After dispatching the Detroit Pistons without breaking a sweat, the Raptors now need to negotiate a difficult 5-game stretch that will go a long way to deciding whether they can top the Atlantic Division and snare home-court advantage in the first-round of the playoffs. The Raps have tricky road games coming up against the Hawks (fighting for their playoffs lives) and Pelicans; they'll face the Suns and Thunder at the ACC soon; and tonight they welcome Mike Conley and the grit and grind Memphis Grizzlies.
Now, cast your minds back to November 13th. The Raps, with Rudy Gay still in uniform, rolled into Memphis and thumped the Grizzlies 103-87. It was a rare high-point in what was a brutally frustrating opening to the season, and it was more representative of the broken clock rule, rather than a sign of things to come with Rudy on the team. After that win the Raps went home and promptly got their butts handed to them by the Bulls. So despite that anomalous early-season result, Memphis will face a much better Raps team tonight at the ACC.
And the Raps will most certainly face a better Memphis team than the one they beat in November.
Heading into 2014 the Grizzlies were spluttering along at 13-17 -- a record that would've been good enough to keep them in the playoff mix in the East, but one that had them closer to the basement of a hyper-competitive Western Conference. Injuries were a major issue -- reigning Defensive Player of the Year, Marc Gasol, missed 23 games earlier this season, and vitally important cog in the machine, Tony Allen, has been sidelined with a hand injury -- but it's also taken a while for the team to gel under rookie head-coach Dave Joerger.
Since the new year, however, the Grizzlies -- like the Raps, in fact -- have been one of the hottest teams in NBA. They've gone 25-9 in 2014, have moved into the 7th seed in the West, and head into tonight's game on a 4 game winning streak. With everyone healthy, and with the additions of Mike Miller and Courtney Lee to provide the shooting on the wings that they lacked last season, there won't be too many teams who'll want to face Memphis in a first-round series.
Here are 3 keys to tonight's game:
Contain Mike Conley
Easier said than done, of course. Conley has been awesome for the Grizzlies this season -- with Gasol out for a large portion of the year, he's upped his production offensively and is averaging a career-high 17 points per game, and is posting a career best PER (19.7). Conley has been the biggest reason why the team has been able to bounce back so well in 2014.
Conley's a tricky player to contain, particularly on the pick-n-roll -- he can punish teams if defenders go over the screen, by finding Gasol or Zach Randolph at the rim, or driving to the bucket himself; and he can hit the jumper if his defender goes under. Conley is relatively small, however, and Casey may decide to hound him with Terrence Ross -- a player that's done a more than decent job this year in a shut-down role. The Grizzlies don't have much shooting at small-forward, so at times the Raps can afford to switch Lowry onto Tayshaun Prince or Allen, if they need Ross to slow down Conley.
Help down low
Amir Johnson and Jonas Valanciunas are going to have their hands full tonight against Gasol and Z-Bo; and there might be times when the Raps will have to double, or a least shade over a help defender as a distraction, in order to contain the super-dangerous big-men. The Grizzlies have improved their outside shooting, but they still aren't great at that facet of the game -- for the most part they're a team you can afford to double against. In last year's Western Conference Finals, the Spurs completely neutralized the Grizzlies by clogging the paint, unafraid of Memphis' outside shooting.
And just a thought: Offensively this game would've been tailor-made for the skill-set of Patrick Patterson, who could've drawn the Memphis bigs out of the lane with his outside shooting. With Patterson set to miss out again tonight, however, Casey might be tempted to play some small-ball. Too much of Steve Novak could kill the Raps on defense, however, so it'll be a very delicate balancing act.
Build on Wednesday night's great rebounding performance
The biggest worry going into Wednesday's game against the Pistons was how the Raps would contain Andre Drummond and company on the boards. But the team -- Amir and Jonas, particularly -- did a fantastic job keeping the Pistons' bigs off the offensive glass, and actually dominated the game on that end themselves.
Tonight they face another dangerous offensive rebounding team (7th in the NBA in offensive rebound rate) and they'll need to do a similarly good job protecting the glass. Z-Bo can destroy teams on the offensive boards with his uncanny ability to position himself for the rebound without actually jumping. Amir, and whoever else guards him (I'm guessing we'll see a little Chuck Hayes on Z-Bo) will need to be cognizant of where he is at all times when shots go up.