With only eight games remaining in the regular season and with the Bulls and Nets breathing down their necks, the Raptors will head into tonight's game with Houston desperate for a win. They might have to do it without Kyle Lowry, whose status is still unknown as of this writing after banging knees with LeBron James during Monday's loss in Miami. If Lowry can't go it's obviously a huge blow, but the Rockets are also dealing with injury concerns and will play without Dwight Howard and Patrick Beverley.
The Rockets lost last night in Brooklyn to the streaking Nets, who have now won 14 straight at home. The game was classic Houston, defined by threes, free throws and layups. James Harden took 16 free throws by himself (and made them all) and it will be up to Terrence Ross and DeMar DeRozan to both stay away from foul trouble and put pressure on Harden on the defensive end. Harden was abused by Joe Johnson late in last night's game and remains an indifferent individual defender, something the Raptors must take advantage of.
Even though Howard is out, the Rockets have an excellent center in Omer Asik, who exploded against Brooklyn to the tune of 12 points, 23 rebounds and two blocks. He has hands of granite and free throws are always an adventure, but Asik remains a great rebounder and defender. It will be interesting to see how Jonas Valanciunas, himself on a bit of a hot streak, handles playing against someone with great size and defensive instincts.
Even if Lowry can't go, the Raptors will have a chance to win this game. Due to its high-variance strategy of shooting tons of threes, the Rockets are always susceptible to a bad shooting night that could submarine their chances of winning. Fortunately for Greivis Vasquez he won't be hounded by Beverley all night; Jeremy Lin is a good offensive player but leaves a lot to be desired on the other end.
Finally, what can we expect to see from Patrick Patterson? He only played eight minutes against Miami and looked understandably rusty, but it will be huge if the Raptors can get the old Patterson back tonight.
Houston tonight and Indiana on Friday: Those are by far the two toughest games remaining on the Raptors' schedule, and if they can open that stretch with a win tonight, it would be massive. My prediction: Raptors win, 98-91. Can't wait to see how wrong I am.
Note: On the scoreboard watching front, the Nets are taking on the Knicks tonight at Madison Square Garden, while the Bulls are in Atlanta and the Wizards host the Celtics. All very winnable games for those teams, making Raptors-Rockets even more important.