The Toronto Raptors wrap up a 7-game homestand tonight against the Detroit Pistons, playing some of their best basketball in franchise history. Coming off of their franchise record 10th straight victory on Thursday night against the New York Knicks, the Raptors have taken the Eastern Conference Standings by storm since the new year with a record of 13-2 in 2016, albeit against some of the sub-par teams in the league.
Tonight’s contest, however, will feature a surging Pistons squad that has come a long way from their mediocre playing style the past few years. Under Stan Van Gundy’s watch, the Pistons feature a talented squad fuelled by newly minted all-star Andre Drummond, a double-double machine, and could-have-been-all-star Reggie Jackson, who has developed into one of the premier point guards in the Eastern Conference. The Pistons are determined to make the playoffs for the first time since 2009, quite understandable for a franchise that has otherwise enjoyed so much success in their history.
Andre Drummond has been nothing short of spectacular for Detroit, averaging 17 points per contest and over 15 rebounds. He’s grabbed 20+ rebounds 10 times this season, and has also developed an offensive game in the paint shooting over 52% from the field. He is, however, once again having a terrible season from the free-throw line shooting an abysmal 37.7%.
The hack-a-Andre strategy has become an increasingly popular gameplan across the league when facing the Pistons, making for some slow, choppy games. Just ask the Houston Rockets last week, as head coach JB Bickerstaff inserted KJ McDaniels into the game solely for the purpose of fouling Drummond, repeatedly. McDaniels fouled Drummond an unprecented five times in the span of nine seconds, in a night where Drummond set the NBA record for most free-throws missed (23). Most nights, even DeMar DeRozan can’t attempt 23 free-throws, let alone miss that many. Let’s just hope that Dwane Casey will not have to adopt the hacking strategy, increasingly being viewed as a petty, unsportmanlike move. Not to mention, the Raptors should not have to resort to hacking Andre Drummond to win this game.
Unlike Stan Van Gundy teams of the past, the Pistons are a relatively strong defensive team and an average offensive team, sitting at 10th and 18th in those categories respectively. Detroit is coming off a loss against Cleveland, and will be looking to get back into the win column as they look to maintain their playoff standing, which is currently at 7th and a half game up on the Indiana Pacers.
The Raptors, meanwhile, seem to have gained the attention of the NBA, carving out a comfortable spot at second in the Eastern Conference, now with a 4.5 game lead on the third place Atlanta Hawks. All is well in Raptor land, as Toronto now gears up for the All-Star Game after having two all-stars confirmed on their roster in Lowry and DeRozan. It’s the first time in franchise history that the Raptors will be sending 2 all-stars to the midseason event, since Antonio Davis and Vince Carter back in 2001 in Washington DC. The Raptors actually had the same record, at 31-15, at this point last season, but in a tighter and more competitive Eastern Conference, this year’s record is certainly more respectable.
Though the East standings are nowhere near set in stone, with the Raptors in 2nd and the Pistons in 7th, tonight’s game could be a potential preview of a first-round series. The Raptors would likely be the favourites with a couple of years of playoff experiences under their belt with their current squad, compared to the Pistons, most of whom have never been part of a postseason game. Somewhat too soon to say, but I think most Raptor fans would prefer the Pistons over the Pacers or Heat, the other likely possibilities to land in that 7th spot.
A key to stopping the Pistons will be guarding at the point-of-attack, where the Pistons boast improved depth with starter Reggie Jackson leading the way. After making his way over from OKC last year, Jackson is enjoying playing the starting role with the Pistons, posting all-star numbers averaging 19 points, over 6 assists and 3 rebounds a game. He’ll be backed up by Brandon Jennings, the former 55-point scorer, who returned mid-season this year after 11 months off from an Achilles tear. Jennings, though still working his way back, is still a dangerous weapon that can catch fire from deep and cause havoc when he gets a first step on his defender.
Another important factor will be the Raptors play inside, as a key matchup to watch will be Jonas Valanciunas going up against Andre Drummond. JV is playing well after returning from his injury and will be looked upon to hold his own inside, not get into foul trouble (or perhaps he does, depending on the strategy on Drummond that Dwane Casey plans to employ), and get rebounding position against Drummond. Detroit is third in the league in rebounding, largely due to Drummond’s sheer dominant presence in the paint as he swallows up nearly a third of his team’s rebounds a night. JV will have to bring his A-game on the glass.
ICYMI: Coach Casey after practice Friday.
11 in a row would be something else. The Raptors will need this one, as they depart for a 6-game road trip to begin Monday against the Nuggets, followed by a back-to-back against the Suns on Tuesday. Not that the opponents are especially tough, but playing on the road in the Western Conference, and on consecutive nights, is always tough. But it’s hard not to imagine a 13-game winning streak at this stage. Keep the wins rolling.