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Gameday: Trail Blazers @ Raptors, March 4

The Toronto Raptors continue their seven-game home-stand and three-game set as “Western Conference playoff spoiler” when the Portland Trail Blazers visit for a 7:30 p.m. tip-off on TSN on Friday.

Fresh off of a win against Utah, the Raptors can knock Portland down a peg, too, before hosting Houston on Sunday. The Raptors would prefer to sweep that three-game stretch, but if they drop one of the games, that’s a big swing for the team they lose to. Those three are separated by four games – Portland is actually tied for sixth in the West with Dallas and has a bit of a cushion from Utah, in ninth – but it’s still close enough that no team is comfortable. Houston’s even still tweaking their roster (Super Cool Beas!) to figure things out.

At 33-29, Portland has outperformed expectations to such a degree that head coach Terry Stotts is almost certainly going to land in the top-three in Coach of the Year balloting. For full disclosure, I didn’t at all believe the Blazers would be this good. I liked their expedited rebuild this offseason, recognizing that post-LaMarcus Aldridge, Damian Lillarld’s talent and age were such that a full teardown wouldn’t make much sense. I liked a lot of the pieces they added, too, like Ed Davis and Al-Farouq Aminu as veterans on reasonable deals, Noah Vonley as a high-upside flier, and even Mo Harkless as essentially a free trial CD in the mail. But I didn’t think they’d be anywhere close to this good out of the gate.

The Blazers are just behind the Raptors on the offensive end (seventh, Toronto is fifth) and are a decent-not-great 19th in team defense (the Raptors are 12th) despite not having a great defensive team on paper.

Portland’s games have played out in a way that those rankings make sense. Lillard and C.J. McCollum make up one of the most dangerous backcourt scoring duos in the NBA, perhaps ranking third after the Splash Brothers in Golden State and Toronto’s own All-Star pairing, Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan. Lillard and McCollum are, individually, defensive liabilities, and that puts a ton of pressure on Portland’s defense elsewhere. They’ve managed, though, with Aminu able to check with best opposing wing, Davis unexpectedly developing into a solid option on stretchier bigs, and “Literally Kobe Bryant Against the Raptors” Gerald Henderson lurking off the bench.

This team works incredibly hard, top-to-bottom on the roster, a credit to the type of player they’ve gone after and Stotts’ coaching job. Stotts recently told Zach Lowe of ESPN that they try to move the ball around and get players involved on offense to maintain defensive engagement, and while Lillard and McCollum carry the offensive load, the defensive workload is shared.

Aminu, by the way, is questionable due to a hand injury. He had his right hand wrapped after Wednesday’s ugly loss to Boston – in Portland’s defense, their fourth game in five nights – and if he can’t go, that would make life a lot easier for DeRozan. If Aminu goes, the Blazers may experiment with McCollum on James Johnson, as the Raptors have been hesitant to post a struggling Johnson up when opposing teams put a smaller player on him. That still leaves Lowry to attack Lillard, who is entirely exploitable, and the Raptors have the option to lean heavily on Cory Joseph to help defend Lillard and McCollum and avoid DeRozan’s iffy-of-late defense on either.

No matter the specific matchups, the backcourt battle should be a ton of fun. The Blazers’ pair actually average slightly more points than the Raptors’ thanks to some additional 3-point shooting, but the Raptors’ duo adds more on the glass and at the free-throw line, and they score a little more efficiently.

backcourts

This is going to be great.

Elsewhere, the Blazers don’t have many major individual threats. Allen Crabbe, a prospect I really like, is third on the team with 10.6 points, and Henderson is going to drop 20 because he always does against Toronto. Vonleh’s started to show flashes as a starter but doesn’t stretch the floor just yet, and neither does Davis, a dangerous rim-runner, or Mason Plumlee, a dangerous dunker. Meyers Leonard is the big that will most concern Raptors fans because of his ability to stretch out the Luis Scola-Jonas Valanciunas frontcourt, as the 7-footer is shooting 37.3 percent on triples. The Davis-Leonard pairing has been their best heavy-minute frontcourt pairing, but I’d expect Stotts to experiment going a little smaller, too, perhaps with Harkless at the four and Leonard at the five as a way of really stretching the Raptors out.

Casey can opt to try to hurt Portland inside by going to Valanciunas or attacking north-south against less paint protection, and Patrick Patterson would bring the option to switch a lot of pick-and-rolls off the bench. As strange as some may think it sounds, Stotts-Dwane Casey could be a fun lineup chess match. Or maybe both teams opt to play their standard rotations straight-up and let the chips fall where they may.

Those rotations look something like this, assuming the Raptors recall their group of D-Leaguers from last night.

PG: Lowry, Joseph, Delon Wrights vs. Lillard, Brian Roberts
SG: DeRozan, T.J. Ross, Norman Powell vs. McCollum, Henderson, Pat Connaughton
SF: Johnson, Bruno Caboclo vs. Aminu, Crabbe, Harkless, Luis Montero
PF: Scola, Patterson, Jason Thompson vs. Vonleh, Davis, Cliff Alexander
C: Valanciunas, Bismack Biyombo, Lucas Nogueira vs. Plumlee, Leonard, Chris Kaman

The Raptors are 5.5-point favorites, up a shade from a Raptors -5 opening line. That feels pretty sharp, but the 208.5 over-under feels too high given how slow the Raptors prefer to play (Portland is an average-tempo team), though maybe oddsmakers are expecting defense to be put aside in this one (not an unreasonable guess). Raptors 105, Blazers 101.

Unfortunately, I was unable to secure a Blazers blogger to answer questions this time around, but hopefully this and the Lowe piece linked within suffice. Portland’s a really entertaining, likeable team, so make sure to check this one out, and have a good weekend.

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