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Very shorthanded Raptors prepare for the Pistons: Preview, start time, and more

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As they endure the uncertainties of the league’s COVID-19 protocols, the Raptors look to get over .500 before reaching the All-Star break.

Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

Like many teams around the league, the Raptors’ roster — and coaching staff — is caught in the disarray of operating and travelling during a pandemic. Specific details haven’t been disclosed, but we do know that Nick Nurse and five assistants, as well as Pascal Siakam, were forced to miss last Friday’s game against the Houston Rockets due to health and safety protocols. The following Bulls game was postponed altogether as the majority of players were in protocol for contact tracing, and tonight’s game was delayed a night to add an extra day of testing.

The list of players out due to health and safety protocols is, uh extensive — Fred VanVleet, OG Anunoby, Pascal Siakam, Malachi Flynn, and Patrick McCaw are all ruled out, in addition to Nurse and the five assistants who missed last Friday’s game. The real concern here is obviously the safety of the team and staff. From a basketball standpoint, though, these circumstances pose a frustrating disruption for a team that has finally found its identity, winning 10 of its last 15 games and getting back to .500 after a 2-8 start.

The Raptors have fully embraced their new small-ball identity with a scorching Norman Powell bumping Aron Baynes out of the starting lineup. Toronto will still have Kyle Lowry, who has looked great since returning from his thumb injury. But VanVleet showed real improvement in his point guard capabilities during Lowry’s absence. Outside of a rough Miami game, Siakam has been aggressive offensively and incredibly active on defense. Meanwhile, Anunoby has looked increasingly comfortable driving and finishing at the rim, while keeping up his usual stellar defense. It was never a good time to be touched by the COVID-19 pandemic, but this situation couldn’t have come at a worse time in particular.

Fortunately, the All-Star break begins on Friday. This year’s schedule is denser than a normal one, so the timing of the break will allow the Raptors extra time to quarantine, recuperate, regroup, and take whatever steps are necessary towards returning.

But whether or not tonight’s game should be played, the league has made it clear that keeping the schedule intact is top priority. Before they can reach the break, the Raptors will play the Eastern Conference’s worst team — the 9-25 Detroit Pistons, led by forward Jerami Grant. As evidenced by Toronto’s hard-fought season split with the league-worst Minnesota Timberwolves, nothing is guaranteed. To help bolster the legitimacy of their mid-season turnaround, as well as their position in the bumper-to-bumper East, the Raptors will look to come away with a victory against the Pistons. But how the team will fare without three of its best defenders — two of whom are the the Raptors’ leading scorers — as well as two additional depth players, remains to be seen.

Here are tonight’s details.

Where to Watch:

TSN1, TSN2, TSN4. 7:00 pm EST

Lineups:

Toronto – Kyle Lowry, Norman Powell, DeAndre’ Bembry, Chris Boucher, Aron Baynes

Detroit – Dennis Smith Jr., Svi Mykhailiuk, Saddiq Bey, Jerami Grant, Mason Plumlee

Injuries:

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)

Detroit – Blake Griffin (out – not injury related), Delon Wright (out – groin), Killian Hayes (out – hip), Jahlil Okafor (out – knee), Frank Jackson (out – illness), Jerami Grant (questionable – quad)

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Exploring the Depth

It goes without saying that the Raptors will be showcasing their organizational depth tonight. Deep bench players may get real minutes, a pair of G Leaguers will be on the roster, and assistant coach Sergio Scariolo will fill in for Nurse once again. Even with three of the Raptors’ most important players out, the starting lineup doesn’t look horrible. Yes, it’s bad, but... wouldn’t the Pistons still swap starting fives? The real issue will be bench minutes. Lineups featuring multiple of the Raptors’ defense-first, offense-if-you’re-lucky bench players have looked incredibly flat — look for Scariolo to avoid playing Baynes, Yuta Watanabe, and Stanley Johnson all at once.

As for the backcourt, the staff has their work cut out for them in figuring out point guard duties. Could we see Powell as the primary ball-handler in certain spots? Who the hell knows! Additionally, without the 54 points per game Siakam, VanVleet, and Anunoby provide, the Raptors will need Lowry and Powell to be extra aggressive, and could use added scoring burst from bench players like Terence Davis and, if he plays, Matt Thomas.

Don’t Let Them Catching You Sleeping

With the second-worst record in the NBA, wins have been hard to come by for the Detroit Pistons. Yet oddly enough, seven of their nine wins have come against teams considered playoff locks, including a few true contenders — the Celtics (twice), Suns, Heat, Sixers, Lakers, and Nets. Opponents’ injuries played a role in some of these results, but it’s also likely that these teams overlooked the Pistons and fell victim to the trap game.

There’s no shortage of potential for a trap game tonight, with the Raptors on night one of a back-to-back that ends in Boston and, you know, half the organization in quarantine. The Raptors have had some disappointing games versus lesser opponents this year, like the 126-124 loss to the Sacramento Kings. The common thread between those types of games? Lackadaisical defense. Offense will be a question with so many key players missing, but active defense and forced turnovers will provide added opportunity for offense in transition.

KLOE Time

As already mentioned, Lowry has been excellent in his two games since returning, averaging 22 points, nine rebounds, and nine assists on 68% FG shooting, along with a +16 differential compared to the team’s +3. He’s looked less deferential than he had at times earlier this season — and, look for him to build on this run of play.

With so many players out, Lowry will be one of few active players who can reliably create a shot for himself and others, and he’ll likely be doing so frequently as he anchors some funky bench units. Losing three starting players is a huge blow to any team. But having Lowry — the best player in this matchup — gives the Raptors an edge.