After a big win against Dallas Friday that left the team galvanized, the fans with a bit of hope, and Blake with a hangover, the Raptors (5-19) look to add to their season-long winning streak tonight as James Harden and the Houston Rockets (11-11) come to town. The Rockets are coming off an emotional win of their own – a 12 point victory over the Boston Celtics that was largely forgotten after Kevin McHale and Kevin Garnett’s post-game embrace stole the headlines. Sentimentalities aside (and of course, like the rest of the NBA family, my heart goes out to the McHale family), this is a squad with a lot of firepower that has managed to stay in the thick of things in the Western Conference despite integrating an almost entirely turned-over roster during the season’s first quarter.
Of course, Raptor fans know this all too well, after they were destroyed in Houston on November 27th in one of the few games this year where the Raps seemed doomed from the outset. The Rockets blew the Raptors out of their building on the back of the strong transition game that is fast becoming their trademark, coupled with some of the most porous defence seen in the NBA this year (and in Raptorland, that’s saying something). Bargnani, Lowry, and Fields weren’t active in the Dallas game and no changes are expected tonight, so, on paper, the Raps are in worse shape than they were three weeks ago – a recipe for a blowout, right?
Well, not necessarily. Despite the Raps’ pathetic defensive struggles to start the year (still 26th in D-rating), they’ve finally started to show some of the resilience on that end that was so highly touted to start the year: holding the Mavericks to just 74 points Friday and keeping the star-studded (albeit admittedly lethargic) Nets in check until Joe Johnson and CJ Watson went crazy in the late 3rd/4th quarter on Wednesday night. The Raptors’ current lack of “stars” – and all the egos/touches/expectations that seem to come along with it – seem to have allowed the rest of the corps to embrace the all-for-one/one-for-all mentality that was this team’s calling card last season, a large part of that including deliberate attempts to slow the pace of the game, forcing their opponents into half-court sets and pounding the ball inside on offence, largely through Calderon slashing/dishing to JonEd DavCiunas. This offensive strategy (which I feel like I’ve been suggesting for months) has also opened up the perimeter for whichever Raptor wing is feeling it on that given night and has seemingly improved the team’s efficiency on that end as well.
With all that said, the Raps are still a team that is currently very challenged from a talent standpoint, and preventing the aforementioned Johnson-esque run will be crucial for any type of sustained success. This runs doubly true for the Rockets and especially James Harden, who is essentially a younger, more skilled version of Joe Johnson and who has emerged as one of the NBA’s best players this season. Terrence Ross’ performance against Harden in the November 27th game – both on the offensive and defensive end – was a bit of a revelation, as well as perhaps the only positive to come out of that horror show, and he’ll have to be at least as effective at bothering the Beard with his length for the Raptors to keep this one close. That’s a lot to ask, but it’s almost necessary as Pietrus isn’t quick enough nor is DeMar long enough to give Harden any real trouble on that end. Hopefully the Raptors will start Pietrus on Harden and quickly sub in Ross given his strong showing the last time these two teams faced each other, but I’ve given up trusting the coaching staff to make the personnel decisions that make the most sense.
The bottom line here is that the Raptors should have the advantage at both the point guard and big positions, even shorthanded (Jose Calderon, starter version > Lin, all day, every day), and if the Raps can keep the pace of this game to their liking and run the majority of the offense through those players, they have a very good chance of winning this game. The Rockets, though, will be looking to implement the exact opposite game plan, and it’s going to fall on the coaching staff, as well as the Raptor leaders who have a tendency to play a similar style (DeMar, Jose, JLIII, I’m looking at you) to check themselves before they wreck themselves.
Honestly, I have a good feeling about this game, as strange as it is to say that about any Raptors game thus far this year. That said, the Raps will have to be 16 points better then they were the last time these two squads met, and, given the disappointing roller coaster ride that has been this season (pardon the frivolous analogy, but it’s been like getting to the waterslide part of Splash Mountain, and then falling into a pile of used Aaron Gray jock straps… 15 times in a row), predicting a win is a bit too bold for my tastes. Rockets are favoured by 3.5 – I can buy that. Rockets by 3.