Think back to opening night for a moment.
The Pelicans began the 2018-19 campaign in Houston, home of last year’s highest seed in the West. On national television, New Orleans took it to the Rockets, beating them by a 131-112 margin, and I thought, “Wow. These Pelicans are road warriors I tell you what.”
But following a depressing 0-5 road trip that ended a week ago, I’m starting to think that maybe, just maybe, the Pelicans aren’t quite the road warriors I thought they were. Actually, more like the opposite. Nevertheless, New Orleans has a shot to redeem themselves in a big way if they can pick up road victory No. 2 on Monday night by beating Kawhi Leonard and the Raptors in Toronto.
While the much-ballyhooed Boston Celtics and Philadelphia 76ers have struggled coming out of the gate, it has been the Raptors that have gotten an early jump on dominance in the Eastern Conference. At 12-1, Toronto is not only owners of the best record in the East, they also have the best record in the entire league.
Toronto, if you may remember, made the biggest non-LeBron James move during the offseason, acquiring our old pals Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green from the Spurs. Back from his mysterious quad injury/hiatus, Leonard is bringing more than a demonic laugh with him to Toronto. He’s looking every bit the Kawhi Leonard who was winning Finals MVP and helping the Spurs get up 20 on Golden State in game one of the 2017 Western Conference Finals. The Klaw brought his scoring, length and defense north of the border and Leonard has emerged as the best player in now The King-less Eastern Conference.
Leonard may be the hot new thing in Toronto, but Kyle Lowry remains Toronto’s stallwart. Lowry’s putting up 17 points and averaging 11 assists a night so far this season. Gone are the days of the Lowry-DeMar DeRozan backcourt. In it’s place is a potentially more lethal inside-outside tandem that is Lowry and Leonard.
But Toronto is more than just a two-man show, they’re a complete team and that’s why they’re the current owners of the league’s best record. Pascal Siakam, Serge Ibaka and Green round out a highly versatile starting lineup, with Fred VanVleet, OG Anunoby and Jonas Valanciunas acting as the top reserves.
The Raptors are third in points per game, mere decimal points ahead of the Pelicans, but they are a vastly superior defensive team, ranking eighth in defensive rating. That doesn’t mean Toronto’s impenetrable defensively, however: the Raptors are a bottom five team in defensive rebound percentage and rank 21st in opposing second chance points. If Anthony Davis, Julius Randle and Nikola Mirotic can be ultra aggressive on the glass, that could lead to extra scoring opportunities for the Pelicans. Toronto can also be had in transition, ranking 26th in opponent fastbreak points.
On the other hand, New Orleans will have to be ready for Toronto in halfcourt sets. When you have Kawhi Leonard, Jonas Valanciunas and Serge Ibaka chances are you’re stout in the paint and the Raptors are as they reside in the top-10 in opposing points in the paint. The Davis, Mirotic and Randle trio, with Jrue Holiday and hopefully Elfrid Payton driving into the paint, will have to be extra diligent around the rim or pray the jump shots are falling. Otherwise, it could be another disappointing trip away from home for New Orleans.
What: New Orleans Pelicans at Toronto Raptors
Where: Scotiabank Arena
When: Monday, November 12, 2018, 6:30 p.m. Central
How: FSNO, NBAtv, 99.5 FM WRNO