How’s that for a sentence? To be clear: the game doesn’t count, it is just one of three scrimmages NBA teams are playing in advance of the actual return to play tipping off on the first of August. Still, after a long and unprecendented lay-off, and in the shadow of the very real COVID-19 pandemic that is still raging outside the walls of this new semi-permeable fort: we get to watch our beloved Raptors play basketball.
As I’ve written before, this whole restart still strikes me as a bad idea, a bad bit of messaging to a country and continent still trying to find their way. Political leadership in the U.S. is a joke right now, but it is also extremely dangerous since the president has decided the pandemic is boring and not something he wants to deal with at all. Still — still — the NBA is happening. The ball just keeps rolling. And the Raptors are taking the court tonight for the first time since March 9.
It’s been a long strange trip, and it promises to get stranger still. But we’ve got our job to do here at Raptors HQ, and so we’re going to carry on as best we can. In that spirit, here are the details for tonight’s tune-up game — and, yes, some things to watch for.
Where to Watch:
TSN at 7:30pm EST
Toronto — Kyle Lowry, Fred VanVleet, OG Anunoby, Pascal Siakam, Serge Ibaka
Houston — James Harden, Russell Westbrook, Eric Gordon, P.J. Tucker, Danuel House Jr.
Toronto — None? So far: None!
Houston — Russell Westbrook (questionable), Thabo Sefolosha, David Nwaba, William Howard (all three are not in Orlando).
Starting Centre Blues
According to the Raptors’ game notes — the best (only?) official source we have on this — Marc Gasol is not starting in tonight’s scrimmage. In truth, that’s no big deal. There has been much chatter about easing this Raptors’ squad together, and Gasol has had himself a time this calendar year getting healthy. (Even with the recent turn towards being Skinny Marc, he’s still 35 years old with a lot of basketball miles on his body.)
As we’ve seen with the first few scrimmages from the Orlando bubble, some teams are using this micro-pre-season as an opportunity to get weird. (The Nuggets trotted out a Nikola Jokic-Bol Bol pick-and-roll the other night, for example.) One look at the Rockets’ starting lineup card — which, again, is from the best guess of the game notes — and it becomes clear that maybe who starts at centre is not as much of a concern anyway. After trading Clint Capela, who was once thought of as the lynchpin to their defense, the Rockets have gone all-in on their wild style of play. Former Raptor P.J. Tucker now mans the pivot for Houston and you don’t exactly need the biggest guy in the world to deal with him down low. It’s fun to be reminded of all this as we careen towards one of the most bizarre periods ever in the history of the NBA. Anyway, look for Serge Ibaka and Tucker — former teammates! — to do battle for at least some of tonight’s game.
Let Westbrook be Westbrook — But Where?
There’s still some uncertainty as to whether or not Russell Westbrook will play for Houston. He’s listed as being in the team’s starting lineup and, as far as I know, not officially declared “injured.” But then again, we have this update from ESPN’s Tim MacMahon:
Mike D'Antoni says Russell Westbrook participated in four 6-minute instrasquad scrimmages in his first practice yesterday. Still to be determined -- by Westbrook and the Rockets' medical staff -- whether he will play in Friday's scrimmage vs. Raptors.— Tim MacMahon (@espn_macmahon) July 23, 2020
Now, you really can go two ways with Westbrook and his current role on the Rockets. The first way is to acknowledge that when he’s on, Russ is almost impossible to guard because of his explosiveness, fearlessness, and absolutely relentless drive. I love Kyle Lowry and Fred VanVleet, but putting the two of them up against Westbrook (and James Harden, don’t forget) can be tough. The flip-side to this argument, particularly where Westbrook is concerned, is that when he’s off, well, he’s all the way off. The last time these two teams met, the Raptors played a gimmicky triangle-and-2 defense to stop Harden (which mostly worked) and dared Westbrook to make it happen. In true Russ fashion, he went after it — but it amounted to 7-of-27 shooting, and eight turnovers to 11 assists. Yes, Houston won, but the game was instructive for the Raptors nonetheless.
As per the reporting below from MacMahon, Westbrook is going to play in tonight’s scrimmage against Toronto. Adjust your mood accordingly.
Russell Westbrook plans to play in the Rockets' scrimmage against the Raptors tonight, per a source. He has practiced twice since clearing the NBA's quarantine protocol.— Tim MacMahon (@espn_macmahon) July 24, 2020
How Will Everyone Look for Toronto?
This is a general question, but one that can only be answered once the team gets on the court. As anyone who has played basketball knows, the ramp up work to get into game shape, to say nothing of re-finding a shooting groove, is no joke. The Raptors have been preparing for this since late June, so it stands to reason the whole group will be united in their readiness to take to the court. But still: will they really?
NBA players are often creatures of habit. They have their routines and use them to stay consistent in their mental and physical approach to the game. This restart has turned that all upside down so it’s fair to ask: who is ready to adjust? For the Raptors, I could see someone like Norman Powell, who has dealt with injuries this year and bounced back every time, as a player who will jump right in and go. But is that as easy to say about the process-oriented Serge Ibaka? What about the disconcerting idea of Matt Thomas not shooting a basketball for multiple months, as he mentioned in an interview — can he return to form on short notice? And finally, what about the Raptors’ most important players — Lowry and Pascal Siakam — are they ready to saddle-up and carry the load once again?
This is only a scrimmage, and we can expect some sloppiness and experimentation as Toronto (and Houston) eases back into their motions. But we’ll have to look to see which way things are trending as play inside the Disney World Bubble continues. Let’s go.