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Pre-Game

Gameday: Raptors @ Trail Blazers, Dec. 26

Here’s hoping everyone had a nice Christmas or holiday or just weekend. That goes doubly for the Toronto Raptors, who got the briefest of breaks after Friday night’s win and now continue their six-game west coast road trip in Portland (or start a five-gamer, if you prefer). The Blazers come in a little banged up and having lost nine of their last 10, while the Raptors have won 13 of 15 and have seemed ready to keep the good run going.

No sense delaying it with pre-amble. Pitter patter.

The game tips off at 10 p m. on Sportsnet One and Sportsnet 590.

To help set the stage, I reached out to Steve DeWald of Blazer’s Edge (still one of the best blog names of all time), and he was kind enough to help out.

Blake Murphy: The big story with Portland’s performance is obviously the defense. After ranking 20th a year ago, a ranking that may have been inflated by one great month, they’re down to 30th this year. Dead last. The worst defense in basketball. What’s at the root of the defense being this bad? Because even without much defensive talent, they seem to have the coaching and personalities to be better than this.

Steve DeWald: Trying to narrow Portland’s defensive problems down to one thing is impossible. I know it isn’t fair to complain about the schedule to a team in the midst of six-game road trip, but the Trail Blazers are enduring a brutal stretch of games in the month of December. The road-heavy nature of the last few weeks hasn’t allowed for coach Terry Stotts to dig into his defensive scheme, which has put Portland on the receiving end of some brutal blowouts.

Rest and scheme aside, the void left behind in Al-Farouq Aminu’s absence is understated when looking at the Trail Blazers’ struggles. He’s the most talented defender on the roster, but he has only participated in 14 games this season. Festus Ezeli’s inability to get on the court has also hurt Portland. The former Golden State center was supposed to provide some rim protection, but it appears that he is careening towards serious knee surgery once again.

Blake Murphy: The Evan Turner signing has looked like a bit of a disaster in the early going as he and the team work to find the proper fit and usage for him. I’m a Turner fan in general, and while I thought this was an overpay, I thought he’d at least help the second unit. How can Terry Stotts get more out of Turner moving forward?

Steve DeWald: Evan Turner has quickly supplanted Meyers Leonard as the most polarizing player on Portland’s roster. Instead of moving the ball, he stagnates the offense, resulting in some ugly contested shots. Removing the ball from Turner’s hands doesn’t solve anything either, as his inability to garner the respect of the opposing defense allows them to creep towards the paint. Needless to say, it isn’t going well.

In Turner’s defense, he did have a strong run of games to finish out November. It is still early in his tenure, but his massive salary gives credence to the arguments against him. Turner’s time in Portland could be short-lived, as it looks like GM Neil Olshey will be busy around the trade deadline.

There isn’t a whole lot Stotts can do, unless he somehow reconstructs Turner’s shooting mechanics.

Blake Murphy: Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum have taken yet another step forward as an offensive backcourt duo, averaging a combined 49 points per-game. Fans love to compare and rank backcourts, so I’ll unfairly put you on the spot and ask where you see the Portland and Toronto backcourts, league-wide?

Steve DeWald: You just had to put me on the spot with this one. In my opinion, success should be judged a little more heavily in these debates. With that in mind, Steph Curry and Klay Thompson still top the list. DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry aren’t far behind though. Both tandems are capable of playing defense, which gives them the edge over the Lillard-McCollum backcourt.

Blake Murphy: Jake Layman vs. Fred VanVleet in a garbage-time showdown. Who ya got?

Steve DeWald: Jake Layman, the best 20 percent 3-point shooter in the NBA, should have the advantage here. He was able to parlay one solid garbage-time performance into semi-regular appearances in Stotts’ rotation. VanVleet has the more impressive college resume, so this is a tough one to call. Judging by Portland’s recent performances, this question could easily go from hypothetical to reality.

I also hooked Steve up with answers to some questions.

Steve DeWald: The Raptors have one of the most potent offenses in the league, which has translated to an impressive 21-8 record. The defense has seemingly turned the corner since a disappointing performance against Atlanta, is this run of strong play sustainable? If it does hold up, do the Raptors have a chance at catching the Cavaliers in the standings?

Blake Murphy: I definitely think there are things the Raptors are doing that are sustainable. They’re never going to be a mega-volume 3-point shooting team, but they have a number of above-average marksmen for their positions, and Kyle Lowry has legitimately made himself one of the half-dozen or so biggest oh-that’s-too-deep threats in the NBA. DeMar DeRozan’s improvements are real,  too, and if he continues to embrace turning the extra attention against an opposing defense, it’ll help make the Raptors more matchup proof in the postseason.

Now, do I think they’re the best offense in history? No. But they’re firmly a top-five, probably top-three group on that end, and their defense should be average (or maybe even a shade above when dialed in). Unfortunately, even the Raptors at their best are probably still just a really good test for the Cavs, as currently constructed. That’s an unfortunate reality, but this is a heck of a position to just sustain, given where the Raptors have spent the bulk of their existence.

Steve DeWald: Despite being one of the elite teams in the NBA, the Raptors are getting regular contributions from some obscure names. Fans in Portland might not be familiar with guys like Norman Powell and Pascal Siakam, what can you tell us about these youngsters?

Blake Murphy: Norman Powell might quietly be the most underused player in the NBA. Thanks to a wealth of guard depth, Powell is essentially the Raptors’ 10th man, utility man, break-glass-in-case-of-emergency guy, defensive specialist, or whatever you’d like to label him. But he’s also a highly efficient low-usage addition to most lineups and has shown capable of leading bench-heavy groups as a secondary creator, and he might be the team’s best perimeter defender. Alas, Cory Joseph, Terrence Ross, and DeMarre Carroll eat up a lot of minutes behind the team’s stars. 

Pascal Siakam, meanwhile, is a bit overextended as a starter right now but has surpassed any reasonable expectations for a late-first rookie thrown into that spot. He has loads of defensive potential and has shown it with his shot-blocking, and he’s a terror in transition thanks to being among the fastest bigs in the league. Right now, he’s a bit exploitable thanks to some over-zealousness, occasional lapses, and the fact that defenses can more or less load up off of him and dare him to make them pay. Again, his play has been really encouraging, but he’s a rookie starting for a 56-win team, which is rarely ideal.

Steve DeWald: It appears that DeMarre Carrol is putting his injury-riddled 2015-16 season behind him, as he is already on the cusp of surpassing his regular season output from last year. The Trail Blazers have a few investments that look pretty questionable themselves, do you think Carrol will be able to perform up to the expectations that his contract implies?

Blake Murphy: The reality with Carroll is that he’ll pretty much always be judged by the postseason and the postseason alone. Given where the Raptors are, you might be able to define that even more narrowly and say he’ll be judged on the job he can do against LeBron James, if the Raptors can get that far again. That’s hardly fair to Carroll, who’s showing lately what he can bring to an offense (a catch-and-shoot threat who plays smart off the ball and can keep the offense flowing by attacking the catch and making the next pass), but some Raptors fans won’t be happy until he lives up to his incoming reputation as a major stopper.

For now, it’s just nice that he’s healthy and getting better as the season wears on. They’ll need his defense to reach another level by April, though, and if it doesn’t, it’ll be hard to call the contract a great one, even if he’s a wonderful dude and a good player.

Steve DeWald: Toronto is in the middle of an impressive run of games, but an NBA season is full of twists and turns. What is more likely to happen after the first of the year: the defense continues its recent improvements, or the offense regresses?

Blake Murphy: Can I say both, but only to small degrees? That’s a cop out, I guess, but I don’t think the Raptors finish first in offense or below 15th in defense, so a little bit of both. Forced to choose, though, the math always suggests betting against “best offense of all time” keeping up the pace.

Raptors updates
It’s all the usual with the Raptors, as even Bruno Caboclo has been recalled to make it a full healthy 13 on the roster. Fresh from their quick trips home (or wherever), the Raptors reconvened in Portland yesterday, and I believe all 15 on the roster are set to be on the road trip, including those injured. That means no four-game home stand with the 905 for Caboclo or VanVleet. There’s also only one back-to-back on the trip, so expect DeMarre Carroll to play most of the trip, too.

Look for Norman Powell to be called on at some point despite the full rotation, as he’s likely the team’s best option on C.J. McCollum. And yes, the number of times I’ve written “Powell is the best option to guard Opponent X” while suggesting he’ll get just a few minutes in support is…I was going to say funny, but it’s not. At least Dwane Casey is doing a good job finding time for him and managing the rotations, so there’s always hope he’ll be deployed in those spots.

PG: Kyle Lowry, Cory Joseph, Fred VanVleet
SG: DeMar DeRozan, Norman Powell
SF: DeMarre Carroll, Terrence Ross
PF: Pascal Siakam, Patrick Patterson, Bruno Caboclo
C: Jonas Valanciunas, Lucas Nogueira, Jakob Poeltl
Assigned: None
TBD: None
OUT: Delon Wright, Jared Sullinger

Trail Blazers updates
Whatever is going on with top players from other teams missing games against the Raptors can stop anytime now. Yes, I know it helps the bottom line in terms of wins, but it makes the games a little less fun, a little less of a challenge, and a little less revealing of the true Raptors. In this case, Damian Lillard is doubtful to play due to a left ankle injury. X-rays on the ankle were negative and he’s considered day-to-day, but it didn’t sound Sunday like there was much of a chance he goes.

His absence would shift the scoring load further to C.J. McCollum and possibly require some additional playmaking from ‘The Villain’ Evan Turner. Turner, meanwhile, is probable to play through an ankle issue of his own, and Al-Farouq Aminu is likewise probable despite an ailing back.

How Could You Be Moe Harkless will probably draw the DeRozan assignment while Allen Crabbe comes in to support on either Raptors guard. If Aminu plays, he could see time on DeRozan, too, which means the Blazers might risk throwing a smaller guard at Carroll or Siakam or even both. They don’t have strong backcourt defenders, so Stotts will need to get creative if the No. 30 defense is going to slow down the No. 1 offense.

PG: (Damian Lillard), Shabazz Napier
SG: C.J. McCollum, Allan Crabbe, Pat Connaughton
SF: Moe Harkless, (Evan Turner), Jake Layman, Tim Quarterman
PF: (Al-Farouq Aminu), Meyers Leonard, Noah Vonleh
C: Mason Plumlee, Ed Davis
Assigned: None
TBD: Damian Lillard, Evan Turner, Al-Farouq Aminu
Out: Festus Ezeli

The line
The line is currently off the board, likely due to Lillard’s status being up in the air. Check back for that and a prediction in the pre-game news and notes closer to tip-off, and have yourself a wonderful Monday.

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