Portland Trail Blazers (33-29) vs.Toronto Raptors (40-19)
Friday, March 4
Air Canada Centre | 4:30 p.m. PST | Local TV/Radio: CSNNW; 620 AM
Portland injury report: None | Toronto injury report: DeMarre Carroll (Out - Knee)
SBN Affiliate: Raptors HQ
There's little rest for the weary in the NBA. After being thoroughly trounced by the No. 3 team in the Eastern Conference less than 48 hours ago, the Portland Trail Blazers will play a fifth game in seven nights. This time, they face the second best team in the east, the Toronto Raptors.
Despite the loss to the Celtics on Wednesday, the Blazers have been one of the hottest teams in the NBA in 2016. They have a 14-3 record since Jan. 23, and have been led by Damian Lillard, who has averaged 31.5 points per game since the All-Star break.
Unfortunately for the Blazers, one of the three losses over the last six weeks came at the hands of the Toronto Raptors. On Feb. 4 they invaded the Moda Center and put together an efficient, businesslike 110-103 victory over the Blazers. In that game, Portland's defense faltered, allowing 92 of the Raptors' 110 points in the lane, at the free throw line, or from three. Blazer's Edge's Dave Deckard framed it as a "surgical dismantling" of the Blazers' defense.
Since the Feb. 4 game against the Blazers, the Raptors have faltered slightly, putting together a record of 6-3. They did help Portland's playoff chances by beating the Utah Jazz 104-94 in Toronto on Wednesday night. Over those nine games offense has not been a problem for the Raptors. They're second in the league with an offensive rating of 114.3 (Portland is No. 3 at 110.9) and are No. 3 in both 3-point shooting percentage (36.6) and eFG% (53.4).
The Raptors defense, on the other hand, has been less than stellar. They have the sixth-worst defensive rating (110.1) since their victory over Portland. In those nine games, the Raptors have surrendered 27 free throws per game and allowed 37.6 percent shooting from three. Gavin MacPherson of Raptors Republic confirms that the Raptors' defense has taken a significant dip in recent weeks:
A big reason for my relative optimism was the Raptors defense, which started strong and held a top 10 position in the NBA around the halfway point of the season but has since fallen as far as 13th (and) currently sits at 11th. The Raptors have been winning games in 2016 but their defense has taken a step back, ranking 17th in the NBA over the last two months.
MacPherson goes on to identify the starting lineup as the primary defensive inefficiency. He singles out DeRozan for his high activity but low-focus play, and Luis Scola for his inability to keep up with faster stretch fours. On the plus side, Cory Joseph's mistake-free perimeter defense, and Patrick Patterson's jack-of-all-trades versatility have helped the Raptors.
Some of Toronto's recent defensive problems could be solved by the return of DeMarre Carroll. Their high-salary offseason acquisition was supposed to give the team more defensive punch around the perimeter, but Carroll has appeared in only five games since January as he recovers from knee surgery. Reportedly, he has looked better in practice recently, but no return date has been set.
Offensively, much like the Blazers, the Raptors are mostly a two-man show. DeRozan and Lowry combine to score 45 points per game, on 33 shots per night. DeRozan makes his living by slashing to the basket, where he's an excellent finisher and also averages 8.2 free throw attempts per game.
DeRozan's finishing at the rim tonight was ridiculous. Makes incredibly difficult stuff look so easy.— Zach Lowe (@ZachLowe_NBA) March 3, 2016
Lowry has also been a serious offensive threat for the Raptors this season. Last season Lowry's play fell off a cliff in February, but after significant offseason weight loss he has shown no signs of a dip in play this season. He has also improved his efficiency considerably since last season, shooting 50 percent from the field and 40 percent from three in the month of February. That efficiency is especially impressive for a high-volume point guard.
Beyond Lowry and DeRozan, Jonas Valanciunas is the only double digit scorer for the Raptors. Valanciunas is a bruising low-post scorer who has put up 86 percent of his field goal attempts within nine feet of the rim. Valanciunas' per game numbers of 12.7 points and 9.2 rebounds are impressive, but he plays only 26 minutes a night. Coach Dwane Casey has struggled to find ways to integrate Valanciunas' '90s-style post play with the dynamic slashing offense of DeRozan and Lowry.
The Raptors signed Golden State castoff Jason Thompson three days ago but he has yet to see the floor for Toronto.
Keys to the game
Fatigue: Lillard and McCollum combined for four assists against Boston on Wednesday. That's indicative of superb Boston defense. But, the Blazers were also outscored 30-11 on the fast break, out-rebounded 57-48, and gave up 107(!) shots. Those numbers are indicative of a road-weary team on the tail end of a four-games-in-five-nights set of games being worked over by an aggressive opponent. The Raptors are a better team than the Celtics, so the Blazers cannot afford to be out-hustled again tonight. This game has the potential to turn into another blowout if Portland is still as fatigued as they were on Wednesday.
Backcourt scoring: DeRozan and Lowry get many of their points in isolation; Toronto is No. 29 in assists per game and they dribble the ball a lot. Thus, the Blazers will need to leverage their strong defensive play of late toward getting the ball out of the hands of DeRozan and Lowry in order to stagnate the Raptors' offense.
If McCollum and Lillard can then play the Toronto backcourt to a tie, the Blazers can hope to rely on hot shooting from elsewhere to try and top the Raptors' secondary players. Impressively, on Feb. 4 Lowry and DeRozan outscored Lillard and McCollum by 11. If that happens again the Blazers likely do not stand a chance.
Bench play: The Blazers' bench has played great recently. But the Toronto bench has also been spectacular. They lead the league in net rating over the last 15 games, while the Blazers' bench has been fourth. Given that Portland is likely still fatigued and the Blazers are hoping for a draw, at best, from the starting backcourt, they will need their bench unit to provide a significant boost by outplaying the Raptors' reserves.
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