The last time the Raptors and Jazz met, Toronto almost pulled off something of an upset. Kyle Lowry had just drained a clutch three-pointer over Rudy Gobert with about 90 seconds remaining. But the best team in the league (record-wise at the time) flexed their muscles with an 8-0 run. A three-pointer by Pascal Siakam could have sent the game into overtime, but it rolled off the rim. Such has been the story of the Tampa Bay Raptors.
The core group in Toronto will almost always be competitive enough — especially with new starting centre Khem Birch — to keep the team in the game this season. But they’ve frequently lacked the supporting firepower to either maintain a lead or steal a win against a better opponent. At the same time, luck just hasn’t gone the Raptors’ way — it feels like all of Siakam’s late-game shots have just missed.
Pascal Siakam has had 4 game-winning/tying shots go in-and-out this season.— StatMuse (@statmuse) March 20, 2021
That has to be some sort of record. pic.twitter.com/8Jvk650w0K
It will be interesting to see how the Raptors play Rudy Gobert now that they Birch to bang with him. Previously, the Raptors did a decent job keeping him around his 14.4 points/13.4 rebounds average, with Siakam/OG Anunoby/Chris Boucher playing the middle by committee.
The Jazz has been playing inconsistent this month, posting a record of 9-7. They’ve only won three games in seven contests since Donovan Mitchell went down with an ankle injury. Meanwhile, Mike Conley missed the last two games due to a hamstring injury. And, finally, the Jazz are on the second game of a back-to-back tonight after losing to the Suns on Friday night.
Does it mean the Raptors have a chance? The parameters were the same against the Denver Nuggets the other night, and it only took a few fourth-quarter minutes for Toronto to cough up the game there. Now, their play-in and playoff hopes are dimming, and every loss adds another nail to the coffin.
Still, it’s Saturday, and if you have nothing better to do — who does? — we can prepare to watch Matt Thomas’ revenge game. Here are the details:
Where to Watch:
Sportsnet, 10:00 PM EST
Toronto – Fred VanVleet, Malachi Flynn, OG Anunoby, Pascal Siakam, Khem Birch
Utah– Royce O’Neale, Bojan Bogdanovic, George Niang, Joe Ingles, Rudy Gobert
Toronto – Chris Boucher (knee – OUT), Gary Trent Jr. (leg contusion – OUT), Paul Watson (knee – OUT), Kyle Lowry (rest – OUT)
Utah – Donovan Mitchell (ankle – OUT), Mike Conley (hamstring – OUT), Udoka Azubuike (ankle – OUT), Royce O’Neale, wrist – questionable)
I’m convinced: Toronto rookie Malachi Flynn’s engine must have a carburetor instead of a fuel injection system. One thing is clear so far: it takes him a while to warm up. Here’s how his first half vs. second half shot chart for April compares — it’s like night and day.
Could it be nerves, or maybe Flynn is deferring too much to his vets earlier in the game? His willingness to shoot shifts into another gear, especially in the fourth. At least the Raptors know they can count on him during crunch time — which is not something to be said for every rookie.
Now against the Jazz, who will likely be playing tonight without their two lead guards (Mitchell and Conley), and with Lowry resting tonight, will Flynn get a chance to go all-out again?
The Raptors are a modest 5-5 since Khem Birch joined the team — and that represents an improvement. What’s more, that record likely could have been better if Toronto had modestly better or more consistent bench production. When Birch himself is on the bench, the team is -4.2; you don’t need to be a stathead to understand that right now Birch’s absence is bad for the Raptors. Nevertheless, here are Birch’s on/off splits: the Raptors have a 12.6 net rating when he’s on the court — and a -8.4 rating when he’s off the court. That’s... a big swing.
What this suggests, of course, is that Birch — like the rest of Toronto’s starters — should be on the floor as much as possible. The team is just better when he’s on the court. Since he only played about 20 minutes per game on a tanking team, Birch should still even have fresh legs. We’ll see how that holds up against Gobert tonight.
Late Season Priorities
If it’s not clear by now, the Raptors are not necessarily hell-bent on making the play-in tournament. All of their actions are consistent with the team’s earlier claim of prioritizing development. However, they never out-and-out decided to take either. Or to phrase it a different way: for the Raptors, “development” is not synonymous with tanking. In this, Toronto is not like the Oklahoma City Thunder, going out of their way to sit their veteran players for months at a time.
Right now, the Raptors have Flynn, new centre Freddie Gillespie, Gary Trent Jr., Yuta Watanabe, Paul Watson, and even Jalen Harris as potential development pieces on the bench. However much or little they play down the stretch will depend on the situation on any given night — but it does make sense to try and develop these players or the last two weeks of the season. The Raptors are still trying to compete, and nothing helps developing players more than getting those intense reps in.
At the other end, Kyle Lowry is really the only Raptor who could — or perhaps should — be shut down right now. As noted, he’s out tonight but it remains to be seen if that’ll be a longer-term trend. The Raptors aren’t mathematically eliminated yet, but assuming that happens soon, the Toronto brain trust and Lowry might want to work that out. It’ll also be something to see Anunoby get some more reps in, and maybe see what kind of groove Siakam can re-discover. So yeah, the Raptors may be out of the playoff race — but these last few games, starting tonight, are not useless.