USA TODAY Sports
The Raptors look to start the new year with a win against the always-tough Portland Trailblazers.
The Toronto Raptors were last seen in Orlando, blowing out the Magic on the road. They return home tonight and will be looking to start off 2013 with a win. The team's next 6 games will all be played in the friendly confines of the Air Canada Center.
The team's home form has been one of the few positive takeaways from this season. They've shown an ability to beat "lesser" teams while also being able to hang tough with some of the better teams in the league.
The Raptors are currently 3.5 games back of the 8th seed in the Eastern Conference which is currently occupied by the Boston Celtics. The Celtics, and most people, don't envisage a flat out battle for the 8 seed and the odds are that the Celtics pull away and move up the ladder just a bit.
If the Raptors are serious about the possibility of playing meaningful basketball in a couple of months than they'll need to keep playing well and winning games. 29 of the team's next 51 games are at home but 28 of those games are against teams with records above .500.Ed Kupfer, an NBA statistician, recently did a study that analyzed each team's remaining slate of games. It's worth noting that Toronto is pretty high up in this list and are projected to have the fourth "easiest" schedule going forward.
The Trailblazers are one of the more intriguing teams in the association. They had an indifferent start to the season but have since entered into a great run of form. They have won 8 of their last 10 games and won a big game last night against the Knicks.
A few years ago they were seen, alongside the Oklahoma City Thunder, as a future, perennial contender. Greg Oden and Brandon Roy have since left the team and injuries have really taken a toll on their outlook in recent times. They've managed to stay competitive in the Western Conference and much of that boils down to LaMarcus Aldridge. Aldridge, the player taken directly after Andrea Bargnani, has perfected his pick-and-pop ability and provides the perfect compliment to Rookie of the Year candidate, Damian Lillard.
Here are the three keys to starting this homestand with a W:
1) Ed Davis vs LMA: LaMarcus Aldridge is having another productive season as the leader of this Blazers team. His post game is incredibly efficient and somewhat methodical. His rebounding ability, particularly on the offensive end, is be something that Dwayne Casey might be highlighting in practice this afternoon. Ed Davis' breakout has curiously coincided with the team's improved play. It's up to Davis to maintain this level of play and it doesn't get much harder than this matchup.
2) Damian Lillard: The Blazers defeated the New York Knicks on the road last night and Lillard's play was a big factor. Lillard has been making big plays all season and his game winner against the Hornets (Pelicans) comes to mind. He hit a step-back three pointer with 35 seconds left to silence the Madison Square Garden crowd and he'll be looking to do the same tonight. Jose Calderon and Kyle Lowry will have their hands full trying to deal with Lillard's pick-and-roll penetration and their ability to defend it could very well determine the outcome of the game.
3) Bench Production: When analyzing recent Raptors' wins, one constant seems to keep coming up. That would be the team’s bench. When they play well the team seems to win. It's really that simple. It will be up to guys like Terrence Ross, Amir Johnson, Kyle Lowry and Alan Anderson to be game-changers when they step on the court. The Blazers played a tough, close game last night and their bench players might take a while to get going.