7:30 PM EST, NBA TV – Line: Toronto -2.0
As the postseason draws closer, a pair of teams that have already clinched a place in the Playoffs face off north of the border as the Toronto Raptors host the Houston Rockets at Air Canada Center. In the face of a rash of injuries, the Rockets (50-23, Tied-1st in Southwest Division) stand poised to make a run at the Southwest Division crown, as they climbed into a virtual tie for first place with the Memphis Grizzlies last night. Kevin McHale’s charges haven’t been at full strength for quite some time, even with All-Star Center Dwight Howard finally returning from a knee injury that sidelined him for most of the second half of the campaign. Winners of seven of their last eight, including each of their past four outings, Houston stormed into Washington Sunday evening and left with a 99-91 victory. The visitors jumped out to an early 28-20 lead after the First Quarter, eventually establishing a twelve-point lead at the halfway point which they would never relinquish. They to victory was on the defensive end, as they relegated the hosts to a mere 38.7% shooting from the field, including a dismal 4-of-15 (26.7%) from three, while also pummeling them on the glass en route to a 53-43 rebounding advantage. In just nineteen minutes of action, Howard racked up eleven points and ten rebounds, while five other Rockets finished the day in double-figures, led by James Harden’s 24. The MVP candidate overcame a poor shooting performance (7-of-20), by getting to the charity stripe (9-of-10), while also filling out the stat sheet with three rebounds, six assists, a pair of steals, and a block. Speaking of free-throws, this game was littered with them; Houston managed to knock down twenty-two of their thirty-three attempts (66.7%), while Washington added another thirty-seven attempts for a whopping seventy free-throw attempts between the two teams. With Sunday’s triumph in their pocket, McHale’s outfit has now amassed a 22-6 mark against Eastern Conference competition, the second-highest resume’ in the league, and they’ll be looking to pad that number tonight in Toronto.
Admittedly though, it could be a difficult task to advance that record for the Rockets will likely be without a number of key contributors against one of the East’s better representatives. McHale has already been quoted in regards to Howard’s availability, stating that the big man will sit the second half of this particular back-to-back set. Howard had missed twenty-six consecutive contests before making his grand return in Wednesday’s win over the Pelicans, and it’s clear that his coach wants him to ease his way back into the rotation as smoothly as possible. The 29-year old has logged under twenty minutes in each of the past three games since his return, and with just ten outings left until the Playoffs commence, it’s only logical that Houston will explore every avenue in order to get healthy in a hurry. Don’t be fooled by their record without D-12, for this team will struggle to go anywhere in the postseason without him, particularly in the ridiculously competitive Western Conference. In just thirty-five games of service this season, Howard has averaged 16.0 points on 58.4% shooting from the field, along with 10.6 rebounds, 1.4 assists, and 1.4 blocks. The main reason that the Rockets have managed to put together a 17-9 record during that stretch is due to inspiring play of Harden who has joined the race for MVP thanks to carrying his team over the last three months. In the month of March alone, the erstwhile Shooting Guard has averaged 28.4 points, 7.3 assists, and 5.8 rebounds in a maddening 38.1 minutes of play, but the question for McHale is whether or not he’s running his star Guard into the ground; in thirteen games this month, Harden’s 40.9% hooting from the field is the lowest since October, and his 32.1% shooting from beyond the arc is the low-water mark of any other month of the season. Then again, what choice does McHale have? With Howard taking nearly three months to rehab his knee, and Point Guard Patrick Beverly likely out for the remainder of the campaign due to a torn ligament in his left wrist, Harden has become the end-all be-all for this unit. During this current four-game winning streak, the bearded scoring machine has averaged 31.5 points. Even with tired legs, he’s managed to remain insanely effective, largely by continuously finding ways to get to the free-throw line. Simply put, no player in the league has attempted more free-throws than this guy; Harden has attempted a staggering 757 free-throws thus far, including 167 in the month of March alone. His 621 freebies also leads the NBA, with a large chunk of his points coming via the charity stripe (32,1%). Indeed, the ball has been in his hands a lot, but the downside of that is that he has committed quite a bit of turnovers this season; Harden has coughed up the rock 283 times, or in other words 4.0 times per game, the most of any player in the league. As his teammates languish on the Trainer’s Table, Harden has seen waves of defenders thrown his way, another reason as to why his shooting percentage has dropped precipitously over the past month.
Meanwhile, the Raptors (43-30, 1st in Atlantic Division) have trended towards the opposite end of the spectrum, as they have struggled of late losing thirteen of twenty games since the All-Star Break. As a result, Toronto has slumped to fourth in the Eastern Conference, a contentious place to be in as they lead the Wizards by just two games. While their opponent tonight has prevailed in the face of injuries, this team has found the going to be quite rough without their star Point Guard Kyle Lowry. The first-time All-Star has been plagued by back spasms over the past two weeks, causing him to miss four out of the last five outings, including each of the last two, and is not expected to make his return against his former squad tonight. The bullish Guard attempted to return this past Tuesday against the Pistons, but only managed to log a mere 10:32 of playing time before James Casey pulled him from the contest, which his team eventually lost. Lowry was largely ineffective when he was on the floor, scoring just five points on 2-of-4 shooting from the field, with two rebounds and three assists. On the season, he has averaged 17.9 points on 41.6% shooting, along with 4.6 rebounds, 6.9 assists, and 1.5 steals. Like his counterpart in Houston, Casey is fighting the urge to play his stud Guard as his team fights for postseason positioning, while also trying to keep him healthy for said run. So where does a coach turn to with his Point Man on the mend, you ask? It’s basically been a platoon approach for Toronto, who have seen Greivis Vasquez and Louis Williams fill the sizeable void left by their teammate. Vasquez has been a valuable Combo Guard, averaging 9.4 points and 3.6 assists in 23.5 minutes per game, with twenty-three starts to his credit. Despite not starting a single game this season, Williams has become an offensive sparkplug in a more condensed sample size, averaging 15.1 points, 2.0 assists, and 1.1 steals in 24.8 minutes of playing time. Both players have their respective pros and cons, but remain important cogs in a deep rotation that has proven to be greater than the sum of it’s parts.
Vasquez and Williams featured prominently in Saturday’s 94-83 victory over the hapless Los Angeles Lakers, which sealed Toronto’s distinction as Atlantic Division Champions. After getting off to a slow start in which they trailed 24-17 , the Raptors went on to outscore the visitors 77-59 over the course of the final three quarters of play. Defensively, the hosts smothered their opponent, limiting Los Angeles to a scant 34.5% shooting from the field, including 4-of-17 from beyond the arc (23.5%). Offensively, Casey’s charges were very efficient, shooting 48.0% from the field, including 7-of-18 from downtown (38.9%), assisting on twenty-five of their thirty-six field goals. Despite only scoring five points, Vasquez dished out five helpers, while Williams came off the bench to score eighteen points on 6-of-13 shooting (46.2%), including 3-of-7 from three (42.9%), along with four assists of his own, a pair of steals, and a rebound. Center Jonas Valanciunas had his way with the Lakers’ inept front court, totaling a team-high nineteen points to go along with his seven rebounds, while DeMar DeRozan overcame a poor shooting effort (1-of-10 overall) to pull down a team-best ten rebounds and hand out seven assists. Five different players scored in double-figures by the end of the night, with the Bench proving to be a major factor, accounting for forty-three points. And that depth has been key for Casey in keeping his team afloat with injuries to key players. DeRozan missed twenty-one games earlier this season after dislocating his hip, which forced the coach to delve deeper into his rotation, giving more players opportunities to make an impact. Nine different players have logged over nineteen minutes of action this season, which should really give them an advantage in the Playoffs, where most teams resort to much shorter rotations. Toronto goes nine, sometimes ten deep, with nine Raptors averaging eight or more points, five of which score in double-figures. The aforementioned DeRozan has experienced his ups and downs since returning to form since coming back from his ailing hip, averaging team-high 19.1 points, 4.6 rebounds, 3.4 assists, and 1.2 steals, even though his shooting percentages have been far from ideal; the young Two Guard has shot a career-low 39.8% from the field, including just 26.5% from beyond the arc. Then again, he’s never been much of a three-point shooter (26.7%), with most of his points coming in transition, and from the charity stripe. He’s not quite James Harden, but DeRozan definitely knows how to get to the line; the sixth-year vet has 7.1 free-throws per game, making a career-best 83.4% of them, with 30.9% of his total points attributed to free-throws. We think we’ll set the Over/Under for Harden and DeRozan from the Line at 17.5…