Nothing sells excitement like a headline that says “Tonight, Two Teams Battle to End Losing Streaks”…
But that’s where we’re at coming into tonight’s game. After all the euphoria over conquering two of the three Eastern Conference Titans – the Milwaukee Bucks and Philadelphia 76ers – the Raptors quickly find themselves in a two-game skid after back-to-back losses to the 76ers and Miami Heat.
In the mind of a reasonable fan (aren’t we all?), both losses were excusable. It’s hard to squeeze out two wins in a row from an excellent team. It’s, arguably, harder to then pack your bag, head down the Florida turnpike, and go battle a team that relishes on-court combat twenty-four hours later. You could start to feel the Raps’ exhaustion the other night even with a fresh, and mostly rolling, Kyle Lowry returning from a four-game absence.
Houston’s woes are a different story. They, too, have lost to the Heat and 76ers in recent days, but they’ve also lost to seven other teams. Their nine-game losing streak is less of a “skid” and more of a “the parachute-is-not-deploying-mid-air”.
True, their losing can be attributed to not having a full cast: Christian Wood, their All-Star caliber big man, has been out since their last win with a severe ankle injury; John Wall rested one game; Eric Gordon missed a couple; and, newishly-acquired Victor Oladipo forewent five games with knee stuff. Fair to say the Rockets are in MAJOR need of the All-Star break.
But before vacay, they come to Tampa Bay for the teams’ first of two meetings this season.
James Harden may have left Houston, but small ball sure hasn’t. With Wood out, and Houston and DeMarcus Cousins parting ways, the Rockets are back to positionlessness. It helps when you have stout stalwarts like former Raptor, P.J. Tucker, and rookie [linebacker] 6’4, 230 lbs, Jae’Sean Tate, to play down low, but they’re small, really small.
Wednesday, against the Cleveland Cavaliers, Houston’s starting five were 6’3, 6’4, 6’4, 6’5, and 6’6. Other than newly-called-up centre, Justin Patton, their bench is more of the same: rangy, hardworking guards and wings. Just look at their roster below and you’ll see what I mean.
A relentless horde of long and fast marauders can split both ways for the Raptors. On the one hand, the Raptors love to play small too. We’ve seen, in recent games, Pascal Siakam and OG Anunoby dabble at the five, often collectively. When Boucher anchors their backend, Toronto is sleight, but versatile. A roster like Houston’s fits right into the Raptors’ wheelhouse.
On the other hand, the Raptors rely on their advantage of quickness and speed. Kyle Lowry, Fred Van Vleet, and Norman Powell feast on slower, weaker guards. Conversely, they have trouble with longer athletes. John Wall and Victor Oladipo are just that; any screen ‘n roll actions, and the Raptor guards are just running into more of the same. Toronto can’t exactly go big at the flip-of-a-switch to exploit Houston’s lack of size either, unless Aron Baynes counts.
Normally, I’d say this game comes down to who controls tempo. Houston is fifth in the league in pace; Toronto sixteenth. With that, you’d think Toronto would want to slow this puppy down. John Wall, after two years on the shelf thanks to heel and achilles injuries, is nearly back to form. He’s a streak of lightning across the court who can turn an inbounds-off-a-score into a full-blown fast break. Oladipo attacks with similar electricity.
But the Raps are investors in the up-and-down market themselves, and Houston has been very open for business lately. Toronto is third in the league in points scored in transition; Houston gives up the third most points in fast breaks.
During their nine-game stinkfest, Houston’s offence eked out 102 points a game, good enough for last in the league. While on defence, they’ve allowed 118 points a game, which would put them at 27th. Speed and small-ball has just not panned out.
If you ask me, it’s full gas pedal, all game, for the one-day rested Raptors.
Tipoff: 7:30pm EST | TV: TSN4, TSN5, SportsNet SW | Radio: SN 590 The Fan
No active injuries.
PG: Kyle Lowry, Malachi Flynn
SG: Fred VanVleet, DeAndre’ Bembry, Pat McCaw, Matt Thomas
SF: Norman Powell, Terence Davis, Paul Watson
PF: Pascal Siakam, Chris Boucher, Yuta Watanabe, Stanley Johnson
C: OG Anunoby, Aron Baynes, Donta Hall
Christian Wood (ankle) out.
PG: John Wall
SG: Victor Oladipo, Eric Gordon, Sterling Brown, Ben McLemore, Mason Jones
SF: Danuel House, Jae’Sean Tate, David Nwaba, Rodions Kurucs
PF: P.J. Tucker
C: Justin Patton
Raptors are favoured at -7, which, based on Houston’s recent point differentials shouldn’t be so hard to cover. The over-under is 221.