One thing is for sure — whatever love the Raptors had for our great nation’s game of hockey is probably gone. With the World Junior Hockey Championships holding the Air Canada Centre hostage over the holidays, the Raptors were forced out of Toronto in what was a wake up call road trip for the team. In fact, it all started on the 23rd of December against this very opponent, the Utah Jazz.
A hard fought victory in Utah would take the Raptors to Portland on Boxing Day, a game in which the Raptors squeaked out a victory with just 95 points against the NBA’s worst defensive team. The Raps would proceed to get waxed in Golden State by the juggernaut of the NBA and would have no answer for the lonely Phoenix Suns the following night. It would take a season high performance from Kyle Lowry to take down the pesky Lakers in LA and in San Antonio Tuesday night, the Raptors were just flat out embarrassed.
That said, at 23-11 the Raptors still have the second best record in the Eastern Conference and have maintained some breathing room due to the Boston Celtics’ early season identity crisis. Utah’s record of 22-14 is more impressive than it looks as they have been the fourth most injured team this season, losing 94 man-games to injury already. The impressive thing about the Jazz is not just how many man-games lost, but who they lost. Of the games lost to injury, 50 of them have been to Utah starters including Gordon Hayward (7), Rodney Hood (5), Derrick Favors (15), and George Hill, in the midst of a career year, leading the way with 23.
Every team hits a rough patch through the course of a season, and if losing three of four on the road the Raps’ hard times, I think most of us will take it. Despite being obliterated by the Spurs 110-82 on Tuesday night, this was only the second time that the Raptors have lost a game by double digits all season. The squad has also been without one of their defensive pillars in Patrick Patterson who has missed two straight games now with a strained left knee.
Here are a few key things to watch for tonight’s contest.
The Irresistible Force vs. The Immovable Object
Or put simply, explosive offense vs. rock solid defense. Tonight’s game will be played on a chess board and the Raptors will need to stay aggressive yet unpredictable in their attack. The Raptors historically efficient offense has taken a slight hit over the past week or so, dropping from tops in the league to third. Against the Spurs, the Raptors were flat out atrocious and played right into San Antonio’s hand. The Spurs dished out 32 assists to the Raptors’ eight; a contrast that had the Raptors dizzy on defense and looking ugly in their iso-ball offense.
The Jazz make other teams play at their pace, the slowest in the NBA at 91.1 possessions per game and are the fourth most efficient defense in the league, allowing just 104.4 points per 100 possessions. The Raptors will need to move the ball to find success, as the Jazz rank ninth in opponent’s points in the paint at just 41.1 per game — a large challenge for the Raptors iso heavy offense.
But, on second thought...
Take Care of the Basketball
The Raptors made it too easy for the Spurs on Tuesday night, turning the ball over again and again and failing to get back defensively. It sounds super cliche to say that taking care of the basketball is a key to the game, but after watching the Spurs turn countless turnovers into easy buckets, it goes a long way in controlling the momentum of a game and, ultimately, the outcome. The Raptors allowed 18 points off of turnovers against the Spurs and 17 on the fast break. Plays like this simply summed up Tuesday contest for the Dinos:
Needless to say, the Raps will have to control the rock and resist giving away easy points to an already dangerous opponent.
Big Men Need to be BIG
One of the Raptors’ major flaws is that they often lack size and strength beneath the hoop. Off-season pick up Jared Sullinger has yet to see the court due to injury and as nice as Pascal Siakam has been at times, he is simply not ready to be an NBA starter. Still, the Raptors must contain the likes of Rudy Gobert, Derrick Favors and Boris Diaw and control the glass tonight.
The Raptors are dead last in the NBA in defensive rebound percentage at just 73.8 percent and the Jazz sit in ninth at 77.4 percent. Gobert has been an absolute beast this season and is currently eighth in the NBA in offensive rebounding at 3.3 per game. In fact, Gobert’s total rebounding percentage is 21.1 percent, which essentially tells us that he grabs one in every five boards while he is on the floor. Jonas Valanciunas is right below him however at 20.6%. JV and Lucas Nogueira have made minimal impact over the past week or so and are combining for averages of just 5.6 points and 10 rebounds on 25 percent shooting in a combined 41 minutes played. Needless to say the Raptors will need a lot more production from their big men tonight, as DeMar DeRozan and Lowry cannot carry the load every single game.
Where to Watch: Sportsnet One, 7:30 pm ET