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Raptors head back out on Thunder road: Preview, start time, and more

Despite their recent listing, the Oklahoma City Thunder are still very much a danger to Toronto. The Raptors are in OKC tonight for part one of a rare home-and-home series with the Thunder.

NBA: Oklahoma City Thunder at Toronto Raptors John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

As it turns out for Toronto, the worst hasn’t quite happened — yet. Despite suffering what looked at first to be a brutal ankle injury, Kyle Lowry is listed merely as questionable for tonight’s game against the Oklahoma City Thunder. If I were a betting man (I’m not), I’d wager Lowry will definitely sit tonight. So, good news in the aggregate, but it will make things difficult tonight; the Thunder are not normally a team with which to trifle.

Despite tumbling through three straight recent losses, one coming at the hands of the hated Warriors, the Thunder still boast some extreme — in every sense of the word talent. For one, Russell Westbrook will be back tonight against the Raptors after his one-game suspension earned for accruing a few too many technical fouls. Meanwhile, there’s Paul George — about which many a Toronto fan already know. And finally to complete the trio, the man-giant stylings of Steven Adams, sure to be a handful for the returning Serge Ibaka (or Marc Gasol alike). The Thunder have other players of course, but those are the three who make them go.

So yes, the Raptors will likely play the Thunder tonight without Lowry, but they’ve now got the rest of the squad back and ready to go. Fred VanVleet, in his two games since returning from injury, has looked great. Also, Toronto’s three-ball is now falling. And the new pieces on the team could very well be coming together with the old. This home-and-home series with Oklahoma City (the second game is on Friday) could be the last real test of the regular season for the Raptors. Let’s see how they make out.

Below are your details for the game and three things to keep an eye on. Let’s get ready.

Where to Watch:

Sportsnet One at 9:30pm

Lineups:

Toronto - Fred VanVleet, Danny Green, Kawhi Leonard, Pascal Siakam, Serge Ibaka

Oklahoma City - Russell Westbrook, Terrance Ferguson, Paul George, Jerami Grant, Steven Adams

Injuries:

Toronto - Kyle Lowry (questionable - ankle)

Oklahoma City - Nerlens Noel (day-to-day - quad), Andre Roberson (out - knee)

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Solving Paul George

Paul George plays well against everyone. That’s what we, as Raptors fans, have to keep telling ourselves. At age 28, George is having the very best season of his career, one so good he has vaulted himself right into the thick of the MVP discussion. Through 67 appearances, George is posting 28.3 points per game, 8.2 rebounds, and 4.2 assists, while shooting 44 percent from the field and 39 percent from three (on a somewhat impossible sounding 9.7 attempts per game; is that right?). All this on a team with another guy currently averaging a triple-double. George is a lot, is my point.

But of course, Raptors fans already knew that. Toronto has lost their last three meetings with the Thunder. And we still (yes, still) can recall what a fully engaged Paul George looks like as he’s single-handedly willing his team past the Raptors. The 2016 Playoffs could have been very, very, different for the Raps, and it would have been entirely because of George.

In any case, this version of the Raptors has some obvious candidates to slow down the Thunder’s superstar: Kawhi Leonard, Pascal Siakam, OG Anunoby, and Danny Green. Who will get the primary assignment? How will each of these players fare? Can the Raptors end the Thunder’s streak at three? Will we ever forget about that series with the Pacers? We wait.

Can FVV bother the Big Bad Westbrook?

In many ways, there is a straight line correlation between the performance of Russell Westbrook and outcomes for the Thunder. When he plays ferociously efficient basketball, there tend to be few answers for him. While we could accuse Westbrook of padding his stats a bit to keep that triple-double average of his going, it’s hard to accuse him of not trying.

The issue is always one of where Russ is directing his efforts. In some of the Thunder’s recent wins, it was Westbrook shooting better than 45 percent while directing traffic to the tune of double digit assists (and rebounds). But when the Thunder get blown up, as they did against the Warriors last week, it was Westbrook shooting 2-of-16, picking up an obvious frustration technical, and having an actively harmful effect on the game for OKC.

This is what likely awaits Fred VanVleet (and Jeremy Lin; and possibly Green too), with Lowry likely to sit out tonight. After missing 12 games, VanVleet has returned and looked — ready for this — much better than he has at almost any other point in the season. He posted 17 and 13 points in Toronto’s last two games, he’s shot 67 percent from three, and he’s been moving the ball crisply (with 12 assists vs. the Knicks) to help make the Raps’ offense that much better. It’s obviously a small sample size, but the eye test suggests he’s ready for a prime time showdown with an angry Westbrook. If nothing else, the Raptors will need FVV to frustrate Russ into being the bad version of himself.

Who Starts at C?

Hey, Serge Ibaka is back! After missing three games for putting the fear of God into the Cavs’ Marquese Chriss, the Raptors’ mostly starting centre will take the court tonight for Toronto. The question is, does Serge jump right back into the starting lineup?

This is an odd question to address right now because Ibaka is at his best when playing with Kyle Lowry, and, well, Lowry is likely not playing in tonight’s game. That makes the point here modestly moot — though it would probably be a better idea to play Ibaka with the rejuvenated VanVleet than with the struggling Jeremy Lin. That’s a point in favour of Ibaka starting this game.

Working against him: Marc Gasol is good! In the three games Gasol just started for Toronto, he put up averages of 12.0 points, 9.7 rebounds, and 4.3 assists, while shooting 48 percent from the field and, most importantly for the Raps, 38.5 percent from three (on 4.3 attempts per game). In that stretch Gasol was a plus 17.3, which puts him second on the team behind only Lowry, his fellow basketball brain genius. In short, Gasol, in and of himself, helps the Raptors win, whereas Ibaka tends to play better with specific players in mind. (And that specific player is, again, likely not around for this evening.)

Of course, this could all be besides the point if the Thunder’s man mountain Adams decides to punish the slightly undersized Ibaka, forcing the Raps to match minutes with Gasol. We’ll see which way coach Nick Nurse decides to roll tonight.