As befits a double-digit win streak, the story heading into every Raptors game right now is: can they win another one? At some point it became obvious that the franchise record was due to fall, and now we’re talking ourselves in to 20 games in a row — and beyond. If nothing else, it makes for a fun stretch of games in January and February, which, if we’re being honest with ourselves, are not also the most enjoyable.
So that brings us to tonight and the Raptors’ visit to Brooklyn. The Nets are next up on the docket before both teams are afforded a nine-day lay-off for the All-Star break. (Toronto’s Kyle Lowry, Pascal Siakam, and coach Nick Nurse will be partaking, so it’s not entirely a week-plus off for some.) The last time these two teams met — last Saturday — it was a needlessly tense game in which Caris LeVert and his backcourt mate Spencer Dinwiddie led a Nets comeback and actually had a last second chance to win. That was Toronto’s 14th win in a row.
Suffice it to say, both teams have a bit more than usual invested in this game. Yes, it’s the last contest before the All-Star break, which is usually a time for caution, rest, or disinterest. But it could also mean a continuation of the mega win streak for the Raptors — or its end at the hands of a Brooklyn team still trying to prove itself in the absence of its new stars. Those are the stakes.
And now let’s get to the game details as of this morning and some things for which to watch.
Where to Watch:
TSN at 7:30pm EST
Toronto — Kyle Lowry, Fred VanVleet, OG Anunoby, Pascal Siakam, Serge Ibaka
Brooklyn — Caris LeVert, Spencer Dinwiddie, Joe Harris, Taurean Prince, Jarrett Allen
Toronto — Marc Gasol (out - hamstring), Norman Powell (out - finger), Serge Ibaka (questionable - flu), Dewan Hernandez (out - ankle sprain)
Brooklyn — Kyrie Irving (out - knee sprain), Kevin Durant (out - Achilles)
It feels likely that this Raptors vs. Nets game will be decided in much the same way as the last one was. That means VanVleet and the returned Lowry doing battle with LeVert and Dinwiddie — with whichever pair getting the most support also securing the win. On Saturday, Toronto came out well ahead for the balance of three quarters on that front, thanks to the play of Ibaka and rookie Terence Davis. But the fourth quarter that night suggests the Nets have some of the comeback spunk that Toronto themselves possess. And in LeVert they have a big game player who can make other teams pay.
Two nights later, however, LeVert was a mere mortal in a win over Indiana, putting up 11 points and six turnovers. The story that night for Brooklyn was the play of Dinwiddie, who put up another impressive double-double of 21 points and 11 assists. I mention all of this to say that this pair can do their damage from all over the place, and much like the play of VanVleet and Lowry, it tends to dictate how Brooklyn will do as a unit. Contain LeVert and Dinwiddie and win 16 becomes a reality.
As has been pointed out before, one of the Raptors’ biggest weaknesses this season has been rebounding. The team is in the middle of the pack in terms of averages, and in the bottom third in terms of rebounding percentage. Part of that comes from missing Marc Gasol for long stretches of the season. Part of it is playing decidedly small — with two point guards (despite their strength), and often times a small forward (OG, say) at the 4-spot. Yes, it’s the new NBA and positions don’t matter. But it is also nice to have a big body in there to grab boards.
Against the Timberwolves on Monday, the Raptors were forced to go even smaller. Gasol is out until after the break and Ibaka sat the night with flu-like symptoms, so the they had no active centres on the roster. (Chris Boucher tried, but it’s not really his strength.) They rolled with Rondae Hollis-Jefferson in the pivot and owing to his relentless pressure (and Karl-Anthony Towns’ reluctance to play big), it worked. But that was a makeshift solution. At press time, Ibaka was listed as “questionable” for tonight, but it is without question that they’ll need him — especially given how he went to work last time these two teams played.
I suppose every preview could have this section amended to it — stay healthy! — but it feels particularly important here given where the Raptors are right now. Toronto didn’t make any moves at the trade deadline, and it looks unlikely that some buyout player will change their fortunes significantly. As it stands, the one thing the Raptors can do to improve is to just, well, get healthy. God, it feels trite to say that again — but it’s no less true!
The flip side to this is, of course, to actually stay healthy, which has proven no small feat for Toronto. Setting aside the longer term injuries to Gasol and Norm, the Raptors have taken to injurying each other in games recently. There was Rondae’s smack on Siakam that had him playing with one eye for half a game. Then there was Lowry’s dive into Ibaka’s leg that had him sit for a game with a sore neck. (Personal update: my neck is still sore as hell. It sucks.) For the last game before the All-Star break, that is my solemn request: no reckless play, no injuries, just stay healthy.