Billing a game as a playoff preview is an easy way to drum up some excitement. For the Toronto Raptors, though, many of their games in the last two weeks of the season could be billed that way.
After all, the Raptors are locked into the second seed in the East, but down below there’s a flurry — Detroit, Brooklyn, Miami, and Orlando sit just 1.5 games apart from each other with five or less games to go. It’s a wild thing to see, and just adds to the uncertainty around what’s a playoff preview and what’s not.
Tonight’s game against Brooklyn does carry some of that weight, though, where the Raptors’ previous game against Orlando might not. The Nets are good, quite good, and expressed their self-congratulation by extending head coach Kenny Atkinson earlier this week. They still have a hill to climb, though, with the most difficult schedule left in the NBA this season. After Toronto, they play Milwaukee, Indiana, and Miami to finish proceedings.
With the other two games against the East’s top half on the road, you can expect the Nets to be extremely up for tonight’s game. The Raptors handled Orlando’s best punch pretty well in that regard on Monday, but the Nets present a different challenge — and have played the Raptors to some entertaining contests this year.
Besides the Nets overtime win back in December, the most recent matchup between these two was a bonafide shootout — one of the best games of the season — where Marc Gasol had a great fourth quarter to push Toronto to a two-point win, 127-125.
So, expect more fireworks at the Barclays Center tonight, as the Raptors try to round into form and the Nets try to earn their way into the show.
Here are your details for tonight’s game:
Where to Watch
TSN, 7:30 PM ET
Toronto - Kyle Lowry, Danny Green, Kawhi Leonard, Pascal Siakam, Marc Gasol
Brooklyn - D’Angelo Russell, Joe Harris, DeMarre Carroll, Rodions Kurucs, Jarrett Allen
Toronto - Danny Green (probable - thumb), Patrick McCaw (out - thumb), OG Anunoby (out - concussion)
Brooklyn - Allen Crabbe (questionable - knee)
D’Angelo and Hero Ball
Though D’Angelo Russell is a deserving candidate for Most Improved Player, and has had plenty of League Pass Alert moments over the last month, there’s no question the Nets need him to score and need him to be efficient to win. Unless Joe Harris goes crazy, Brooklyn really doesn’t have many options on the offensive end, and though their shot creation is good — Russell has to be the focal point.
Just a look at the Nets’ most recent games tell this story. When Russell has been inefficient, the Nets struggle. Take a 6-for-19 night against Philadelphia as an example (13-point loss), or the 8-for-25 game against Utah in mid-March (12-point loss). It’s not isolated to single games either. In Brooklyn’s 39 wins, Russell is shooting 45% from the field and 37% from deep. In their losses, those numbers drop to 41.1% and 34.8%.
The Raptors would key in on Russell regardless, but intensity on defence and picking up Russell in any semi-transition opportunities is important. He’s one of those fire starter guards, someone who can drop a 20-point quarter at any time. By keeping his looks difficult, the Raptors take a big chunk out of what the Nets want to do on offence.
Smart Defensive Rotations
There’s no question the Nets love to shoot the three-ball. With 35.8 per game, they’re fifth in the NBA in three-point attempts (Houston, Milwaukee, Atlanta, and Dallas are ahead of them). A huge part of Brooklyn’s ability to stay in the last matchup with the Raptors was Joe Harris dropping bombs, racking up 24 points in the first half alone.
Part of guarding Brooklyn is making smart choices with your ball rotation. The ball fizzes around the court when the Nets are able to dribble penetrate, which many teams struggle to stop thanks to Russell’s talents.
Rushing out to Harris, a 47.6% three-point shooter, needs to be a priority, though, as the Raptors can more afford to leave guys like DeMarre Carroll (35.0% from three), Jared Dudley (34.8%), or Spencer Dinwiddie (34.6%) open. Daring those guys to beat you is a smarter bet than leaving Harris, and the Raptors wings will need to be on a swivel to watch for his off-ball movements.
Please Stay Healthy
We’ve reached the point in the season where the Raptors really have nothing to play for, so this final point is just another plea for some health. It looks like Danny Green will play tonight despite suffering a jammed thumb on Monday, while OG Anunoby continues to sit with concussion symptoms.
As Daniel Hackett wrote in his playoff rotation piece on Tuesday, the time has passed for us to get enough sample size to know what a healthy Raptors team looks like. All we can hope for now is that they stay healthy for these last few games, and can head into the first round (maybe against the Nets!) with eight or nine top guys ready to go.