It isn’t taking long out of the All-Star break for Raptors 905 to jump right back into the fire. As they enter their season’s stretch run and resume their quests both to reach the top of the Eastern Conference and repeat as G League Champions, a three-game week leaves little time to ease back in. Following a short-handed victory over Erie on Wednesday and a quiet trade deadline Thursday, the 905 are now set for what may be their biggest weekend of the regular season.
The 905 start things off with a trip to Westchester to play the Knicks on Saturday afternoon. The Knicks will enter with a 1.5-game lead on the 905 atop the Atlantic Division and for the top seed in the East, a battle that will go a long way in shaping the playoff bracket – only division leaders are eligible for the first-round bye that the top two overall seeds in each conference earn, so whichever team lands second in the Atlantic will have to play a one-and-done first-round series.
The game is an interesting contrast of two of the league’s best teams. At 26-14, the Knicks own the league’s best record, and they have the league’s best Net Rating to back it up. Where the Knicks are a solid offense and a good defense, the 905 have forged an identity as the league’s best defense – they recently pulled into a tie with the Long Island Nets for the best Defensive Rating in the league. The 905 surrender just 99.1 points per-100 possessions on the year, the best mark in the G League since the 2015-16 Sioux Falls Skyforce, who went on to win the championship.
Earlier meetings between the 905 and Knicks have been as hotly contested as those stats might suggest. The 905 edged the Knicks 92-90 in Westchester on Nov. 12, then beat them 112-109 in Mississauga two days later. It was the Knicks coming out ahead 101-99 at Hershey Centre on Jan. 31, though, meaning the 905 need to win Saturday to solidify the tie-breaker advantage with a 3-1 season-series victory. Across three games, the 905 have outscored the Knicks by a total of three points. This could be an Eastern Conference Finals preview.
Chinese New Year at Air Canada Centre
The 905 return home quickly after their Westchester visit to host the Wisconsin Herd on Sunday. That game will celebrate Chinese New Year, complete with an alternate Raptors 905 jersey that has the characters “9-0-5” in Chinese characters.
Special game deserves a special jersey.
— Raptors 905 (@Raptors905) February 20, 2018
Simu Liu, who plays Jung on the sitcom Kim’s Convenience on CBC, will be singing the national anthem.
Rocking my special edition @Raptors905 #ChineseNewYear jersey in LA and reminding y’all that I’ll be singing the national anthems at the Feb 25th game at the ACC! @raptors @CCYAA #NBAGLeague #NBA #YearoftheDog pic.twitter.com/yzrvwFn0q9
— Simu Liu (@SimuLiu) February 10, 2018
To celebrate the occasion, the 905 are moving to Air Canada Centre for the 5 p.m. tip, the second and final time they’ll play on the Raptors’ home court this year. The 905 are 2-3 all-time in Air Canada Centre games.
Herd in 6
Standing in their way Sunday will be a Wisconsin Herd team that is suddenly a lot more dangerous than their 17-21 record might suggest. On Feb. 13, the Herd claimed Brandon Jennings from the available player pool.
The former No. 10 overall pick started his season with the Shanxi Brave Dragons of the Chinese Basketball Association before opting for a return stateside, looking to play his way into an NBA return as teams look to fill out their rosters for the remainder of the season. Once an All-Rookie First Team honouree with the Milwaukee Bucks, who are not-so-coincidentally the parent club of the Herd, Jennings became somewhat of a journeyman from there. Four years in Milwaukee ended when he was sign-and-traded to Detroit, where he spent two-and-a-half years before being flipped to Orlando, then signing with the Knicks and, eventually, the Wizards.
Still just 28, Jennings has NBA career averages of 14.3 points and 5.7 assists, and he was putting up nearly 28 points per-game in China. In other words, he can still pose a scoring threat, as his Herd debut illustrated on Wednesday – Jennings scored 31 points in 36 minutes, hitting five threes and dishing eight assists in a loss for the Herd.
Jennings will have another game to get his footing under him Friday before meeting a 905 squad thin at the point guard position opposite him. With Kaza Keane and Aaron Best with Team Canada for FIBA qualifiers and Lorenzo Brown still working his way back from an ankle sprain, the task of containing Jennings will fall to Kethan Savage, Davion Berry, and the 905’s trademark no-middle help-defense.
The Herd also offer tough challenges in Cliff Alexander, James Blackmon Jr., Joel Bolombo, and Xavier Munford, among others. The 905 won the only earlier meeting between the two sides, 106-95, back on Jan. 27. They’ll square off a third time March 3 in Wisconsin, as well.
Down Brown, Keane, and Best on Wednesday, the 905 received a huge burst from Malcolm Miller, who scored 28 points in the victory. He’s now averaging 12.5 points on the season, one of six 905ers averaging double-figures. Malachi Richardson had a breakout game, too, scoring 13 points and proving a threat from long-range, while Roger Moute a Bidias made his 905 debut and contributed 17 minutes of good energy and solid defense.
FIBA qualifiers, injuries, and roster turnover have dictated a next-man-up strategy all season for Jerry Stackhouse’s squad. With a huge weekend on tap, that will be the mantra once again.