Tonight and tomorrow the NBA will hop across the Atlantic and stage its first ever regular season games outside the USA when the New Jersey Nets ‘host’ the Toronto Raptors at the 02 Arena in London.
NBA commissioner David Stern hopes to repeat this event every year, with his ultimate aim being to establish a European division of the league with franchises in major European cities. However, this plan is not without its critics. Raptors centre, Andrea Bargnani, yesterday expressed his frustration with the long journey to London and the prospect of adjusting to the time difference. Bargnani’s sentiments echo those of his coach Jay Triano, who has also made his discontent public.
Despite these protests, it is not often that Stern doesn’t get his way and therefore the possibility of a European division and London franchise remains a very real possibility.
The games should be exciting and closely contested. Here is a preview of the two teams and the key players to watch out for.
The New Jersey Nets:
The Nets have recently become the ‘Chelsea’ of the NBA, although without their success. Last year the Russian nickel magnate and entrepreneur Mikhail Prokhorov (net worth: $25bn) purchased the club and became the first foreign owner in the NBA. He has repeatedly expressed his desire to transform the dishevelled franchise into the ‘first truly global team’, an effort which includes moving the team to Brooklyn in 2012.
Coming off a near historically bad campaign last year, in which they flirted with the record of least wins in a season (9), the Nets have completely overhauled their roster and coaching staff, with Brook Lopez the sole survivor from Prokhorov’s cull.
Players to look out for
Deron Williams (Point Guard): With an array of dazzling passes, offensive moves and defensive ability, the recently acquired Williams is quickly becoming the leader of his new team. While “D-Will’s” first three games for the Nets have ended in defeat, he has – despite injuries to both hands – set a record for the most assists made in the first three games for a new team, with 47 (15.5 a game). The NBA had been criticised for sending two teams without any star players to play in London, but Williams is that star and if the Nets are going to achieve success in London and the future, he will be the key.
Brook Lopez (Centre): Lopez averages 19 points a game over the last two seasons of his three year career and is a constant threat on offense for the Nets. His rebounding numbers are down this year (from 8 per game last year to a measly 6 this term) and he is a liability on defence, but is often the Nets’ go-to scorer. Look for him to do well against the Raptors over the weekend, as he should take advantage of their lack of interior defence.
Kris Humphries (Power Forward): This season has been a break-out one for Humphries and not only due to his improved play. While often providing spectacular plays – particularly on the defensive end – it his personal life that garners most of the attention. Humphries has recently started dating socialite Kim Kardashian, who along with Beyonce and Maria Sharapova, forms the basis of the Nets’ WAG support.
The Toronto Raptors:
While the Raptors players and coaching staff have been public in their opinion of playing in London, it is hard to blame the NBA for choosing them to go up against the Nets. Not only will they not be making the playoffs this spring, they are the currently the most European team in the NBA. Four Europeans, Jose Calderon (Spain), Alexis Ajinca (France), Andrea Bargnani (Italy) and Linas Kleiza (Lithuania) are regular features in their rotation and will ensure that people from all over the continent make their way to London over the weekend.
The Raptors go into Friday’s game with the same win total this season as the Nets (17) but with one more loss (44). While the Nets have lost six in a row, the Raptors are coming off an impressive 96-90 win over the New Orleans Hornets, in which point guard Jose Calderon scored a season high 22 points to go along with 16 assists and 7 rebounds; a truly special performance against one of the league’s best point guards in Chris Paul.
Players to look out for
Jose Calderon (Point Guard): The Spaniard tends to have good games against the Nets, as shown by his 15 point, 14 assist performance in the 98-92 win against them earlier this season. Calderon has the ability to carry his team to wins and if his performance against the Hornets is anything to go by, he could be the key for the Raptors this weekend. That being said, he is yet to play against the Nets with Deron Williams and may struggle to defend or score against him.
Andrea Bargnani (Centre): The 7ft Italian is nicknamed “The Magician” in his home country and was considered Toronto’s answer to Dirk Nowitzki when originally drafted. He is yet to live up to that billing, but possesses the ability to torch any team on a given night. He has a lethal outside shot, but like Brook Lopez is considered somewhat of a black hole on defence and is a poor rebounder for his size. He scored 32 the last time these two teams matched up.
DeMar Derozan (Shooting Guard): The young second year guard is a two time Dunk Contest participant and is regularly featured in the plays of the night. His speed and explosiveness makes him difficult to guard and is a capable scorer. If you’re looking for spectacular dunks this weekend, Derozan is your man.
Both teams have the ability to win and ultimately both will, splitting the games 1-1. Don’t expect much defence, but with a sell-out crowd in attendance for both nights, it should be a great atmosphere and a terrific advert for the game.