Gameday: Kings @ Raptors, Jan. 4

Can eight of nine become nine of ten?

The Raptors have won eight of their last nine games. The TORONTO Raptors. OUR Toronto Raptors. They’re on fire, playing well at both ends, sharing the ball, looking engaged, and rainbows and unicorns and cupcakes. The 12-20 Sacramento Kings are in town tonight, and the 12-20 Raptors will look to make it nine of 10 and four straight. Oklahoma City looms on Sunday, so it’s important not to lose the momentum now.

Before we get into the breakdown, Jonathan Santiago of Cowbell Kingdom was kind enough to answer a few pre-game questions for us.

WTF is wrong with DeMarcus Cousins? Is he just a giant baby, or is he unfairly portrayed? It doesn’t seem to make sense to sell low on him, but that’s the rumor. Your thoughts?
Cousins is an emotional guy. The team knows that, his coaches know that and he’s openly admitted that.  There have been times where he’s been unfairly portrayed by the media, but he does himself no favors by the way he carries himself and treats others – teammates, coaches and press alike.  And it’s too bad, because he’s a funny guy to be around when he’s in a good mood. But Keith Smart made a great point about Cousins to James Ham, my partner at Cowbell Kingdom prior to Sunday’s game against the Boston Celtics.  You can’t really put a timetable on maturity. Just because the maturation process hasn’t gone as expected doesn’t necessarily mean that he won’t get there.  Unfortunately, if he does finally figure it out, it may not happen in Sacramento.  But for Smart, Geoff Petrie and the rest of the Kings’ organization, that remains a risk they’re willing to take because of his incredible talent.

Is Jimmer actually turning things around? He’s got the highest WS/48 on the team and his percentages are sick.
Outside of Jason Thompson, Jimmer Fredette has been one of the Kings’ most consistent players. What we’re seeing this year is a player that is playing his game. Last season, Fredette tried too hard to fit in. Coming into his rookie year, there were questions about his ability to play point guard and he tried too hard to prove naysayers wrong. In the process, he went away from what made him the best college player in 2010-11. This year, thanks to encouragement from Keith Smart and teammates, he’s gone back to doing what he does best – score. And it’s resulted in a more confident and poised Jimmer in 2012-13.
What exactly makes the Kings defense so poor? They’re near the bottom of the league – is it talent, attitude, or scheme?
When this team struggles on offense, their defense takes a hit. The Kings started the season with a much better defensive focus, but when their offense sputtered, they drifted away from the principles they worked hard to improve in training camp. It also hurts that they’ve lost Tyreke Evans for a large chunk of the season. Evans was playing high-caliber D for the Kings, often times guarding positions one through three before being sidelined by a nagging left knee injury.
The teams enter the game with equal records, though the Raptors are red hot. The Kings won in Sacramento, 107-100, earlier in the year. What can the Raptors try to exploit to keep the hot streak alive?
For starters, the Raptors might want to try cutting off the Kings’ passing attack. In their last six games, Sacramento has averaged 26 assists per contest, which is seven better than their season average. DeMarcus Cousins has been a major catalyst in the Kings’ recent surge in ball movement. Since returning to the lineup following his latest suspension, Cousins has averaged 5.8 assists per game. He’s trusting his teammates more and they’ve rewarded him by making shots. After starting off the season with atrocious shooting numbers, Sacramento has shot 40 percent from beyond the arc in their last six games.

Tale of the Tape
O-Rating: Toronto 105.2 (13th), Sacramento 104.5 (18th)
D-Rating: Toronto 107.7 (25th), Sacramento 109.6 (28th)
Pace: Sacramento 92.1 (14th), Toronto 90.4 (24th)
Strength: Toronto Ball Control (2nd in TO%), Sacramento Points in the Paint (6th)
Weakness: Toronto Fouling (30th in Opp FTA/FGA), Sacramento Interior D (29th in Opp FG% At Rim)
I want to point out here that based on the recent friendliness of the schedule, the Raptors have come back to earth in the Strength of Schedule department and now sit right around the league average and median in that regard. The Raptors have, however, played six more road games than home games.

Positional Breakdown
Point Guard – Jose Calderon and Kyle Lowry v. Aaron Brooks, Isaiah Thomas and Jimmer Fredette
If the point guards play like they have the past two games, when they’ve combined to shoot 18-of-38 with 60 points, 18 rebounds and 52 assists, this is going to be an edge for the Raptors almost any night. When the opposition is the sharp-shooting but rarely playing Jimmer, an inexplicably castrated Thomas and a reliably-mediocre Brooks, I’m licking my chops at the thought of a pair of double-doubles from the backcourt. When the Kings beat the Raptors in December, 107-100, none of the point guards were particularly effective and Kyle Lowry went off for 34-5-11. Lowry probably won’t be taking 20 attempts this time around but even if he and Calderon shoot a little more than the past few games, you can’t blame them at all.

Wings – DeMar DeRozan, Mickael Pietrus, Terrence Ross, Alan Anderson and Landry Fields v. Francisco Garcia, John Salmons, Marcus Thornton and James Johnson
Tyreke Evans Ty-wreaked havoc in the last matchup to the tune of 23 points, but he’ll be out for this one due to a knee injury. Instead, the Raptors have to worry about Thornton, who is an all-offense, mediocre-efficiency scorer, and Salmons, who is still decent but nothing to worry about. Both of these players and Garcia can all spread the floor, while Johnson can disrupt things on the defensive end when he’s engaged. Still, with DeRozan gaining consistency (and boy did he shut me up Wednesday!), Ross starting to get comfortable in his rookie skin, and Fields showing signs of productivity, the Raptors have the depth and skill to hammer the Kings on the wings. Last time they met, DeRozan somehow went two-of-seven in the paint, which won’t happen again.

Bigs – Boss Davis, Aaron Gray and Amir Johnson v. Jason Thompson, DeMarcus Cousins, Thomas Robinson and Chuck Hayes
Cousins is a beast, whether he’s happy or not, and is a huge problem for the Raptors when they’re at full health, let alone when they have just three bigs to share the duties. He had a 25-and-13 game on 11-of-18 shooting in the December matchup when the frontcourt was at full strength, so I’m worried what damage he could do against Gray, especially if Johnson gets in foul trouble. Thompson is a nice player as well, though not one you game-plan for. Davis should be able to continue his strong offensive play, and Amir will get good looks out of the pick-and-roll, except when undersized defensive whiz Hayes is in the game. The Kings allow a great percentage at the rim and are near the bottom of the league in pick-and-roll defense, per Synergy.

The Picks
Vegas: Raptors -6.5
Hollinger Power Ranking: Raptors -7.5
Blake: Raptors by 11.

Keep the momentum rolling. They can’t really afford a loss, not for standings purposes because I’d worry that a loss to the Kings and then a loss to the Thunder could make them lose some of the positive gains in attitude and demeanor over the past few weeks. I’ll repeat my sentiment from Wednesday that I don’t think things like “getting along” or “feeling good” have huge long-term sustainable effects, but I definitely do think they do in the short-term. Right now this team is flying, trusting each other and having a blast. I think that will continue for at least one more night, led by big games from KLOE (Kyle Lowry Over Everything, for the uninitiated) and DeRozan in particular.

Have a good weekend everyone. And

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