The Raptors’ season is in some ways different today than it was a few days ago. We’re all committed to seeing it through with Kyle Lowry, for one — that’s been totally settled. Two, for the first time ever, Norman Powell will suit up against his former teammates. And while I’d like to add a third thing here, unfortunately the Raptors lost on Friday night to the Suns, so their season still appears to be trending downwards.
But once again we hope: is tonight the night the Raptors get a win and start putting together something of a streak? Looking at the Eastern Conference standings it feels possible for them to do this, but we have to wonder at how likely it is to happen. The team is 18-27 and in 11th place. This puts the Raptors a game-and-a-half out of the tenth place play-in game — and, hell, only five games out of sixth, which would allow them to avoid that mini-tourney in the first place. For either condition to be possible though, the Raptors will have to win some games.
Like the Raptors, the Portland Trail Blazers have some of that same cagey underdog spirit and belief. They’re currently in sixth in the west and not favoured to be in the West Finals, let alone the NBA Finals. They’re trying though. They have Damian Lillard (listed as questionable tonight) and CJ McCollum. Jusuf Nurkic returned to the court on Friday, which only helps them. And yes, they have Norm now — which will be weird to see. Is he the missing piece to help the Blazers get where they’re trying to go?
Let’s get into the details for tonight.
Where to Watch
Sportsnet at 7pm EST
Toronto — Kyle Lowry, Fred VanVleet, Gary Trent Jr., OG Anunoby, Pascal Siakam
Portland — CJ McCollum, Norman Powell, Derrick Jones, Robert Covington, Jusuf Nurkic
Toronto — Patrick McCaw (knee - out), DeAndre’ Bembry (health and safety protocols - out), Paul Watson (health and safety protocols - out)
Portland — Damian Lillard (knee - questionable), Zach Collins (ankle - out), Nassir Little (thumb - out)
The Actual New Norm
It was quite a debut for Norman Powell in Portland after a whirlwind experience at Thursday’s trade deadline. He wasn’t sure he’d be traded, though it was in the air, and then it came as a surprise: Powell was off to Blazers, jumping right into the starting lineup to put up 22 points in a win. It’s remarkable to consider how far he’s come, after the ups and downs of his early career. Now it truly is satisfying to see Powell become a walking bucket — even if for another team.
So now the obvious question: assuming Lillard is out again tonight, and McCollum continues on as McCollum, how do the Raptors deal with Powell? Are we about to watch former buddies Fred VanVleet and Norm check each other? Does Kyle Lowry take a turn trying to slow Norm? Or as seems perhaps most likely, will the player Norm was traded for — Gary Trent Jr. — be given the task? These are weird questions to write, but some combination of answers will happen tonight.
Good for Nurkic for making it back to the court again after a serious injury. As you’ll recall, Nurk broke his leg — yikes — back in 2019, and made it back. And this season, after appearing in 12 games for the Blazers, he broke his wrist, which required surgery to repair. In the same game as Norm’s debut, Nurkic popped in for 18 minute, posting eight points and eight rebounds. I mention all this to get to that latter number: rebounding.
Right now, the Raptors are — brace yourselves — the worst rebounding team in the league, ranked dead last in boards per game. We can recall more than a few games where it feels like Toronto would have won had they just been able to grab a few more rebounds. On Friday night against Phoenix, Toronto played themselves out of the game, but they had a chance to win — had they only secured a defensive board. It was a bad luck bounce, but still.
My point here: Nurkic back on the floor, even as he regains his conditioning, means the Raptors could be in tough in the rebounding department. The Blazers are ranked 19th in the league in rebounds per game, and that’s without the guy who had been averaging double-digits in the stat not so long ago. In short, Nurkic could give Toronto trouble all night — and the rebounding stat will be the one to watch again this evening.
Toronto’s Rotation Decisions
Setting aside stats, we have to see who Raptors coach Nick Nurse will play this evening against the Blazers. In the first contest between these teams, Alex Len got the start to do battle with Nurkic. But then, funnily enough, Nurk hurt his quad after eight minutes, Len did nothing for nine, and neither big man was seen for the rest of the game. This, in part, allowed Chris Boucher to go off for 20 points — and more importantly it kept Aron Baynes off the floor who (and I’ll try to be nice) no longer looks like a functional NBA player.
Tonight, however, while the Raptors have embraced their small-ball identity, it’ll mean OG and Siakam dealing with Nurk. On top of that, the two wings the Raptors have been leaning on more as of late — Watson and Bembry — are both out tonight, which has a cascading effect down the bench. It seems certain that rookie Malachi Flynn will get another chance to mix it up, particularly on the defensive end. And it feels likely that Rodney Hood slots into the rotation ahead of Stanley Johnson and all other comers. As we said off the top, the Raptors are different in some ways than they were a few days ago — but will this new look get them a win? We’ll see.