As the Toronto Raptors prepare for the second contest of a five-game road trip against the Brooklyn Nets Wednesday evening, the team has is left with more questions than answers. Fresh off back-to-back disappointing losses to the Chicago Bulls and Cleveland Cavaliers, the Raptors have looked like anything but the club that was seemingly hitting its stride as the calendar turned to 2016.
The Nets (10-24) are performing just about as everyone expected them to this season, which is not very well. Brooklyn has an aging roster full of bad contracts, a billionaire Russian owner who may not know what he's doing and no incentive to be rewarded for their poor play through the draft as a result of 2013's infamous Kevin Garnett/Paul Pierce trade with the Boston Celtics that saw the Nets get robbed of their first-round picks for the foreseeable future.
Just how bad are things in Brooklyn? CBS hoops writer Matt Moore referred to the franchise as the "Fountain of Sadness" in his power rankings article this week. Ouch. Needless to say, tonight's game presents the Raptors (21-15) with a great opportunity to begin to right the ship and get back in the win column.
Let's get to it. Here are three things to keep an eye on:
Better second half play
The last two games have seen the Raptors regress into old habits in multiple ways, but the most obvious issue is their inability to close out games. The Raps trailed the Bulls by just two points at halftime and led by 15 in the third before Jimmy Butler erupted for a franchise-tying 40 points to carry his team to a win, giving the Dinos their first loss when leading through three quarters at home on the season. Toronto's lackadaisical defense in the fourth quarter against the Cavaliers erased a solid first half despite LeBron James not playing a single minute in the frame.
Heading into Sunday's tilt with Chicago, the Raptors ranked first in the Association in average fourth quarter scoring margin but now sit second behind the Cavs at +2.1. The good news is the Nets are a bad basketball team, as Lionel Hollins' squad average just 47.4 points in the second half (fourth worst in the league) and are dead last in fourth quarter points per game (23.0).
Wednesday's matchup is Toronto's third game in four days - a situation the Raptors have been struggling to produce in as of late. Dec. 14's forgettable 104-94 loss to the Sacramento Kings was the Raptors' third contest in four days, as was Nov. 20's 106-90 setback to the Indiana Pacers. Just like any sport, fatigue is a real thing in the NBA. But it can't be pointed to as an excuse for poor play.
Despite not operating at 100 percent, a strong start defensively could go a long way for Kyle Lowry and company. Chicago and Cleveland both shot above 55 percent from the field in the aforementioned losses, which led a frustrated Dwane Casey to say his team is more worried about touches than defensive approach. It's only a matter of time before the Raptors recapture their old form again, but considering they won't return north of the border until Jan. 18, the losses could begin to pile up if they aren't able to do so sooner rather than later.
The beast that is Brook Lopez
One of the lone bright spots on the Nets' flawed roster is 27-year-old big man Brook Lopez. Lopez was recently named Eastern Conference Player of the Week, continuing a quiet and successful season that's seen him post numbers that rank up there with the best centers in the East. Lopez averaged 26.7 points, 13.3 rebounds and 2.3 blocks in 37.5 minutes per game while shooting 42.4 percent from the field and 88.9 percent at the free throw line.
Even the NBA's most dominant defensive bigs have struggled to contain Lopez this year, meaning fresh-off-the-IR Jonas Valanciunas will have his work cut out for him. Unfortunately for Nets fans, it's become commonplace to watch Lopez post gaudy numbers while the rest of his teammates struggle to follow his lead. Such is life in Brooklyn.
Where to watch: 7:30 pm EST, TSN