The Raptors are rolling again. After a brief slip-up against the Bucks they appear to have gotten right back into the swing of things, as they’ve won each of their last three games by substantial margins. The short win streak has put them at 9-1, leading the East and tied with Golden State for the best record in the entire league. And tonight, they’ll presumably once again field a full healthy roster for the just second time this season, as their win last night in Los Angeles came absent Kawhi Leonard.
Even if Leonard does suit up tonight against a Jazz team that has laboured out of the gate (they’ve started 4-5) the Raptors may need some serendipity to walk away with the win. They’re on the second night of a back-to-back after all, and Utah is a place where anything can happen. Seriously though, a friend of mine went to BYU when he was 19 and within the year he was married. Utah is wild. Gotta hope Kawhi doesn’t elope too.
Weird Utah stories aside, the combination of travel and a lack of rest will make this a tough one for the Raps. Hopefully they can power through and continue the best start in franchise history regardless. Here are the pertinent details for tonight’s game:
Where to Watch:
Sportsnet One, 9:00 p.m. ET
Toronto - Kyle Lowry, Danny Green, Kawhi Leonard, Pascal Siakam, Serge Ibaka
Utah – Ricky Rubio, Grayson Allen, Joe Ingles, Derrick Favors, Rudy Gobert
Toronto – Kawhi Leonard (Questionable – Jammed left ankle)
Utah – Donovan Mitchell (OUT – Ankle), Alec Burks (Probable – Hand), Jae Crowder (Probable — Ankle), Derrick Favors (Probable — Knee), Raul Neto (OUT — Hamspring)
After playing without Kawhi Leonard last night, the Raptors will encounter a team missing an offensive centrepiece of their own. Sophomore Donovan Mitchell, the Jazz’s leading scorer, will be sidelined with an ankle sprain for tonight’s game. They should not take that as cause to take the Jazz lightly, however. As we saw last night good teams can still find ways to score, even when down a star.
To that point, Mitchell has had a rather inauspicious and inefficient start to his second campaign, as he’s struggled to get his jumper to fall. With Mitchell struggling to make shots, the Jazz’s offense has actually been marginally worse with him on the court. With Mitchell out, the Jazz will presumably try to expand the roles of efficient offensive role players like Joe Ingles and Rudy Gobert. Gobert and Ingles rely on others creating shots to unlock the most effective aspects of their game, but the Jazz have the right point guard to empower them in the pass-first Ricky Rubio.
The Jazz started rookie Grayson Allen the last time Mitchell sat, in a 10-point loss to the Grizzlies. Allen is unlikely to hinder the Jazz’s offense, having been a fearless gunner in his college days, but the Raptors will likely look to attack him on the defensive end of the floor, where he should be a substantial liability.
The Gobert Effect (?)
The Raptors have hit a mini 3-point shooting slump over the last few games, as they’re shooting just 30 percent from beyond the arc in their last four outings. Tonight would be an especially poor time for their jump-shooting to go cold however, teams up against the Jazz need to rely on their shooting, so as to avoid testing the Jazz’s feared interior defense.
Anchoring that defense is the reigning Defensive Player of the Year, Rudy Gobert, generally regarded as their league’s best rim protector. An imposing 7’1” with a 7’8” wingspan, Gobert is perennially among the league leaders in blocked shots, but his trademark is his ability to change shots even if he fails to block them. With Gobert defending at the rim, shooters have historically seen their percentages plummet.
That trait has abandoned Gobert to start this year, however, perhaps one of the main reasons for Utah’s poor start. Gobert remains one of the league’s best shot-blockers, but opponents are shooting 64 percent with Gobert defending at the rim through Utah’s first nine games, making him one of the least effective high volume rim protectors in the league to this point.
This isn’t a small sample trend the Raptors’ should count on continuing though, as opponents have shot just 44 percent at the rim against Gobert over Utah’s last three games. Hopefully the Raptors find the range on their jumpers so they can overcome Gobert’s impact.
A little mountain air has never done anyone any harm, has it? Well, it’s definitely done more than a little harm to the hopes of teams visiting the Jazz. The Jazz have the second biggest home court advantage in all of pro sports, trailing only the Denver Nuggets, per a 2017 study.
For a team on the second night of a back-to-back, the thinner air at altitude figures to be an especially taxing burden. Don’t be surprised if the Raptors look sluggish as the game wears on, perhaps losing the legs in their shots. If Kawhi Leonard plays he’ll likely shoulder a substantial burden, as there’s good chance he’ll need to carry the rest of the team through their fatigue.
Really what I’m saying is if the Raptors’ lose then you can tell everyone it was a scheduled loss. We have a ready-made excuse.
After tonight’s game against the Jazz, the Raps rap up their first west coast swing with a game against the Kings on Wednesday.