The Toronto Raptors are on a 7 of 8 roll as the Portland Trail Blazers come to visit them tonight in a game beginning at 4:00 p.m. locally and televised on CSNNW. Then again, you and I would be on a 7 of 8 roll if our opponent list included Cleveland, Detroit, two Orlandos, and New Orleans. The Raptors played a much, much tougher schedule prior to the onset of their winning streak and they registered a 4-19 record while doing so.
Not that the Raptors are a bad team, they just play one on TV. Convincingly.
Interestingly enough, the Raptors' resurgence came just one game after former #1 overall pick Andrea Bargnani went down with elbow and wrist strains. To say Bargnani has been playing like crap on toast this season is an insult to crap and toast both. Dude was eating 15 shots a game that would have been better bestowed on the hot dog vendor. In his absence fellow-lead-scorer DeMar DeRozan has been lighting up the joint, or at least shooting a lot more freely. Guys like Ed Davis, Terrance Ross, Jose Calderon, and Kyle Lowry have been getting more looks and doing more with them. The once-horrid Raptors offense has actually looked...decent. Heretofore the only way Toronto could put triple digits on the scoreboard was to let the other team run loose, making it a YMCA-league game. They had only scored 100 in a victory twice before their current streak. They've done in 4 times in the last 8 games.
The Lowry-Calderon thing is another interesting angle on this contest. Lowry was firmly ensconced as the starter until he got injured...coincidentally right around the time Bargnani did and right before the Raptors hit their streak. Calderon helped his team find their offense. Now Lowry is back. Though he's outscoring Calderon personally he hasn't regained the starting job.
The solution--play both guards at once--would be easy except that this team is weighted towards smaller players. DeRozan is on fire at shooting guard. Other shooting guards and small forwards include Ross, Alan Anderson, Landry Fields, and Mickael Pietrus. Each has staked claim to playing time during this period of success. That's 7 players fighting for 3 positions. Unfortunately for the Blazers, that also means the Raptors will have fresh bodies to throw into play throughout the game...a definite advantage since Portland burned plenty of starter minutes last night in New York.
Without Bargnani the Raptors are scraping for bigs. Davis has been playing well. Amir Johnson is serviceable. Center Jonas Valanciunas is out with a broken ring finger, leaving Aaron Gray as their only true center. That's good news for Portland. Johnson will eat most of the minutes in the middle, Gray will fill in, and the Raptors will run multiple small lineups. Let's hope LaMarcus Aldridge and J.J. Hickson have gas left in the tank, as the night is primed for them.
As you may expect with a smaller, lighter lineup, the Raptors are quite poor at scoring in the paint. The bigger surprise is that they're last in the league in fast break points scored, though the recent string of victories would belie that. With Bargnani and Valanciunas they were more of a, "We're bad so let's go slow, keep the score close, and hope to win it in the end" group. Absent their bigs they're like, "What the heck. Score any way you can!" The second approach is better,
Also not a surprise: they're not great rebounders. Nor do they shoot well from the field. Nor do they shoot well from the arc. About the only thing they do really well is take care of the ball. But for what? Their offense is like a parking lot where everybody left their headlights on: jumper, jumper, jumper, jumper... Defend even a bit conscientiously against this team and you're probably going to outshoot them.
Naturally Toronto will allow plenty of points in the paint. They have no shot blockers left healthy. Their defense gets slightly better as you move towards the perimeter, as those smaller players can move. The Blazers would be well-advised to move the ball inside first tonight, then kick out for jumpers if necessary. The reverse will play into Toronto's hands. The Blazers should also note that the Raptors foul like the count is 3-2. Nobody allows the opponent more free throws per game. Attack off the dribble. The Raptors won't ask if you can finish. They'll wave and hack you anyway.
This was always going to be the most winnable game on the current four-game road trip for the Blazers. It's even more so with Toronto operating without big men. The Blazers need to wipe away the stars from Toronto's eyes, play like the good teams the Raptors faced early instead of the humbler ones they've beaten lately, and take this game. The victory in New York was fantastic but this win is required to make it anything more than fancy window dressing.
Raptors HQ will spell out the Toronto point of view.
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