It’s Time to Play…

It’s been eight months since the last time we had an actual Raptors basketball game to write about, discuss, debate or obsess over. But alas, after a long off-season that included a five-month lockout that wiped out nearly 20 per cent of the NBA season, that day has finally come.

Yes, it’s just a pre-season game against a Celtics team that might be without Paul Pierce and Rajon Rondo, and will definitely be without the services of Jeff Green (Side-note, thoughts and prayers go out to Green. Here’s hoping for a speedy recovery), but none the less, it’s going to be the first glimpse of the Raptors’ new identity under Dwane Casey.

We’ll see just how quickly the young Raps are buying into mottos like “Pound the Rock” and “Guard Your Yard.” It will be interesting to see how rusty both teams are, and how far they are from mid-season form. Remember, each of these teams gets just two games to prepare for the helter skelter regular season that starts next weekend.

Given that it is just a pre-season game, I don’t want to waste too much time previewing the game itself. In all honesty, it’s not worth it. What I do want to discuss is the potential starting lineup and overall rotation that we might see on Sunday afternoon at the Air Canada Centre.

If you’ve listened to any of Dwane Casey’s scrums from training camp, he’s certainly given us some hints.

Point Guard: Casey has stated that while nothing is set in stone, he feels that Jose Calderon works better as a starting point guard and Jerryd Bayless is a great option off of the bench. He’s also discussed how Anthony Carter usually starts as the third point guard wherever he goes, and slowly works his way up the depth chart. Most of us could have guessed this. Jose will likely start, Bayless will be the official backup PG and Carter will be there to hopefully push both of them.

Shooting Guard: Casey hasn’t said much, and he doesn’t need to. This is a no-brainer, DeMar DeRozan starts.

Small Forward: Casey said that James Johnson has been the best small forward in camp, but also gave Rasual Butler some praise. I’m guessing that for the first pre-season game, Johnson starts, with Butler getting the first chance to replace him off the bench. I’m assuming Gary Forbes will play his way into more minutes as the season progresses. Both Butler and Forbes can play either the two or the three, so there should be plenty of opportunities for each.

Power Forward: We all imagine Bargnani’s name being announced with the starters, but based on the rave reviews we’ve been hearing about Ed Davis‘ camp, would anyone really be shocked to see Ed get the start? I doubt it will happen, but I’m not ready to rule it out completely. One thing you have to wonder is where Amir Johnson fits in. We’ve heard a lot about Bargs and Davis, but other than some updates on his solid recovery from ankle surgery or his improving mid-range jumper, it’s been quiet on the Amir front. I’m sure they’ll find minutes for him somewhere.

Centre: This is where it really gets interesting to me. Casey said this week that the plan is to have Bargnani and Davis play their natural power forward positions as often as possible (again, no mention of Amir). I think we can all but rule out Solomon Alabi from the rotation, let alone the starting lineup. That leaves Jamaal Magloire and Aaron Gray as possible starters at the five. Based on his veteran defensive presence and the PR boost of starting him in his first game as a Raptor, I think we’ll see Magloire get the start against the Celtics. If he holds his own in the two pre-season games, I can also see the Raptors starting Magloire in the regular season to set the tone early in games. I don’t think he’s going to get a lot of minutes, but I can easily see him starting.

So based on Casey’s comments throughout the week and my instincts, I think we’ll see a starting lineup of Calderon, DeRozan, James Johnson, Bargnani and Magloire, with Bayless, Davis and Amir getting the majority of minutes off the pine.

Another important point from Casey’s scrums is that he’s stated he wants to eventually narrow down his rotation to eight-to-10 guys. We’ve already listed eight players above, which means guys like Leandro Barbosa, Gary Forbes, Rasual Butler, Aaron Gray, Anthony Carter, Solomon Alabi and even Linas Kleiza when he gets back, will have to fight tooth and nail for every minute. And that’s the way it should be.

Another thing to keep an eye on is the seats in the ACC, as in, filled or empty. Pre-season Raptors games are never sellouts, but in the past, the first home pre-season game has had at least respectable attendance. If Sunday’s game looks pathetically empty, it might be a bad sign for attendance this season, especially since season seat holders were offered two complimentary tickets to the game.

I’ll post my impressions of the first pre-season game some time later on Sunday, and will revisit what the rotation looks like sometime between the second pre-season game and the regular season opener in Cleveland.

That’s it for now.

Enjoy the game.