Nets hope to heat up in frozen north

DeMar DeRozan
DeMar DeRozan DeDunker. (AP)
DeMar DeRozan
DeMar DeRozan DeDunker. (AP)

Tonight, two Atlantic division rivals go head-to-head: the worst team in the Eastern Conference, and the division leader. Yup, it’s the Brooklyn Nets and the Toronto Raptors. Wait: which team is which again?

Yes, the 6-7 Toronto Raptors, whose record would rank last in the Southwest Division, somehow lead the anemic Atlantic, while the Brooklyn Nets Of Championship Aspirations™ have stumbled to a 3-10 start thanks to numerous injuries and poor play. The Raptors haven’t won the Atlantic Division since 2006-07, when they employed Miami Heat forward Chris Bosh, and also haven’t had a record over .500 since that time. (Though to be fair, they still don’t.)

The Raptors have a plethora of wing scoring. They’re one of the few teams with two players averaging over 20 points per game, Rudy Gay (20.2 PPG) and DeMar DeRozan (21.2 PPG), despite the fact that neither is shooting above 42 percent from the field.

If they were powered solely by inefficient scorers, they’d probably be fighting the Nets for the cellar instead of standing at the summit Mediocrity Mountain. But their scoring isn’t their bread-and-butter, it’s their rebounding; the Raptors grab 30 percent of all available offensive rebounds, ranking them second in the NBA. They’re led by big men Amir Johnson, Jonas Valanciunas, and backup Tyler Hansbrough, who secure the team an extra eight possessions per game combined. To compare, the Nets as a team only average a little over 10 offensive rebounds per game.

The Nets will once again be without their engine and offensive valve. Point guard Deron Williams and center Brook Lopez both skipped the team’s one-game trip to the frozen north (high of 39 degrees today, and no, Canadians, that’s not Celsius), electing to stay home and rehabilitate in the hope that they’ll be ready to go Wednesday at home against the Los Angeles Lakers. Both players are officially listed as day-to-day, which is kind of true of all of us, when you think about it.

If the Nets injury woes stopped there, they might have more of a fighting chance, but that’s just the beginning. Small forward Andrei Kirilenko, who’s fought back spasms since the middle of preseason, is listed as doubtful. Ditto for shooting guard Jason Terry, who bruised his knee last week. Point guard Shaun Livingston, who suffered a head contusion Sunday afternoon against the Detroit Pistons, is probable. That’s a welcome development for Brooklyn, who would be down to only one true point guard in Tyshawn Taylor if Livingston sits.

The Raptors present precisely the type of team Brooklyn struggles against: young, athletic, with bigs who rebound and wings who score. They’re a challenge the Nets haven’t overcome quite yet in this young season, and the Raptors present a familiar challenge: get out on shooters, protect the paint, try to force a team that doesn’t commit turnovers into coughing up the ball, and for once, maybe, just maybe, win a third quarter.

Tipoff at 7 P.M.

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