Maybe a road trip is what the Toronto Raptors needed after all?
This group, dysfunctional as they’ve looked through most of the season, started off their longest road trip in 15 years with a bang on Wednesday — beating the Sacramento Kings 113-95. It was their best defensive effort in ages, as the seven-man rotation of the starters plus Chris Boucher and Precious Achiuwa looked as cohesive and strong as they were through most of the 2020-21 season.
Obviously, it’s strange timing for a game like that. Marc Stein reported early this morning that Fred VanVleet is changing agents to Klutch Sports Group, that Gary Trent Jr. is still a topic in trade discussions around the league, and that OG Anunoby and Pascal Siakam are unlikely to be moved. Everyone is waiting to see what the Raptors do before moving on their trade deadline deals. At the same time that Toronto played some of the best basketball in a calendar year, the pillars are starting to crumble around the foundation of this team.
So, the big question going into tonight’s NBA Rivals matchup with the Golden State Warriors? Finding out if Wednesday was just another aberration, albeit one that lasted 48 minutes long, or whether they can put another strong defensive showing together.
Here are the game details and what to watch for.
Where to Watch:
TSN 1/3/4, 9:30 PM ET
Toronto Raptors – Fred VanVleet, Gary Trent Jr., OG Anunoby, Pascal Siakam, Scottie Barnes
Golden State Warriors – Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, Andrew Wiggins, Draymond Green, Kevon Looney
Toronto Raptors – Dalano Banton (hip – questionable), Otto Porter Jr. (foot – out)
Golden State Warriors – Andrew Wiggins (illness – questionable), Andre Iguodala (hip – out)
Flying on Defense
Forcing Damontas Sabonis into nine turnovers, the Raptors proved once again that they have the defensive chops to beat teams that create from the inside out. The Warriors are a very different animal to play against, but still have an offense that the Raptors can theoretically handle.
Toronto has struggled against teams with competent, burly centres, but if they play with the communication they did against the Kings, they can handle a motion-oriented offense like the Warriors. Seeing early on how the starting lineup fights through screens to get to Steph Curry and Klay Thompson will be indicators of their effort. If they can put together 48 more difficult minutes on the defensive end, win or lose, it says a lot about the Raptors’ general attitude toward this road trip.
Precious and Chris
The ideal version of the Raptors at this juncture is that Precious Achiuwa can play like a centre — bullying similar-sized players inside and, with the help of a leaping Chris Boucher, secure rebounds against bigger guys.
These two played their 2020-21 roles to a tee against the Kings, and their consistent energy unlocks so much for the Raptors — not the least of which being reduced minutes for Pascal Siakam and OG Anunoby, allowing them to be at their best late in games.
The two bigs combined to score 35 points off the pine on Wednesday and I’ve got my eyes on them specifically in this matchup to see if they can replicate that kind of production against an anemic Warriors frontline rotation.
Play to the stage
I have to admit, I didn’t know much about NBA Rivals week until it got going — but at least for me, the concept has been a rousing success. Putting great matchups on the schedule from Tuesday all the way to a national TV triple header on Saturday, and including not just the tired Lakers vs. Celtics matchups, but also the more petty Sixers-Nets and Mavs-Suns matchups, is a cool idea that should absolutely be continued.
I’m not sure if the Raptors and Warriors fall into that latter camp, but this being an NBA TV outing, we’re not exactly looking at a top tier rivalry. Still, the Raptors have an opportunity to play to the stage they’re given tonight. Matchups between the Raptors and Warriors haven’t been chippy, but they’ve been shockingly good over the last four years. The two teams have traded wins have back and forth, with the Warriors winning most recently on Dec. 18.
Tonight, the Raptors have a chance to get revenge and prove that Wednesday wasn’t a fluke. They can still play cohesive defense, and they can do it against the defending champs.