s not okay. No need to worry though, a couple broken clipboards and we’ll be back on the path to respectability.

Anyway, this loss leaves me soul-searching and wondering if it’s time to look elsewhere for things to keep me intrigued this NBA season. Should I devote myself entirely to following Allen Iverson in his quest to not make an ass out of himself in Philly? Maybe go on a cross-country tour with the New Jersey Nets with hopes of seeing their first win? Heck, it’ll likely come before the Raps win another game.

I’ll Still Take Jose Over T.J., Raps Run Past Pacers

November 25, 2009

by Jeremy Visser… Hope is restored, citizens of Toronto! The Raptors got our beloved city back in the win column last night, jumping on the Pacers with 74 first half points en route to a 123-112 win at the ACC. Of course, it wasn’t without the usual second half fun: This time the Raptors saw a 21-point lead slip to five (the fourth time in five home wins they’ve come close to blowing huge leads) before rallying late and putting it away.

Jose Calderon led the Raptors with 21 points on 8-of-11, effectively getting to the hoop early and knocking down a handful of jumpers in what was probably his strongest game of the year. Jarrett Jack continued his recent string of solid play, going 7-of-7 and finishing with 18 points and six assists in 30 minutes off the bench against his former mates.

Calderon and Jack’s efforts weren’t the only strong ones for Toronto, whose first half output was its best since 1999 — Hedo Turkoglu and Andrea Bargnani each had efficient 14-point outings, with Bargnani coming on strong after a sluggish, foul-plagued start. Chris Bosh was just 5-of-19 but had 12 boards and a few big second half blocks.

In all, another up-tempo, catch-me-if-you-can type game for the Raps — a style of play that Toronto fans are going to need to adjust to if they haven’t already. The win bumps the Raps to 7-8 — good for seventh in the East — with a road date in Charlotte tonight.

That’s what I’m saying, guy…

Raptors-Pistons: The First Big Test

November 4, 2009

by Stephen Brotherston… Tonight at the ACC, the Toronto Raptors face off against one of their primary competitors for a playoff spot this April.

During the offseason, the Detroit Pistons rebuilt the key components of their roster in an attempt to become relevant once again in the postseason.

Not everyone is convinced that the Pistons have made all the right moves and Wednesday night’s tilt versus the Raptors is the first head-to-head meeting with one of the half dozen teams that they will competing with for one of the last four playoff spots.

The Toronto Raptors have gotten off to a disappointing start to the season, from the high of beating Cleveland in their home opener to the low of losing two straight high-scoring contests they could have won.

As expected, Toronto’s strength has been the ability to score as they’ve averaged 108 points per contest. However, the Raptors have been surrendering an average of 110 points and questions about their ability to defend are abound.

Similarly, the Pistons won their opener on the road against the Grizzlies, but then dropped their home opener and the following road game against teams not expected to make the playoffs.

The biggest issue for the Pistons is an apparent inability to score as they’ve averaged just 88 points per game over their first three games. The Pistons’ defense has held their opponents to just 87 points on average, but after playing the Grizzlies, Thunder, and Bucks, it’s hard to praise the defensive effort just yet.

Detroit faced their first high-powered team of the season at home Tuesday night versus the Orlando Magic. If Detroit’s defense played like they did against Milwaukee on Halloween, it would have been a huge blow out!

But Detroit came out strong (or lucky?), holding the Magic to just 80 points as Dwight Howard fouled out in just 16 minutes and the hot-shooting Magic went 37 percent from the field. Without their big man to attract defenders, the Magic’s vaunted outside shooting went cold.

Detroit still couldn’t score, but 85 points were enough for the win on Tuesday.

There is likely something about the law of averaging catching up to the Magic as well.  Second-year power forward Ryan Anderson went just 1-for-11 from beyond the arc following his unexpected 5-for-8 performance in Toronto.

Coming into Toronto on Wednesday night after playing the Magic puts the Pistons at a significant disadvantage. A tired team that relies on a hustling defense and doesn’t score much will have their hands full against a high-scoring team like the Raptors.

Richard Hamilton sprained his right ankle on October 28 and will not play on Wednesday. 

The Detroit Free Press reports that Tayshaun Prince’s 439 consecutive games started streak ended Tuesday night because of a lower back strain. He will not play Wednesday in Toronto or Friday in Orlando.

The starting lineups for the teams compare as follows:

Point Guard

At just 23-years-old, Rodney Stuckey is the Pistons’ 6′5″, 205-lb. third-year starting point guard. Last season, he averaged 13.4 points and 4.9 assists.

Still developing his game, Stuckey was recently accused of trying to beat the Thunder by himself resulting in a 21-point, two-assist night for the young point guard in a loss.

Against the Magic, Stuckey had a strong 20-point, nine-rebound, three-assist night.

Jose Calderon is the Toronto Raptors’ 28-year-old five-year veteran point guard who averaged 12.8 points and 8.9 assists last season.

Calderon has struggled with his shooting in the first three games, going 1-7 from three and averaging just 10 points and 6.7 assists, but don’t expect Calderon’s shooting woes to last long.

Advantage: Raptors.

Shooting Guard

Filling in ably for the injured Richard Hamilton has been the high-scoring five-year veteran, Ben Gordon. In the first four contests, Ben Gordon has averaged 24 points, proving he hasn’t forgotten how to score.

Offensively skilled but under-sized at 6′3″, Gordon will be a tough cover defensively for any opponent.

The Raptors have handed the starting assignment for shooting guard to the rookie DeMar DeRozan. DeRozan has performed well in just over 20 minutes per night, averaging 7.3 points and an under-appreciated 4.3 rebounds.

It would be unfair to expect DeRozan to lock down Gordon for any length of time. But DeRozan does have a significant size advantage at 6′7” and hopefully can make Gordon’s outside shooting difficult.

Advantage: Pistons.

Small Forward

This is another matchup of a veteran versus a rookie.

The long, tall, and athletic Tayshaun Prince is out. Starting is the rookie from Sweden, Jonas Jerebko. The 6′10″, 230-lb. Jerebko has previous experience in Europe and played for Sweden’s national team.

Prior to Tuesday, Jerebko had played for six minutes in one NBA game. Tuesday night, Jerebko had zero points and five boards in 25 minutes.

The Raptors’ nine-year veteran small forward Hedo Turkoglu has been playing better each game out with his new teammates and against the Magic, had 19 points, four rebounds, and three assists.

At 6′10″, Turkoglu will not be over-matched by Jerebko’s size. Hedo has surprised fans defensively by accumulating five blocks already this season.

Advantage: Raptors.

Power Forward

Former Toronto Raptor and Milwaukee Buck Charlie Villanueva is entering his fifth NBA season. At 6′11″ and 230 lbs., Villanueva is best known for his outside jump shot and inconsistent effort.

In Detroit, Charlie has gotten off to a particularly poor start, averaging just 9.8 points and five boards in only 25 minutes of play. Unfortunately for the Raptors, Villanueva seems inspired by every trip back to the ACC.

Toronto’s All-Star, Chris Bosh, is off to a monster start to the season. The 6′10″ forward is estimated at 240 to 250 lbs. this season and has been throwing his new weight around. In the first three games, Bosh has averaged 31 points and 14.7 rebounds.

Against the Pistons’ big men, expect Bosh to have another monster game.

Advantage: Raptors.

Center

The Pistons are thin at the center position, resulting in the 35-year-old Ben Wallace assuming the starter’s responsibility.

An under-sized career defensive center known for blocks and rebounds, last season Wallace had the lowest numbers of his 13-year career since his rookie year. At 2.9 points, 6.5 rebounds, and 1.3 blocks, Wallace’s impact on the floor has greatly diminished since he was last in Detroit.

Wallace has gotten off to a better start in Detroit, averaging 10.3 rebounds, 1.5 blocks, and 1.5 steals in his first four games.

The Raptors’ 24-year-old Andrea Bargnani, at 7′ tall, has more than a three-inch height advantage over Wallace. And with an effective outside jump shot, Wallace will be challenged to defend the more skilled Bargnani.

Andrea Bargnani has started the season averaging 22 points and shooting 62 percent from three. Plus, Wallace offers Bargnani little to worry about on the defensive end of the floor. Wallace could be in for a long night.

Advantage: Raptors.

While the Pistons match up well against the Raptors’ guards and wings, the loss of Rasheed Wallace leaves them with suspect defense and inconsistent offense from their big men.

Plus, after playing the Orlando Magic the night before, the Pistons come into Toronto at a significant disadvantage.

This is an important early season test for the Raptors, and one they should easily beat.  Concerns about early season jitters and team cohesion apply equally to both teams. The Raptors have everything in their favor on Wednesday.

No excuses, the Raptors need to establish their superiority on home court against a direct competitor for a playoff spot in April.

Maria Sharapova: Answer To a Prayer?

August 23, 2009

by J.A. Allen… In today’s final at the Rogers Cup, tennis superstar Maria Sharapova is the perfect solution to the dilemma in the women’s game today.  The tour has never stabilized since Justine Henin stepped down in May of 2008.  Henin held the No. 1 ranking for a total of 117 weeks.

With Henin’s abrupt departure, Maria Sharapova assumed the No. 1 ranking for three weeks prior to the 2008 French Open; then Ana Ivanovic held it for nine weeks after winning the French Open for the first time.

Unfortunately Ivanovic could not keep it and Jelena Jankovic captured it for one week; then Ivanovic took back the No. 1 ranking for another three weeks, only to lose it when Serena Williams took over and held it for four weeks after winning the U.S. Open.  Finally, Jelena Jankovic recaptured the No. 1 spot and held it for another 17 weeks.

After the 2009 Australian Open, Serena Williams held it again for 11 weeks until Dinara Safina took over the top spot on April 20, 2009.  Safina has been the No. 1 ranked player for 17 weeks and counting.

But no one is happy because Safina has not won a major and the No. 1 spot has moved around like a hot potato.  Not one player possesses enough mental fortitude to grab the mantle and hold on to it—except perhaps the long lost and long-legged Russian beauty, Maria Sharapova.

Sharapova went out with a shoulder injury after the 2008 Wimbledon Championships.  She returned full time to the tour just prior to the 2009 French Open where she did exceptionally well after being out for such an extended period.

During her absence Sharapova’s ranking dropped out of the top 100, falling as far as No. 126.  Speculation began about her ability to return to action at all—further, that at age 22 her career might be over.  Certainly a shoulder injury would weaken her serve—the essential piece of her game.

Sharapova, however, returned to singles play in May of 2009 at a clay court event—the Warsaw Open—where she lasted all the way to the quarterfinals.

Surprisingly, she reached the quarterfinals of the French Open a week later.  Her ranking shot up to No. 60.  It was a performance that made the tennis world sit up and take notice.  Sharapova was back.

Following the French Open, Sharapova reached the semi-finals at the 2009 Aegon Classic in Birmingham—a grass court warm-up tournament in preparation for Wimbledon.

Although she lost in the second round at the 2009 Wimbledon Championships,  this would remain only a hiccup during her reincarnation.  Next up were the hard courts where Sharapova expected to make further inroads.

At the Bank of the West Classic in Stanford, Sharapova made it to the quarterfinals before losing to eventual finalist Venus Williams.

Competing in LA, Sharapova won her first round match against Jarmila Groth and in the second round took out the No. 3 seed Victoria Azarenka.  In the semifinals she met Flavia Pennetta, losing the contest in three tough sets, while serving up 16 double faults.  Her serve still fails her at times.

Her next tournament before the U.S. Open is the Roger’s Cup in Toronto where Sharapova has an opportunity to improve her ranking even more.  The significant fact here is that Sharapova’s game is coming back to the place it was before her injury—back to the level she enjoyed as the former world No. 1.

Since Henin’s retirement—besides bouncing the No. 1 ranking around like a basketball during a warm up drill—the majors have been dominated by the Williams sisters except for the French Open—which Ivanovic won in 2008 and Svetlana Kuznetsova won in 2009.

While Venus Williams has won a few WTA tournaments, Serena has not managed a non-major win since Henin’s retirement.  This explains her inability to capture the No. 1 ranking.  Her MIA approach will not usher her into that top spot.

During this same period newcomers Vera Zvonareva, Victoria Azarenka, and Caroline Wozniacki have risen to the top while former newcomers Ana Ivanovic and Jelena Jankovic suffer in a Serbian slump.

In LA rising stars Zvonareva, Azarenka, and Wozniacki as well as No. 1 seed Safina were unceremoniously ousted from the tournament.  The Williams sisters [surprise!] are not playing this week.  Who is left at the end of the week but Maria Sharapova!

She is the answer to the WTA’s prayers because she has won three majors on every surface except clay.  Sharapova won her first major at Wimbledon in 2004 defeating Serena Williams in straight sets 6-1, 6-4.

Her second major came at the U.S. Open in 2006 with Sharapova upending Justine Henin 6-4, 6-4.  Finally Sharapova won her third major in Australia in 2008 when she outplayed the Serb Ivanovic 7-5, 6-3.

Sharapova has desire, tenacity and mental fortitude.  She expects to win when she takes the court.  As a proven commodity on tour Sharapova will accept, hold on to and fight to keep the No. 1 mantle.

Once she climbs to the top and assumes the crown, the press will stop harping about the injustice of the ranking system and order will once again reign over women’s tennis.  After 16 months, peace will be welcomed.

An Aside

Don’t expect much out of the return of Kim Clijsters to the women’s tour.  If we had shallow expectations regarding Sharapova’s return to form after her shoulder injury and almost one-year lay-off, imagine the task facing Clijsters?  All you have to do is recall the short-lived return of Lindsay Davenport last year.  Don’t expect Clijsters to be relevant in the short-term or even the long-term.

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