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Lewenberg: Raptors look to take division lead from 76ers

Josh Lewenberg
11/20/2013 12:13:26 PM
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PHILADELPHIA - Despite a slow start to the season, the Raptors (4-7) can overtake the surprising 76ers (5-7) in the standings and claim sole possession of first place in the Atlantic when the division rivals meet on Wednesday.

Dwane Casey has reminded his players that "the league hasn't gone anywhere" and their own division is a prime example.

It's still early but Atlantic front runners New York and Brooklyn sit at the bottom of the division, both at 3-7, while Philadelphia - expected to be among the NBA's worst this season - has been a pleasant surprise, although the young 76ers appear to be coming back down to earth.

"You read all this stuff about, 'they're not playing to win', or whatever," Casey said, referring to the widespread belief that Philadelphia has constructed its team with the intention to tank this season. "Teams go in there with that relaxed attitude and that's not true."

"Whatever the message is, those players are playing hard to win. You can have a different mission as an organization but as players they're playing to win."

After a 3-0 start - with impressive wins over the Heat and Bulls - the 76ers have struggled and, like the Raptors, have lost three of four coming into Wednesday's game.

Two of Toronto's defeats have come in overtime, including a 118-110 loss to the Trail Blazers at home Sunday afternoon. Rudy Gay scored 10 of his team-high 30 points during a 19-6 fourth-quarter run which was capped off by the forward's buzzer-beating layup to force extra time.

The 76ers - who have defeated Toronto in seven of nine meetings - are coming off a 97-94 loss in Dallas on Monday, a game in which they shot just 38 per cent from the field.

"They play really hard and outwork guys," said Philadelphia-native Kyle Lowry. "They've got some good players, they've got players that are trying to make a name for themselves and they're just going out there and playing hard."

The Raptors haven't been atop the Atlantic later than 10 games into a season since 2006-07, the only year they won the division.

Trends and Tidbits

Gay (20.6 points per game) and DeMar DeRozan (20.5) are one of four pairs of teammates averaging 20 or more points apiece in the NBA. Gay has scored 20 or more in each of the last four contests however, the team is winless (0-3) when both players exceed 20 points in the same game. The Raptors are 0-5 when DeRozan scores 20 or more.

Gay and DeRozan have accounted for 46 per cent of the team's field goal attempts through 11 games, shooting a combined 39 per cent from the floor.

The Raptors have reached 100 points in four of their last five games, averaging 102.4 points, after failing to hit the century mark in each of the six games to open the season, scoring 92.3. Toronto is 2-2 when scoring 100 or more this season and was 16-16 a year ago.

Amir Johnson is one block away from reaching 500 for his career. Johnson has blocked 342 shots in 310 games as a Raptor and currently ranks seventh on the team's all-time blocks list.

What to Watch For

Control the pace

With an average age just under 24-years-old, the 76ers are tied with Cleveland for the youngest team in the NBA. They're young, they're quick and they look to run wherever possible.

"They have some guys that get out in transition," Casey said of the hosting 76ers, who play at the fastest pace in the league. "We've got to get back, build a wall, ready to play quick one-one-one defence and then when the shot goes up, we've got to make sure we find a body."

Conversely, Toronto is last in the league in pace and although the Raptors' coach has indicated he'd like to get out in transition, he's also not planning on forcing the issue.

"I don't know if we have natural runners," Casey said. "A lot of people get caught up in pace of play [but] I don't. I think you have to play the pace of play that's comfortable according to your talents."

Pressure the young Sixers

"The number one thing, the way they beat Miami, the way they beat Houston, the way they beat Chicago is hard play," Casey said of the 76ers. "We've got to match that intensity at their place."

The 76ers have snuck up on a few of the league's elite teams with their hard play but more recently, their youth and inexperience has stood out.

Philadelphia is committing an average of 17.3 turnovers per game, sixth most in the league, including 4.4 in the fourth quarter. Toronto has outscored its opponent in the fourth quarter in each of its last four games.

Bench production

Can either team's second unit step up and take pressure off the starters?

Both teams rank in the bottom four in bench scoring, the Sixers reserves averaging 24.3 points per game (27th) and Toronto's subs scoring 23.9 (29th).

Who to Watch For

Kyle Lowry

The Raptors' point guard has done a better job as the team's floor general, totalling 24 assists and only three turnovers over the last three games. However, he continues to struggle with his jump shot. Lowry is just 6-for-26 from the field in his last two contests, including 1-for-14 from three-point range.

Lowry, a Philadelphia native, will look to get back on track against the team he grew up watching.

"It never gets old," Lowry said ahead of his return to Philadelphia. "It never gets old because it's home."

The 27-year-old is averaging 13.8 points and 5.8 assists in five career games in his hometown.

Evan Turner

The fourth-year forward is one of the young 76ers players who has stood out early in the season, taking advantage of the added playing time he's been given. Turner is scoring a career-best 22.0 points per game on 47 per cent shooting, also averaging 6.3 rebounds and 3.6 assists.

Historically, Turner has struggled against Toronto, averaging only 8.2 points on 35 per cent shooting in 11 career meetings with the Raptors.

Injury Report

76ers rookie point guard Michael Carter-Williams has missed the last four games with a bruised left foot but participated in shootaround Wednesday morning and hopes to play against Toronto.

Raptors forward Quincy Acy is questionable after spraining his right ankle early in Sunday's game against Portland.

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