A lot has changed since December 3, when Toronto faced the Warriors in Golden State. That fateful trip out west featured the last time Toronto has lost more than two games in a row and was punctuated by the Warriors 42 point fourth quarter that erased a 27 point Raptor lead.
Five days later Rudy Gay was gone and the Raptors embarked on a 26-14 turn around which has Toronto sitting atop the Atlantic Division and boasting the league’s best fourth quarter differential.
This second meeting features what amounts to a grudge match for the re-tooled Raptors who have every inspiration to provide a full 48 minute effort. There is the embarrassment of that loss, the streaking Bulls and Wizards who are vying to usurp Toronto for the third seed and the on-going desire of this Toronto squad to achieve respect around the Association. Unfortunately a rash of ankle injuries has befell the Raps leading to uncertainty of who’ll suit up today; Lowry practiced Saturday while Ross was on the stationary bike and Johnson is still playing at less than 100%.
With the hardest part of their schedule complete the Raptors will have 23 games remaining after today featuring 17 sub .500 teams and only seven games vs. the West. The Raptors will also be privy to a rare four-day mini break prior to what is surely another circled date on every Raptors calendar: Sacramento.
Before breaking down the specific match-ups, JM Poulard of ESPN True Hoop Network and Editor of Warriors World was kind enough to answer a few questions on the Warriors.
It’s no surprise Indiana and Chicago rank one, two in defensive efficiency, what is a bit of a surprise is Golden State ranks third. Many point to the addition of Andre Iguodala as the reason, but how much of this improvement can be credited to a much healthier Andrew Bogut?
Andre Iguodala certainly has helped tremendously on this end, but Andrew Bogut might be more important to the defense. He’s an irritant for opposing big men and does a wonderful job of contesting shots at the rim and clearing out his rebounding area.
Bogut lacks the mobility to jump out and trap in the pick-and-roll, but he makes up for that by camping in the lane and deterring cutters with a few hard shoves. The Warriors’ ascension in the 2013 playoffs coincided with Bogut shaking off the rust and playing at a high level, a clear sign that Golden State is a different group defensively when he is on the hardwood.
Last season the Warriors were anointed NBA’s Cinderella Team benefiting from the intangible of team chemistry which led to a deep playoff run. With the addition of Steve Blake at the deadline, this season’s squad features eight new Warriors who have yet to accomplish the same natural ebb and flow offensively. Does Blake represent the missing piece needed to elevate Golden State’s offense into the top ten?
This might be a cop out, but it’s too early to tell. Last season, Jarrett Jack had an odd knack for calling his own number late in games and actually delivering when defenses focused on stopping Stephen Curry. Jack’s ball-handling and killer midrange shooting gave the Dubs a huge boost.
Steve Blake is a different breed of point guard. He is more of a setup player that also converts open shots. In order for Golden State’s offense to thrive, they need a secondary and tertiary playmaker because they lack a quality second perimeter scorer. Iguodala fits quite well, but Blake might need to become slightly more aggressive to keep defenses honest.
At the start of the season I along with many NBA enthusiasts hoped for an epic Thunder vs. Warrior Western Final, but with 23 games remaining the Warriors are seeded sixth and are among seven teams separated by 7 games. Where do you realistically see the Warriors finishing and which team would they prefer to avoid in the first round?
I am already on record as picking the Warriors to go out in the first round of a tough Western Conference. The one team Golden State just cannot seem to shake is the Houston Rockets. James Harden and Co. just always manage to get the upper hand because of their interior scoring and long-range shooting.
Wednesday, Chicago held Golden State to 35.7% from the field, under 24% from three and marked only the seventh time this season the Warriors have failed to score 90 points. The Bulls utilized a defensive strategy that forced Curry to his left, cut off his second option and closed his passing and driving lanes. Is this the best way to shut down the Warriors potent offense or was that simply an anomaly?
There might be bigger forces at play as it pertains to the woeful shooting in Chicago. Stephen Curry has been struggling since All-Star weekend, and one can only wonder whether he is hiding an injury or just simply worn down.
With that said, the Bulls used a bold approach in defending Curry that I can’t recall any other team successfully utilizing: Defenders jumped passing lanes. With a shooter as prolific as Curry, disciplined defense is practically mandatory to ensure he does not get any open looks. Kirk Hinrich opted instead to abandon him at times and jump in front of passes for steals.
In addition, Chicago used three defenders on every possession to corral the Dubs’ leading scorer. Every time Curry put the ball on the floor in the pick-and-roll, he had to beat his man coupled with a big man and other player. There were plays to be made, but Curry was pressing and it resulted in a poor shooting night and multiple turnovers. The defensive strategy was certainly terrific, but the Bulls also benefitted from a struggling Curry
Point Guard: Steph Curry has unparallelled range, improved ball handling skills and finally has a back-up in Steve Blake who can relieve him of extended minutes. Coming into Sunday’s match Steph rebounded from a terrible outing in Chicago with a triple-double in New York in just 3 quarters of work. In games since the All Star Break Vasquez seems to have found his offensive niche including a season’s best 26 point outing in the loss to the Wiz. Kyle Lowry for his part has been the most valuable Raptor on the floor on a nightly basis, but turned his ankle badly in over time Thursday, however he claimed he would be available today.
Wings: Teams have been defending DeMar DeRozan with tall wing men of late (Butler, Deng) and he may face another in Thompson today, however if he avoids Klay he can expect to face one of the league’s best wing defenders in Andre Iguodala. Prior to Ross twisting his ankle Thursday I foresaw the game being won or lost at this position, but Ross’ status as of Saturday was questionable. It’s unfortunate as I for one was really excited to see which of the two sophomore wing men would rue the day. Harrison Barnes has been inconsistent in his second season following a break out Rookie campaign; in contrast Terrence is almost the polar opposite. Ross significance to the squad specifically on defense was obvious to all in the OT loss to Washington and is a positive sign heading toward the playoffs.
Edge: Warriors *if by some miracle Ross plays with no ill affect the edge switches slightly to Raptors
Bigs: Valanciunas has had some less than stellar outings post All Star Break, but he prefers to play typical Centers like Bogut and O’Neal. With the uncertainty of Ross or Lowry suiting up Jonas will need to replicate his February 21 second half performance vs Cleveland if the Raps have any chance of staying close today. Prior to the trade I would have leaned heavily in favor of the Warriors but the combination of Toronto’s younger crew of Valanciunas, Johnson, Patterson and Hansbrough vs. Lee and the vets (Bogut just returned from injury) have made this positional match-up much more interesting. Fouls could play a large role if either team’s front court get multiple whistles early.
Slight Egde: Raptors
The Bench: The Dubs have tinkered with their line-up all season trying to reclaim their offensive chemistry from last year inserting variations of Barnes, Crawford, Speights, Green and O’Neal into the mix. Conversely, since the trade the Raptors have had more on nights than off utilizing Hansbrough, Patterson, Salmons and Vasquez in a tight nine men rotation with the occasional sprinkling of Novak and Hayes. Not to keep repeating myself, but so much rests on whether Lowry and or Ross play today, if they don’t it’s likely Vasquez and Novak or Salmons would get the start and for those of you pining for more Nando De Colo you might just get their wish.
Edge: If Lowry plays Raptors if he doesn’t Golden State rules
The Line: Vegas says: The line has Golden State favored by 2 with a public consensus of 61.5% and an over/under of 201.5
Tamberlyn says: Both teams are capable of mounting double digit comebacks, but have been excelling based on their defense so today’s victor will undoubtedly be the team who stays true to their defensive strategy for the longer portion of the 48 minutes. Thursday we became very aware of how a key injury can totally disrupt a team, but to expect Toronto to compete without a main cog (possibly two) for 48 minutes is unrealistic. Should Lowry suit up the irony is today could come down to the final shot or it could be a 20 point blow-out. With those four days off looming and the memory of that 42 point fourth quarter there’s no doubt the Raps will be inspired, but unfortunately I suspect this banged up Raptor squad will ultimately fall short by a point or two.
Odd Fact: The Raptors have won games this season in a variety of ways we’ve not been accustomed to for many years and I’ve found myself repeatedly commenting “This is the biggest win of the season”. Entering today’s contest I know with certainty this team won’t give up and I’m hoping the squad can dig deep to muster an improbable win where I’ll undoubtedly tweet the above words for the umpteenth time this year.
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