January was quite something, wasn’t it? After going through somewhat of an identity crisis during the first couple weeks of 2015, the Toronto Raptors have recently gotten out of their slump, winning six straight games to close out the first month of the year. It looked grim at first, but the Raps managed to come away relatively unscathed despite the struggles. A 9-7 record for January isn’t half bad when you consider the performance of the team during this rough patch. There’s been some tough defeats, but for the most part, the Raptors have taken care of business against the squads with records below the .500 mark. As they should. The latest victory however, came on Saturday night against of the best teams in the Eastern Conference – the Washington Wizards – in double overtime on the second night of a back-to-back. It wasn’t mistake-free, but it was still a huge win on the road.
Tonight, the Raps will look to carry this momentum into February as they host the 6th-seeded Milwaukee Bucks. Though Toronto has had its way with Milwaukee in the head-to-head matchup so far this season (2-0), these Bucks won’t be a mere pushover. Jason Kidd‘s team has been one of the pleasant surprises of this NBA season, and although they’ve faced some adversity in the form of injuries, they’ve accepted the challenge. The Bucks have coped with the unfortunate circumstances quite well, and (at this point in time) look like they’re on their way to snagging a playoff spot. Not bad. The Raps will have to fight to push this win streak to seven. A few things will need to be done in order to begin this five game pre-All-Star break homestand on a high note.
Cage’s Keys to the Game
Last time the Raptors met with the Bucks, Jonas Valanciunas dominated… until he was pinned to the bench for reasons that many of us tend to question. JV posted a double-double in the first half of the previous matchup, but as we’ve seen before, was seemingly forgotten in the game’s later stages. Valanciunas tends to have better games versus the slower, less mobile bigs in the league, so with Zaza Pachulia suiting up for the opposition, it’s difficult to imagine the Raptors starting center struggling to leave a positive impact on the court. The only things that could stop him: foul trouble and a lack of PT. If he is given substantial time on the floor and he avoids the ticky-tac calls, Valanciunas could be in for another huge night.
Keep the Rock Moving
For a good portion of the game versus the Wizards two nights ago, the Raptors ball movement was pretty darn remarkable. The drive and kick looks on offense nearly worked to perfection, particularly in the first half. The offense was clicking. The jumpers were falling, but the defense was kept honest by well-timed post isolation sets. Why did this work? Because there was a clear focus on moving the rock. When the Raptors got away from this in the fourth quarter, they only came away with 15 points for the frame. Hero-ball – combined with fatigue – worked to illustrate a clear drop in the amount of solid looks that the Raptors were able to generate. Last time out versus Milwaukee, the Raps finished with 92 points on 40% shooting. It was a great defensive effort, but the offense left much to be desired. Now we know what the Raptors can do when they’re clicking and the ball doesn’t stick. Let’s see which approach Toronto displays tonight.
The two most recent victories in this win streak have showed this team’s resiliency, yet they’ve also removed the #WeTheFourth hashtag from all of our tweets. One can only imagine how much it hurts the team to see games in limbo after playing well enough to come away with blowout Ws. The great starts to games are more than welcome, but the late-game intensity needs to be turned up a notch. Runs happen, everybody knows that. However, the response from the Raptors in these critical situations hasn’t been the greatest as of late. Gotta finish what you start. Can’t give away games when you’re jockeying for playoff positioning.
X-Factor: DeMar DeRozan
When the Raptors paid the Bucks a visit in Milwaukee two weeks ago, DeMar DeRozan was held scoreless. Giannis Antetokounmpo did a solid job in making nothing easy for the star Raptors swingman coming off a groin injury. Not only did DeRozan go 0/9 from the field, but he was only able to get to the charity stripe once. Weird. Expect DeRozan to be looking for some redemption after laying the fifth goose egg of his career the last time these teams met.