It’s amazing the difference a little effort can make.
No, effort isn’t the only thing at the root of the Toronto Raptors occasionally looking quite terrible late, as shooting continues to present a major issue, as does scoring in general around DeMar DeRozan. And effort alone doesn’t necessarily lead to the most aesthetically pleasing of showcases. But effort is also something that doesn’t get injured, that isn’t at the mercy of variance, and that doesn’t slump. If P.J. Tucker has his way and the players-only meeting from Thursday continues to bear fruit, the Raptors may be able to grind out a couple more wins while Kyle Lowry heals up.
What’s more, the schedule is about to turn somewhat friendly. Toronto’s next 12 opponents are no more than two games above .500, and while the bulk of them are fighting for their playoff lives – perhaps a better indicator of strength of schedule at this time of year than just record – Toronto is free of back-to-backs until April 4-5, don’t travel further than Dallas, and could close the season out with a Cavaliers team sitting on its hands (that’s still to be determined with Boston only 1.5 games back). In other words, there remains a chance that Toronto could make up the two games they trail Washington, with the Wizards embarking on a hellacious trip later this month.
It remains too early to play the seeding and opponent game, but jump to No. 3, and who might the most likely first-round opponent be? The Indiana Pacers. Of course, Sunday marks the first of three meetings with the Pacers down the stretch, and so Toronto may wind up having a hand in Indiana jumping to fifth if things go poorly. That makes these games at least a little bit more interesting. Toronto surely can’t be worrying about such outcomes yet – they’re still focused on solidifying an identity and weathering the storm the next couple of weeks.
The game tips off at 6 on Sportsnet One and Sportsnet 590.
Blake Murphy: Raptors fans have some deep, depressing theories on where this franchise would be had the Pacers-Raptors series gone differently last year. It’s too broad a question for such a butterfly effect, but how is life for the Pacers different if Frank Vogel doesn’t keep is top players on the bench too long in Game 5?
Ben Gibson: Tough to say. It seems like Vogel was getting the boot unless the Pacers made a major run in the playoffs. Larry Bird seemed determined to let Frank walk. I don’t know if THIS team would be all that different because like I wrote the other day, this team was a roster that doesn’t fit together well beyond the starters. The moves Bird made don’t add up to the run-and-gun team he wanted. I like Monta Ellis and Rodney Stuckey off the bench, but you don’t need both of them and Aaron Brooks, they are similar in style. The bench doesn’t have shooters or rebounding, thought Glenn Robinson III and Rakeem Christmas are worth keeping an eye on. This team is weird, and will remain weird, because they don’t have reliable shooting or defense off the bench, and that’s mostly due to how the roster is built.
Blake Murphy: It’s not as if things have gone terribly for the Pacers. They still have Paul George, after all. And he’s only 26! What did you think of the George trade speculation before the deadline, and do you see him staying in Indiana past next season?
Ben Gibson: I assume it was the front office being smart and seeing what Paul George is worth to the rest of the NBA. Not because they want to trade him, but because they may have no other choice. I don’t want to see Paul George go, but at the same time if the Pacers find out he definitely is leaving the summer after next, then they need to get something in return.
Blake Murphy: Should Indiana change their timeline, Myles Turner, a 20-year-old beast of a center with just an obscene amount of two-way, inside-out potential, becomes an even more important piece. Projecting out a bit, can Turner be good enough to build the franchise around?
Ben Gibson: I don’t think you alter the timeline until you KNOW you are losing PG. So if you think George is going to walk, start building around Turner. I think you can build around him. He has talked about taking a leadership role and is vocal at times even now, showing off that potential leadership. Myles Turner is having a Chris Bosh-like bounce in his second year, but he still is a 20 year old who will look like one at times. He needs to add bulk, if I had to pick one thing he needs to focus on going ahead. He is certainly Indiana’s future, but don’t sell the present until you know something for sure.
Blake Murphy: Indiana is kind of stuck in the middle, overall, on offense, and on defense. They weirdly don’t have many extreme strengths or extreme weaknesses, except maybe their deficiency on the offensive glass. There are two ways you could look at that: They’re matchup-proof, since they have no specific areas to really exploit, or they have no real means of taking advantage of an opponent weakness, so they’re advantage-proof, too. Is this too simplistic? Which side would you land on?
Ben Gibson: They are inconsistent. That’s the downside of not having an identity to fall back on. The starting unit defends well and plays eh offensively, but again, the team as a whole doesn’t have anything to fall back on. This isn’t like the lanky-ass defenders Indiana had when they were in the conference finals. They have more weaknesses to exploit and the bench doesn’t have anything it can rely on night in and night out. So as you said, they are more advantage-proof than anything else.
Blake Murphy: I want to ask about one of my favorite role players, C.J. Miles, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t turn the attention to Al Jefferson. Raptors fans love discussing Jonas Valanciunas as a potential bench scorer, a la Enes Kanter, and it’s a role Jefferson has moved into here in his twilight years. Has that proven an effective deployment of The First Name In Old-School Game this year?
Ben Gibson: This is funny you ask about Al Jefferson. He has only played in four games since the All-Star Break, totaling 50 minutes, grabbing 18 points and 15 rebounds. He’s now more likely to get a DNP than points. I mentioned him in the first question, but Rakeem Christmas is the main reason why this has happened.
Christmas can rebound (and help create more rebounds) thanks to his defense and effort. Al was just unable to do enough offensively to make up for his defensive issues. Christmas doesn’t replace the points, but he doesn’t need the ball like Al did. He and Lavoy Allen just rebounds and take the shots when the happen, allowing Ellis and Stuckey to control the ball more and create chances for everyone. With Al, it was just throwing it down in the post and hoping he scored.
To answer your question, no, he hasn’t been effective because there aren’t enough shooters off the bench to space the floor, so he can’t be effective enough to a be a positive. He’s a good piece that doesn’t fit.
There’s not much in the way of things to update for the Raptors now that DeMarre Carroll has survived a back-to-back. Kyle Lowry remains out and progressing (without a timeline), and Bruno Caboclo and Pascal Siakam are down with Raptors 905. The 905 hit the road Sunday, so it’s possible the kids stay there rather than getting the usual call-up to watch from the bench and hope for garbage minutes (Caboclo hasn’t even been dressing). Expect at least Caboclo to stay down.
Lineup certainty doesn’t mean the Raptors aren’t still figuring things out, though. Fred VanVleet is pushing Delon Wright for backup point guard minutes, and Lucas Nogueira looms behind Jakob Poeltl. Norman Powell and P.J. Tucker will battle nightly for more minutes on the wing. The Raptors are still trying to figure out why Serge Ibaka has had a nice impact overall but they defend better when he’s on the bench (the likely cause being small samples and the Ibaka-Jonas Valanciunas pairing still standing as a major work in progress), and, related, the starting lineup continues to search for chemsitry (they have a -1.9 net rating in 134 minutes together). There are things to be learned and experience to be gained, even in survival mode.
PG: Cory Joseph, Delon Wright, Fred VanVleet
SG: DeMar DeRozan, Norman Powell
SF: DeMarre Carroll, P.J. Tucker, (Bruno Caboclo)
PF: Serge Ibaka, Patrick Patterson, (Pascal Siakam)
C: Jonas Valanciunas, Jakob Poeltl, Lucas Nogueira
ASSIGNED: Pascal Siakam, Bruno Caboclo
OUT: Kyle Lowry
Lavoy Allen is questionable with a knee injury that’s had him in and out of the lineup since before the break. His role isn’t enormous, but another big body to throw out in the frontcourt is still useful. If he can’t go, a larger role falls to Rakeem Christmas and Kevin Seraphin, who present some interesting challenges for the Raptors’ bigs.
Myles Turner is the real problem there, though, as his ability to pull a big away from the rim but still do damage inside could be trouble. The Pacers’ starters outscore opponents by 11.9 points per-100 possessions, and they remain very effective when Glenn Robinson checks in for C.J. Miles. Look out for the Pacers downsizing and sliding Paul George to the four, too. It’s something the don’t do a ton of but that makes them pretty lethal offensively (the starters with Monta Ellis in place of Thad Young, for example, score 126.2 PPC).
PG: Jeff Teague, Rodney Stuckey, Aaron Brooks, Joseph Young
SG: C.J. Miles, Monta Ellis
SF: Paul George, Glenn Robinson III
PF: Thad Young, (Lavoy Allen), Rakeem Christmas, Georges Niang
C: Myles Turner, Kevin Seraphin, Al Jefferson
TBD: Lavoy Allen
The Raptors are 3.5-point favorites, essentially suggesting the teams are even in a neutral setting. The Raptors opened as 4-point favorites, but the line came down some. It seems unlikely it’ll move any further. The over-under is at 199, so the market is expecting this one to be a little ugly, too. Ugly is fine. Ugly is good, even, if it’s Friday’s kind of ugly.