The memo about the East being the worst conference in the history of the NBA must not have made it north of the border, where the Toronto Raptors have emerged as a legitimate contender. A year after they came out of nowhere to win 48 games and get the No. 3 seed, they have the best record (12-2) and point differential (+11.6) in the league. To be sure, it helps when you can beat up on division rivals like the Philadelphia 76ers, but it's not like anyone else is separating themselves from the pack out East.
The Raptors are a young team growing up at the same time, as their starters go 28 (Kyle Lowry), 23 (Terrence Ross), 25 (DeMar DeRozan), 27 (Amir Johnson) and 22 (Jonas Valanciunas). Valanciunas was the only one of the five to go in the top five in the draft, but they are a group better than the sum of their parts, with five guys who can defend their position while also being threats to score. DeRozan and Lowry are their leading scorers, but any of their starters can go off a given night, as four of the five average double digits in scoring.
Just as important for a team without a lot of starpower is their bench, which is one of the deepest in the NBA. Holdovers Greivis Vasquez, Patrick Patterson and Chuck Hayes, all acquired in the Rudy Gay trade, give them some stability on their second unit, which has been taken to the next level by the additions of Lou Williams and James Johnson. Johnson is their defensive stopper, similar to Al-Farouq Aminu, while Williams has put his name in the ring for Sixth Man of the Year, averaging almost 14 points a game on 44 percent shooting.
The game against Dallas is a big one for Toronto, as they start their first road trip out West on Sunday, a three-game swing through LA, Sacramento and Utah. Even the best team in the East is likely to struggle when they cross the Mississippi, which makes protecting their home court when someone from the West makes a visit all the more important. You may not have heard much about the Raptors coming into the season, but this is a team with all the pieces that is ready to make a run in the playoffs.
PG - Kyle Lowry - The heart and soul of the team. One of the best two-way PGs in the NBA, Lowry is the centerpiece of Toronto's offense and defense, a 6'0 205 bulldog who gets into you on one end of the floor and can take over the game on the other. After signing a 4-year, $48 million deal in the off-season, Lowry is averaging 18 points, 5 rebounds and 6 assists a game on 47% shooting and looks in line to make his first All-Star appearance of his career.
SG - Terrence Ross - Despite winning the Slam Dunk contest as a rookie, Ross is probably the most anonymous starter in Toronto. The third-year guard has never gotten a ton of chances to dominate the ball in the NBA, but he is an elite athlete with good size (6'7 195) who can shoot from anywhere and play way above the rim. When Ross is going, the Raptors go to a whole different level.
SF - DeMar DeRozan - DeRozan is their leading scorer, although his low shooting percentage (40 percent) means that other teams aren't sweating his 20 points per game too much. At 6'7 220, he is an elite athlete who plays with a high motor, but he isn't the most skilled player in the world and he settles for far too many long twos. You want to take away DeRozan's driving lanes and give him space to fire away from the perimeter.
PF - Amir Johnson - Johnson is Toronto's glue guy, a 6'9 240 bruiser who sets screens, battles on the boards and serves as one of the anchors of their interior defense. He's not all brawn, though, as he is more than capable of stepping out to 20-feet and knocking down the perimeter jumper. Like everyone else in the NBA, he will have trouble guarding Dirk, but he could give the big German some trouble on the offensive glass.
C - Jonas Valanciunas - The key to the whole operation. Still only 22, Jonas is a third-year player who has barely begun to scratch the surface of his potential. As a bruising 7'0 255 center who has steadily added to his offensive game since coming into the league, he defies most of the stereotypes surrounding European big men. He is averaging 12 points, 8 rebounds and 1 block a game on 59 percent shooting.
PG - Grievis Vasquez - Vasquez in his fourth NBA team in five seasons, but he appears to have found a home in Toronto, where he handles the ball while swinging between several different perimeter positions on defense. The shooting hasn't been there this season, but Vasquez is a very dangerous offensive player, a 6'6 point guard who can take over the game as a scorer, passer or rebounder.
SG - Lou Williams - In his 2nd year coming back after ACL surgery, Williams has regained the form that made him one of the most dangerous 2nd-unit scorers in the NBA. When he's coming into the game, he's coming in for one reason only - to hoist up as many shots as he possibly can. He's averaging 14 points and 1 assist a game, which tells you the type of mentality that he plays with.
SF - James Johnson - Johnson isn't putting up huge statistics, but he plays an important role on the Raptors, as their designated stopper off the bench. A 6'9 250 combo forward, he can match up with almost any type of front-court player and he's frisky on the other end, as he stuffs the stat sheet in every category when he's in the game - 7 points, 3.5 rebounds, 2 assists, 1 steal and 1 block a game.
PF - Patrick Patterson - Patterson, a true stretch four, gives them the option of playing small with four guys on the perimeter. At 6'9 235, he's a pure shooter who is almost as effective from the three-point line (41 percent) as he is from the field (43%). While he isn't a great defensive player, the Raptors close out a lot of games with him on the floor, since he gives them the option of running pick-and-pops or spreading the floor for a pick-and-roll.
C - Tyler Hansbrough - Psycho T is kind of their version of DeJuan Blair, a semi-skilled brawler who plays with a ton of energy and junks up the game whenever he is in. Like Blair, Hansbrough doesn't play much defense and can't stretch the floor, so he's not useful every night, but he can provide a spark of energy when the team is flat.
Keys To The Game:
1. Attack the rim, particularly against their second unit: Toronto doesn't have a ton of shot-blocking when Valanciunas isn't in the game, so they could be vulnerable to pick-and-rolls with Brandan Wright, which has been one of the most important weapons in the Mavs arsenal this season. The Raptors have a ton of length and athleticism on the perimeter, so you want to get them involved in the two-man game and make them defend as a unit.
2. Take away something on defense: Dallas is going to be out-manned on that side of the ball, particularly on the perimeter, so the key is knowing what you can take away and what you can't. You don't want Lowry, Ross, DeRozan and Williams to kill you - you have to take away at least two of those guys if you are going to come away with a win in the Air Canada Center.
3. Chandler Parsons: I hate to sound like a broken record, but this is the kind of game where you want a big showing from your $45 million dollar man. DeRozan beat him out for a spot on the World Championship team this summer, but he's far from a perfect player and he's exactly the type of player that Parsons needs to be able to handle in their 1-on-1 match-up.
The game is at 6:30 Central on Fox Sports Southwest.
Hope everyone had a good Thanksgiving!