Well, for the first time in just over a year, the Toronto Raptors are back on top of the Atlantic Division.
After combining three gutty wins with Boston's unexpected blowout loss to T.J. Ford and the Indiana Pacers, the Raptors once again find themselves at the head of the Division that they conquered two seasons ago. It probably won't last too long, but the Raptors have shown plenty in the last week to offer reasons for hope that the race will be a lot closer this year than it was the last.
The most obvious demonstration that has been made to that end so far has been - gasp! - defence. Not once during Sam Mitchell's tenure with this team have the Raptors looked so determined and cohesive as a defensive unit. Unlike in the preseason, where breakdowns and rotation miscues were frequent, the team has shown a remarkable effort at the defensive end of the court and it has played a huge part in this team's early success.
The Raptors are holding their opponents to 41.3% shooting through their first three games, and it's happened as the team has been aggressively trapping guards, mixing-in man-to-man schemes with various (and committed) match-up zones and it appears that the team has finally grasped the finer points of weak-side help. In stark contrast to last year, only one player thus far has managed to score more than 20-points against the team, and that would be Al Harrington's 26 in the overtime win against the Warriors. That's fairly remarkable when one considers that they've faced several players already who typically had their way with the team last season, including Andre Iguodala (21.3 ppg in four games), Corey Maggette (28.5 ppg in two games) and Richard Jefferson (21.0 ppg in four games). They've done a wonderful job of keeping teams in check and if this really is a portend of what fans can expect for the next 79 games then this team will certainly have a new flavor going into the post-season.
Another encouraging sign early on has been the play of Andrea Bargnani. While his scoring still comes and goes, he's been doing a much better job of making use of his minutes in other areas if he's not shooting the ball well. He's been aggressively rebounding the ball as well as going after blocks on the weak side, and he's been doing it without getting himself into perilous foul trouble. It has helped tremendously with regards to the front court rotation where Mitchell, atypically, has gone with tight three-man cycle between Chris 'The Predator' Bosh (yes, I'm really pushing to replace the inane CB4 nickname asap), Jermaine O'Neal and Bargnani.
That is relevant for several reasons: First, it always keeps the pressure on the other team to have to deal with Bosh or Jermaine, because even with O'Neal struggling with his shot he is still a force that needs to be taken into consideration when he is on the floor, especially on defense. Also, keeping one on the floor at all times lessens the need for Bargnani to put up points each and every game. Obviously going forward the team is going to need more consistency from him with regards to scoring, but early on, as he adjusts to his new role, the same pressure isn't applied to his offensive production. Consequently, that allows him to feel more comfortable on the floor in other areas, keeping him loose and involved without over thinking - a constant issue for the seven-footer last year.
Even more than his diversified production, though, has been his overall demeanor. He's been carrying himself within the game in a whole new way so far this season. He's composed, he's confident and he doesn't look nearly as lost as he did a year ago. His defence is assertive, both on the ball and off, he knows where he has to be and he really isn't forcing bad shots - he's just missing good shots. While he still has a ways to go in terms of producing the way the team needs him to, at this point being able to play well enough to maintain the tight rotation (and keeping Kris Humphries off of the court) has to count as a positive early in the season.
Of course, not all is wine and roses early in the season. The team's longtime Achilles Heel, rebounding, is once again rearing its ugly head. While Predator (10.0 rpg), J.O. (7.3 rpg) and Il Mago (5.0 rpg) have done a respectable job thus far corralling boards from an average-per-game perspective, the team still puts forth a woeful effort on the glass. They refuse to box-out, still relying on out-jumping opponents for contested rebounds. Many of the boards collected by a team are simply defensive rebounds that have been abandoned while the offensive team transitions to defense, accumulated as a result of minutes, not necessarily effort, and when they start facing off against more polished clubs that could start to become a problem.
Right now the team is averaging nearly thirteen rebounds per game fewer than their opponents, and while that may not cost them against teams like Golden State and Milwaukee, it will against many of the West powers like LA, New Orleans, San Antonio and Utah - not to mention teams like Boston and Detroit on this end of the league. It's the offensive rebounding disparity (49-19 through three games) that is the most alarming, though. Giving any teams that many second- and third-chance attempts is going to come back to haunt the Raptors if this trend continues. They have got to start following through at the end of their defensive stands by putting bodies on their opponents and sealing off the glass. Games are generally decided by far too few possessions to hand over so many to the opposition.
So far, though, the positives have outweighed the negatives. Predator (I promise I won't use it this much, but I'm trying to get it ingrained) and Calderon have been superlative early, O'Neal hasn't looked nearly as lost as he did in preseason and Anthony Parker appears far more effective than he did most of last season. While three games is hardly a large enough sample-size to really get a feel for what this team's identity is going to be for a season, three wins and zero losses is never going to be a negative stat no matter who you ask. With games coming up against Detroit, Atlanta, Charlotte and Boston, the team could easily be 5-2 a week tonight - and if Allen Iverson is making his Piston debut against the Raptors on Wednesday, perhaps the team can even capitalize on the adjustment period such a substantial move would create.
November is a fairly easy month for the Raptors, with two games apiece against Atlanta, Charlotte and Miami, with a contest again New Jersey thrown in for good measure. The team must capitalize on these foes after the Raptors backslid into the Playoffs last season with a 41-41 record precisely because they could not beat the easier fodder that was laid at their feet. Here is where we see how meaningful these ideology shifts truly are.