The Raptors are one of my pet projects in the Eastern Conference. I love their roster. Early in the preseason, I openly wondered if the Raptors could sneak up and earn the second seed in the East. The addition of DeMarre Carroll gave them another super role player, as well as someone who can absorb some of the minutes at their weakest position.
Toronto sits at 6-3 overall which already includes some pretty impressive victories over Oklahoma City, Boston and Indiana to start the season. Kyle Lowry is an excellent two-way guard, capable of leading a team and shutting down the opponent's best perimeter player. DeMar DeRozan continued to find offensive success and Jonas Valanciunas appears to be taking another step forward in his fourth season in the NBA.
Speaking of forward steps, the Pelicans have taken one or two in their past two games. Against Dallas, New Orleans received a full effort from all of their players, with 6 players scoring in double-digits. When facing the Hawks Wednesday, the Pelicans spaced the floor and gashed Atlanta's defense with pristine three-point shooting. In total, New Orleans hit 48.3% (14-29) of their threes, led by Eric Gordon's four. It was good to see some offensive consistency, and had they made a few more shots in the 2nd half, the Pelicans might currently be talking about a two-game winning streak.
With both Anthony Davis and Jrue Holiday sitting out in Atlanta, they should come into the game against the Raptors rested and ready to go, provided Davis is cleared to play. Holiday has been restricted in his minutes, but he's been decent on both sides of the ball, creating space offensively and defending well on the perimeter. After a slow start, Davis has been Davis with his performances lately before getting hurt against Dallas. If he doesn't play, well, it's probably going to make for a tough night.
Three (plus one) keys to victory
Jimmer, Jimmer, Jimmer
Just kidding, but the Pelicans are 1-1 with him this season and 0-6 without.
Stop the offensive attack
The Raptors are ranked 9th in the league with a 103.3 offensive efficiency rating. Toronto's offense comes at you in waves: Lowry, DeRozan, Valanciunas and Carroll. They're all adept and it hits at once. Then, throw in Luis Scola's ability to work in the low-post and Cory Joseph's steady point guard skills and you have a second unit that doesn't fall off much when the starters are resting.
Simple enough, but if the Pelicans want to beat the Raptors, they'll have to find away to slow down their offense. Currently, the Pels sit last in the league in defensive efficiency, so this could be a problem. However, getting DeRozan to take bad shots could be a way to stifle and muck up the Toronto offense. Patrick Patterson, who's been pretty bad this season, is another that should be forced to beat the Pelicans, rather than allowing Lowry or Valanciunas to work their magic.
Win the Jonas Valanciunas matchup
He won't get many MIP votes at this moment in time, but Jonas Valanciunas is a solid big man. Better than what people think, I say. Currently, the fifth-year center is averaging 14.6 points and 10.2 rebounds on a solid 61.0% shooting. His post-up numbers are nothing special, but he's been an effective cutter this season, shooting 80% on 20 attempts this season and sporting a points per possession number of 1.70 on those plays.
For the Pels, it's about who can hold him down. At first brush, I thought assigning Anthony Davis on him was the way to go, putting a more mobile, agile defender on him could disrupt him before he even establishes himself on the low-post. But then, I remembered that Jonas is a rather big man, so I considered Asik on him. Either way, the Pelicans should win this matchup. Part of stopping Toronto's offense will be winning this matchup.
Take (and make) a ton of threes
I already mentioned that the Pelicans shot well against Atlanta. Well, they'll need similar success in Toronto. The Raptors are 6th in the league in defensive field goal percentage on shots less than six feet, per NBA.com's play type data. The addition of Bismack Biyombo has given Toronto someone who can help with the rim protection off the bench, as he is allowing 37.0% at the rim.
To avoid mucking it up at the rim, the Pelicans should look for more shots away from the rim, and the best ones will be from beyond the arc. Davis is a good mid-range shooter and New Orleans has an array of shooters, ranging from Ryan Anderson to Eric Gordon to Toney Douglas and Jrue Holiday. The Pelicans should be able to space the floor and attack Toronto's defense through the perimeter.
After winning five straight games to start the season, the Raptors have lost 3 of their last 4. Their lone win came against the winless Sixers so the potential to steal a game in Toronto is there, even if Anthony Davis is declared out for another game.