Things were looking up for a bit after the Toronto Raptors traded for Jakob Poeltl, but ultimately the team’s mediocrity set in as they finished with a 1-4 record on their recent road trip. The good news is that the Raptors’ starting unit looks good. Jakob Poeltl’s re-arrival has made a big impact on both ends, and O.G. Anunoby is cooking again. The bad news is that the Raptors’ depth remains very much a weakness – bad enough to lose many of the leads built by the starters. The team as a whole just isn’t popping, and they don’t have much time to turn things around.
The Raptors are locked in a tight race for a play-in spot, and with only 14 games remaining, every result is important. They’re four games back of the Miami Heat in seventh place, and just one ahead of the eleventh-place Washington Wizards. On this most recent road trip, the Raptors nearly very beat tonight’s opponent, the Denver Nuggets, but came up short thanks to the Denver’s execution down the stretch (and some interesting officiating). The game was a promising sign, but moral victories don’t mean a thing when you’re in the playoff hunt (although they’re pretty dandy in the tanking race). The Raptors did look evenly matched with the Washington Wizards, which tells you where the team is at, but it’s clear that the Raptors are capable of competing with the league’s best.
The Raptors have another crack at the Nuggets tonight, this time with homecourt advantage. Can they split the season series? Or will reigning MVP Nikola Jokic and his team be too much to handle?
Where to Watch:
Sportsnet One, 7:30pm EST
Toronto – Fred VanVleet, O.G. Anunoby, Scottie Barnes, Pascal Siakam, Jakob Poeltl
Denver – Reggie Jackson, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Michael Porter Jr., Aaron Gordon, Nikola Jokic
Toronto – Otto Porter Jr. (foot – out), Dalano Banton (thumb – doubtful)
Denver – Jamal Murray (knee - questionable), Reggie Jackson (oblique – probable), Zeke Nnaji (shoulder – out)
Figuring Out the Bench
Ah, the bench. Always a fun topic. Even with the team fully healthy and Gary Trent Jr. moved to a sixth-man role, the Raptors’ depth continues to plague them. Trent has been inconsistent in his role off the bench (he scored 0 points on 0/9 shooting vs the Lakers on Friday), while Precious Achiuwa has played far short of his capabilities the last couple weeks. The team’s de facto backup point guard is Will Barton, who can space the floor but nonetheless became a buyout player for a reason.
With the bench unit struggling as much as it is (the Lakers’ bench outscored the Raptors’ 61-12), Nick Nurse has alluded to the possibility of bringing rookie Christian Koloko back into the fold. Achiuwa has looked lost at times in the backup center role, and Nurse mentioned that Koloko minutes would allow Achiuwa to play in his more natural role as a wing defender. Koloko’s last NBA appearance was on February 26, and his last game playing over five minutes was all the way back on February 3 (16 minutes, 0 points, 7 boards, 2 assists, 2 steals, 2 blocks). From a defensive standpoint, Koloko’s return could certainly help Achiuwa regain his confidence and poise. Offensively... well, they just need to tread water. If he does play tonight, it’ll be worth monitoring Koloko’s performance following his 11-game G-League stint.
Let’s not get it twisted: Pascal Siakam has dragged the Raptors to many positive results this year. He’s been their offensive engine and shouldered a massive workload on offense (and, especially before the arrival of Poeltl, defense). That Siakam, who leads the NBA in minutes per game, would become fatigued is certainly understandable. But with each game key to the Raptors’ playoff hopes, you’d hope Siakam would continue playing at an All-NBA level. Instead, he has faded into the background at times, with his role occasionally reduced to that of a floor-spacer. This made sense during the Lakers game, when Anunoby and Barnes were both on fire, but at other times the Raptors have needed him to step back into his usual role.
Siakam reached 20 points just once during the team’s five-game road trip. He attempted just nine free throws across the whole five-game stretch – in the month of December, Siakam averaged over nine free throws per game. I’ve seen people point out that defenses can load the paint more when defending Poeltl instead of Trent, but Siakam just hasn’t looked as aggressive and explosive as he did earlier in the year. He told media yesterday that the team’s struggles have been hard on him, but assured that he loves the process of “struggling and finding a way out of it.” Hopefully the team’s extended rest will help him re-energize for the final stretch.
Jamal Murray’s Status
The reigning back-to-back MVP is coming to town, but the big question is whether Jamal Murray, the star point guard who hails from the great land of Kitchener, Ontario, joins him. Murray played a big role in the Nuggets’ win versus the Raptors last week, dropping 24 points plus five assists and three steals. But Murray – in his first year back from a torn ACL – was forced to exit Sunday’s game with some knee soreness, which could prompt the Nuggets to sit him for tonight’s game. While the Nuggets are certainly looking to snap their three-game losing streak, they’re comfortably first in the West and can afford to be cautious.
Between players like Andrew Wiggins, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, and RJ Barrett, Canadian players are historically amazing against the Raptors. If Jamal Murray suits up, one might be tempted to bet the over on his points total. If not, that’s one less threat – and one less form of minor Canadian treason – for the Raptors to worry about.