Down in the standings: The next three games make or break the Raptors, Bosh

Toronto Raptors' Chris Bosh, left, dunks as Charlotte Bobcats' Stephen Jackson, right, looks on in the first half of an NBA basketball game in Charlotte, N.C., Monday, March 29, 2010.It wasn’t so bad, being a Raptors fan for 24 hours, and they managed to overcome the locker room drama over the benching of Hedo Turkoglu to hold off the Bobcats in Charlotte, 103-101. And it was dramatic:

“Their postseason hopes suddenly in jeopardy, and with their $53 million shooter now an unwanted distraction, the Toronto Raptors came to Charlotte angry and on the edge of implosion.  … The Bobcats’ meek, nervous response showed this playoff race thing is still new to them.” — AP sports writer Mike Cranston, leading off his Raptors-Bobcats recap.

Dang, Mike. And most NBA fans think the high drama is in the West, where four teams are jostling for seeds 2-5. The race to settle 5-8 in the East may be just as good and not any less relevant, really, to the NBA title. The Cavs and Magic’s road to the championship runs East to West, and the beginning of that road is littered with teams playing .700 or higher basketball.

The Bucks remaining schedule is so difficult, it’s time to stop looking up in the standings and focus on the teams below them, all of whom have cake schedules and could make this too interesting for comfort. Besides, the Bucks play the Clippers tonight, and I certainly don’t want to spend any more blog time than I absolutely have to thinking about the Clippers.

The Raptors (36-37 and in 8th, just a game ahead of the Bulls) haven’t made any progress since 2008 when they finished 6th in the East (41-41), started slowly the next season and fired coach Sam Mitchell. With the addition of free agent Turkoglu, 2010 was supposed to be different — not a step back with 4th place even farther out of reach. 

So the blame has fallen on Turkoglu, who was benched Sunday in the loss to D-Wade and the Heat. Turk just wasn’t as responsible for the Orlando Magic’s success as people thought, and the Magic haven’t exactly missed the forward who was their weakest defender. In Toronto, where everybody from Jarret Jack to Andrea Bargnani to Chris Bosh can fill it up, Hedo’s solid offensive game is lost in the shuffle.

Offense never was the Raptors problem — they’re dead last in NBA defensive rating (points allowed per 100 possessions) and allow more points per game than even the Knicks. If this can be laid on Turkoglu’s doorstep, I’ll bet you a contract extension for Toronto coach Jay Triano against Chris Bosh remaining a Raptor that says it can’t … even if he (Turkoglu) never was that good.  Not even Ben Gordon good.

That said, a split on a two-game road trip to Miami and Charlotte was better than half bad for these Raptors. The Bobcats in particular are an interesting matchup for the defense-challenged Raps, nearly their opposite. Larry Brown’s Cats may be one of the top four defensive teams in the league, but they have a difficult time putting the ball in the basket. The Raptors, led by Bosh’s 22 pts and some timely shooting by Turkoglu, put up 103 points last night and it was one bucket too many for the ‘Cats, even at home.

This was the right outcome for the Bucks, as it hung Eastern conference loss # 23 on the Bobcats. This will matter if the Bucks and Bobcats end the season tied, a reasonably good possibility given the difficulty of the Bucks last 10 games. Should the Bucks lose in Charlotte on Friday the season series would be tied, throwing the tie-breaker to conference schedule.  Bucks are 27-17 against the East this season, and would have to do a lot of losing in the conference for the Bobcats and their 23 losses to get the advantage in the race for the 6th seed.

The Raptors go home to play the Clippers, in the East this week to play back-to-back games in Milwaukee and Toronto. Then it’s down to Philly for a game against the suddenly good Sixers and back home to play Golden State. These three games should decide whether the Raptors and Bosh have any business thinking about the playoffs, because the next three (Cavs, Celtics, Hawks) say the Raptors are A) an afterthought (the Cavs) and B) a spoiler.

I think Bosh’s NBA stardom is also on the line in these next few games. You can only go so long losing more than you win before falling into the second tier or worse. If his Raptors are no match for the Clippers, Sixers or Warriors, this could be the last time we see Bosh as a centerpiece player in the NBA. Really. 

We went through this in Milwaukee with Michael Redd. Blaming the help (Turkoglu) is the first sign that the fall has already begun.  How’s that for playoff run drama?

Bucks-Clippers: I just realized the last thing I want to do is think about the Bucks two midweek games, tonight against the Clippers and Wednesday against the Cavs. At least it’s a back-to-back and the Bucks can get past these two quickly. And at least they play the Clippers first.

Having to play the Clippers at all in the middle of an Eastern Conference playoff run is kind of a distraction. But there are a few things the Bucks have going for them:

A) Hope that Carlos Delfino will return to the lineup tonight, recovered from the injuries suffered Friday at the feet of Miami’s Udonis Haslem;

B) That Andrew Bogut doesn’t want to be outplayed by Clippers center Chris Kaman; and,

C) The Clippers beat the Bucks two weeks ago in L.A., with point guard Baron Davis running a clinic on Brandon Jennings. Revenge to split the season series will be good for Jennings and make the plane ride to Cleveland much shorter. (Scratch Davis – he’s not playing. Steve Blake will start in his place. Typical Clippers – you never know who’s playing or not or who’s even on their roster.)

D) The Bucks are at home.

E) This is the last time the Bucks or their fans will have to think about Chris Kaman’s Clippers until next season. They’re the very definition of NBA distraction

Spoilers: Sticking in everybody’s business are the Sixers, who are suddenly playing like the playoff team they were supposed to be this season. They beat the Bucks and Hawks last week, and play in Charlotte tommorrow. Saturday the Sixers host the Raptors. The Bucks close their season series with the Sixers April 9 in Philly, where they haven’t won since 2007.

The Sixers rotation is filled with talented, athletic players, none of them the loafing kind (well, maybe Sam Dalembert takes a few nights off now and then, but never against the Bucks and Bogut). Mostly, they like playing D and, like a lot of defensive/hustle teams, will drive anybody who likes offensive efficiency nuts. They’ve had some injuries but forward Thaddeus Young (broken thumb) is the only player still sidelined as of this week. For teams like the Bucks or Bobcats, who like a good defensive struggle where the game comes down to turnovers and the battle for loose balls and rebounds (those 50-50 plays) the Sixers can be tough. They thrive playing the kind of ugly, possession-to-possession, Scott Skiles/Larry Brown style of basketball that breaks a lot of teams backs over 48 minutes.

Philly might wake up and realize that their season is over, but that would be very un-Sixer-like.  Very unlike an Eddie Jordan-coached team, too. In any case, it looks like the Sixers are doing exactly the opposite of quitting.  

“This is not a fluke. It is disappointing because we could’ve played like that the entire season.” — Sixers big forward Elton Brand.

The fluke may have been that they didn’t. And they haven’t lost their work ethic, according to coach Jordan. For future reference, here’s Jordan’s take on how the Sixers beat the Hawks and the Bucks last week:

“Obviously [in the wins], we’ve been making shots, but I do think we’ve been real solid in key areas. Whether it’s Andre [Iguodala] or Jrue [Holiday] locked up, or Samuel [Dalembert] locked up, it’s usually those three guys. They’ve been very good with their assignments, and that’s been very critical for us.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *