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Skinny Marc and the Raptors prepare for Portland: Preview, start time, and more

The Raptors are back in action tonight for their second of three scrimmages, this time against the Portland Trail Blazers. Get ready, because it also promises the return of new-look Marc Gasol.

Toronto Raptors v Portland Trail Blazers Photo by Sam Forencich/NBAE via Getty Images

Coming away with a 94-83 victory over the Houston Rockets in their opening scrimmage on Friday night, the Raptors now shift their focus to tonight’s matchup, the Portland Trail Blazers.

Like the Raptors, this will be the second these scrimmages for the Blazers. Portland narrowly fell to the Indiana Pacers, 91-88, in what was clearly a no stakes contest in their opening game.

This will technically be the third meeting between the two squads. They met twice already in the regular season — yes, this same regular season — splitting their season series. In a mid-November tilt, Pascal Siakam and Fred VanVleet torched the home team, picking up 36 points, six rebounds and 30 points, seven assists, respectively, for a convincing 114-106 dub. In the return leg in early January, the Blazers edged the Raptors by a two-point margin, stealing the 101-99 victory after a Carmelo Anthony game-winning pull-up jumper from the free-throw line.

With only a day’s rest compared to their opponents who have had the past two days off, the upcoming contest will be another opportunity for the Raptors to get familiar with the pace of the game in anticipation of a long playoff run.

Meanwhile, the Blazers have to make the most of each game as they continue their battle for a playoff spot. Portland currently sits ninth in the Western Conference, holding on with a 29-37 record — 3.5 games back of the eighth place Memphis Grizzlies. If they hold onto their spot and find themselves within four games of eighth place, a play-in series between No. 8 and No. 9 will ensue. A likely scenario to say the least.

Oh, and the Raptors are the designated home team again, so expect a whole lot of ‘We The North’ branding, “Let’s Go Raptors!” crowd prompts, and awkward Tangerine promo video boards. Here are the rest of the details for tonight — including four things to watch for.

Where to Watch:

Sportsnet at 6:00pm EST

Lineups:

Toronto — Kyle Lowry, Fred VanVleet, OG Anunoby, Pascal Siakam, Serge Ibaka

Portland — Damian Lillard, CJ McCollum, Trevor Ariza, Carmelo Anthony, Hassan Whiteside

Injuries:

Toronto — None.

Portland — Hassan Whiteside (day-to-day — Achilles soreness), Trevor Ariza (game-time decision — groin), Nassir Little (out — concussion protocol), Rodney Hood (out — Achilles tendon), Caleb Swanigan (opted out of Orlando Bubble).

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Depth vs. Time Management

The Raptors went 15-deep in Friday night’s game, with only Marc Gasol and Patrick McCaw missing out on the action. Even Dewan Hernandez and Paul Watson got some floor time and a defensive board each. After a turnover plagued start — which was to be expected — the Raptors overcame an early 12-point deficit with some impressive movement, looking like they never missed a beat.

Meanwhile, in their contest, the Trail Blazers played their starting lineup in the first and third quarters with the bench touching the court in the second and fourth. Forfeiting the game over to a full bench rotation in the final frame led to the loss, but the starting lineup was nearly unstoppable in the opening quarter. The Blazers shot 60 percent from the floor, to take a 29-20 lead — 14 of those points came in the paint.

It’ll be interesting to see if Nick Nurse and Terry Stotts stay with their first game strategies, or switch things up after witnessing how their players faired.

Skinny Marc meets Skinny Melo

The long-awaited emergence of Marc Gasol, otherwise known as “Skinny Marc”, is set to take place tonight as Nick Nurse assured his starting centre will definitely make an appearance.

Ever since pictures emerged of his much leaner frame, fans have been anticipating Gasol’s return to the court to see the results of his new physique.

Gasol’s health were a frustration all season. After winning an NBA championship with the Raptors, and then a FIBA World Championship with Spain only months later, Gasol desperately needed the breather. If you think about it, it’s been one long run ever since he was traded from the Grizzlies in February of 2019.

The four-month shutdown due to the pandemic gave the Spaniard just that, allowing him to focus on his diet, putting him in what appears to be the best shape of his life at a pivotal moment for the franchise.

But with one skinny player, comes another.

After spending much of the season as a free agent, and then finding a home with Portland, Carmelo Anthony has undergone a massive transformation upon arriving at the bubble.

Graduating from “Hoodie Melo”, the three-time Olympic gold medallist and 17-year NBA veteran has wildly been identified as “Skinny Melo”. It appears the weight-loss plan took place prior to the hiatus, after Stotts made adjustments to the lineup with the intention of Anthony switching to the small forward position.

You can expect a matchup between Melo and OG Anunoby to take shape. There’s sure to be a bad taste in the Raptors forward’s mouth after Melo knocked down the game-winner over him in their last matchup. But if Anunoby has a similar performance tonight as he did on Friday against the Rockets — shutting down James Harden on multiple occasions — then Melo is in for a long and shot-rushed night.

Containing Lillard and Watching McCollum

After taking on the NBA’s highest scoring backcourt in James Harden and Russell Westbrook (61.9 points per game), the Raptors now look ahead to the league’s third-highest scoring, and arguably most compatible backcourt, Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum.

There’s no doubt the key to tonight’s game will be containing Lillard, but what’s equally as important is not overlooking his partner in crime, McCollum. The duo has averaged 51.4 points per game this season, and have been notorious for hitting clutch shots late and going on unstoppable scoring flurries.

Beyond that, Lillard has been on a tear this season, leading the league in offensive win shares with 8.9 and offensive plus/minus with 7.9, all while playing a loaded 36.9 minutes per game. It’s given him career-highs this season in points per game (28.9), assists per game (7.8), and field goal percentage (.457) on 20 shot attempts per game.

And when Lillard is off, McCollum is almost always on to pick up the effort. The seven-year veteran is also averaging career-highs in points and assists per game with 22.5 and 4.3, respectively, and will be a handful when the Raptors defensive rotation might have their eyes fixed elsewhere.

Expect to see more Lowry charges — yes, we all should’ve seen that coming, even in a scrimmage — and, Nurse using both Lowry and VanVleet in potentially some box-and-one or triangle-and-two defensive scheme to slow down the Blazers.

Battle in the Paint

Like I mentioned earlier, the Blazers dropped 14 paint points in the first quarter alone in their first scrimmage. Much of that is in due part to the return of Jusuf Nurkic and Zach Collins.

After well over a year off, Nurkic made his return to the court following a horrific leg injury in March of 2019, while Collins had been out since the third game of the season following a shoulder dislocation. Their return couldn’t have come at a better time for Portland with Hassan Whiteside sitting out due to an Achilles strain.

But the Raptors have size too, and no shortage of it.

Early in Friday night’s matchup, Serge Ibaka and OG Anunoby ran the floor, connecting on back door cuts leading to easy layups and dunks. Ibaka looked as bouncy and agile as ever, running down the court for coast-to-coast transition plays, while Anunoby abused the corner three-base line cut on multiple occasions.

Flexing their depth, Chris Boucher continues to be an effective shot blocker, and will be called upon to alter shot attempts, while Rondae Hollis-Jefferson can be found practically everywhere on the floor. Boucher was good for a game-high two blocks on Friday, while Hollis-Jefferson grabbed eight boards in just 15 minutes.

All that being said, like their first scrimmage, this game won’t hold much weight. But it will be entertaining to see what both sides try to pull off.