Toronto Raptors (21-8) at Portland Trail Blazers (13-19)
Dec. 26, 2016, 7:00 PST
Watch: CSN NW; Listen: Rip City Radio 620 AM
Blazers injuries: Damian Lillard (doubtful), Evan Turner (probable), Al-Farouq Aminu (probable), Festus Ezeli (out)
Raptors injuries: Jared Sullinger (out), Delon Wright (out)
SBN Affiliate: Raptors HQ
We exchanged Q&As with Blake Murphy of RaptorsRepublic (click here to see their preview Q&A) to get ready for Portland’s contest against Toronto tonight. The Trail Blazers have been on a horrific slide recently, while the Raptors have built on their postseason success from last year. Let’s examine a few of the driving forces behind the No. 2 team in the Eastern Conference.
Blazer’s Edge: The Raptors have one of the most potent offenses in the league, which has translated to an impressive 21-8 record. The defense has seemingly turned the corner since a disappointing performance against Atlanta, is this run of strong play sustainable? If it does hold up, do the Raptors have a chance at catching the Cavaliers in the standings?
Blake Murphy: I definitely think there are things the Raptors are doing that are sustainable. They're never going to be a mega-volume 3-point shooting team, but they have a number of above-average marksmen for their positions, and Kyle Lowry has legitimately made himself one of the half-dozen or so biggest oh-that's-too-deep threats in the NBA. DeMar DeRozan's improvements are real, too, and if he continues to embrace turning the extra attention against an opposing defense, it'll help make the Raptors more matchup proof in the postseason. Now, do I think they're the best offense in history? No. But they're firmly a top-five, probably top-three group on that end, and their defense should be average (or maybe even a shade above when dialed in). Unfortunately, even the Raptors at their best are probably still just a really good tune-up test for the Cavs, as currently constructed. That's an unfortunate reality, but this is a heck of a position to just sustain, given where the Raptors have spent the bulk of their existence.
BE: Despite being one of the elite teams in the NBA, the Raptors are getting regular contributions from some obscure names. Fans in Portland might not be familiar with guys like Norman Powell and Pascal Siakam, what can you tell us about these youngsters?
BM: Norman Powell might quietly be the most underused player in the NBA. Thanks to a wealth of guard depth, Powell is essentially the Raptors' 10th man, utility man, break-glass-in-case-of-emergency guy, defensive specialist, or whatever you'd like to label him. But he's also a highly efficient low-usage addition to most lineups and has shown capable of leading bench-heavy groups as a secondary creator, and he might be the team's best perimeter defender. Alas, Cory Joseph, Terrence Ross, and DeMarre Carroll eat up a lot of minutes behind the team's stars.
Pascal Siakam, meanwhile, is a bit overextended as a starter right now but has surpassed any reasonable expectations for a late-first rookie thrown into that spot. He has loads of defensive potential and has shown it with his shot-blocking, and he's a terror in transition thanks to being among the fastest bigs in the league. Right now, he's a bit exploitable thanks to some over-zealousness, occasional lapses, and the fact that defenses can more or less load up off of him and dare him to make them pay. Again, his play has been really encouraging, but he's a rookie starting for a 56-win team, which is rarely ideal.
BE: It appears that DeMarre Carrol is putting his injury-riddled 2015-16 season behind him, as he is already on the cusp of surpassing his regular season output from last year. The Trail Blazers have a few investments that look pretty questionable themselves; do you think Carrol will be able to perform up to the expectations that his contract implies?
BM: The reality with Carroll is that he'll pretty much always be judged by the postseason and the postseason alone. Given where the Raptors are, you might be able to define that even more narrowly and say he'll be judged on the job he can do against LeBron James, if the Raptors can get that far again. That's hardly fair to Carroll, who's showing lately what he can bring to an offense (a catch-and-shoot threat who plays smart off the ball and can keep the offense flowing by attacking the catch and making the next pass), but some Raptors fans won't be happy until he lives up to his incoming reputation as a major stopper. For now, it's just nice that he's healthy and getting better as the season wears on. They'll need his defense to reach another level by April, though, and if it doesn't, it'll be hard to call the contract a great one, even if he's a wonderful dude and a good player.
BE: Toronto is in the middle of a strong run of games, but an NBA season is full of twists and turns. What is more likely to happen after the first of the year: the defense continues its recent improvements, or the offense regresses?
BM: Can I say both, but only to small degrees? That's a cop out, I guess, but I don't think the Raptors finish first in offense or below 15th in defense, so a little bit of both. Forced to choose, though, the math always suggests betting against "best offense of all time" keeping up the pace.
Make sure to stop by RaptorsRepublic for more coverage on tonight’s contest. Thanks again to Blake Murphy for answering our questions.
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