Game Preview: Hornets vs. Raptors
February 29, 2012
In the first home game of the second half of the regular season for the New Orleans Hornets, they host a Toronto Raptors club trying to remain in the Eastern Conference postseason chase. Wednesdays game in the Crescent City marks the only matchup of 2011-12 between these interconference foes, due to the compressed 66-game schedule. The Hornets are seeking their second straight home victory, after defeating Utah by an 86-80 margin back on Feb. 13. New Orleans has won a total of three games on its home floor this season, including routing Boston on Dec. 28 and Orlando on Jan. 27.
Like the Hornets, the Raptors are currently in rebuilding mode. Toronto has missed the playoffs for three consecutive years and seven times in the past nine seasons, but multiple high draft picks give the Raptors hope that theyll become a playoff team in the future. Leading scorer Andrea Bargnani was the No. 1 overall draft pick in 2006, while second-leading scorer DeMar DeRozan was a 2009 lottery choice.
Another similarity between the Hornets and Raptors is that each squad has a relatively new head coach who places significant emphasis on defense. Now in his second year at the helm, Monty Williams greatly improved New Orleans as a defensive team in 2010-11, while Torontos Dwayne Casey has done likewise in 2010-12 for his club. In his first season on the sideline for the Raptors, theyve moved from 30th in the league in defensive efficiency to 18th. Prior to Caseys arrival, the Raptors were known as an offensive-minded team that defended and rebounded poorly, but have made major strides in those categories.
Intriguing matchup: Bench vs. Bench
Due to injuries, the collection of reserves for both teams has frequently been altered this season, but the Raptors rely more heavily on their subs than most squads. Among Torontos top six scorers this season, three usually come off the bench, including guards Leandro Barbosa and Jerryd Bayless, as well as forward Linas Kleiza. The Hornets have had a dozen different players fill a starting role in at least two games this season, making the bench a constantly-changing entity, but players such as Greivis Vasquez, Gustavo Ayon, Chris Kaman, Al-Farouq Aminu and Xavier Henry have each logged major minutes as backups.
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After going just 22-60 in 2010-11, Torontos worst record since 1997-98, outside expectations for the Raptors were extremely low entering the current campaign. The Raptors hoped the installment of new head coach Dwayne Casey would make a significant impact, particularly at the defensive end, and it has during the early portion of this season. Toronto began the year at 4-5 overall, before an eight-game losing streak pushed it to near the bottom of the Eastern Conference standings. The Raptors rallied for a 4-3 stretch that included victories over Phoenix, Utah, New Jersey and Washington, but later was a hard-luck loser in multiple February games. In fact, from Feb. 5 through Feb. 14, all five Raptors losses came by margins of six points or fewer a similar theme to the Hornets frustrating early season. At the All-Star break, Toronto was still within shouting distance of eighth place in the East, but with several rivals picking up their pace it seemed unlikely that the Raptors would be able to remain in the postseason discussion.
For a team coming off a forgettable previous season, the Raptors did not make many major changes to their roster, but in a pure coincidence, many of the new faces have ties to the Hornets. In free agency, Toronto signed center Aaron Gray, who spent last season with New Orleans and also contributed to a pair of first-round playoff victories over the Lakers. The Raptors also added former Hornets big man Jamaal Magloire, who made the All-Star team as a New Orleans player, as well as swingman Rasual Butler. Butler was a key member of NOLAs 2008-09 squad that went 49-33 and qualified for the West playoffs. Along with Gray, Magloire and Butler, the Raptors other offseason pickups were forward Gary Forbes and defensive-minded point guard Anthony Carter, a 13-year NBA veteran. The Raptors chose promising center Jonas Valanciunas fifth overall in the 2011 NBA Draft, but Valanciunas elected to stay overseas for at least one season before joining Toronto.
Andrea Bargnani was off to the best start of his six-year NBA career in 2011-12, but injuries prevented him from appearing in 17 of Torontos first 30 games. The former No. 1 overall draft pick strained his left calf in late January, after the Raptors had gone 6-7 in the first 13 games in which Bargnani appeared this season. The 26-year-old is one of three active NBA players who hail from Italy, including New Orleans shooting guard Marco Belinelli and Denver small forward Danilo Gallinari. Bargnani is a new-school type of center, a 7-footer who scores most of his points from the perimeter rather than the paint.
Raptor on the rise
With Bargnani sidelined for large chunks of this season, DeMar DeRozan has often assumed the role of go-to scorer for the Raptors. A 6-foot-7, 220-pounder, the 22-year-old shooting guard possesses the skill and athleticism that led many to believe hell someday become an All-Star-caliber player. The USC product has improved his outside shot this season but remains more reliant on drives to the basket, where he produces highlight-reel dunks on a regular basis.
On the sideline
Casey was an assistant coach for the Dallas Mavericks last season when the Mavs won their first-ever NBA championship, receiving credit for making the Mavs a more focused team on that end of the floor. This is Caseys second stint as a head coach in the NBA; his first with the Minnesota Timberwolves lasted from 2005-07 and finished with a record of 53-69.
Did you know?
The Raptors joined the NBA in 1995 along with the Vancouver Grizzlies, but when the Grizzlies moved to Memphis, Toronto became Canadas lone NBA city. The teams nickname of Raptors was influenced by the widespread popularity of the 1993 movie Jurassic Park. Their original color scheme heavily featured the color purple, but the franchise eventually dropped purple and decided to emphasize red and white, partly as a nod to Canadas national colors and flag.
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