An unexpected Brooklyn Nets loss in Orlando on Wednesday night, means that one more win -- or another Nets loss -- will see the Toronto Raptors crowned Atlantic Division champs, guaranteeing the team home-court advantage in the first-round of the playoffs.
The Raps have managed just one division title in franchise history, back in the 2006-2007 season. Tonight, against the New York Knicks, they have a chance to make it two. One more banner hanging from the ACC's rafters, and they'll be tied with Jon Bon Jovi, no more. A win will also see the Raps go 15 games above .500, which will be a first for the franchise.
These are dizzying times in Raptor-land.
It's worth re-iterating, however, that winning the Atlantic does not guarantee the 3-seed -- they'll still need to finish equal with, or better than, the Bulls to ensure that they face Charlotte or Washington in the first-round, and avoid the very dangerous Nets in a 4-5 match-up.
On the personnel front, Kyle Lowry looked extremely fresh on Wednesday night -- although it never hurts to have your comeback game against the Sixers. Amir Johnson, who sat out again on Wednesday, is listed as day-to-day; according to TSN's Josh Lewenberg, and the National Post's Eric Koreen, the Raps will err on the side of caution when it comes to the team's starting power-forward.
On the one hand, Dwane Casey will want to get Amir back into the swing of NBA basketball prior to the playoffs; but at the same time, if he's still hurting there's no sense in rushing him back for tonight's game. The Raps will absolutely need Amir come playoff time, but they've shown that they can win games like tonight's without him.
It's somewhat fitting that the Raps will have a chance to win the division tonight against the Knicks, a team that the majority of Raps fans dislike immensely for a variety of reasons: those early playoff duels, the divisional games, the Knicks' national hype, so often disproportionate to their on-court relevance, and the fact that they stole Bargnani from us. We miss him dearly.
A good New York Knicks team is probably better for the NBA's brand, as a whole -- just like a good Maple Leafs team is good for the NHL -- but there's something quite enjoyable about watching them struggle. It's possible, however, that the enjoyment is derived mostly from the fact that some of the best basketball writers on the planet cover the Knicks; and just like a rock star's best work coming when he's at his most brooding and introspective, Knicks beat-writers and bloggers are at their best when their team is awful. It goes without saying that a winning Knicks team deprives the world of the genius that is FARTDOG.
The Knicks are currently two games back of the Atlanta Hawks for the 8-seed -- an 8-seed that the Hawks apparently do not want, and the Knicks desperately crave. Unsurprisingly, the Knicks have no 1st-round pick in this summer's draft, so tanking was never on the table. It's not out of the question that the Knicks can make up the necessary ground on Atlanta, but with just four games left for both teams, it's going to be tough. However, they will be a desperate team tonight, and a well rested one (they haven't played since Sunday's loss in Miami), so the Raps better be ready.
Here are 3 keys to tonight's game:
Attack the Knicks' perimeter players
Listen, Posting and Toasting's Seth Rosenthal didn't coin FARTDOG (Friendly Alliance of Really Terrible Defenders for Opposing Guards) without good reason.
Despite Mike Woodson's stubborn insistence on judging his team's defense on points allowed per game, by all substantive measures, the Knicks are terrible defensively. They currently rank 24th in defensive efficiency, giving up 106.9 points per 100 possessions. Largely this is a result of terrible defending from their guards -- the likes of Raymond Felton and J.R. Smith-- but it certainly doesn't help matters having Amar'e Stoudemire at power-forward.
Given what we've seen from the Knicks defensively, Lowry and DeMar DeRozan should have a field day if they play aggressively and attack the heart of the Knicks defense. Jonas Valanciunas had a career high 26 points on Wednesday night (MJ's 'flu game' had nothing on JV's 'guilt game') and it would be more than worthwhile attacking Amar'e in the pick-n-roll with Lowry and Jonas, or anyone reasonably mobile.
Get back to basics on defense
It would be remiss of me to make a million snarky remarks about the Knicks' generally bad defense without addressing the fact that the Raps haven't exactly been too smart on that end in recent games. As entertaining as Wednesday night's offensive showing was, defensively the Raps weren't up to par. The team got suckered into playing Philly's run-and-gun style and gave up far too many points in transition.
For all their defensive faults, the Knicks are a reasonable good offensive team -- just outside the top-10 in offensive efficiency, in fact. The Raps cannot afford to play the kind of defense they played on Wednesday night, and in Milwaukee over the weekend. Not to mention, the Knicks have a guy named Carmelo Anthony, and he's a damn good offensive player.
Getting Amir back will help, but the team as a whole needs to do a better job at the defensive end.
Keep feeding Jonas
Earlier in the week Tim Chisholm wrote a really good piece for Raptors Republic on Jonas' increased role in the offense during Kyle Lowry's brief injury absence from the team. For the most part, the Raps' offense has been perimeter oriented all season; but Lowry's injury allowed for Jonas to get more touches and shots as the team looked for alternative scoring. In the game on Wednesday, Lowry made a concerted effort to feed Jonas in the post and the young big-man more than justified his increased role in the offense.
Jonas will have a much tougher match-up tonight, against the former Defensive Player of the Year, Tyson Chandler; but it's crucial that the Raps keep running plays for him, both for his own development, and for the team's overall chances in the post-season. As Chisholm mentions in his piece, the more attention opposing defenses focus on Jonas, the less attention they'll be able to place on DeRozan and Lowry. The Raps' spacing depends on Jonas' growth into a consistent threat down-low; and for that to happen, he'll need the in-game reps.