Pre-Game

Gameday: Raptors @ Thunder, Dec. 27

Normally, there would be a few paragraphs of preamble here setting up the Toronto Raptors’ visit to play the Oklahoma City Thunder on the second night of a road-road back-to-back, coming off of an ugly loss to the Dallas Mavericks on Tuesday (the Raptors really don’t do well with love from the power rankings). In this case, Tamberlyn and I went very deep in an email exchange to set things up, and I can’t imagine anyone wants to read a 4,000-word game preview, so let’s just jump right into it.

A big believer in the Raptors ability to bounce back and avoid their first consecutive losses for the first time in over a month? The best betting offers for the day show them as slight underdogs, so you’re not entirely alone. They’re yet to lose three in a row on the season, by the way, and they’re a robust 19-13 against the spread.

The game tips off at 8 on Sportsnet One and Sportsnet 590.

To help set the stage, I reached out to our own Tamberlyn Richardson, who is also the Managing Editor at Thunderous Intentions. She was kind enough to trade questions with us.

Blake Murphy: The Thunder started out 8-12, and things looked a little dire. Sometimes stars in new situations take some time to figure each other out. In the time since, they’re 11-3, looking about as dangerous as some had predicted (at least for stretches). What’s changed between the cold start and the recent hot streak?

Tamberlyn Richardson: The simple answer is – Russell Westbrook. Initially he was trying so hard to integrate Carmelo Anthony and Paul George into the offensive system he wasn’t playing to his own identity. When the Thunder would lose leads he would try to flip a switch and take over the game.

Multiply that by three as Anthony tried to kill teams with his iso-ball offense. Paul George is less suspect, yet he wasn’t necessarily helpful either. George wasn’t  making cuts, moving or sharing the playmaking as much as he should have. This all translated into the players standing staring at each other as one at a time the trio  attempted to win the game on a single shot. The problem was they were often trailing by double digits. In many ways, the early offense reminded me of the Raptors except it was less successful because each of the OK3’s efforts were counterproductive.

The tipping point occurred in Orlando. Westbrook has historically pulled off grandiose wins versus the Magic, so the loss seemed to be the final straw. Westbrook tried to defy the critics who said he was a ball hog who couldn’t make his teammates better. However, for the OKC Thunder to win Westbrook needs to play to his identity (an aggressive, paint driving beast).

The other pivotal moment came in the loss at the Garden to the Knicks. Prior to that game OKC beat the Pacers (2) and Knicks in OKC. Clearly, the goal was to get Anthony a win on his home floor.  Instead, Carmelo sabotaged the Thunder trying to force his will via iso ball. Knowing his tendencies the Knicks collapsed onto him, daring him to shoot. The immediate after effect was New York’s media jumped all over Anthony claiming he was the problem in the Mecca.  The very next game Melo switched to becoming a catch and shoot sniper instead of creating his own shot.

Blake Murphy: How’s our old friend Patrick Patterson been fitting in? I know in terms of numbers, his start was about as terrible as possible, maybe owing to recovery from his offseason knee surgery. His numbers for the entire season remain poor and his role has been pretty small. You know his game pretty well at this point as a Raptors/Thunders writer. What gives here?

Tamberlyn Richardson: It is the million dollar question in OKC.  Sure, Patterson had offseason surgery and yes he is notoriously a slow starter.  But, mid December (right on cue), Patterson started hitting his treys. He’s doing all the little non stat related things he did in Toronto, but Donovan hasn’t acquiesced.

Preseason, I envisioned various clutch time lineups with Patrick Patterson. Every option includes  Westbrook and George.  Given Patterson’s ability to stretch the court and defend it was expected Billy Donovan (who I’m sure believes the coach who creates the greatest number of lineup variations wins something) would utilize him in a number of ways.  Those were expected to include Patterson at center in a small ball lineup, at the four either via replacing Anthony (my preference) or sliding George/Anthony down and removing Roberson. None of those iterations have occurred.

Instead, Billy Donovan has experimented using Alex Abrines, rookie Terrance Ferguson, Raymond Felton,  Jerami Grant and more recently Josh Huestis, all ahead of Patterson.  Even when Patterson is hot from the perimeter Donovan seems intent on keeping Patterson on the pine. My presumption is Donovan is searching for more offense, although none of the above players have consistently demonstrated the ability to deliver offensively, or if they do they are a liability on defense (Abrines). So, why not use Patterson at clutch time?

But, here’s where things get really fishy.  Examination of the on/off court figures in the last 14 games tells a dramatic story. OKC score 4.0 additional points with Huestis on court versus Patterson. However, teams score 14.4 more points on OKC in Huestis lineups versus Patterson. In fact, Patterson is second only to your man Andre Roberson defensively and during those 14 games he’s shooting 39.1 percent from the perimeter.. That’s what makes the entire situation so confusing. Billy D plays Patterson like you would a third string player. Imagine a clutch time lineup of Westbrook, Roberson, George, Patterson and Adams.  Ultimately,  it’s either a matter of Sam Presti trying to feature Huestis to engage trade talk or he simply has no trust/faith in Patterson.

Now watch, Billy D will probably choose tonight to play Patterson over 25 minutes.

Blake Murphy: I want to ask about personal favorite Andre Roberson, but I feel like that would be a selfish disservice to the readers. Instead, I’ll ask about OKC’s biggest advantage: Their offensive rebounding. Are you surprised this has kept up to the level it has without Enes Kanter? What can the Raptors do to try to keep the Thunder from racking up valuable second chances?

Tamberlyn Richardson: Four OKC Thunder players average at least one offensive rebound per game:

  • Jerami Grant: 1.1
  • Russell Westbrook: 1.7
  • Andre Roberson: 1.8
  • Steven Adams: 5.1

Clearly the main reason the Thunder continue to excel on the offensive glass is the play of Steven Adams. Many believe Adams plays a more important role than Carmelo Anthony. I’m definitely in that club (although the jury is out on how Melo will play in the postseason).  Those 5.1 Adams’ offensive boards are more than he grabs on the defensive glass (3.9).

As for how the Raptors stop the Thunder particularly in second chances it’s imperative they come out ready to defend from the tip. Donning my dual team coverage hat, it shouldn’t take much to inspire the Raptors because it was Westbrook’s Thunder who embarrassed Toronto last season on their home floor leading to the infamous “meeting.”

There are key areas the Raptors can take advantage of such as when the benches hit the court.  While the Raptors regressed slightly without Delon Wright they still boast a positive Eeff of +4.5. In comparison the Thunder bench has a negative Deff of – 9.1 as per hoopsstats. com. That translates into a +13.6 Raptors advantage, should the teams play to their identity. As far as the glass, points off turnovers and other various goodies. I’ve included the stats chart from the TI preview which isolates both squads in yearly performances versus the last 14 games.

Something to watch for is Billy Donovan tends to play his starters additional minutes when they face top teams. The other interesting tidbit is the Raptors have been the best defense in the period OKC has been improving. And while the Thunder lead the steals category on the season, the Raptors rank higher during the 14 game sample. Finally, there is always a propensity for the Thunder to turn over the ball. The assist to turnover ratio speaks to this (they rank 26th). Given the Raptors rank first in the NBA for points scored off turnovers it would behoove Toronto to bring the A+ defensive game from the tip.

Tamberlyn Richardson: Can the Raptors continue to build upon their early success (win the Conference even)? Why has the new style been so successful? And, who in particular benefits the most from the change?

Blake Murphy: I think the Raptors can definitely continue to build on their early successes. It’s not going to continue to be seamless, but one of the big positives from a strong start is that they now have ample evidence that the new style of play can work – they’re winning games, their offense is a top-five group again, they have a ton of fun when the ball’s moving freely, and the couple of frustrating losses they do have to good teams saw them revert to the old ways, a nice reminder of why they’re trying to build a new identity. Those formative lessons should hopefully galvanize the buy-in further. Some tough games in January should be even more telling.

In terms of why it’s working, a role players have been stepping into their roles well, DeMar DeRozan has taken strides as a playmaker, and Kyle Lowry has found a groove as a true No. 2 after a slow start to the year. The buy-in is there, most everyone seems comfortable with the green light they’ve been given (outside of poor Pascal Siakam), and there’s a feeling of genuine empowerment for the young guys. The starting bigs have been better offensively, too. Really, Norman Powell is probably the only player who’s truly struggled, and that has little to do with the system.

As for winning the conference, it’s possible. They have the most home-heavy schedule the rest of the way, and they’ve done a great job keeping their star players fresh. A lot of it will come down to how they play Boston in the next three meetings and whether or not the Cavaliers care to compete for that top spot and home court, but the Raptors could realistically win in the high-50s, which is good enough to be right there.

Tamberlyn Richardson: Please tell the Thunder fanbase why Raptors fans/scribes are so excited about OG Anunoby.  Does he remind you of any  current/former players? What is his ceiling? And, can you envision a moment this season (regular or post) when LeBron does a double take at OG assuming he gets that assignment?

Blake Murphy: The one Raptors fans love to dream on is Kawhi Leonard, given Anunoby’s length, what he’s shown early defensively, the knock against him coming in (shooting), and his hilariously stoic demeanor. That’s much too high a benchmark to measure Anunoby (or literally anyone) against. I understand the enthusiasm, because Anunoby has been terrific.

Obviously, what sticks out foremost is just that he was even ready to play to start the season. That alone would have been wonderful. He hit the ground running exceptionally well, defending on-ball as advertised (he’s imperfect off the ball, occasionally getting back cut or losing his man through screens) and opening up a lot more switching options for Toronto since he can guard one-through-four. It’s his offensive game that’s surprised most and may serve to raise his projection – Anunoby is hitting threes at a rate that makes it almost certain he’ll be at least an okay shooter long-term, and his ability to put the ball on the floor and make the right pass is well ahead of schedule.

All told, Anunoby has been a huge value at No. 23. He’s among the league leader’s in Net Rating, and both the Raptors all-bench groups and starters have been much, much better with Anunoby. There are still nights he looks like a rookie, and LeBron James might provide more of those in the weeks to come (Anunoby is definitely getting that assignment), but it’s been almost nothing but encouraging signs with the rookie.

Tamberlyn Richardson: Can you share why I’m so excited about this reserve unit and feel free to speak about someone other than the players I mentioned (or all of them).

Blake Murphy: The bench has been so much fun that I did a four-part series on them (one, two, three, four) over at The Athletic, examining their claim as the Best in the League. They’ve come down to earth since then, and the all-bench group that doesn’t include Anunoby or C.J. Miles is struggling due to a lack of offensive fire-power and maybe some regression. Still, the bench has been a big strength and is a primary factor in Lowry, DeRozan, and Ibaka having their minutes at a reasonable mark without sacrificing wins.

Individually, it’s Wright who I think most people will be surprised by. He may not have the highest upside of the group, but he’s a beautiful basketball player. The big thing he brings for that second unit is his ability to force live-ball turnovers, as he gets into passing lanes well, jumps on sloppy swing passes, pokes a lot of balls free, and even blocks shots at a near-Wade-ian level for a guard. That really fuels the transition game, where Powell and Siakam can shine using their speed. In the halfcourt, the group still has some things to figure out, and they could use more time with Miles (or another shooter). Defensively, though, the energy is always high and there’s rarely a bench stretch where you don’t come away pleased with multiple young players.

Tamberlyn Richardson: Serge Ibaka is fitting in great in Toronto. Many OKC Thunder fans still miss him. Not to rub it in, but how’s he doing in the 6ix on and off the court?

Blake Murphy: I can’t speak much to how he’s fitting off the court, though he definitely seems to be coming out of his shell more as a personality of late. Winning will do that, I guess. On the court, he’s been much better than a year ago, which is really encouraging. He’s still more effective defensively in smaller lineups, but his block rate is up slightly and his rebound rate is the highest it’s been since 2014-15, important considerations for Toronto.

The offensive fit was never really in question, even alongside Valanciunas, and as Ibaka’s slowly bought into the new system (he was probably the slowest to pick it up, not entirely used to putting the ball on the floor or looking for the high-low; he’s still probably the most shot-happy Raptor, which is fine if it keeps him engaged to this level), his game has picked up. He’s shooting threes more often than he ever has, turning those pick-and-pop long twos into a nearly 40-percent clip on threes (and 37 percent above the break), and he has the second-best true-shooting percentage of his career as a result.

The Raptors will continue to monitor his workload closely and get him some additional days off to rest, hoping this is the version of Ibaka they can preserve for the playoffs.

Raptors updates
Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan, and Serge Ibaka all played between 31 and 36 minutes on Tuesday, which might be the big cost from the Mavericks game. It’s early in the year and they’ve been kept relatively fresh, so maybe it’s not a concern, but this one figures to be tight enough to push Lowry and DeRozan over 70 minutes across the two games and Ibaka around 60. Dwane Casey kept the rotation at 11 with the return of C.J. Miles against Dallas, and he figures to keep things pretty deep here not only to try to keep fresh legs on the court but also to find some five-somes that are going to work, as the bench continues to sputter a bit of late.

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

Thunder updates
Billy Donovan is fond of tweaking his rotations,a s Tamberlyn pointed out. He’s used 10 players pretty regularly, and two others have appeared in at least 15 games. The 10-man rotation he trots out should be fairly familiar, but he’ll move quickly to try something new if the Raptors have a group figured out. Obviously, the big thing to watch with the Thunder is their tremendous-on-paper starting lineup, which has a plus-9.8 net rating and has played more minutes together than all but one other lineup in the NBA this year. They tend to play a little smaller off the bench, with Jerami Grant even soaking up some minutes at the five.

PG: Russell Westbrook, Raymond Felton
SG: Andre Roberson, Alex Abrines, Terrance Ferguson
SF: Paul George, Josh Huestis, Kyle Singler
PF: Carmelo Anthony, Jerami Grant, Patrick Patterson
C: Steven Adams, Dakari Johnson, Nick Collison
OUT: None
TBD: None
Oklahoma City: PJ Dozier, Daniel Hamilton

The line
On the second night of a road-road back-to-back against a fresh and streaking Thunder team, the Raptors are 4-point underdogs with a 209 over-under.

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