Raptors Aim To Keep Rolling In Denver

Projected Starters
TOR – Jose Calderon (G), DeMar DeRozan (G), James Johnson (F),  Ed Davis (F), Aaron Gray (C).
Ty Lawson  (G), Andre Miller (G), Danilo Gallinari (F), Nene (F), Timofey Mozgov (C).

Key Injuries
TOR – Andrea Bargnani (left calf strain) – Out
– Aaron Afflalo (right groin strain) –  day-to-day, DeMarre Carroll (left hamstring strain) – day-to-day, Rudy Fernandez (right Achilles tendon strain) –  day-to-day, Ty Lawson (left ankle sprain) – day-to-day.

Here’s what we’ve got an eye on tonight as the Raptors try for a third straight win against the red-hot Nuggets in the Mile High City (9PM ET, TSN2, FAN590).

Missing Il Mago: While the Raptors shooting for three straight wins is a big story, the status of Andrea Bargnani has to be of concern after the forward aggravated the same left calf strain in Wednesday’s win that sidelined him for six games earlier this month.

UPDATE – The Raptors announced Friday afternoon that no structural damage was revealed following tests in Denver on Thursday and he will be sidelined indefinitely.

That shifts the spotlight back on the rest of the Raptors roster, which has yet to prove it can win without its best player this season.

The Raptors’ ability to score in first quarters has been a huge problem of late, but at the very least they were able to get back on track offensively with Bargnani in the lineup. In the half dozen games without their leading scorer, the Raptors struggled to average just 81 points per game.

There’s also a clear leadership void with Bargnani out as well. He’s  shown more competitive fire this season than ever before and his teammates definitely seemed to feed off it in these last two wins. How do the Raptors respond to his absence tonight?

Another Losing Streak In Sights: The Raptors’ last two wins have been big in singularity, as they wiped out double-digit deficits in both for W’s, but they also terminated their two longest active losing streaks against an opponent in the process (14 games vs. PHX, 12 vs. UTA).

Tonight represents another daunting task in the thin air of Denver, where the Raptors have dropped seven straight meetings with the Nuggets at Pepsi Center and eight straight overall to the Nuggets, who enter tonight on a five-game win streak and second in the Western Conference.

Return To The Rockies: For two franchises that don’t cross paths often, there’s some interesting connections heading into this one.

First, it represents a return for Linas Kleiza, who publicly expressed his desire for the Nuggets not to match Toronto’s offer sheet back in the summer of 2010. Kleiza is coming off his finest game of the season in Wednesday’s win (25 points, five rebounds) and with Bargnani out, the versatile forward could get a great opportunity against his former team.

Reserve guard Anthony Carter and Gary Forbes (not matched as an RFA by Denver this past summer) also make their returns to Denver tonight.

Finally, there’s the connection between both of tonight’s head coaches. Dwane Casey’s path to the Raptors has been a winding one, but its NBA start came as an assistant coach under Karl with the Seattle SuperSonics back in 1994.

Casey touched on the experience in a fascinating preseason interview with SI.com’s Zach Lowe that clearly shows Karl’s influence on the defensive side of the ball.

“I’ll tell you this: He is one of the best as far as being innovative and different on defence,” Casey said when asked about Karl. “A lot of what we see now in the league came from him — the trapping, the double-teaming, showing hard on pick-and-rolls and the way he took advantage of the old illegal defense rules. All those innovative and non-traditional schemes, he was huge with that.”

Keep an eye on how these old colleagues gameplan for one another tonight.

Different Takes On Starting Over: Taking a larger step back, this matchup also features two teams moving on from the departure of stars. For the Raptors, the approach will clearly be more methodical to building a sustainable contender. Denver, under former Raptors assistant GM Masai Ujiri, has remained competitive in the Western Conference post-Carmelo Anthony by building a team with no dominant star, but top 10 depth throughout the rotation.

Head coach George Karl spoke more about the Nuggets’ interesting approach to team building below in the start of the NBA TV special “The Association”.

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