The Toronto Raptors are set to play their fifth game in seven nights on Monday when they host the Los Angeles Clippers. There is a lot wrong with the Raptors right now, from injuries to defense to a seemingly floundering chemistry, but it’s unlikely there’s a bigger obstacle to their performance Monday than this compressed schedule. When the game ends, the Raptors will be one of just six teams with 53 games already in the books, and they’re wearing the resultant fatigue like a scarlet letter right now.
There are some who view talk of the schedule and fatigue as merely excuse-making, and that’s their prerogative. But there is a great deal of science showing what a compressed schedule or heavy travel can do to players and teams, and however you feel about fatigue’s role in the Raptors’ recent slide – it certainly does not explain the entirety of a 9-13 stretch, to be clear – it’s nice that rest is coming. Eventually. After hosting the Clippers on Monday, the Raptors are off to Minnesota for Wednesday, after which they’ll play just three games in a 15-game stretch thanks to the All-Star break and a weird three days off later this week.
That’s great, but in the meantime, the workload Kyle Lowry is under is growing worrisome. I’m always torn on complaining about minutes because “minutes” is just one number available publicly, while the team’s sport science staff has a wealth of other information available to them in making decisions. But with Lowry second in the NBA in total minutes and already at 164 minutes over the last six days – !!! – that rest period can’t come soon enough. If not for him, then for me, because my Lowry-related anxiety is through the roof right now.
Perhaps I should set aside the worrying for after the Wolves’ game, though. The Raptors won Sunday but are still very much reeling, and it would seem unlikely that they just punt a game against the Clippers while they’re struggling. And again (he tells himself), minutes played is but one piece of data. So, hey, yeah, the Clippers.
The game tips off at 7:30 on TSN and Sportsnet 590.
To help set the stage, I reached out to noted Drake enthusiast and ESPN NBA editor Jovan Buha.
Blake Murphy: First thing’s first: How big an advantage is it for the Clippers to have played in Boston last night? Yes, back-to-backs are generally tougher, but it kept a certain someone from a certain establishment in a certain so-called White Vegas (just the worst nickname for a place).
Jovan Buha: I like how creatively you tied this in. It’s never a good thing to play a back-to-back, especially against two of the best six or seven teams in the league. But we all know what happened when Blake Griffin went out in Toronto around this time last year, so it’s progress has happened by the time of me writing this. I’m excited to see if any Raptors fans find a way to troll him at the game.
Blake Murphy: The Clippers had a nice seven-game winning streak rolling despite the absence of Chris Paul but have since dropped six of eight. Has their been a change in the way they’ve been playing, or is this just a case of a tough schedule – 10 of 11 on the road, are you serious? – and a couple of meetings with Golden State? Any concern here?
Jovan Buha: There’s plenty of concern, but that’s only because the Clippers are missing Chris Paul and enduring their most grueling stretch of the season. Take the best player off any team and there will obviously be a stark drop off. Throw in a road-heavy schedule against playoff teams — including three matchups with the Warriors — and you have the recipe for a team spiraling down the standings, which is exactly what’s happening to the Clippers right now. That said, if the Clippers aren’t going to be the No. 2 or No. 3 seed, dropping to No. 6 or No. 7 — and avoiding the Warriors in the second round — isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
Blake Murphy: I mentioned Paul being out. With him not getting the nod to the All-Star Game (where he could have then been replaced, giving two players the shine instead of one), has he wrestled the crown of League’s Most Underrated Star Point Guard back from Kyle Lowry?
Jovan Buha: Yes and no. (You could throw Mike Conley in that conversation too.) Paul isn’t the most underrated point guard in the league right now — it’s still Lowry — but he’s probably the most underrated star point guard of all time. Outside of a championship, his statistical resume matches up with basically any point guard in NBA history — including Magic Johnson. I obviously wouldn’t put him on that level yet, if ever, but he’s earned his way into top-five PG distinction at least.
Blake Murphy: One more on Paul – how has the point guard play shaken out with him on the shelf? It feels like too much Raymond Felton and Austin Rivers. But then again, any amount feels like too much Raymond Felton and Austin Rivers. (I know Rivers has primarily been playing off ball and is putting up career numbers, but let me get these shots in.)
Jovan Buha: Austin Rivers’ development has been one of the lone bright spots this season, but it’s not because of his point-guard play and playmaking skills. He’s a 2, and in small lineups, a 3. Raymond Felton, meanwhile, has been a revelation as possibly the best backup PG in the CP3 era — a group that includes Eric Bledsoe and Darren Collison. He’s played heavy minutes, defended top opposing point guards relatively well (Steph Curry notwithstanding), and helped guide a second unit that’s filled with guys looking to shoot. He isn’t Chris Paul, of course, but he’s filled in well.
Blake Murphy: The Clippers have improved from one of the worst rebounding teams in the league to roughly average. It’s always seemed a bit weird that they rebounded poorly, and so even getting to respectability at each end of the floor seems like an important step. With the Raptors’ struggling on the glass right now, would the Clippers shift their approach, particularly on the offensive glass, or are they locked in as a send-one-guy-and-get-back attack?
Jovan Buha: The Clippers always have and always will be a send-one-guy-(DeAndre Jordan)-and-get-back. That’s just how Doc Rivers rolls — he did the same thing in Boston. The Clips’ transition defense can still be atrocious at times despite this strategy, as the roster lacks rim protection and energy defenders. I expect Jordan to have a big rebounding performance and exploit the Raptors’ rebounding woes, but I doubt it will come from a change in the Clippers’ game plan.
The back-to-back scenario means no shootaround, which means no update on DeMar DeRozan (ankle) and Patrick Patterson (knee) until closer to game time. If DeRozan can’t go, you’re familiar with the deal by this point: Norman Powell plays well in his absence, and one of two Terrence Rosses shows up in support off the bench. If Patterson sits, my guess here would be that Lucas Nogueira, not Pascal Siakam, starts against the tough Clippers frontline, but the starting power forward position is obviously quite fluid without Patterson. That’s made the backup four-spot fluid, too, with Dwane Casey occasionally opting to go small (DeMarre Carroll), regular-ish (Jared Sullinger), or big (Jakob Poeltl, with Nogueira sliding to the four) in the Jurassic Five iterations at the top of the second and fourth quarters. They’re still figuring life without Patterson out, and since he and DeRozan both did partial practices Saturday, hopefully they don’t need to for much longer.
The other question facing the rotation is how long Cory Joseph’s mental break is. Joseph was playing poorly on the defensive end more or less all season, and Fred VanVleet has temporarily jumped him in the point guard pecking order. VanVleet has been steady in those minutes, but Joseph will get another chance at regaining his job at some point. Delon Wright, meanwhile, has been assigned to Raptors 905, likely to get a practice session in ahead of the team’s Tuesday road game. He could conceivably be recalled to sit on the bench Monday night, though he remains fourth on the point guard depth chart. (I realize that’s a point of frustration for some, but VanVleet has been really solid and Wright only got three games to work some rust off. Wright’s really good, and the depth isn’t a bad thing.)
PG: Kyle Lowry, Fred VanVleet, Cory Joseph
SG: (DeMar DeRozan), Norman Powell, (Delon Wright)
SF: DeMarre Carroll, Terrence Ross
PF: (Patrick Patterson), Lucas Nogueira, Pascal Siakam
C: Jonas Valanciunas, Jared Sullinger, Jakob Poeltl
ASSIGNED: Bruno Caboclo, Delon Wright
OUT: DeMar DeRozan, Patrick Patterson
It’s not as if the Clippers aren’t a little tired here themselves, having played in Paul Pierce’s emotional final game in Boston on Sunday. But they had two days off before that, and other than Chris Paul – as big an absence as there is – and Brice Johnson – perhaps the smallest – they’re nearly at full strength. Diamond Stone, who has looked really nice the few times I’ve seen him in the D-League this year, is on assignment.
PG: Raymond Felton
SG: J.J. Redick, Jamal Crawford
SF: Austin Rivers, Luc Mbah a Moute, Wesley Johnson, Alan Anderson
PF: Blake Griffin, Brandon Bass, Paul Pierce
C: DeAndre Jordan, Mo Speights
ASSIGNED: Diamond Stone
OUT: Chris Paul, Brice Johnson
The Raptors are 5-point favorites, which seems kind of odd to me given the fatigue and injuries and all. The Clippers are without Paul and DeRozan/Patterson sound like 50-50 bets, so maybe the oddsmakers just have faith in the restorative power of two of the team’s three or four most important players returning. A reason to believe! The over-under comes in at 214. I’m going to hold off on a prediction until we know the status of the Raptors’ two starters – I doubt they can win this game without at least one of them, unless Lowry’s going to just blow past 200 minutes in one week and remain Over Everything. Guess we can’t put it past him.