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Portland Trailblazers vs. Toronto Raptors Preview

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Two red-hot teams wearing the same colors rekindle what has been a thoroughly entertaining series in recent years.

Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports

Portland Trail Blazers (24-26) vs. Toronto Raptors (33-16)
Thursday, February 4
Moda Center | 7:00 p.m. PST | Local TV/Radio: KGW; 620 AM
Portland injury report
: Noah Vonleh (Doubtful - Ankle) | Toronto injury report: DeMarre Carroll (Out - Knee), James Johnson (Out - Ankle)
SBN Affiliate: Raptors HQ | Blazer's Edge Night 2016

Toronto promises to be a good test of where the Blazers are right now. They come into this matchup having won 12 of their last 13, and it will take exactitude to beat a squad that is only three games behind the Cavs in the East. Yet they are missing two key players, which could go a ways to evening things up a bit.

The Raps' gameplan on offense is spread the floor and let their All-Stars (Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan) carve their way to good looks for themselves or teammates. They also isolate with Jonas Valanciunas, who promises to be a handful on the blocks and in the pick-and-roll game. Luis Scola lurks out on the perimeter for kickouts, where he gives hope to the rest of us by suddenly becoming a 3-point ace at age 35. Scola is shooting at a blistering 42.5 percent rate after last year’s previous career-high of 25 percent.

So yeah, that’s a bunch of tough covers right there. This helps explain why Toronto lives at the free throw line (26.5 per game, third) and is sixth in offensive rating. However, injuries to DeMarre Carroll and James Johnson takes away two of their better 3-point shooters, taking some luster from their seventh-best 3-point mark (36.2 percent), and also robs them of two defensive playmakers.

The Raptors have a rep as a good defensive team, and the numbers bear that out, as they are eighth in Defensive Rating (101.0).  They are good at corralling misses (fifth-best defensive rebounding percentage) and get a good amount of steals (8.4, seventh). When they smell blood, they can get really aggressive on defense with heavy doses of trapping.

The Guys You Need to Worry About

Lowry (20.8 PPG, 6.2 AST, 4.9 REB) is as tenacious on D as he is driving the lane. He is second in the NBA in steals (2.3) and is very physical at 6-feet and 205 pounds. You can’t leave him alone on the perimeter either, as he hits threes at a 38.8 percent clip.

Why you need to worry about him: If you look at his numbers, you may be driven to further distraction over Damian Lillard's exclusion from All-Star status.  But hey, nobody's gonna buy sneakers from some guy living in Canada, so...

The man he shares playmaking duties with, DeRozan, DeFinitely DeLivers DeGoods. He has come into his own at age 26, with personal highs in points (23.2), assists (4.1), free throw percentage (84.1), and free throw attempts (8.2, third in the NBA). He’s a prototypical slasher with a deadly pull-up.

Why you need to worry about him: He's straight outta Compton. In which case, I should probably change that previous line. Really, I was only thinking about basketball when I wrote that. Dude's even got me worried now. This is only getting more awkward.

The only knock against having two such ball-dominant guards is that it means less touches for Valanciunas (12.2 PPG, 9.4 REB). Simply immovable once he gets position and with range that goes out further than you think, on another team he could be the centerpiece to an offense, (ala Mark Gasol) and may be yet.

Why you need to worry about him: He is an absolute beast with a feathery touch with either hand.  If you are an understudy in a production of "Beauty and the Beast" somewhere in the area, you should be very afraid.

Portland native Terrence Ross is an impressive young swingman who is only getting better with increased playing time, averaging 11.7 PPG on 53 percent shooting over his last 11 games. Always a contender to put up the in-game dunk of the year, he is hitting 38 percent of his shots from downtown this season.

Why you need to worry about him: He's going to probably want to show out like Rick Ross in front of his hometown, though much more likely to keep his shirt on in public than Rick Ross. Which is a better example to set for impressionable Rosses everywhere.

What the Blazers need to do to Win

Don’t be a hero: The Nuggets looked surprisingly mature in laying out a pretty good offensive gameplan for victory the other night in snapping Toronto’s 11-game winning streak. Don’t hold the ball, don’t overdribble; be decisive, with crisp passing, and free-flowing ball movement. Drive to pass, let the open man take the shot (for Denver, it was often rookie center Nikola Jokic out on the perimeter, who scorched them for 27 points). Stretch them. You know, good basketball. Should you try the one-on-one route, you play into the hands of their scrappy, ball-hawking defense. Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum should see a bunch of good perimeter looks regardless as they will be often marked by guards on the short side (Lowry and Cory Joseph); there’s no need to force. With Noah Vonleh likely out, maybe Meyers Leonard could play the Jokic role tonight.

Keep the D tight: The Raps run a lot of action well behind the 3-point line, making anyone foolhardy enough to play them out there pay up with their well-tuned driving machines. Ignore that noise. Portland generally plays conservative defensively and there is no reason to step outside that tonight.

Make the bench beat you: Rookie Norman Powell got the nominal start at shooting guard on Tuesday with Johnson out, sliding DeRozan to the 3. This was obviously a defensive-minded play, as Powell is throwing up an abysmal 23.3 percent from the field on the season. Patrick Patterson has taken the second-most threes on the team, but is the lesser of all evils at 33.2 percent. He’s also just 8-for-27 from anywhere on the court over his last 5 games. Joseph is a streaky shooter who's worth gambling against, and he’s only 5-for-17 so far on this road trip. Bismack Biyombo feasts inside, but is just 11 of 43 from five feet or more from the basket on the season. Let these guys have all the shots they want and focus on keeping closer tabs on the real threats.

Attack the rack: Outside of Valanciunas, the Raps’ next tallest rotation player is Biyombo at 6-foot-9. Getting Valanciunas in foul trouble would be a huge boon, but you would also think that runs at the rim that result in misses would be advantageous to the Blazers and their height/length, being one of the top offensive rebounding teams out there. So if given an inch of daylight when moving that ball nicely—don’t settle for the midrange too often.

Outlook

The last two Raptors-Blazers games in Portland were basketball at its best, and not just because "the good guys" won both — a last-second shot from Dame erased a furious fourth-quarter comeback from Toronto two years back, and the Blazers surged to an impressive comeback of their own in earning an OT victory last season. The realists can hope for more of the same tonight. Yet the door is very much open to the dreamers should Terry Stotts’ crew rise to the formidable challenge ahead of them.

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