Pre-Game

Gameday: Nets @ Raptors, Jan. 11

How many positions will Siakam guard tonight?

Mary Altaffer/Associated Press

It’s not often that both teams facing each other are coming off wins over the same opponent but that’s the case tonight as both the Toronto Raptors and Brooklyn Nets are fresh off wins over the Atlanta Hawks.  While the Raptors came away with a late victory that needed consecutive stops from Kawhi Leonard, the Nets possibly took advantage of some heavy legs on a second night of a back-to-back for Atlanta and won 116-100.

That puts the Nets at an impressive 13-4 since a 106-105 overtime victory over the Raptors, but they’ve got murderer’s row ahead in Toronto, Boston and Houston up next. From a point differential standpoint, they’ve been a 49-win team since Dec. 7, ranking eight in offense and 15th in defense, per Cleaning the Glass.

Offensively, while they’ve stayed true to the modern day shot spectrum, the Nets are shooting 46.8 percent between 14 feet and the three-point line, tops in the league. While everyone has become aware of their desire to take threes and paint twos early and often, they’ve shown over the course of this winning stretch that if you fly out at them on the perimeter, they’re not afraid to step inside and take the uncontested two. On the defensive end, they’ve been great at closing out possessions with a rebound and have the best free-throw rate allowed.

“They are one of the biggest surprises. I think you’ve got a couple other ones that are in there, always a handful of teams,” Nurse said after practice Thursday. “They’ve got a pretty good system. They work hard to play within that system. There are five out, drive it hard, shoot-the-three system. They’ve got a pretty succinct defensive idea to what they’re doing. They’ve trusted it, went with it. Obviously guys have bought in. They’ve got a couple nice little additions to complement the guys that they’ve developed.”

That the Nets have done this without Caris LeVert is what truly stands out. The third-year player was averaging 18.4 points, 4.3 rebounds, 3.7 assists and 1.2 steals before his Nov. 12 injury against the Minnesota Timberwolves. Jarrett Allen has been steady throughout but has turned heads with his one-man zone. Against bigs who are even slightly hesitant to shoot the ball from any kind of distance, Allen has completely ignored them and focused on protecting the paint. If he looks to do the same against Serge Ibaka, Toronto’s skill-ball center is going to have to show why he’s been given the starting job.

D’Angelo Russell has also improved his play, but no one on that roster has taken over the headlines like Spencer Dinwiddie. The six-foot-six guard out of Colorado averaged 20 points and six assists for the month of December and his emergence as their closer is what has sparked a turnaround in their crunch time performance after some inexplicable fourth quarter collapses through the first couple of months of the season. Keep an eye out for former Raptor DeMarre Carroll, who’s averaging 18.8 points and 4.6 rebounds while knocking down 17-of-32 shots from beyond the arc over the past five games.

This will mark Game 23 that Kawhi Leonard and Kyle Lowry play together this season, while Danny Green is expected to return after a rest day against the Hawks. Lowry has averaged 14 points, seven assists and 3.5 steals over the two games he’s played and has looked perfectly comfortable taking charges and bringing back a better flow to the Raptors offense, but it’d be nice to get his shot going again. Shooting just 32.5 percent on the season, Lowry has hit just 5-of-15 from deep since his return including this particularly ugly miss after a Leonard kick-out late in the fourth quarter.

The encouraging part here is that Leonard has been making more of those passes of late, collecting 17 assists over his past three games. There is clearly a growing sense of chemistry between him and Pascal Siakam, and things between him and Ibaka have looked quite rosy for a while. While those assist numbers may not be there every night going forward, the fact that he’s making those reads and understanding where his teammates are better is encouraging.

“The rust is gone, the rhythm is getting better,” Nurse said when asked about Leonard after Thursday’s practice. “I’m going to say this again, and I think you guys would agree with me, I think there’s a heck of a lot more to come here. I see him throwing another gear up here. I see him getting more comfortable. I see his catch-and-shoot 3 game coming back a little bit more here, slowly. I think there’s a little notch we’re going to see here. That’s pretty exciting.”

Off the court, the Raptors took some time during this home stand to visit The Hospital for Sick Children and while it’s always great to see them take time out for the local community, this annual visit is always particularly heartwarming.

GAME INFO

Time: 7:30 p.m. ET / 4:30 p.m. PT.
TV: Sportsnet ONE. Radio: Sportsnet 590 The Fan.

RAPTORS UPDATES

Jonas Valanciunas participated in “60-70 percent” of drills in practice on Thursday, according to Nick Nurse, sporting a new red splint on his left thumb. The team anticipates him being out another four weeks but his head coach does believe he’s ahead of schedule.

PG: Kyle Lowry, Fred VanVleet, Delon Wright
SG: Danny Green, Norman Powell
SF: Kawhi Leonard, C.J. Miles
PF: Pascal Siakam, OG Anunoby
C: Serge Ibaka, Greg Monroe, Chris Boucher
OUT: Jonas Valanciunas

NETS UPDATES

There has been no update on Caris LeVert’s dislocated right foot since Dec. 14, when it was reported that he had begun some on-court work and remains on track to return this season.  There is no target date for his return. Rondae-Hollis Jefferson meanwhile has missed the past five games with a strained right adductor and is not expected to return for this game while Allen Crabbe is expected to be re-evaluated in a week or so as he recovers from a bruised fat pad in his right knee. Jared Dudley has been ruled out with a left hamstring injury.

PG: D’Angelo Russell, Shabazz Napier
SG: Joe Harris, Spencer Dinwiddie
SF: Rodions Kurucs, Treveon Graham
PF: DeMarre Carroll, Kenneth Faried
C: Jarrett Allen, Ed Davis
OUT: Caris LeVert, Rondae-Hollis Jefferson, Allen Crabbe, Jared Dudley, Dzanan Musa

THE LINE

The Raptors are 9.5-point favorites and the over/under is set at 221.

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