Raptors-Nets Preview

There has to be an immense level of comfort in a first-place team losing eight of 11 and its division lead dwindling by only one half of a game.

That was the case for the Toronto Raptors earlier this month while the Brooklyn Nets missed their chance to make things interesting in the Atlantic Division.

As the Nets continue their slide, the Raptors visit Barclays Center on Friday night seeking a fifth straight win to further pad their sizable advantage in the standings.

The Raptors (31-15) entered their poor stretch with a 9 1/2-game lead over second-place Brooklyn (18-27) on Dec. 29. After a Jan. 21 loss at Memphis completed the 3-8 slump, their lead had been trimmed to nine with the Nets going 4-8 in that span.

Brooklyn, which will remain without Deron Williams against Toronto, has since lost three straight and seen the deficit balloon to 12 1/2.

A return to offensive normalcy has spearheaded Toronto’s recovery. The Eastern Conference’s top scoring team (106.0 points per game) had been limited to 98.7 on the slide, but has averaged 107.0 since. Wednesday’s 119-102 home win over Sacramento marked the Raptors’ best total in a victory since winning 123-104 at Utah on Dec. 3.

Against the Kings, 65 of those points came in the second half.

"We played like a winning team in the second half, a team that’s on a mission," coach Dwane Casey said.

Their 17 3-pointers were their most since making a franchise-record 21 on March 13, 2005, and their 50.0 percent effort turned the page on a seven-game stretch in which they shot 26.3 percent from beyond the arc.

Guard Greivis Vasquez had 18 points and hit 4 of 5 from long range, while reserve guard Lou Williams scored a game-high 27.

"We want to continue this winning streak and then continue to get better," Vasquez said.

A loss to the Nets, who have dropped six straight at home to match their longest skid in Brooklyn, would curb any progress. The franchise hasn’t lost seven straight at home since Feb. 3-22, 2012.

The Nets’ 2-11 overall stretch has included just 90.7 points per game while shooting 42.9 percent, including 26.7 from 3-point range. Wednesday’s 113-102 loss in Atlanta completed a 1-3 road trip that wasn’t quite as embarrassing as the previous two games.

Altogether on the losing streak, they’ve been at a 114.7-86.3 scoring disadvantage while allowing the Los Angeles Clippers, Jazz and Hawks to shoot 52.9 percent.

With Joe Johnson and Jarrett Jack revived, Nets coach Lionel Hollins viewed the loss to the top team in the East as more of a positive for his team’s direction.

Johnson, who was held to 15 points over the previous two games while playing under 29 minutes in each due to knee tendinitis, had a team-high 26 points, and Jack had 14 points and a career-high 13 assists against one turnover.

"The snowstorm, and the (postponement of Monday’s home game against Portland), we got three days off," Hollins told the team’s official website. "We got some pep in our step. Joe’s tendinitis was able to cool down a little bit. Jarrett was able to sit for a couple of days so we came out with a lot more pep."

Williams (rib) has returned to practice but will miss his 11th straight game, according to the team’s official Twitter feed.

The Raptors opened the season series with a 105-89 home win Dec. 17 for their third win in four games against the Nets. Toronto’s Kyle Lowry had 20 points and is averaging 24.0 while shooting 53.2 percent in the last three meetings.