At long last, the Toronto Raptors return to action on Friday. In the event a week off has foggied your memory, a refresher: When they broke for the All-Star break, the Raptors had won seven consecutive games, vaulting to first in the Eastern Conference and a top-five mark on both ends of the floor, opening up off-week conversations about just how legitimate a threat to make the NBA Finals they are. They have a chance to continue that momentum and extend what’s already the third-longest winning streak in franchise history (only streaks of nine in 2001-02 and 11 in 2015-16 have bettered this one).
To do so, the focus the last two days has been on taking nothing for granted and not allowing their perch atop the conference at the break as a reason to get comfortable.
“No, nobody’s comfortable. There should be nobody in this building that’s comfortable,” head coach Dwane Casey said Thursday at practice. “Again, it’s fleeting. Success in the NBA is very fleeting and if anybody thinks any other way they’re in the wrong business. You can look around the league, teams that you thought that were king of the world hit a hard time, boom, and you’re not comfortable. My job with our guys is to make the comfortable uncomfortable and the uncomfortable comfortable, and you’ve got to do that. That’s the tone we’ve got to set. There’s nobody here that should feel satisfied or feel like ‘oh, we’ve got a cushion’. No. No way, no how.”
There will be no easing back in. The Raptors host the Milwaukee Bucks in their first game back, and while the Raptors have beaten them twice this year, any time a superstar like Giannis Antetokounmpo visits, it’s a tough challenge. The Bucks are also nearly as hot as the Raptors since firing Jason Kidd a month back, experiencing the dead-coach bounce with a four-game winning streak and a 9-3 mark overall since the coaching change. They’re now within a stone’s throw of average on both ends of the floor, and they’re playing for home-court advantage in the first round.
So for as much as the Raptors have talked down any complacency, it might be to their advantage to get the final third of the season started off with a stiff test immediately.
“We’ll see. I think so, I think it is,” C.J. Miles said. “I think you kind of go into the last, especially last three, four days of the break thinking, ‘I’ve got to kind of be ready to step on that floor and pick up where we left off,’ because they can come in here and embarrass you on your home court if you don’t. They’re playing well, they’re fighting for something too, they’re trying to transform themselves into a championship team like the rest of us. It does do something mentally.”
So, they’ll either be prepared or they’ll get punched in the mouth and shape up for the stretch run.
The game tips off at 7:30 on TSN and Sportsnet 590. You can check out the full game preview here.
The Raptors are what they are at this point in the season, and while they could potentially find more downtime for Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan, and Serge Ibaka down the stretch, the first game back wouldn’t seem like a very likely time to do so. The 10-man rotation has been pretty steady for a while outside of occasional Norman Powell cameos. It will probably follow a similar pattern from here.
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
905: Malachi Richardson, Alfonzo McKinnie, Malcolm Miller, Lorenzo Brown
The break did Milwaukee few favors on the injury report, and they come in a little short-handed here. Malcolm Brogdon is sidelined with a left quad tendon injury, Matthew Dellavedova has a right ankle injury, and Mirza Teletovic is out indefinitely due to blood clots, an issue that’s plagued him in the past.
That’s three helpful rotation pieces Milwaukee is out, and it’s meant more time for intriguing prospects like Xavier Munford and Sterling Brown, as well as a greater role for more known commodities like Jason Terry and Sean Kilpatrick. More than anything, the injuries have done two things: Confused what Joe Prunty may actually prefer to use as a rotation when healthy, and turned the Bucks’ prior huge-starters/tiny-bench structure into a more standard depth chart.
The return of Jabari Parker has helped in that regard, too. His presence figures to open up a lot of options offensively when he’s fully back to form, and Prunty will have some really interesting lineup combinations to toy with. Parker, Antetokounmpo, and Khris Middleton have played 1,483 career minutes together, but only six of those have come in the last two seasons (and, obviously, only six with Eric Bledsoe). Those versatile groups figure to play a role in the postseason, and they’ll present a novel challenge to the Raptors at both ends.
They may even have a role tonight, as two Bucks centers are on the injury report – John Henson is probable with a right hamstring injury and Tyler Zeller is probable with an illness. UPDATE: Both Henson and Zeller are good to go. Henson starts.
PG: Eric Bledsoe, Jason Terry, Xavier Munford
SG: Tony Snell, Sean Kilpatrick
SF: Khris Middleton, Sterling Brown
PF: Giannis Antetokounmpo, Jabari Parker, D.J. Wilson
C: John Henson, Thon Maker, Tyler Zeller
OUT: Malcolm Brogdon, Matthew Dellavedova, Mirza Teletovic
Wisconsin: Marshall Plumlee
- According to a report from Sam Amick, the Raptors are among the teams interested in Ersan Ilyasova, who is working towards a buyout with the Hawks. The Bucks are the other team said to be interested, and Ilyasova lives in Milwaukee (and reportedly wouldn’t waive his no-trade clause earlier in the year), so he may be angling for a return home. In writing about potential buyout candidates last week, here’s what I had to say about Turkish Josh Harnett:
- “Honestly, this is probably the best-case scenario with the names who could become available. That availability is a question mark, even though he doesn’t seem a fit with the rebuilding Hawks, who just bought out Marco Belinelli. Bobby Marks of ESPN listed Ilyasova as an unlikely buyout candidate, and while he didn’t say why, it may be that the Hawks will see value in hanging on to Ilyasova’s Bird rights into a summer where few teams figure to have cap space. Maybe they can wrangle a pick in a sign-and-trade, or re-up Ilyasova to continue soaking up minutes while the younger players develop.In any case, he’d be interesting if he became available. At 6-foot-10, Ilyaosva provides some nice spacing as a large power forward or even as a center, where he’s spent more and more time the last couple of years. A career 36.6-percent 3-point shooter, Ilyasova has maintained that touch even as he’s bounced around rosters, shooting 36.5 percent on 5.6 attempts per-36 minutes over the last four seasons (across six teams). He’s not a particularly strong defensive rebounder but does well on the offensive glass, draws fouls at a decent clip with his physicality, and can keep the ball moving on offense. Defensively, he’s mostly just size at this point, grading out as about average for the position by Real Plus-Minus.The Hawks have been better with him on the floor than off of it, as all three of his teams were last year. He’s still just 30. He doesn’t have much playoff experience but has been there a handful of times. This is probably the best the Raptors can hope for, even if he’d still just be additional depth behind the young bigs. He’s still useful.”
- Will disagrees about the potential fit, and while I’d likewise prefer a wing, Ilyaosva might be the only functional player who hits the buyout market. I’m not in favor of excising Pascal Siakam from the rotation, but Ilyasova has an obvious skillset that could be useful in certain matchups, fits well with the bench or star-and-bench groups, and would provide some frontcourt insurance in the even the Raptors are uncomfortable going with a small power forward against a particular opponent.
- Raptors 905 have a big weekend ahead of them, which I teed up over at Raptors905.com. Malachi Richardson, Alfonzo McKinnie, Malcolm Miller, and Lorenzo Brown are all on assignment, though Brown is still dealing with an ankle sprain.
- Over at The Athletic, I channeled a brief moment of All-Star break boredom into a few data dives, answering some reader questions.
- As more and more details come out about the NCAA investigation and the improprieties allegedly committed by ASM Sports – the group that represents Kyle Lowry, Serge Ibaka, Fred VanVleet, and Malachi Richardson – a few Raptors-adjace notes have filtered out. I strongly recommend reading this Yahoo investigative piece for context, but quickly:
- Documents show Fred VanVleet received “at least $1,000,” as well as a $483 “advance.”
- Kyle Lowry is also listed for a $5,927 loan.
- Edy Tavares, Carlos Delfino, and Milt Palacio are the other Raptors-adjace names I could squint and pick out.
- A minor note from Marc Stein’s newsletter confirms the common thinking that the Raptors are, indeed, still monitoring the buyout market in the hope of making an addition.
- On March 28 and 29, William Lou and I will be involved in a two-night Hoop Talks summit.
Toronto #Raptors basketball is back tonight and the raps are looking to make a big #NBAPlayoffs push! Join us for a 2 night series at @RivoliToronto March 28th and 29th with some of the best #NBA experts in #Toronto
— Hoop Talks (@HoopTalksLive) February 23, 2018
The Raptors are 7-point favorites with a 216 over-under.