TORONTO - The Toronto Raptors (26-42) host a depleted and undersized New York Knicks (40-26) team in the first game of a weekend home-and-home series at the Air Canada Centre Friday evening.
Losers of two straight and nine of the last 12, the Raptors hope to get back on track at home, where they are 17-17, before traveling to Madison Square Garden for a re-match with the Knicks 24 hours later.
"You can't let little things get you off-kilter," Raptors coach Dwane Casey emphasized after the team's shootaround Friday morning. "The experienced teams don't let bad calls, missed shots, whatever it is, to take you out of sink and that's where we are as a young team."
The Knicks have won the last two contests after dropping their previous four and trail the second-seeded Pacers by one game in the standings despite sitting just one game ahead of Brooklyn atop the Atlantic Division.
Although Carmelo Anthony returned from a three-game absence -- caused by a lingering knee injury -- in Wednesday's 106-94 win over the Magic, New York will continue to be without Tyson Chandler, who is likely to miss a week with a bulging disk, as well as fellow frontcourt players Amare Stoudemire, Rasheed Wallace and Kurt Thomas.
Trends and Tidbits
The Raptors have won their last three meetings with the Knicks, including both match-ups this season, most recently a 100-98 victory at the ACC on Feb. 22.
Toronto has scored 40 or more points in the paint in nine consecutive contests, averaging 47.3 during that stretch.
The Raptors have accumulated 19 or fewer assists in each of the last four games and 13 of 23 since the trade for Rudy Gay. They're averaging 19.4 dimes over that span, one of the lowest marks in the league.
Rookie Jonas Valanciunas has scored in double figures in six of the last seven games, grabbing six or more rebounds in each of the last past six. Valanciunas is averaging 9.9 points and 6.3 boards for the Raptors this month.
What to Watch For
- No Mercy in the Trenches
With Anthony playing the four, surrounded by shooters, New York's small lineup has forced the Raptors to adapt in the previous meetings this season. Landry Fields has started both games for Toronto in an attempt to match-up with Melo and keep up with the quicker Knicks group. Although the Raptors went on to win both games New York has dominated the interior this season, out-rebounding Toronto by 25 and besting them in the paint by a combined 17 points, thanks in large part to the reigning defensive player of the year. Naturally, Chandler's presence allows the Knicks to play small without seizing control of the paint.
Without Chandler in the lineup and anchoring their defence, the Knicks instantly become a vulnerable team around the rim, on both ends of the floor. In his place, the recently signed Kenyon Martin has been starting at centre, averaging a respectable 9.9 points and 6.3 rebounds over the past four games. "He does a good job of filling in for Tyson," Casey said of Martin. "I don't think he can replace Tyson but he's good enough and [Marcus] Camby's smart enough to do a good job at holding down the fort." However, the six-foot-nine Martin -- not the intimidator he once was -- is undersized and Camby, who turned 39 on Friday, is nearing the end of his career, something the Raptors will have to exploit if they're to win or even sweep the season series this weekend.
- Battle of the Benches
The Raptors' second unit -- one of the highest scoring groups of reserves earlier in the season -- has been a glaring weakness during the team's two-game slide. During that stretch Toronto's bench has been outscored 93-29, an insurmountable margin.
Streak shooters Terrence Ross, Alan Anderson and John Lucas III have been inconsistent offensively but it's been their defence that has proved more damaging. They'll have their work cut out for them once again against a Knicks second unit that features Sixth Man of the Year candidate J.R. Smith, veteran Jason Kidd and sharpshooter Steve Novak.
Who to Watch For
- Rudy Gay
Playing through a variety of ailments including a troublesome back, Gay has found his touch of late, averaging 26.7 points on an impressive 56 per cent shooting over the last three games. After going toe-to-toe with LeBron James -- to some success -- last weekend, the Raptors' forward will renew acquaintances with Anthony, the league's second-leading scorer (27.4 points per game). During their previous showdown at the ACC last month both players poured in 32 points, a season-high for Gay.
Like Gay, Anthony has been battling injuries this month, missing three games earlier in March after having fluid drained from the back of his right knee. Melo returned to score 21 points on 7-of-14 shooting on Wednesday and will be counted on to carry New York's undermanned frontcourt into Toronto. "He's such a great one-on-one player," Casey said of Anthony. "We're going to have multiple people guarding him."
Andrea Bargnani (right elbow) - Out