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Raptors prepare to even season series vs. Pelicans: Preview, start time, and more

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The Raptors closed out 2021 with their first win of the season, and now look to kickstart the new year with a redemptive win over the Pelicans.

New Orleans Pelicans v Toronto Raptors Photo by Julio Aguilar/Getty Images

The end of 2020 brought closure to a year we’re all ready to move on from — and it also brought the Raptors their first win. But the squad couldn’t afford to enjoy the moment long as they boarded a flight for New Orleans in preparation for the Pelicans to kick-off 2021.

This will be the second (and final) meeting of the young season for these two sides. In a season opening loss, the Pelicans spoiled the Tampa home opener for the Raptors in a 14-point victory. From there, New Orleans closed out 2020 with a convincing win over the Oklahoma City Thunder, and currently sport a 3-2 record on the year in part due to Brandon Ingram’s impressive performance thus far. Last season’s Most Improved Player has averaged 26.7 points per game through the first three games of the season earning him West Conference Player of the Week honours.

Meanwhile, despite the dismal Raptors start, Kyle Lowry is having a season for the ages for the Raptors. He’s currently putting on All-Star-level performances, averaging 19.5 points, 8.3 assists, and 1.5 steals in 37 minutes a night, while desperately righting the ship for a struggling Toronto side.

The Raptors will be keen to even their season series and come within a game of .500 after finding some of their winning ways two nights ago. Here’s everything you need to know for tonight’s game.

Where to Watch

Sportsnet, 7:30 PM ET

Lineups

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

New Orleans — Lonzo Ball, Eric Bledsoe, Brandon Ingram, Zion Williamson, Steven Adams

Injuries

Toronto — Patrick McCaw (out - knee)

New Orleans — Wenyen Gabriel (out - knee)

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Close out the Game

What the Raptors’ 1-3 record won’t show you is that the squad actually led in their three losses to open up the season — and by double figures to boot. After going 0-3, Toronto was the first NBA team in the past two decades to start a season at that mark, all while letting double-digit leads slip in each game.

Shooting slumps, foul trouble, and stagnant possessions have been fatal, particularly in the second half for the Raptors. In their season opener, Toronto led by as much as 12 points over the Pelicans early in third, only to be outscored 38-22 in the quarter. Don’t be surprised to find this squad leading again at some point tonight, but closing out the game effectively will be key. And not only tonight but throughout the season.

More Minutes More Problems

The Raptors trio of Pascal Siakam, Kyle Lowry, and OG Anunoby have recorded more minutes per game thus far than any another grouping in the NBA, with all three ranking in the top 15 — Pascal Siakam currently averages the most minutes per game with 39. The returns haven’t been as promising, however.

As one of the league’s premier defenses the past five seasons, the Raptors continue to hold true to their identity, ranking second in the NBA in defensive efficiency, holding their opponents to 99.6 points per game. But on the flip slid, the Raptors have struggled to find a bucket when it’s counted most ranking last in the league with a 97.5 offensive rating.

Coach Nick Nurse has so far relied on his starters heavily. In this, we can add Fred VanVleet to the above group, as he ranks 24th in the league in minutes per game. But except for Lowry, the Raptors haven’t really been at their best with the starters on the floor — and they’ve been much worse when the bench gets involved. In any case, something will need to happen with these minute allotments, as the toll they’ll take will need to be monitored over the long season.

Paint Presence

Controlling the paint on the defensive end and keeping their opponents at bay has often come at a price for the Raptors. Opponents with dominant big men like Zion Williamson have called more attention on defense, opening up the floor for other players to make contributions. It’s played a role all three of their losses this season, and will be a big factor tonight. But one player has started to come into his own in that space: Chris Boucher.

Boucher currently ranks second in the NBA in blocks per game with 2.5, and 14th in offensive rebound percentage with 10.9, and continues to shine as the minutes pile on. Going from third string centre to an 8-man rotation player, Boucher’s presence in the paint will dictate a lot of swing possessions for the Raptors second unit, and in crunch moments as he faces off against Steven Adams and Williamson tonight — two aggressive board crashers.