The Toronto Raptors are set to take on the surging Oklahoma City Thunder tonight at Chesapeake Arena. Toronto (38-24) has dropped seven of its last ten and looks to pick up the pieces against a daunting opponent. In light of reigning-MVP Kevin Durant‘s recent absence due to a nagging foot injury, Russell Westbrook has taken charge and absolutely dominated. The veteran guard is averaging an astounding 33.7 PPG, 10.6 APG and 10.0 RPG over the last 10 games. Westbrook has been more than a source of energy and production this season- he indisputably betters his teammates on both ends of the floor and refuses to let OKC slip into Western Conference purgatory. The Raps are still stuck in the disappointing slump which began after the All-Star break. Since Kyle Lowry‘s standout first half of the season, the ailing floor general’s numbers have dropped off and impacted his team’s performance. Conversely, prior to Friday’s loss to the Charlotte Hornets, DeMar DeRozan was the subject of much criticism due to his questionable shot selection and poor nightly output. Although DeRozan and Lowry bounced back against Charlotte with a combined 55 points, the rest of the team failed to provide scoring support or any sort of offensive supplementation.. There have been a number of proposed explanations for Toronto’s last few week of struggle, but fatigue is surely the most plausible. Regardless, after two days of rest, the squad should come out with at least some energy tonight. We can pray, right? Let’s go over Cage’s Keys to the Game.
(Don’t) Wake up Mr. Westbrook
Okay, that was a weak reference to a classic Kanye West song. What I’m alluding to here is the concerning volatility of Russ. You saw the numbers. You know his reputation. There’s no reason for Westbrook to continue his quest for league domination tonight. Hopefully Dwane Casey listens to well-versed Twitter experts and implements acceptable rotations for all 48 minutes. This team could certainly benefit from extended minutes for James Johnson and Jonas Valanciunas. Both men are threats on defense and can force OKC to make offensive changes away from Westbrook. If the ball isn’t in his hands, he can’t hurt us.
Casey’s perplexing decision to sit Valanciunas in the entire second and fourth quarters on Friday left nearly all Raptor fans in shock. The emerging big man has shown marked improvement and efficiency whenever he takes the floor, yet he is forced to sit for crucial moments. The expansion of small-ball too-often backfires on the Raps and results in a loss. Should JV receive respectable minutes tonight, there’s no doubting his team’s chances. He impacts the games with consistent post play and rim protection. Just put him in, coach.
Hoard the boards
It’s as simple as this: Toronto was outrebounded 32-56 against Charlotte. Following a shameful showing like that, there will certainly be changes tonight. Whether it comes in the form of rotations or a renewed sense of hustle, this team has to make a concerted effort to rebound. OKC’s newly acquired center Enes Kanter is coming into his own this season, while Serge Ibaka remains a defensive monster. Both bigs will make you pay on the glass, so there must be an enhanced focus on boards.
X-factor: Greivis Vasquez
Vasquez will more than likely be tasked with guarding Westbrook in the contest. The backup guard hasn’t been relentlessly horrible during this slump, but we all know he can bring more to the table than transition threes and alternating facial hair styles. It starts with constant defensive pressure on one of the league’s top MVP candidates. Seriously this guy is an absolute beast. Good luck Greivis