Both teams enter tonight’s contest in Toronto playing well. The Pelicans, after working through some injuries and poor play, have figured some stuff out, and won two straight games. The Raptors are thrashing teams at this point, rattling off six straight wins on the way to a 12-1 record.
The Raptors haven’t played crunch time in a while. Over the course of their win streak, they have beaten opponents by an average of 13 points. A good Pelicans team represents an obvious challenge. They play at a breakneck pace, and could get their point guard Elfrid Payton back today (he is listed as questionable).
There is some funky match-up considerations in the frontcourt to consider too. The trio of Anthony Davis, Julius Randle, and Nikola Mirotic (he is also questionable) present strength and speed issues for the Raptors. Who does Jonas Valanciunas cover? Does Pascal Siakam have the strength to contend with Randle’s bully-ball? There is no perfect answer, but the bet is Serge Ibaka starts on Davis, and Siakam on Mirotic (if he plays), and they figure it out from there.
Here are your details for tonight’s game.
Where to Watch:
Sportsnet One, 7:30 PM ET
Toronto – Kyle Lowry, Danny Green, Kawhi Leonard, Pascal Siakam, Serge Ibaka
New Orleans – Elfrid Payton, Jrue Holiday, Wesley Johnson, Nikola Mirotic, Anthony Davis
Toronto – Norman Powell (shoulder – out)
New Orleans – Elfrid Payton (ankle – questionable), Nikola Mirotic (ankle – questionable)
Pace of Play
The Pelicans play at the league’s fourth highest pace, while the Raptors play at 12th. Both teams like to get up and down, but there is a key difference between styles. Coach Alvin Gentry wants his team to speed it up even more this season, and play at the league’s highest pace.
The Raptors, meanwhile, aren’t insistent upon any pace. They are efficient at a wide range of speeds. It will be interesting to see how the Raptors adjust to the Pelicans tonight because sometimes they take a a quarter or two getting used to frantic teams. Facing the Kings last Wednesday, for example, the Raptors turned the ball over 20 times and played out of character. (They eventually settled things down and took control, but still.) If the Pelicans come out and want a track meet, the Raptors, and especially Kyle Lowry, need to settle the ship early and find a pace they like.
Elfrid Payton and Winning
The Pelicans won their first four games of the season in large part from the play of Elfrid Payton. Unfortunately, he sprained his right ankle and has missed the past seven games (in which the Pelicans are 2-5). There have been other injuries of course. Nikola Mirotic missed a game, and Anthony Davis missed two. But Payton, being questionable for tonight’s game, is huge for the team. He steadies the offense as the primary ball-handler and allows Jrue Holiday to shift back to a more comfortable off-ball role. The difference in turnovers from the start of the season with Payton to now has been dramatic. With Payton in the lineup, the Pelicans have averaged 11.8 turnovers a game and 17.3 without him. New haircut, new Elfrid Payton, I suppose.
Pelicans’ Small Forward Rotation and Kawhi Leonard
Do the Pelicans need a reliable small forward or what? Ever since Peja Stojakovic, the names aren’t exactly jumping off the page. Darius Miller has been with the team since 2012. Solomon Hill has received four consecutive DNP-CDs. Alonzo Gee played 73 games in 2015-2016. Dante Cunningham played parts of four seasons with the team. No player has been good enough to lock down a consistent role. At this point, the constant churn of players is too much for anyone to handle.
Still, with every new Pelicans season comes hope that a small forward will stick. (To be honest, the Raptors can relate to this problem over the past 15 years, look it up.) So far Wesley Johnson (!) has separated himself as reliable. He has started the past four games and played well, shooting 5-of-10 from three. Most important though, is his 11.7 percent usage for the season — a very low number. He doesn’t need to create much, especially with Elfrid Payton returning soon. He just needs to hit corner threes and take defensive pressure off Jrue Holiday.
It seems likely that Johnson will get the first crack at defending Kawhi Leonard, who is still looking to find his offensive rhythm in his third game back from injury tonight. Other than Johnson, the Pelicans big wing defenders get pretty sparse, so Leonard could look to play some bully-ball in the post himself. Touché Julius Randle.