The Toronto Raptors are a funny team. A couple weeks ago, they enjoyed a karmic six-game winning streak against a slew of shorthanded opponents. A few days later, they lost handily to the 29th-placed Detroit Pistons. When the Raptors play down to inferior opponents and look a step slow, they don’t have enough offensive juice or roster depth to consistently eke out wins. But the last few games have taught us that against strong opponents, the Raptors bring it. With a healthy core, they can at least compete with the best teams in the NBA.
In three games within a single week against Phoenix, Milwaukee, and Miami, the Raptors managed to beat Giannis and the Bucks, and lost by just two possessions to both the Suns and Heat — all this without the important presence and shot-creation prowess of Gary Trent Jr. Now, the Raptors have yet another tall task at hand: the Dallas Mavericks are one of the hottest teams in the league, winning nine of their last 10 games. Luka Doncic is regaining form while the Mavericks’ defense has elevated throughout the season. But if the last week is any indication, the Raptors should be prepared for the challenge. Let’s see if they’re up to it tonight.
Where to Watch:
Sportsnet, 8:30 PM EST
Toronto – Fred VanVleet, OG Anunoby, Scottie Barnes, Pascal Siakam, Precious Achiuwa
Dallas – Luka Doncic, Jalen Brunson, Dorian Finney-Smith, Maxi Kleber, Kristaps Porzingis
Toronto – Gary Trent Jr. (ankle – questionable), Khem Birch (nose – out), Goran Dragic (personal – out)
Dallas – Maxi Kleber (knee – questionable), Reggie Bullock (knee – questionable)
Luka Doncic is central to everything the Dallas Mavericks do on offense. He’s second in the league in usage rate, and while Doncic’s shooting numbers haven’t been great, he unlocks so much for his teammates, averaging 9.6 assists per game in January. He can also get to the free throw line repeatedly against the right defense (spoiler alert: the Raptors might be the right defense).
Meanwhile, Nick Nurse and the Raptors love hounding opposing stars and forcing other guys to make plays. You can count on the Raptors to send a variety of looks at Doncic. But Doncic is a special passer, so even if the Raptors can force the ball out of his hands with some blitzing, they’ll need to make crisp defensive rotations to ensure their aggressiveness doesn’t just lead to open looks.
No depth to be found
Say what will you about the Raptors’ injuries, but almost every team deals with those. Their true weakness has been a major lack of depth. At the moment, Chris Boucher (more on him soon) is really their only productive bench player, though Justin Champagnie’s offensive rebounding makes him a meaningful contributor in his minutes. But with Trent and Khem Birch out, Yuta Watanabe and Svi Mykhailiuk leaving much to be desired, and Goran Dragic mentoring the team from a different continent — well, it’s been slim pickings for Nick Nurse.
The lack of bench production has prompted Nurse to go with a seven-man rotation, which would be an appropriate move if it were, say, the Eastern Conference Finals, and not January 19th. Do I blame Nurse? No. In fact, I enjoy the tight rotation — I like seeing the Raptors win, and winning is hard to do when your starters are playing against not only the opponents but also their own bench. The downside is that Fred VanVleet and Pascal Siakam each played 40+ minutes the last three games, and have done lots of the heavy lifting in those minutes. Some bench production would go a long way, but at this point, Nurse seems to be low on trust. If Trent is out, get ready for another mid-season playoff rotation.
Chris Boucher being the only reliable contributor off the bench is not something I would’ve foreseen in November. But the man deserves his flowers. With the Raptors’ big/wing rotation constantly dealing with one injury or another, Boucher had been able to maintain his rotation spot. Over the last month or so, though Boucher has done more than just maintain it.
Boucher’s blend of offensive rebounding (and subsequent fouls drawn), improved discipline, and energy-injections have been crucial in each of the Raptors’ recent battles with contenders. He played 37, 36, and 38 minutes against the Suns, Bucks, and Heat, and the Raptors won those minutes by four points (related: he blocked eight shots in those three games). All-Star level play from VanVleet and Siakam have made this team viable on offense. But with bench production at a premium, Chris Boucher — a player who many fans wanted to be, and still might get traded — has become one of the Raptors’ most important players.