Boy, will the Raptors be glad to be home for a few games. Putting the tough road trip behind them (that flight from Orlando to Cleveland for a back-to-back is no joke), Toronto will open up a three-game homestand as they prepare to improve on their league-best 29–6 home record against the lowly Brooklyn Nets.
At this point, the Raptors are likely safe in that top spot of the East standings, with the Boston Celtics sitting four-and-a-half games back and dealing with an assortment of injuries. But if Toronto really wants to go for 60 wins, they’ll have to beat the teams they’re supposed to beat, like the Nets, to get there. So far, that hasn’t been an issue—since 2018 began, the Raptors haven’t lost to any team with a record of .500 or below.
Still, the Nets haven’t been a pushover for the Raptors this season. In their first meeting, the game went to overtime, and in the second D’Angelo Russell kicked things off by draining seven of his initial eight shots from long range. Anything could happen this time around and it would be tough to be shocked. But it’s been a while since the Raptors have had a comfortable win, and this is a good setup to snatch one and gain some extra rest for the older guys.
The game tips off at 7:30PM ET on Sportsnet One and TSN 1050.
Joshua Howe: The Nets are sitting 13th in the East and, because the Cavaliers own their lottery pick, won’t be getting much out of it. Therefore, there’s no reason for the Nets to tank like many other bad teams are doing, and so they’re looking for answers in other places. Those answers have come from a smart trade or two and, like the Raptors, digging into the G-League for developing talent. How hopeful are you that the Nets can build inwardly and find/cultivate more talent like Caris LeVert?
Nicholas LeTourneau: I am very confident that they can build internally. Kenny Atkinson has an extensive history of developing players. He was one of the primary architects of those super successful Atlanta teams from a few years ago by unlocking the potential of Al Horford and DeMarre Carroll (which lead to Toronto giving him that giant contract), brought out the best in Jeremy Lin for his Linsanity ride in New York, and turned Brook Lopez into a very good three-point shooter.
Guys like Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and Joe Harris have improved exponentially under him. Rondae was an energy guy with no jumper when he entered the league but now he has a reliable midrange jumper and is the key to Brooklyn’s pace. Harris looks like Korver-lite from deep while also becoming an incredible finisher around the rim.
Last season the Nets drafted a hometown guy in Isaiah Whitehead but couldn’t develop him too much because of the Lin injury. This season Whitehead has spent most of it in the G-League and has really improved his game as at almost every level. Some point to his being out of the rotation as a negative, but I think it is the opposite. Whitehead is going to be in for a big year next season.
Joshua Howe: Back in December, the Nets took a flyer on Jahlil Okafor and Canadian Nik Stauskas in a trade with the Sixers. Unfortunately, neither have shown out in the minutes they’ve gotten and, last time out against Toronto, Kenny Atkinson even chose to play Dante Cunningham over Okafor at center despite Jarrett Allen being out. With the offseason looming, Okafor is heading into free agency and Stauskas has a potential qualifying offer to be looked at. Do you think we’ll see either player with Brooklyn next season?
Nicholas LeTourneau: I feel like Jahlil Okafor is similar to Derrick Rose, in that he does just enough to get his fans talking about him and remembering the good ole days but then disappears from the rotation. I was excited for Jahlil when they made the trade, but he has been a disappointment to me. He is very slow, doesn’t defend quick bigs, and is a black hole whenever the ball gets to him.
Brooklyn’s offense is based on the ball flying all around the floor and playing inside-out. Whenever Jahlil touches the ball, no matter where he is on the floor, he tries to take a shot. It doesn’t matter if he is on the low block, at the top of the key, early in the shot clock, or late. The chances that both Brett Brown *and* Kenny Atkinson are wrong about him are slim to none in my eyes. Unless the Nets get him for a song, I don’t see him returning.
Stauskas on the other hand fits the system well. He passes, he’s athletic, he can shoot, and he fits the tallish guard mold that Kenny Atkinson and Sean Marks like to have. I am not sure why he has fallen out of the rotation as of late, but I see a lot of potential in him on this roster and under Kenny Atkinson’s development. Depending on how things shake out in free agency and in the draft, I think we could see him in a Brooklyn uniform next season.
Joshua Howe: Speaking of young talent, Jarrett Allen has quietly been a lot better than most thought he’d be and is looking like quite the steal after being selected 22nd overall in the 2017 draft. We’ve all seen the poster dunk on his fellow rookie Lauri Markkanen, but Raptors fans probably haven’t watched much of him this season, especially since he was out with injury last matchup. How would you describe Allen to someone who doesn’t know much about him?
Nicholas LeTourneau: The Nets were very high on Allen in the pre-draft process. He was 10 on their big board and it isn’t hard to see why. Allen is highly intelligent, an incredible human being, and is oozing potential on the court. He is the son of an engineer at Dell Computers, builds computers in his spare time, and is always doing something in the community to give children real-life skills.
For Thanksgiving, he took a bunch of kids shopping for dinner supplies but gave each kid an allowance and turned it into an opportunity to teach them about budgeting and what it takes to run a household. A few weeks ago he hosted a small group of children interested in engineering and had them build wearable technology for him. I could talk about how great of a person he is all day long.
On the court, he is just as good. He has hit the rookie wall in the past few weeks, but he is extremely effective in the pick-and-roll. He only takes good shots and plays within himself. He has an expanding jump shot and I wouldn’t be shocked if in a couple seasons he is shooting threes like Brook Lopez was last season. He is a good rim protector but is a few years away from reaching his full potential. He needs to iron out his low post game and gain 15–20 pounds to not get pushed around in the paint, but the Nets have another cornerstone piece in Jarrett Allen. I’d say he is just as important to this team’s future as D’Angelo Russell or Caris LeVert.
Joshua Howe: When the Raptors brought in Masai Ujiri, a lot of things changed, but the number one thing was the hope that he could instil a winning culture for a franchise that had only ever had brief tastes of it. In Brooklyn, Sean Marks seems to be in a similar position, taking on the task of rebuilding a team that left itself decimated under Billy King. How would you grade Marks’ performance so far?
Nicholas LeTourneau: Grading Sean Marks is always going to be tough because he essentially had to lift the Titanic up from the bottom of the ocean. The winning culture hasn’t come just yet, but Marks has done an excellent job of always having draft picks and finding talent in unlikely places. Caris LeVert was a steal, signing Spencer Dinwiddie out of the D-League was genius, bringing in Jeremy Lin was smart because of all he’s done in the locker room, Jarrett Allen will also go down as a steal, and having faith in Joe Harris will pay off. A lot has gone right even if it hasn’t translated to wins on the court.
One area a lot of fans aren’t the happiest with is how he has filled the books with dead money. People really don’t like Allen Crabbe’s contract, which Marks is directly responsible for. People are dismayed at how much money Timofey Mozgov is getting, even if he was the price to get D’Angelo Russell away from the Lakers. I am far from a cap expert, but if the Nets can go out and sign Julius Randle for $15 million a year like Bobby Marks says they can, I’d call it a huge win.
Marks’ grade right now is an “I” for incomplete. First year was a wash because he was in recovery mode—this year we got to get a look at what the future might hold. After next season I’ll be more comfortable to give him a grade because the Nets will be out of excuses. They will have had picks in every draft, they will have had the chance to get free agents, and more importantly they will control their own destiny because their first round pick will be theirs.
Joshua Howe: As Raptors fans can attest, it’s not easy to be diehard about a franchise that finds itself stuck in a multi-year slog at the bottom of the East. What’s been your personal silver lining with the Nets this season?
Nicholas LeTourneau: My personal silver lining has been seeing both the growth of the core pieces and what the team is going for.
D’Angelo Russell is clearly going to be a very good player in this league and is getting more comfortable in the offense with every game. Once he can figure out the mental aspects of things, the East is going to be on notice. Caris LeVert went from being a risky investment to looking like the perfect compliment next to Russell with his budding scoring abilities, facilitating, and defending. Rondae Hollis-Jefferson has been extremely consistent following his return from injury pre-all star break and looks like an incredible utility player that is one consistent three-point shot away from being extremely valuable. Jarrett Allen has been a pleasant surprise for all the reasons I mentioned above. Even the unexpected emergence of Spencer Dinwiddie will only help in the long run. He doesn’t fit next to Russell, but he will be a great off the bench leader or a great trade piece in the offseason to a team desperate for a consistent facilitator.
Kenny Atkinson is trying to make this team the Houston Rockets of the East. Houston takes a ton of threes, layups, and very few midrange jumpers. Brooklyn does the same. Houston has a dynamic scoring guard that is also a key facilitator in James Harden—D’Angelo Russell is often compared to him and could one day be a very similar player. The Nets are a long way away from being Houston East, but you can start to see the bare bones of Brooklyn’s plans.
The Raptors fought valiantly against the Cavaliers on Wednesday, but their fatigue was evident. That’s not atypical at this point in the season (especially with the schedule Toronto has had), and as such the team has been resting players here and there, with Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan already having had a night off each. One has to assume that the same will happen soon for guys like Jakob Poeltl and Serge Ibaka, the latter of whom has looked especially lead-footed over the last few games.
There hasn’t been official word yet on C.J. Miles, who missed the game against Cleveland due to illness. Pity, too, as he would’ve felt right at home in that shootout. Fred VanVleet looked good in his return against the Cavs, his release as wonky and effective as ever despite the injury to his hand that kept him sidelined for two games. The bench definitely missed the intangibles he brings—please never leave again, Freddy.
PG: Kyle Lowry, Fred VanVleet, Delon Wright
SG: DeMar DeRozan
SF: OG Anunoby, Norman Powell, (C.J. Miles), Malcolm Miller
PF: Serge Ibaka, Pascal Siakam, Nigel Hayes
C: Jonas Valanciunas, Jakob Poeltl, Lucas Nogueira
TBD: C.J. Miles
905: Malachi Richardson, Lorenzo Brown, Alfonzo McKinnie
As has been noted plenty of times this season, the Nets have dealt with a plethora of injuries that just never seem to fully go away. However, they should be in pretty decent shape for this game, with all players available except for Jeremy Lin and (potentially) Dante Cunningham, who is listed as day-to-day with a concussion. That means the Raptors will see more of bouncy rookie Jarrett Allen, who didn’t play in the last meeting between the two clubs.
The Nets are 2–1 over their last three games, and certainly aren’t a team to be taken lightly for a Raptors club that has just played 10 games over the last 16 days and is visibly exhausted. The Nets will enjoy playing spoiler for the rest of the season, and led by D’Angelo Russell, who dropped 32 against Toronto (24 in the first quarter!) last time out, they have a chance to do just that every time they step on the hardwood.
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: Dante Cunningham
Long Island: Milton Doyle, James Webb III
The Raptors are 12-point favourites with a 221.5 over-under.