The key match-ups: Melbourne United vs Toronto Raptors

After a valiant showing against the Philadelphia 76ers last Saturday, Melbourne United are heading north to face the Toronto Raptors at Scotiabank Arena in Toronto.

The Toronto Raptors have gone through some big changes in the off-season, with the acquisition of Kawhi Leonard grabbing most of the headlines. Leonard is considered the best two-way player in basketball, and will certainly test United’s resolve at both ends of the court.

Saturday will be a contest against a club with a foundation of core of experienced players. Toronto will not just test Melbourne’s skill, but also their basketball intelligence and team cohesion. However, after only falling to the 76ers 84-104, United can take a lot of confidence into their next game on their pre-season tour of the USA.

Toronto has experienced players at every position, with their starting five alone boasting an average of 8.6 seasons in the NBA. Unlike their game against the 76ers, Melbourne won’t be dealing with a young and green team.

Here are five possible match-ups to look out for when Melbourne United battle the Toronto Raptors.

Lowry vs. Ware

Kyle Lowry is an aggressive guard, who uses speed and agility to create space and score the basketball. Although he tends to take on the role of point guard for Toronto, he plays the position more like a combo-guard, with scoring being a slightly higher priority to play making.

Despite being listed at a relatively undersized 183cm, Lowry has a bulkier frame than most players his size. In combination with his quickness, his heavier build can make him a tough cover for small guards, as he can out muscle his defenders when he is attacking the rim.

Compared to Simmons, Lowry is a much less daunting physical match-up for Ware, yet his compact and muscular build will still make him a tough cover for the shorter and lighter Melbourne point guard. If the four-time NBA All-Star gets a running start to the basket he will be difficult to stop. He has a great crossover he uses to freeze defenders so Ware will need to make use of lateral agility and balance to keep up.

Lowry also has a very accurate three-point shot, coming off a year where he made 39.9% of his attempts. He particularly loves to shoot the three-pointer off the high pick and roll, while in the mid-range area of the court he can stop on a dime to pull up for a jump shot, and also utilises the step back very effectively.

In a sense, Lowry’s offensive game is quite similar to that of Ware’s; both play the point guard position like undersized shooting guards. Scoring will be a challenge against Toronto and United are going to need Ware to have a similar assertive mentality to the one he had against the 76ers. However, his shot will need to improve. Against Philadelphia he shot a very poor 27.3% from the field.

Green vs. Goulding

Danny Green is one of the most experienced and tested “3 and D” players in the NBA. A product of Gregg Popovich’s well-oiled Spurs machine, Green is one of the best role-players in the NBA.

A fearsome perimeter defender Green is great at contesting shots without fouling the shooter. With his long arms he can afford to hang back slightly on his opponent to cut off driving lanes, but can quickly get his hand into the shooter’s face when they pull the trigger.

Green is ideally suited to guarding Chris Goulding, and their battle will be a fascinating contest to watch. With Goulding, United have a fearless and willing shot creator, who isn’t overly concerned with being closely covered. Seeing how he handles Green’s persistent presence will be very interesting

With his long build and honed defensive instincts, Green will make the Melbourne scoring machine work harder than JJ Redick did in Philadelphia. Melbourne’s big are going to need to set tight and effective screens for their captain, and Goulding will need to be at his creative best.

On offence, Green is almost exclusively a spot up shooter. Toronto have introduced a lot more ball movement into their offensive sets, and like to swing the ball around the court to break down the opposition defence and generate open shots. Goulding’s primary job will be to pay close attention to Green’s movements, and make sure that in the confusion he doesn’t get open looks.

Green launches himself very high in the air on his jump shot, so Goulding will need to adjust his closeout accordingly. A simple hand up won’t be good enough as Green can just shoot over the top.

There are some injury clouds hanging over Goulding following the Philadelphia game, but at this stage he is likely to be fit to take to the court on Saturday.

Leonard vs. Kennedy

Kawhi Leonard is a top five player in the NBA, and before the drama of his last season, was making a series push for the 2017 MVP award. The two-time NBA Defensive Player of the Year and 2014 Finals MVP makes Toronto an extraordinarily dangerous team, largely due to his incredible capacity to play at an elite level on offence and defence.

Leonard has improved drastically at running the offence since his early days in the NBA, and is effective with both hands when acting as the ball-handler in the pick and roll. When driving to the basket his elongated arms allow him to keep the ball out of the reach of rim protectors and his long strides make him deceptively quick off the mark.

Leonard also has a very dangerous mid-range game and is nearly automatic when he is given space. He is also dangerous when behind the arc and takes advantage of any hesitation by the defence to launch his shot; he particularly dangerous in the corner.

With almost no weaknesses in his offensive game, the Raptors’ star recruit will require constant coverage. DJ Kennedy has a very difficult task ahead, and United will need him to step up to the challenge. If he is able to stick to Leonard and at least force him to work hard for his shots, and deny him easy looks, Kennedy will have done his job.

On offence Melbourne definitely need Kennedy to step up his game and remove some of the scoring burden off Ware and Goulding’s shoulders. Against Philadelphia, he looked hesitant and struggled to find his rhythm. Scoring against Leonard is one of the most difficult things in basketball, but if Kennedy can play with a greater degree of purpose it will be a big improvement.

Leonard is coming off a long period on the sidelines, so is unlikely to be at his electrifying best, yet if Melbourne is unlucky enough to be on the receiving end of his coming out game it will be a tough 48 minutes.

Ibaka vs. Barlow

Serge Ibaka is great defender and exceedingly gifted rim protector. Over the years he has developed into a good stretch forward on offence. His presence on the court will cause United to think twice when they venture into the paint.

Ibaka is mostly known as a shot blocker, boasting an average of 2.2 per game for his entire career - it is a reputation well-earned. The Congolese big man acts as Toronto’s formidable last line of defence. Despite his size, Ibaka is very mobile and has quick enough feet to hold his own perimeter. He also has impressive verticality, which he uses to secure rebounds and swat high arching shots.

Barlow had a great game against the 76ers, playing his role as Melbourne’s stretch forward impeccably. Knocking down 3 of his 6 three-point attempts, Barlow’s constant threat to do damage from long-range forced the Philadelphia defence to spread out.

United are going to need more of the same from him on Saturday. The less time Ibaka spends in the paint, the better for Melbourne. If Melbourne can get Barlow open, and he is able to regularly convert on his opportunities, United will be in good shape.

Ibaka is not just limited to a defensive role, as throughout the years he has developed into a skilled scorer. He can hit the mid-range and can even push out to the three-point line. In effect, he can perform a similar role to Barlow for Toronto. An underrated spot up shooter from three, Ibaka could draw Melbourne’s bigs out to the perimeter.

In transition he the big Toronto forward very quick, and he is a threat to score from many positions, and is able to get to his spots quickly. Barlow will need to run hard to keep up with the nimble big man when Toronto gets out in transition.

Valanciunas vs. Boone

Jonas Valanciunas is a skilled big man who is an efficient scorer in the post and mid-range. A prototypical European centre, his skill supersedes athleticism. His sheer size makes him a solid rebounder, and his finishing ability makes him when he’s close to the basket.

Valanciunas has a fantastic pump-fake, which he uses to terrific effect. His capacity to get his defender off-balance with his deceptive and believable fakes allows him to do big damage under the basket. Josh Boone can’t be too hasty to leave his feet when contesting Valanciunas’s set shots, as if he does, he will watch him drive right by.

When the Lithuanian Raptor takes a shot within the painted area it results in two points 60.8% of the time - it is his sanctuary. If Boone is able to able to keep him out of the key he will dramatically decrease the Toronto centre’s offensive impact.

Boone’s rebounding ability will be vital for Melbourne; athletically he has the edge over the slower Valanciunas. The American import’s hustle and determination under the basket will almost certainly give the big Raptor some difficulties.

Boone is also a threat as the screener in the pick and roll, with his ability to cut quickly and finish with power is a big weapon for Melbourne. Valanciunas is not the most nimble centre in the NBA, and his defence can be touch and go. On offence Boone should be looking to use his athletic advantage to get Melbourne some easy points at the basket. Hopefully, some lobs from Ware will also be on display.

Alex Pledger had a fantastic game against the 76ers and is certain to play some big minutes off the bench if Boone is healthy and does start.