The Toronto Raptors have quietly made a move in the Eastern Conference once again, pulling within 1.5 games of the Boston Celtics atop the table. It’s a little early to be worrying about seeding rather than just playing well and peaking in April, but the top seed in the conference figures to be important the way the East is stacking up, with seven quality teams and home-court advantage in any series looming large. Boston and Toronto are equal in the loss column, the Raptors have an easier schedule from here, and there are three games between the teams still to determine a tiebreaker.
All the Raptors can do in the meantime is take care of their business. A home-heavy chunk of schedule is upon them, and there’s real room to make a continued push toward Boston and the best record in franchise history. Toronto has been in this situation before, though, and they’re keenly aware that the qualitative is going to take weight over the quantitative, the how much more important than the how many.
“It’s important. One is the pride goal, to be the conference champion is a goal you should always aspire for, to get to the top, to get home court advantage, to be the No.1 team in the conference. You still have to win no matter if you’re one, two or three, but that’s our goal. We want to put the pressure on ourselves to try and get there and chase Boston, to catch Boston and if get there to hold it and go from there,” Dwane Casey said Thursday. “But the main thing is to continue to get better. You can get there by winning some games but you’re not really getting better as a team. That’s my major concern. Last year we were winning games but did we get better?”
The Raptors can show some improvement Friday against the visiting Utah Jazz, who are far better than their record suggests and a much stiffer defensive test than their average defensive rating would suggest. This is a team with some length, youthful speed, and maybe the best rim protector in basketball snuffing out pick-and-rolls all over. They’ve won three of their last five despite a key absence, and they gave Toronto some trouble earlier in the season in Utah. This is a bit of a tone-setter for the three pre-deadline weeks that lie ahead.
The game tips off at 7:30 on Sportsnet One and Sportsnet 590.
To help set the stage, we reached out to Ben Dowsett of Basketball Insiders, who was kind enough to help us out.
Blake Murphy: The Jazz have fallen on pretty hard times with injuries, and even with the loss of Gordon Hayward, 19-28 has to be a disappointing start. Still, they’re within five games of a playoff spot. Is Utah going to stay the course and try to sneak in, or might they commit to taking a step back to retool?
Ben Dowsett: You got straight to the heart of one of the bigger questions making the rounds locally the last few weeks. While you’re right that Utah is just five games out of a playoff spot, they’re actually only that same distance away from the worst record in the NBA – leading some, naturally, to call for the tank brigade. But that’s without considering the recent return of Rudy Gobert, plus the impending return of Dante Exum to the lineup after the All-Star break, plus a cake schedule in February and March – honestly, tanking would be tougher than it seems, and it isn’t what the franchise wants to do. At the same time, they realize they’re likely not a true contender this year, and with a couple big expiring deals on the books (Derrick Favors, Joe Johnson) plus some questionable futures (Rodney Hood, Alec Burks), the Jazz could absolutely be in “non-tanking seller’s mode” (does that exist?) if the right deals come along. The goal in such moves will be to position the team as well as possible to begin the climb back to relevancy immediately next season on the backs of Gobert and Donovan Mitchell.
Blake Murphy: Rodney Hood’s name has come up in the rumor mill a bit since he’s due a sizable raise this offseason. He’s a really talented player when he’s healthy, but that’s not particularly often. Would Utah just be looking for a young rotation player back, or will they need to be wowed for Hood?
Ben Dowsett: That’s tough to answer given Utah’s general tight-lipedness on these kinds of things, but my educated guess would be somewhere in the middle. I definitely think they’d do the deal for the right kind of young player with team control, or they might entertain some combination of youth and draft picks. I could even see them considering certain young-ish “veterans” who fill areas of need and are on fair, non-cap-clogging contracts. I think Hood has just enough value as a big scoring wing that they could look at a few different package types, and will do so.
Blake Murphy: Jonas Jerebko would seem to be a nice low-end trade target if the Jazz decide to sell pieces. In that scenario, what might pry Jerebko free? He’s got size, can shoot the three a bit, and is willing to muck things up in a playoff environment.
Ben Dowsett: It feels like just about everyone in Utah beyond Mitchell and Gobert (and probably Joe Ingles) could be had for the right price, Jerebko included – though the Jazz do openly crave shooting from their 4-spot, and he’s the only guy who really provides that on the roster right now. I’d guess he’d be on the lower end of their list just for that reason and because of his solid contract, but if some combination of a middling young asset or a reasonable pick became available, I’m sure they’d consider it. Or he could easily be part of a larger package if they get into that sort of a thing, which isn’t unlikely either.
Blake Murphy: Donovan Mitchell…I mean…damn. What a stud.
Ben Dowsett: Yeah. It’s pretty awesome to watch in person – there are so many things to like, but my personal favorite is the absolutely maniacal way he’s obsessed over certain rougher areas in his game earlier in the year, improving them more quickly and to a larger degree than anyone could imagine for someone this age. People see the skill level now, but if he retains this kind of growth rate for even another year or two, he’s barely scratched the surface. Donovan is already well on his way to owning this city alongside Gobert, especially if the team gets back in the playoff picture sooner rather than later.
Blake Murphy: Rudy Gobert has only played 21 games, and the Jazz have fallen to 14th in team defense as a result. The impact of bringing him back is obvious on that end of the floor. What can it help with offensively, though? The team’s struggled on that side, too, and a Ricky Rubio-Gobert pick-and-roll should produce some interesting results.
Ben Dowsett: While the Rubio-Gobert pairing has had its share of issues and is still figuring some things out, there’s no question Gobert brings a ton of offensive value as a roll man. He attracts some of the most gravity in the league rumbling down the lane, and has quietly done a ton of work on his skill absorbing contact and finishing with both hands near the rim. When the Jazz can surround him with good ball-handling and solid spacing – something that’s been hit-or-miss this year as he’s played probably a few too many minutes alongside the spacing-challenged Rubio-Derrick Favors combo – he’s a lethal part of an efficient modern offense. With Favors on the block and some major lineup moves potentially on the horizon, look for Utah to get Gobert back into more of those spacing-charged lineups where his impact has always been greatest.
The Raptors have had a few games of relative health now, complete with three days off and a win over the Atlanta Hawks that didn’t task any player with playing more than 28 minutes. Everyone should be plenty fresh here, which is important as the Raptors continue rolling on a 12-game, 22-day stretch heading into the All-Star break. Seven of their next eight area t home, too, and despite the compressed schedule, they don’t play a back-to-back until this time next week. In other words, there shouldn’t be too many fatigue excuses, and with the Raptors maintaining a conservative practice schedule, it might not be a month where they’re too concerned with finding additional rest.
Whether Dwane Casey keeps his rotation expanded, then, is unclear. Norman Powell factored in as the 11th man against a bad Atlanta Hawks team, something that seemed aimed at getting Powell going again and buying extra rest time for the stars in a game they weren’t needed a ton. The competitive environment will be a little different here, and while Powell showed some nice flashes Wednesday, the bar was fairly low. The all-bench unit with Powell in place of C.J. Miles, by the way, is a slight negative in 60 minutes, while the all-bench unit with Powell in place of Delon Wright has been an ungodly minus-19.4 in 63 minutes. It’s still worth finding him time, as he’ll be a necessary piece again at some point.
PG: Kyle Lowry, Delon Wright, Fred VanVleet
SG: DeMar DeRozan, Norman Powell
SF: OG Anunoby, C.J. Miles
PF: Serge Ibaka, Pascal Siakam, Alfonzo McKinnie
C: Jonas Valanciunas, Jakob Poeltl, Lucas Nogueira
905: Bruno Caboclo, Lorenzo Brown, Malcolm Miller
The Jazz got ahead of things early for this one, ruling Rodney Hood out on Thursday. Hood has been dealing with a leg contusion that’s kept him out of the lineup for a few games now and has generally struggled to stay on the floor all season. He joins Dante Exum (shoulder) and Thabo Sefolosha (knee) on the shelf, the latter of whom is done for the season. The Jazz were granted an injury exception for Sefolosha that might open up some flexibility for them if they look to add around the deadline rather than subtract.
Even down Hood and Sefolosha, Utah has some lineups that can present challenges, especially with their defense. Their four most commonly used lineups are all negatives, and the starting five has been downright bad (minus-22.4 in 128 minutes) because they can’t score together, but when Quin Snyder starts staggering, good things can happen. Jonas Jerebko with the starters instead of Derrick Favors, for example, has produced a plus-12.3 net rating in 49 minutes. Snyder appears to be still trying to peg down a firm rotation as players shuffle in and out of the lineup, and on paper any group that has Donovan Mitchell, Rudy Gobert, and some space to breathe should be pretty dangerous.
PG: Ricky Rubio, Raul Neto
SG: Donovan Mitchell, Alec Burks
SF: Joe Ingles, Royce O’Neale
PF: Derrick Favors, Joe Johnson, Jonas Jerebko
C: Rudy Gobert, Ekpe Udoh, Tony Bradley
OUT: Dante Exum, Thabo Sefolosha
TBD: Rodney Hood
Salt Lake City: Georges Niang, Erik McCree
The Raptors are 8-point favorites with a 207.5 over-under.