The Toyota Center in Houston is set to host two clubs on very different trajectories on Tuesday night. The Raptors enter the contest after a dispiriting closing frame against the Bad Boys from Boston, one that all but extinguished the already-dying embers of the much-heralded culture reset. That fourth quarter was straight out of a basketball-nightmare, as Raptor fans were forced to relive the worst moments of the Casey-Lowry-DeRozan era, dropping a game that was there for the taking. To add salt to the wound – the reigning triumvirate stated that the offensive sets resulting in mid-range isolation jumpers (incidentally the shots they claimed were to be significantly toned down under the new offensive system) were the plan all along, and will continue to be featured with the game on the line.
And so, they’ll take their 3.5 quarters of pass-happy-offense per game to Houston to face a hot Rockets squad, winners of 6 straight. Remarkably, their average margin of victory during the streak sits at just under 18 points. And if that’s not enough, they have been doing all of this without their marquee addition of the summer, Chris Paul, who has only played one game this year.
Alex: PJ Tucker – he only played 34 games for the Raptors last season (including the playoffs), but became something of a cult hero in his short stint. As a result, broken hearts littered the landscape in the Six this summer when he chose to leave. Everyone saw what he did in his debut against the Warriors, but how has his integration been since then?
Eric: Tucker has fit in very well with the Rockets so far this season as he has provided the tough defense he’s known for in addition to some capable three-point shooting. So far this season he is shooting 34.5 percent from beyond the arc on nearly four attempts per game. He has been instrumental in the Rockets top-10 defense as he is able to switch on to every position when guarding the pick and roll. Finally, the toughness and grit he has (especially when fighting for loose balls) is something the Rockets need as a team.
Alex: After finally beating the Grizzlies for the first time in three tries on the year, the Rockets are sitting pretty atop the Western conference standings. With a bag of salt in hand due to the absence of Chris Paul, have you seen enough from the team to feel they can truly challenge the Warriors in May?
Eric: I’ve certainly seen enough from the team to believe they are a favorite to make the Conference Finals. I am of the opinion that there is no true challenger for the Warriors this season, but I guess I would say the Rockets are best suited to appear as a challenger throughout the regular season. The funny thing is, we haven’t even seen the best version of the Rockets yet! Chris Paul needs to return, stay healthy and be integrated into the squad in order for the Rockets to be at their best. We may not see the best version of the Rockets for another month or so.
Alex: The Rockets attempt the most triples in the NBA by a mile (11 more than the next club(!)). With that in mind, is there any worry about the fact that only Harden approaching the 40% mark, or are you comfortable with the volume making up for the extra misses?
Eric: A common myth about the Rockets is that they are an elite shooting team based on accuracy. That couldn’t be farther from the case. In recent seasons, the team has almost always been hovering around the 35-36% mark, making this season’s ~35% not entirely that shocking. However, what is surprising is that guys like Anderson, Gordon and Ariza are all shooting below their career averages. I expect that to change when Paul returns because one of Paul or Harden will always be on the floor during games, which will lead to countless quality looks for the surrounding shooters.
Alex: The Rockets have leapfrogged into 1st in the league in defensive rebound percentage, after being very average in that category last year. Are they purposely keeping more bodies back to close out defensive plays at the expense of pace of play (dropped from 3rd highest pace in the league to 15th so far)?
Eric: The first aspect of the Rockets’ improved defensive rebounding is Clint Capela’s improvement. He is playing more and grabbing more rebounds, so his development must be pointed out. The Rockets slower pace isn’t really due to their focus on improving their rebounding, but rather that the team (especially Harden and Gordon) haven’t been as focused and determined to run up the floor after misses. This may be due to the heavy minutes and offensive burden they’ve had to start the season, and it will be interesting to watch how the team’s pace changes when Paul returns. Finally, guys like Anderson and P.J. Tucker have been big parts of the Rockets improved defensive rebounding.
Ah, I miss PJ Tucker.
Interestingly enough, the two franchises have split the season series every year since 06/07 (with the exception of 15/16 when Houston took both games). The wins are skewed heavily towards the home team however, with the Raptors going 2-9 in Texas during that period.
Toronto managed to win the road game last year, on the back of strong three-point shooting (12-23) and six (!) players in double figures, with no single one scoring more than 24. Seems like a solid recipe for a competitive game against a quality squad, right?
Norman Powell is the only Raptor likely to miss the game due to injury, though there have been no updates on his status since he left the Celtics game on crutches. Anunoby may get the start in his place (started the second half in Boston), though Miles could be in the running as well.
The game tips off at 8pm on TSN1, 4 and 5.
PG: Kyle Lowry, Delon Wright, Fred VanVleet
SG: DeMar DeRozan
SF: OG Anunoby, C.J. Miles, Alfonzo McKinnie
PF: Serge Ibaka, Pascal Siakam
C: Jonas Valanciunas, Lucas Nogueira, Jakob Poeltl
TBD: Norman Powell
PG: James Harden, Demetrius Jackson, Briante Weber
SG: Eric Gordon, Bobby Brown
SF: Trevor Ariza, PJ Tucker, Troy Williams
PF: Ryan Anderson, Luc Mbah a Moute, Tarik Black
C: Clint Capela, Nene Hilario, Zhou Qi, Chinanu Onuaku
OUT: Chris Paul