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Portland Trail Blazers vs. Toronto Raptors Preview

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The Blazers hope to get back on track at home as they face off against the best team in the NBA.

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NBA: Portland Trail Blazers at Toronto Raptors John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

Portland Trail Blazers (15-13) vs. Toronto Raptors (23-7)

Friday, December 14 - 7:00 p.m. PT
Blazers injuries: Anfernee Simons (day-to-day), Moe Harkless (day-to-day)
Raptors injuries: Kawhi Leonard (day-to-day), Jonas Valanciunas (out), Norman Powell (out)
How to watch on TV: NBCSNW, NBA League Pass (outside of Portland)
How to stream: YouTube Live TV, Playstation Vue, Hulu Live TV, FuboTV, NBA League Pass (outside of Portland)
Radio: 620 AM
SBN Affiliate: Raptors HQ

The Portland Trail Blazers return to the Moda Center after a brief, unsuccessful road trip. Portland lost both games on the 2-game trip, falling in Houston 111-104 and in Memphis 92-83. They’ll be hoping a return home can help them get back in the victory column.

Unfortunately, the team the Blazers will welcome to the Moda Center is the Toronto Raptors. At 23-7 the Raptors hold the best record in the NBA and are coming off back-to-back impressive road wins: a 113-93 victory over the Warriors and a 123-99 rout of the Clippers.

What to watch for

  • Depth and balance for Toronto. The good news: Kawhi Leonard may sit out Friday’s game. The 2-time Defensive Player of the Year has missed the last two games with a hip injury. The bad news: the Raptors are 7-1 this season when Leonard doesn’t play. This is largely a testament to Toronto’s depth. All five starters scored in double figures against the Warriors on Wednesday and six Raptor players hit double digits against the Clippers the night before. Seven players are averaging over 9 points per game this season for Toronto (Portland has four such players). It will definitely help the Blazers’ chances if Leonard sits again on Friday, but Toronto is deep enough and talented enough to win without him.
  • Lowry’s scoring. Kyle Lowry has played well the past two games that Leonard missed, scoring 23 and 21 while shooting a combined 17-31 from the field. He had been in a bit of a slump, scoring a combined 15 points in the previous four games while shooting 4-28. Overall, Lowry’s scoring numbers are down this season (his 14.2 per game average is the lowest since his first year in Toronto), but he leads the league in assists at 10 a game. There is a strong correlation between Lowry’s scoring performance and the Raptors’ success as a team. He’s averaging 16.5 points on 48.7 percent shooting in Toronto’s 23 wins and only 7.0 points on 23.1 percent shooting in their 7 losses. If Lowry goes off, the Raptors probably aren’t losing.
  • Home-court advantage? The good news: despite their recent overall struggles, the Blazers are still a good at home. They have a 10-4 record this season at the Moda Center. They score nearly eight points per game more at home than on the road (114.9 vs. 107.1) and are giving up seven points fewer (106.3 vs. 113.3). The bad news: the Toronto Raptors are the best road team in the NBA. Toronto actually has a slightly better record on the road (12-3; 2 of those losses were in OT) than they do north of the border (11-4). This can mostly be attributed to their defense which seems to switch into another gear away from Scotiabank Arena. They own the league’s 2nd-best defensive rating on the road (with only the 18th best at home), and just held a healthy Golden State team to their lowest score at home this season (without the 2-time Defensive Player of the Year).

What they’re saying

Dan Devine of The Ringer writes that the changes the Raptors made this offseason have positioned them well to make a Finals run:

Leonard has been the immediate two-way upgrade over beloved former Raptors star DeMar DeRozan that president Masai Ujiri hoped for, putting Toronto in position to make the deepest postseason run in franchise history. Trading DeRozan, Jakob Poeltl, and a first-round pick for Leonard and Danny Green (who has been great for Toronto) wasn’t just about turning the page on last season. It was about seizing the opportunity to leverage what’s left of the primes of Lowry and Ibaka, to catch Pascal Siakam, OG Anunoby, and Fred VanVleet on the upswing, and to package it all up for a title swing. A league-best 23-7 record and those two wins over Golden State suggests that this strategy is working so far. But “so far” only matters so much.

Raptors HQ’s Josh Kern wrote about Fred VanVleet’s recent play after Toronto’s win over Golden State:

Fred VanVleet has had his struggles this season, but this is starting to look like last season — where he had a slow start but eventually found his groove. He’s averaging 11 points on 52% shooting over the past three, including an impressive 8-for-12 from downtown; he also had the masterful 14 assists on Tuesday night.

But [Wednesday] night it was VanVleet’s defense that shone. As above, it’s all but impossible to stop Curry, you definitely need some shots to bounce out, but VanVleet did all the right things — bump him whenever you get the chance, dig in but keep moving your feet, fight hard over screens, keep your hands active — to make Curry work for it. He even stripped Curry on one first quarter possession (leading to a Siakam one-man fast break), something you don’t often see happen to one of the best ballhandlers in the league.

Steve Simmons of The Toronto Sun lists the improved play of Serge Ibaka among the reasons the Raptors are the best team in the NBA:

At the end of last season, Serge Ibaka looked close to finished. People were guessing at what his real age was. People wondered if he cared at all about his craft. People looked at his contract and thought, “What are you going to do with Ibaka?”

This year, a different Ibaka, playing young and strong and with a lovely touch on mid-range jump shots. His game and the manner in which he has been employed has been a revelation of sorts this year. This is his third season in Toronto, his 10th in the NBA. He’s scoring more than he’s ever scored before. His rebounding numbers are his best in years and his assist numbers are the best he’s ever had, his shooting percentage the best it’s been since he was a kid.