It’s game day in the snowy city as the Toronto Raptors are set to take on the reigning champion San Antonio Spurs at 7:00 pm EST. The Raptors (34-17) get their first look at the men in black this season and are fresh off a historic victory versus the Los Angeles Clippers. In that contest, Toronto became the first team in the shot clock era to flip a 15 point deficit into a 15 point lead on separate occasions. Pretty impressive. However, the Raps are currently in the midst of an incredibly daunting stretch of games, as they will reunite with the Washington Wizards before All-Star weekend and take on the Atlanta Hawks, Houston Rockets and New Orleans Pelicans soon after. The Spurs sit at a respectable 32-18 and are placed sixth in the Western Conference. As the home team has learned far too many times this year, you cannot take your opponent lightly in any circumstances. San Antonio consistently proves its comprehensive approach to winning year after year: fine-tuned ball movement and carefully considered defensive matchups are frequently cited as their keys to success. On a related note, coach Gregg Popovich is seeking his 1000th career win tonight. While I’m as big a fan of coach Pop as everyone else, I think he can wait just a few more nights before claiming that legendary mark. Let’s get into Cage’s Keys to the Game:
Don’t relax on D
As evidenced by the Spurs’ graceful disassembly of the Miami Heat in last year’s finals, they are a well-oiled machine capable of executing offensive dominance in both the fast break and halfcourt settings. There is no question that tonight’s opponents boast one of the most versatile and productive lineups in recent NBA history. Whether it’s the sly pick-and-roll action from Tony Parker, the deep-post schooling of Tim Duncan, the veteran prowess of Manu Ginobili or even the three-point threat of Matt Bonner, San Antonio is an offensive powerhouse. The Raptors have seen recent criticism for their lack of defensive effort coming out the gate and the failure to sustain a full 48 minutes of work. These points of weakness were drastically muted following the Clippers game, but may resurface again if there isn’t a collective effort tonight. Stay sharp on D and you’ll have a fighting chance.
Leave it all on the floor
It’s hard to forget that your opponents are the reigning champions. Ignoring tonight, there is just one more game until the long-awaited All-Star break. While Kyle Lowry will have his hands full with the annual festivities, the rest of his team gets a much-needed vacation. It’s absolutely imperative that Toronto starts and ends the game with tenacity on every play. The team picked up its confidence after Friday’s victory, and it must carry over in order to see continued success. In specific terms, look for tight perimeter defense and relentless rebounding battles. San Antonio ranks sixth in three point percentage and fifth in total rebounds per game. Ironically enough, the Raptors will need a champion’s mindset to pull this one off and build momentum for the coming weeks.
Kawhi Leonard is not a one hit wonder. The current Finals MVP leads his team in scoring (at a modest 15.9 PPG) and is a central figure in its nightly offense. The emerging big man is a threat inside and outside the paint. His off-ball movement is precise. He is a proficient rebounder. There’s nothing left to say here other than: STOP THAT MAN!
X-Factor: James Johnson
Surprise, surprise. JJ returned last game from a brief hamstring injury and played a key role in his team’s success. The energetic forward is undoubtedly beneficial to the Raps’ offensive hustle and defensive lockdown. Just put him in the game, Dwane Casey.