I mean…what? Twice in a row to the Orlando Magic? With a terrible second-half effort? Again? The Toronto Raptors are reeling, no question about it. They’ve lost 13 of their last 21. They haven’t put together 48 good minutes in weeks. Their star player declined to talk to media Friday due to illness and frustration. The team’s other star is out. The guy who might be the team’s third most important player could be out again now, too. Raptors fans have been fortunate over the last few years, relative to the two decades that preceded things, but the bad times are far enough in the rear-view mirror that this feels like the worst things have been in a while. At least since the end of the Washington series.
Yet they must soldier on. Rest isn’t coming in the form of the All-Star break for six games still – though they do have three days off in a row next week – and the Brooklyn Nets present an opportunity to right the ship. Or for things to get even worse, I suppose. I’m trying to stay positive, but it’d be nice if there were a reason to outside of the undrafted free agent point guard who appeared to be the lone player with a care to give by the end of Friday’s game.
It’s also Super Bowl Sunday, if you care for such things. Luckily, the Raptors and Nets have hooked us up with an early start time so that we can still eat – and, should they lose, drink – our faces off after the game ends.
The game tips off at 12 p.m. on Sportsnet One and TSN 1050.
Blake Murphy: Man, it feels like the Raptors and Nets play, like, every week. How’s things since we last spoke? Life’s good?
Anthony Puccio: We’re starting to use the phrase “trust the process” at Barclays Center and we don’t have any of our own picks, so uh, sure I guess you can say life’s good!
Blake Murphy: The Nets’ “Raptor Recycling Program” has now landed on Quincy Acy, who looks like he’ll be kicking around for the rest of the year. What have your impressions been of Fresh Quince so far?
Anthony Puccio: Fresh Quince does what he does: hustles, works hard and makes things happen in short spurts, but the biggest improvement has to be his 3-point shooting. It’s worth noting that he’s 11-of-17 from deep since joining the team.
Blake Murphy: I know we talked about him last time but I really just want to keep talking about Caris LeVert. I guess I’ll tweak the Q: He and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson seem to be the two surest prospects here (apologies to Chris McCullough), and in the 274 minutes they’ve played together, the Nets have actually been really good! How confident have you grown in that duo as a potential wing combination for the future?
Anthony Puccio: Both are a ton of fun and serve as one of the few reasons to still watch this team. Hollis-Jefferson was recently shifted to the starting four position and it’s worked nicely for him. LeVert is getting better and more confident with every game. He hasn’t started yet, but it’s only because he’s coming off three foot surgeries. They’re being extra cautious. It’ll take some time but I expect these guys to anchor the future, along with Isaiah Whitehead.
Blake Murphy: The Nets have won just once in their last 19 games. Does a stretch like that seem like it’s making these guys hungrier, or does that specter of impending doom kind of hang over them even if they start out well?
Anthony Puccio: I mean, of course they’re deflated after tough losses but one thing that’s impressed me about everybody — players, coaches and management — is that they remain positive and never speak/act outlandish. It seems like everybody understands it just is what it is and better days are ahead. It can’t get worse, right?
Blake Murphy: I think I asked you about the Nets potentially moving Brook Lopez a while back. Less than three weeks from the deadline, are there any other pieces that could be on the move? Booker? Bogdanovic?
Anthony Puccio: Taking calls but no desperation in the front office… for now. They’re on the prowl for some sort of backup point guard for the right price. Sean Marks won’t be giving away limited assets for nothing.
Yeah, so uhh, this is not good. DeMar DeRozan still hasn’t returned, and on the first night of a back-to-back, it would seem somewhat unlikely he returns here. But who knows, I thought it was unlikely he’d return last Sunday, too. And then he did. And then he went back on the shelf. Sound familiar? That could be because the same thing happened with Patrick Patterson, who sustained a contusion to his injured knee on Friday and who seems questionable for this one, too. You know the drill by now – Norman Powell will try his best to replace DeRozan’s production, while a rotating cast of ill fits will try to make up for Patterson’s.
Elsewhere, Cory Joseph appears to be in the doghouse, even if head coach Dwane Casey says there’s no such thing. Joseph sat until the very close of Friday’s game for some sort of mental break or punishment for his lack of defensive play – he was almost immediately the victim of an Evan Fournier blow-by-and-one upon checking it – and Fred VanVleet gave the team 23 quality minutes in the backup role. Yes, people want to see Delon Wright, who is also good, but VanVleet has been steady whenever he’s touched the floor this season. Guard depth is a strength here, and it was nice to see Casey lean on that depth to give Joseph a shorter leash commensurate with his play of late (even if asking him to close out the game cold remains confusing).
So, yeah, a lot of question marks here.
PG: Kyle Lowry, Cory Joseph, Fred VanVleet
SG: Norman Powell, Delon Wright
SF: DeMarre Carroll,Terrence Ross
PF: Lucas Nogueira, Pascal Siakam
C: Jonas Valanciunas, Jared Sullinger, Jakob Poeltl
TBD: DeMar DeRozan, Patrick Patterson
ASSIGNED: Bruno Caboclo
The Nets remain without Raptor-killer Jeremy Lin, who continues to sit with a hamstring issue. Everyone else is a go, although Kenny Atkinson’s starting lineup remains fluid. They went very small Friday, starting Caris LeVert and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson at the forward spots along with a dual-guard look in the backcourt, and that’s a lineup that could give the Raptors trouble if both DeRozan and Patterson sit (since their ability to go small/switchy is severely limited without those two).
There’s not a lot else to say here. The Nets aren’t good, but they’re young, quick, trying new things, and firing up a ton of threes. The high-variance strategy isn’t working very often, but it makes them dangerous and makes it possible they can hang around a game they otherwise don’t have business hanging around in. The Raptors can’t sleep on anybody right now, and they particularly can’t sleep on a team with three young, intriguing players now in the starting lineup and a hulking center who’s been a consistent matchup issue for them.
PG: Isaiah Whitehead, Spencer Dinwiddie
SG: Randy Foye, Joe Harris, Sean Kilpatrick, Caris LeVert
SF: Caris LeVert, Bojan Bogdanovic
PF: Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Trevor Booker, Quincy Acy
C: Brook Lopez, Luis Scola, Justin Hamilton
Assigned: Chris McCullough
Out: Jeremy Lin
The line is off the board as of this writing. Check back closer to game time for an update in the pre-game news and notes.