Happy new year, Republic. The Raptors will look to keep their momentum from the end of 2012 alive to start 2013, as they return home having won seven of their past eight games. The Portland Trail Blazers are in town, and the Raptors should be looking for revenge after a Batum-and-Matthews-less Blazers pounded the Raptors in early December.

Before we get into the breakdown, Sean Highkin of Portland Roundball Society was kind enough to answer a few of my questions.

Last time these two teams met, the Blazers started Victor Claver and Sasha Pavlovic and won handedly. It was, without a doubt, the low-point of the Raptors season. Have the Blazers gotten healthy since, and what do Wes Matthews and Nic Batum mean for this match up?

Batum didn’t miss that much time, and he’s been back in the lineup for a while. So thankfully, we seem to be past the era of Sasha Pavlovic being a starter for good as a society. Matthews hasn’t played in a few weeks, but he is supposed to return on Tuesday against the Knicks. So we’ll see how he looks. He’s tried to come back a couple of times before and had to take himself out of the game pretty quickly because his hip was still bothering him. I don’t know whether he would start or come off the bench at first, but I wrote recently that it might be smart for Terry Stotts to consider keeping Claver in the starting lineup and using Matthews as a sixth man. As far as what they bring to the matchup, the Blazers won that first game against the Raptors despite a historically bad three-point shooting performance (a record that was, ironically, broken by the Nuggets against the Blazers a week later). Matthews and Batum are two of the Blazers’ best three-point shooters, so I wouldn’t expect a repeat if they’re playing.

When I spoke to Hornets247, they mentioned they think Anthony Davis is the Rookie of the Year if he doesn’t miss any more time. Agree, or is Damian Lillard the choice in your books?

I still think Lillard will win it, but it’s not a one-man race like it was looking like earlier in the season. Davis has been basically as good as advertised since returning, and if he stays healthy he has a very good shot at taking it. Harrison Barnes and Andre Drummond are both making strong cases for themselves too.

What type of team do the Blazers struggle with? What can the Raptors try to exploit to stay hot and win their eighth in nine games?

The Blazers have one of the worst interior defenses in the league, so the Raptors’ best chance at winning is to attack the rim relentlessly. J.J. Hickson isn’t stopping anybody, and Meyers Leonard may still be hurt.

Tale of the Tape
O-Rating: Toronto 104.7 (13th) Portland 104.6 (14th)
D-Rating: Portland 106.9 (22nd), Toronto 108.1 (26th)
Pace: Portland 91.0 (22nd), Toronto 90.5 (23rd)
Strength: Toronto Ball Control (2nd in TO%), Portland Balance (not high/low in any one area really)
Weakness: Portland 3FG (26th, 33.7%), Toronto Fouling (30th in Opp FTA/FGA)

Positional Breakdown
Point Guard – Jose Calderon and Kyle Lowry v. Damian Lillard, Ronnie Price and Nolan Smith
Advantage:
Raptors
Lillard has been exceptional and is probably in the driver’s seat for the Rookie of the Year award right now, but his backups are pretty mediocre, meaning the Raptors will have an advantage some of the time. If Calderon and Lowry can co-exist and Dwane Casey can maximize each of them in their roles, the Raptors could and should have the advantage at the point against most teams. Lillard is definitely exploitable on the defensive end, but it will be important for the Raptors’ guards to try and force him into bad shots on offense to keep him from going off. Lillard loves to shoot the three and does so effectively, but he doesn’t finish well within nine feet. I’m not saying they should matador him to the paint, but if Amir Johnson can be ready with help defense, he does tend to get tunnel vision once he starts his drive. It’s not a huge advantage, but I like Lowry to step up to the challenge of defending the “hot-shot rookie,” which seems like something he’d get up for.

Wings – DeMar DeRozan, Alan Anderson, Mickael Pietrus, Terrence Ross, Linas Kleiza and Landry Fields v. Wesley Matthews (questionable), Nicolas Batum, Victor Claver, Sasha Pavlovic and Luke Babbitt
Advantage:
Blazers
The Blazers have terrible wing depth, but if Matthews can go they have the best two wings in the game, no offense to DeRozan. Batum is a do-everything type but he’s actually struggled with his three-point stroke so far this season. Matthews, if he goes, has not, hitting nearly 40%. The Blazers did set the all-time three-point shooting futility mark in the last match-up, but they were without these two sharpshooters. Now, I was originally about to say the Raptors tend to give up a lot of threes, but when I pulled the numbers it’s actually not true at all. Perhaps the Raptors give up the most OPEN threes, but they’ve only allowed the 24th most attempts at a league average effectiveness. Anderson has been a big help defensively of late, and he, Pietrus, Ross and perhaps Fields will all need to be active in their rotations and leave the help on Lillard to the bigs. Offensively, DeRozan could be bothered by the length of the wings and the fact that none of them foul very often. He’ll need to set the attacking precedent early.

Bigs – Ed Davis, Amir Johnson and Aaron Gray v. LaMarcus Aldridge, J.J. Hickson, Jared Jeffries and Meyers Leonard
Advantage:
Blazers
Portland gets a slight edge here because of LMA, and he’ll probably get 25+8 with relative ease in this one. However, Aldridge doesn’t seem to have that “take over a game” gene, so if the Raptors can limit him to his normal numbers there’s a chance to offset his production by limiting others. Hickson does the Charlie Work for his points, pulling in 4.1 offensive rebounds per game, so Davis will be tasked with utilizing that top-20 defensive rebound rate to neutralize second chance opportunities. Neither of the Blazer bigs is particularly adept at defending against the pick-and-roll, and Lillard isn’t especially strong there either, so there’s an opportunity to make up for a potentially light game from the wings via some smart pick-and-roll play.

The Picks
Vegas: TBD
Hollinger Power Rankings: Raptors -5
Blake: Raptors by 9.

Why the optimism? For one, the team appears to have turned a corner mentally and on the floor, and there’s all sorts of happy vibes coming from the ACC. While this doesn’t mean much over the long haul, I’m a believer that this sort of thing can provide short-term gains. Add to that the fact that the Blazers will be on the second night of a travel back-to-back and may be without one of their top players, and I think the Raptors will have every opportunity to win this one. Oh, and the team should be as hungry as they’ve been all year looking to avenge the low-point of the season.

Plus, it’s the new year, it’s a time for optimism.

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