Today feels like a playoff day. I don’t mean in the sense that the Toronto Raptors hosting the Houston Rockets has high stakes, or that it will define the season, or anything like that. But I went to bed thinking about Raptors-Rockets and I woke up thinking about Raptors-Rockets, and I very much want it to be 7:30 already. An earlier meeting between the teams stands as one of the most fun games of the season so far, and Friday’s rematch, with the Raptors a more realized version of their ideal selves and the Rockets on a 17-game winning streak, has the potential to be even better.
Houston presents one heck of a challenge for the Raptors, and a good opportunity to sharpen themselves against one of the best teams in the league. Toronto has won six in a row themselves, but a few of those wins have come in an imprecise fashion with a high margin for error that they won’t have here. This game pits the league’s No. 1 offense against its No. 3 defense and, conversely, its No. 4 offense against its No. 10 defense. The Raptors do better than almost any other team limiting the three, which will be a major factor against the league’s most three-happy team.
The Raptors’ focus leading up to the game will surely be on the defensive end. Offensively, the Raptors’ process has improved to where they don’t need to ratchet up the threes to compete in a game like this, they just need to hit them. That’s been a struggle of late, but they’re at least still creating good looks. Defensively, everything starts with the likely MVP, James Harden. With no OG Anunoby in the lineup, Dwane Casey figures to throw a number of looks Harden’s way, and Norman Powell, Malcolm Miller, Pascal Siakam, C.J. Miles, and even Nigel Hayes may see time on him. The Rockets isolate more than anyone (and more than double the amount Toronto does), and one-on-one defense to prevent breakdowns will be paramount.
Through all of the matchup challenges, this one stands as a fairly even battle. The Rockets have the edge in terms of most team-wide, season-long metrics, but it’s narrow. The Raptors are at home. Both teams are down key rotation pieces, and it’s the third game in four nights for both. It’s all stacked pretty evenly, setting up what should be a heck of a game. And with the OVO court to make it all pop, no less.
The game tips off at 7:30 on Sportsnet and TSN 1050.
Blake Murphy: The Rockets have won 17 games in a row. Even if we assume they’re an 80-percent true-talent team, the odds of such a stretch reaching 18 are 1.8 percent. I say this not as a knock on their run or a prediction Friday, but as a reminder that Daryl Morey snarkily pointed to “regression” when the Raptors fell to 11-7. The Raptors are 36-10 since, the Rockets 37-9. I have just hyped myself into a frenzy that this is going to be such an incredible game. Anyway, what’s been the defining characteristic of this enormous winning streak for Houston?
Michael Pina: The Rockets are incredible and I’m not sure if there’s enough room here to go through all the statistical ways they back it up, particularly over the last six weeks. TL;DR: Since the streak started they have this season’s best player (alongside one of the three best point guards ever) leading the best offense and fourth-best defense in the league. One of the most overlooked developments over that span is that the Rockets are just so clearly built to not only get out and shove the ball down the throat of a retreating defense, but since January 28th only three teams have a lower pace. They’re dominating in environments that reflect what they’ll see in the playoffs, and it’s very scary.
“What’s your favorite five-man lineup on the Rockets?” is my new favorite question to ask random people at parties. (If they reply without walking away, even with the wrong answer, we instantly become best friends. It’s nice). Houston lost Trevor Ariza and Ryan Anderson (two starters, fyi) for a lengthy stretch and were arguably better with Luc Richard Mbah a Moute and/or P.J. Tucker in the starting lineup. They’ve won games in Miami, Milwaukee, Utah, and Sacramento on the second night of a back-to-back during this win streak. It’s hilarious how deep they are.
Blake Murphy: The last time these sides played, the Raptors won 129-113 in Houston, which still stands as one of the team’s marquee victories on the year. The Rockets, though, were down Chris Paul. How has Paul fit in since returning? What elements does he add that the Raptors will have to account for in the rematch?
Michael Pina: Chris Paul conducts this offense with a flaming chainsaw. He sets everybody up, takes advantage of insanely wide driving/passing lanes, and—as one of the best isolation scorers in the league right now—routinely punishes big men who switch out onto him with a pull-up set shot that never misses. He’s wild efficient when James Harden is on the floor and vintage Chris Paul when Harden takes a seat. (Let that sink in.) Either way, when he’s on the court Houston is outscoring opponents by over 10 points per 100 possessions. Madness.
Blake Murphy: Houston’s offense is a damn analytics fever dream. It might be the best of all time when the season’s done. They rank first in offensive rating, first in free-throw rate, first in 3-point rate (and 11th in 3-point percentage), and they don’t turn the ball over much or, you know, miss shots. They’re one of the highest isolation teams of the modern NBA, too, which seems counter-intuitive until you remember the talent they have. They appear to be the logical extreme of what an efficient shot spectrum can look like. On nights the offense hasn’t been there – rare, as they’ve had an O-Rating below the league average just 11 times all year – what have defenses been able to do to them? Do you load up on James Harden and hope he shoots 11-of-30? Do you let him get 50 and stop everyone else? Do you cry? I feel like there’s a lot of crying involved.
Michael Pina: Shed a tear for the defensive coordinator who has to design a game plan to stop these dudes. They’re so quick to shoot open threes, and almost always have at least four Grade A spot shooters who can’t be ignored on the floor at any given time. My plan, if I were a coach, would basically be to let them shoot. It doesn’t sound smart (it probably isn’t) but if I lose to the Rockets it won’t be after watching Harden, Paul, and Eric Gordon prance into the paint for layups and kick-outs. I know Clint Capela can’t create his own shot, so I’m throwing a wing on him and switching every high pick-and-roll run with him and Harden or Paul. Lobs aren’t an option. Keeping those ball-handlers in front of me as best as I can is much easier said than done and there’s a good chance I’d still lose by 15, but that’s the strategy…I think.
Blake Murphy: I’m going to assume that Harden is at the top of your MVP ballot right now. He’s been incredible, and some of the counterarguments that pop up just seem to come from a place of boredom. Why is Harden the MVP, and where does DeMar DeRozan rank on your ballot?
Michael Pina: For me, Harden was the MVP in 2015 and 2017. He’s been so consistently great—this is his fourth straight season leading the league in free throws—and right now he’s better than ever before. He leads the NBA in points, usage rate, PER, and Win Shares. Only Russell Westbrook has a higher assist percentage and Harden’s True Shooting sits in the top 15. Probably the most impressive thing about his campaign is it stands out above so many other overqualified candidates. LeBron James, Steph Curry, Kevin Durant, Anthony Davis, and Giannis Antetokounmpo have all been great, and then we have the likes of Joel Embiid, Jimmy Butler, Westbrook, Kyrie Irving, and DeMar DeRozan (whose end-to-end two-hander over Anthony Tolliver on Wednesday night encapsulated everything I love about the NBA in half a second) exhibiting undeniable value to their respective teams.
Blake Murphy: “The Raptors-Rockets finals are going to be so much fun” is a DM you sent me earlier and a popular half-joking sentiment on NBA Twitter. With each day, it seems less and less jokey. The Rockets are a real threat, and the Raptors are the best team in the East right now. Where would you put the odds of that series actually occurring, if you had to put a number on it?
Michael Pina: It’s so hard to bet against LeBron and the defending champions. Both Cleveland and Golden State are hard to judge during the regular season, a time of the year neither really takes all that seriously. That said, Houston and Toronto have been the best teams in each conference for most of the season. If they carry home-court advantage with them into the playoffs, and don’t blink in moments that matter, it’s semi-conceivable we see both advance to the Finals. But if I had to put odds on it, I’m not going over 15 percent.
The injury report did not contain the updates that the Raptors were hoping for on Friday morning. Back home following a back-to-back and a day off to recover, the Raptors are still going to be attacking the Rockets while shorthanded. OG Anunoby is still listed as out with his right ankle sprain and Delon Wright is doubtful due to a sprained toe. Going against Houston is tough regardless. Doing it without two key rotation pieces – and two of the team’s better defenders – is a taller task still.
Norman Powell would seem the logical guess to start and draw the James Harden assignment. You could make other cases. C.J. Miles starting would leave nobody to guard Harden but also leave nowhere for Harden to relax on defense, and it’s the Raptors’ best bet to match threes. Starting Malcolm Miller would be a big ask of the rookie but provides some length, switchability, and shooting while also allowing Powell to slide into Wright’s bench role as the second guard, a fivesome that had some success when Wright was hurt earlier in the year. If Powell starts – which seems likely – Miller probably slides into that bench slot as he did in the fourth on Wednesday, and the bench just plays big and switchy. It’s possible Lorenzo Brown draws in for an extra point guard, though he’s been out since Feb. 12 with a sprained ankle (he was targeting a return tomorrow with Raptors 905).
Whatever the case, Dwane Casey is probably going to have short leashes all around as he mixes and matches for groups that can slow Houston without gumming up the offense. It’s a challenging game, but it genuinely feels like a positive challenge for this team as they prepare for playoff-style intensity and the type of chess matches they’ll face there. It’s also winnable, even down two pieces.
PG: Kyle Lowry, Fred VanVleet, (Delon Wright), (Lorenzo Brown)
SG: DeMar DeRozan
SF: Norman Powell, C.J. Miles, Malcolm Miller, Alfonzo McKinnie
PF: Serge Ibaka, Pascal Siakam, Nigel Hayes
C: Jonas Valanciunas, Jakob Poeltl, Lucas Nogueira
OUT: OG Anunoby
TBD: Delon Wright, Lorenzo Brown
905: Malachi Richardson
Houston is similarly thinned out, though perhaps not in as dramatic a way. Ryan Anderson is out with hip soreness, and while he’s a lethal shooter who seems custom-built to give the Raptors problems, he has the lowest net rating (plus-5.9, an obscene mark for a team’s lowest) of Houston’s top nine players. P.J. Tucker has been starting in his place the last 12 games, and the Rockets are 15-1 when he starts overall. Joe Johnson and Clint Capela are both on the injury report but listed as probable. Brandan Wright is also out, and both of the team’s two-way players plus two others are in the G League, so they’re down to 11 even if Johnson and Capela can go.
That’s probably not too big a concern to Mike D’Antoni, not with the Rockets rolling even on back-t0-backs where they’ve had just nine players available during this stretch. Houston has gotten by playing no one lineup for more than 214 minutes this year. That seems odd, but Tucker is the only player not to miss at least six games for the team this year (he’s played in all 64), and some of those absences not coinciding has meant not a lot of time as a full squad. And still, they’ve kept rolling – each of their 10 most commonly used lineups have a positive net rating, six of them in the double-figures. Their projected starters here are actually on the “lower” end, with a plus-8.5 mark in 132 minutes.
PG: Chris Paul
SG: James Harden, Eric Gordon
SF: Trevor Ariza, Gerald Green, Joe Johnson
PF: P.J. Tucker, Luc Mbah a Moute
C: Clint Capela, Nene, Tarik Black
OUT: Ryan Anderson, Brandan Wright
TBD: Joe Johnson, Clint Capela
Rio Grande Valley: Markel Brown, R.J. Hunter, Chinanu Onuaku, Zhou Qi
The Raptors are 2-point underdogs with a 220 over-under.