Much like the Celtics from Tuesday night, the visiting Portland Trail Blazers offer the Raptors yet another chance to test and prove themselves in the regular season. Yes, Damian Lillard and his squad are going on their own journey, guiding their own narrative, worrying about their own internal and external issues, but to Toronto they’re just another team with talent and a quality record. It’s time to lock in once again.
The Blazers come into Toronto riding a five-game winning streak. And at 38-23 in the Western Conference, they’ve shown themselves to be no joke of a squad. Led by Lillard, one of the league’s best guards, the Blazers have weathered past playoff disappointments, roster turnover, and a brutally stacked conference, to put themselves within a stone’s throw of glory. Not bad.
The Raptors meanwhile are still figuring out just how good they can be. That Tuesday game against the Celtics was instructive if for no other reason that revealing the depth of options in Toronto — let Kawhi go, turn the keys over to Pascal, have Kyle and Marc dissect the game, etc. etc. It was very exciting to see, but it’s also all in a days work for a team that’s won eight of its last ten games stretching back to last month. Also, not bad.
So let’s get into the details for tonight’s game and analyze a few things to keep an eye on as we prepare for Raptor vs. Trail Blazers.
Where to Watch:
Sportsnet One at 8pm EST
Toronto - Kyle Lowry, Danny Green, Kawhi Leonard, Pascal Siakam, Serge Ibaka
Portland - Damian Lillard, C.J. McCollum, Maurice Harkless, Al-Farouq Aminu, Jusuf Nurkic
Toronto - Fred VanVleet (out - thumb)
Portland - Evan Turner (out - knee), Enes Kanter (out - travel issues; how often do we get a chance to say that here?)
All Eyes On Dame
You almost want to feel bad for Lillard. If he was playing basketball at almost any other point in the last 20 years, he’d be considered one of the best players in the league, let alone one of the best point guards. Unfortunately for him, he plays in both the era of the Point Guard, and in the shadow of Steph Curry. That’s gotta be a rough for the ego.
Nevertheless, Lillard has put together one of the better careers in recent memory, and continues to build his own stat line towards perfection. This season in 35.3 minutes per game, Dame is averaging 26 points per game, 6.4 assists, 4.6 rebounds, and 1.2 steals, while shooting 45 percent from the field, 37 from deep (on almost eight attempts per game), and 91 percent from the free throw line. There is not a whole lot of weakness there — and it wasn’t so long ago (2015-16) when Lillard hung 50 on the Raptors in Toronto.
Much like the Raptors’ approach to Kyrie Irving, it will fall to a committee to keep Lillard in check. Look for Green to start on him, with Lowry also keeping tabs, along with Jeremy Lin off the bench, and of course, Kawhi always looming to help if things get out of hand.
Big On the Boards
On the other end of the roster, the Blazers have something cooking with their big men — namely Jusuf Nurkic. The Bosnian big man, and noted trash-talker, is currently serving up a line of 15.4 points and 10.1 rebounds per game. Consistently throughout the season, he’s been a handful for opposing big men. On top of that, the Blazers’ have built on Nurkic’s talents to become one of the better rebounding teams in the league.
As the advanced stats have it, Portland is ranked number two in rebounding percentage on the season (behind the Nuggets, who have their own big beefy boy in Nikola Jokic). They’re ranked seventh in defensive rebounding percentage which, if you can follow the logic, confirms that they are one of the better offensive rebounding teams in the league (the Blazers are ranked third). All of this is to say that Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol will have their work cut out for them. The Blazers will be without Enes Kanter and Evan Turner for the evening (the latter of whom killed them last time), but the battle down low will be something to watch — if only because Big Nurk will make it interesting.
Rotation Questions for the Evening
Which brings us to our final question: how much do the Raptors play Ibaka this evening, and how much do they rely on Gasol? Against the larger frontline of Orlando, the Raptors opted to start Gasol in place of Ibaka, but it didn’t work — Toronto looked entirely flat. Against the Celtics, the Raps stuck with Ibaka in the starting lineup and had Gasol nurture the latent talents of the bench (e.g. Norman Powell). In the process, the Raptors steam-rolled Boston and there was much delight in the land.
Tonight, as mentioned, Toronto will have to grapple with Nurkic, who embodies the kind of big pivot who has given the Raptors problems this season. (see: Jokic, Nikola; Vucevic, Nikola; maybe it’s just Nikolas?). Toronto remains in the bottom half of the league in defensive rebounding percentage, and have let games get away from them a bit as their opponents have gotten more physical. In that sense, setting aside the obvious talents of Portland’s backcourt (we didn’t even talk about McCollum!), the deciding factor of tonight’s game could very well come down to who can control the paint. We’ll see.