Gameday: Pelicans @ Raptors, Nov. 9

Things get tougher now.

In many respects, the Toronto Raptors are off to a decent enough start to the season. They’re 6-4, came out of a tough trip with a 3-3 mark, own a top-five offense with an average defense, and have received huge contributions from an exciting young core. The move to more passing and a more varied offense remains a work in progress, as expected, and the starting lineup continues to work to find a chemistry with less than 100 minutes together across this season and last.

That starting five, one of the greater causes for concern so far, will be tested Thursday when the New Orleans Pelicans visit. The Pelicans employ a twin-tower frontcourt of Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins, two of the most uniquely gifted bigs in the NBA and a duo that appear to be figuring out how to play together to monstrous effect. Both can play down low, put the ball on the floor, shoot the three, and defend at a high level when engaged, leaving no real room for a counter-advantage against their potential dominance.

“No question, and it is monster because most big guys aren’t used to getting out on the floor and covering those threes,” head coach Dwane Casey said at practice Wednesday. “Then if you do get out there to cover here goes Cousins putting the ball on the floor and attacking the rim. He is doing a much better job of passing the ball and finding the shooters too.”

Serge Ibaka and Jonas Valanciunas, by contrast, haven’t quite gotten down how to play together yet. They’ve been outscored slightly in 108 minutes together this year (-0.8 net rating), were outscored a little worse (-1.8) in 440 together last year, and were dusted in 96 playoff minutes (-8.9) as a pair. They can and should be better than those marks eventually, and offense hasn’t really been an issue, but Thursday marks a tall defensive task for two players who haven’t found the plot together on that end. Jakob Poeltl, Pascal Siakam, OG Anunoby, and Lucas Nogueira can only be expected to help so much as young, not-yet-complete players against two All-Stars.

The game tips off at 7:30 on Sportsnet One and TSN 1050.

To help set the stage, we reached out to Oleh Kosel of The Bird Writes.

Blake Murphy: The Pelicans made the ultimate zag in response to most of the league zigging small, cashing in a few chips to land DeMarcus Cousins, pairing him with Anthony Davis for one of the league’s most feared, bruising frontcourts. Fits like that take time, and it wasn’t exactly perfect out of the gate. How are things coming along with that duo in their second partial year together?

Oleh Kosel: They’re simply right as rain! While most everything else hasn’t gone according to plan with the rest of the roster, Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins have been stellar, fitting together seamlessly and posting stat lines rarely ever recorded in the history of the league. Upon first landing in New Orleans, Boogie warned of an adjustment period, but during preseason, he promised something special was lurking on the horizon.

Well, he’s 2 for 2!

While dedicating time and effort on conditioning was key, one should have never really doubted a Cousins-Davis pairing working perfectly. They’re true All-NBA talents, not some traditional pair of lumbering bigs. There literally isn’t anything they can’t do on the floor so those who questioned their compatibility on the court just failed to properly analyze the situation. In this modern style of play you never have to worry about these guys needing to occupy the same space because they’re effective from everywhere!

Blake Murphy: Because it’s the Pelicans and it’s already November, they have five players injured. I’m not joking when I ask this: What the hell did your fanbase do to anger whatever basketball gods might exist?

Oleh Kosel: Man, we’re still trying to figure this one out ourselves — apparently putting on a Pelicans jersey is a lightning rod for can’t-have-nice-things?

On a more serious note, it’s been a real drag. The organization has had some decent personnel, but for whatever reason, it seemingly has always failed to come together. I mean, look at what Eric Gordon, Ryan Anderson and Tyreke Evans are doing this season for their respected teams.

Anyways, Rajon Rondo is expected back shortly and Alexis Ajinca shouldn’t be too far behind, but yeah, no more torn hamstrings (Solomon Hill) and broken bones in feet (Frank Jackson) please!!!

Blake Murphy: New Orleans has cobbled together a top-10 defense in the early going without being elite in any one area. Do you expect Alvin Gentry’s system to eventually produce a clear defensive identity, or are the Pelicans built to just be kind-of-good-not-bad at most aspects of defense?

Oleh Kosel: The Pelicans should be able to hang their hat on defense, but the mixed start was foreseeable. Having Hill out to start the campaign has hurt because he, Holiday and Davis, comprise the backbone of the heavy-switching schemes on defense, this team’s identity. While E’Twaun Moore and Dante Cunningham are usually adequate fill-ins, Hill and an engaged Rondo — yes, we’re holding out hope he’ll contribute more regularly than just TNT Rondo, look tough as nails on paper. The name of the game today is to contest shots at the rim and behind the three-point arc without overly fouling. Once New Orleans gets key personnel back, a top-10 defense should be a given.

Blake Murphy: Are you surprised that the Pelicans haven’t been a better rebounding team with two such talented bigs playing together a lot? The team ranks 20th in offensive rebounding and only grabs a pedestrian 21.6 percent of available offensive rebounds with the star duo on the floor together (and 21.2 percent last year).

Oleh Kosel: Yes, they should be better, but I think we need to just give them time to make the proper adjustments. If you’ve ever observed disciplined teams in action, those with good continuity I might add, they manage to avoid hoisting a shot until all personnel are in position. Too many times we’ve witnessed this season the Pelicans launch an outside shot and neither Boogie nor AD have been in position to chase an offensive rebound. Honestly, that’s just a direct result from the team looking to consistently push the pace. The hope, though, is they’ll learn in time to pick their spots better, and thus increase their second chance opportunities.

Blake Murphy: Josh Smith! Uhh, how’s that been?

Oleh Kosel: Not great, Bob. The Pelicans needed a bandaid in the worst way possible with Ajinca and Asik sidelined and Diallo proving he’s still too raw to handle the backup big minutes on a full-time basis. Smith was brought in because he had spent time with the team during the offseason, but with his sporadic playing time to date, we can assume the coaching staff isn’t comfortable yet with the experiment. Considering the decreases in his ability as evidenced by his play over the last few years, this outcome isn’t a surprise, but it’s far from acceptable.

Raptors updates
A healthy Raptors team continues to roll 12 deep, utilizing every player who isn’t with Raptors 905 most nights, and utilizing them for at least nine or ten minutes. Depth is a wonderful thing to have and Casey has made it sound like he won’t shorten the rotation until someone gives him a reason to fall out of it. If there’s a concern, it’s that short stints and small minutes, while better than sitting, can make it difficult for players to find a groove and be at their best.

“It’s going to be hard, I think you still can play nine. Maybe if Kyle or DeMar are in with us,” C.J. Miles said. “There’s going to be nights where you’re still going to have to play 10 or 11. Three games in four nights and the last one’s a back-to-back and you don’t have the energy and there’s somebody who’s been sitting for three days who’s as fresh as all can be. That’s going to be a thing, too. We definitely have a lot of things, it’s a good problem to have. Rhythm-wise sometime, and the coaches know it, to help find guys rhythm and help them find a little bit more just swagger in the game it’s going to cut back, it always does.”

A more meta concern is that slicing up playing time into small bins limits the amount of data available with which to evaluate each player, pairing, and lineup, introducing much more noise to an already difficult task. It makes sense not to cut a young player’s minutes while they’re playing well if you can manage, and at some point, one or two of that group will probably hit a wall or stumble, returning the backup forward and center positions to a more fluid state. For Thursday, it sounds as if the rotation will stay deep.

PG: Kyle Lowry, Delon Wright, Fred VanVleet
SG: DeMar DeRozan
SF: Norman Powell, C.J. Miles
PF: Serge Ibaka, OG Anunoby, Pascal Siakam
C: Jonas Valanciunas, Jakob Poeltl, Lucas Nogueira
OUT: None
TBD: None
905: Malcolm Miller, Lorenzo Brown, Alfonzo McKinnie, Bruno Caboclo

Pelicans updates
Because they’re the Pelicans, they come in quite banged up. Rajon Rondo is out with a groin strain, Frank Jackson underwent foot surgery in September, former Raptor killer Solomon Hill has a torn hamstring, old friend Alexis Ajinca is out until at least December, and Omer Asik has been out of action getting treatment for Crohn’s disease. That’s thinned out the roster significantly and limited the rotation to nine on most nights, 10 if Cheick Diallo sees a few minutes. They lean heavily on Cousins, Davis, and Jrue Holiday, who are all averaging more minutes than either of Toronto’s stars and are actually all in the top-six for minutes per-game right now. That’s a tough way to live, but what choice do they have?

PG: Jrue Holiday, Jameer Nelson
SG: E’Twaun Moore, Ian Clark
SF: Dante Cunningham, Tony Allen
PF: Anthony Davis, Darius Miller, Josh Smith
C: DeMarcus Cousins, Cheick Diallo
OUT: Rajon Rondo, Frank Jackson, Solomon Hill, Alexis Ajinca, Omer Asik
TBD: None
G-League (no affiliate): Charles Cooke, Jalen Jones

The line
The Raptors are 5-point favorites with a 214.5 over-under.

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