If you were part of the "pro-tank" team this season, then the past couple weeks haven't been very fun.
The Toronto Raptors won five straight games, including nine of their past 11, before having said streak snapped at the hands of the Miami Heat on Sunday night. However Miami barely eeked out the victory and by all accounts the Dinos seem well positioned to challenge for at least the fourth seed in the Eastern Conference, if not the third. (The third-place Hawks have lost three straight and are only a half game up on TO.)
On top of this, even if GM Masai Ujiri decided to pull the rug out from under the team by trading a Kyle Lowry or Amir Johnson, there's now yet another team Ujiri's club would need to compete with in terms of grabbing a top-five lottery spot, let alone winning the lottery outright. Last night's trade of Luol Deng by the Chicago Bulls means Chicago is officially waving the white flag on the season, cutting costs, and looking to head to the draft lottery for some Derrick Rose-type luck.
It's not impossible that the Raptors still decide to head for the lottery, but with each passing day, that option seems to be less and less of a realistic possibility.
The flip side to all of this is that as the season unfolds, the Raptors could take another angle in their continuous rebuild and look to take advantage of teams like the Cavs who are desperate to win now. Injuries are popping up all over the league suddenly and Ujiri, ever the opportunist may just come knocking.
In this way Ujiri might be taking an approach a bit more similar to that of his club's opponent tonight, the Indiana Pacers. The Pacers did a great job building through the draft yes, but not via top five picks. And the Pacers also took advantage of opportunities presented their way to feed their rebuild; a David West signing here, a Kawhi Leonard trade there.
Obviously this approach has paid off as the Pacers continue to lead the NBA in win percentage and appear to be one of the top three threats to knock the Miami Heat off their collective thrones.
However they must first vanquish their dreaded foes the Toronto Raptors, who dealt the kids from Indy a 95 to 82 loss just six days ago, the Pacers lone loss in their last night contests.
To repeat the performance tonight, here are our three keys:
1) Defence: Last time these clubs met the Toronto Raptors put on a defensive clinic. They held Indiana to 43 per cent shooting from the field, turned the Pacers over 22 times, and limited the club's effectiveness from long-range. Toronto now sports the league's seventh most efficient defense and it needs to be on full display tonight.
2) Ross vs George/Valanciunas vs Hibbert: Speaking of D, one of the biggest reasons the Dinos grabbed the W from the Pacers last time these clubs met was thanks to some of the individual battles that Toronto took advantage of. Terrence Ross in particular was fantastic against the Pacers' franchise player, Paul George, limiting him to 12 points on 5 of 14 shooting. It wasn't all Ross, but Terrence did play the bulk of the minutes against George and used his length and quickness to keep George in check as much as possible.
Similarly, Jonas Valanciunas held his own against Pacers' big man Roy Hibbert. It wasn't the same lockdown display as Ross, Hibbert did have a team-high 16 points, but it could have been a lot worse and Valanciunas made Hbbert work at the other end finishing with 13 and 9. The "9" was especially big as Hibbert had but three rebounds that night, and found himself in foul trouble for the bulk of his minutes.
SB Nation's Coach Nick from B-Ball Breakdown does a great job summarizing the impact of these two players in the clip below, and if the Raps can get similar performances out of this duo it bodes well for their chances of repeating New Year's Day's upset:
3) Margin of error: As my compatriot Braedon Clark noted yesterday, come playoff time the margin of error in games against elite clubs like the Heat and Pacers will be very small for the Raps. Each and every possession counts and execution is paramount.
Execution however hasn't been consistently a strong suit for the Raptors this season (Bobcats!) so going forward I'm hoping to see the club improve in this area. Games like tonight's against the Pacers are great tests not only of talent, but also X's and O's as Casey and co continue to hone their tactical skills. These tactical strengths can often be the difference between a club like San Antonio and one like New York so I'm hoping to see Casey and his crew continue to refine their strategies as the season goes on. And tonight vs the Pacers represents another great opportunity.