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The Raptors visit Detroit for prime time showdown with the Pistons: Preview, start time, and more

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Toronto is looking to put away Detroit for the third time this season, and for their sixth straight victory overall.

NBA: Detroit Pistons at Toronto Raptors Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

The Raptors are in Detroit tonight to take on the Pistons, in an 8pm prime time match-up. It’s a SEGABABA (second game of a back-to-back), on ESPN, and in the midst of a horrid offensive dry spell — a trifecta of interesting stories. Toronto is looking for their third win in a row against Detroit this season, after winning the second match up convincingly, 123-94, just 10 days ago.

Toronto is coming off a closer-than-it-looked 106-90 victory over the Hawks on Tuesday at the ACC — a game that was painfully close for 44 minutes before finally opening up in the late moments. The big story is the clunky offense (something we’ll dive into in this preview) which, despite individual accolades, highlights how important each player is in efficiently executing an offensive game plan.

Detroit, on the other hand, has been reeling for an extended period of time. After looking like a new group immediately following the Blake Griffin trade, the Pistons look lost on both ends. In their past 10 games, they’ve shot over 45 percent from the floor just twice, and have given up 10 or more three pointers in eight games during that same stretch.

Stan Van Gundy may be coaching for his job to finish out the season, and the team might want to capitalize on the opportunity to play spoiler on national TV against the Raptors, especially if Toronto’s shooting hasn’t figured itself out on the plane trip from Toronto (which, to be fair, is a half-hour flight, so it probably won’t).

Here are your details for tonight’s game:

Where to Watch:

TSN 4/5 8 p.m.

Lineups:

Toronto – Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan, Malcolm Miller, Serge Ibaka, Jonas Valanciunas

Detroit – Ish Smith, Reggie Bullock, James Ennis, Blake Griffin, Andre Drummond

Injuries:

Toronto – OG Anunoby (ankle — questionable), Delon Wright (toe — probable), Nigel Hayes (personal — questionable)

Detroit – Reggie Jackson (ankle — out), Jon Leuer (ankle — out)

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What’s In the Water?

The troubling story in Toronto the past few days is the stumbling offensive play over the last three games — coinciding with starting small forward OG Anunoby going down with an ankle injury. During the stretch, the team is averaging just 103.7 points per game, and shooting a full five percentage points below their season average, 42 percent, from the field, and below 30 percent from downtown.

Part of the problem is the starters missing open shots, but a lot has to do with the bench’s rhythm early on in the game. Most of the damage done by the bench is early in the second quarter, where the unit employs a run and gun approach, keeping the opposing bench on its heels. Their production in the early going of the last three contests has slipped since the Anunoby injury, partly because C.J. Miles has been asked to enter games earlier than normal — staggering the usual rotation that makes the second unit so effective.

With Norman Powell getting burn in the few minutes of the second quarter where Miles normally thrives, the court has shrunk for the team’s penetrating bench guards. Fred VanVleet in particular has struggled with the change, shooting just 25 percent (6-of-24) since the Anunoby injury. You may have noticed his forays to the rim lacking a certain space lately. At first glance, it may seem like Anunoby is more important to the offense than some would give him credit — however what’s really affected by his injury is the bench’s elite chemistry and routine.

Defense is Saving the Team

During this painful scoring stretch, the Raptors’ defense has thrived on intensity and awareness on the other end of the floor to alleviate the shooting trouble. In years past, if the shot wasn’t falling, the entire game would be out of reach.

This season, the Raptors are doing what they need to do on both ends, independently of one another, in order to find a path to victory. It’s a commendable and underappreciated facet of their growth this season, and one more step toward performing consistently in the postseason.

One of the major anchors on the defensive end in this three-game stretch has been Jakob Poeltl — who is averaging 3.0 blocks in fewer than 20 minutes a night over the last three. Both he and Pascal Siakam have had wondrous stretches of defense logged for the team, and in crucial moments to boot. Tuesday against Atlanta, it was Poeltl’s defensive effort in the fourth quarter which helped spark a 16-0 run, allowing the Raptors to finally pull away.

The X-Factor

We haven’t said it much this season, sadly enough, but Norm Powell needs to be the X-Factor that earned him his clout in Toronto. If he can make a few threes a night to stretch the floor like Anunoby was able to, Miles might be able to come off the bench with the usual crew, where he (and the rest of the bench unit) is more comfortable playing from.

Unfortunately, it appears Dwane Casey understands he won’t get the “Destroyer of Worlds” Powell with a snap of his fingers, so it remains unlikely we see Casey roll with him in Anunoby’s minutes in order to preserve the first half bench rotation. This is a perfect opportunity, though, for the bench to play meaningful minutes with Powell — something that has yet to consistently happen this season.

If Toronto expects Powell to fit in with anyone, anytime, anywhere — we could be in line for a big disappointment come playoff time. He was thrust into late-game closer roles last season, and relied upon during the playoffs of his rookie year. It’s hard to strike gold twice, let alone three times. Powell needs consistent burn with teammates as we approach the postseason.