Fresh off of a rousing and encouraging victory out of the All-Star break, the Toronto Raptors are right back at it Sunday as the Portland Trail Blazers visit. The Blazers opened their second half with a win over the Terrence Ross-led Orlando Magic and find themselves scrapping for a playoff spot at the bottom of the Western Conference. The Raptors, meanwhile, stormed back from down 17 against the Boston Celtics to make sure the battle for the Atlantic Division remains alive for the foreseeable future. It’s the right foot for both sides to get off on, and the intensity should be fairly high in this one as both teams look to build momentum for the season’s final trimester.
Normally a battle of two of the league’s best backcourts, the matchup was robbed of Damian Lillard last time out and could be without Kyle Lowry this time around. That’s disappointing for a handful of reasons, and depending on how Lowry’s test results come back, there may be worse news for the Raptors before this one tips off. On the bright side, Friday saw the Raptors survive against a better team than the Blazers, and Cory Joseph and the team’s debuting pieces stepped up in a major way. The Blazers could be down their best DeMar DeRozan defender, too, an important factor in a Lowry-less game.
We won’t know these specifics until later this afternoon, though. For now, we know it should be a really fun game regardless, and that we’ll find out a fair amount more about the Raptors’ new-found toughness and resiliency – and with a practice under their belts no less. Be right back, have to go run through a wall after watching P.J. Tucker’s fourth-quarter defense from Friday.
The game tips off at 6 on Sportsnet One and TSN 1050.
Blake Murphy: It’s been a while. First thing’s first: How’s our dude Ed Davis doing? He was always well-liked here, and while I know his numbers don’t jump off the page this year, he still looks like a pretty capable fourth big to me.
David MacKay: Truth be told, Ed is having a bit of a rough year. He is mostly on the outside looking in, as far as meaningful minutes are concerned, and a recent wrist injury hasn’t helped that. More disappointing, though, is that he’s been unable to capitalize on the opportunities he’s had to shine. This is all in stark contrast to the 2015-16 Ed that was so great at energizing the team. I don’t mean to pick on Ed. He is certainly not the only Trail Blazer to experience challenges this year, and he is fun to have around regardless. It would be nice to see him have some sort of late-season resurgence, as he has one of the team’s friendlier contracts, and the team needs solid returns on that now more than ever. I would be content with just more attentive defense.
Blake Murphy: The Blazers dealt Mason Plumlee and a second-round pick for Jusuf Nurkic and a first-round pick. They gave up the better big but did so ahead of restricted free agency, and they upgraded their draft cache. Are you a fan of the deal? What’s the expectation for Nurkic’s role?
David MacKay: Yes and no. I like the deal from where the Blazers sat, but not the circumstances that put them in that uncomfortable chair. When the President of Basketball Operations must trade the team’s third-best player as a pre-deadline salary move, mistakes were obviously made along the way. It bothers me that the Trail Blazers acquired Plumlee because they liked his potential, but made no fiscal plans whatsoever to retain him should he reach it. Spending $145 million on Allen Crabbe and Evan Turner was flagrantly irresponsible and will continue to cause problems for this team for years to come, but I digress. Neil Olshey turned a guaranteed loss into a first round pick and a young center. There are worse things. Nurkic strikes me as an impact player if he can get his head straight.
Blake Murphy: When these teams met in December, it was essentially the closing of the book on Toronto’s strong start to the season. They were 22-8 after beating Portland. They’re 11-16 since. What did you guys do to my Raptors?
David MacKay: You know that scene in Space Jam where the Nerdlucks steal the talent of NBA players? Portland pulled a similar stunt, but any sapped capabilities were somehow diverted to Festus Ezeli, who has been injured all year. So now both teams are mired in their own degree of mediocrity and there is no cartoonish resolution in sight—for the Trail Blazers anyway. Serge Ibaka may be just the MonStar the Raptors need to turn things around, so congratulations on that acquisition.
Blake Murphy: The Blazers haven’t exactly turned things around since then, either, but they’re still somehow just two games out the eighth playoff spot in the Western Conference. How confident are you in the Blazers rising up to secure that final spot? Does the DeMarcus Cousins deal kill that dream?
David MacKay: At this point, the dream is more to burrow to the depths of the conference and get better draft position. Trading Plumlee to the Trail Blazers’ (then) biggest competitor for the eighth spot was the unofficial white flag. Unless a trade that prioritizes Portland’s present over their future is made, I expect them to land somewhere around 12 or 13, behind the Nuggets, Pelicans, Mavericks, and possibly Timberwolves. The West is essentially split in two right now; 1-7 and 8-15. The second group is far enough removed from the first that they can fight amongst each other for the right to get trucked by the Warriors in round 1, but that’s about it. As constructed, the Trail Blazers will be a fringe contender for that right, at best. I’m sure the players feel differently.
Blake Murphy: How many bars will Damian Lillard drop about being excluded from the All-Star Game again this year? Can we get a Jake Layman feature? I feel like Jake Layman maybe has awkward-but-decent white-guy bars.
David MacKay: As long as Layman is a better rapper than Plumlee, I’m down. Search “Mason Plumlee 4500” on YouTube if you haven’t before. It’s uncomfortable. That said, getting Layman on a track ruins Lillard’s chances of going platinum with no features, and he’s a big J. Cole fan, so maybe he’d prefer to do his next album solo. We’ve heard Lillard rap about All-Star snubbery before on They Sleep (“I ain’t make the All-Stars, but I’m flu game sick. Last time they count me out? What I do Game 6?”).
The guess here is that Lowry is going to sit. Things didn’t exactly sound short-term when Lowry and Dwane Casey were talking about his sore wrist on Friday, and there’s been no word about the results of the tests he’s gone for, whatever those were. Lowry was wearing a small brace after Friday’s game and admitted that he didn’t bring the injury up to the team until after the All-Star break (he first felt soreness the morning after the Charlotte game), and given that it’s now been sore for over a week, anyone who is concerned would be justified. There’s no sense hitting the panic button just yet, at least not until there’s a firm diagnosis. But, man.
If Lowry sits, Cory Joseph will start again and be tasked with the very difficult Damian Lillard assignment. Delon Wright struggled Friday but has generally looked good when given an opportunity, and Fred VanVleet is around for additional depth if Joseph or Wright sputter. DeMar DeRozan and DeMarre Carroll will have to deal with C.J. McCollum, who seems like a natural Norman Powell check if Powell’s still firmly in the rotation off the bench. P.J. Tucker came off the bench first on Friday and saw more minutes, which could have been a performance decision (he was much better) or a sign that Powell is sliding back into his ninth- or 10th-man role.
The specifics of the rotation are probably fluid for the time being. The backup point guard position, the third wing role, and even whether Lucas Nogueira is a major piece of the plan or relegated back to matchup duty are all questions Casey still has to figure out, ones that won’t be answered immediately with 24 games still to go. The answers may all be matchup-specific, too, and the Raptors figure to need some size against a deep Portland frontcourt that could be without their best option for downsizing.
PG: Cory Joseph, Delon Wright, Fred VanVleet
SG: DeMar DeRozan, Norman Powell
SF: DeMarre Carrol, P.J. Tucker, Bruno Caboclo
PF: Serge Ibaka, Patrick Patterson, Pascal Siakam
C: Jonas Valanciunas, Lucas Nogueira, Jakob Poeltl
TBD: Kyle Lowry
Trail Blazers updates
With Evan Turner and Festus Ezeli still on the shelf longer-term, the focus is solely on the status of Al-Farouq Aminu. Aminu got rest over the break and still wasn’t able to play Thursday, a potentially concerning sign about his balky knee. Despite playing primarily at power, Aminu is probably Portland’s best DeRozan defender, and they likely would have risked mismatches elsewhere to cross-match Aminu onto DeRozan and avoid him posting up some of Portland’s smaller guards. If Aminu sits, Moe Harkless will draw the bulk of that assignment, a nice test for him.
Elsewhere, the Blazers looked pretty comfortable working Jusuf Nurkic into the fold Thursday, as he posted a 12-and-12 double-double in 34 minutes and chipped in five assists, three steals, and two blocks. Nurkic is very much a “Jonas Valanciunas matchup player,” one Valanciunas should be able to bang with and match physically, and – gasp – perhaps even stay on the floor against. Ed Davis and Meyers Leonard present different challenges, but the Raptors are suddenly well-equipped to play against just about any kind of frontcourt.
Maybe the most exciting thing about the way the Raptors look on paper right now is the plethora of options available to them, and how they can matchup against a number of different looks. Portland should be a really good experiment in that regard.
PG: Damian Lillard, Shabazz Napier
SG: C.J. McCollum, Allen Crabbe, Pat Connaughton
SF: Maurice Harkless, Jake Layman
PF: Noah Vonleh, (Al-Farouq Aminu), Meyers Leonard
C: Jusuf Nurkic, Ed Davis
TBD: Al-Farouq Aminu
ASSIGNED: Tim Quarterman
OUT: Festus Ezeli, Evan Turner
The line is off the board as of this writing. Check back in the pre-game notes, if I don’t forget again this time.