After a huge win Friday over Boston, Dwane Casey was clearly holding in a bit of pleasure at his team’s defensive intensity. He praised the intensity his new additions, Serge Ibaka and PJ Tucker, had brought to the team — but kept bringing it back to the need for continued effort from the entire team. Three games back of Boston for second place, there’s obviously no time for the Raptors to be pleased with themselves. There’s 24 games left and they have to make some hay.
That’s a feeling the Portland Trail Blazers know pretty well. Just 1.5 games out of the eighth seed in the West, they’re looking for some validation in an increasingly competitive race. The eighth-place Nuggets ahead of them are playing excellent offensive basketball, led by the surprising Nikola Jokic. The 12th-place Pelicans behind them just geared up with the addition of DeMarcus Cousins. The Blazers are suddenly the forgotten team in the West playoff race. They’re coming off a 112-103 win against Orlando on Thursday, and will be looking for more tonight against the Raptors.
Here’s what to watch for as these two teams go at it for the second and final time this season.
Lowry’s Status and Portland’s Dynamic Duo
While Kyle Lowry is listed as questionable, it’s hard to see him playing just two days after he was unable to shoot a basketball in practice. If Lowry’s wrist injury forces him to sit again, the Raptors backcourt of Cory Joseph and DeMar DeRozan will be faced with a similar challenge to Boston’s Isaiah Thomas, as they welcome Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum.
Lillard was injured for the Raptors’ December win in Portland, so this is the first time Toronto will see the two together. Most teams benefit from the natural trade-off you get with Lillard and McCollum: they’re excellent offensively, but give up serious driving lanes in pick and roll defense. Without Lowry, you naturally lose a few of those opportunities.
That said, Joseph and DeRozan are both coming off great individual games and should fill in the gaps. Joseph, especially, is coming off one of his best two-way games of the season, as he had 11 points, six assists, and three steals against Boston.
DeRozan against underwhelming defense
Without Lowry, the need for DeRozan’s scoring is turned way up. This is especially true for a Raptors team that’s working in two new players. While they were ignited down the stretch against Boston — thanks to what DeRozan called “just playing basketball” — the fact that their leading scorer dropped a career-high 43 helps.
Does he have an encore in him? With Evan Turner out four to six weeks and the Blazers’ primary wing defender in Al-Farouq Aminu questionable with a left knee sprain, the DeRozan assignment will fall on (how could you be) Mo Harkless and Allen Crabbe. The Blazers’ interior defense — which was never something to write home about — also takes a hit with Jusuf Nurkic replacing Mason Plumlee. On paper, this all sets up a big scoring game for DeRozan. At this juncture of the Raptors’ feeling-out process, they’ll need it.
Can Ibaka and Tucker get the defense turnt?
Probably the most rewarding part of Friday’s win was seeing PJ Tucker and Serge Ibaka shamelessly celebrate defensive plays. Tucker had a rabid, critical steal on Isaiah Thomas late, followed by some chest banging, while Ibaka challenged shots and dropped fist pump after fist pump on team stops.
It wasn’t just talk either. With Tucker, Ibaka, Patrick Patterson, and DeMarre Carroll as frontcourt players in the Raptors’ small lineups, the team becomes incredibly versatile and talkative on defense. With another backcourt challenge arriving in Lillard and McCollum, that talking through pick and roll defense will again be pivotal. Having the chatty, savvy Tucker and Ibaka here should pay dividends yet again.
Where to Watch: Sportsnet One, 6:00 p.m. EST