The Toronto Raptors sit at 23-15 after a quality win over the Washington Wizards last night. It was their third victory this season against the Wiz, which is certainly cathartic for fans that are still agonizing over last year's first round playoff sweep. They look to continue their winning ways against the Sixers tonight in Philly.
There isn't a heck of a lot to say about this game except that every win matters in the crowded Eastern Conference. You need to beat up on teams like Philly each and every time you play them, because the difference between the 2nd place Bulls and the 9th place Celtics is only four games in the standings. Toronto is currently the 4-seed, by virtue of having a lower winning percentage than the Miami Heat, but due to a trip to London, England, the Raptors play just once in the next eight days. They have a four day break following this game, play in Orlando next Thursday and then have another three days off before heading back to Toronto the following Monday to play Brooklyn. A lot can happen in eight days in such a crowded conference, so getting this one is more significant for Toronto than it might be otherwise.
Here are your keys to the game.
It's a Trap!
With the weird break in play looming, Toronto needs to bring their 'A' game against a Philly squad that has nothing to lose. Or I mean, at least their 'B' game. As we saw against Brooklyn a few nights ago, you don't always have to be firing on all cylinders to beat a bad team, but you do have to show up. Even though these Sixers are, well, the Sixers, this Philadelphia squad has a good coach in Brett Brown and they play hard. Toronto has managed to whip them by 16 and 20 in two previous contests this season, but neither was a blowout until later in the game. It's important the Toronto doesn't overlook its opponent.
The last time I wrote a game preview for Toronto and Philly, the rumours had just leaked about the Sixers adding Mike d'Antoni to their coaching staff, on the heels of Jerry Colangelo arriving to give the front office some direction. Since then, they've acquired Ish Smith, brought in Elton Brand as a mentor for Jahlil Okafor and generally played a hell of a lot better. They're still a horrendous 4-34, but three of those wins have come in their past seven games. Smith and Okafor have immediately meshed well; funny how a big man starts to play better once you get him a point guard who can actually pass.
After a mini-stint on the bench, Okafor has returned to the starting lineup and is shooting nearly 60% from the floor in the past two weeks. He's also had two of his best games of the season against Toronto, scoring his career in points (26) the first time they played and putting up a 23-14 the second time. For his part, Smith is averaging eight assists per contest as a member of Philadelphia. These aren't your slightly older brother's 76ers any more! Cory Joseph will probably spend a lot of time guarding the lightning-fast Smith, while I feel like we could see a healthy dose of Bismack Biyombo on Okafor.
Get In, Get Out
DeMar DeRozan (40) and Kyle Lowry (41) both played heavy minutes last night against Washington. It would nice if they could get the team off to a rip-roaring start tonight and kick up their heels to watch the second half, or even just the fourth quarter. With DeMarre Carroll out for the foreseeable future, Toronto is going to need its lodestone backcourt as fresh as possible heading into the All-Star break. After the Raptors play Orlando next Thursday, they have a much needed seven game homestand on the docket, which should help. Toronto has already played over half their away games on the season, trailing only, (you guessed it!) the Philadelphia 76ers in the Eastern Conference. Just get this one out of the way, go to Disney World and then get the hell home.
Where to Watch: TSN2, 7:30pm EST