Be warned: the Oklahoma City Thunder’s tank game is strong. They’ve lost twelve of their last thirteen games, with their lone win coming against... these very same Toronto Raptors. That last game in March — which the Raps were trying to win and OKC was not — was arguably the lowest of low points for the Raptors. While Pascal Siakam often gets singled out, it was embarrassing for the whole team, with its obvious top-end talent advantage.
In that contest, Toronto’s pathetic defense made Svi Mykhailiuk and Justin Jackson look like All-Stars. Meanwhile, the Raps were beat down in the paint and on the boards, which ultimately cost them the game. This game ended any hope of salvaging the relationship between the Raptors fanbase and Aron Baynes (including his fan account).
Fast forward to today. The Raptors have won two in a row and have a revamped frontcourt with Khem Birch and Freddie Gillespie. They’ve also got Chris Boucher to help Siakam and OG Anunoby battle against the Thunder big men — that is, assuming all five play. The Raptors have been sitting their key players as of late, but it hasn’t gone as well tank-wise.
The Thunder have been doing pretty much the same — they traded most of their talented veteran players away, and shelved the ones they couldn’t (Al Horford). Meanwhile, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander has been out for three weeks with a legit injury, yet I’m pretty sure the Thunder don’t necessarily mind losing a few more games to round out this year.
The quality of the game tonight might be questionable, but should you decide to watch, here are the details.
Where to Watch
Sportsnet, 7:00 PM ET
Toronto — Kyle Lowry, Gary Trent Jr., OG Anunoby, Pascal Siakam, Khem Birch
Oklahoma City — Theo Maledon, Lu Dort, Darius Bazley, Isaiah Roby, Moses Brown
Toronto — DeAndre’ Bembry (hamstring — doubtful), Gary Trent Jr. (ankle — questionable), Jalen Harris (hip — doubtful), Fred VanVleet (hip — questionable)
Oklahoma City — Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (foot — out), Aleksej Pokusevski (arm — out) Gabriel Deck (not with team — out), Josh Hall (knee — out), Mike Muscala (ankle — out), Al Horford (rest/tanking — out)
Raptors in the... Playoffs?
Don’t look now, but the Raptors have won five of their last nine games — yes, just when it looked like the team was ready to take a step back and get into the lottery positioning battle. Legit or not, the Raptors did try to take a step back, sitting at least one of Lowry, VanVleet, Anunoby, Siakam, and Trent Jr. these past few games.
However, the team ran into a few problems. First, the Raptors are in the middle of a soft schedule, which explains the wins against the Cavs, Wizards, Magic and possibly the Thunder tonight. Second, the new additions to the team (Khem Birch and Freddie Gillespie) allow the Raptors to balance their roster much more effectively, while also limiting Baynes’ minutes on the floor. And finally, Toronto has got to see a nice little growth spurt from rookie Malachi Flynn. His dad Eric Flynn was right all along!
I will get into this in detail on the next Tank Watch piece, but it sure seems like the Raptors’ tanking efforts have been put on hold. The players they’re playing now — Paul Watson, Freddie Gillespie, Yuta Watanabe — these guys are playing for their jobs. At the same time, the Raptors are now sitting 10th — which is the last play-in spot — with 15 games to go. The Chicago Bulls, meanwhile, are 4-17 in the last month and could continue to free-fall with Zach LaVine out due to NBA’s COVID protocols.
Still, the Raptors are indeed about to embark on a brutal schedule in the coming weeks. It may truly come down to how many days of rest Toronto gives its top players and what kind of consistent production they get down the roster. Tonight’s OKC showdown will be a good test in that regard: can the reserve Raptors play well again?
Gillespie/Watanabe’s Contract Situation
There have been few bright spots in this miserable Raptors season, but Yuta Watanabe is definitely one of them. He was a long shot to make the team, but Yuta parlayed his training camp performance into a two-way contract — and he’s since outplayed the value of that contract. While Watanabe is not quite on, say, OKC’s Luguentz Dort’s level of outplaying a two-way contract, it’s clear he’s played his way into the Raptors full-time rotation — and that he deserves a chance for next year.
Meanwhile, Freddie Gillespie has been playing as a decent big man project for the Raptors, which has reportedly earned him at least another 10-day contract. In fact, he’s shown enough that OKC general manager Sam Presti would probably love to offer him one of those contracts for a season with multiple non-guaranteed years after that. In any case, it seems likely the Raptors will keep Gillespie around until the end of the season, come what may. In that spirit, let’s see what he can bring against this upstart OKC squad.