After taking care of business Wednesday night against the Pistons, the suddenly plucky Raptors (8-19) are back in the ACC Friday night to take on the Orlando Magic (12-13). Both teams are on four-game winning streaks, which means that the winner of tonight’s game will have poll position in the race for the most unlikely streak of the season (AKA the 2008 Rockets Award). It also means that the Raps have a chance to more than double their season win total in just over a week’s time, which is both an indicator of how well the team is playing right now and the massive hole they’ve put themselves in.
The Magic are actually one of the few teams the Raptors have beaten this season pre-streak, winning by 11 November 18th (on Jonas bobblehead night, no less). The Magic will be without Glen Davis, who injured his shoulder Wednesday in a win against Washington. Amir Johnson is listed as day-to-day on the Raptors front, which is unfortunate because he had one of his strongest games of the season in the Raps’ previous meeting with Orlando. That said, it’s tough to give the Magic the edge in the bigs matchup without Davis, who has emerged as a slick offensive player and one of the focal points of a balanced Orlando team. I expect Amir to play, but even if he sits out, Jonas and Ed’s athleticism should be able to give them a step on Orlando’s rotation of plodding bigs (Vucevic, Ayon, McRoberts), at least on the offensive front. The one thing that worries me is our lack of strength inside on the defensive end (if Amir doesn’t play or isn’t at full strength), but all of the Magic bigs save Big Baby are fairly offensively limited and the Raptors should be able to be at least score-neutral on the bigs front on the night. Worst case, we’ll get to see a healthy dose of Aaron Gray, which is always entertaining at the very least. I’m also looking forward to watching Andrew Nicholson play, who should figure to get extended minutes and should be fired up playing in Canada.
The absence of Big Baby means the Magic will likely run their offense through J.J. Redick and Arron Afflalo, who are both having excellent seasons thus far. We didn’t see Redick last time the Magic came to town, but he’s been quietly putting together the best season of his career – mixing his traditionally excellent shooting with a developing role as a distributor (averaging nearly 5 assists per game thus far). DeMar will likely check Redick on the defensive end, and will have to use his size advantage while ensuring he quickly closes out to stop Redick from going off. On the other end, DD will have to contend with Afflalo, an excellent wing defender who is far more comparable to DeRozan from an athleticism standpoint. DeMar had an excellent game the last time the Raps played the Magic (20 points and 9 boards), so expectations are high, but, like always, continuing to take the ball to the hoop will be key, even if he’s frustrated by Afflalo early. The Magic are fairly thin at the wing spots as far as scoring options go, so continuing to punish Afflalo inside, and hopefully getting him into foul trouble, will be key – in short, I’d love to see some of DeMar’s post-up game in this one, though I’ve long stopped expecting it. One Raptor player who isn’t afraid to take the ball inside on advantageous matchups is Mickael Pietrus, and I’m looking forward to watching him punish Redick inside, assuming the Magic choose to play their two top scoring options at once.
The point guard matchup should be obvious, as Jose the Starter may be one of the very best point guards in the NBA. The Magic will counter with Jameer Nelson, who is solid, but not spectacular – you know what you’re getting with him at this point, and I’m looking forward to watching another strong Jose performance. I don’t know if his future is with the Raptors or somewhere else, but it’s hard not to be happy for the guy – he’s continued to persevere and battle against the odds, and is the biggest reason the Raptors have finally started to turn their season around. If he does get moved to a contender, it’s going to quickly become incredibly obvious to the rest of the league just how much value he can bring on the offensive end.
All in all, a banged-up Magic squad is just what the doctor ordered for the Raptors to keep the good times rolling. Vegas has the Raptors by 3.5, but I’ll take them by 7, riding strong offensive performances from DeMar and Jonas. That is, assuming the world doesn’t end tomorrow afternoon – with the Raptors on an extended win streak, the Blue Jays the Vegas favourites to win the World Series, and the Argonauts Grey Cup champs, I wouldn’t be against it. Even the Mayans like sticking it to Toronto sports fans when they least expect it.