On December 3rd of last season, the Raptors rolled into to Salt Lake City a day after a win in Sacramento. The Jazz still had Enes Kanter at the time, and was nowhere near the defensive pillar it evolved into as the 2014-15 season progressed. But it being the second game of a back-to-back, at altitude - you could have forgiven the Raptors for laying an egg.
Instead, Kyle Lowry did what he usually did in the early going last year. With the help of 39 Lowry points on 13-of-22 shooting and 4-of-5 from three, the Raptors throttled the young Jazz by 19. It was a pleasant surprise to cap a run-of-the-mill western swing.
The situation will be far different tonight as the Raptors get set to take on the Jazz. Once again, the game will be the second of a back-to-back set for Toronto. But unlike last year, the Raptors are coming off of an emotional roller-coaster of a game against the league's best team. It takes everything out of a team to hang with the Warriors until the final minute - rebounding the next night, in the thin Utah air, can't be an easy ask. Add in that the Raptors dropped a winnable one to the Kings on Sunday and still sit win-less on their five-game trip, and there's an added sense of urgency to steal a win tonight.
The Jazz are no slouch this time around, though. With the excess fat that was Kanter no longer around, Quin Snyder's group is young, boasts tremendous size and possesses the league's sixth-best defense. The kind of easy-to-stop, flow-clogging ISO-ball that has been encouraged late in games all to often this season probably isn't going to cut it tonight.
Here are three things to watch for in tonight's game:
The Raptors had a real chance to snap Golden State's season-opening win steak last night, and Dwane Casey rightfully rode his best guys in hopes of squeaking out the best win the team would have grabbed all season. As a result, DeMar DeRozan, Kyle Lowry and DeMarre Carroll each played 39 minutes while Joseph was out there for what must have been an inordinately exerting 28. Even Jonas Valanciunas and Luis Scola played big chunks of minutes. Scola looked out of place in such an up-tempo game in his 28 minutes; Valanciunas, meanwhile, eclipsed he 30 minute threshold for just the fourth time in 12 games, even though he looked particularly over-matched by Andrew Bogut during his time on the floor.
Tonight, as mentioned, the Raptors will be at altitude with a grueling game still weighing on their legs. We've seen flat first quarters from this team a concerning number of times already this season - don't be shocked to see more of the same tonight.
Small Ball against Large Men
Utah is an absolutely massive team. Rudy Gobert is a science experiment gone wrong, Derrick Favors is (quite successfully) keeping traditionally-sized fours relevant and the team has all sorts of length on the wings. It will be interesting to see if Casey deploys his go-to line-up of Lowry, Joseph, DeRozan, Carroll and Valanciunas which has a +27.6 NET Rating in 33 minutes together this year.
It might be smart to force Favors to guard Carroll out to the three point line. Favors has done a good job defending the three-ball so far this season in minimal opportunities, but last season he surrendered a 39.2 percent clip on opposing three-point shots. Making him roam to cover Carroll would be a decongestant for the Raptors offense, giving Lowry, Joseph and DeRozan room to operate off the dribble with just one monster lurking near the rim instead of a daunting duo of rim protectors. If the Raptors can exploit Favors enough, it could force Snyder to dig into his bench and ask the inexperienced Trey Lyles to do what he did at Kentucky and guard out to the line. That's a trade-off the Raptors would surely welcome.
Utah's Giant Guards
Unfortunately for Toronto, Utah has an over-sized line-up that has been even better than Toronto's small-ball unit so far this year. In 26 minutes together, the five-man group of Alec Burks, Rodney Hood, Gordon Hayward, Favors and Gobert has scored 131.3 points per 100 possessions and has a +40.6 NET Rating. That configuration, which puts the 6'6 Burks at point guard and the 6'8 Hood at shooting guard simply dwarfs most back court alignments they come up against. Contesting shots becomes unusually challenging and it's a nightmare to match-up against - particularly for a team that is most effective with a back-court combo that barely stands over 12 feet combined. The battle between these two potent, unorthodox line-ups should be the key thing to keep an eye on tonight.
Watch: 9:00pm EST, TSN National
What are you looking for in tonight's game?