The Toronto Raptors are back home after their final four-game road-trip of the season. Never again will they be away from the Air Canada Centre for so long, nor will they have to travel more than one time zone away (at least unit the NBA Finals, am I right?). It’s home-heavy from here, which should help keep bodies a lot fresher and circadian clocks in balance. The team figured it would be better to get the difficult parts of the schedule out of the way early – not that they had a choice – and with an 18-8 record and a top-10 mark on both ends of the floor, they have a solid foundation to build on for the last two tertiles of the season.
The question now becomes whether they can get back on a run of sorts, ironing out the occasional lapse in energy or just down-right ugly game, a few of which took place on the recent trip. Toronto’s won seven of their last eight and 11 of their last 14, and they still have three in a row left against sub-.500 competition. I’m not sure people will take it particularly well if the style of play from the last three or four games carries over to the home court.
The Brooklyn Nets are up first, visiting Friday with potentially tired legs but with a solid 5-4 mark over their last nine games. It’s a would-be tanking team with nothing to tank for, without their own first-round pick, and a very young core has responded by playing with a ton of heart and energy. Kenny Atkinson has his group playing at the league’s second-fastest pace, inviting some chaos. They’ve also managed to avoid the bottom-10 on either side of the floor, ranking 19th in both offense and defense despite not having any one real pronounced strength. They shoot a lot of threes at a mediocre percentage, they get to the free-throw line more than you’d expect, and they’re average on the glass at either end. That provides a solid base for a lot of games that end up unexpectedly competitive, and Brooklyn’s entirely capable of stealing one.
It’s the DeMarre Carroll Revenge Game! And it tips off at 7:30 on TSN and TSN 1050.
Blake Murphy: DeMarre Carroll! I was rooting for him to rebound in Brooklyn after it just didn’t work out here due to a combination of injury, ineffectiveness, and fit. I did not think he’d get back to being quite this good, averaging 13.3 points and seven rebounds. Some of that is more opportunity and a regression toward his slightly higher career 3-point percentage (with many more touches), and some of it just appears to be that Carroll is healthy and fitting in well, as he and Kenny Atkinson both suggested he may. Are you pretty happy with what he’s delivered, along with a first- and second-round pick?
Anthony Puccio: Man, you really can’t say enough about DeMarre Carroll. Obviously you guys would know that he was considered a salary dump, but in Brooklyn everybody’s calling him Sean Marks’ biggest steal (the picks are forgotten at times!). He said it on his way out: he didn’t fit in Toronto’s offense, opposed to Brooklyn, where they play pace and space, motion offense, similar to his days in Atlanta. Who was the assistant during that time? Kenny Atkinson. I think a combination of being healthy, gaining confidence and playing within the system has revitalized his career. Calling him the ‘heart and soul’ of this team would not be a stretch, as he exemplifies everything the Nets needed in a veteran leader.
Blake Murphy: Sean Marks made a similar move in acquiring Allen Crabbe, albeit without any picks attached. He’s been a little less impressive outside of his robust 3-point percentage. Is there enough growth there to warrant the salary he’ll command the next few years? (Recognizing that Brooklyn got out of Andrew Nicholson’s deal in the process, of course.)
Anthony Puccio: It’s still a little early to tell. Crabbe is only 25-years-old and the player development staff in Brooklyn has been top notch. That being said, Allen Crabbe is almost like a more expensive Joe Harris except he still fails to create his own shot. He’s only 5-of-18 (27%) off the dribble — 41% in catch and shoot situations. He’s good for the system, but nowhere near worth $19.3 million.
Blake Murphy: One more Marks opportunistic trade came last week, when the Nets flipped Trevor Booker for Jahlil Okafor, Nik Stauskas, and a second-rounder. Stauskus might just be what he is at this point (another shooter and secondary ball-handler who can’t really defend). How excited are you about Okafor finally getting a real opportunity? I know he’s a divisive name, but personally, I think it’ll be nice to finally be able to evaluate him on the merits of his play rather than his philosophical place in the NBA while he sits.
Anthony Puccio: Everybody in Brooklyn is excited about Jahlil Okafor. How can they not be? The Nets have two top-3 picks from the 2015 draft in Russell and Okafor. I think this notion that there is no good use for traditional bigs is nonsense. The Nets are extremely thin at the five — rolling with Tyler Zeller, Timofey Mozgov and 19-year-old Jarrett Allen — none of whom can stretch the floor. If Okafor can dominate the paint the way he has in the past and be a little more active on the boards, then I think he’ll thrive no matter what the ‘ideal’ NBA center is supposed to look like.
Blake Murphy: The Nets figure to still be sellers if opportunity arises. May I have a Quincy Acy?
Anthony Puccio: For another draft pick! I think the name to watch going forward is Joe Harris. His value is the highest it’s ever been.
Blake Murphy: Caris LeVert, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, and Spencer Dinwiddie have all taken notable strides forward this year, and each is still under 25. Is there one young player in this core who has fundamentally changed your long-term opinion of them through a third of a season?
Anthony Puccio: All three have impressed. LeVert looks promising and he’s only in his second year. I can’t say enough about RHJ, who, in his third year with the team, is the longest tenured Net. He’s survived (and thrived) while becoming the leader of this team. Spencer Dinwiddie is one of the best stories around the NBA this season. The guy is second in assist to turnover ratio and he just simply knows how to run Kenny Atkinson’s offense. With Lin and Russell both injured, Dinwiddie has weathered the storm at point for Brooklyn, standing 2.5 games out of the 6-8 seed. He’s another ‘Marksmen’ as we call them, plucked from the G-League last December and chosen over Yogi Ferrell.
Delon Wright and Lucas Nogueira are once again listed as out on the injury report, while Bruno Caboclo and Malcolm Miller remain with Raptors 905 for a weekend back-to-back away from Hershey Centre. That means the 10-man rotation should be pretty close to what you’re used to, those some questions are beginning to pop up as to whether the all-bench unit is tenable, whether there should be more staggering of starters, and whether the big-man pairings should be mixed up more often. None of those are necessarily immediate – the starters are winning games for them, as they should, and Wright’s eventual return should help restore a lot of the bench’s strengths – but it would be nice to see the second unit get back on track with a strong game again sometime soon.
PG: Kyle Lowry, Fred VanVleet, Lorenzo Brown
SG: DeMar DeRozan, Norman Powell
SF: OG Anunoby, C.J. Miles, Alfonzo McKinnie
PF: Serge Ibaka, Pascal Siakam
C: Jonas Valanciunas, Jakob Poeltl
OUT: Delon Wright, Lucas Nogueira
905: Bruno Caboclo, Malcolm Miller
Brooklyn enters on the second night of a back-to-back, coming off of a tight loss to the Knicks on Thursday in which they shot an unsightly 12-of-42 on threes. Four of their starters (everyone but Tyler Zeller) played 32 minute or mote, and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson played 37. There could be tired legs here, especially if Jahlil Okafor and Nik Stauskas aren’t mixed into the rotation yet. Neither has played as a Net despite being active, and while Kenny Atkinson has said they’ll have to earn their minutes, there hasn’t been much opportunity for them to do so yet. Given that the Nets went without a center for parts of Thursday’s game and it’s a back-to-back scenario, the guess here is that Okafor makes his Nets debut Friday. Stauskas is probably a longer shot, even back at home.
Elsewhere, the Nets remain without D’Angelo Russell, who is yet to start running, and Jeremy Lin, who is out for the season. That leaves Spencer Dinwiddie, a long-time favorite here, as the lone natural point guard on the roster, unless they recalled Isaiah Whitehead late last night. Allen Crabbe played through knee soreness for 35 minutes yesterday (he was questionable), so watch his status, too.
PG: Spencer Dinwiddie
SG: Allen Crabbe, Caris LeVert, Nik Stauskas
SF: DeMarre Carroll, Joe Harris
PF: Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Quincy Acy
C: Tyler Zeller, Jarrett Allen, Timofey Mozgov, Jahlil Okafor
OUT: D’Angelo Russell, Jeremy Lin
Long Island: Jacob Wiley, Yakuba Ouattara, Isaiah Whitehead
The Raptors are 11-point favorites at home with the rest advantage. The over-under is a whopping 218.5, with both teams playing at a top-11 pace.
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