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Pre-Game

Gameday: Thunder @ Raptors, March 18

Toronto looks to stave off OKC for a franchise record 12th straight win

Complaining about anything to do with the Toronto Raptors right now would be a little crazy. Winners of 11 in a row, owners of the best record in the Eastern Conference by far, and the best home record in the NBA, the Raptors just keep finding ways to win ball games. And despite recent “close calls” against the likes of the Nets, Pacers and Mavericks, second half surges, timely buckets, and a certain kind of winning disposition has kept them atop the Eastern Conference standings.

During this 11 game winning streak, the Raps continue to do it on both ends of the floor, with a blistering net rating of +11.9. Their performance has traveled in their 6 road games throughout this span, and has even battled through 2 back-to-backs. It’s those kind of numbers that show that this year’s team is a bit different than what we’ve seen in past years. Despite the success against some of the non-playoff teams, the streak also features wins against the Rockets, Pacers, and Wizards – those are pretty good teams.

And this afternoon, another good team rolls into town offering up yet another litmus test for the Raptors, who have already beaten Houston twice, Cleveland, Boston, San Antonio, and Portland. Throw in a couple of down-to-the-wire games against Golden State, and it’s pretty easy to see that the Raptors are for real. It’s the kind of success that is happening in the face of any competition. As the saying goes, it’s not who you play, it’s when you play ‘em. And the Raptors have seemed to respond in all sorts of circumstances.

Whether this incredibly strong play will continue this afternoon will depend on a multitude of factors. Aside from the 1 pm start time, which is always a challenge for both teams to respond to, the Oklahoma City Thunder are an intriguing team to say the least. With an immense amount of talent centred around the league’s reigning MVP, the Thunder are obviously scary on paper – but for some reason, they haven’t been able to sustain their success. Sure, they’re 42-29 and coming off of a 5-game winning streak, but if you look closer, the rose doesn’t seem to smell as good as it might look.

The Thunder rank 8th in the league in net rating, which isn’t terrible, but they’re not exactly elite on either end of the floor. For a team with a lot of offensive fire-power, they rank 11th in the league in offensive efficiency. On the defensive side of the ball, losing their best defender in Andre Roberson seems to have hurt OKC more than initially imagined – while their defensive rating has been around 104.3 for the season (and even better at earlier points in the season), it’s been just over 107.0 since the Roberson injury which occurred 23 games ago. And, despite still having two of the elite defensive players in the league in Paul George and Steven Adams, OKC ranks 9th in the league in defensive efficiency. Again, not terrible…but not great.

In contrast to Toronto, OKC’s performances against teams of varying competition has been flat out inconsistent. They’ve beaten the Warriors twice and even the Rockets, but have also lost to the Mavericks (twice), Magic, Nets, Suns, Kings, Pistons, Hornets and Lakers. So, while the offensive potency is there and can fire on any given night when Paul George or Russell Westbrook decide to assert themselves, the Thunder’s tendency to let their guard down has significantly impacted their standing in the Western Conference. But, coming off of 5 straight wins, they just might have the requisite momentum and confidence to stimy the exhausted Raptors, who are entering their 6th contest this afternoon in just 9 days. Signs of this exhaustion were clearly evident for Toronto on Friday night, where an all-out effort was needed from the Lowry-less Raps to skirt by a gritty Dallas Mavericks squad.

The Raptors will be closer to full-strength this afternoon (Norman Powell is still out with a sprained left ankle), and are now gunning to make it 12 straight, which would be a franchise record winning streak. And if that’s not motivating enough, let’s hope Dwane Casey is constantly reminding the Raptors of their past two showings against OKC, which were flat out abysmal. Going back to March 2017, when the Raptors were punked on their home floor (remember the Westbrook full-court pass through Cory Joseph’s legs?), or just a few months ago when Toronto was overwhelmed by the Thunder in Oklahoma City. In that late December contest, Paul George and Russell Westbrook flexed their offensive firepower to the tune of 63 combined points, running away with the game by mid-third quarter and never looking back. It was another reminder that if the Raptors don’t come to play against this team, they’ll get their lunch eaten.

But, Toronto seems to be riding a different kind of wave nowadays. The bench is playing with an all-time level of confidence, DeMar plays like a superstar on most nights we need him to, and timely contributions from other starters such as Kyle, Jonas or Serge seems to keep the Raptors in games and then be the difference in the final period. It’s a testament to Dwane Casey, who’s shown a clear improvement in his ability to make in-game adjustments, recognizing when the shooting of CJ Miles, the presence of JV, or the energy of Siakam/Poeltl/Wright/FVV is needed. It’s been a masterful job by Coach Casey throughout these 11 games (and for the entire season for that matter). Playing against one-on-one talents like Westbrook, George and Anthony, Casey’s chess-game will likely once again be tested this afternoon, as the Raps will likely need to send different looks at those players, while offering up an offensive attack that keeps them on their toes.

Game information

Tip-off: 1 p.m.

TV: TSN

Radio: TSN 1050

Projected starters

Oklahoma City

PG: Russell Westbrook

SG: Corey Brewer,

SF: Paul George,

PF: Carmelo Anthony

C: Steven Adams

Toronto

PG: Kyle Lowry

SG: DeMar DeRozan

SF: OG Anunoby

PF: Serge Ibaka

C: Jonas Valanciunas

The line and prediction

The Raptors come in as 6.5 point favourites in this one. Given the Thunder’s recent winning streak and the way this team has played the Raptors over the past few matchups, it’s clear that their talent will cause the Raptors headaches. But since Toronto is so strong at home and will have a rested Kyle Lowry back in the lineup, I’ll still take the Raptors outright (but probably not to cover the 6.5 points). Just a few more hours and we’ll see how it all shakes out.

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