They may not see each other that often, but the Raptors and the Oklahoma City Thunder have a lot of similarities. Never has that been more apparent than ahead of tonight's game, which will see the two teams meet for the second and final time this season. The Raptors will attempt to snap a seven-game Thunder win streak while seeking their first season sweep of Oklahoma City in five years. Toronto won the only other matchup this season 103-98, way back on November 4.
How are the two teams similar? Well to start, both are locked into their playoff position. The Thunder are 10 games back of the Spurs (crazy, I know) and 4.5 up on the Los Angeles Clippers, all but assuring them a 3-seed in a few weeks time. While they jostled with the Clippers in the standings a while back, their current win streak, coupled with Blake Griffin's absence, has given them considerable separation. The Raptors, as we know, are thriving as the East's second seed, now 2.5 games back of Cleveland, their hopes of a conference title fading.
Also, both team's defenses have improved in the last two weeks after being outed as suspect. Oklahoma City had their struggles outed on a national stage, as two games against the Golden State Warriors saw their defense fade considerably in fourth quarters. In their last ten, though, the Thunder have a defensive rating of 101.8, good for sixth in the Association. Just ahead of them? Your Toronto Raptors, who've also turned up the intensity in their own end for a rating of 100.8.
With those comparative numbers, here are a few other things to watch for in tonight's game.
Where art thou, DeMarre Carroll?
As DeMarre Carroll's absence now stretches into its 12th week, twice as long as the most ambitious timeline given after his surgery, we can once again turn into headline watchdogs. Carroll was not with the team during the Raptors' recent road trip, which has caused many beat writers to peg this game as a return date. While we haven't heard of an official return to practice (usually the first domino to drop for a player's return), there's reason to keep an eye open over the next 12 hours. If the return isn't tonight, antsy Raptors fans could at least get some indication to when it will happen.
Keep the role players in check
The Thunder are obviously fueled by the combination of Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant, who have now entered some historic company. Just last week, Westbrook had three straight games with a triple-double, a mark only Oscar Robertson, Magic Johnson and Wilt Chamberlain have achieved. Durant, not to be outdone, has at least 20 points in 58 straight games, a streak bested by only Kobe Bryant and Michael Jordan.
While letting one of either Westbrook or Durant go off isn't ideal, it's keeping everyone else under wraps that's important. The Thunder are 29-6 when their reserves outscore the opposition's, and Enes Kanter has been the engine that drives that unit. His 21 double-doubles and 24.04 PER lead the NBA for players in a bench role, as the big man continues to make a strong case to supplant Lou Williams as the next 6 Man.
It'll be important for Jonas Valanciunas, who usually thrives against prototypical centres like Kanter, to repeat his last two outings against Dwight Howard and Omer Asik and play a controlled two-way game. Bismack Biyombo's defense will be key as well.
Let 50 drive the team
This is less statistical and more emotional, but the Raptors are of course looking for their 50th win tonight, a first in the 21-year history of the franchise. The coaches and players have made no bones about this achievement being a big deal -- it's huge to say you were on the best Raptors team ever -- and that goal should be in mind on a night like tonight. Look for Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan to respond to the moment, as they go against two top-flight players, seeking to make a mark for themselves and their organization.
The Raptors have responded to competition like this so far this year, with a 6-2 mark against the top-6 teams in the Western Conference. With a notable stretch of tough games ahead, keeping that success going would be a great way to start the work week.
Where to Watch: Sportsnet One, 7:30 p.m. EST