The Toronto Raptors are about to embark on a stretch of games that will see the team play nine of their next 14 on the road for the remainder of the month.
First stop? A clash with the 1-2 Oklahoma City Thunder.
Usually considered to be one of the tougher matchups of the year (on any schedule for any team mind you), Toronto is catching the Thunder at the absolute perfect time.
Oklahoma City has dropped 2 of its first 3 games, including a 104-95 loss Sunday night to the Josh Smith-less Atlanta Hawks. Russell Westbrook is shooting just 38% from the field, Kevin Durant is turning the ball over 5.3 times a game and the starting unit is scoring just 90.4 points per 100 possessions.
Now is the time for Toronto to make a statement and prey on a Thunder squad which is at its most vulnerable.
The Raptors are coming off of a convincing 105-86 victory over the Minnesota Timberwolves Sunday night which saw the backcourt of Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan combine for 44 points, 14 rebounds and 6 steals. 11 of the teams 29 steals on the year belong to Lowry, who is also averaging 23.7 points, 7.3 rebounds and 7.0 assists (all of which lead the team).
So what does Toronto have to do later tonight to win their second in a row and give the Thunder their second upset loss in as many days? Here are your 3 keys to the game (or as I like to call it....The Triple W: Walder's Winning Ways.
1) Turn Kevin Durant Into A Facilitator
Throughout his career, Durant has never averaged more than 3.5 assists in a season. Through the teams first 3 games, he's averaging 6.7, but in contrast, he's also turning the ball over 5 times as well.
"I wish I could have had a couple of those turnovers back,'' said Durant after Sundays loss.
Kevin isn't a playmaker. He's a scorer. With the departure of James Harden (arguably the teams best in that department the past few seasons), Durant feels more responsibility to contribute in other aspects of the game besides just scoring the basketball.
Toronto needs to press the issue with Durant on the defensive end. Taking Kevin out of his element and making him pass up shots will be crucial for the Raptors success in this game. He will get his points (you can't fully stop the reigning scoring champion of the league), but wreaking havoc on defense and causing Kevin to make mistakes with the ball will be essential.
2) Continued Success In The First Quarter
The Raptors are among the league leaders in first quarter scoring at 28.3 points. They've also hit 9 of 16 three-pointers in the opening 12 minutes of their first three outings.
On the other side of things, Oklahoma City found themselves down by 8 after the first quarter against Atlanta.
It's been frustrating to see Toronto blow leads late in games after beginning with such tenacity on the offensive end, but it's still rather reassuring to know that this team can in fact start off games strong and put the pressure on the opposition right out of the gate.
Rather than digging themselves into an early hole, the Raptors need to put some up big points once again in the opening quarter and take the game right to Oklahoma City.
It's never wise to play comeback for an entire game against a team with as much firepower as the Thunder.
3) Don't forget about Martin
With all of the hoopla surrounding James Harden and his incredible run to open the year in Houston, it's almost easy to forget that sharpshooter Kevin Martin found his way to the Thunder in the deal as well.
Martin has been nothing short of outstanding to start the year. He's averaging 20.7 points off the bench in 30.6 minutes of action a night for OKC. He's also hit 12 of his 17 three-point attempts, including 6 against the Hawks.
Focusing on Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook is obvious enough, but not putting any attention on Kevin Martin could be disastrous for Toronto. Martin can shoot with the best of them, and he may in fact be a better scorer as a third option for this team than Harden was.
Before arriving in Oklahoma City, Martin was a career 18.7 points per game scorer as mostly a number one or two option on Sacramento and Houston. In the role of sixth man, he could be even deadlier. Toronto better keep one eye on Kevin at all times, especially if he's standing on the perimeter. Otherwise, it could bite the Raptors in the you know what.