The Toronto Raptors will continue their road trip with the toughest test of their season to date on Friday when they visit the world-beating Golden State Warriors. The game tips off at 10:30 on Sportsnet and promises to be incredibly entertaining.
The Warriors own the league’s best record at 25-5, and while they’ve dropped three of their past seven games, they remain incredibly dangerous. No team is playing better, and even the continued absences of Andrew Bogut (knee) and Festus Ezeli (knee) don’t make this game anything close to easy. The Raptors, third in the NBA with a 24-8 record themselves, enter as five-point underdogs, which feels right and perhaps even a bit generous.
The Raptors have been playing well on the trip, so I wouldn’t fault you for talking yourself into a potential minor upset. After losing by nine to Chicago, the Raptors emerged from the holiday break with impressive victories over the Clippers and Nuggets and were then edged in overtime by the Blazers, the league’s second-best team by record. To go 2-2 over that stretch of schedule, with a +12 total margin, is pretty remarkable. They’ll need to play just as well as they have been and better to hang with Golden State.
Playing without Bogut and Ezeli means the Warriors are somewhat exploitable inside. They’ll start Mo Speights and maybe give minutes to Ognjen Kuzmic, relying on David Lee to stand in as the de facto backup pivot. That means Jonas Valanciunas could be the difference for the Raptors, because it’s tough to imagine them getting an edge at any other position. Valanciunas has been great of late, averaging 15.1 points on 52 percent shooting over his last seven and 12.9 on 50.3 percent since DeMar DeRozan went down injured. He should be able to beast inside against the likes of Mo Gotti and Lee, neither of whom are particularly adept defenders.
Speaking of DeRozan, this may be the game in which his absence looms largest. We’ve seen that the team’s offense can hang in there without him, but the defense has suffered. Going up against Steph Curry and Klay Thompson – with Shaun Livingston and Andre Iguodala off the bench, no less – the Raptors’ guards will be tested a great deal. There’s no containing Curry, Thompson has evolved into a terrific two-way weapon, and both reserve wings mentioned cause serious mismatches in the post. Lou Williams and Greivis Vasquez have their work cut out for them, and it wouldn’t be surprising to see head coach Dwane Casey eschew offense for an extra wing defender for stretches.
Of course, Williams, Vasquez and Kyle Lowry also do damage at the other end of the floor. It would be tough to ask them to keep up with the Splash Brothers, but at the very least they’ll require both to work hard at the defensive end. Thompson is a great defender and could be given the Lowry assignment, but head coach Steve Kerr has been more willing to challenge Curry with guarding opposing point guards than his predecessor Mark Jackson was. In any case, Curry won’t have an easy check when the team plays two guards together, and he should be the secondary point of attack after the center position.
That leaves the forward spots, where things are a little more…boring, I guess. Harrison Barnes is a nice player, Draymond Green has become a terrific two-way piece, and Iguodala gives the second unit an embarrassment of talent, considering Lee remains a reserve, as well. Terrence Ross should be up for this one given the frequent comparisons between himself and Barnes, but the same could be said both ways. Ross has been showing encouraging signs with DeRozan out, and we’re all falling in love with his little push-shot, but he needs to get more aggressive drawing contact off the bounce, full stop.
The interesting thing about this matchup – other than that it’s a battle between the league’s top two teams by Adjusted Net Rating – is that both have flexible rotations, and the five-against-five matchups are mostly endless. The Warriors will play smaller given their lack of centers, and they have enough long wings that they’re basically interchangeable two-through-four on defense, if Lee is off or at the five. They’re not dissimilar in that way from the Brooklyn Nets of last season, so some of the matchup issues should look familiar.
That’s not to say the Raptors can’t cause issues of their own. They fell from the best offense of all-time to the sixth-best after the Portland game, and their attack remains deadly. The Warriors have so many damn good defenders and such a great system that it’s not reasonable to expect an outburst, and the Blazers may have provided a blueprint on how to limit the Raptors by throwing length at their shot-creating guards. Still, every time there’s a reason to doubt this offense, they find a way to score, so faith is justified even against the league’s best defense.
One thing is almost certain: this won’t be a blowout. The Raptors have lost just a single game by double-digits this season, and the Warriors hold too much firepower to get beaten handily. Just think back to Dec. 3 of last season if you need a reminder of that – that was the night the Warriors erased a 25-point fourth-quarter deficit to steal a win from Toronto. The Raptors avenged it in March at home and showed they can beat this team, but that victory was almost entirely on the shoulders of DeRozan.
This one should be a lot of fun. Buckle in, everyone, and happy new year. Go Raptors.