After losing 11 of their 16 games before All-Star Weekend, the Toronto Raptors have a great opportunity to hit the reset button in the season’s home stretch.
A win over Charlotte last Wednesday showed some signs of emotional life, but even more promising is the new-look team that takes the court tonight. Serge Ibaka is here, Patrick Patterson is (finally) healthy, and P.J. Tucker is on the way. The Raptors finally have a ten-man rotation void of rookies and uneven players. With starters and solid backups at all five positions, the outlook for Toronto is a lot more optimistic. Tonight is when the rubber hits the road.
Kyle Lowry— Chris Walder (@WalderSports) February 23, 2017
It’ll be a good test too, as the Raptors host the second-seed Celtics with some proving to do. The two teams last met on February 1, when Isaiah Thomas dropped 44 on Toronto in a 109-104 Boston win. DeMar DeRozan missed that game but will play in this, the fourth and final meeting between the two division rivals (Toronto has a 2-1 series advantage).
Here’s what to watch for in this not-season-changing-but-still-very-important game.
Unfortunately, the Raptors weren’t able to bring Lowry, DeRozan, and Ibaka together in practice before tonight. That means there will inevitably be some feeling out for the big man in his first game with Toronto. Luckily, Ibaka had the All-Star break to prep on the Raptors’ offensive and defensive schemes; if the fit is as seamless as it looks on paper, this studying should turn into production pretty quickly.
Ibaka, who has averaged 15.1 points, 6.8 rebounds, and 1.6 blocks for the Magic this season, is the likely starter at power forward — so we’ll get to see how he integrates right away. Definitely watch for some bumps early in the game, but everything should even out as the night goes on.
Healthy Raptors Rotation
This can’t be understated for the Raptors. In the 16 game slide that we’ve frequently quoted here, DeRozan has been injured for seven games and Patterson for ten. Having both those guys back, plus the addition of Ibaka, should pay dividends for Toronto.
There’s no forgetting about Lowry here, either. The Raptors point guard is averaging 30 points and 5.3 assists in games against the Celtics this year, and always picks his game up when faced with an elite point guard. Which brings us to...
Containing Isaiah Thomas
In the February 1 game, the Raptors allowed Celtics star Isaiah Thomas to get whatever he wanted in the fourth quarter. This coincided with a period of slumping individual defense by Lowry and Cory Joseph, who both allowed Thomas penetrating lanes on the regular.
Ibaka’s added rim protection will help with this, but there will still be opportunities for the Celtics to involve him in a Thomas pick and roll — requiring the basket to be guarded by less able players. This means there’s still pressure on Lowry and Joseph to contain Thomas on the perimeter to the best of their abilities.
The Raptors enter this game four games back of Boston in this loss column. That makes this a nice opportunity to make up some ground to start their post-All-Star campaign.
Where to Watch: Sportsnet One, 8:00 p.m. EST