Portland Trail Blazers (43-20, No. 3 in the West) vs. Toronto Raptors (39-26, No. 3 in the East)
Sunday, March 15
Air Canada Centre; Toronto, ON | 4:00 p.m. PST | Local TV/Radio: CSNNWHD; 620 AM
Out for the Blazers: | Out for the Raptors: N/A
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The Blazers kick off a stretch of five Eastern Conference road games in seven nights when they take on the Toronto Raptors at Air Canada Centre this afternoo.
Aided by a soft early season schedule that was front-loaded with home games, the Raptors jumped out to a 24-8 overall record by the end of December, even as 2014 All-Star guard DeMar DeRozan missed six weeks of action. Point guard Kyle Lowry, voted in as a starter in this year's All-Star game, carried the team while his backcourt-mate was out as a handful of role players stepped up and filled in the cracks.
But coach Dwane Casey knew his team's sterling 24-8 record wasn't built on a perfectly solid foundation and cautioned fans that the 24-8 start likely wouldn't be sustainable in the long-term as the playoffs grew nearer and the difficulty of the Raptors' schedule ramped up.
Even with a healthy DeRozan re-joining Toronto's rotation four games into the new year, the Raptors began slipping and suffered through a 3-7 early January stretch that lasted until they were able to finish the month on a six-game winning streak.
February started out rough for Toronto with two quick losses to the Bucks and Nets, but three solid wins against the Clippers, Spurs and Wizards propelled the team into the All-Star break at 36-17, still an outside factor in the upper-echelon of the top-heavy Eastern Conference.
Immediately following the extended break in mid-February, the Raptors produced a 25-point dismantling of the Atlanta Hawks and looked prepped to finish the season playing much stronger than they had for those tough stretches of January and February.
But a loss to the Rockets gave way to defeats at the hands of the Pelicans, Mavericks, Warriors and Knicks. The Raptors ended February on a five-game losing streak and have stumbled right into March. Since the All-Star break, Toronto has won just three of its 12 contests.
The Raptors took out the Heat at home Friday night in a win that the team is hoping will swing its fortunes the other way. Over the last five games, Toronto's defense has been near the bottom of the league in opponents' points and assists per game and opponents' field goal percentage. The Raptors are average at defending the three-point line but tend to put the opposing teams at the free throw line often. In Friday's win, Miami was held to 44.3 percent shooting from the floor and 21.7 percent shooting from outside, but the Heat still managed 24 free throw attempts, 21 assists and 52 points in the paint. While it was a relieving victory for a team that hadn't won a home game in a month, the jury's still out on whether or not the Raptors have fully turned the corner.
Toronto has played much better on the offensive end the last couple weeks, scoring plenty of points and shooting decent -- if not impressive -- percentages both from inside and outside of the arc. And for a team that had the tag of playing a bit too much iso-ball at times earlier in the season, the Raptors have been able to get the ball moving lately and assist on more baskets. They play at an average pace and will push the ball when given the opportunity, forcing almost 15 turnovers a game the last five and holding onto the ball better than any other team in the NBA in that span.
Lowry, who had struggled in January and February, has picked his individual game back up recently, though his assists are a bit down. Casey can probably live with that, though, as Lowry has attempted 7.5 threes a night the last several games and has made 53.3 percent of them. He hasn't been finishing at the rim well lately but he's been getting most of his points outside and has been able to hit the midrange jumper with some degree of reliability. Lowry's turnovers are also down and his steals are up as he's been active on both ends of the floor.
DeRozan, on the other hand, has been attacking the basket relentlessly the last five games, converting on 80 percent of his attempts at the rim in that span. He's a poor outside shooter but sticks to his strengths, either taking the ball to the hoop or pulling up in the midrange, where he's made 41.7 percent of his shots the last couple weeks. Using his ability to collapse defenses, DeRozan is also capable of kicking the ball out to open teammates effectively.
Jonas Valanciunas, Amir Johnson and Terrence Ross round out Toronto's starting frontcourt, all getting up about 7-10 shots a game the last five. Valanciunas and Johnson both feast on offensive rebounds and put-backs if left unchecked, both doing most of their damage right at the rim. Ross shoots almost exclusively from deep -- a third of all his attempts have been from either corner the last five games -- and he's made 41.2 percent of the 6.8 threes a night he's tried over that stretch.
Lou Williams, Sixth-Man of the Year candidate and an instant source of offense off the bench, gets up almost 10 shots a night in under 23 minutes of playing time, utilizing a unique release to get off floaters among taller players in the lane. Standing just 6-foot-1, Williams is a great finisher inside who also has the midrange shot in his arsenal if he's hot. He also likes to put up threes, but he's much less of a threat from outside than either Lowry or Ross right now.
Forward Patrick Patterson comes off the bench and contributes big minutes but is going through a terrible shooting slump right now and is generally most useful on the boards. Point guard Greives Vasquez is an effective game-manager with Lowry on the bench or next to him for stretches, a solid passer and floor-spacer when left open. James Johnson and Tyler Hansbrough are the main frontcourt reserves. Hansbrough is the classic "energy guy" off the bench, willing to mix it up down low and deliver hard fouls. Johnson is much more offensively inclined, working the pick-and-roll to get shots at the rim.
The Blazers needed time to absorb the loss of guard Wesley Matthews and integrate wing Arron Afflalo into the offense as a new starter, evidenced by last Saturday's loss to the Timberwolves at home. But after three days of rest and practice, Portland gutted out a 105-100 win over the Rockets at home on Wednesday and easily dispatched the reeling Pistons on Friday.
The Blazers' offense has functioned well without Matthews, for the most part. Portland is among the top-three teams in the NBA in points scored and field goal shooting percentage the last three games, and top-nine in assists, turnovers per game and three-point shooting percentage over that same stretch.
The defense has tightened up incrementally for the Blazers in the three games with Afflalo as a starter. The Timberwolves hung 121 points on Portland last week, drilling 54.1 percent of their shots and assisting on 26 of their 46 made baskets. The Blazers then held the Rockets to 41.8 percent shooting and 100 points a few nights later and followed that up by limiting the Pistons to 99 points on 45.1 percent shooting Friday, putting them at the line just 12 times.
Point guard Damian Lillard had his most efficient night of the season on Friday, converting on nine of his 12 shots, five of his seven three-pointers and five free throws for 28 points to go along with nine assists in 29 minutes. Lowry is going to make Lillard work on both ends of the floor, though, so it remains to be seen how effectively he can carry that momentum into tonight's game.
Power forward LaMarcus Aldridge has shot well from the field the last three games, making 48.3 percent of his midrange jumpers and 78.6 percent of his attempts at the basket in that span. The last time Portland played the Raptors, Aldridge poured in 23 points on 10-for-19 shooting, also grabbing 13 rebounds. While Valanciunas, Patterson, Hansbrough, Johnson & Johnson form a tough frontline, Aldridge should be able to score inside or shoot over smaller defenders tonight and drag the less mobile defenders out toward the perimeter. Expect Casey to throw different looks at Aldridge to slow him down tonight. As always, Aldridge's ability to pass out of double-teams and extra pressure will be key.
Afflalo has taken a few games to work himself into the rotation as a starter, but 15 points on 5-of-9 shooting Friday night are a great sign for the guard who can shoot from outside, put the ball on the floor or take his man into the post. Across Afflalo on the wing is forward Nicolas Batum, rejuvenated since the All-Star break and back to positively contributing on a regular basis. He had an off night against the Pistons, but he's made 51.7 percent of his field goals with Matthews out of the lineup so far and half his threes, also pulling in plenty of rebounds and contributing with his ball distributing.
Center Robin Lopez has made two-thirds of his shots the last three games and generally gets a few easy baskets at the rim every game when guarded by a smaller defender and when Aldridge is garnering much of the defense's attention. Backup center Chris Kaman has similarly been shooting well lately and reserve big man Meyers Leonard recently completed possibly the best two-game stretch of his career, combining to hit nine of his 11 field goals and four of his six three-pointers against the Rockets and Pistons last week.
Blazers coach Terry Stotts has gotten much of his offensive production off the bench from Kaman and Leonard lately, but forward Dorell Wright has quietly had a few solid outings. Guard CJ McCollum's shot has faltered the last few games. Reserve point guard Steve Blake has generally opted to play more of a facilitating role recently, picking up plenty of assists and making NBA history Friday night when he was the first player to ever register seven assists in a game and zero other box-score statistics.
By percentage, the Raptors have been one of the worst rebounding teams in the league the last five games, struggling fairly evenly to secure rebounds on either end of the floor. Hansbrough, Valanciunas and Amir Johnson all hound the offensive glass and get a decent chunk of their points that way. Fortunately for Portland, it's been one of the best defensive rebounding teams in the NBA the last couple weeks. Kaman, Leonard and Aldridge have been the Blazers' most consistent rebounders up front lately while Batum has swooped in to contribute from the wing. Lopez has continued to play his customary role of taking up space and boxing out the opponents effectively, making life much easier on the glass for his teammates. Portland has the advantage tonight on the boards, but Toronto has plenty of frontcourt players willing to scrap for the ball.
On its face, tonight's game appears to be in the Blazers' favor -- they've played much better than the Raptors on both sides of the ball recently and have a huge rebounding advantage on paper. But Toronto has been an up-and-down team since the beginning of the year, alternating stretches of good and bad basketball. Raptors players, coaches and fans are cautiously optimistic that their team is gearing up for the stretch run and ready to put the past two-and-a-half months behind them as the playoffs approach.
Portland, meanwhile, had a motivating win or two of its own last week and would like to kick off this five-game, Eastern Conference road trip with a victory before playing their next four games in six nights. The Blazers will need to actualize their rebounding advantage and try to slow down DeRozan and Lowry. Ross could also have a big night shooting from outside, especially if the aforementioned DeRozan and Lowry are able to penetrate at will and kick the ball out.
Stotts has an interesting choice to make when deciding how he will cross-match Lillard, Afflalo and Batum against DeRozan, Lowry and Ross. On the flipside, Casey will have to brainstorm a way to dampen Aldridge's impact while not leaving his teammates around him with open buckets resulting from the attention he receives. Don't be surprised to see a high-scoring affair tonight.
-- Chris Lucia | firstname.lastname@example.org | Twitter
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