Houston Rockets Game Day: Sat Feb 21, 8:00 PM EST – CSNH, SNET, RTSW
The Raptors enter red hot having won their past four games versus top teams: Clippers, Spurs, Wizards and Hawks and beat 3 out of the 4 (all but Spurs) in double digit blow out fashion.
The own an 8-3 record on the second game of back to backs and their defense has been the leagues best the past 3 games, but much improved the past 10 games.
Conversely, the Rockets are on a 2-game losing streak and needing a win badly. They are also on a hellish schedule versus tough competition and will be in against it tonight.
Toronto: The Raptors entered the break on three successive and impressive wins. In the first they came back from 23 points down to beat the Clippers (with Blake Griffin still in the line-up) by 16 points. Next they rallied in a dog fight to beat San Antonio who were playing like the championship team of last season. Finally they took down an inspired Washington team looking to avenge their two previous losses to the Raptors this year.
Last night they handed Atlanta their third loss of the four times the teams met this year and did it in convincing fashion winning 105-80, forcing 21 turnovers, getting 15 steals and 9 blocks. While the rest of the NBA has struggled to beat the Hawks, Toronto has their number.
Some key numbers to consider:
- None of the top East contenders of Atlanta, Washington, Chicago or Cleveland have lost the first or second best offensive player for more than 8 games in a row (James being the one player who missed 8 in a row). When DeRozan got injured he was the top scorer on Toronto.
- Toronto is the only team to have beat the Hawks more than once. They handed 2 of the Hawks 4 losses at home to them and have 3 of the Hawks 12 losses.
- While many pundits ranted about Toronto have an easy strength of schedule to start the season the truth is they’ve actually played a tougher schedule than most of their counterparts. Case in point in the last 25% of games the strength of schedule for the top 8 Eastern teams looks like this:
- Bulls; 54.2%
- Raptors: 51.8%
- Hawks: 49.7%
- Heat: 48.0%
- Wizards: 47.3%
- Bucks: 46.1%
- Cavaliers: 44.3%
- Hornets: 41.9%
More to consider:
- Since DeRozan’s return the Raptors are 12-5, yet three of those losses came in his first 5 games back while DeMar and the team adapted to getting their rhythm and timing back.
- Taking into consideration DeRozan and the team were reintegrating combined with the loss of James Johnson for a stretch and Terrence Ross being moved to the bench there was a lot of restructuring taking place.
- Following DeRozan’s first 5 games back the Raptors have been 10-2
- When DeRozan returned the Raptors defense had fallen to 22nd behind a poor stretch of play (with many of the team beginning to show the wear from the extra work load while DeRozan was out). Since his return they have climbed 5 spots to rank 18th and are showing signs (as per their last 3 games) or finding last year’s top 10 defense.
- Over the past 3 games the Raptors are the BEST DEFENSIVE TEAM in the association holding teams to 85 points, oh and those teams were San Antonio, Washington and Atlanta.
- The Raptors have lost just 1 game versus their division and have a 14.5 game lead over closest rivals Brooklyn. The magic number for Toronto to clinch the Atlantic is 14.5 (any combination of Raptor wins and Nets losses)
- Jonas Valanciunas seems to have found more consistency on the defensive end especially at the rim where he blocked Tim Duncan 4 times in the game versus San Antonio. He also was the player on the court guarding John Wall on his final shot in the Wizard game; this is notable as Valanciunas hasn’t seen regular time on the floor late in games. Perhaps a sign coach Duane Casey is beginning to trust the big Lithuanian more.
- Everyone knows Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan are the main cogs of the team with the long term of goal of developing center Valanciunas. What many don’t know is Lou Williams is quietly putting up 6th man of the year numbers (15.2 ppg, 1.8 rbp, 1.8 apg), or that Patrick Patterson while he likely won’t receive consideration for Most Improved Player has been the most consistent player on both ends of the court this year.
- General Manager Masai Ujiri may well have grabbed the best under the radar off season acquisitions in Lou Williams and James Johnson who is proving to be as key to the Raptors offense as he is to their defense.
- The heart and soul of this Raptor team lies with the play of Amir Johnson who is the epitome of a quiet leader. The intangibles he brings to the court are immeasurable, whether it’s getting a timely rebound or block, setting a pivotal screen, calling out the defense that leads to a stop or scoring at the end of the shot clock (note: Johnson does not have play sets called for him, every bucket he scores comes within the organic movement of the offense or an offensive rebound).
While the media continues to bestow accolades on the surprising uprising of the Hawks and still maintain Chicago and Cleveland are the likely teams who’ll advance to the top of the East they might be sleeping on the team who could play spoiler. It’s likely they are a year and one small forward away from staking their claim but in truth this tightly knit group has versatility and something I haven’t seen on any other team: 2 different players in Kyle Lowry and Amir Johnson that seem to know exactly when one play will change a game. If you get a chance to watch them in close games look for one of these two players to be the catalyst at precisely the right moment.
Toronto lead the Atlantic Division and are second in the Eastern Conference – Record: 37-17 (8-2)
Houston’s record is 36-18 they rank 4th in the West and 2nd in the Southwest
Toronto rank 2nd with 112.1 points per game
Houston ranks 12th with 106.6 points per game
Toronto ranks 17th allowing 106.6 points per game (best in league last 3 games)
Houston rank 9th allowing 103.4 points per game NOTE: Rockets have been sliding in the past week and have fallen out of the top 5 for the first time this season
The Raptors bench is a key to their success. On night’s when the Raptors starting unit struggles they can bring in an entire reserve line-up who would compete versus most starters. Greivis Vasques, Lou Williams, Terrence Ross and Patrick Patterson are all solid back-ups adept at defending and scoring. They rank third in the NBA behind only Indiana and Milwaukee’s bench in defensive efficiency at plus +10.7, are the sixth highest scoring bench with 40 points per game and are fourth in efficiency at 44.4%.
Learning Lou Williams was out was a shocker as I watched the game and post game and there was no indication he hurt his ankle. Last night in Atlanta he scored 27 points and hit 7 of 10 three-pointers. So, basically Houston catches a break with Sweet Lou out, however Toronto can utilize Terrence Ross or Greivis Vasquez more to pick up offensive slack. None of their players posted more than 27 minutes except DeRozan who logged 27:40 so both the starters and bench should have fresh legs tonight.
- Lou Williams out day to day with an ankle injury. This surprised me as I watched the game last night and didn’t see anything so maybe it occurred in a practice session or he tweaked it and played through it only to have it swell today. Not sure.
- Dwight Howard is listed as out indefinitely (however it’s projected to be a 6-8 weeks)
Harden vs DeRozan offensively
James Johnson versus James Harden defensively
Jonas Valanciunas versus Donatas Motiejunas: the two Lithuanians will be primed to face each other
Toronto’s bench versus Rocket bench
- Kyle Lowry 18.5 points per game
- Jonas Valanciunas 8.6 rebounds per game
- Kyle Lowry 7.2 assists per game
- Jonas Valanciunas 1.2 blocks per game
- Kyle Lowry 1.6 steals per game
- James Harden 27.4 points per game
- Dwight Howard 11 rebounds per game
- James Harden 6.8 assists per game
- Terrence Jones 1.7blocks per game
- James Harden 2 steals per game
Keys To Winning:
- Harden is likely to be matched up against James Johnson who is a quality defender with size, speed and power. He gave both Kyle Korver and Jeff Teague problems last night and can guard one through five.
- Raptors have been on fire defensively. While Houston has been plummeting in defensive rank the Raptors have been heading up the ladder. If this precedent holds the Rockets are in trouble.
- The Raptors have been specifically successful at protecting the 3-point line and knowing how often Houston shoots the 3 they’ll be dialed in to repeat their recent success.
- If the Rockets want any chance at beating Toronto, they’ll need to stop at least one of their 3 main offensive areas:
- The potent back court of DeRozan and Lowry
- The size and versatility of their front court in the 2 Johnsons and Jonas Valanciunas
- Their very deep bench though the Rockets catch a break with Lou Williams out due to an ankle injury (he scored 27 points versus the Hawks and hit 7 of 10 threes).
A little surprisingly the odds makers have given the Rockets a 2 point edge. I say surprising as the Raptors have won their last 4 games versus top playoff teams (Clippers, Spurs, Wizards and Hawks) while the Rockets have lost their last 2 games in blowout fashion. And, one of those losses was to the Clippers (without Blake Griffin) who the Raptors beat by 16 points (with Blake Griffin). Call it a homer call, but I think the Raptors will have too much size and bench depth (even with Williams out) iso I say Raptors extend the Rockets losing streak and win by 3 points.
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