After a strong second half pushed the Raptors (22-20) past the 76ers last night, DeRozan, Lowry and crew are back home tonight to face Blake Griffin and the scorching Los Angeles Clippers (30-15). The Clippers are 8-3 since Chris Paul – only the best guard on planet Earth – went down in early January with a separated shoulder. A lot of pundits expected Paul’s injury to derail Lob City for at least a little while (he’s expected back by the All-Star break), but the Clips have been able to keep winning for a few reasons:
1) Schedule: Including last night’s win against Chicago (now 21-21), the Clippers have only played 5 teams over .500 since the Paul injury, with two of those against the Dallas Mavericks and one against the aforementioned Bulls. I’m not saying that record isn’t impressive in any circumstances – it certainly is – but it’s not like the Clips have faced a murderer’s row of opponents in the last month. Then again, though, that wouldn’t matter without…
2) Personnel: These are not your Clippers of yesteryear (or even your Clippers of last season). The additions of Jared Dudley, J.J. Redick, and Darren Collison have made the Clips very deep on the perimeter. Collison, in particular, has stepped up his game since the Paul injury, averaging nearly 14 points, 6 assists, 2 steals, and just 2 turnovers a game in the month of January. Blake Griffin, of course, has been phenomenal as well – earning a well deserved starting spot in next month’s All-Star game in the midst of what has been one of his best, most well-rounded offensive seasons so far (that mid range jumper’s been a real weapon this year).
3) Doc Rivers: It’s hard to describe the difference having a system-oriented coach like Rivers as opposed to a Vinny Del Negro on the sidelines. Thanks to Rivers’ steady hand, the Clips’ motion offence has continued to hum along sans Paul in both the half court and fast break. Del Negro, on the other hand, was beyond hopeless without his coach on the floor.
With all that being said, do the Raptors have a shot to put another three game winning streak together tonight? Absolutely. Even though the Raps have been a bit inconsistent over the last week, the team’s key cogs – Lowry and DeRozan in particular – have been playing well enough on both ends of the floor that it’s hard to imagine them getting blown out by anyone at this point in the season. The key here will be down low – the Clippers’ two-headed monster of DeAndre Jordan and Griffin will be tough to keep off the glass. Casey has been kind of going with a bigs-by-committee approach, and it’ll be up to the hot hand (hopefully Jonas – I just don’t see the smaller Chuck Hayes bodying up the monster that is Jordan) to put up a bit of a fight in the rebounding department. Keep that number close, hope you get the Lowry from last night instead of the Lowry from Wednesday, and this game starts to look more and more winnable for the Raptors, especially with both teams coming off a back-to-back.
Anyways, you’ve already had a post-game this morning, and you’ll be getting a quick reaction tonight, so that’s enough pre-game rambling for this afternoon. Let’s look at the tale of the tape:
Tale of the Tape:
O-Rating: Toronto 106.68 (15th), Clippers 109.99 (6th)
D-Rating: Toronto 104.00 (7th), Clippers 104.36 (9th)
Pace: Toronto 94.6 (24th), Clippers 98.1 (8th)
Strength: Toronto forcing turnovers (5th in league in opponent turnover percentage) Clippers paint work (2nd in league in free throw attempts, 5th in rebounding)
Weakness: Toronto mid-range shooting (26th in 2-point field goal percentage), Clippers making free throws (26th in percentage) and O-rebounding (22nd)
Point guards: Kyle Lowry and Greivis Vasquez vs. Darren Collison and Jamal Crawford
As I talked about earlier, Crawford and Collison have filled in nicely for the injured Paul. Both have a nice touch from from outside (though Crawford’s basically the ultimate heat-check guy in the league), and Collison is deceptively good at getting into the lane. Both of their issues, though, is defensively – I can’t imagine either of them stopping Lowry, who’s been arguably the best point guard in the East this season. A big game from Lowry will be key in all paths which lead to a victory. When Vasquez tries to stay in front of Collison, though…
Wings: DeMar DeRozan, Terrence Ross and John Salmons vs. Matt Barnes, J.J. Redick, Jared Dudley, and Hedo Turkoglu
HEDO! Everyone’s favourite Eastern European ex-Raptor (after Roko Ukic) is back at the ACC, much to the delight of DeRozan and Ross, who should be able to light him up on the offensive side of the ball. Redick and Dudley are both dead-eye shooters from outside the arc (and so is Crawford, who will get some minutes at the off-guard), so the Raptors’ pick and roll defence will be tested tonight. I’ll give this one to the Raptors, though it’s close – Barnes won’t make it easy on him, but you have to give him the benefit of the doubt after his last couple games.
Slight Advantage: Raptors
Bigs: Amir Johnson, Jonas Valanciunas, Patrick Patterson, and Chuck Hayes vs. Blake Griffin, DeAndre Jordan, Ryan Hollins and Byron Mullins
Quantity vs quality here – the Clippers’ depth at the 4 and 5 is basically nonexistant, and given the recent ascension of 2Pat, the Raptors seem to have 3 bigs playing well every game (even with whoever that is changing from night to night). Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan are Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan, though – as stated before, even a neutralization of these two on the boards has to be considered a major victory. I’m excited to watch Amir try and stop Griffin, who’s been beyond excellent this season.
Vegas says Raptors by 1, and that’s about what I’d expect in a game between two of January’s hottest teams (with the one transcendent superstar on either team out with an injury). In order for the Raptors to win tonight, the keys seem to be a big game from Lowry and a good rebounding performance from the Raptor bigs, and I’m bullish on both happening. Raptors by 3, with home-court advantage proving to be a big factor.