Don’t look now, but the path to the Atlantic Division title doesn’t seem like it’s going to be a cakewalk for the Toronto Raptors anymore. Suddenly, the Brooklyn Nets are arguably the hottest squad in the Association, and they’re slowly but surely starting to look like a decent team again.
Since the calendar turned the page into 2014, Brooklyn has had an undefeated 5-0 record— posting wins over the Oklahoma City Thunder, Cleveland Cavaliers, Atlanta Hawks, Golden State Warriors, and Miami Heat. That’s 5-0 versus teams with a combined record of 112-73. This isn’t to say that the Raptors recent run of winning 6 of their past 8 games doesn’t deserve it’s own credit, but rather to keep in mind that Brooklyn will be coming into town with a ton of confidence that has been built up over the past week or so. To keep the Nets (15-21) at bay in the division standings, Toronto (17-17) has to bring it tonight.
Here are the Cage’s 5 Keys to the Game:
Dictate the Tempo:
Those who watched Brooklyn take down the Miami Heat last night may have noticed how Jason Kidd elected to go with a relatively small lineup for a good portion of the game. Often times it seemed as if Kevin Garnett was the only big on the floor for the Nets. Tonight, Dwane Casey has a decision to make: play traditional or play small ball? Either way, I’m hoping that the Raptors coach elects to dictate the pace of the game with the lineups he throws onto the floor (if possible), instead of simply matching up with the five players J-Kidd rolls with. Don’t get me wrong, if the Nets are successful in using a small lineup tonight, Casey must adjust. However, I’d like to see the lineups used by Toronto take the driver’s seat tonight. With Brook Lopez out for the year, maybethe Raptors could try going big in an effort to control the paint. Make Brooklyn feel uncomfortable out there!
Don’t Wait Until the 2nd Half:
As we saw on Wednesday night against the Detroit Pistons, the Raptors have had their fair share games where the first 24 minutes haven’t been very great for them. Fortunately, the second half effort that this team has fought with over the past bit has been pretty remarkable. People around the league are taking notice, and it’s been said on numerous occasions that the Raptors only trail the Heat and the Indiana Pacers when it comes to fourth quarter points margin. This is all great, but it’d be foolish to rely on late game heroics every night. By jumping on the Nets early, the Raptors could set a tone that can last majority of the game.
Handle ‘The Truth’:
The Raptor wing players could have their hands full tonight against the savvy veteran Paul Pierce. He may be older, but “The Truth” still has a few tricks up his sleeve that he can pull out at any moment. However, Toronto hasn’t played in three days and Pierce was on the floor against the defending champs less than 24 hours ago. Pierce should have to work for everything tonight— nothing easy.
Contain ‘Iso Joe’:
Joe Johnson dropped 22 against the Heat on nickname night… in the first quarter. He finished the game with 32. The Raptors cannot let Johnson get too hot from the field— when he is, he’s definitely a game changer. As per this particular nickname (which he didn’t use last night for some reason), Joe Johnson can flourish in isolation situations, but he can also hurt his team in those particular sets as well (sound familiar, Raptor fans?). A healthy mix of DeMar DeRozan, Terrence Ross, and John Salmons will likely be what Casey uses to slow Johnson down. These wings can’t afford to give Joe Johnson too much space— with Deron Williams out, “JJ” will get his shots up. The pressure has to be consisent.
“Take Care” of Business on Drake Night:
No Drake Night preview would be complete without some sort of reference to the global ambassador himself. Anyways, the Raptors need to build on their home play of late. If they win this one, they’ll be .500 at the ACC. The crowd should be electric, with the free OVO x Raptors (rebranding hint?) shirts and all. Limit Brooklyn’s runs, and get out on fast breaks if the opportunity is presented. Give the fans something to cheer for!
X-Factor: DeMar DeRozan
Expect DeRozan to have a bounce back game after putting up a 3 for 15 stinker against Detroit earlier this week. If he can continue to attack the basket and get to the charity stripe, the Raptors should be in good shape.