|2012-2013 NBA Season
|November 6th, 2012
|Chesapeake Energy Arena, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma
|7:00 PM CDT
|Fox Sports Net Oklahoma, The Score Television Network, NBA Television, WWLS the Sports Animal (98.1)
|Enemy Blogs: Raptors HQ, Raptors Republic, Raptorblog
|Previous Meetings: None
This game is more important than you might think. Sure, it's a Tuesday night outing against what's likely to be a non-playoff Eastern Conference team, so you're not all that excited about what's going to happen. You might not watch the game altogether. But, if you'll remember the trade that the Thunder just executed with the Rockets, you'll know that the Thunder hold a protected pick from the Raptors this year. Basically, if the Raptors finish in the lottery and don't fall in the top 3, the pick is ours. If not, it rolls into next year. Since we want as good of a lotto position as possible, it's in our best interest to beat the Raptors in both of our encounters with them this season. This is especially considering the fact that the Raptors are improving (potentially forcing us to collect the pick a couple years down the line). Oh yeah, and draft pick positioning can be decided by 1 or 2 games. Just ask the Warriors last year, who had to tank their final game in order to avoid sacrificing their pick to the Jazz. So what happens today could heavily affect the Thunder's fortunes come June.
Anyway, let's get to the actual matchup. Toronto hasn't fared too badly this season, hanging tough with playoff-level Eastern conference foes in Brooklyn and Indiana, while pounding on the Timberwolves. The big story with them is the emergence of Kyle Lowry, an off-season acquisition. Through three games, he's averaging a monsterous 23 points, 7 rebounds, 7 assists, and 4 steals while shooting over 50%. He's been using his insane quickness and ballhandling ability to draw defenders and create opportunities. And he's been hitting some incredibly deep threes with the defense all over him. It's extremely doubtful that he'll finish the season on this pace, but, suffice to say, he's really fit in with his new team.
Lowry has also had the perfect backcourt scorer to pair with in DeMar DeRozan. Though not a lot of people were huge on handing DeRozan the extension that he recently signed, he's definitely lived up to the hype over the first three games of this young season. He's somebody you can consistently rely on for 15-17 points, and he helps to take the pressure off of Kyle Lowry. The main knock on him is that he can become a bit of a chucker sometimes, but his percentages have been solid thus far.
Beyond those two, things haven't been so great. The Raptors are still a flawed team, and their interior D leaves a lot to be desired. Andrea Bargnani, who is essentially a glorified small forward, has killed their post defense for years. Jonas Valanciunas, their rookie Center from Lithuania, was supposed to help the problem, but he's still getting adjusted to the NBA game and will have good and bad nights. The bench doesn't provide much help in this department, and appropriately, Brook Lopez, David West, Roy Hibbert, and Nikola Pekovic have all had a very easy time scoring the ball.
Additionally, Landry Fields, who was a rookie wonder for the New York Knicks, has pretty much been a total non-factor for the Raptors so far. He's in danger of losing his job to backup Alan Anderson, who has been a huge surprise himself. Either way, neither of these players is much of a threat to Kevin Durant, who should have no problem dropping 25-30 points if he's so inclined.
Statistically, the Raptors have excelled at taking care of the ball, but that's mostly because they don't distribute it very much. Kyle Lowry is an excellent assist man when he needs to be, but the Raptors have a lot of players who can create offense on their own, so the team doesn't require a lot of caretaking or creative plays. However, owing to the team's lack of presence in the paint, they struggle to get defensive rebounds.
On the Thunder's side of things, despite their recent problems, this is a very winnable game. The main problem they'll encounter is the Westbrook-Lowry matchup. Westbrook has been turnover-prone lately and hasn't executed offensively, making the perfect recipe for a disaster of Lowry plays his cards right. But Westbrook was off to a bad start last season too, so he's perfectly capable of getting out of this season's slump, and now's as good a night as any to start. Westbrook has the strength to get into the lane, and the quickness to beat Lowry off of the dribble. It's just a matter of protecting the ball, keeping the offense fresh, and using size to his advantage. Easier said than done, but waddaya gonna do?
Additionally, I'd like to see Ibaka provide some solid offense tonight. Andrea Bargnani is about as winnable a matchup as any, and provided Ibaka can knock down his jumpers and beat Bargs to the rim a couple of times, the advantage should be his. Durant has a very winnable matchup as well, but the pressure's not really on him to perform. The only thing I'd like to see him do is be more of a scorer and less of a facilitator and all-around factor.
Lastly, the Thunder need to use the Raptors weaker players against them. The Raptors will normally play 11 men, and while that does give them a lot of flexibility in terms of finding out who works and different strategies, it also leaves them vulnerable when they've got flawed players out on the floor. If the Thunder can keep an impact player on the floor at all times, they should be able to take advantage of what the Raptors occasionally dish out.
Prediction: Oklahoma City Thunder 98, Toronto Raptors 92