Tonight, the Raptors take on Zach LaVine and his Chicago Bulls on the second night of a back-to-back. After starting the season strong, the Bulls have hit a bit of a rough patch. They’ve dropped four out of their last five games, with the latest coming against the Miami Heat on Friday. They’ll try to get back on track by pummelling a Raptors squad that has been decimated by COVID-19 over the last couple of weeks.
Although the Raptors have lost a string of games since returning from the All-Star break, Norman Powell’s play has stepped up big time in the wake of his star teammates’ absences. In the month of March, Norm is averaging over 25 points per game on efficient shooting. He’s been cutting to the rim with purpose and creativity, and he seems singularly focused on shredding the opposition’s defense on a nightly basis (save for last night’s disaster). Chris Boucher has also performed exceptionally well over the past few games, chucking up threes with reckless abandon at a 40 percent clip. Without Chris and Norm, the Raptors would be in complete shambles right now.
With the trade deadline quickly approaching, management must decide on a plan. Will Masai Ujiri ship out players that he feels are over-performing, or bank on their continued successes to carry through to the playoffs? Hopefully, he’ll chalk up the team’s most recent losses as an inevitable product of being forced to play devoid of star players, rather than an indictment of the team’s long-term chances of success. Personally, I’d love to see what this team can do come playoff time. Yes, there are still kinks to be ironed out, but I’ve seen enough impressive play to believe the Raptors could make a serious splash in the postseason — especially if they land the right matchups.
Here are tonight’s details:
Where to Watch:
TSN, 9:00 pm EST
Toronto – Kyle Lowry, Norman Powell, DeAndre’ Bembry, Stanley Johnson, Aron Baynes
Chicago – Coby White, Zach LaVine, Lauri Markkanen, Patrick Williams, Wendell Carter Jr.
Toronto – Pascal Siakam (out – health and safety protocols), Fred VanVleet (out – health and safety protocols), OG Anunoby (out – health and safety protocols), Patrick McCaw (out – health and safety protocols), Malachi Flynn (out – health and safety protocols)
Chicago – Devon Dotson (out - knee), Garrett Temple (out - ankle)
Are We Learning Anything?
Typically, the media narrative surrounding any team will change, even marginally, depending on the outcome of each game played. However, these past few games without the team’s core have felt utterly pointless. As fun as it is watching Powell with a green light, the whole process of making the players suit up and compete so shorthanded feels like an exercise in futility more than a basketball game.
I know the Raptors lost these past few games, so as a fan, naturally I would’ve rather they had been cancelled; however, outcome aside, is there really an argument for making these guys play? Added rest in a shortened season can’t possibly be a bad thing, and when it comes to playoff seeding, teams will end up with varying amounts of games played anyway. To me, granting the remaining roster with sudden heavy minutes feels like a recipe for disaster, both in terms of potential injury and game result.
This is now the fifth game in a row the Raptors will have played without their two leading scorers and three best defenders. What exactly is the point, again?
Since returning from the All-Star break, the Raptors have gotten off to multiple slow starts. Especially without the aid of most of the team’s talent, the remaining healthy members of the roster must be focussed right from the jump. Setting the tone with aggressiveness tends to bode well for the rest of the game — otherwise, the opposition gains a confidence boost early.
A potential solution for the time being may be to start Chris Boucher. The spark he brings is irreplaceable, and in my opinion would be of greater service to the starting lineup than the bench while Fred, OG and Pascal are away from the team. Additionally, relentless gunning can sometimes help guide a team out of an offensive slump, and as we know, Boucher is no stranger to shooting his shot. Far too often, Baynes’ combination of clumsy play and inability to participate on offense sucks the life out of his teammates; Boucher could be the defibrillator this starting lineup badly needs.
While most of the starters are out, let’s look at some of the role players who’ve soaked up their minutes. Henry Ellenson’s Raptors debut was solid — his shots weren’t falling last night, but he made a nice pass from the paint to the perimeter, and his hustle was sorely needed. Ellenson drew a charge, and saved a possession on a tough rebounding opportunity. Yuta Watanabe continues to make good decisions on the court, hustle for loose balls, and pick his spots with a savvy that NBA veterans often carry.
DeAndre’ Bembry is such a talented passer with a natural feel for the game, and he’s never afraid to take it to the bucket. This excellent combination of traits allows him to fit into almost any lineup seamlessly. Bembry’s versatility will prove especially useful in the playoffs, when constant adjustments are needed. Since I last wrote about him, Matt Thomas’ confidence has seen an uptick, though he’s trying to do a bit too much. He should be putting himself in the right position to let the game come to him, instead of trying to force passes or dribble through traffic.