Gameday: Thunder @ Raptors, March 16

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At practice on Wednesday, the Toronto Raptors seemed almost at a loss for words when asked about Russell Westbrook. That’s in large part because we’re running out of words to describe the Oklahoma City Thunder star. Westbrook, long a favorite in these parts, has spent the season doing his best John Wick, scorching the earth of the NBA following his abandonment at the hands of Kevin Durant. He’s averaging obscene numbers, threatening to post a triple-double for the season, and the Thunder go from legitimate playoff team to legitimate lottery fodder when he hits the bench, however infrequently that is. He’s leading the league with 31.8 points per-game and is adding 10.6 rebounds and 10.3 assists, ranking first in usage rate, assist rate, PER, Box Plus-Minus, and VORP, and he ranks second in RPM-based wins.

“When you look at the MVP case right now, it’s so hard to judge because you can’t take away what James Harden is doing,” DeMar DeRozan said. “It’s incredible what he’s doing as well, with his team being in third in the West. If you just take James out of the equation, then I think you’ve got to give it to Russ. But you’ve even got Kawhi with the things he’s capable of doing. Numbers-wise, there’s no doubt that when you look at averages and see a triple-double across the screen, it stands out.”

Just as concerning for the Raptors as his overall dominance is that you’re just never going to catch Westbrook on a bad night. In 67 games this year, Westbrook has scored fewer than 20 points just five times, fewer than 17 just once, and fewer than 14 zero times.

“I tell you what, he’s a freak of nature,” head coach Dwane Casey said. “He’s just continuous, coming at you with the same spirit, the same force. You wait for him to take a night off and he doesn’t. He just continues to come at you, come at you. You’re waiting for him to run out of energy but he’s just one of those players…He’s old school when it comes to that.”

The Raptors know they’ll have to deal with Westbrook at full force, and so they’ll have to answer the call with a good deal of attention and physicality on defense. The Thunder are fighting to avoid San Antonio or Golden State in round one (there’s not a “good” landing spot in the West, but please, basketball gods, give us Westbrook-Harden), while the Raptors are as close to fifth as they are to third. This game matters a fair amount to both teams, and every night means the world to Westbrook. It’s going to be tough for the Raptors, and it’s a real nice test for their newfound defensive success. Can they win, even without Kyle Lowry? Well, #WhyNot?

The game tips off at 7 on Sportsnet One and Sportsnet 590.

To help set the stage, I reached out to Joshua Broom of Welcome to Loud City, who was kind enough to help us out.

Blake Murphy: Let’s not bury the lede: Give us your elevator pitch for Russell Westbrook as 2016-17 NBA MVP.

Joshua Broom: Simply consider Westbrook’s historic season. Since 61-62′ no player has matched or surpassed Westbrook’s all-around production. However, Russ’ value is gleaned best from his impact upon Oklahoma City’s 38-29 record. In total, Oklahoma City’s ORtg dramatically increases +10.8 with Westbrook on court; further, OKC’s defensive rating improves by 4.4 points. Throughout the 16-17′ campaign, no player exceeds Westbrook’s singular value to his franchise.

Blake Murphy: Is it surprising to you, given Westbrook’s dominance, that the Thunder are doing a little better defensively than they are on offense?

Joshua Broom: Not in the least. Throughout OKC’s seismic offseason, General Manager Sam Presti steadfastly reiterated his commitment to building a tough-minded squad that nightly battles on the defensive end. Though at times inconsistent, overall Oklahoma City has earned its top-ten DefRtg on the backs of players who epitomize Presti’s vision.

Blake Murphy: A big part of the defense has been the continued stellar play of Andre Roberson. What is it that makes Roberson such an effective wing defender? Do you see him giving DeMar DeRozan a fair amount of trouble?

Joshua Broom: To answer the former: physical dimensions and intangibles. Standing just 6’7, Roberson sports a formidable 6’11 wingspan; and he understands fully how to frustrate opponents using it. Roberson’s impressive physical tools are bolstered by his precise footwork and attentiveness to angles, combined with a sheer desire to contest every shot.

To answer the latter, I believe Roberson will undoubtedly place DeMar in uncomfortable scenarios. That stated, I have the utmost respect for DeRozan’s continued on-court developments. It’s rare in today’s league to find a perimeter guy who dominates primarily within the mid-range area. Yet, DeMar does just that. While I certainly appreciate DeRozan’s talents –and still recall vividly his 37-point-performance from our Nov. 9 meeting– Andre will make the three-time All-Star work for every made bucket.

It is always a treat when an All-NBA caliber defender meets an explosive offensive threat.

Blake Murphy: Raptors fans love to look at Enes Kanter’s role with the Thunder and suggest Jonas Valanciunas should be used similarly in Toronto. How is Kanter able to thrive in the second unit, with his strengths optimized as an offensive focal point and his weaknesses minimized on defense?

Joshua Broom: Kanter’s ability to offensively thrive in reserve minutes is directly correlated with his understanding of offensive positioning. Per 36 mins, Enes averages 16.9 FGA and 6.1 ORB. On a game-to-game basis, Kanter is a front-line bull that opposing defenses struggle to contain.

Conversely, on the defensive side, Enes experiences lulls regarding effort. However, I feel –and the numbers support this– that Kanter has improved defensively throughout the year –albeit slowly. Kanter’s defensive flaws are generally lessened by his teammates’ added emphasis to rotate with help coverage quickly when Enes is on the floor.

Nonetheless, as an elite positional scorer and offensive rebounder, Kanter’s role with OKC is vital.

Blake Murphy: I’m not sure if Thunder fans realized this at the trade deadline, but you guys acquired a Beat The Raptors Free Card from the Bulls in the form of Doug McDermott. How has he looked in OKC so far, and over-under 49.5 points for him in this one?

Joshua Broom: We certainly hope that’s the case! Thus far, Doug has been inconsistent. Though his floor-spacing threat alone is a welcome addition to our roster. In an encouraging sign, McDermott’s best Thunder moments have come in big wins against San Antonio (11 pts) and Utah (16). At the moment, Coach Donovan is discovering ways to best utilize Doug alongside emerging sharpshooter Alex Abrines within the framework of OKC’s second unit. Again, Presti displayed great savvy by picking McDermott and Taj Gibson up at the trade deadline.

Concerning the over-under, I’ll go with a push.

Raptors updates
Kyle Lowry was in New York yesterday for his two-week check-up on his surgically cleaned-out right wrist. We’re expecting a minor update before the game Thursday, but it’s unlikely the Raptors will provide anything substantial until Lowry’s able to return to practice. He has, however, been able to keep up his cardio and do some dribbling, but as of yesterday, he was yet to progress to shooting.

DeMarre Carroll practiced Wednesday, a nice sign as he works his way back from a left ankle sprain. The team should be cautious here, as Carroll returned for one game only to aggravate the injury and wind up back on the shelf. With three games in four nights, there’s some risk of a setback if Carroll returns too soon again, and while he’d be useful against the Thunder, I think we’re all in agreement that caution should rule the day at this point in the season.

Bruno Caboclo and Pascal Siakam were assigned to Raptors 905 of the D-League this morning. Expect both players to be recalled following 905 practice in order to sit on the Raptors’ bench. It seems likely that both will be assigned for the 905’s game Saturday at 2 p.m. at Hershey Centre, and depending on how Thursday and Friday go, it’s conceivable a third name gets assigned as well.

PG: Cory Joseph, Delon Wright, Fred VanVleet
SG: DeMar DeRozan, Norman Powell
SF: (DeMarre Carroll), P.J. Tucker, (Bruno Caboclo)
PF: Serge Ibaka, Patrick Patterson, (Pascal Siakam)
C: Jonas Valanciunas, Jakob Poeltl, Lucas Nogueira
TBD: DeMarre Carroll
ASSIGNED: Pascal Siakam, Bruno Caboclo
OUT: Kyle Lowry

Thunder updates
The Thunder enter completely healthy, though they’re still figuring some minor things out as far as the post-deadline rotation is concerned. Even with the Taj Gibson acquisition, the Thunder have their most commonly used lineup available, a Domantas Sabonis-and-starters group that’s outscored opponents by 2.4 points per-100 possessions in 612 minutes. Their starters, meanwhile, have rolled opponents by 19.6 PPC in 53 minutes so far, so it looks like that four-game experiment is working.

Watch out for Billy Donovan challenging the Raptors with dual bigs, too – Enes Kanter and Steven Adams have played 351 minutes together this year, hammering opponents by 10.3 PPC. Serge Ibaka and Jonas Valanciunas should be able to match that duo stylistically, but they’re still figuring things out as a pair, getting outscored by 8.1 PPC in 182 minutes, a mark that is at least improving qualitatively of late.

“Just his physicality, his paint presence, his force,his offensive rebounding,” Casey said of the challenge Adams presents. “He’s gotta do a job on that. He and Kanter both are very physical interior players. All of our bigs, not only Jonas, Jakob, Lucas, have to be ready for the physicality of how they play.”

If you’re looking for a spot the Raptors can make up ground, it’s whenever Westbrook sits – the Thunder have a net rating of minus-11 when he’s off the floor. It will be interesting to see if Casey tries to stagger DeRozan’s minutes to maximize the team’s output against non-Westbrook groups or if he tethers DeRozan to Westbrook in order to prevent any runs the other way. Westrook’s rests normally come at the end of the first/start of the second and end of the third/start of the fourth, matching up pretty closely with DeRozan’s breaks in the post-Lowry rotation.

PG: Russell Westbrook, Semaj Christon, Norris Cole
SG: Victor Oladipo, Alex Abrines,
SF: Andre Roberson, Doug McDermott, Jerami Grant, Kyle Singler
PF: Taj Gibson, Domantas Sabonis, Nick Collison, Josh Huestis
C: Steven Adams, Enes Kanter
TBD: None
OUT: None

The line
The Raptors are 2.5-point favorites at open, with an over-under of 208. Essentially, the line is saying the Thunder are a margin better than the Lowry-less Raptors in a neutral setting, but home court swings things Toronto’s way. Oklahoma City has been in Toronto for a day, having traveled here after their Tuesday game in Brooklyn and practicing at the Air Canada Centre on Wednesday, so it’s possible the normal home edge has been muted some, too. A slight majority of the early action is going Toronto’s way, so the line could nudge to Raptors -3 by tip-off.

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