Gameday: Raptors @ Nets, March 12

The long list of firsts and bests and new franchise records the Toronto Raptors have set this year seems to grow by the day. That will be even more true as the Raptors approach the finish line, doing so with 49 wins already under their belt and a commanding 3.5-game lead atop the Eastern Conference.

They have already clinched a playoff spot. On Tuesday, they can reach 50 wins with 15 games still to go. They have a legitimate shot at 60 wins, so much so that they may reach it while still getting key players rest down the stretch, although they do have a half-dozen or so stiff tests on the ledger. In the process, the Raptors have rarely left anything to doubt. They’re blowing teams out regularly, even when they don’t play strong 48-minute games. They’re 29-2 against teams under .500 and haven’t lost to one since Boxing Day.

Not that they’ve needed such reminders to win against lesser opponents, but video study for Tuesday’s game against the Brooklyn Nets was probably all of the reminder the Raptors needed to take care of business in appropriate fashion at Barclays. In the last meeting between the teams, the Nets forced overtime, and while the Raptors ultimately won, they lost Kyle Lowry to injury and put themselves at a disadvantage for a loss at home to the Miami Heat the next night. There’s no back-to-back here. Still, as the Raptors look to match the second-longest winning streak in team history at nine games, they’ll know the Nets are too high-effort a team to turn a sleepy performance against, lest the victory potentially be Pyrrhic.

The game tips off at 7:30 on TSN 1/4 and TSN 1050.

To help set the stage, I reached out to Anthony Puccio of Nets Daily, and he was kind enough to help us out.

Blake Murphy: So much talk around the NBA of late has centered on the seven-to-nine teams barrelling to the bottom of the standings for ping-pong balls in what’s become a mess of a tanking race. The Nets are in the mix there, but without their own pick. What has the experience been like this year, with the team initially playing a little better and some positive growth being shown but no “reward” or whatever for the process at the end? Is the internal growth enough on its own?

Anthony Puccio: It’s all about improvement and development for the young core, while trying to build a culture around them. Guys like D’Angelo Russell, Caris LeVert, Jarrett Allen, and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson have all gotten better under Kenny Atkinson. That’s what this season was about: Establishing a young core.

That said, you can’t sugarcoat the crappiness of the situation. You’re currently 3rd-to-last in the East and you don’t have your own pick. Sean Marks and Atkinson refuse to look in the past, but it’s kind of impossible not to.

Blake Murphy: The team is 3-17 over their last 20 after being much more competitive early on. What stopped working, or started working less?

Anthony Puccio: Injuries haven’t helped. Glue guys like Caris LeVert and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson were out for a good amount of those games, but this hasn’t been the main issue. It seems like teams know exactly what the Nets want to do after playing them once or twice before. Teams know you can’t take them lightly because they’re going to play you hard and they’re going to live and die by the three. They’ve become extremely predictable and they don’t have the personnel to suddenly switch their style of play. Call it Einstein’s Insanity, if you will.

Blake Murphy: Does Spencer Dinwiddie still have a good case for Most Improved Player? I worry that the initial buzz wearing off and some serious regression in his shooting may cause people to lose sight of the leap he took this year.

Anthony Puccio: I certainly think he does. His story is great and people fail to realize he’s only 24-years-old with room to grow. This is the first time in his career where he’s had to play an 82-game schedule. Fatigue is setting in and teams are adjusting the way they play him. But yeah, I think he should at least be in the conversation.

Blake Murphy: The Jahlil Okafor experiment is rolling along. He has a ludicrous minus-25.9 net rating. What have you seen from Okafor in his 300 minutes? Are you willing to take a longer look next year?

Anthony Puccio: I’d like to see what Okafor looks like after a full summer with Kenny Atkinson and the coaching staff. They’ve turned some marginal players into legitimate role players over the past two seasons. If they can get him cheap, it’d be hard to see them passing up on a no. 3 overall pick who’s only 22-years-old.

As for what I’ve seen this season? Potential in the post. But he has not been a good fit for the style of play Atkinson wants to run. He’ll need to improve his 3-point shot and learn to run the floor in the fast-paced offense. Rebounding and defense is a work in progress too.

Blake Murphy: What’s been your favorite part of the Nets season so far?

Anthony Puccio: It’s been tough but I really do enjoy this team. They’re a great group of young individuals who seem to be buying into what Brooklyn is all about. It’s been fun watching players like Jarrett Allen, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and Caris LeVert flourish in bigger roles. Otherwise, it’s been a pretty unfortunate season.

Raptors updates
There were no updates out of Raptors’ practice in New York on Monday, so we may not know the status of OG Anunoby until closer to game time (he’s listed as doubtful again). If he doesn’t go, Norman Powell or Malcolm Miller figure to start again, with the regular rotation doing what they can to make sure Nigel Hayes gets playing time again. Your 17th man could never. As a minor update, since Anunoby was hurt on Feb. 28, Miller has a plus-11.2 net rating in 62 minutes to plus-3.5 in 120 minutes for Powell. Powell’s minutes have been tougher, to be clear, but they’ve been enough to get his net rating back in the positive for the season. Remarkably, the Raptors have outscored opponents with every single player who’s been on the roster save for Malachi Richardson, who only got five minutes of ill-fated garbage time.

Oh, and if you were curious: DeMar DeRozan hasn’t missed a game and still only ranks 14th in minutes, Kyle Lowry is down in 43rd, and Serge Ibaka barely cracks the top 100. They’ll probably get an odd night off still with four back-to-backs left and a five-in-seven stretch. Even if they don’t, the Raptors have really done well keeping these minutes down.

PG: Kyle Lowry, Fred VanVleet, Delon Wrighr
SG: DeMar DeRozan
SF: Norman Powell, C.J. Miles, Malcolm Miller
PF: Serge Ibaka, Pascal Siakam, Nigel Hayes
C: Jonas Valanciunas, Jakob Poeltl, Lucas Nogueira
OUT: OG Anunoby
TBD: None
905: Malachi Richardson, Lorenzo Brown, Alfonzo McKinnie

Nets updates
The Nets have been in a bad way on the injury front most of the season but are in pretty good shape here. Jeremy Lin remains sidelined, but D’Angelo Russell has returned since the last time these teams played, as has DeMarre Carroll. Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and Caris LeVert, who have dealt with injuries at times, are also healthy here, giving Kenny Atkinson one of his deepest rotations of the year. The only question mark is Jarrett Allen, the intriguing rookie who is questionable due to a sore left foot. Considering he missed games with foot problems earlier in the year and the Nets have little reason to push him, the Raptors may be the first team to get a look at Jahlil Okafor – and his whopping negative net rating – as a starter.

All told, the Nets figure to only have one lineup available that’s played 100 minutes together, the projected starters (if Allen plays), who have played to a plus-2 net rating. There’s also a surprising Allen-and-bench group that’s outscored opponents by 9.1 points per-100 possessions in 73 minutes. Most of what the Nets will trot out is new and unfamiliar, but this is all to say that they’re not exactly a pushover, as the Raptors surely remember from January.

PG: Spencer Dinwiddie, Isaiah Whitehead
SG: D’Angelo Russell, Caris LeVert, Nik Stauskas
SF: Allen Crabbe, Joe Harris, Dante Cunningham
PF: DeMarre Carroll, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Quincy Acy
C: (Jarrett Allen), Jahlil Okafor, Timofey Mozgov
OUT: Jeremy Lin
TBD: Jarrett Allen
Long Island: Milton Doyle, James Webb III

The line
The Raptors are 9.5-point favorites with a 219 over-under. Toronto is 19-14 against the spread on the road and 6-2 against the spread during their current winning streak.

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