After narrowly edging out the New York Knicks on Saturday night, the Toronto Raptors will return home to face that other team from New York tonight – the Brooklyn Nets. The Raptors will be continuing to try to work Marc Gasol into the lineup, as he is set to make his Toronto debut at the Scotiabank Arena. Gasol was decent in his first appearance as a Raptor in New York with 7 points and 6 rebounds in 19 minutes of action. But clearly, the Knicks aren’t exactly prime competition in the East and Gasol was playing just over 48 hours after finding about his trade to Toronto, so there’s still ways to go in getting him fully incorporated.
At 6th place in the East currently, the Brooklyn Nets are easily one of the conference’s most fun teams in the lower tier of the playoff bracket; that’s obviously not saying much, but contrary to recent history, there are positive signs for a future in Brooklyn. With sound management and coaching in place, they’ve finally started forming solid grassroots as a developing franchise, and in a top-heavy conference, the Nets have positioned themselves for a playoff spot this year. So for the Raptors, that means that those 4 games every season against the Nets aren’t exactly walks in the park anymore.
Like the Raptors though, the Nets will also be trying to work in new bodies tonight – namely, Caris LeVert, who’ll be in his second game back since a gruesome foot injury kept him out for 42 games, and Alan Crabbe, who missed 26 games with a knee injury and returned to the lineup just 5 days ago. And after winning 6 in a row in mid-January, the Nets are coming off losses in 5 of their last 7 games, including on Friday night at home to the lowly Chicago Bulls. The return of LeVert gives them a potent wing scoring option again though, and with D’Angelo Russell playing at an all-star level, the Nets remain very solid.
For Nick Nurse, these last 25 games of the season should be about learning what sorts of lineups he can play in various situations. Acquiring Marc Gasol may be a talent upgrade, but it’s sort of a shock to the overall Raptors pecking order, since one of Gasol, Ibaka, or Siakam is left off the starters every night – and balancing the minute distribution on a night-to-night basis could get tricky for Nurse. The early solution looks like it will be to keep Gasol coming off the bench for now – but whether that’s truly a long-term solution is something that will need to be figured out.
A particularly encouraging sign for the Raptors against the Knicks on Saturday was the play of Kyle Lowry – whose 22 points and 5 assists was much needed, as Pascal and Kawhi had probably their worst shooting games of the season, going a combined 7/28 from the field. Kyle has averaged over four 3-pointers a game over the past three games and is showing some signs of his early-season all-star form. It’ll be interesting to see how Lowry gels with newly-acquired Gasol, whose play-making abilities out of the post can take a lot of pressure off Kyle. As Lowry’s offense continues to come and go this season, Gasol’s offensive synergy with Kyle and Kawhi will be critical.
With no more Delon Wright in the picture, the Raptors will have less size at the point guard position for the rest of the season, so matchups against bigger, dynamic points guards, like the 6’ 5’’ D’Angelo Russell tonight, will make things especially challenging for Kyle and Fred at the point of attack. The newly-minted all-star Russell is streaky and has caused the Raptors headaches in the past, so keeping his 38% 3-point shooting under control will be key. It’s not just D’Angelo that can shoot it though – the Raptors will also have to watch for Joe Harris and Allan Crabbe, who shoot it at 45% and 40 from the outside respectively. The Nets overall are fifth in the league in three-point production, with just over 12 makes a game.
Kawhi will obviously be looking to get back on track tonight, so I’d expect Nick Nurse to run a few sets through Leonard to start the game. His offense is usually independent of the rest of the Raptors anyway, so his opportunities will come during the course of the game regardless. Kawhi’s shooting over 49% from the floor this season, and the Nets just don’t have the personnel to match up against Leonard in isolation, so I fully expect him to bounce back in a big way tonight.
Tip-off: 7:30 pm
TV: Sportsnet One
Likely starting lineups:
Nets: D’Angelo Russell, Joe Harris, Rodions Kurucs, Treveon Graham, Jarrett Allen.
Raptors: Kyle Lowry, Danny Green, Kawhi Leonard, Pascal Siakam, Serge Ibaka
The Line: The Raptors are 10.5 point favorites, with the over/under at 226.5.
Former Raptor DeMarre Carroll remains doubtful for tonight’s contest with a sore knee, and Spencer Dinwiddie remains out after a recent right thumb surgery.
The Raptors will be looking to take a 2-1 lead in the season series, with the first two games being split earlier this season. The Nets beat the Raptors back on December 7 in Brooklyn – a game that ended in overtime, in which Kawhi’s 32 points wasn’t enough – but the Raptors responded with a blowout win at home a month later. If Toronto is going to continue to chase down the Bucks for the first seed in the East, winnable home games have to be won so that tough road games can be lost … so that means taking care of business in games like tonight.