The playoff bound Toronto Raptors look to build on their recent success with a Monday night date against James Harden and the Houston Rockets. Toronto (43-30), clinched their second straight Atlantic division title in a 94-83 rout of the Los Angeles Lakers but still have eyes set on solidifying if not improving their current seeding in the Eastern Conference. If the season were to end today, the Raptors would host the Washington Wizards in the opening round, not the best of matchups but certainly a winnable one. All the more reason to keep winning, especially with an easy schedule.
A victory over the Rockets won’t come easy though. Houston, winners of seven out of their past 10 games, are one of the tougher outs in the Western Conference and now have a healthy Dwight Howard back in the fold. Furthermore, they have a roster and personnel advantage over Toronto in light of Kyle Lowry’s back spasms, who is currently out indefinitely and has no timetable for his return. In their last meeting, the Rockets cruised over the Raptors in a 98-76 win so look for tonight’s contest to be a bit more competitive and spirited.
Fear the Beard
It all stars and ends with the beard. What else can you say about the MVP favourite? The league’s second leading scorer is averaging a godly 27.2 points per game, 7.0 assists, 5.8 boards on a ridiculous .440% shooting. Harden also boasts a standard bearing PER (player efficient rating) at 26.79 and remains one of the better slashers and scorers in the game. Forwards James Johnson or Terrence Ross have a tall order ahead in guarding the 25-year-old superstar.
The aforementioned Harden is one of the best at getting to the line, which is a big reason why the Rockets rank fifth overall in free throws attempted per game (24.7), trailing both the Raptors and Chicago Bulls. The beard, Howard and emerging big man Terrence Jones average 19.7 free throws per outing so it’s important to foul smart for all 48 minutes. Don’t let Harden and co. settle into a groove with free points at the charity stripe.
Not to beat a dead horse, but the Raptors have been absolutely terrible in March and for that matter February. They have done their due diligence in overpowering sub .500 teams, yet have struggled mightily against teams with winning records. The Raptors’ last home win against a tier one squad? February 11th when Toronto squeaked out a 95-93 victory against the Wizards. The team needs to awake up from their mid-season coma and feed off the crowd energy at the Air Canada Centre. Only nine games are left, three of which are at home.
X-Factor: Louis Williams
Williams had a fantastic outing against the Lakers scoring 18 points and dishing out four assists on .462% shooting. The backcourt is razor thin due to Lowry’s time off and the Georgia native will be counted on heavily for scoring going forward. Williams is averaging 15.0 ppg over five games and could go off at any time.