On a night that many fans thought would be a write-off, the Raptors surprised and dismantled LeBron James and his Cleveland Cavaliers on national television. Sans two starters in Kyle Lowry and Serge Ibaka, it was not an unreasonable thought to consider resting DeMar DeRozan for the game and taking the painful but seemingly inevitable L.
But, because basketball is strange, the Raptors naturally banded together and completed one of the most satisfying regular season wins in franchise history. Not only did the Raptors beat the team that has consistently outplayed them over the past few seasons, but they beat them bad. In a year during which many fans and players alike felt disrespected by the exclusion of the Raptors on Christmas day, it felt especially good to watch the team perform so well under the scrutiny of the American public.
Norman Powell seems to have finally found his footing, chipping in his highest plus/minus of the season (+23), and while he shot just 40%, it was actually his highest field goal percentage in nearly a month. With Lowry out, he has been given the chance to play more minutes than just garbage time, and it’s fair to say that he’s making the most out of this opportunity. Not to say I’m a genius or anything, but I’m just going to leave this prophetic tweet from yours truly here.
Hoping for a bit of a Norman Powell resurgence with Lowry out. No star PG means we'll see some more interesting guard combos, hopefully opening up more playing time at SG for Norm.— Dylan Litman (@DylanLitman) January 9, 2018
Fred VanVleet went off as well, sinking six threes in a Warriors-esque barrage. Fred’s hustle and intelligence were on full display, exemplified by his four assists and zero turnovers. With Lowry likely out again versus the Warriors, VanVleet’s game against the Cavs will need to be replicated to a similar degree if the Raptors are to stand a chance.
After flailing down the stretch of a close game against the Warriors back in October, the Raptors may catch a break here with Steph Curry out for the matchup. Since returning from an ankle injury, Curry had been playing his some of his best basketball to date, only to be sidelined by tweaking that very same ankle again a couple games ago. Even if Steph Returns though, the rest of the Warriors team will likely be playing with a case of exhaustion, having had to deal with the relentless hustle and length of the Milwaukee Bucks the previous night, who always seem to give even the best teams in the league a run for their money.
If the Raptors are going to prove to the league that their excessively-mentioned culture change is real, this would be the time. Defeating the Cavaliers and the Warriors in succession would send a message: the Celtics aren’t the only Eastern Conference team that can cause a ruckus. Doubters and haters aplenty, the Raptors seek to display equanimity against supposedly superior opposition and force their name into discussions of championship contention.
Where to Watch:
TSN4/5, 7:30 pm
Toronto – Delon Wright, DeMar DeRozan, OG Anunoby, Serge Ibaka, Jonas Valanciunas
Golden State – Shaun Livingston, Klay Thompson, Kevin Durant, Draymond Green, Zaza Pachulia
Toronto – Kyle Lowry (day-to-day, tailbone)
Golden State – Steph Curry (day-to-day, ankle)
The Raptors’ advantages over the Warriors are few and far between, so capitalizing on their strengths is essential if Toronto is going to pull off the upset. The Raptors are currently the best team in the league at converting opposing teams’ turnovers into points, at 19.3 points per game. The Warriors, believe it or not, commit the third-most turnovers in the league, with 15.6 turnovers per game.
To beat the best team in the league, the Raptors must be firing on all cylinders; this is an area where Toronto has a chance to really punish Golden State. One can only hope that Delon Wright’s length and VanVleet’s peskiness can limit Curry to a reasonable degree (if he plays). Otherwise, the turnovers must stem from OG Anunoby and Pascal Siakam smothering more inexperienced Warriors players, such as Patrick McCaw and Jordan Bell.
Prove the Culture Change is Real
We’ve all heard the incessant chuntering about the Raptors’ promised culture change for months now. In the Raptors’ most recent matchup against the Warriors, as previously mentioned, Dwane Casey reverted to a DeRozan-centric offense down the stretch, halting all positive ball movement that had worked for the Raptors all night long. This time around, I can expect that Casey won’t make the same mistake, if the Raptors are fortunate enough to see a close game down the stretch. Last game, the Raptors had 31 assists — a phenomenal number — and obliterated the Cavaliers. Of course, the Cavaliers host the league’s second-worst defense; trying to do the same against the league’s third-best defense will be a challenge tonight.
I suspect that the Warriors will stagnate the Raptors’ offense on more than a few occasions. Wright possesses the ability to play outside of the usual flow of our offense, confusing defenses by creating unpredictable offensive opportunities; if the offense stagnates, he can spur a resurgence.
Mental and Physical Toughness
Just when you’re starting to get comfortable with a lead over the Warriors, Steph and company will storm back by making it rain a shower of threes. Before you know it, they’re up by 15 and they aren’t giving you a chance to come back.
It’s easy for teams to get lost in the Warriors’ hypnotic offense and become discouraged when their defense simply isn’t enough. Mental toughness comes into play in times like these, where keeping composure can be enough to stop runs with smart offense in response. It’s vital that the Raptors take the game one possession at a time. It’s inevitable that the Raptors will experience a three-point onslaught at some point during the game; basketball is a game of runs. If Toronto focuses on grabbing defensive rebounds to prevent second-chance three-point attempts, they’ll be in good shape to take on Goliath — let’s hope they bring their slingshot.