Tough challenges keep coming as Nets host Toronto Raptors

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The Nets (18-27) played a fluid 48 minutes against the Eastern Conference leading Atlanta Hawks (38-8) on Wednesday, and still could not withstand enough offensive runs in the second half to propel them to victory. A noticeably energized Joe Johnson scored 26 points against his former team, the most he has tallied in over a month, and the Nets as a team racked up 26 assists with eight turnovers, marking their best assist-to-turnover ratio of the season. But the duo of Al Horford and Paul Millsap proved to be too much for the Nets interior defense, combining for 48 points (15-22 FG, 15-16 FT, the free throws all from Millsap) and 25 rebounds.

Moral victories mean little on the pro level, but the performance leaves something to build on. Tonight, the Nets welcome in the Toronto Raptors (31-15), winners of four straight and the Atlantic Division leader by 12.5 games. The Raptors defeated the Nets in Toronto back on December 17th, behind 20 points and 12 assists from Kyle Lowry, this year’s All-Star starting guard, and a 29-16 fourth quarter in favor of the Raptors. Both Brook Lopez (lower back strain) and Kevin Garnett (rest) missed that game; tonight, the Nets will be without Deron Williams for the 11th straight contest.

Much like the Hawks, the Raptors are one of the highest-scoring teams in the league at 106 points per game (4th in the NBA), led by Lowry’s 19.4 points and 7.4 assists. Backcourt mate DeMar DeRozan, who missed the previous 21 games, has eclipsed the 20-point mark in five of ten games since returning from his groin injury on January 14th. Of course Nets fans know the damage the backcourt could do: with various Nets defenders attempting to slow them down, Lowry and DeRozan combined to average 46.3 points per game in their seven-game playoff series last season.

With the Nets currently shorthanded, the Raptors bench could be a big factor in tonight’s matchup. Led by Lou Williams’ 15.2 points a game, the Raptors have four experienced “second-teamers” that average 20 minutes or more. Amir Johnson, now in his sixth year with Toronto, has grown into a solid frontcourt player averaging 9.6 points per game on 57.4 percent shooting, and Patrick Patterson, who notched 16 points and eight rebounds in last year’s decisive Game 7, has become a formidable threat from three-point range (42.4 percent). Greivis Vasquez has averaged 9.6 points and 3.8 assists in just 22.7 minutes as the primary ballhandler off the bench. The Nets have had difficulty getting consistency from their second team lately, including their current back-up point guard Darius Morris, who’s coming off two poor performances in Utah and Atlanta.

This season, the Raptors are 21-4 against teams with a losing record. The all-time series between these two teams currently stands at a gridlock: 37-37. The Nets will play the Raptors again on Wednesday in Toronto, so if the budding rivalry has any sizzle left, these next two contests should give an apt indication.

Tip-off is at 7:30 E.S.T. at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center.

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