The Raptors (46-17) have won five straight and 14 of 16 overall after pulling away for a 106-90 victory over the Atlanta Hawks on Tuesday night to complete a season sweep of the series. DeMar DeRozan scored 25 points, but it was Toronto’s bench that stepped to the forefront in this game as they held Atlanta to 13 fourth-quarter points and turned the game with a 17-6 burst over the first 6:01 of the final period.
Toronto have opened a two-game lead over Boston for both the Atlantic Division and the top spot in the Eastern Conference and now look for their third win over Detroit in as many games this season and fifth straight over the Pistons overall. The Raptors have won 14 of the last 19 games between the teams, including six of the last eight in Detroit.
That does not bode well for a Pistons team struggling to stay in the playoff race. Detroit (29-35) capped a winless three-game road swing by being overrun 112-90 at Cleveland on Monday night for their ninth loss in 11 games overall.
Blake Griffin had 25 points and eight rebounds while Andre Drummond chipped in 15 points and nine boards, but the Pistons struggled to contain LeBron James and were outclassed on the boards by a 53-40 count as they fell five games behind the Milwaukee Bucks for the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.
Three keys to the game
Back to normal for the Raptors bench... - After being outscored by Charlotte's reserves Sunday night, the vaunted Raptors bench brough their A-game to finish their two-game home stand with a flourish, outscoring their Hawks counterparts 47-30 as C. J. Miles and Delon Wright led the charge with 14 and ten points, respectively.
...but Detroit's second five are struggling - Pistons coach Stan Van Gundy is trying anything and everything to stop this free fall, and nothing seems to work. For the second straight game, he started the second quarter with Stanley Johnson, Anthony Tolliver, Eric Moreland, Langston Galloway and Dwight Buycks, but they accounted for just ten points in the first 8:39 of the quarter as the Cavaliers wrested away control of the game.
Detroit's bench has averaged 31.7 points during this 11-game slump, getting outscored by opponents' reserves by 13.2 per game in that span.
Toronto's rotating door at small forward - The Raptors started Malcolm Miller at small forward as OG Anunoby missed his third straight game with a sprained ankle. He had five points and two rebounds, but they also signed Nigel Hayes to a ten-day contract to add depth at the position. Hayes averaged 16.1 points and 6.7 rebounds with Westchester in the G-League and played two games with the Los Angeles Lakers in January.
Matchup to watch
PF Serge Ibaka vs PF Blake Griffin - Ibaka sometimes gets lost in the shuffle of Toronto's success because he does not score like DeRozan or Kyle Lowry, and he is not part of the Raptors bench mob. But the Raptors power forward has definitely been an unsung part of their success, doing the dirty work on both ends of the frontcourt while making steady contributions.
Ibaka's net rating has jumped from plus-3.3 in the 23 games he played after being acquired from Orlando last season to plus-7.8 this season as the Raptors are giving up 104.7 points per 100 possessions when he's on the court. On offense, he has reached double figures 12 times in Toronto's last 16 games, averaging 12.6 points and 6.3 rebounds.
He likely will have to sacrifice some offense in guarding Griffin, who has averaged 28.0 points in his last two games as he has taken on more of the scoring load for the Pistons. He also has made six of 11 from 3-point range in the last two games, showing a deeper range and more offensive versatility than trying to be a point forward who drives from the mid-post. Still, if Ibaka can cut off the driving lanes early, this could become a very easy game for the Raptors to win.
Toronto Raptors projected starting lineup
PG - Kyle Lowry | SG - DeMar DeRozan | C - Jonas Valanciunas | SF - Malcolm Miller | PF - Serge Ibaka
Detroit Pistons projected starting lineup
PG - Ish Smith | SG - Reggie Bullock | C - Andre Drummond | SF - James Ennis III | PF - Blake Griffin
A good sign the Raptors are playing well offensively is when DeRozan is consistently getting to the line. After making 12 of 14 on Tuesday night, Toronto are 15-5 when he attempts at least ten foul shots. It did not happen in the first game but did in the second, when he converted ten of 11 free throws in Toronto's 123-94 rout February 26.
He has averaged 21.9 points and 5.1 assists in his last 11 games against Detroit since the start of the 2014/15 season.
Lowry has cooled off to start March, totaling 24 points while making just three of 13 from 3-point range after connecting on 42.6 percent of his long-range shots (40 for 84) in 11 February games. He has gone ten for 18 from beyond the arc in the two wins over the Pistons, including six of ten in the February victory and has averaged 18.0 points, 6.4 assists and 6.2 rebounds while making 17 of 34 from deep in his last five matchups with Detroit.
Griffin was held to 12 points and five assists on four-of-12 shooting in the February 26 loss in his only game against the Raptors while with the Pistons. He has averaged 21.8 points and 8.3 rebounds in 13 career games versus Toronto and recorded a triple-double against them last season while with the Clippers.
Drummond's streak of double-doubles ended at 18 on Monday night when he finished one rebound shy, but he does have a three-game run against Toronto coming into this contest. He has totaled 43 points and 35 rebounds in the two games this season and has averaged 12.7 points and 13.0 rebounds over 20 career games versus the Raptors.
The Raptors have been established as five-point favorites and have had the upper hand in this series for bettors as they have covered in eight of the last ten meetings. Toronto have also covered in their last four road games and nine times in their last 12 games overall.
They are also 7-1 against the spread in their last eight games versus teams with a losing record and 7-3 against the number in their last ten outings when playing conference rivals.
While Detroit are 10-3 against the spread in their last 13 games against opponents with a winning percentage above .600, they are just 6-20 against the spread in their last 26 games and have covered just once in their last six at Little Caesars Arena. The Pistons have also failed to cover in their last four matchups with Atlantic Division teams.
The over/under has slipped two points to 213 and is a toss-up considering the under has gone 3-1-1 in the last five meetings between the teams, but the over has hit five times in the last seven matchups in Detroit. The over is also 5-0-1 in the last six occasions the Raptors have played on the back end of consecutive nights and gone 12-3-1 in their last 16 versus Central Division opponents.
The under, however, is 4-0-1 in Detroit's last five at home and 13-3-2 in their last 18 games when facing a team with a winning percentage higher than .600.
This game could not come at a worse time for the Pistons, who are struggling to get any points out of their backcourt as they face arguably the most potent offensive tandem of guards in the Eastern Conference in Lowry and DeRozan.
Lowry in particular might be eager to get back on the court after he had a disjointed 22-minute effort in which he was whistled for a technical foul and finished with four points and seven assists. Toronto were frustrated by Atlanta's physicality, and Detroit may take a page out of that playbook as they are desperate for a victory.
But the sign of a good team is one who is able to win when they are not at their best, and the Raptors proved that Tuesday night thanks to their depth. Playing on back-to-back nights won't be easy, but expect a focused starting five to deliver a fifth straight win overall and against the Pistons with a 103-90 victory.
The game will be televised nationally on ESPN and nationally in Canada on TSN 4/5. It will also be televised locally on Fox Sports Detroit. Tip-off time is 8 pm EST.
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