For the third time in as many games the Toronto Raptors are up against an elite opponent. In the first two contests they blew out the Utah Jazz, and followed it up with an overtime loss to the Heat, in which the Raps played some of their worst basketball at times.
Last season, the Rockets defeated the Raptors in both regular season match-ups. One of those losses for Toronto came before the trade with Memphis and with Jonas Valanciunas injured, so things look very different for both teams. On the Rockets side, they played without former point guard Chris Paul in that game, who himself has been traded, and they were without Clint Capela as well. In the second regular match-up, both teams featured a mostly healthy roster and it was post-trade deadline.
Since then, a lot of things look different for both teams. Jonas Valanciunas isn’t with the Raptors, but Marc Gasol is and he’s healthy. Of course, Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green are out of the picture as well. For the Rockets, Russell Westbrook replaces Paul and Capela is healthy. There’s also been some role player shuffling done by the Rockets to try and make a deeper playoff push this season. Worry not, James Harden is still doing his thing for Houston and averaging a career-high 39.5 points per game to start the season.
Both teams are coming off overtime losses from a couple days ago (Rockets lost to the Spurs in double overtime). For the Raptors it’s the last home game before a two-game road trip, and the Rockets after this head home for two. Either way, both want to get on track after heartbreaking overtime losses.
Here are the details for tonight’s game.
Where to Watch:
TSN 4, 7:30 p.m. EST
Toronto – Kyle Lowry, Fred VanVleet, OG Anunoby, Pascal Siakam, Marc Gasol
Houston – Russell Westbrook, James Harden, Ben McLemore, P.J. Tucker, Clint Capela
Toronto – Stanley Johnson (out – groin), Matt Thomas (out – finger), Patrick McCaw (out – knee)
Houston – Eric Gordon (out – knee), Gerald Green (out – foot), Nene (out – hip), Danuel House Jr. (questionable – illness)
Fear the Beard
Anyone who’s followed the Raptors closely, specifically those who recall the past games versus the Rockets, you’ll know that James Harden loves to play this team. In fact, Harden’s career 28.7 career points per game against the Raptors in 18 games is his second highest average versus any opponent. And he’s done it while shooting 45 percent from the field.
In last season’s games against the Raptors, Harden scored 35 points twice. However, he also got a lot of help from his teammates with the Rockets posting an offensive efficiency of roughly 118 in both games. Toronto has to know that won’t win ball games. And since stopping Harden from scoring is almost impossible — seriously, let’s repeat: he’s averaging 39.5 points per game — they’ll need to do what they can to stop his teammates from scoring.
It’ll be the second game the Raptors’ core is healthy and back together. Yes, they’re still missing a trio of players (McCaw, Thomas, Johnson), but having Serge Ibaka and Kyle Lowry back is huge. For those keeping track, Ibaka has been back for two games and Lowry returned versus Miami on Tuesday.
During that Heat game though things did look a little out of sync for Toronto. Lowry made some big plays late in the game with his typical always vigilant effort. But overall, he shot an inefficient 2-for-18, missing what he deemed to be “rhythm shots.” As a result, at least in part, Pascal Siakam was also held in check, shooting 5-for-14. With their All-Star point guard back, the Raptors will need Lowry to regain his shooting touch to re-open the floor for Siakam and the rest of the Raptors. Fortunately, the Rockets are currently ranked 16th in defensive rating, which means there may be some space for Lowry to find his form — to say nothing of the rest of the squad.
Don’t Look Ahead
As mentioned at the start, this stretch of games for the Raptors hasn’t been easy, and it doesn’t get much easier. After the Rockets is a road game versus the sure-to-be-steamed Sixers, a road game against the struggling Bulls, and then a return home to face the Clippers — the game Kawhi gets his ring. It’ll be an emotional night against a talented team.
For the Raptors, it’ll be important to come out tonight and beat the Rockets. And not just because Toronto is trying to re-work its rotation and get comfortable once again as a whole team. Case in point: the Sixers know what happened in Toronto on Nov. 25 and last year during the playoffs, so they’ll want to defend their court. Meanwhile, Kawhi probably has the Dec. 11 return to Toronto circled. It’ll be important not to look past this Rockets team if you’re the Raptors, specifically with some tough rival competition upcoming.