After an old-fashioned dog fight with the Boston Celtics on Tuesday night, the Raptors have shifted their attention to the bottom of the conference, as they welcome the Brooklyn Nets on Friday night for round two of the 2016-17 campaign.
Tuesday night may have marked the most significant victory of the Raptors season thus far. The first three quarters were ugly for both teams, but slightly less so for the Celtics who would build a comfortable 16-point lead in the second quarter, and maintain a cushion for most of the third. It appeared as though the Raptors were doomed for their first three game losing streak in over a calendar year. That was until a six-minute explosion of quintessential Raptors basketball to end the fourth quarter would carry the team to a 114-106 victory and a 1.5 game cushion over Boston in the Atlantic division.
It was yet another six-minute stretch where I found myself throwing my hands up in confusion upon every DeMar DeRozan shot and leaving them up in celebration.
Well, the Brooklyn Nets are not the Boston Celtics and if I am to be totally blunt about it, the Raptors should win this game. Round one went to the good guys as the Raps defeated the Nets 116-104 at the Air Canada Centre on December 20th. The Nets have essentially been a collection of D-League stars, broken veterans and a lonely Brook Lopez. They have lost thirteen of their last fourteen games (including eight straight heading into tonight) and are the worst road team in the NBA sporting a 1-17 record away from the Barclays Center in Brooklyn.
The Raptors, although still in second in the Eastern Conference, have been brought back down to earth a little bit. A few humbling losses to the likes of Phoenix and Chicago may just be what the Raptors needed — every elite team needs to be knocked down once in awhile in order to get up and be even better.
Here are a few things to watch for in tonight’s game.
JV vs. Lopez
Tonight should just be like a heavyweight boxing match underneath the rim. Jonas Valanciunas is coming off one of the best performances of his career against the Celtics on Tuesday night, where he dropped 18 points and collected a career-high 23 rebounds. The Raptors need JV to be a bully under the basket every night as the team currently sits 26th in defensive rebounding with just 31.6 per game, while Brooklyn sits in fourth at 35.3.
Brook Lopez did not play in the first contest against Toronto back on December 20th and the Nets were still able to out-rebound the Raptors 52-48 in that contest. It has been the worst rebounding season of Lopez’s career however (5.1 per game) due to a combination of age and nagging injuries. Look for JV to take advantage of this match-up and give the Raptors the edge underneath the basket.
Slow it Down
This may sound somewhat cliche in a sense, but the Brooklyn Nets do play at a faster pace than any other team in the league — even the likes of the Rockets and Warriors. The Nets average 104.3 possessions per game, while the Raptors play at a much slower pace, averaging just 97.8 possessions per game.
The Nets feel at their best when they are able to run freely and push the ball as they have many young and athletic players. If the Raptors can slow things down and force the Nets to attack in the half court, the Raptors will be able to control the momentum of this one, hopefully leading to a favourable outcome.
Show Me More, DeMarre
When the Raptors signed DeMarre Carroll they thought that they had found the “3-and-D” type player that they had been looking for. Well, they were right — on some nights. Carroll’s inconsistencies are the by-product of injuries, a deep Raptor roster and of course, having to learn a new system with a new team. Remember, Carroll only played in 26 games last season, seven less than the 33 he has already been in this year.
We can still believe we’ve yet to see the best version of Carroll and that there is still room for growth. The last two games have spoken to this potential; against Houston he finished with 26 points and eight rebounds, hitting 6 three-pointers and ultimately finishing a +8 in a 7-point loss. Then on Tuesday night, he dropped 11 points, grabbed six rebounds, hit three triples and finished a game high +19.
Where to Watch: Sportsnet ONE, 7:30 PM/ET