Tonight, the hot New Jersey Nets take on the Toronto Raptors at the Prudential Center. The Nets have won four of their last six and are being led by the resurgence of their star point guard, Deron Williams. Toronto, however, is coming off a loss against Denver and has only won one game of their last eleven.
Joining Justin and I in the pregame conversation is James Herbert from the ESPN NBA TrueHoop affiliate Raptors Republic. We’ve decided to break from the usual question and answer format and share our thoughts separately on the game tonight. Let’s take it away.
Injury Notes: Mehmet Okur is out for the Nets.
Justin DeFeo: Winners of their last two and creeping towards “seriously” thinking about fighting for a playoff spot, I really like the Nets in this matchup. Confidence is starting to swell a little with this team, particularly our offense, which has looked crisper. Deron Williams is reminding people why he once considered one of the top point guards in the game and I especially love his matchup with any of the Raptors’ point guards. Not sure if we’re going to have MarShon Brooks again, but Anthony Morrow and Jordan Farmar have been filling in capably.
Also with Mehmet Okur being ruled out, it just means more minutes for Shelden Williams and Kris Humphries to play together, which is probably a good thing. Those two guys use their bulk and activity inside to really our perimeter players free reign to operate and create. As far as making a pick for this game, I’m going to pick the Nets. We are a better team, in my opinion, but also a team that looks to be playing more confidently and perhaps a real chemistry is building.
Chris Hooker: How can you not like the Nets in this matchup? They are hot, motivated and going up against a weak Raptors team that just lost their best player, Andrea Bargnani, indefinitely with a strained left calf. Last time the Nets and Raptors faced up, they dominated DeMar DeRozen, D-Will put up a double-double and still shot less than 40%. Now the Nets are streaking and shooting better, and have proven they can win without Brooks in the lineup, which they could be again tonight.
Toronto is a young team with nice pieces, but they are outmatched tonight without their center. I’m interested in seeing the front court matchup with Humphries and the Landlord versus Amir Johnson and James Johnson. I am also expecting to see Toronto’s Ed Davis get some playing time as well, and he is a player I really think is going to be a stud one day, as he is your standard yet-to-grow-into-his-body kind of guy, but he still pulls in 10 boards a game. The Humphries/Williams front court has been the most effective for New Jersey so far and I am expecting that (along with a Nets W) to be the story of the game.
James Herbert, Raptors Republic: The Raptors’ record with Bargnani: 6-7. Without him: 0-7. It would be unfair to the rest of the team not to mention that his absences have coincided with playing stronger opponents (IND, CHI, ATL, BOS, POR, LAC, DEN), but the fact remains that he is the most important player on the roster and Toronto’s offense goes to hell when he isn’t out there.
Without Bargnani tonight, I imagine the Nets will stick DeShawn Stevenson on DeMar DeRozan for a lot of the game and bring help when he drives. DeRozan’s added a three-point shot to his arsenal this season, but is still trying to find a balance between slashing and shooting. This has been especially difficult for him without Bargnani in the lineup, as he has received more defensive attention than anyone else in the lineup. The results have been ugly: he’s shooting a career worst 37.3 FG% and 45.3 TS%, while getting to the line less frequently than last season and making an average of one out of four and a half attempts from 16-23 feet per game. He’s too hard a worker and too talented for this to continue all season, but man, it’s been a struggle.
Jose Calderon is the only Raptor who can be counted on to create shots for others. He’s a great shooter when open and is capable of going off himself, but it’s not a bad strategy to make him look for his own shot at the expense of getting his teamamtes involved. If the Raps are going to win, they’ll need contributions from a few of their role players. Linas Kleiza (25 points against Utah on Wednesday), Leandro Barbosa (19 against Denver Friday), Jerryd Bayless (18 against Denver), and James Johnson (18 against Phoenix Tuesday) are all capable of putting points up occasionally, but the only one of them who has been anything resembling consistent on offense recently is Barbosa. Ed Davis is also theoretically capable of causing New Jersey problems on the inside, but he has essentially been in a slump since shooting 7-7 in the season opener.
The biggest storyline in Toronto, aside from the rise of Bargnani and the fall of DeRozan, is how Dwane Casey has changed the culture on defense. He’s taken an a roster almost identical to the one that has been historically woeful on defense over the past couple of seasons and transformed them into the league’s 19th-best defensive team. 19th-best might not sound impressive, but it’s a huge leap. The team is right there with Dallas, Orlando, and Miami in terms of limiting points in the paint; last year, they were dead-last in that category. Expect more resistance from the Raptors on that end than you saw over the past few years, but do not expect them to turn into Thibodeau’s Bulls until Casey gets some stoppers with which to work. Last time these teams met, Deron Williams carved Toronto’s defense up. I don’t see him being any easier to stop this time, but I’m interested to see how many different guys Casey uses on him and how often he’ll go to a zone. Williams has been a horrible matchup for the Raptors his entire career.