We’ve seen this Raptors team deal with a lot during their quest to defend the NBA title. However, if the most recent round of injuries has proven one thing, it’s that Fred VanVleet and Serge Ibaka are absolutely vital components of a team that previously won 15 straight games.
Both players remain questionable to suit up this evening, but have travelled with the team on their current road trip. In the past two contests, the Raptors have fielded no centres (unless you consider Chris Boucher one) and the normally deadly Kyle Lowry has had little room to operate without his premier pick-and-roll partner, Serge Ibaka — he’s shot just 5-of-22 from three in the last two games.
Trying to explain Fred VanVleet’s importance, on the other hand, is futile. In addition to being a release valve offensively during the fourth quarter, his defense is impossible to overstate. He’s been the Raptors best backcourt defender all season and in his absence Sunday night, Toronto allowed Jamal Murray to score 22 points on 6-of-10 from downtown. Powell gives effort defensively, but he’s not as pesky and plays a lot more loose when defending man-to-man, opting instead to hound passing lanes.
Suffice to say, we’ll have to wait a little more if we want to see Toronto at full full-strength — you might’ve forgotten Marc Gasol was on the team (he’s even traveling with them too!). With the home stretch now upon us, and a virtual tie with Boston in the standings, the next few weeks will be exciting to watch.
On the other side of the book are the Phoenix Suns who’ve also dropped three straight as well. In a much grimmer situation for their season, it appears they’ve lost Kelly Oubre Jr. for the year with a knee injury. Oubre was famously a heel to the DeRozan-led Toronto squad after facing off with Delon Wright in a first-round matchup two seasons ago. Oubre was having a career year and genuinely looked to be an impactful player.
Here are the details for tonight’s game:
Where to Watch:
Sportsnet One, 9:00 p.m. EST
Toronto — Kyle Lowry, Norman Powell, OG Anunoby, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Pascal Siakam
Phoenix — Ricky Rubio, Devin Booker, Mikal Bridges, Dario Saric, Deandre Ayton
Toronto — Fred VanVleet (shoulder — questionable), Serge Ibaka (knee — questionable), Marc Gasol (hamstring — out), Dewan Hernandez (ankle — out)
Phoenix — Kelly Oubre Jr. (knee — knee), Frank Kaminsky (knee — out), Cameron Johnson (back — probable)
OG Anunoby has had his ups and downs seemingly for his entire three-year career. But we’ve never seen a two game stretch like this most recent one from the bountiful forward: a combined 48 points, 16 rebounds, and thirteen steals.
With the Raptors spread dangerously thin at forward, OG has stepped up spectacularly with Pascal Siakam and Rondae Hollis Jefferson stationed at centre for the time being. It hasn’t just been this two-game stretch either — OG showed flashes of breaking out in the week leading up, first scoring 25 points prior to the All-Star break, and then playing better all-around basketball leading up to and including the Bucks game (of course he’s not OG without a single-digit scoring game peppered in).
Sunday’s 32-point explosion was arguably the best game of his career, and I personally hope he continues to build off the strong performances to finally become a monster in the playoffs.
Living in a Small-Ball World
Nick Nurse has a tendency to experiment in opportune times, such as when he’s missing half of his top six players. He did it earlier this year when Kyle Lowry and Serge Ibaka went down, and then in mid-December when everybody went down. I try to be most optimistic these days, after spending most of my life an eternal pessimist (rooting for the Raptors in the aughts can have that effect), so I have to believe it’ll all mean something eventually.
Nick Nurse is gearing up for the playoffs, and everything he does is rooted in being prepared. Earlier this season we raved about how prepared the team was defensively — it wouldn’t have been possible unless Nurse put the team in situations such as “hey, we’re down three really important players, let’s run this.”
So these injuries certainly have material value as notes in Nurse’s handbook. Siakam at the five works in some situations, but without VanVleet’s play-making and shot-making threat, it’s kind of dull. Until Anunoby can consistently make his long-range attempts, it probably isn’t feasible to throw out there until the Raptors are playing with a full-deck. Nurse now knows a little more about his team’s limitations for the playoffs thanks to the injury bug.
The Road Trip
We’re into just the second game of a five-game road trip, and already the Raptors look tired. That’s what happens when you have an undermanned roster playing heavy minutes trying to scratch out wins (as they have all year). For his part, Lowry has looked unnerved after losing to Milwaukee, as he’s been a little more feisty than usual, as if that were possible. Anunoby’s played almost 80 minutes in the last two games. Siakam seems to be going through the motions at times, not setting anything on fire recently.
Tonight’s game would be a good opportunity to play Matt Thomas, Norman Powell and Terence Davis a little more than usual. Of course, Nurse will never do the conventional thing especially when it seems to be a perfect opportunity (that’s what makes him a great tactician). Still, it looks like Lowry could use a 32-minute night soon, real soon.