Gameday: Thunder @ Raptors, March 28

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The last time the Toronto Raptors played the Oklahoma City Thunder, it was a pretty momentous game. The Raptors, winners of their first four of the season, walked into Chesapeake Arena, and won a game through defense, toughness, and sheer force of will. It was enough to make me write this, a very uncharacteristic plea for those as cautious as myself to give in to a hot 5-0 start and believe in a team that came out of the gate looking very, very good. In retrospect, it’s one of my favorite things I’ve written this season, and the Raptors have rewarded that early-but-a-bit-late optimism by turning in the best regular season in franchise history.

It’s fitting, then, that the Raptors can “officially” make 2015-16 their best season ever by securing their 50th win of the season on Monday, when the Thunder visit for a 7:30 p.m. tip-off on Sportsnet One. A win would mark Toronto’s 50th of the season, making them the 29th of 30 NBA franchises to have such a season, and setting the franchise record for victories. It would also be yet another marquee victory in a year that’s had its fair share already. The Thunder are essentially even with Toronto, or close enough, by major metrics, and while they’re objectively a shade better, Toronto can affirm it’s top-five status with another win over a top-three team out West.

It’s also a potentially important game because it could mark the return of DeMarre Carroll. Or, at least, it was thought to maybe mark such an occasion. All’s been quiet on the Carroll front since Josh Lewenberg of TSN reported a while back that Carroll himself was targeting a late-March return. He’s been sidelined since Jan. 3, and the organization originally (and uncharacteristically) revealed that the hope was for a six-to-eight week recovery timeline, one Carroll’s long since blown past. If Carroll was targeting a late-March return, Monday would have been a reasonable game, the first day back after a road-trip he wasn’t on. It would have given him 10 games – eight if he sits back-to-back scenarios – down the stretch with which to shake the rust off. But with practice time scarce down the stretch and Carroll likely to need rehab time between outings, perhaps the Raptors opt to keep him shelved in order to practice Tuesday and Thursday before a later return. Who knows?

To help set the stage, we reached out to Marina Mangiaracina, who’s been doing excellent work over at Welcome to Loud City this season.

Blake Murphy: Kyle Lowry is putting together what many here feel is a season befitting of a top-five finish in the MVP voting. The Thunder have two players who could reasonably make such a claim (though in reality they’ll probably cannibalize each other’s votes). Of the two, who would be higher on your MVP ballot, Russell Westbrook or Kevin Durant, or is this like being asked to rank the two primary ingredients in mac & cheese?

Marina Mangiaracina: For me, the answer to that question, since at least last year, has been unquestionably Russell Westbrook. Don’t get me wrong, KD is an invaluable offensive and defensive weapon. There’s nobody I’d rather have as our primary off-ball scorer. But KD is so much better when he’s set up to score, as opposed to when he has to do the setting up. KD will make good decisions with the ball most of the time, but he doesn’t have the physical tools necessary to be handling the ball all of the time. Westbrook, on the other hand, is the heart and soul of this team. If he’s on fire, his energy can take over the entire game. There will be games where Westbrook sets up nearly every single player on the team while also scoring 20 points. Sure, there are possessions where Westbrook goes too hard for steals or rebounds on defense. But generally, Westbrook knows who he’s playing against and gambles on the percentages.

For me, the best example of Westbrook’s superiority is how he plays when Durant isn’t on the floor. When Westbrook is alone with the bench, the Thunder are generally still effective. But when Durant is alone with the bench, the Thunder will struggle to move the ball. When Durant played de facto backup point guard for 10 games after the All-Star break, he averaged six assists to five turnovers every game. With backup point guard Cameron Payne running the point over the last seven games, KD’s averages have gone back to a more palatable seven assists to four turnovers. Still, it’s obvious that KD needs someone to set him up.

Blake Murphy: The Thunder own the second-best offense in the league, and while personnel dictates it’s not always the most creative (Raptors fans understand this well), it’s damn near impossible to stop. Weirdly, despite appearing to operate similar to Toronto, the Raptors rank near the top of the league in drives, the Thunder near the bottom. The Thunder are also dead last in passes per-game, an area the Raptors have improved in despite depressed assist totals. How is the Thunder offense so dominant without a drive-heavy attack or fluid ball movement? (Apologies for essentially asking “the Mona Lisa is so plain, why is it beautiful?”)

Marina Mangiaracina: The answer is as obvious as it seems. The Thunder have two of the greatest athletes of our generation in the starting lineup. They’ve played with each other for eight consecutive years, so they’ve got their simple plays down to a science. To this day I see the Thunder run some of the same offensive sets we’ve seen since Season 1 (swing, HORNS comes to mind). But to answer your question more specifically….

No Drives: Durant doesn’t really drive the ball too often. KD is way more fond of the pull-up three and turnaround jumper. Westbrook drives the ball a lot, but he also pulls up for a mid-range or three pointer more often than a lot of point guards. Lastly, the Thunder’s two consistent third and fourth options, Enes Kanter and Serge Ibaka, don’t work off of drives. Kanter does a lot of back to the basket work, and grabs tons of offensive boards. Ibaka almost exclusively pick and pops or lines up threes.

No Ball Movement: The Thunder have a lot of shot creators. Westbrook and Durant are obviously the most dynamic. But Kanter can create his own shot on the wing rather easily. Both Dion Waiters and Randy Foye can be effective at times when running around screens or in isolations. Payne has a really mean off-the-dribble floater as well. So there’s lots of off-the-dribble options on our team, and that brings the overall assist count down.

Blake Murphy: The Raptors have struggled against offenses with stretchier fours who can force Luis Scola and Jonas Valanciunas out to the 3-point line. Could you see Billy Donovan leaning on Durant at the four some for that purpose, or has Donovan more been the type to stick with an 82-game gameplan?

Marina Mangiaracina: Definitely expect some Durant at the four. Backup power forward Nick Collison has effectively fallen out of the regular rotation, and is only used when he’s needed. So when Ibaka is on the bench, the Thunder will likely go to Durant or Kyle Singler at the four. But unless it turns out to be really effective, I’d expect Donovan to stay with Ibaka in the clutch. Defense is usually the priority for Donovan in that situation. But there have been a couple of games recently where Ibaka sat the fourth quarter, while it was unheard of earlier this season. So it is a possibility.

Blake Murphy: Broad strokes here, but can the Thunder win an NBA title this year, even with San Antonio and Golden State in their way?

Marina Mangiaracina: I’m the world’s most zealous Thunder optimist, so I absolutely think so. My reasoning is twofold. Against the Spurs, I think the Thunder have the perfect counters to LaMarcus Aldridge and David West in Ibaka and Collison. And San Antonio really has no one that can slow down Westbrook. Golden State, on the other hand, will be a tougher nut to crack. But when I’ve seen the Warriors lose this season, it’s always because they’re struggling to protect the basket. I think the Thunder have some serious threats to abuse that, specifically with the Westbrook/Kanter pick and roll. That would put the Thunder on at least a similar offensive level to Golden State, and in a position to win. Defensively the Thunder are going to have some problems. But if Donovan throws out some versatile lineups in clutch situations, there’s no doubt in my mind that OKC could compete. After all, the Thunder were only a timeout away from beating the Warriors on their home floor.

Raptors updates
Terrence Ross (thumb) is questionable and Carroll (knee) is forever week-to-week. The rotation will look something like this, unless unexpected rest is on the horizon:

PG: Lowry, Cory Joseph, Delon Wright
SG: Norman Powell, (Ross)
SF: DeMar DeRozan, James Johnson, Bruno Caboclo, (Carroll)
PF: Scola, Patrick Patterson, Jason Thompson
C: Valanciunas, Bismack Biyombo, Lucas Nogueira

There’s a non-zero chance that Johnson draws his first start in a while over Powell in order to help on Durant. Head coach Dwane Casey has leaned on Powell more and more lately, and there’s reason to test him out in such a matchup, but he may also want the option to switch three-four to open, which he may not be comfortable with Powell handling. Personally, I know what I have in Johnson, so I’d leave him on the bench and see how Powell does with a moderate leash to start (and it’s worth noting that his primary time on Durant wouldn’t be facing up, it would be picking him up in transition, with DeRozan taking some of the man-to-man load). I’d also give Patterson a shot on him for stretches, given how good he’s been on forwards of all types this year.

As for Westbrook, well, good luck. Maybe Powell’s an option on him to start, enabling the team to ease Lowry’s load in guarding Waiters and Andre Roberson. I don’t know. There isn’t any guarding Westbrook. Ibaka could prove a problem as a stretchier four, too, though Valanciunas should be game for the Steven Adams matchup.

Thunder updates
The Thunder are working with a #FullSquad at last update, and nobody has been assigned to the D-League, so here’s how things should shake out:

PG: Westbrook, Payne
SG: Roberson, Foye, Waiters, Anthony Morrow
SF: Durant, Kyle Singler, Josh Huestis
PF: Ibaka,Nick Collison, Mitch McGary
C: Adams, Kanter, Nazr Mohammed

I need to write something about Huestis again sometime soon.

The line
The Raptors are 3-point dogs at home. The horror! The disrespect! The potential rest! The mostly reasonable line! That line, by the way, shifted from Thunder -2 at open, and I’m writing this at 10 p.m., so it will likely be quite different by the time this goes to publish at 9 a.m. This has the makings of a line that shifts 1.5-3.5 until firm information on the Raptors’ wounded comes out. If Ross and Carroll sit, it’s hard to love the Raptors chances, even at home, but this team has been very consistently competitive for the most part. In other words, I wouldn’t be surprised to see a justifiable loss, but I’m not touching that line.

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