If an outside observer took a quick glance at the starting lineups when the Toronto Raptors and Portland Trail Blazers face off on Tuesday night, it would be a shocking revelation when they then learned that these were two of the final four teams standing last season. Although Toronto’s immediate future presents far more room for optimism when injuries subside, neither team will bear any resemblance to their playoff selves from a mere eight months prior when they take the floor tonight.
Portland’s campaign could not have gone worse thus far. They may be the most disappointing team of the season outside the Silicon Valley. The Trail Blazers under performance has been due to a combination of rotten injury luck and off-season roster changes that have not delivered enough support to the team’s dynamo back-court in Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum. The departures of Moe Harkless, Al-Farouq Aminu, and Seth Curry over the summer dented their wing depth, while the long-term injuries of quality contributors Jusuf Nurkic, Zach Collins, and Rodney Hood has now emptied the cupboard bare.
The hodgepodge of replacements have been poor; Mario Hezonja would be unplayable anywhere that had healthy bodies, Kent Bazemore has been inefficient as a theoretical 3-and-D guy, and Hassan Whiteside may even out-perform Andre Drummond in the art of filling up empty calorie stats in the box score. Surprisingly, the return of Carmelo Anthony has been the only positive incoming presence. Anthony has quietly remained a steady contributor even after the buzz of his return died down, although he has been in a slight shooting slump of late.
Meanwhile, Toronto have had to shift their approach due to their own injury onslaught, slowing their pace in lieu of the absence of their top transition players. It has kept the team afloat with a 5-4 record since Dec. 20, but it is unsustainable. The offensive burden has landed squarely on the shoulder of the Raptors backcourt, and now one of those two has buckled under that increasingly heavy weight. After breaking out of a minor slump with a scintillating 29-point performance on Saturday in Brooklyn, Fred VanVleet is now reportedly doubtful after suffering a hamstring injury (plus a finger issue) during the win.
This level of attrition is bordering on the absurd. Toronto’s offence may as well just consist of Kyle Lowry pull-up threes and Serge Ibaka crashing the offensive glass at this point. The Lowry-Lillard matchup is always a fun one, neither player can afford to be sub-par given the current limitations of their supporting cast. The Raptors remain in a strong playoff position with a light upcoming schedule and in the long-run these results will do little to determine the ultimate outcome of their season. However, it is increasingly frustrating that the team cannot build upon their core’s championship-level chemistry hat caught everybody outside of Toronto off-guard during the opening months of the season.
There is also finally some positive news on the injury front! Matt Thomas returned from injury yesterday on assignment for the 905 and seems likely to feature today. Marc Gasol, Norman Powell, and Pascal Siakam remain out, however the former was spotted moving about more freely in practice.
Gasol (hamstring) also got in a post-practice workout. He looked more mobile than Siakam, which would make sense given Nurse’s projected order of return from Saturday (Powell -> Gasol -> Siakam). pic.twitter.com/CIvf2pPdii
— Josh Lewenberg (@JLew1050) January 6, 2020
Who Nick Nurse goes with if VanVleet cannot suit up will be interesting. Bringing Rondae Hollis-Jefferson into the starting lineup and bumping O.G. Anunoby down to small forward may be the move; Anunoby remains far more comfortable as a wing player. Boucher has been electric with the bevy of minutes offered, but he and Terence Davis II both profile as injections of energy off of the bench.
When Toronto and Portland met in early November, the Raptors used their star-stopping defence to limit Lillard’s scoring impact and rode Siakam and VanVleet to the tune of 66 points in Lowry’s absence. Nurse will now need to pull another one of his seemingly endless tricks out of his sleeve to patch together a coherent offence, hopefully the Trail Blazer’s 23rd-ranked defence is a lax enough opponent to avoid a total crisis.
Fred VanVleet (hamstring) is doubtful. Matt Thomas (finger) is probable. Pascal Siakam (groin), Norman Powell (shoulder), Marc Gasol (hamstring) and Dewan Hernandez (ankle) remain out.
PG: Kyle Lowry, Terence Davis
SG: Patrick McCaw, Matt Thomas Malcolm Miller
SF: OG Anunoby, Oshae Brissett, Stanley Johnson
PF: Rondae Hollis-Jefferson
C: Serge Ibaka, Chris Boucher
C.J. McCollm (illness) is questionable. Jusuf Nurkic (leg), Zach Collins (shoulder), Rodney Hood (achilles), and Skal Labissiere (knee) are out.
PG: Damian Lillard, Anfernee Simons
SG: C.J. McCollum, Gary Trent Jr.
SF: Kent Bazemore, Mario Hezonja, Nassir Little
PF: Carmelo Anthony, Anthony Tolliver, Jaylen Hoard
C: Hassan Whiteside