The Atlantic Division is arguably the NBA's worst - but its two top squads are surging as the playoffs draw near.
The Toronto Raptors can take a big step toward claiming their second division title in franchise history with a win over the Brooklyn Nets on Monday night in the teams' final meeting this season.
The Atlantic Division has drawn criticism all season long for its weakness, with third through fifth-place clubs New York, Boston and Philadelphia a combined 67 games under .500.
These two squads, however, have recently played some of their best basketball of the season. Toronto (35-26), which owns a four-game edge in the division and is third in the East, has won nine of 11. Brooklyn (31-30), currently sixth in the conference, has won four of five and 11 of 15.
The Raptors are 8-2 against divisional foes, including a 4-1 mark on the road. They lost the first meeting with the Nets, 102-100 at home on Nov. 26, but have won both matchups since, including a 104-103 victory in Brooklyn on Jan. 27 despite leading scorer DeMar DeRozan sidelined with a sprained ankle. Kyle Lowry scored 31 and assisted on Patrick Patterson's go-ahead jumper with six seconds left.
Lowry, averaging 20.5 points and shooting 45.9 percent from 3-point range over his last six matchups with the Nets, is coming off the fourth triple-double of his career. He tallied 20 points, 12 rebounds and 11 assists in a 111-104 win at Minnesota on Sunday.
The victory pushed Toronto nine games over .500 for the first time since 2006-07, the same season the Raptors claimed their only division title.
"We try to keep everybody's spirits high even if it's not going well on the basketball court and we don't let nothing get down on us," said DeRozan, who scored 25 and is averaging 29.7 points in his last three games against Brooklyn. "That's the cool thing about our team. We continue to keep it going."
Toronto is shooting 43.2 percent from beyond the arc over its last six games after hitting 14 of 24 attempts Sunday. The Raptors are also 31 of 73 (42.5 percent) from deep in the season series against the Nets.
Brooklyn lost Paul Pierce early in the first quarter of Sunday's 104-89 win over Sacramento due to a sore right shoulder after a collision with Kings forward Jason Thompson. The Nets said they would re-evaluate Pierce - who scored 33 in the most recent matchup with Toronto - as well as Andrei Kirilenko, who left in the third quarter with a sprained right ankle. Kirilenko said afterward he didn't think the injury was serious.
The injury to Pierce makes last month's acquisition of Marcus Thornton seem almost prescient. With Pierce sidelined for most of Sunday's contest, Thornton provided a crucial scoring spark, scoring 15 of his 27 points in the fourth quarter. He has scored 20-plus three times in seven games for the Nets - matching his total in 46 with the Kings this season.
"I credit my teammates for finding me in spots I can be effective in," said Thornton, who was coming off a 1-for-9, four-point performance in a loss Friday at Boston. "And my shots were going down."
The Nets have won seven in a row at home and 14 of 16 there. Brooklyn last won eight straight at home from Dec. 29, 2012-Jan. 28, 2013.
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