8:00 PM EST, ESPN – Line: Toronto -11
Atlantic Division rivals meet in a rematch of an epic, seven-game First Round Series, as the Toronto Raptors host the struggling Brooklyn Nets tonight at Air Canada Centre. After a rough Offseason featuring an ugly coaching change, the Nets (10-13) have struggled mightily in the early goings of this term, dropping ten out of fourteen contests at one point. How dire have things become for Brooklyn you ask? A little over a month into the season, and Management has already hung a For Sale sign on a number of their star players, as the likes of Deron Williams, Brook Lopez, and Joe Johnson have all been made readily available for the right price. Then again, when you have a roster due $94.5 million this year alone, which is a good $20 million over the Salary Cap, and you’re just three games under .500, it’s very understandable that a firesale is in the works. Taking a sabbatical last year, Lionel Hollins has returned to the sidelines only to dive head-first into a virtually untenable situation, trying to make some sense out of a ludicrously expensive roster that has been riddled by not just the Salary Cap, but injuries as well. The oft-injured Lopez has missed the past five games due to a strained back, which is very disheartening after the seven-footer missed all but seventeen games a year ago with a broken bone in his foot. And to pile on, swingman Mirza Teletovic is expected to miss tonight’s game due to ill-effects from a hip-pointer suffered earlier in the week. Compounding matters, is the release of Andrei Kirilenko, leaving the rotation dangerously thin on the wings. So on the second night of a back-to-back, the question remains whether or not Hollins’ charges will have the energy to compete with the younger, explosive Raptors, who will be looking for revenge after last year’s defeat in the Playoffs.
As bad as Brooklyn has played thus far, there is one silver lining that they can take solace in; they play in the unbelievably mediocre Eastern Conference. Only six teams in the conference boast winning records, and though they can’t count themselves among that “esteemed” clientele, the Nets would be in the postseason if it happened to start today. However, it doesn’t, and there is a lot of time between now and mid-April, and with so many players on the market, there is no telling what this team will look like at that juncture, or even in a week for that matter. The optimism built on the strength of back-to-back blowout victories over the lowly 76ers (88-70) and Hornets (114-97) was spoiled by a 95-91 defeat at home against the Miami Heat. It must have felt like deja vu for many members of the Nets, who succumbed to the dreaded “five-game sweep” in last year’s Eastern Conference Semifinals; after a near three-hour delay due to a leak in the roof, the Heat jumped out to an early 33-25 advantage at the end of the First Quarter, and never looked back, as the hosts struggled on 39.0% shooting from the field, including a miserable 8-of-28 from beyond the arc (28.6%). It was an odd game, as Hollins saw his team, assist on 25 of their 30 made field goals, outscore Miami 16-10 in transition, 38-26 in the paint, and go to the charity stripe six more times, netting three more freebies. However, they simply didn’t make enough shots, as leading scorers Williams and Johnson combined to shoot a sub-par 10-of-26 from the floor. Granted, the hosts outscored their opponent 25-19 in the final stanza, but at that point it was just a case of too little too late. Center Mason Plumlee enjoyed a solid performance in a losing effort, posting a team-best 21 points on 8-of-12 shooting, along with nine rebounds (five offensive), an assist, a block, and a steal. But that’s been the problem with this team throughout the campaign; they are a sluggish offensive unit, and that’s being kind. Don’t get us wrong, Hollins is a very good basketball coach, but his forte is on the defensive end. By no means is he renowned for his prowess on the offensive end of court; if he was, then he never would have been relieved of his duties in Memphis two years ago. Through twenty-fives games, the Nets have averaged a league-low 96.4 points on 44.6% shooting from the field (21st overall), including 48.0% from within the arc (22nd overall) and 34.0% from beyond it (19th overall), are next-to-last in assists (20.5), and have ranked third-worst at getting to the free-throw line (21.7). Furthermore, they’re in the bottom third of the league in Effective Field Goal Percentage (48.8%), Offensive Rebound Percentage (23.6%), and Free-Throw/Field Goal Ratio (20.3%). Even with the likes of Williams and Johnson, they continue to plod up and down the court, averaging 91.9 possessions per 48 minutes, forcing them to maximize their opportunities in the half-court. However, due to their low assist figures, they struggle to get easy shots. Once upon a time, Williams was a shoe-in to dish out at least ten assists a night, which he did for four consecutive seasons between 2007 to 2011, but now he’s dealing just 6.7 helpers game, his second-lowest average since putting up 4.5 dimes in his rookie campaign.
Meanwhile, injuries haven’t slowed down the Raptors (19-6), who continue their torrid pace leading the Eastern Conference. Even without the services of DeMar DeRozen, the team’s leading scorer at 19.4 points per game, Dwayne Casey’s charges have refused to be deterred; since the All-Star Shooting Guard sustained a torn tendon in his hip, Toronto has gone 6-3, including three straight wins, with a convincing 95-82 victory over Orlando coming recently this past Monday Night. Trailing 52-44 at Halftime, the hosts outscored the visitors by fourteen points in the Third Quarter alone, en route to a 51-30 margin over the final twenty-four minutes play. Despite shooting just 44.6% from the field, the Raptors outscored the Magic by twenty-one points from beyond the arc, and manufactured a healthy portion of their points via offensive rebounds (12-6) and turnovers (19-11). Though only two starters scored in double-figures, Kyle Lowry led the first-team unit with seventeen points on 6-of-12 shooting (50.0%), including 4-of-6 from three (60.0%), while also posting five rebounds, eight assists, a pair of steals, and a block. Louis Williams and Patrick Patterson accounted for 28 points on 10-of-20 shooting from the field (50.0%), six rebounds, eight assists, and three steals off the bench, outscoring Orlando’s reserves by themselves. Defensively, Casey saw his team rebound from a slow start, relegating their opponent to a mere 13-of-16 shooting from the field (36.1%) in the second half, including 3-of-9 from downtown (33.3%).
The key to Toronto’s stellar start this year has been their depth; Management has done a masterful job of gradually building this team through the Draft and Free Agency, assembling a deep roster full of young players coming of age at the right time. This team has just one player over the age of twenty-nine, with four out of the top five players in their rotation twenty-five years or younger. That’s how they have been able to persevere in the face of DeRozen’s potentially season-ending injury; Casey has delved eleven deep into his rotation, with eight different players logging over twenty minutes of action, and as many as eleven logging at least eleven minutes of time. And as you can imagine, that has led to a very balanced scoring output, with six different players averaging in double-figures, and another four scoring over 7.0 points per game. The aforementioned Lowry continues to mature north of the border, making good on the insanely-reasonable four-year $36 million deal he inked to resign with the franchise, despite heavy courtship by a number of suitors. In his eighth campaign, the 28-year old Point Guard has averaged a career-high 19.6 points on 43.6% shooting, including 32.5% from three, 4.7 rebounds, 7.6 assists, and 1.4 steals, all the while posting a PER of 23.1. Predictably, he has taken a more dominant role in the offense since DeRozen injured his hip, averaging 20.5 points on 42.9% shooting from the field, 3.5 rebounds, and 9.9 assists over the past eight contests. Brooklyn would be wise to keep the ball out of his hands tonight, for he torched them throughout last year’s meeting in the First Round of the Eastern Conference Playoffs; Lowry posted 21.1 points on 40.4% shooting, including 39.5% from beyond the arc, 4.7 rebounds, and 4.7 assists in that series. Needless to say, he outplayed his heavily-compensated counterpart in Brooklyn. With him at the controls, the Raptors have been one of the more efficient teams on the offensive end, averaging 107.4 points (3rd overall) on 46.0% shooting from the field (11th overall), including 49.9% from inside the arc (9th overall) and 36.3% from beyond it (11th overall), along with 20.7 assists (14th overall), while getting to free-throw line 26.4 times (3rd overall) where they make quite a living shooting 80.0% (2nd overall). Furthermore, they rank seventh or better in Effective Field Goal Percentage (51.3%), Turnover Percentage (11.3%), and Free-Throw/Field Goal Ratio (25.2%), while proving adept at turning a forced 16.0 turnovers (5th overall) into easy opportunities in transition.