Though first round struggles seem like a distant memory now for the Toronto Raptors — who have been good for a long time! — there’s always a storyline heading into those matchups.
In fact, over the last couple years, whether it’s been Milwaukee, Indiana, or Washington, it always seems like the Raptors get the matchup they feared. Then, the team actually affirms that they’re good and wins anyway.
If the past three years have set up a trajectory, then the Raptors and Pistons are headed for a post-season relationship. Detroit would be the first round matchup for Toronto if the season ended today, as the Pistons find themselves jockeying with Brooklyn for the sixth seed with Orlando, Charlotte, and Miami 1.5 games back.
The Pistons have had a rocky season but played the Raptors well in their lone matchup heading into tonight, stealing a 106-104 victory on Toronto’s home court back in November in one of the most dismal losses the Raptors suffered this year. If you need reminding, it was Dwane Casey — oft-criticized during his time in Toronto for inflexibility and late game play-calling — who drew up a beauty to get Reggie Bullock a game-winning layup.
There’s also some poetry in the Kawhi Leonard play that preceded the game-winner. Leonard notably dribbled off of his own foot, the darkest snapshot of his early season struggles with end-of-game possessions. On Friday night, though, we got the best version of Kawhi at the end of a game — a dominating dribble to his favourite spot on the baseline and a winning jumper over the Blazers.
The progression for Kawhi and the Raptors, who also feature many different faces than that game in November, should be evident as Toronto invades Little Caesars Arena. Let’s get into the game details and what to watch for.
Where to Watch
TSN 2, 6 PM ET
Toronto - Kyle Lowry, Danny Green, Kawhi Leonard, Pascal Siakam, Marc Gasol
Detroit - Reggie Jackson, Wayne Ellington, Bruce Brown, Blake Griffin, Andre Drummond
Toronto - Fred VanVleet (OUT - thumb)
Detroit - none
Stole Your Playbook
Prior to Dwane Casey joining the Pistons, Detroit was a notably heavy pick and roll team. Now, as of January, the number of Detroit possessions that involve a Reggie Jackson pick and roll were down nearly 20%. Casey clearly took some schemes from his time with the Raptors and applied them to Detroit — a more three-point heavy roster, more spread offence, more cutting.
That kind of effort offence has resulted in up-and-down play for the Pistons, though. Toronto, however, is finding success by stealing the way that Detroit used to play — through heavy doses of 1-5 pick and roll.
In Friday’s win over Portland, Kyle Lowry was demonstrative when running pick and roll with Marc Gasol, who now seems destined for a permanent role with the starting lineup given the chemistry those two are building.
It’s especially helpful when the two are staggered with the bench, where corner shooters like OG Anunoby and Norman Powell can be more effective on their catches.
Gasol has drawbacks, but was always going to be best utilized when he has a point guard to play off of. If the Portland game wasn’t an aberration, that chemistry is coming with Lowry.
Up For It
In a second half schedule pocked full of trap games, the Raptors kind of get a rehash of last week’s game against Orlando from the schedule-makers. Tonight’s game against the Pistons comes in between Portland and Houston, two teams who are similarly on a crash course in the Western Conference Playoffs.
Given that the Pistons gym will always feel like a home game for Toronto, there’s no excuse for not leaning on the gas pedal — but a hot start would really show that the team is up for this game. November’s loss should also be fresh, so there’s really no excuses.
Kawhi On A Tear
After scoring 38 points against Portland, Kawhi gets another juicy matchup against the Pistons, whose wing defenders consist of Wayne Ellington, Bruce Brown, and Glenn Robinson III. The three-spot has been a sore spot for the Pistons all year, as Kawhi scored 26 points in the last meeting despite dribbling off his New Balances.
It’s an obvious point to make — the best player is going to be important for the Raptors. In this matchup especially, though, Detroit has to either guard Kawhi with a lesser player or get really creative. He’s hot... and should stay hot.