I’ve been at kind of a loss to discuss the Toronto Raptors in depth of late. An always-weird work schedule, some family stuff and general mid-season malaise have kept me off these pages more than I would like the past few weeks. I owe the rest of the team here a debt of gratitude for carrying a heavier load with me ducking out some.
That doesn’t mean I haven’t been watching. I have been, difficult though that’s been at times of late. Filling in for co-worker Navin Vaswani‘s weekly Power Rankings at my regular job this week, I ranked the Raptors 14th, which seemed unnecessarily negative until I realized that they haven’t had a quality win in a month. You have to go back to the win over Denver on the second night of a back-to-back on Dec. 28 for the last time the Raptors had a win you could feel good about. I’m not calling an ugly and narrow victory over Milwaukee or a needlessly drawn out win over Indiana as marquee victories but hey, at least they’re 30-15. That mark warrants some patience, but the unfortunate reality is that the trade deadline is in three weeks, the Raptors are playing uninspiring ball, and right now they don’t look like a team I’d be confident in winning a playoff series against the other top-five teams in the Eastern Conference.
Wait, did someone mention uninspiring ball? Look at that, the Sacramento Kings are in town tonight! Sacramento’s malaise is of a different variety altogether, with DeMarcus Cousins seemingly re-souring – albeit still decidedly beasting – since head coach Mike Malone was made a scapegoat for a team that didn’t need a scapegoat. Now they’re 16-27 and may have cost Cousins a deserved All-Star spot with their poor team play, the long-term plan is as unclear as ever and they’re not longer even a team of interest out West.
This should be a winnable game for the Raptors, and it tips off at 7:30 on TSN2. Speaking to the Raptors expecting a victory, they enter as seven-point favorites, a number that could surely swing as low as 6.5 if Carl Landry, who is questionable, can play.
Before we get into the actual game match-ups, I have a question for the floor: Do we even care about Rudy Gay at this point? Yes, he’s returning and wasn’t particularly well-liked in Toronto, and his removal coincided with the best run of play in franchise history. Still, he’s already been back once, he’s suffering enough on the Kings, and he’s already been gone for a longer amount of time than he was on the team. He’s mostly a Bryan Colangelo-related footnote in franchise history at this point, having played just 51 games for the team. I’m sure some will boo, but I could really care less about Gay beyond the fact that he’s an opponent that provides a match-up issue. What say you?
Make no question, Gay is a match-up issue. For whatever reason, James Johnson has completely fallen out of the rotation, but he’ll be needed Wednesday. I realize that starting two point guards changes the minutes allocation and head coach Dwane Casey isn’t willing or able to cut the minutes of Terrence Ross, but I’ve always been of the mind the fifth starting spot should be a matter of match-ups. Johnson starting with the other starters poses some spacing issues – you really can’t operate effectively with only your point guard as a 3-point threat, even if DeMar DeRozan’s off-ball and mid-range ability do have a gravitational pull on a defense – and it wouldn’t be worth swapping two starters out to start James Johnson alongside Patrick Patterson, thereby inverting the offense. Still, James Johnson is the team’s best and perhaps only hope of containing Gay, an oft-frustrating but immensely talented scorer. He’s averaging 20.2 points and 4.1 assists and all those efficiency metrics that were decried in Toronto have moved north. He’s been really good, and he’s a tough check.
But he’s no Cousins. Good luck, Jonas Valanciunas. Cousins has been an absolute monster, averaging 24.2 points, 12.6 4 rebounds, 3.2 assists, 1.4 steals and 1.6 blocks with a 25.7 player efficiency rating. In the most likely scenario, Cousins eats Valanciunas’ lunch tonight. In their three career meetings, Cousins has scored 74 points with 30 rebounds, shooting 27-of-49. Valanciunas has improved some since March 7 when they last squared off, especially on the offensive end, and at the very least he may be able to get Cousins in some foul trouble by making him work on the defensive end. One thing is clear with Cousins in town: Any excuse not to play Valanciunas because of match-ups goes out the window, and his playing time should be performance-based. One other thing: Free Chucky Hayes!
The Raptors should hold an edge at power forward and a significant one at the point, where Kyle Lowry looked better than he has in some time on Tuesday. The issue with Lowry of late hasn’t been anything but exhaustion, to my eyes, though his defense has been found wanting all year. He’s appreciably better than Darren Collison and even after playing a team-high 34 minutes on Tuesday, he should be able to take advantage.
DeMar DeRozan also looked better Tuesday, getting to the line at will against a conservative Pacers defense. His mindset should be the exact same against Sacramento, who foul at an above-average rate and don’t have the wing defenders to keep DeRozan from getting into the paint. An unrelated weakness for the Kings is that they force fewer turnovers than any team in the league, something the Raptors were uncharacteristically struggling with before coughing it up just 18 times over the last two games.
In general, Sacramento represents a nice team to build some momentum against. The Raptors have three straight wins and have won four of five, not a single one of them impressive, but they count nonetheless. With some renewed confidence (swagger, in the case of Greivis Vasquez) on the offensive end, Toronto could really use a pair of emphatic wins over Sacramento and Brooklyn before a pretty hellacious 11-game stretch hits. At least by doing so, any stumbles during said stretch can be looked at anew rather than as a part of a months-long issue. Because none of us have any interest in looking back in early March and being downright embarrassed for our December optimism.
So…yeah, are we booing Gay? Can the Raptors finally win in convincing fashion? I’ll be in the RR seats to find out.