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Raptors look to bounce back against the OKC Thunder: Preview, start time, and more

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The Raptors will inch one game closer to the midway point of the season when they take on the Oklahoma City Thunder tonight.

NBA: Toronto Raptors at Oklahoma City Thunder Alonzo Adams-USA TODAY Sports

After losing a heartbreaker to the San Antonio Spurs on Sunday night, the Raptors look to get back on track against the Oklahoma City Thunder tonight. Luckily for Toronto, the injury bug is almost on its way out as Marc Gasol will make his return from his hamstring injury tonight after missing the last 12 games. He is officially listed as ‘probable,’ but will likely play and come off the bench as he works his way back into form. On another note, Fred VanVleet continues to be sidelined with a hamstring injury, but other than that, the Raps are almost injury-free!

The Raptors also got two other key players back from injury in Norman Powell and Pascal Siakam. Their presence was felt as Siakam put up 12 points in the first quarter (but struggled with his shot the rest of the way), while Powell dramatically boosted the Raps’ offense, recording 20 points on 8-for-14 shooting from the field.

Still, the outcome was a story we’ve heard before: Toronto let a 14-point lead with nine minutes left in the game slip away when former Raptor DeMar DeRozan scored 22 of his 25 points in the second half as he led his Spurs to the 105-104 comeback win. The Raptors had their chance to take the lead in the final seconds but Siakam missed the game-tying layup and the game-winning three-point shot at the buzzer. It was an uncharacteristic performance for Siakam, but not unexpected given the time off. The loss put the Raptors at 25-14 which is still good for fourth place in the Eastern Conference and only 2.5 games back from the second-seed Boston Celtics.

With that game out of the way, Siakam and the Raptors can focus on the task at hand. They’re on the road tonight against a rolling Thunder squad, who are 23-17 on the season. OKC is coming off a 117-104 win against the Minnesota Timberwolves in which their young star, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, recorded his first career triple-double, putting up 20-20-10. That’s 20 points, 20 rebounds, and 10 assists. Yes, 20 rebounds for the 6-foot-5 guard. We’ll get to more on him in the three keys to the game below.

Now, the first meeting between these two teams was just like the Spurs game on Sunday night. The Raptors had a chance to win the game, but VanVleet missed his three-point attempt with 16 seconds left and the team failed to foul to extend the game until there were three seconds left. OKC forward Terrance Ferguson inbounded the ball to Gilgeous-Alexander in the backcourt and he escaped from the foul to secure the 98-97 win.

Going more into the Thunder, they’re one of the more well-rounded groups in the league. Nine-time All-Star Chris Paul is having a solid season, averaging 16.5 points on .468/.362/.895 shooting splits for a true shooting percentage of 59 percent, to go along with 6.4 assists, 5.1 rebounds, and 1.6 steals per game. He also gave the Raptors trouble in the first meeting as put up 25 points, 11 rebounds, eight assists, and hit several clutch shots and made key plays in the fourth quarter. Then there is Dennis Schroder, who is making a strong case for Sixth Man of the Year, and Danilo Gallinari, who is having a productive offensive season, to round out the Thunder’s core. Neither of those two played, so Toronto will have their hands full in guarding them, Gilgeous-Alexander and CP3.

It’ll be another tough test for Toronto, so let’s hammer out the details for tonight’s contest followed by the three keys to the game.

Where to Watch:

TSN, 8 p.m. ET

Lineups:

Toronto – Kyle Lowry, Norman Powell, OG Anunoby, Pascal Siakam, Serge Ibaka

Oklahoma City – Chris Paul, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Terrance Ferguson, Danilo Gallinari, Steven Adams

Injuries:

Toronto – Fred VanVleet (Hamstring – Out), Marc Gasol (Hamstring - Probable)

Oklahoma City – Andre Roberson (Knee – Out), Nerlens Noel (Ankle – Out), Abdel Nader (Ankle – Out)

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Shai Ain’t Shy

He’s only in his sophomore season but Gilgeous-Alexander has shown the league that he can be one of the best guards in the NBA. Not only is he putting up 19.9 points, 5.7 rebounds, 2.9 assists in 35.4 minutes per game, but he’s doing so at an efficient rate. Shai’s shooting splits are .468/.343/.818 for a true shooting percentage of 56 percent.

Now, in case you forgot, Gilgeous-Alexander put on a show the last time the Raps played the Thunder. He hit what would be the game-winning basket with 36 seconds left in the game and finished with 32 points (tying his career-high) on 12-for-21 shooting from the field to go along with seven rebounds and three steals in the win.

Tonight, the Raps will have to make it harder for Gilgeous-Alexander to drive in the lane because he just kept penetrating Toronto’s defense for plays at the rim in the first meeting. In fact, he’s been doing it all season long as 52.2 percent of his points come from inside the paint and 61.2 percent of his overall scoring is coming from inside the arc. As they’ve done for most of the season, the Raptors will have to tailor their defense to stopping Shai in particular.

Shake Off the Rust

With Siakam looking to getting back into game shape, tonight will be a good opportunity for him to get back into rhythm against this Thunder team. Don’t expect it to be an easy transition but look for his main man Kyle Lowry to set him up. Toronto needs it, as their offense has been wacky in the last three games.

Be sure to look out for how Siakam responds tonight. He got off to a great start against the Spurs but struggled after the opening quarter — either due to the defensive attention he received or his own tired legs. At the very least, we should expect him to make more of his layups and shots close to the rim.

From a team standpoint, the Raptors’ play has been inconsistent as of late, so much so that they have flip-flopped between wins and losses in the previous nine games. With a streaking Thunder team, Toronto will look to avoid losing back-to-back games for what would only be the third time this season, the first since Dec. 23-25 when they lost to the Indiana Pacers and the Boston Celtics.

Fix the Clutch

The last three games against the Portland Trail Blazers, Charlotte Hornets, and the Spurs exposed one area the Raptors struggled in: fourth quarter and late-game situations. In all three of these games, there have been too many jumpshots taken after a couple of passes around the perimeter, and there has been a lot of one-on-one play as well as inconsistent efforts on both ends of the floor, which is uncharacteristic from this team.

The most alarming thing though is that not only have the Raptors squandered big leads in the second half, they’ve been outscored 87-61 in the fourth quarter alone in each of those last three games. With Siakam and Powell, and now Gasol, coming back from injury, the hope is for Toronto to get back to finishing strong so that they don’t have to exert more energy to grab wins in desperate situations.