Two of the league’s top teams go head-to-head in Toronto tonight as both the Raptors and Heat hope to put disappointing loses behind them (albeit for different reasons) and get back into the win column.
Toronto ended Tuesday with a relative blowout overtime loss to the Miami Heat, a team with striking similarities to the Raptors themselves (tough defence, good shot selection, well coached, deep, etc.), while the Rockets lost to the Spurs by 2 (135-133 in double overtime) in a game they will likely protest with the NBA.
Houston held an 8 point lead with roughly 8 minutes remaining in the fourth when James Harden’s transition dunk was missed by the refs (quickly popped back around by the net), and Mike D’Antoni failed to challenge the call within the allotted 30 seconds. Based on reports the Rockets sound likely to appeal to the league and believe they have a good chance to be awarded the win (comical) or to replay the final 8-ish minutes of the game (possible).
The league decision in regards to Tuesday’s disappointment for the Rockets has no actual bearing on tonight’s game, but it is still important to discuss. Houston for many entered the season as one of the league’s top contenders for an NBA Championship with the acquisition of Russell Westbrook, and to date have been wildly inconsistent.
Winning just 3 of their first 6 games was concerning, but even the wins themselves did not give much to be encouraged by. For example, a 159-158 victory (regulation!) over the Wizards is certainly something that should cast a shadow over a defence.
The Rockets then proceeded to win 8 straight games with James Harden leading the way with a near record stretch of scoring. On the season Harden is currently averaging just a shade under 40 points at 39.5 per game (on 24.8 field goal attempts and 14.9 free throw attempts per game).
Only two other players are averaging more than 30 points per game, with Giannis Antetokounmpo at 30.8 and Luka Doncic at 30.7. Harden is separated from both by almost a full 8 points per game.
Yet with the loss to San Antonio on Tuesday with Harden scoring 50, Houston has now followed their 8 game winning streak by losing four of their last 6.
The best way to describe the Rockets to date is that they are inconsistent but still very dangerous, especially with Harden scoring the way he is.
Toronto will have their hands full in trying to slow down an elite scorer putting up numbers that are even great for him. Rotations will need to be tight, doubles will need to be timely, and recovery to shooters will need to be fast. Harden has the ability to manipulate defences in so many ways, whether it be with his patented step-back jumper or his creation for others (currently 7th in the league at 7.8 assists per game).
OG Anunoby has had some success against Harden and will likely be his primary defender, having the size/strength combination to defend Harden on the drive, and the timing/reach to try and bother his shot. He will of course need to be very careful in trying to limit Harden’s opportunities from the free throw line, where Harden has hit more free throws this year (298) than any other player has even attempted.
As a refresher though, OG was given the unenviable task of defending Harden in the very first start of his career and exceeded all expectations:
Outside of slowing down Harden, the Raptors have their own issues to fix from Tuesday night’s loss. While Lowry certainly had some positives to his return performance such as 12 assists, the Raptors will need more than his 0-for-11 shooting performance from deep.
Toronto had found a nice groove during the absences of Lowry and Ibaka to injury, but the reintegration is a work in progress. Players need to alter their roles, and strike a new balance between letting the game come to them and being aggressive.
It’s unclear how much of that contributed to Pascal Siakam’s tentativeness against Bam Adebayo (and other Heat players), but the Raptors need more from their top scorer. PJ Tucker is certainly a stout defender himself, but Toronto will need Siakam to use his speed and size advantage to exploit Tucker when given the chance.
Houston is built to win the high scoring games as the third best offensive (113.4 OffRtg) across the association, but their 16th ranked defence (108.5 DefRTG) will need to be exploited by the Raptors.
The Rockets play the third fastest pace in the league, a far cry from last year where they were the fourth slowest, but they are among the best at taking care of the basketball and limiting turnovers.