The Raptors went 1-2 on their 3-game road trip that featured stops in Indiana, Charlotte and Miami and now come back home to the cozy confines of the ACC to face off against the Sacramento Kings.
The Raptors have had quite the storylines early this season with a struggling bench, a questionable signing of a rapidly regressing fourth-year player, and medium-term injuries to two core starters in JV and DeMarre Carroll. With a road-heavy schedule, the Raptors have managed to pull together and hold down a very respectable 17-11 record in the tough and tightly-packed eastern conference.
Friday night in Miami was as good an example as any of what this team can accomplish when they get strong performances from DeMar and/or Kyle, timely contributions from Cory Joseph and Luis Scola, and guys like JJ, Patman, or Bismack Biyombo (seriously, how steady has the guy been) adding bonus minutes to Casey’s rotation.
You can also contrast that to games earlier in the week against Indiana and Charlotte, where absolutely pathetic offensive performances from the bench resulted in 2 disappointing losses filled with turnovers, bad shooting, and frequent, long offensive slumps.
And yet, the team bounced back, teasing Raptor fans once again of how great this team can be, when the ball zips around on offense, DeMar’s getting to the line, and the defense is firing on all cylinders. The team’s resiliency was on full display in Miami after bouncing back with a furious second half rally, adding to the growing list of impressive victories this year for the Raptors who have already beat OKC, Dallas, Cleveland, San Antonio and the LA Clippers. The Raps now look to kick-off a relatively light 3-game week featuring 2 home games, with a win at home against George Karl’s Kings.
Ah… the Sacramento Kings. The team that seemingly never ceases to amaze the media and the casual NBA fan, providing a steady diet of gripping NBA drama, much to the ire of Kings fans who quite understandably are fed up. Questionable ownership and management, player-coach drama, and a hard-headed point-guard suspended for his recent on-court comments to gay referee Bill Kennedy have all been part of the Kings’ tumultuous regular season. And after serving that suspension Tuesday and returning last night with a double-double against a loss to the Timberwolves, Rajon Rondo will surely have something to offer against the Raptors. Oh and there’s that DeMarcus Cousins guy too.
Keys to the Game
Contain DeMarcus Cousins: DeMarcus Cousins has absolutely dominated the Raptors in his time with the Kings, and has continued his dominance against the entire league this year averaging 25.5 ppg, to go with 10.7 rebounds. He can post up, drive, dish, and shoot from anywhere with ease. Even with JV in the lineup last time the Raps faced off against the Kings, DeMarcus dropped 36 points and grabbed 10 rebounds. And while Bismack is certainly an updgrade from a defensive perspective, you can bet Biyombo and/or Scola will have their hands full. They’ll have to guard him straight up, and tight enough to respect Cousins’ improved three-point stroke. The Raps will also have to do their best in ball denial to Cousins early in the game. And if that doesn’t work, expect double teams in the second half.
Defensive Intensity: After a dismal start to the second half last night in Miami, Dwane Casey called a timeout at the 9:33 mark in the 3rd quarter. The wheels were on the verge of coming off and the Heat had stretched their lead to 11 after a Goran Dragic steal, in a scene that looked all too familiar to the Raptors who had a second-half collapse in the same building a month ago. And yet, the Raptors responded after that timeout with some of the best defense we’ve seen from the team all year long, holding the Heat to only 30 points for the rest of the game from that point on. Starting the game with that defensive intensity tonight will be critical to avoid the slow starts that have killed the Raptors in similar sub-500 opponent games this year.
Get DeMar and Kyle going early: DeMar DeRozan has been on absolute scoring tear the past 6 games averaging 27 ppg (50% from the field), and averaging nearly 9 free throw makes per game on 10 attempts. He’s reached an elite-level when it comes to getting to the line and is now shooting far more efficiently than what we saw early this season. It’s going to be immensely important for the Raptors to get their two stars going early to build a comfortable lead for the Raptors and set the right tone before the struggling bench take their shot at the Kings. The Raps will also be looking to provide at least some rest later in the game for Kyle Lowry and DeMar Derozan, who have logged 36 minutes per game each thus far this season. While Casey is desperate to get the rest his all-star backcourt needs, it has been tough for the Raptors who desperately need bench contributions. If James Johnson can continue his strong play starting or coming off of the bench, it can only be a plus for Casey who continues to scramble for answers, to create any offensive bench spark in the second and third quarters of games when Lowry and DeMar generally get their mid-game rest.
The Raps have surely have had their issues with potential “let-down” games this season, already recording losses to Denver, Phoenix, Orlando, New York, Utah, and these very Kings just a few weeks ago. But I’ll take the Raps to win this comfortably, behind strong games from Lowry/DeRozan and balanced contributions from Joseph and others.