Armstrong: Raptors in danger of late season fall in East

Jack Armstrong

3/8/2010 2:55:17 PM

I'm starting to get a bit concerned right now with what I'm seeing from the Toronto Raptors.

The Milwaukee Bucks have passed them for the fifth seed in the East and with Miami, Chicago and Charlotte right on their tails, the race for playoff seeds five through eight in the Eastern Conference will be a battle to the finish.

I've said it before and I'll say it again, the Raptors have the fifth best team in the East and if they're healthy and playing to their potential that's where they should finish up in the conference. Lots of if's involved of course but you don't win with if's you get it done by tightening the screws and improving.

The schedule is getting tougher with a four-game West Coast trip as well as challenging games upon their return to Toronto, with Atlanta and Oklahoma City - not easy.

The days of having practice/teaching time, as well as time for rest are now close to over. The habits that the Raptors have 75 percent of the season are what they are, yet they've got to get better and back to the good habits they exhibited a few weeks ago.

This team has been together long enough that it should be coming together and gelling. The teaching, preaching and coaching have and will be done - the players are good. Time to get it done. 

Here are FOUR areas that the Raptors have to straighten out in order to make the playoffs as a fifth seed and be able to pull off a first round upset - which they're more than capable of doing if healthy and improved.
1. TALENT: This team has talent and it has depth. Can't go into games though thinking that on 'paper' you're better and it will take care of itself. Doesn't work that way. Look at the Sixers home loss as an example. Consistent level of performance has been an issue of late when you look at Hedu Turkoglu, DeMar DeRozan, Antoine Wright, Jose Calderon and Andrea Bargnani to name a few.

It's winning time now and after all this time guys should be finding their groove and be consistent. Has to start to happen - Now.                             

2. PLAYING ROTATION: Jay Triano and his staff need to make the hard/tough decisions on this. As you get further into March you need to tighten the rotation and only play people that you absolutely trust that they'll be there for you each game and build better cohesion/chemistry in the role definition and consistency of the team. Problem is that they have good depth at their disposal, yet for a team to flourish you've got to tighten up the rotation not loosen it.

At this stage of the season each guy you use should be able to play all out major minutes and fatigue should be a marginal issue after all this time. Guys should be in peak condition at this stage. Time to ride your main horses. Decisions like this are never easy. It's not the job of the coaching staff to make the players happy, it's the job of the players to make the coaches happy. Each player has had more than enough of a chance to sink/swim. Winning time now. Get it done.                  

3. TURNOVERS/SHOT SELECTION: The offensive execution of late has gotten sloppy and needs to improve. Can't win on the road coughing up the ball and taking ill-advised shots. This team has good-very good offensive talent. They can score on anyone when they're going good. These two areas are really hurting this team right now.

Get back to playing as a team sharing the ball, getting good high percentage shots and respecting the value of possessing the ball.  There are too many guys looking to make plays for themselves.  We've seen them do it. Time to do it again.                      

4. DEFENSIVE EFFORT: Are you willing to sprint back, slow the ball down, contain the dribble, bang cuts, pressure passes, contest shots, communicate, win loose ball battles, take charges, get nasty, box out and rebound and create turnovers?

Are you willing to pay the price again? We've seen this team do this enough this year to know that they CAN do it. Now they've got to WANT to do it and it has to become a daily HABIT. It's not a glamorous job but it wins games and at the very least keeps you in them until your offense bounces back. Find a way to dig down and compete harder. Slippage has occurred in this area.