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Raptors look to build on win streak versus Mavericks: Preview, start time, and more

After winning two shaky games versus the Charlotte Hornets, the Raptors take on the Dallas Mavericks tonight in Tampa.

NBA: Toronto Raptors at Dallas Mavericks Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

The Raptors have won two games in a row, albeit rather unconvincingly, and are now in an interesting spot. Stuck with a 4-8 record, the team is on an upwards trajectory towards .500, which would land them solidly in the middle of the pack in terms of playoff seeding. Thus far, the Raptors have yet to impress with a solid outing against a great team; however, tonight, they’ll have another opportunity to prove themselves, this time against Luka Doncic and his Dallas Mavericks in Tampa. If this year’s Raptors can play with the grit, heart and incisive execution that last year’s team regularly employed, it would do wonders to convince fans that another shot at a title is worth it.

On the other hand, the team’s record spells real trouble. The issue isn’t just an unfortunate string of unlucky games — the Raptors have played poorly for long stretches, and their record accurately reflects their unpreparedness and lackadaisical attitude. Fred VanVleet has been forcing his shot as of late, which has stalled the offense. Pascal Siakam, on the other hand, has been far too passive for large chunks of the season. Even the Raptors’ fearless leader Kyle Lowry has looked frustrated at times. For the record, I don’t blame him.

At this point in the season, the Raptors are at a crossroads. They’ve only beaten mediocre teams thus far, and a slew of talented playoff teams are on the horizon. After tonight’s game against Dallas, the team is scheduled to subsequently face the Miami Heat and Indiana Pacers twice, followed by Giannis Antetokounmpo and his Milwaukee Bucks. If the Raptors don’t figure it out quickly — ideally tonight, against these COVID-ridden Mavericks — we could be having a very different, draft-oriented discussion by the end of the month (or sooner).

Here are tonight’s details:

Where to Watch:

TSN, 7:30 PM EST

Lineups:

Toronto – Fred VanVleet, Kyle Lowry, OG Anunoby, Pascal Siakam, Aron Baynes

Dallas – Luka Doncic, Tim Hardaway Jr., Wes Iwundu, Kristaps Porzingis, Willie Cauley-Stein

Injuries:

Toronto – Alex Len (personal – day-to-day), Patrick McCaw (knee – out)

Dallas – Dorian Finney-Smith (out – COVID-19 protocols), Maxi Kleber (out – COVID-19 protocols), Dwight Powell (out – COVID-19 protocols), Josh Richardson (out – COVID-19 protocols), Jalen Brunson (out – COVID-19 protocols), Tim Hardaway Jr. (questionable – groin), Kristaps Porzingis (probable – ankle)

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Does Pascal Simply... Hate Florida?

Even after two consecutive wins at home, it still feels like the Raptors are a bit spooked by having to play their home games in Tampa. Strangely enough, recent home wins have felt shaky, while losses on the road have inspired hope in fans. So far, the team has generally shot much better on the road, while committing fewer turnovers.

Prior to these past two home games, Pascal Siakam had been spectacular for the entirety of the Raptors’ recent four-game road trip. His quick first step was out in full force, and his creativity and fearlessness around the rim inspired giddiness in fans. Yes, Pascal has struggled as of late, though I suspect the Hornets’ zone defense is likely to blame for that, rather than game location.

Still, if you look at the season as a whole, some trends are clear: Pascal appears to be more comfortable around the perimeter at home, while he takes it to the hoop with more confidence (and success) on the road. This makes sense, given the quick first step and aggressiveness in the paint he displayed on the team’s recent four-game road trip. Overall, Pascal is averaging 3.8 extra points, 3.6 extra boards and an additional assist per game on the road. It’s still early, but I’ll be looking out to see if these trends continue throughout the year.

Norman Watch

Aside from a couple boneheaded, objectively incorrect basketball decisions, Norman Powell played exceptionally well last game against the Hornets. He was money from behind the arc, going 6 for 9 from deep, chipping in 24 points with a plus/minus of +22 on the game. However, Norman’s biggest issue this year hasn’t been his three-point percentage (42.4 percent, career-high), it’s his inability to finish at the rim that plagues the team on a nightly basis.

Seemingly every year, Raptor fans see two different versions of Powell. One version makes smart basketball decisions and finishes at the rim effectively, while the other version doesn’t accomplish either of those feats with any success whatsoever. Norman is shooting a drastically lower percentage on his two-point attempts (34%) than three-point attempts (42.4%), despite taking fewer inside shots per game than threes. He’ll need to find his finishing touch on the inside for an extended stretch if the team is going to see any prolonged success moving forward.

Breakout Boucher

Chris Boucher already got paid this offseason, but with the way he’s been playing, you would think this is a contract year. So far, Boucher has filled Serge’s role wonderfully and is producing far more than his contract is worth. Between his dazzling three-point shot blocking and an attitude unfazed by the big moment, Boucher is on a mission to prove that he is a quality role player in the league, if not a starter.

While his offensive spark off the bench is currently much-needed, Nurse seems to be teasing us by starting Boucher for the second half of the Raptors’ last few games. Pending any roster shakeups, I wouldn’t be surprised if Boucher ends up usurping the starting centre position from Aron Baynes, who only played four minutes last game and is quickly losing Nick Nurse’s trust.

The Dallas Mavericks have recently seen Kristaps Porzingis return from an Achilles injury, so tonight we’ll find out which lanky, floor-stretching big man proves to be the true unicorn.