An 11-game winning streak for the Toronto Raptors has matched a franchise record and put on full display both the team’s ability to win close, ugly games and their ability to take a casual approach to some opponents and still come out just fine. They better hope the latter is out of their system and the former has truly been sharpened, because things are about to get a lot more difficult – eight of the Raptors’ next 10 opponents are winning teams, they remain in the midst of a 10-game-15-day (and 5-in-7) stretch, and while they more or less have the Eastern Conference locked up, there’s potential home court in the NBA Finals to keep an eye on (no, seriously).
The tougher road begins Sunday afternoon with a visit from the Oklahoma City Thunder. The Thunder are winners of five in a row as they look to hang on to a playoff spot in a ridiculous Western Conference race, building themselves a bit of a cushion right now and potentially putting themselves in a spot to play host in round one.
It’s been a bit of a tumultuous year despite the 42-29 record, but the Thunder have done well to stay afloat at both ends, ranking in the top 10 on both offense and defense. Obviously, the challenge for the Raptors begins with Russell Westbrook, who went 30-8-13 when the Thunder beat the Raptors earlier in the year (Dec. 27, the last time the Raptors lost a game badly). When you can flank him with Paul George and Carmelo Anthony with Steven Adams rumbling down the lane and swallowing every offensive rebound, there’s really no opportunity to take a breather on the defensive end. They amplify that difficulty by forcing more turnovers than any other team in the league, really getting their transition game going. There isn’t a glaring weakness, either, even if their defensive reputation hasn’t caught up with their numbers.
“We know who Russell Westbrook is one-on-one, we know who Paul George is one-on-one, we know who Carmelo Anthony is one-on-one, we know that,” Dwane Casey said before the game, putting the emphasis on rebounding and transition defense. “But the other areas that we can control are the areas we’ve gotta take care of.”
The game tips off at 1 on TSN 1/3/4 and TSN 1050. You can check out the full game preview here.
Norman Powell is available to play in this one after a few games off due to an ankle sprain. He was initially listed as doubtful, but he figures to slide back into his 11th-man role here. Whether he actually gets minutes is unclear and could depend on game flow . There’s been no indication that Kyle Lowry’s game off for rest on Friday was anything other than rest during a compressed schedule, though they did call Lorenzo Brown back off the road from Raptors 905 for additional depth. Dwane Casey said before the game that as far as he’s aware, nobody is resting for this one.
billy donovan on the raptors bench: “they play with no agenda. they play to make the right play.”
— alex (@steven_lebron) March 18, 2018
UPDATE: Fred VanVleet is going to sit out with a right wrist/hand contusion. He initially banged his hand midway through the fourth quarter on Friday and had it in a wrap after the game. It’s not considered serious, but he was having trouble taking jumpers, so there’s not a lot of sense in asking a guy to play through that and just not shoot. This explains Brown being recalled from the 905. He’s hoping to be ready for the Tuesday/Wednesday back-to-back.
PG: Kyle Lowry, Delon Wright, Lorenzo Brown
SG: DeMar DeRozan, Norman Powell
SF: OG Anunoby, C.J. Miles, Malcolm Miller
PF: Serge Ibaka, Pascal Siakam
C: Jonas Valanciunas, Jakob Poeltl, Lucas Nogueira
OUT: Fred VanVleet
905: Malachi Richardson, Alfonzo McKinnie, Nigel Hayes
Oklahoma City has a pretty clean injury sheet since Steven Adams is no longer dealing with a hip issue, but don’t sleep on the one absence they do have: Andre Roberson. Roberson was a legitimate Defensive Player of the Year candidate before he went down for the season, and he would have stood as the Thunder’s primary DeMar DeRozan defender. The Thunder allowed just 96.4 points per-100 possessions with Roberson on the floor and have allowed 107.6 without him, which is the difference between being better than the Raptors’ league-best fourth-quarter defense with him and being in the bottom 10 on defense without him. It’s a big swing.
Paul George is still around for the DeRozan assignment, of course, and Corey Brewer was added as a plug-and-pay buyout piece who still can’t shoot (not that Roberson had a huge offensive impact beyond his sharp cutting). The projected starters for the Thunder own a plus-12.4 net rating in 89 minutes together so far, and there’s also a lineup where Josh Huestis joins the starters in Brewer’s place that owns a plus-9.7 net rating over nearly double the sample (the Terrance Ferguson experiment didn’t go nearly as well). Old friend and former plus-minus god Patrick Patterson, by the way, has the second-worst on/off numbers on the team.
PG: Russell Westbrook, Raymond Felton
SG: Corey Brewer, Terrance Ferguson, Alex Abrines
SF: Paul George, Josh Huestis, Kyle Singler
PF: Carmelo Anthony, Patrick Patterson
C: Steven Adams, Jerami Grant, Dakari Johnson, Nick Collison
OUT: Andre Roberson
Oklahoma City: PJ Dozier, Daniel Hamilton
- Lorenzo Brown was pulled from the road Saturday and returned to the Raptors. It’s unclear if that was due to any depth concerns – no point guard is on the Sunday injury report but Fred VanVleet was in a wrist wrap after Friday’s game – or if this is just the Raptors maximizing Brown’s NBA days so he receives the full value of his two-way contract.
- Raptors 905 are out west for a four-game trip. They’re 2-0 so far and have not only clinched a playoff berth but also locked in at least one home playoff game. Nigel Hayes joined the team Saturday and Alfonzo McKinnie and Malachi Richardson remain on assignment. They close the season out at home on Saturday, and the top seed and a first-round bye could be on the line.
- Shouts to Shai Alexander, who has looked really, really good through two NCAA Tournament games and appears to be moving closer and closer to locking up his lottery pick status. Canada is out here.
- Happy birthday, C.J. Miles!
- A funny pre-game quote from Casey on Patterson:
Funny Casey quote on 2-Pat's bball IQ: "He's one of the smartest players in the league at knowing what to do, how to do it. Now whether he gets it done all the time, I don't know about that."
— Blake Murphy (@BlakeMurphyODC) March 18, 2018
- And some nice love from Patterson:
More Patterson on Toronto: "It’s nothing but love. They welcomed me with open arms from the time I got traded here, and since then, it’s been nothing but respect." pic.twitter.com/IOOKacXsAY
— Fred Katz (@FredKatz) March 18, 2018
The Raptors are 6.5-point favorites with a 217.5 over-under.