I must say, the Raptors were pretty darn impressive last night.
On the road, against an Eastern Conference playoff rival, they showed little sign of post All-Star break rust, and were led by Kyle Lowry -- again the subject of trade rumours (Thursday can't come quick enough) -- and a really well balanced big-man attack.
They'll need more of the same tonight when they face a resurgent Chicago Bulls team at the ACC.
With all due respect to the Washington Wizards (or however much respect is due to a team 3 games under .500), the Bulls should be a tougher nut to crack tonight. The Raps have won 2 of 3 meetings against Tom Thibodeau's team this season, but since their last tilt on December 31st -- a time when Chicago was basically unwatchable -- the Bulls have begun to find their stride.
Along with the Raps, they're well in the mix for what could prove to be a vital home-court advantage for the first-round of the playoffs.
Ironically it was the trade of Luol Deng to the Cavaliers -- a trade that many assumed would signal the death knell for their season --- that seems to have acted as a catalyst for the team's improved play. Perhaps that trade has helped to foster a stronger 'us against the world' mentality among the likes of Taj Gibson (who's much improved) and the awesome Joakim Noah; or it could just be that they've gotten healthy at the right time. Whatever the reason is, the Bulls have won 3 straight, and 6 of their last 10, navigating a brutal West Coast swing during that stretch. Tanking be damned.
It's also hard to ignore the fantastic -- and wholly unexpected -- play of Raptors cast-off D.J. Augustin -- a player who Noah claimed, in a recent podcast with Bill Simmons, saved their season. Augustin was cut by the Raps to make room for incoming players in the Rudy Gay trade (note: he was also cut because he was awful). As a Raptor he averaged 2 points and 1 assist per game on 29% shooting -- and to be honest, it looked like the guy wouldn't be in the league next season.
But with Chicago, whether it's just because he's been given extended minutes -- or perhaps because he's playing with his back against the wall -- he's been awesome. As a Bull, Augustin is averaging 13 points and 5 assists per game, and shooting 42% from downtown. His mid-season renaissance is one of the more underrated feel-good stories of the season.
Let's just hope he doesn't stick it to his former team tonight.
Here are 3 keys for the Raps tonight:
Continue the balanced big-man attack
Against the Wizards the Raptors bigs were an impressive, 18 of 26 from the floor. Everyone contributed, and Amir Johnson, in what looks to be a very well-suited bench role, looked more mobile than he has in quite some time. Against Chicago, a team that's well rested -- and a team that can beat you up inside -- it'll be important to continue rotating the big-men in order to keep everyone fresh in the second game of a back-to-back.
Incidentally, the Raps are 5-4 this season in those dreaded second games of a back-to-back. Not terrible.
The Wizards had 16 offensive rebounds last night, and it kept them in a game they had no business being in. And unfortunately giving up offensive boards has become a bit of a theme for the Raptors of late. I'm still having
Charles Barkley Jared Sullinger nightmares.
They'll need to try and clean that up against the Bulls tonight. Chicago are a fantastic rebounding team -- the 3rd best team in terms of offensive rebounding, and rebounding in general. In-fact, they're a team that stays alive offensively by snaring second-chance points. The Raptor bigs will need to do a much better job tonight keeping the likes of Gibson, Noah and Boozer off the glass if they want to come out with the win.
Move the ball
Post December 8th this hasn't been much of a problem for the Raptors. But it's something that's always worth reemphasizing when the Raps come up against a team that plays defense in the half-court as well as the Bulls do. Chicago ranks second in defensive efficiency (97.8 points conceded per 100 possessions), and iso ball won't cut it against Thibs' boys.