Raptors-Nets Preview

The Associated Press

After a sluggish start, things are starting to look up for Deron Williams and the New Jersey Nets.

There isn't nearly as much optimism surrounding the Toronto Raptors, who - if their most recent effort is any indication - look headed for what could be another challenging stretch with Andrea Bargnani out indefinitely.

Seeking a third consecutive win, New Jersey tries for a fourth victory in five games over the visiting Raptors on Sunday.

Since losing 11 of their first 14 games, the Nets (7-13) have taken four of six thanks in large part to Williams' tremendous play. The two-time All-Star is averaging 22.3 points and 9.5 assists over his last six contests - recording five double-doubles over that span.

Two nights after scoring 34 points and dishing out 11 assists in a 97-90 overtime win at Atlantic Division-leading Philadelphia, Williams had 27 and 10, respectively, as New Jersey posted back-to-back victories for the first time this season with Friday's 99-96 win at Cleveland.

"My teammates have told me I have to score for us to be successful. I've been trying to do that early. I got some good looks," said Williams, who made 5 of 9 from 3-point range. " ... We wanted a winning streak bad."

Coach Avery Johnson is surely to continue calling Williams' number early and often. The Nets are 5-0 when he scores at least 24 points and 2-12 when he has 23 or fewer.

Williams had 24 points in leading New Jersey to a 97-85 win at Toronto (6-14) on Jan. 6. While Bargnani scored 17 in that meeting, the Raptors could find keeping up with the Nets all the more difficult this time around with their leading scorer sidelined.

After sitting out the final six games of Toronto's eight-game losing streak Jan. 10-22 due to a strained left calf, Bargnani returned to score 36 points during Tuesday's 99-96 win at Phoenix. The former No. 1 overall pick, however, aggravated his injury the following night in a 111-106 double-overtime win at Utah. Bargnani, averaging 23.5 points, scored 25 before exiting.

The Raptors failed to get much going without him Friday, shooting just 39.0 percent from the floor during a 96-81 loss at Denver.

"Our guys have to believe," coach Dwayne Casey said. "We can't sit back and wait for Andrea to come back. As it was said famously before, he's not walking through that door. It's us against the world for a while, we don't know how long it's going to be, and we've got to play like it."

While he scored season-best 25 points off the bench versus the Jazz, Linas Kleiza was inefficient during his first start - making just 1 of 7 shots to finish with two points against the Nuggets.

"I had some good shots," Kleiza said. "Didn't fall for anybody. What can you do? You've got to work tomorrow and try to win the next day."

Since winning six straight in this series, Toronto has lost three of four - including back-to-back visits to the Prudential Center.

Williams is averaging 20.9 points and 12.3 assists in his last seven meetings with the Raptors. He has never lost in 14 career matchups versus Toronto.

Second on New Jersey with 15.4 points per contest, MarShon Brooks is likely to miss a fourth consecutive game with a strained left Achilles' tendon.

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