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Raptors look to stop the Rockets: Preview, start time, and more

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It’s the match-up we’ve all been waiting for: the Beast of the East vs. the Best of the West. Who you got?

NBA: Toronto Raptors at Houston Rockets Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

Is anyone else still riding the high from the Raptors’ exhilarating win against Detroit?

Toronto came away with a victory in overtime, catapulted there by a dazzling dunk that sent yours truly into a frenzy. DeMar DeRozan’s clutch performance, including his beautiful pass to Fred VanVleet to seal the game with just over one second left on the clock, lent hope that the Raptors can elevate over the competition when it matters most.

After that game left fans salivating, tonight’s match-up against the Rockets will hopefully satiate all cravings for competitive Raptors basketball. While it’s publicized that Houston is on a 17-game win streak, it’s less public that the Raptors have won 13 of their last 14 contests, with their sole loss coming in overtime against the Milwaukee Bucks.

While you may be pleasantly surprised to find out that ESPN’s Jalen Rose picked the Raptors to end the Rockets’ win streak tonight, you may be equally irritated to find out that it’s not for the reasons you’d hope.

Presumably afraid of tarnishing the Rockets’ reputation, Rose is already chalking up tonight’s game as a predicted “schedule loss” for Houston, because this will be their third game in four nights. What he fails to mention, however, is that the Raptors are in the exact same situation, having played three games in four nights — including Wednesday’s overtime game. Indeed, the league’s agenda to belittle the Raptors’ success is still in full swing, if you believe in that conspiracy theory.

Nonetheless, we’re in for a tantalizing possible finals preview. Watching the Cleveland Cavaliers flail after the trade deadline, coupled with the fact that the Boston Celtics are just 29-17 since their 16-game win streak (a winning percentage of just 63% compared to the Raptors’ 73%), I’m beginning to hyperventilate. If you aren’t thinking of the Raptors as a real contender to come out of the East already, you better change your tune.

Here are the details for tonight’s game:

Where to Watch:

Sportsnet One, 7:30 pm EST

Lineups:

Toronto – Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan, Norman Powell, Serge Ibaka, Jonas Valanciunas

Houston – Chris Paul, James Harden, Trevor Ariza, P.J. Tucker, Clint Capela (probable)

Injuries:

Toronto – OG Anunoby (ankle — out), Delon Wright (out), Nigel Hayes (GTD), Lorenzo Brown (GTD)

Houston – Nene Hilario (out), Brandan Wright (out), Ryan Anderson (GTD), Joe Johnson (GTD), Chinanu Onuaku (out)

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Here’s to Hoping

About a year ago, I’d tell you that we could count on Norman Powell to do a respectable job guarding Harden, utilizing his length and quickness to counter Harden’s patented step back pull up jumper. Today, I’m not nearly as confident telling you that.

However, perhaps Powell’s return to form last game (17 points on 7-of-12 shooting) will continue into tonight’s match-up. For the first time in weeks, Powell displayed poise and care, committing zero turnovers in 28 minutes of action and making thoughtful decisions on both ends of the floor. If Powell can maintain his mojo, it only makes the Raptors that much more dangerous against a great team like the Rockets.

MVP Matchup

James Harden is regarded by many as the clear favourite for MVP this season, leading his Rockets to the first seed in the loaded Western Conference, a feat few predicted before the season began. Yes, there’s only one basketball, but Harden and Paul have been sharing it harmoniously. Harden is playing some of the best basketball of his career (30.9 points, 5.3 rebounds and 8.9 assists), and his team’s record is a product of his greatness.

DeMar DeRozan is not nearly as revered by critics, but is also in the midst of his best season to date (24.0 points, 3.9 rebounds, 5.2 assists). Over the past few seasons, there was an overarching sentiment that Kyle Lowry was the leader of the Raptors, while DeRozan was just their primary scoring threat. Not to belittle Lowry’s accomplishments, but that is no longer the case. DeMar’s play-making ability has improved dramatically, perfectly exemplified by his pass to VanVleet to hit a game winner jumper a couple of nights ago. Watching DeRozan and Harden go toe-to-toe will be fun, and DeMar will likely receive some MVP chants during tonight’s game, so keep your ears open.

De-fense! De-fense!

The atmosphere in the Air Canada Centre tonight will be akin to what it feels like during the playoffs; thus, it’s important that the Raptors ignore any jitters they might be feeling, and focus on maintaining immense defensive pressure to start the game. The Houston Rockets are the best offensive team in basketball, and jumping out to an early lead is an effective way to defend against an inevitable three-point barrage from the Rockets later in the game.

With Delon Wright and OG Anunoby out, Powell and VanVleet will likely do the dirty work for Toronto, covering Chris Paul and James Harden whenever Lowry or DeRozan aren’t on the floor.