There are better ways to start a five-game westcoast trip — or any kind of trip, really. After winning 17 of 18 games, the Raptors took it on the chin against the league-leading Bucks on Tuesday, then dropped a winnable game against the terrible Hornets with a surfeit of screw-ups down the stretch. If the Raps were heading out west for a vacation, it’d be a good idea. But we know more intense games await.
First up, the Denver Nuggets, coming in hot at 40-19. They enter tonight’s game as the second place team in the West (behind the Lakers), but also as a squad that were just walloped on Friday night against the third-place Clippers (who now have the same record as Denver). That is to say, Nikola Jokic and his merry band may be a bit ticked off entering tonight’s contest in the Pepsi Center.
Fortunately, the Raptors also have a reason or two to be fired up too. For one, those aforementioned losses at home; for two, they need to keep pace with the hard-charging Celtics so as to maintain their hold on second place in the East. Toronto is a half-game up on Boston for the honour of avoiding an actual playoff team in the first round of the post-season and they’d like to keep it that way. Unfortunately, they’re also down Marc Gasol again tonight (the obvious Jokic counter), and may be without Serge Ibaka as well. More on that below.
Now you’re up to speed with the general mood preceding tonight’s game. Let’s get to some details and things for which to watch.
Where to Watch:
Sportsnet One at 6pm EST
Toronto — Kyle Lowry, Norman Powell, OG Anunoby, Pascal Siakam, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson
Denver — Jamal Murray, Will Barton, Gary Harris, Paul Millsap, Nikola Jokic
Toronto — Fred VanVleet (shoulder - questionable), Serge Ibaka (knee - questionable), Marc Gasol (hamstring - out), Dewan Hernandez (ankle - out)
Denver — Paul Millsap (ankle - questionable), Noah Vonleh (ankle - questionable), Bol Bol (foot - out)
Containing the Big Man
This is where the problems are going to start and end for the Raptors if they’re down once again both Gasol and Ibaka. Praise to Hollis-Jefferson for playing as big as he possibly can, and credit too to Chris Boucher for attempting to use his length in lieu of his weight, but Jokic is an All-Star centre who can bend the game a million different ways. And that’s before we even acknowledge he’s one of the beefiest dudes in the league — a legit 7-footer coming in at a solid(ish) 250 pounds.
So what does Toronto do? The answer might be only to hope Ibaka’s status is upgraded through the day and he’s ready to go. The other option is to try their “build a wall” strategy, as they did against Giannis, to force Jokic into passes — and then use their overall team speed to keep Denver’s shooters in check. As I write this I realize it is not exactly comforting; the Nuggets, with Jamal Murray, Will Barton, and Paul Millsap (among others). have consistent shooters too. The other option? Run like hell and tucker Jokic out. It’s not impossible.
Using Siakam in All His Multitudes
Now, if the Raptors do want to run like hell, they’ll need to look to Pascal Siakam. Of course, if they want to have any chance to win this game, they’ll also have to look to Siakam too. Against the Hornets on Friday, it was Siakam who was flying around the court on defense and pushing/driving the ball on offense to get Toronto back in it. Yes, Lowry made a few big shots too — but it was Siakam’s play that put them in that position. What’s been frustrating, at least to a certain extent, is that Pascal hasn’t been as featured as he could be in Toronto’s offense.
That’s not to say Siakam has been absent since the All-Star break — he killed Phoenix his own self, and put in some light work against the overwhelmed Pacers. But against the Bucks it looked like he shrank and that his teammates couldn’t find him. There needs to be a happy medium here. The Raptors need to get Siakam on the run, they need to get him going downhill at the net, they need to feed him in the post. With the roster as limited as it is right now thanks to injuries, Toronto needs as much consistent scoring punch as it can muster. That starts with Siakam, especially if he’s in there against the ghost of Millsap, or the likes of Jerami Grant. Go to work, young man!
When Siakam is not going though, the Raptors need to find something from somewhere. This is the ongoing challenge for a team whose lineup keeps changing so dramatically day-to-day, week-by-week, due to injury. We were living the high life recently with Terence Davis and Matt Thomas, and even got to celebrate a few absurd runs by Boucher. But the bill came due on some of that action, and Toronto found themselves with a wholly absent bench on Friday night against the Hornets. All in, the Raps got just nine points from their reserves, on 4-of-19 shooting and zero threes.
Can we blame the return of Patrick McCaw? As tempting as that is, it shouldn’t disrupt the play of Davis or even Thomas that much. They looked to be turning the corner after the All-Star break, but we have to remember that rookie deep bench players are not exactly built to produce night in and night out. If Fred VanVleet returns tonight then perhaps Powell will be able to boost the bench — he looked to be on a tear upon his return — but even that is no guarantee. It’s essentially impossible to predict how they’ll do as a unit. But it is fair to say that when they’re playing well, the Raptors have a good chance to win.