I have to say the fact the Utah Jazz are 10-5, winners of 4 of their last 5 games is quite a surprise. The Jazz now without Jerry Sloan and Deron Williams you would think would be in full rebuild. After all Tyrone Corbin who took over from Sloan was only 8-20 last season. The trade that saw Williams go to the Nets did bring the Jazz some young talent in Derrick Favours and Devin Harris but this was not a team expected to do much this year by most. They have two solid bigs that are the main pieces to the puzzle in Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap, they are the teams top scorers as well. Truth is by looking at the Jazz it just doesn't look all that impressive on paper. But the Jazz are by and large still a team that it is about the system more than the parts that make up the system. Corbin coached for years as an assistant to Sloan so that system for them mostly remains the same.
The Raptors have had almost the same lack of success vs the Jazz as they have had with last night's opponent that Suns. Raptors have lost to Utah 12 straight times. Two very different teams in terms of style. What it always largely comes down to when facing the Jazz is how you defend the pick and roll and if you are able to compete with them on the glass. The Raptors for the first time this season are pretty much healthy and have the full roster in place that Bryan Colangelo has assembled for this season. Dwane Casey is making some bold choices in terms of the roster of late. Unless your name is Andrea Bargnani it seems pretty clear you better perform or you could find yourself on bench. Rasaul Butler and Amir Johnson have already played their way out of the starting five. Demar DeRozan has been shown perhaps some more patience but to suggest he is secure in his starting role would not seem to be wise. If his production and decisions do not improve with Bargnani now back he could be delivered a message as well with a seat on the bench.
Heading in the opposite direction is a guy like James Johnson. Already a defensive type player, which with Casey is always going to give you opportunity. He is starting to make his presence known on the other end of the floor. Beyond the struggles of the Raptors youngsters in DeRozan and Ed Davis, the biggest glaring problem has been the lack of production from the small forward position. Linas Kleiza almost had won the job by not playing a single game. That is how bad Butler and Johnson had been. Ultimately Linas has not really been bad, but on a bench that needs scoring, he along with Leandro Barbosa have been the only two players providing that consistently. Johnson has been putting in work on his shot and over the last couple games we have started to see some results.
Ultimately the questions for the Raptors seem to be if they can produce on the offensive end of the floor. Is this going to be a Kevin O'Neil like offence that struggles to score, or can they be better than that. On nights when Andrea Bargnani is scoring the answer is better. But can we really expect this on a nightly basis? Andrea is averaging 23.4 points a game, That is a point or so better than Vince Carter under Kevin O'Neil with 22.5 per game. Here is where things differ though, Jalen Rose was the 2nd leading scorer on the Raptor squad in 03-04 after he arrived in a trade with Bulls. He averaged 16. 2 points per game, tied with Donyell Marshall who came in the same trade and averaged the same point per game total. Demar DeRozan and Leandro Barbosa are second and third in scoring on this Raptor squad at 14. 2 and 13.2 points per game. They also I think most would agree are not as consistent scorers as Rose and Marshall were. The Raptors Offence is ranked 29th in the league. That is second last in the league which is where the O'Neil led Raptors were as they were 28th with the NBA having one less franchise back in the 2003-04 season.
We can all agree the Raptors defence is at least heading in the right direction. 19th overall is a lot better than 30th. But the Kevin O'Neil Raptors were even better at 7th in the league out of 29 teams. The comparison between the two is not exactly a fair one. The team O'Neil had was far more talented than the one Dwane Casey has currently. But still that is the only real bench mark we have for a defensive minded Raptors basketball team. Tonight will be a challenge on both ends of the floor as the Jazz have a solid offence they run that is ranked 11th in the league and a defence that is middle of the pack at 16th.
Not to mention the schedule that helped the Raptors last night when they played a tired Suns team flips on them tonight playing a rested Jazz team that last played on Saturday. It was a 108-98 win over Minnesota. So if the Raptors get off to a slow start tonight as has been the pattern of this season the chances they make a comeback like last night is greatly reduced.
Strike First, Strike Hard: Yes the immortal words of Strike Force. If the Raptors start off slow like they did in Phoenix you can just call the Jazz Demolition and give them the win. Anyone who has played basketball will admit this freely. To play from behind is a lot tougher than it is to play with a lead. Dwane Casey to his credit played every guy dressed last night vs the Suns. He will hope it pays off with more energy for his club tonight. But if they don't use it right away they will be in serious trouble.
Protect The Glass: The worst thing you can do against the Jazz is allow them to get rolling on the offensive glass. If they do, the Raptors will get 2nd chanced pointed to death. Any defence, no matter how good, always has to complete stops with defensive rebounds. The odds you stop a team the second time around drop off dramatically.
Secondary Scoring: I am never sure if you can doubt anything much about Andrea these days, but I will go out on a limb and say he isn't scoring 30+ tonight. Can the Raptors with Bargnani scoring at around his average find enough offence to keep pace with the Jazz? If they can they will have a chance to be in the game. If not they have no shot.
Recap tonight and tomorrow at some point will be talking with Raptors play by play announcer on the T.V side of things Matt Devlin. Should be fun to have Matt in The Starting 5 tomorrow. So look forward to that. If we are talking about a 2nd win in a row for the Raptors that would be a surprise but a welcomed one. Game is on TSN2 tonight at 9pm with Matt and Jack calling all the action from Salt Lake City.