The Toronto Raptors continue the battle on Thursday night, taking on Russell Westbrook and his band of merry misfits from Oklahoma City at the Air Canada Centre.
Westbrook has had a polarizing season, one of the most unique in NBA history. There are those that feel his quest to average a triple-double is one of the game’s great accomplishments, a Holy Grail of sorts. There are others that feel Westbrook, while justified in dominating the ball for this Thunder team, is chasing stats to a point that actually hurts his team, even just slightly.
Regardless of where you stand, he’s an MVP candidate, a relentless competitor, and at this point, a force of nature akin to gravity. And though the narrative paints it as ‘Russ against the world’, he’s actually got a decent supporting cast around him. Not a fantastic one by any means, but decent.
It begs the question: can the Raptors defy gravity?
Here are your three keys to the game.
In case you’ve been in suspended animation, it’s worth noting the Toronto Raptors are missing their best player in point guard Kyle Lowry. This is especially troubling in match-ups such as these, when the opponent’s best player is a dynamic offensive point guard. Cory Joseph, Delon Wright and Fred VanVleet have filled in admirably for Lowry, but there’s something to be said for matching up best versus best.
Still, the Raptors have found a new defensive identity as a team, even with Lowry shelved:
Raptors are 13th in defensive efficiency, highest they've been since Nov15 (10 games into season). They're 8th in last 10 gms, 3rd in last 5— Josh Lewenberg (@JLew1050) March 15, 2017
This new defensive effectiveness bodes well for a Toronto team with deep playoff aspirations. The team is even better with Lowry anchoring that side of the ball, so the improvement with him sidelined is encouraging.
The New Guys Are Fitting In! (Mostly)
It’s worth noting that Toronto has played exactly 10 games since the All-Star break ended, and thus, 10 games with new acquisitions Serge Ibaka and P.J. Tucker.
That sample size is small, but can give us a reasonable window into their effect on the team. If we look at how Ibaka and Tucker have performed with specific teammates, the positives are easy to glean.
Tucker has played in the Raptors first and and third best two man pairings (via net rating) over the past 10 games. He and DeMarre Carroll (questionable for tonight’s game) have posted a +30.6 net rating in 40 minutes spread over six games, limited due to Carroll’s spotty health. In 130 minutes over 9 games, Tucker and Joseph have a +23.6 rating, including a stellar 91.7 DefRtg.
Ibaka has been much more effective playing the 5 spot for this Raptors team. You can gain a window into that by looking at how he pairs with Patrick Patterson versus Jonas Valanciunas. In 76 minutes over 10 games, Ibaka and Patterson have a net rating of +12.6. Over the same time span, Ibaka and Valaciunas have played 182 minutes together, and have posted a -8.1, a jarring difference.
Perhaps Valanciunas should just stick with Tucker — since his big game against the Pelicans last week, he and P.J. have a +12.7 rating over 41 minutes of floor time together.
Ibaka and Tucker are set to play huge roles for Toronto down the stretch. Finding the right line-up pairings to maximize their effectiveness will be key.
They’re Going Streaking
‘Consistently inconsistent’ is a good turn of phrase to describe this Thunder team. They added Taj Gibon and noted Raptor-killer Doug McDermott from the Chicago Bulls at the trade deadline, and have played to a 6-4 record since. Both are playing roughly 23 minutes per game for their new team; they’ve stepped into significant roles.
The Thunder come in on a three game winning streak, which would be modest, if two of those wins hadn’t come over the San Antonio Spurs and Utah Jazz. This stretch of good play follows up a four game losing streak, in which OKC lost twice to Portland, and once each to Dallas and Phoenix, two fringe playoff contenders and one bottom-feeder. That poor stretch followed another four game winning streak and... well, you get the picture.
The big take-away from all these streaks? The Thunder have struggled mightily on the road this season. They have just a 13-20 record as the visiting team, while they’re 25-9 on their own floor. In the eleven games mentioned above, the Thunder played 7 home games, winning all of them. They went 1-3 in the four road games over the same stretch.
OKC is tenuously entrenched in the 6th seed in the Western Conference, with both the 5th seeded Los Angeles Clippers and 7th seeded Memphis Grizzlies within spitting distance. They also finish the season with 9 of 15 games away from home.
Here’s hoping the Raptors and their new acquisitions get them off to a bad start tonight.
Where to Watch: Sportsnet One, 7:00pm