TORONTO - Coming off a pair of wire-to-wire victories, the revamped Raptors offence will come face-to-face with the Charlotte Bobcats (11-14) and their improved defence at the Air Canada Centre on Wednesday.
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Although the Raptors (9-13) have had a renewed confidence about them since dealing Rudy Gay - they've won three of four games since the trade - the lowly Bobcats continue to be a perplexing thorn in their side.
The Bobcats, who snapped a three-game losing streak with a 95-87 victory over Sacramento on Tuesday, have lost their last three games in Toronto but they've won six straight over the Raptors in Charlotte and their most recent meeting is one that still haunts Dwane Casey.
"They're a very difficult team for us to play against, to defend, to score on," Casey admitted after practice on Tuesday, reflecting on a crushing 92-90 Nov. 6 loss in Charlotte. "They came out and attacked us at their place and did what they wanted to do to us."
"Charlotte happens to have our number and we've got to come out in attack mode against them and try to get that corrected."
Toronto got off to a slow start in that contest and the comeback ultimately fell short in the dying seconds when Casey's team failed to commit a foul to extend the game.
"For us, we definitely have to match their energy," said Amir Johnson, who had 13 points and seven rebounds against the Bobcats earlier in the season. "We looked over film [from that game] but we've got a new team. We know what they like to do and the main thing we've got to do is outwork those guys."
This Raptors team is looking and playing a lot different than the one that fell to Charlotte last month. Gay, who led them in scoring with 20 points in that loss, is gone and Toronto's offence has been more cohesive as a result.
Last in the league in assists prior to the trade, the Raptors have recorded 20 or more dimes in three of the last four games, also shooting at least 45 per cent from the field in a season-high four straight contests.
"[The ball is] moving pretty well," said newcomer Greivis Vasquez, averaging 9.5 points and 4.0 assists in two games with the Raptors. "I think our offence is so smooth, any offence is so smooth when you pass the ball and we're doing that lately."
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Although the Bobcats rank next to last in scoring, they're much improved on the other end of the floor under new head coach Steve Clifford. Charlotte is allowing fewer than 93 points per contest, only two NBA teams surrender less. On Tuesday the Bobcats held Sacramento to 87 points, their 21st time holding an opponent under 100, the most in the league this season.
"They're packing the paint, guys are making you shoot jump shots against them," Casey said of Charlotte's improved defence. "Protecting the paint is a big thing, you're going to have to make jump shots, you've got to get open on the wings, you've got to be strong with the ball because they're getting into it."
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With back-to-back wins over Philadelphia and Chicago, the Raptors haven't trailed in eight quarters of basketball. It's the first time they've won consecutive games without trailing since January 2013 against the 76ers and Bobcats.
The Raptors held Chicago to an opponent season-low 77 points on Saturday. It was also the first time Toronto has held an opponent under 40 per cent shooting this year. Casey's Raptors teams are 23-9 when holding teams under 40 per cent, including an 11-1 mark last season.
Although the Bobcats entered Tuesday's game last in both threes per game and three-point field goal percentage, they shot 8-for-17 from long range against the Kings and are now 4-2 on the season when making six or more treys.
Bobcats guard Kemba Walker, who is heating up after a rough start to the season, is averaging 20.4 points over his last eight games.
What to Watch For
Although the Raptors opened the season as one of the best rebounding teams in the league, Coach Casey has noticed a slippage in that category of late and has used practice time this week to address it.
"We had that same issue in the exhibition season and we corrected it," Casey said, concerned about his team's effort boxing out and establishing rebounding position in practice. "We've just got to continue to work on it. It's a very difficult thing to do now because you don't want to do a lot of banging on the bodies just because of the time of year it is but mentally you can focus in and lock in."
The Raptors' coach penalized players for giving up offensive rebounds in Tuesday's practice, forcing them to do running drills and hopes he has gotten through to his team going into a matchup with the physical Bobcats frontcourt.
Throw the first punch
Although the Raptors' loss to Charlotte in November ended with a controversial final play, Casey stressed that it should have never come to that. Toronto was dominated in the first quarter, outscored 32-18 as the Bobcats shot an astonishing 15-for-20 from the field in the period.
"It was the worst quarter, other than the Golden State fourth quarter, that we've had," Casey admitted. "So we've got to come in this game energized, ready to attack."
The Bobcats got off to another hot start on Tuesday, besting the Kings 35-22 after 12 minutes.
However, Toronto seems to have rectified its slow starts of late. The Raptors have won all four first quarters since the trade, outscoring opponents by a combined total of 40 points. Although they've won all four fourth quarters as well, they've lost six of eight second and third frames over that span.
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After a slow start to the season, Johnson has picked up right where he left off following last year's breakout campaign. The Raptors' forward was sent to the bench for a couple games until an injury to Tyler Hansbrough helped earn him his job back. Since then he's been lights out.
Johnson is shooting 71 per cent, averaging 20.0 points and 9.0 boards in his last six games. "Players go through slumps, he's had is, he's back now," Casey said of his starting four-man.
Without Gay in the lineup, the Raptors are moving the ball and running more pick and rolls, which has been largely responsible for Johnson's reemergence. He has also found instant chemistry playing alongside Vasquez.
"He's a great pick and roll player," Vasquez said of his new teammates. "He can catch, he sets good screens and it's going to open up so many different things, it's only been two games."
Like Johnson, Henderson is one of the more unheralded players in the association and the Bobcats guard has proven himself to be a bona fide Raptor killer over the years.
In 11 career games against Toronto, Henderson is averaging 14.4 points on a red-hot 54 per cent shooting. Most recently, he scored 23 on 10-of-17 shooting in this season's win over the Raptors.