Without hexing it, let’s begin by noting it’s nice to see the Raptors returning to health once again. Norman Powell is back on the floor and playing great; Serge Ibaka manned the middle against the Warriors on Thursday night and looked up to the task; and there have been a few shifts in status regarding Fred VanVleet and Marc Gasol. How close is Toronto to having a full squad? It remains too soon — and too early in the day — to put a number to it. Again, let’s try not to hex it.
Tonight, the Raptors are in Sacramento to take on the Kings, who are 27-35 and in tenth place in the Western Conference. This was supposed to be the year they put it all together in Sac-Town. New coach Luke Walton was going to guide young guns De’Aaron Fox, Buddy Hield, Marvin Bagley, and the rest to a spot in the playoffs where they could rattle a few cages in the first round. Instead, Bagley has been injured, Hield is coming off the bench, Walton may or may not know what he’s doing — and the Kings are listing out of the post-season once again.
Toronto’s goal tonight is clear: don’t let the Kings tap into any of the confidence they’re supposed to have this season. The Raptors have the stronger identity, and some more talented players in key positions (e.g. who guards Pascal Siakam tonight for the Kings — Harrison Barnes?). They may not be whole yet as a team, but that hasn’t stopped them from winning games before. Tonight the Raps go for three in a row, and there’s reason to believe it’ll happen.
First, though, let’s get to the game details for this evening and then lay out some things to keep an eye on.
Where to Watch:
Sportsnet One at 9pm EST
Toronto — Kyle Lowry, Norman Powell, OG Anunoby, Pascal Siakam, Serge Ibaka
Sacramento — De’Aaron Fox, Bogdan Bogdanovic, Nemanja Bjelica, Harrison Barnes, Harry Giles
Toronto — Marc Gasol (questionable - hamstring), Fred VanVleet (questionable - shoulder), Dewan Hernandez (out - ankle)
Sacramento — Richaun Holmes (questionable - shoulder), Marvin Bagley III (out - foot)
Speed and Shooting
How things were supposed to work for the Kings this season was based on their brand of team speed. They were set to roll out a quick, young lineup led by Fox’s style of point guard play. Again, that hasn’t quite worked out for Sacramento — but it doesn’t mean the Raptors shouldn’t prepare for it regardless. Kyle Lowry is an all-world defender in some senses (because he’s a basketball genius) but he’s not exactly the most adept at dealing with pure speed. This will be the challenge for Toronto.
The last time these two teams played, the Raptors won with their full lineup — but it was a close 124-120 game nonetheless. This was back in early November, a time when having a healthy roster in Toronto was just expected. The game tape from that evening tells the story of tonight: the Raps had their challenges in keeping all three of Hield, Fox, and Bogdanovic in check — and somehow Barnes also led the way with 26 points. Since then much has happened in Toronto, but the main change (other than injuries) has been a tightening of their defensive identity. Can that Kings foursome do their damage again, or will the Raps be ready for it this time?
It’s worth noting here that the Kings are not entirely out of the playoff picture in the west. In eighth right now are the Grizzlies, up 3.5 games on both the Blazers and Kings. It’s a tight race, but Memphis is not necessarily a lock for the position given their relative inexperience in such situations. What I’m trying to suggest here is that the Kings could roll out with an abandon that catches the Raptors off-guard — at least at first.
Since the All-Star break, the Kings have gone 6-2 while ratcheting their defensive rating into the top ten, and their offense to a middle-of-the-pack 14th. The run includes a couple of big wins over the Grizzles, and one over the monster Clippers, which only serves to embolden a team playing from behind with nothing to lose. For a chunk of the season, the Raptors have also been in that spot, playing with reserve after reserve and looking to prove themselves (despite being the defending champs). It’s energized the squad, as many bench Raptors have discovered themselves in the process, but it could be running up against something here in Sacramento. (This is before we mention this is the fourth road game in a row for Toronto, which tends to tucker teams out.)
Keep It Going
It’s easier said than done, but in lieu of the imminent return of FVV and Gasol, the Raptors will once again have to look down their bench to the usual suspects: Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Chris Boucher, Terence Davis, Patrick McCaw, and Matt Thomas. Each one has had his moments in 2020 — guarding KAT, going for 19-and-15, taking All-Stars off the dribble, making clutch plays, catching national audiences unawares from deep, respectively — but they’ve come and gone.
This is the dangerous game the undermanned Raptors continue to play as this season carries on. They need their bench unit to thrive — or at the very least, to survive — so as to relieve the pressure on the starters. Earlier this year, when Lowry and Serge went down, that happened; now it’s been a bit more of a hit-or-miss proposition, which has led to some tough losses. Again, there’s nothing wrong with this happening; bench players do tend to be more inconsistent. But every night for the Raptors as of late as been a referendum on who can play, how they can play, and how much they should play in trying to secure a win. Burn out another starter and it could be trouble down the line, rely too much on the wrong reserve and the Raptors could lose the game at hand. Coach Nick Nurse has been walking that line as carefully as he can, and he’ll have to do it again tonight in Sacramento.