Game Day: Toronto Raptors (5-13) @ Utah Jazz (10-5)

Tonight the Utah Jazz mini-holiday ends, and they get back to work facing off at home against the Toronto Raptors. The Raps just snapped their losing streak to the Phoenix Suns last night, and Andrea Bargnani had a huge game. To help me break down the other team is Tom Liston (@Liston), which I’m sure a lot of you guys haven’t heard from before. It’s really a guilty pleasure to feature him because he’s not afraid to bring stats to the table to help him prove his points. It seems like I’ve been following him on twitter for yours, and I’m glad I have. He’s one of the many talented guys who writes for the ESPN TrueHoop site: Raptors Republic. Anyway, let’s get to it.

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What’s Going on With the Raptors?

There’s no simpler way to come out and say that Bargnani is having a monster season – other than to say "Bargnani is having a monster season". The best way for me to contextualize it for Jazz fans would be to say "he’s playing like vintage Mehmet Okur, but with less rebounds per game, but as the primary scoring option – and scoring more than Carlos Boozer ever did." I’m not going to talk any more about Andrea, because you’ll just have to see what he does in the game – in effect, I’ll let his game do the talking for him. I will talk a bit more about DeMar DeRozan though. First of all, he was flat out robbed in the dunk contest. "The Showstopper" was one of the best dunks I have ever seen in my life. I will go to my grave saying he was robbed. Second, the major criticism of him was his poor three point shooting from last season. In 2010-2011 he shot only 9.6 3pt%, which is a number even Ronnie Brewer can chuckle at. This year? He’s bumped it up to 31.6 3pt%. He still doesn’t attempt a lot of threes (only 2.1 per game), but this is something he has improved on from last season. That said, to echo what Liston points out after the jump, a lot of other parts of his game have regressed. Physically he’s the type of guy who can give us fits – a super athletic wing with speed and quickness. He came into the league as a near 50 fg% shooter, and this season he’s down to 37.6 fg%. In order to have an easy night we should dare him to shoot from distance. If he’s missing, the gamble paid off. If he’s making his outside shots then we’re going to be in for a very fun game.

More than the Raptors offensive issues, I’m more impressed with their defense; particularly in the paint. There is no big secret as to where we like to shoot from. If you look at the Raptors roster you see that they are one of the teams out there that has some beef on their roster. Aaron Gray is 7’0, 270. Solomon Alabi is 7’1, 251. Jamaal Magloire is 6’11, 259. James Johnson is 6’9, 245. Ed Davis is 6’10, 225. Linas Kleiza is the same size as Millsap. And we’re not even talking about Bargnani who can block shots and play solid man defense. This isn’t going to be like going to market like it was against the Minnesota Timberwolves, or depth challenged Los Angeles Clippers. Toronto is big inside, and tough. They will battle you. They are Dinosaurs after all. They foul the most in the entire league, and they are #7 in defensive rebounds and #7 in total rebounds. They don’t hit the offensive glass with much ferocity – but they will endeavour to keep you off of yours.

Oh yeah, other teams can only manage to shoot 41.9 fg% against their defense this year. They make other teams miss, and they make a point to work their glass. They’re even Top 10 in blocks. This isn’t the same old weak-in-the-middle raptors.

But don’t take it from me, after the jump we see what Raptors Republic Blogger and all-around Stats Savant Tom Liston ( @Liston , from Raptors Republic) has to say about the Raptors; while I take a look at our Jazz.

What’s Going on With the Raptors? (Continued)

Here’s what Tom had to say:

"It’s been a difficult year so far for the Raptors, yet in-line with expectations. After several season of trying to "hit the home run", Bryan Colangelo made very smart moves this off season. He has set the team up for ultimate flexibility (if they amnestied Calderon next year, they would only have ONE player making over $6 million) and to position well for the draft. They should have two very good rookies (i.e. with Jonas Valanciunas coming as well) next year, so the Raptors are finally be building properly."

"I like the Anthony Carter, Jamaal Magloire, and Aaron Gray additions this offseason. They are the "lunch bucket" guys that will keep everyone honest in practise. Gray could prove to be a very nice pick up as many advanced stats have him rated quite well (albeit in limited minutes). He’s a nice find (exceptional given the price tag) and could be a solid backup centre for years to come. I am less sure about the Rasual Butler signing. While a veteran, I only see him taking minutes from those we should be trying to develop, namely James Johnson and Gary Forbes."

"The biggest "free agent" signing - coach Dwane Casey - was the most important and most impressive. Our analysis (before the decision was made) suggested he was well ahead of other candidates at the time. The only "problem" is he may get this squad to win more than expected and move the team up the 2012 lottery board. He’s already instilled an important culture shift and identity to the team which is already observable in the changes to players like Bargnani."

"I will guarantee the Raptors will improve from their league worst defensive rating (Drtg) from last year. Before the season started, I spoke to Casey about various elements he will bring to the club and I appreciated the simple message he was giving the players – just two more stops a game would move them to the league average (I checked, its true). Now, it’s easier said than done, but I can see the impact with players: "hey, just two stops, we can do that". The accountability Casey has instilled gives this a high percentage chance of success. However, with that dramatically increased effort on the defensive end (and less coaching emphasis), offence has suffered. I support this trade off as the culture change now is worth a little more chaos on offence as development should supersede wins this year. Given the limited training camp and relative youth of the squad, there will be plenty of missteps early in the season at both ends."

"The two biggest surprises this year are: Bargnani’s "next level" jump and DeRozan’s regression. While Bargnani’s numbers are up across the board, visually you can see a different player. He has a much more well-rounded game and certainly is much more aggressive this season. Even has a little swagger to him. He’s clearly excelled under Casey. He’s playing at an All-Star level (#5 in PSAMS, and #13 in PER). On the other hand, DeRozan’s season so far has been disappointing. His eFG% is down from ~47% to a miserable 40%, his assists are down, his turnovers are up, and he’s getting to the line less often.

"The Jazz should have an easy time handling the Raptors on a back-to-back, especially if they can keep Bargnani in check." – T. Liston,@Liston

If you click on ANY of those links you can see why I called this a guilty pleasure at the beginning of this piece. Even formatting it up for a post has me smiling from ear to ear. Great job and thanks again Tom!

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What’s Going on With the Jazz?

Utah is taking care of business at home this season. Yes, they are 8-2 at the Energy Solutions Arena; but that doesn’t tell the whole story. The Jazz (for the season) are scoring 96.3 ppg, and the opponents are scoring 93.8 ppg. That’s a margin (positive finally) of +2.5. Things are a little different at home; here the Jazz score 99.1 ppg, while the visitors manage only 90.7 ppg. That’s a margin of +8.4, which is much friendlier. That’s almost a 10 point win every game, and we’ve played 10 home games. Feel free to do the math on how many more points we’re scoring here than the other teams are.

Besides being at home, Paul Millsap is on a monster run right now; and we’re getting solid contributions off the bench from Earl Watson and C.J. Miles as well. It’s hard to overlook the positive contributions from Big Al Jefferson as well. On offense we have a number of guys I don’t mind seeing with the ball in their hands – which wasn’t always the case with this club. Better than our offense (which was non-existent in the first game of the season), is our defense at home.

The Jazz have surrendered 100 (or more) points only once all season long in Utah. And that was to the Cleveland Cavaliers. The Toronto Raptors aren’t setting any land speed records this year with their pace (89.8 – which is 24th out of 30 teams), but it would be wise not to overlook this team. It’s way better to respect the team coming in and get a win, then overlook a team with something to prove and lose. As a result, I’ll always be wary of a team that *can* hurt us from deep. We all know how hot Linas Kleiza can get (career high 40+ against us a few seasons ago). We can’t let him or anyone else torch us.

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Previous Meetings:

This is the first (and only) game these two teams play this season. The Jazz (and by extension some Jazz fans) do not have a history of being troubled by the Raptors. I can understand as the Jazz are currently on a 12-0 run against them. The all-time series stands at 23-7, in our favor. If you are at all interested in reading more about the ups and downs of the Jazz/Raptors history you can do so over at TheBreakDownShow.com. I wrote a piece about it that was uploaded just today.

Buckle up.

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