The Toronto Raptors are hosting the Houston Rockets on Friday night in a battle of two of the hottest teams in the NBA and two of the league’s best stories this season. And on Drake Night, it’s also a matchup of two teams highlighted by their adherence to the “new” NBA, the Rockets pushing the logical extreme of a modern shot spectrum and the Raptors’ ascendence from good regular season team to legitimate contender highlighted by the democratization and optimization of their own attack.
While the Rockets have won 17 in a row, the Raptors are one their fourth six-game winning streak of the season (there have been fewer than 20 such streaks in team history). Since Daryl Morey accused the Raptors of falling prey to regression, the Raptors are 36-10, the Rockets 37-9. Both rank in the top 10 on both ends of the floor, in the top three by most advanced metrics, and atop their respective conferences.
“If you can’t get excited to play the top team from the other conference, we’re in the wrong business if you don’t get a little extra excited,” Dwane Casey said at shootaround. “It won’t make or break your season. Facing supreme competition is what you train for in the summer time. Against one of the top teams. You want to measure yourself against the best.”
Given how well both sides are playing, it’s little surprise that shootaround was a meeting of a mutual admiration society. That was particularly true for DeMar DeRozan and James Harden, who have been playing against each other since before they reached high school. Here’s a quick collection of the positive vibes being thrown out Friday.
DeRozan on Harden as MVP: “He earned it. The things he’s been doing all year’s incredible. I think he’s a lock for it, he deserves it. I knew him when he didn’t have a lick of hair on his face. It just came about, man. We’ve grown. We talk about it a lot, to where we never thought we’d be in a position that we are today. To be able to have that type of conversation with a guy that you grew up with, that you went through every stage with, it’s definitely crazy to see.”
Harden on DeRozan: “That’s like my brother. He’s at an all-time level, too. He has his team at the no. 1 seed in the East. He’s doing extremely great things as well. Especially with the level he’s playing at now, that means a lot to me. His leadership. His ability to use his talents to be able to pass and get open shots for his teammates. I think that’s one of the reasons they’re so good. The way he put everything together. Last game he made an extra pass in the corner to seal the win. A couple years ago, you probably wouldn’t have seen that from him. The way he’s elevated his game, it’s pretty great to see, pretty great to watch.”
Chris Paul on the Raptors: “They always look like a (threat). I’m good friends with Kyle and I know how much a competitor he is and I know how talented DeMar is, they have a great group of guys, VanVleet is nice, and that bench and all of that stuff, they have a really good team.”
Mike D’Antoni on the Raptors: “Well the biggest challenge is they’re a really good team, obviously, they’ve been playing great. Dwayne does an unbelievable job with them, and they’re one of the best teams that we’ll face anywhere, anytime, especially at home, and it’ll be a good challenge for us…Maybe just the location or whatever, but in basketball circles everyone knows who’s good, and Toronto’s good.”
Here’s guessing all of the friendly talk ends when the ball’s rolled out and one team is looking to win their 18th in a row while the other tries to eat, sleep, conquer the streak.
The game tips off at 7:30 on Sportsnet and TSN 1050. You can check out the full game preview here.
The Raptors will be without OG Anunoby and Delon Wright here, respectively their best defenders for James Harden and Chris Paul. That’s a tough way to start out any match up, especially considering the job Anunoby did on Harden in Toronto’s win on the road earlier in the year. As has been the case all season as minor issues come up – the recent mini-run of injuries highlights how healthy the Raptors have been – the Raptors’ tremendous depth, a strength when fully stocked, comes to the forefront here.
“It sucks, not to make any excuses, sucks that we’re not healthy,” DeRozan said. “Not having OG the last few games, somebody stepped on D-Wright’s big toe so there’s a few things going on but with that, everybody else on the bench seems to step up in moments like that.”
Norman Powell is drawing the start here once again, which is not only a new look against Harden but represents a bit of a new look in the second unit. Powell had played fairly well with a Wright-less second unit earlier in the year, and that role will now fall to Malcolm Miller or Lorenzo Brown. Brown has been out for nearly a month with an ankle sprain and I didn’t see him shooting pre-game, so it would look as if Miller and perhaps both of Alfonzo McKinnie and Nigel Hayes will be active here. The Raptors aren’t hurting for size, at the very least.
UPDATE: Miller, McKinnie, and Hayes are all active, no Brown.
PG: Kyle Lowry, Fred VanVleet
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, Delon Wright
TBD: Lorenzo Brown
905: Malachi Richardson, Lorenzo Brown
Houston is down a starter, too, missing Ryan Anderson due to a hip injury. As noted in the preview, the Rockets have dealt with plenty of tumult this year – only P.J. Tucker has missed fewer than six games (zero, in his case) and their most commonly used lineups haven’t played nearly as much as some other fivesomes. Still, their 10 most frequent lineups have all outscored opponents, and they run 11 deep or so here – Clint Capela is a go after being listed as probable and Joe Johnson is expected to play.
They’ve thrived with or without Anderson, playing even better without him, which is terrifying. There are no fewer 3-point threats, no fewer players to stay at home on, and no sense the Raptors can be any less at their best defensively with him on the shelf.
“You think that they’re not a fast team, but they do it with the pass, they zing it up the floor. They lull you to sleep,” Casey said. “Harden lulls you to sleep like he’s not doing anything, and then there’s a layup or a three. You’ve got to be on high alert. After you shoot the ball is when your defence starts. Guarding the three-point line and the rim is what you want to do…If you cheat off Ariza in the corner, it’s a corner three. If you cheat off of P.J. in the corner, it’s a corner three. There are some things you can do, we’re going to try to do that, that could help. But it’s a sit down and guard your guy night.”
It’s going to be a whole lot of a whole lot of different players taking cracks at Paul and Harden while other defenders do their best to stay tethered to the rim or a shooter.
UPDATE: Joe Johnson is active.
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
Rio Grande Valley: Markel Brown, R.J. Hunter, Chinanu Onuaku, Zhou Qi
- Raptors 905 get back in action tomorrow following a week off. They’ll be at Hershey Centre for a 2 p.m. tip-off that should include Alfonzo McKinnie, Malachi Richardson, Lorenzo Brown (if healthy), possibly Malcolm Miller (depending on how this one goes), and maybe even the 905 debut for Nigel Hayes. (Yes, you can do that with a player on a 10-day contract. And yes, they could send all five down; you can have your two two-ways plus up to three assignment players. It could be a loaded game.)
- Tomorrow is the team’s second annual Filipino Heritage Game, in partnership with Rise Tribe. The team has a slick looking new jersey for the occasion.
- R.J. Barrett was named the 2018 Naismith High School Boys’ Player of the Year on Friday. He is the first Canadian to win the award since Andrew Wiggins in 2013.
- The Last Two Minute Report from Raptors-Pistons shows the following:
- Missed illegal screen on Blake Griffin (1:08)
- Missed shooting foul on Ish Smith while guarding DeMar DeRozan (0:30)
- Missed travel on Griffin (0:03)
- Missed foul on Griffin on Jonas Valanciunas (1:41 OT)
- Missed shooting foul on Griffin while guarding DeRozan (0:31 OT)
- While that’s brutal, here’s Dwane Casey on the Raptors’ growing reputation as a team that complains to the officials a lot: “Yes, we’ve talked about it. Competition is one thing. We talked about it that night specifically about how we want to get away from officials, because the game before…and then Serge.. so I guess they’re not listening. You can look around the league, and it’s rampant, it’s not just us. Officiating in the NBA is so fast, they miss calls, they make good calls, some we think they missed they get them right. It’s one of the toughest jobs in the world. As a team, we’ve got to make sure we’re disciplined. I catch myself. As coaches we have to say ‘next play.’ Because officials will get most right but they’re gonna miss some. I haven’t seen one change a call yet.”
- There was also this funny moment from shootaround:
Reporter: “Charles Barkley picked the Raptors to win the Eastern Conference. How does that feel?”@DeMar_DeRozan: “I love Chuck.”
— Toronto Raptors (@Raptors) March 9, 2018
- Here are the free shirts for Drake Night, courtesy of my Instagram:
The Drake Night shirts are cool pic.twitter.com/SGosdMDXAo
— Blake Murphy (@BlakeMurphyODC) March 9, 2018
The Raptors opened as 2-point underdogs and the line has since moved to Rockets -2.5. With neither team at a rest advantage – both are on their third game in four nights and travelled for this one – and down one key starter, this would indicate Houston is roughly six points better in a neutral setting. The over-under is at 221.