Time for a real life story. Here I am, minding my own business, watching the Raptors on League Pass. Then, during the first commercial break where they show who are the Players of the Week for each conference, I did a double take at the chryon. Then a triple take. Then I convinced myself that those jokers at Turner Sports had made a dumb typo and went on with my day. The Raptors, as you may know, ended up losing to the Pacers — which is besides the point.
Anyway, it turned out the chryon was right. James Harden really did average 54.3 goddamn points per game last week, on his way to the Western Conference Player of the Week honour. Just to really rub my stupid nose in it, Harden beasted his way to 61 points in a 114-110 win over the Knicks on Wednesday.
I mean, I know he’s been really good, but this is still a shocking line to look at.
Now, the Rockets are hosting the Raptors, and there’s no question that James Harden is the focal point — not just for this game, but for the entire league, and for the MVP discussion. Not since 2006 Kobe Bryant has one player shouldered so much scoring load for a team. Harden has scored over 40 in six of his last eight games, which follows an earlier stretch of five straight 40-point games over the holiday break.
But, what’s this?! Chris Paul is also listed as questionable for tonight’s game, upgrading him into a scenario where he makes his return after 16 games on the injured reserve.
Paul’s presence would definitely change the dynamic of this one. The Rockets are 15-8 when Paul and Harden play together and just 11-10 without CP3 in the lineup.
For Toronto, it’s about bouncing back after a narrow loss to a motivated Pacers team. Kawhi Leonard is back in the probable starters (though that usually doesn’t matter much, since the team announces his load management days the morning of), which could set up a surprise matchup between two teams who looked shorthanded just yesterday.
Let’s get into the game details then the nuts and bolts of the matchup.
Where to Watch
TSN, 8 PM ET
Toronto - Kyle Lowry, Danny Green, Kawhi Leonard, Pascal Siakam, Serge Ibaka
Houston - Austin Rivers, James Harden, Eric Gordon, P.J. Tucker, Kenneth Faried
Toronto - Jonas Valanciunas (thumb - out)
Houston - Clint Capela (thumb - out), Brandon Knight (questionable - knee), Chris Paul (questionable - hamstring)
Fear the Beard (And His Lobs)
How the Raptors decide to guard James Harden depends a lot on whether Kawhi is in the lineup or not. If he is, it’s probably another situation where Leonard gets the assignment in important moments, with Danny Green getting the lion’s share.
Toronto also gets off a little easier with Clint Capela’s continued absence due to a thumb injury. Without Capela, Harden loses a huge lob weapon, which forces him into more isolation plays — either driving to the rim or dribbling his way into an open three.
In place of Capela, the Rockets have blown the dust off of Kenneth Faried, who’s had 24 points combined in his two games with Houston.
The Raptors have really had a rough time guarding the 1-5 pick and roll since Jonas Valanciunas’ injury, especially when Greg Monroe is on the floor. While Faried being there instead of Capela is advantageous, Green or Leonard have to find a way to ably guard Harden into an isolation game.
If he drops 60 on impossible shots, so be it. It’s when Harden is facilitating for everyone else — especially his centres — that Houston really turns the corner and becomes a behemoth.
Role Player Shooting
With injuries limiting an already thin roster, the Rockets rely heavily on guys like Austin Rivers, Gerald Green, and P.J. Tucker making threes. It’s a similar story with the Raptors. Against the Pacers, Toronto’s role players missed a bevy of wide open looks in the first quarter, digging themselves a hole their tired legs couldn’t fully get out of.
Role player shooting will be a huge factor in this game. While the Raptors have survived some games with Danny Green going off on his own, it would be great to see Fred VanVleet have a good night, with Norman Powell and Delon Wright making some shots as well.
Just to hammer down the point, the Rockets are 9-5 when holding their opponents below 45.0% shooting. They’re a team you have to score with to beat, so the Raptors will have to make some outside shots to do so.
The Lowry Factor
Kyle Lowry hasn’t been posting eye-popping numbers, but he has been really solid over the last four games. In Wednesday’s loss to the Pacers, Kyle had 20 points, seven assists, and five rebounds, while playing some tenacious defence and picking up some 50-50 plays for Toronto.
Lowry has a favourable matchup against Austin Rivers in this one and has had some success against the Rockets, even with Chris Paul in the lineup. Lowry had 30 points the last time these two teams met, a 108-105 win back on March 9, 2018.
Whether Kawhi plays or not, how energized the play of Lowry is could go far in dictating how the Raptors do — as it always does. If he can lift his game to the matchup and the national TV stage, it bodes very well for the visitors.