Gameday: Trail Blazers @ Raptors, Feb. 2

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Another close, frustrating loss, and another chance to get right back in the win column. The Toronto Raptors will return from a one-game trip on Friday, hosting a Portland Trail Blazers team that’s in pretty good shape of late. Portland has won seven of their last eight games, and have a rest advantage here, so while the Raptors are the better team, they’ll be up against it trying to avoid their seventh loss in the last 13 games.

The Raptors aren’t necessarily struggling, but they have been fairly imprecise of late. Thursday was a good example, the second time now they’ve lost to the Washington Wizards without John Wall. They’re sure to talk up the need to not overlook opponents or succumb to the dog days on February, and they’ll likely find comfort in this being the start of a four-game stand at the Air Canada Centre, where they’re 19-4. It’s the same stuff you’re used to hearing this time of year, and it’s almost rote that the Raptors are in a mini-rut heading into the deadline and the All-Star break.

Portland will be keen to try to take advantage. They’re a decent enough offense with two very dynamic backcourt scorers, and they’ve become a much better defense than expected. Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum against Kyle Lowry and Demar DeRozan is always fun, and the Jonas Valanciunas-Jusuf Nurkic undercard should be entertaining. It’s Welcome Toronto Night III.

The game tips off at 7:30 on Sportsnet One and Sportsnet 590.

To help set the stage, we reached out to Sagar Trika of Def Pen Hoops, and he was kind enough to help us out.

Blake Murphy: Portland is three games up on a playoff spot with a few teams of insulation, and a bunch of teams near or below them appear ready to take a step or two back. Where is your confidence level for the Blazers’ playoff chances?

Sagar Trika: Given recent happenings around the Western Conference — Pelicans F DeMarcus Cousins’s season-ending Achilles injury and Clippers F Blake Griffin’s trade — I am fairly confident in Portland’s ability to make the playoffs as one of the lower-seeded teams in the conference. Whether or not they make it depends heavily on what the Blazers and the teams around them do at the trade deadline in just over a week, but at the moment, I’m confident enough in this team to believe they will make the playoffs.

Blake Murphy: The Blazers have made one of the biggest defensive leaps of the year, jumping from 24th last year to seventh this year. Is this a big scheme shift from Terry Stotts? Did everyone just suddenly get better? There’s not a ton of roster turnover to explain this.

Sagar Trika: I think it’s a combination of the two. Just based off the “eye-test,” I believe both Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum have improved defensively — to the point that McCollum is no longer a constant liability on that side of the game. The insertion of Shabazz Napier into the rotation has made a marked difference, too — he ranks 7th in the league in steal percentage and 7th in the league in steals per-36 minutes (min. 900 minutes played), per Basketball-Reference. Outside of that, it seems as if the team has simply refined Stotts’s system and is taking less risks on the defensive end, which has helped.

Blake Murphy: Why are you guys so mean to Evan Turner?

Sagar Trika: His contract is so, so ugly and the production and efficiency is… not great, to say the least. He’s a very frustrating player to watch because the offense stops when the ball is in his hands and he takes an infuriating number of ill-advised fadeaway mid-range shots. It’s just really frustrating and the contract makes it much worse.

Blake Murphy: Jusuf Nurkic showed some fun flashes late last year and in the preseason, but he hasn’t been particularly efficient this year. Did people get too excited about a small sample? What’s been behind the apparent step back he’s taken?

Sagar Trika: I do think people got excited over a small 20-game sample, and to be fair, it was difficult not to last season. The team had been very underwhelming last season leading up to the trade that brought Nurkić to Portland and once the trade was made, fans expected next to nothing — the impression was that the centerpiece of the return package for Mason Plumlee was the first round pick Portland got in addition to Nurkić. It was surprising and much-needed for the team. I think there are a few reasons he’s taken a step back from that production. Opposing teams are now able to scout Nurkić and how he plays within Portland’s offense, making it easier for teams to defend him. I also think, at least at times, he feels pressured to play like he did last spring to re-gain the fanbase’s approval. I think that pressure sometimes gets to him and he tries to do just a little bit too much at once.

Blake Murphy: Damian Lillard is overrated as an NBA rapper (“MILES better!”), but damn if those Dame 4s aren’t really nice. Lillard has so much going for him; is finally getting an All-Star berth going to allow him to drop the chip-on-his-shoulder elements of his character so he becomes even more likable?

Sagar Trika: Part of me hopes so, because the constant complaining about being “snubbed” year-after-year got very tiring for me. That said, I don’t think Dame is going to drop that part of his character. That chip-on-his-shoulder is what got him to where he is now. He’s taken growing up in Oakland and being under-scouted coming out of high school as motivation and it’s paid off for him.

Raptors updates
With the Raptors back home, Fred VanVleet should once again be available. He played Tuesday after the birth of his first child but stayed behind when the team went to Washington, which is completely understandable. C.J. Miles has missed the last two games due to knee soreness, something that’s not believed to be serious but isn’t worth pushing during a compressed week of games (the Raptors follow this back-to-back with an early tip Sunday).

Those absences have hurt. Toronto struggled with an all-bench look on Thursday, and that group didn’t have it’s usual punch at either end. Norman Powell has at least taken advantage of the two-game rotation opening and played well enough, an encouraging sign since he can be a big factor in helping get the team’s veterans some rest as the season progresses. VanVleet’s return probably relegates Lorenzo Brown back to Raptors 905 duty. If Miles returns, the Raptors will have some rotation decisions to make in terms of dropping Powell back out of it or expanding it to 11. Whatever they decide, getting VanVleet and Miles back in the mix should really help that group’s ability to score.

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

Trail Blazers updates
Portland comes in healthy-ish. They’re well rested and expected to have their full rotation available to them here, but it’s not a certainty. Maurice Harkless is questionable due to lower back soreness stemming from a fall a few games back, Jusuf Nurkic is probable due to a leg injury, and Meyers Leonard is expected to be available despite a back issue. How the Blazers will look, exactly, is a bit up in the air then – Evan Turner starts for Harkless now anyway and Zach Collins has been soaking up backup center minutes with Leonard out, while a Nurkic absence would shake the frontcourt depth chart up dramatically.

Assuming full health, the Blazers have a lot of options at their disposal. The projected starters are a plus-10.7 in 300 minutes together, a big improvement on the minus-1.7 the starters with Harkless put up or the minus-8.8 the starters with Shabazz Napier have posted. They also have a strong McCollum-and-bench unit that’s played to a plus-17 in 80 minutes. Considering McCollum has improved a bit as a defender and there’s length on the wing to throw at the Raptors’ guards, Portland should be a pretty good test at both ends.

PG: Damian Lillard, Shabazz Napier
SG: C.J. McCollum, Pat Connaughton
SF: Evan Turner, (Maurice Harkless), Jake Layman
PF: Al-Farouq Aminu, Ed Davis, Noah Vonleh
C: (Jusuf Nurkic), (Meyers Leonard), Zach Collins
OUT: None
TBD: Meyers Leonard, Jusuf Nurkic, Maurice Harkless
G-League (no affiliate): C.J. Wilcox, Wade Baldwin, Caleb Swanigan

The line
The Raptors are 4-point favorites with a 215 over-under.

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