All season, it’s been one step forward, two steps back when it comes to Toronto Raptors and injuries. Tonight, they’ll host the Portland Trail Blazers in the midst of a lighter bit of scheduling that features a back-to-back with Portland and Charlotte, then five rest days between games against San Antonio and OKC.
That rest will be welcome when you consider just how short-handed the Raptors are getting. Yes, they’ll reportedly get Matt Thomas back tonight, who spent last night starting for the 905 on assignment to get warmed up. The step back, though, is that Fred VanVleet — dealing with a hamstring strain and a jammed right index finger — is doubtful, forcing another starting lineup shake-up for Nick Nurse.
It’s hard to evaluate the Raptors in any way this season without mentioning injuries first. Save for a stretch early in the season where the rotation was constricted by a head coach still feeling out what he had, there hasn’t been any opportunity to see what Toronto can do fully formed. That’s been fun too, in a way, as we’ve had plenty of chance to see what Kyle Lowry can do over the last two weeks — the heady point guard once again led the Raptors in scoring with 26 points against the Nets.
Tonight, the Raptors take on a team that’s similarly dealt with injuries to big name players. Portland is hoping to get back CJ McCollum tonight as he missed Sunday’s game with an upper respiratory infection. Long-term injuries to Skal Labissiere, Jusuf Nurkic, Rodney Hood, and Zach Collins have forced the Blazers to pull the big red “sign Carmelo Anthony” lever, who’s been mostly okay. The Blazers are still in the hunt for a playoff spot, despite where they’re at with their personnel.
Let’s look at the details for tonight’s matchup then get into the key storylines.
Where to Watch
TSN, 7 PM ET
Toronto — Kyle Lowry, Patrick McCaw, OG Anunoby, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Serge Ibaka
Portland — Damian Lillard, Gary Trent, Kent Bazemore, Carmelo Anthony, Hassan Whiteside
Toronto — Matt Thomas (probable - finger), Fred VanVleet (doubtful - hamstring), Norman Powell (doubtful - shoulder), Marc Gasol (out - hamstring), Pascal Siakam (out - groin), Dewan Hernandez (ankle - out)
Portland — CJ McCollum (questionable - illness), Skal Labissiere (out - knee), Jusuf Nurkic (out - leg), Rodney Hood (out - Achilles), Zach Collins (out - shoulder)
Score in Bunches
As you’d expect from a team that starts Carmelo Anthony in 2020, the Blazers have had their struggles on the defensive end of the floor. In the last 15 games, Portland has been a bottom-five defensive team in the NBA with a 113.3 rating, with particular struggles coming in opponent second chance opportunities. They’ve given up 15.5 per game, with only Indiana worse than them.
This is welcome news for a Raptors team that’s getting a lot of production off of hustle these days, considering the personnel. This is an important game for Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and OG Anunoby, as they both can be effective attacking the offensive glass and keeping possessions alive for Toronto. It might also be a good opportunity for Oshae Brissett to get minutes — we’ve seen his productivity improve with the 905 in the energy area specifically, even getting some key rebounds in the Celtics win over holiday break.
Keeping up with Portland’s scoring is always important, but overwhelmingly possible when you consider who you’re going up against. Lillard and McCollum are improved defenders, but still aren’t All-NBA in team schemes. Anthony is what he is at this point in his career. Hassan Whiteside is apathetic on the best of days. Save a really poor shooting performance, Toronto should be able to survive in a track meet against these guys.
It’ll be interesting to see how the Raptors defend Lillard, who’s again on track for an MVP-discussion season — averaging 27.1 points, 7.6 assists, 5.2 rebounds, and 1.0 steals per game in 2019-20.
Flags have to be up when it comes to over-taxing Kyle Lowry, who’s really been the team’s best chance at getting wins over the last two-week stretch. There’s also been a tendency to use Lowry to body up a forward and leave the primary guard matchup to Patrick McCaw or OG Anunoby. I’d expect that to once again be the case here, especially considering the likelihood of McCaw sliding up to shooting guard in VanVleet’s absence.
There’s also pressure on Serge Ibaka as a rim protector in this game. Portland loves to run screen and roll with their guards, and Ibaka will need to be more inclined to help than keep an eye on Whiteside. He’ll need to have a good game as well.
For the Love of God, Stay Healthy
This is me just pleading with the basketball gods, for the most part. The Raptors seem to lose a new player every five games, and we’re at the point where Kyle Lowry Over Everything is necessary on a nightly basis. That’s scary for a 33-year-old point guard, especially because we want to see him at his best come playoff time. There is a history of small injuries accumulating and hurting Lowry’s high end in post-season play, after all.
It goes beyond Lowry, though. Getting healthy is the most important thing for this Raptors season by a long shot. Getting out of this back-to-back and into a period of rest fully intact, with news starting to trickle out about on-court work for guys like Norman Powell and Pascal Siakam, is mission critical.