Tonight presents a pretty important divisional game for a relatively unchallenged front-running Raptors team when the host the Brooklyn Nets (7 PM, TSN2, Sportsnet 590 The FAN)
Since players from the Raptors locker were pulled from the lineup before the December 8th game in Los Angeles, the remaining group has banded together and integrated pieces fairly seemlessly from Sacramento. Beating the Lakers that night in Kobe Bryant’s return was considered an upset, as was beating the Bulls in Chicago (twice). Same with Dallas, definitely in OKC and indubitably versus the league-leading Pacers on New Year’s Day.
But the Raptors haven’t faced too many situations like tonight, where they need to hold off an Eastern Conference opponent on a roll and one that expects to be in their division-leading position.
The Nets are certainly making up for lost time trying to get there. They were a team picked by many to be a championship contender and are starting to display that form on their current five-game win streak that has put them only three games behind the Raptors in the Atlantic. The Nets coming off a gutsy 105-94 double-overtime win over the Heat on Friday night in Brooklyn, something the current Atlantic division leaders haven’t been able to achieve in three tries this season.
Perhaps more impressively, they did it without the services of their two key young pillars in centre Brook Lopez (fractured right foot – out for season) and point guard Deron Williams (sprained left ankle), who is not expected to play tonight versus the Raptors.
Tonight’s game should serve as playoff staging in a sense. The Raptors should find themselves in an intense environment against a grizzled veteran squad — and potential first-round opponent*– in a game that matters.
Oh and did we mention it’s Drake Night with the team’s Global Ambassador playing host? Should be another wild Saturday night crowd at Air Canada Centre and the Raptors seem to love playing in them — they’re 4-0 on Saturdays this season.
Key Matchup – Kyle Lowry vs. Shaun Livingston: Lowry’s been lights out all season and is starting to get the recognition he richly deserves with a rung on the latest KIA Race To The MVP Ladder. He’s been an absolute beast to start 2014 with averages of 16.6 points, 9.0 assists and 1.8 steals in January. He’s dished out at least nine assists in four of his last five games with an assist-to-turnover ratio of 5:1 over that stretch.
Lowry won’t face one of the league’s premiere guards in Williams, but could have his hands full with the red-hot Livingston, a tall floor general that was instrumental in Friday’s win over the Heat. Livingston was all over the court on Friday, posting 19 points, a career-high 11 rebounds, five assists and two blocks in the win.
Key Stat – Expect A Defensive Battle: The Raptors defence has been very strong to round out 2013 and through this start of the New Year. In their last six games, they’ve posted the third-best defensive rating at 91.8 points per 100 possessions and that’s behind only the Bulls and Pacers, two teams they’ve knocked off over this stretch.
The Raptors are 5-0 this season when they hold opponents to under 40 per cent shooting from the field, including Wednesday’s 112-91 win over the Pistons (.395). They’ve been fifth in the league in opponent field goal percentage since Dec. 8th (.434). Over the last six games they’ve held opponents to just 41.7 per cent shooting.
The Nets have picked it up at the defensive end as well to start 2014. They’re allowing just 90.8 points per game during their five-game win streak (way down from 102.4 per game for their first 31 games) and no opponent has been able to score more than 98 points during their run. Brooklyn’s defensive rating is only 26th over that stretch (105.5), likely reflecting their slower pace, but it’s hard to argue with the results.
* – (I know, I know. Long way to go.) By The Numbers: Raptors vs. Nets
|2013-14 AVERAGES||2013-14 RANKINGS|
Last Time They Met: Nets 102, Raptors 100 – Nov. 26, 2014