With just a quarter of the regular season left, the Toronto Raptors are finally starting to turn weaknesses into strengths. With a bit of injury luck the rest of the way, they may very well find themselves in the play in tournament (whether that’s the result you’re looking for or not).
Thanks to the additions of Khem Birch and Freddie Gillespie, Nick Nurse finally has some energetic rebounders he can put out there at the five to do some dirty work. In Toronto’s most recent win over the Spurs, the two combined for 15 boards and ably battled Jakob Poeltl and Devin Eubanks throughout the game.
Now the question is whether Toronto will bother expending their stars for the stretch run. Regardless of the team’s record, it appears the strategy now is to keep everyone rested amidst a monstrosity of a schedule. All of Kyle Lowry, OG Anunoby, and Pascal Siakam will sit Friday’s game to rest. In addition, DeAndre’ Bembry, Jalen Harris and Gary Trent Jr. are doubtful with respective injuries.
Kyle Lowry, Pascal Siakam, and OG Anunoby will all rest tomorrow against the Magic.— Blake Murphy (@BlakeMurphyODC) April 15, 2021
DeAndre' Bembry, Jalen Harris, and Gary Trent Jr. are all doubtful.
Still, even though they’ll be shorthanded once again, the Raptors should be favoured as they take on the Magic. Part of that is the anticipated return of Fred VanVleet, who served his one-game suspension in Wednesday’s win over San Antonio.
Another part is the Magic... well, the Magic stink. After shipping out Nikola Vucevic (to Chicago) and Aaron Gordon (to Denver) at the deadline, Orlando looks poised to tank their way into a shot at Cade Cunningham — losing six of their last seven games and falling into the basement of the Eastern Conference. They do have hope in their future — Jonathan Isaac will likely return in 2021-22 along with Markelle Fultz, and they’ll hope that young core can pop with the addition of a high draft pick — but for now, it’s a pretty miserable scene.
Ah well, their misery is our opportunity! Here are the game details and three things to watch for.
Where to Watch
TSN, 7:30 PM ET
Toronto — Fred VanVleet, Malachi Flynn, Yuta Watanabe, Chris Boucher, Khem Birch
Orlando — Michael Carter-Williams, James Ennis, Gary Harris, Wendell Carter Jr., Chuma Okeke
Toronto — Kyle Lowry (rest — OUT), OG Anunoby (rest — OUT), Pascal Siakam (rest — OUT), Jalen Harris (hip — DOUBTFUL), DeAndre’ Bembry (hamstring — DOUBTFUL), Gary Trent Jr. (ankle — DOUBTFUL)
Orlando — Michael Carter-Williams (QUESTIONABLE), Mo Bamba (hip — QUESTIONABLE), Otto Porter Jr. (foot — OUT), Markelle Fultz (knee — OUT), Jonathan Isaac (knee — OUT)
Rebounding has been a struggle for the Raptors all season, but it finally seems to be improving with new personnel. Against the Spurs, they grabbed 54 as a team and earned a +12 margin; on the year, Toronto is 4-1 in games where they have at least 50 boards.
The through line from signing Birch and Gillespie (and not playing Aron Baynes) is obvious, too. Though Toronto is ranked 28th in the NBA in defensive rebounding percentage through the whole year, they’ve improved to 22nd (woohoo!) in the last five games.
Ending possessions with a defensive rebound is so important for how the Raptors want to play. It allows them to get more opportunities in transition and plays to the strengths of their best players. Seeing how this new rotation looks with VanVleet back in the lineup may or may not happen tonight, but is as enticing as it gets for the stretch run of the season.
Youngsters Stepping Up
The pair of Yuta Watanabe and Malachi Flynn took a few steps up the rotation against San Antonio as Kyle Lowry and Gary Trent Jr. both sat out. Tonight, with even more bodies out, they’ll be stepping up a few more spots. Luckily, they shined in the opportunity presented on Wednesday.
Watanabe is playing his best basketball of late after being out with an ankle injury. Scoring in double figures in two of the last four games, his activity has been a marvel on the defensive end — showcasing it on one possession in the last game as he smartly chased veteran Patty Mills around the perimeter and finishing with a block. Even better, he’s giving the Raptors something on offense, hitting 8-of-13 three pointers in the last five games, some of them of the contested variety.
Flynn, meanwhile, is thriving with more time at point guard. While he’ll once again be behind VanVleet tonight, he’s shown a great pick and roll chemistry with Birch. Perhaps he will be Toronto’s starter at the two, where he can still run those plays on the team’s weak side.
VanVleet Running The Show
Missing the last seven games, it’s been fun to watch Fred VanVleet play the role of coach, often demonstrating in Nick Nurse’s shadow on the sideline and in huddles.
Still, the team would much prefer he’s out there on the court, and will look for him to lead the scoring load on Friday. VanVleet is the only everyday starter in the rotation tonight, and obviously will be key if Toronto is going to come away with a win. One area to watch is his three-point shot, where he hasn’t had a 40 percent or better game since March 26 against Phoenix. There’ll be a lot of contesting and help from Orlando, you’d expect, and whether he can make those classic Freddie shots might be the difference-maker.