Don’t look now but the Raptors are suddenly in first place in the Atlantic Division and about to begin their longest homestand of the season, beginning with the Wizards tonight (7 PM ET, TSN2, TSN 1050).
It feels weird because they haven’t been in this position since 2007. It’s weird because their current 5-7 record feels completely earned, but somehow has them in this lofty spot (thanks for the slow start NYC-area teams).
When was the last time a team with a losing record lead any division this many games in? According to Elias, it was the Raptors (tied with the Nets) at 22-23 back on Jan. 30, 2007. Weird.
But the division lead is theirs as they try and avoid a similar fate as last Friday after a nearly identical week. Both weeks featured team bonding dinners (at Rudy Gay’s last week in Memphis, Kyle Lowry’s this week in Philly) followed by a convincing road win (Grizzlies last week, Sixers this week).
What followed was a letdown loss at home against a good Bulls team without Derrick Rose and the Wizards are just a capable of delivering a similar wake up call if the Raptors aren’t prepared.
So if the Raptors want things to seem less weird atop the Atlantic, they can start by taking care of teams among the Eastern Conference’s current middle class (i.e. just below .500) and particularly at ACC, where they’re off to a 2-3 start.
Here’s what else we’re watching tonight…
Long Range Wizardry
The Raptors were burned by a good 3-point shooting team in the Blazers last week and the Wizards should bring a similar style to the floor tonight.
Washington actually averages more 3-point attempts per game (24.3) and shoots just under 40 per cent from 3-point range. Rudy Gay and DeMar DeRozan have been picking up their own offensive games of late (more on that below), but their perimeter defence against Bradley Beal (3 triples per game) and Trevor Ariza (2.5 threes per game) is going to be tested tonight.
Beal in particular has been hot. He’s averaged 26.3 point per game over his last three and connected on 12-of-19 from long range.
The Wizards are also willing passers, coming into this one ranked fourth in the NBA at 24.9 assists per game and led by a career-best 9.7 assists per game from point guard John Wall. Beal (3.5 assists per game) and big man Nene (3.0) will also be looking for teammates tonight.
Does The Raptors Better Ball Movement Continue?
The Raptors meanwhile, remain last in the league in terms of assists per game (17.1) and assist ratio, but they’ve been sharing the ball a little more of late.
Since racking up just 10 assists on 114 field goal attempts in a double-overtime road loss to the Rockets on November 11th, the Raptors have averaged 18.5 assists in their last four games. In Wednesday road win over the Sixers, the Raptors posted a season-high 24 assists.
Kyle Lowry has been a big part of the turnaround. The starting point guard has totaled 34 assists over that span and turned it over only five times.
Can Rudy and DeMar Keep It Going?
Most of the Raptors’ offence is running through DeMar DeRozan and Rudy Gay and the duo has been heating up.
DeRozan’s coming off his best three-game stretch of the season, with an average of 33 points per game and 50 per cent from 3-point range (8-for-16). That strong play could continue tonight — DeRozan averaged 22.3 points per game against Washington last season.
Gay has also seen spike in his scoring over the last five games with an increased focus from behind the arc. He’s taking more threes over that span and shot 11-of-23 (43.8 per cent), way up from 31.8 per cent clip from his first six games.
That’s contributed to Gay averaging 24 ppg over that stretch, up from 17.9 ppg in his first six games of the season.