And so it begins.
Tonight, the Toronto Raptors take on the Sacramento Kings in Sacramento, the Dinos' first of four straight West Coast matches, including a back-to-back against the Lakers and Blazers on the weekend.
For me, this is where the rubber really meets the pavement as they say.
Yeah, it was great to see the Raps beat up on the Cavs this past Friday night, but as I discussed Saturday morning, without Anderson Varejao and Mo Williams, that Cleveland team was much more like a D League team than an NBA one.
And while the match vs the Knicks to start the season was a good first test, it's this road swing, which features marquee clubs like Utah, LA and Portland, that I think will really start to provide some colour as to Toronto's expected level of success this year.
A split would be huge, especially since the club returns to play Golden State and Charlotte before heading to Florida to take on Orlando and Miami, and to accomplish this, a win tonight against the Kings is a must.
What to make of this Kings team though?
They too beat Cleveland so far this season, albeit not by nearly as wide a margin, and have also beaten Minnesota and lost to New Jersey.
No, not exactly the look of a dominant club so far.
In fact through their first three games, Sacto looks a lot like Toronto last year; they're one of the league's worst defensive clubs, giving up nearly 109 points per game, but have been the third best scoring-wise, putting nearly the same number of points per game on the board on O.
And that brings us to our first key:
1) Lock things down: Toronto has been the bizarro version of last year's club so far this season. They're actually holding opponents to under 90 points a game, third best in the league albeit through two matches, and haven't been great scoring wise, averaging 97. Considering the Kings as mentioned are essentially the opposite of this, it's pretty safe to say that whoever can play their style of game will take this one.
Therefore the Raptors need to set the tone early in this one, the same way they did against the Cavs. By forcing turnovers and keeping Sacto on the perimeter, hopefully Toronto can slow down the Kings' high powered attack and keep this one from getting away early.
2) DeMar DeRozan: While DeRozan hasn't exactly taken the NBA by storm in his young career yet, he's shown a few nice steps in the right direction so far this season. His defence has looked a tad crisper, and he's shown a willingness to attack the basket and get to the line that wasn't there last season. (Now if he could only knock them down consistently...)
Tonight I'll be watching the USC grad closely as he has the unenviable task of trying to slow down Tyreke Evans, the Kings' superstar sophomore. Evans can do a bit of everything, but is especially dangerous once he gets in the lane. Like LeBron James, he's strong enough to finish at the rim and also has great court vision which he'll use to find open shooters. Outside of Evans, the Kings don't have a ton of consistent weapons so if DeMar can keep Tyreke at bay while making him work on D, this will go a long ways towards getting a win.
3) Paintball: Reggie Evans has been an absolute monster on the glass for Toronto and he'll have to continue this tonight. While not a great rebounding team overall, the Kings have some big bodies inside as well as some Evans-like types who aren't afraid to mix it up. DeMarcus Cousins and Carl Landry fit these latter two categories but with Samuel Dalembert back, and players like Donte Green, Hassan Whiteside and Jason Thompson in the mix, Toronto has its work cut out for them down low.
This means Evans, Johnson, Andersen and maybe even Dorsey will all need to be at their feisty bests themselves as this could be the type of game that comes down to who's willing to get dirty.
And while I'm not expecting a double-digit rebounding game from Andrea, one rebound ain't gonna cut it tonight against this crew. Bargs has an interesting match-up with Cousins in fact and I'll be watching to see if he can contain the Kentucky big man on D while attacking him from the perimeter on O.