Toronto Raptors: Previewing the 5 biggest games of the New Year

(Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images)
(Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images) /
2 of 6
(Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)
(Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images) /

Jan. 25- Toronto Raptors at Houston Rockets

Key Matchup: Kawhi Leonard vs. James Harden

The Houston Rockets have been a whirlwind this year.

After starting 9-11 in their first 20 games, the Rockets proceeded to go (11-4 prior to New Years) in their next 15 games. Led once again by MVP candidate, James Harden, the Rockets have found their groove, sans Chris Paul for most of their run.

Last season, the Raptors went 2-0 in their pair of games with the Rockets. In each matchup, the team allowed Harden to have his way, scoring 38 and 40 in the two games respectively. Though Paul is expected to rejoin the team before their showdown, Harden’s 40-point outburst came with the aforementioned Paul next to him.

The latest matchup serves as the first of two for the two title contenders.

On the year, Harden has averaged a league-leading 33 points, 8.2 assists and 5.7 rebounds per game. Intertwined in his dominance has been a career-high 38.2 usage rate, a mark that also tops the league.

In less statistical terms, Harden runs the Rockets.

While Harden will play the role of band-handling point guard for much of their matchup, it is likely the Raptors will enforce their best defender on him in Kawhi Leonard. Though his stats are not where they once were, Leonard can still bear down and limit opponents.

A two-time Defensive Player of the Year, ‘the Klaw’ still has stopping power, shown in his 1.7 swipes and only 1.5 fouls per game.

In their careers facing each other, Leonard holds the slight edge in the twos’ head-to-head record at 16-14, though Harden has scored more points in 21 of the 30 games. Eight of those 21 came from Harden’s stint as a third piece for the Oklahoma City Thunder.

The trend is likely to continue in their latest matchup in the scoring column, but if Leonard can at least hold him to a manageable total, the Raptors have a good chance.