Brooklyn tries to keep the winning streak going in Toronto

Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Five straight. The Nets blew their lead in the fourth quarter against Miami at home, but were able to bounce back and beat the Heat for the second time this season, coming away with a win in double overtime. At 15-21, Brooklyn is still a ways away from being at .500, but considering how dead in the water they've looked for large portions of the season, this winning streak is a welcome sign. More importantly for the Nets, this is night one of a three game road trip that will carry them to Toronto, London and back home on MLK Day where they'll be on day one of a back-to-back in MSG and at home against Orlando.

Waiting for the Nets will be the first place Toronto Raptors. In their first meeting, Brooklyn came away with a 102-100 victory. However, things have changed dramatically since their first game. The big change of course was the trade of Rudy Gay to Sacramento. Since Gay's departure, the Raptors have played very well, going 11-5, including wins in Oklahoma City and at home against Indiana. They haven't played since Wednesday night at home when they beat up on the Pistons. The Raptors aren't out of the woods yet, but they're in a much more advantageous position now compared to the beginning of the season.

For the Nets, a win over the Raptors would put them two games back of the division lead and fourth seed in the playoff hunt.

The season so far

What's the story with these teams? Let's check the numbers:

2013-2014

Brooklyn

Toronto

Record

15-21 17-17

Pace

93.72 95.27

Offensive Efficiency

102.3 102.5

Defensive Efficiency

105.5 99.9

Offensive Rebounding percentage

23.4 26.7

Turnover rate

15.4 15.2

Assist rate

16.2 15.4

Rebound rate

73.7 50.3

Free throw rate

33.3 30.2

Effective Field Goal percentage

49.1 48.2

Opponent Effective Field Goal percentage

50.7 49.3

Deron Williams is still out of action and might not make the London trip, but Shaun Livingston is making us (almost) forget about Williams. Livingston is coming off his best game of the season (perhaps his career) last night, as he had an extremely active game on both sides of the ball, scoring 19 points, grabbing 11 rebounds, handing out five assists, and playing very pesky defense, including stretches covering LeBron James (he drew James' final foul). Don't be all that surprised if we see Tyshawn Taylor playing a fair amount of minutes in night two of this back-to-back. Livingston is coming off a career high in minutes played & Taylor needs some playing time so this seems like the perfect night for Taylor to get some shine.

Another player on a minutes watch is Andrei Kirilenko. Once he hit his prescribed minutes limit, we didn't see him for the rest of the game. It'll be interesting to see how many minutes he plays on his first back- to-back of the year.

The same minutes concern goes for Kevin Garnett. The Heat game was his first of the season playing past 30 minutes and you have to wonder if/how long he'll play. He's had his best stretch of play during the winning streak and looks to be making his way back to respectability. If Garnett isn't up to full speed, the quartet of Andray Blatche, Mason Plumlee, Reggie Evans & Mirza Teletovic will look to pick up the slack. Evans in particular should be able to help counteract Jonas Valanciunas, Amir Johnson & Tyler Hansbrough (if he plays), three of the better offensive rebounders in the league.

Joe Johnson is coming off a spectacular game as he scored 32 points, including 22 first quarter points. Some of us thought he was on his way to a 50-point game (well ok I thought he was gonna score 50). His jumper was working well for him as nine of his fourteen baskets came from outside of the paint. He & Paul Pierce have the size advantage over Toronto's wing men & should spend a lot of time in the post.

On the season, the three point defense still rates as the second worst in the league, but they've been much improved during the streak. Over the last two games, they've held the third (Golden State) & sixth (Miami) best three point shooting teams to a combined 30.6 percent from deep. Terrence Ross & Lowry (more in a bit) are the team's best three point shooters in the rotation, but outside of them the Raps don't pose that big of a threat from deep.

What's been the difference since Rudy Gay was moved to Sacramento? The mothership's James Herbert might have the answer:

In other words: they haven't drastically shifted philosophies since moving Gay. They've just done what they do so much better.

The team finds themselves sixth in defensive efficiency, holding teams to just 99.9 points per 100 possessions. Where they excel on defense is in forcing turnovers. They're fourth in opponent's turnover rate, forcing 17 turnovers per 100 possessions. They also do a very good job on the interior defensively. Although teams average 28 shots per game inside the restricted area, they only bank on 57 percent of them. The presence of second year player Jonas Valanciunas is probably the reason for this. In 29 minutes of action a night, teams are only shooting 46.8 percent at the rim when he's defending it. The second year has taken another step forward and has maintained his level of play from last season with more playing time & offensive responsibility and is averaging close to a double-double a night.

On the offensive side of the ball, Terrence Ross & DeMar DeRozan figure to be instrumental for Toronto. Since Gay was traded, Ross has entered the starting lineup and has seen his performance improve. The second year player has been in the starting lineup since December 10.& has seen his shooting numbers go up across the board. He's most effective from the corners as he's shooting close to 50 percent from three point range in those areas. As for DeRozan, he's one of the more active players in the league. He's third in minutes per game, eighth in free throws attempted & is top twenty in usage rate. He's at his best driving to the basket (he does it about seven times a game) & he's gotten better at finishing around the rim. However, the majority of his offense comes outside of the paint & that's a part of his game that needs to develop.

Player to Watch: Kyle Lowry

Quietly, Lowry has been one of the better point guards in the NBA over the past couple of seasons (aside from when he's beefing with management). This season was always a key one for Lowry, and back in the summer, Raptors HQ writer Zach Salzmann wrote about Lowry & the pressure he was under:

Lowry's in the final year of his contract, has shown a ton of promise throughout his career, but as I've mentioned, has also gained a reputation for flattering to deceive. What's more, while he isn't exactly old, Lowry's not exactly young by NBA standards either. Lowry's 27 and will be 28 by the time next season finishes. This might be his final chance to show a team --the Raptors, or anyone else-- that he can run an offense, and demand the kind of contract that comes with that responsibility. There's a ton of great young point-guards in the NBA right now and (as Brandon Jennings is finding out) not a lot of teams desperately in need for one. Although the Raptors are one of those teams searching for a starting point-guard, Lowry's going to have to convince Ujiri that's he's worth investing in, post-2013/14.

He's been able to play at a high level this season. In 36 minutes a night, Lowry is averaging around 16 points, about eight assists and four rebounds a game. He's only shooting 42.9 percent from the field, but that doesn't tell the whole story. He's getting to the line four times a game (hitting on 80 percent) and is shooting a career best 38.8 percent from three point range. Lowry hasn't always been the best at limiting his turnovers, but this year has been very different for him. He's committing the fewest turnovers of his career, and as a result the Raptors are almost seven points better on offense per 100 possessions when he's in the game. He's always been a capable defender as he can get you two steals a game and keep up with some of the better perimeter players in the league.

He'll be facing Shaun Livingston, who's coming off a great game against the Heat, but played a career high 51 minutes. Seeing as how the Nets played two overtime sessions and are on the second night of a back-to-back, I would expect Lowry and the Raptors to play at a faster than normal pace. They only average around 95 possessions a night, but they would be wise to play fast & see how much energy Brooklyn has left in their collective tanks. Lowry does have a bit of a foul problem (top 10 in total fouls) so the Nets backcourt players should look to be very aggressive against him. He's a big guy so look for him to matchup against Joe Johnson in the low post on occasion.

From the Vault

Take a trip back to the Winter of 2000 and watch Vince Carter lead the Raptors against Jason Kidd and the Phoenix Suns.


More reading: Raptors HQ

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